Iranian American writer, Salar Abdoh, corresponds with his friend Majed, a documentary filmmaker, in Afghanistan. Majed reports here on his travels in the Middle East.
By **Majed Neisi & Salar Abdoh**
A few years ago while doing research for my novel Opium, I began looking for some insights on the nature of the poppy from writers who had known its ways intimately. Jean Cocteau says that “Opium is the least stupid smell in the world,” which is true; he also suggests (paraphrase) that opium knows how to wait; it bides its time in the engine room. Also true. Then there was this old song that came back to me the other day when Majed sent me his latest email and photographs of the opium girls in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan: “Carmelita, hold me tighter/I think I’m sinking down/And I’m all strung out on heroin/On the outskirts of town.” As Majed follows the trail of the drug trade, originating in places like Badakhshan and winding its way through, say, Iran and Turkey and Europe and points everywhere, I am staggered by the juxtaposed images of three girls in a faraway Afghan province collecting the poppy sap at day’s end and Warren Zevon singing, “The county won’t give me no more methadone/And they’ve cut off your welfare check. Carmelita ”
The Badakhshan province, lying in Afghanistan’s extreme northeast, bordered by Tajikistan in the north and Pakistan’s remote Chitral region in the south, also has a long, slim corridor that brushes right up to the doorsteps of China. Occupied by the Hindu Kush and the Pamir mountain ranges, this is territory that offers some of the most breathtaking vistas in the world, and also some of the finest opium. You could attribute the recent resurgence of poppy cultivation in Badakhshan to various factors—the increase in price of opium for instance, or a perception that the southern provinces are being provided with a greater amount of funding by the American occupation. “If you’re not killing Westerners, then your area won’t see much investment,” a Western aid worker (“smiling ruefully”) tells Iason Athanasiadis writing for The Majalla.
Here, then, is where Majed has been spending much of his time of late—here where it all begins, with three Afghan girls collecting their share to purchase what they could never dream of otherwise.
The Girls of Opium
The sound of their laughter filled the poppy field. I was lying in my tent when I heard them and came out. They were three young girls laughing and playing, skipping in and out from behind the poppies. I asked their father if I could speak with them a little. He wasn’t pleased, but didn’t say no. The girls ran off, as if we were all playing some game together. There was no way to catch up to them. So I asked their brother if he would call them. He did. Meantime, their father was giving me the ‘You’d best not get too close to my daughters’ look. The girls approached me cautiously, their little hands full of the sap from the poppy.
I asked, “You too are working in these fields?”
They seemed too shy to answer at first. But at last, one of them, who was a little bit braver, said, “When the men are done collecting for the day, it is our turn. We come to the poppy field and gather the leftover saps. This is our share from the field. We sell it and buy ourselves clothes and dolls and anything we like.”
I asked her if she liked eid best or the poppy season—eid being the festival of new year pre-dating Islam and celebrated especially by Iranians, Afghans, Kurds and many people in Central Asia and the Caucuses.
“We like the opium season best,” the girl answered. “There is nothing during eid to make us happy since there’s no opium. But in the season of the poppy there is opium and we are happy.”
Majed Neisi was born in a desert hospital in southern Iran during a bombardment in the Iran-Iraq War. Since then he has dedicated himself to examining the pathology of war in a succession of Middle Eastern battlegrounds in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The archetypal outsider, this Arabic-speaking Iranian inhabits the no-man’s-land in the post September 11 confrontation between the West and Islam. His 12 films examine ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and have been screened in festivals in France, the U.S., Sweden, Holland and South Africa.
Born in Iran, Salar Abdoh is the author of the novels, The Poet Game and Opium. His essays and short stories have appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, BOMB, Callaloo, La Règle du Jeu, The Drawbridge, and the BBC. He is the recipient of the NYFA prize and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also teaches at The City College of New York.