All foreigners who enter Afghanistan have to register with the Interior Ministry within 48 hours of their arrival, or so I was told. Because of the attacks to the UN-guesthouse on the second day of my arrival and the unpredictability of the security situation, I failed to meet the 48-hour deadline, but in the end it proved to be rather flexible.
My departure time was fast approaching and I worried that my failure to produce the proper paperwork at the airport might cause me unnecessary delays. So finally three days before I was scheduled to leave, one morning at 8:30 AM, I arranged to go and register. Sami, a local colleague responsible for helping us with the registration, was to accompany me.
Fortunately, we did not have to drive all the way downtown to the main offices, as there was a local branch not too far from the Qala. We arrived at the main entrance where two security personnel were holding guard. One of them started asking Sami some questions as he searched him. Sami pointed to a small cabin inside the courtyard and said, ‘That’s for the ladies.’ When I entered through a hung curtain in the doorframe, two women greeted me. They looked extremely bored. One of them asked me about the purpose of my visit. While checking inside my bag, the other one asked if I was Iranian. When I said yes, she said, ‘Are you here for work?’ Again I said, ‘yes’. ‘Are you a translator?’ she wanted to know. ‘No, I am an architect’, I replied. ‘Oh, an engineer! You have people working under you?’ I smiled as if I didn’t understand the question. Realising that the smile was going to be my only response she finally wished me luck and pointed to the door. I thanked her and wished her a good day as I walked out.
Sami was already waiting for me outside. He directed me to a small office to the side of the courtyard. Two over-sized desks and a couple of chairs over crammed the small space, leaving very little room for movement. A bearded middle-aged man was sitting behind one of the desks, preoccupied with some papers. Sami approached him and asked for an ID registration form. We both sat down on the two chairs as I filled out the form using my passport. Once completed, Sami took the form and my passport and handed them to the clerk who started filling out a small card with my details. He then gave Sami the card and told him to go and have it stamped. I was to wait there.
Shortly after Sami left another clerk walked in. Although he was clearly dressed as a man – a brown shalwar kameez with a black jacket and a brown Karakul on his head – I had great difficulty determining whether he was a man or a woman. His face displayed no trace of facial hair and he had drawn kohl around his eyes. He was short and bulky. He said Salaam as he entered the office and took his seat behind the empty desk. His effeminate looks were matched with a soft voice.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, but I could feel their gaze on me. I kept staring at a point on the ground, feeling awkward and hoping Sami would be back soon. The bearded clerk broke the silence, ‘Irani hasteed?’ (Are you Iranian?). I looked up. He was holding the form I had filled out together with my passport. ‘Yes’, I replied. He continued, ‘But you have a German passport?’ ‘Yes’. I said again. Undiscouraged by my monosyllabic responses he asked, ‘How long have you been living in Germany?’ When I gave him the answer, he said, ‘Oh, so not that long then! I thought your family moved there at least 150 years ago.’ His colleague roared with laugher and said, ‘Does she look that old to you?’ I casually added, ‘I probably wouldn’t be speaking Farsi to you now, if my family had moved there 150 years ago.’ Undeterred he continued with his interrogation, asking me where my family lived, what I did for a living, whether I was married, where I had got my degree… He was going through my passport and asking me questions about all the places I had been living, working, studying. I replied to his questions politely trying to divulge as little information as possible. I found the questions intrusive and couldn’t figure out if he was just being curious or if it was part of the process.
Meanwhile, the other clerk was becoming more interested in the conversation. When he heard that I had studied in the States, he leaned forward and said, ‘So you live in America?’ ‘No, I don’t’ I replied. Determined to get an answer he pressed on, ‘Where do you live then?’ . ‘In London.’ I said finally. He leaned back in his chair, narrowed his eyes and said, ‘So you have travelled a lot.’ ‘Yes, I am a mohajer (an immigrant),’ I said. ‘No!’ he quickly retorted, ‘An immigrant immigrates out of necessity, you did it by choice.’ He finished quite pleased with himself. I was not going to go into the details as to why I had moved around so much. By now I had grown a bit irritated by all the questioning, I decided not to say anything. Sitting there in silence, I began to think how often we see things we want to see; how often we just assume we know what other people are all about judging them based on how we perceive them rather than on who and how they really are.
My thoughts were interrupted again. ‘So, you abandoned Iran, you abandoned Germany, you abandoned America, an now you are thinking of abandoning England. Tell me one thing, after seeing much of the world, what have you learned?’ now the clerk with the long beard wanted to know. His colleague sat up in his chair and stared at me. I had definitely not expected this question coming. I hesitated for a few seconds to think before I said, ‘Just a couple of things really. I have learned that fundamentally human beings are the same everywhere. Ultimately we all want to live in peace. We might differ in how we think we can achieve peace, but essentially we all want the same thing. Another thing I have learned is that egos are the biggest impediment to peace…’
To my great relief, that is when Sami walked into the room with my ID card and said, ‘We are done. Let’s go.’ I got up and thanked the clerks, collected my passport and excused myself. I could not get out of that office quickly enough. As we were walking out I whispered to Sami, ‘What took you so long. They were interrogating me in there.’ Then as we got out I joked, ‘Thanks for coming to my rescue … actually come to think of it, probably more to their rescue. I was just warming up. I had begun to philosophize on life and the nature of human beings.’
I had to recount the whole session for Sami and the driver in the car. They laughed and were very apologetic, ‘Poor you, you’ll never come back to Afghanistan again.’ I smiled, ‘Na baba, man az oon beedaa nistam, keh baa een baadaa belarzam!’ (Persian saying, literal translation: I am not the type of willow that trembles in these sorts of winds, meaning I am not put off that easily.)
A few days later at the Kabul International Airport a young immigration officer looked up after leafing through my papers, ‘Zood darieed mireed!’ (Your stay was short!) I smiled, ‘Hopefully I’ll be back again soon.’ ‘Inshallah!’, (God willing) came the reply as I picked my passport up and walked to the gate.
Kabul diaries: First impressions — The lock down — The bar — Friday hamam — Istalif walk — Photo essay: An Otherwise Peaceful Place — Conversation with an ex-soldier — Lost in translation — Photo essay: Lights and Shadows of a Shattered City — An honorary man —