Not until the helicopter flew away did I realize that I had left on the seat my copy of The Magic Mountain. Whatever demon had led me to think that I might read it on the flight from Kabul to a forward operating base in Jalalabad must have been smiling: I had not cracked it open on this bright winter morning as we whirred through the mountains, snowbound to the south, dry brown to the north, a pair of British contractors on either side of me scanning the roads and ravines for insurgents. This landscape has fired the imagination of soldiers and adventurers since before the time of Alexander the Great, and I had the thought that under ordinary circumstances this would be an exhilarating ride. Then it came to me that in Afghanistan war was ordinary.

My mission was to conduct a seminar, in the capital of Nangarhar Province, for Afghan poets, writers and journalists – an outreach programme, arranged by the American Embassy, which coincided with the formal transition of power from the international forces to the local authorities in Nangarhar. My host, a civilian official from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), a mix of soldiers, diplomats and aid officers, was finalizing the programme for the ceremony the next day. A specialist in the rule of law, he had left a career in corporate law to help build a civil society in a place that made him think of the Wild West, even if it was not as kinetic – there was not as much shooting – as in neighbouring Kunar Province. Here was space in which to try new things. Just the day before, for example, he had arranged a demonstration for a group of judges, blowing up a Toyota Corolla to show them what a twenty-kilogram bomb can do. The car had flown up into the air in flames – thirty feet, said the official, who believed that the judges were chastened by the time it crashed to the ground. Now they might think twice before releasing insurgents caught with explosives.

After lunch we assembled for a briefing with National Guardsmen from Massachusetts, in front of a long line of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armoured vehicles). Afghan troops would not be part of this mission, which spared the Americans one source of anxiety. (Four French soldiers had just been killed by an Afghan soldier, reinforcing the substance of a leaked classified report on the growing tension between Afghan and international soldiers.) But still there was grumbling about the wisdom of arranging a convoy for a visiting poet to meet his Afghan counterparts. Before the rules of engagement were spelled out one soldier was heard to say: This mission is for poetry?

Indeed the mission was changing. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was about to announce at a Nato meeting in Brussels that combat operations in Afghanistan would end a year ahead of schedule, in 2013; the question on everyone’s mind was what will happen when the last Nato troops leave in 2014. There is a sense that the international community is engaged in a race against time, building schools and courthouses and bridges, establishing civic programmes, offering advice on everything from agricultural markets to literacy, all with the hope of creating economic and political structures strong enough to survive the expected onslaught of the Taliban, who believe they can outlast the occupiers, just as their forebears defeated the Russians and the British. When the convoy left the base the colonel seated beside me in the MRAP said that understanding the local culture was crucial to the next phase of operations. An Afghan saying – if you turn over a rock, you will find a poet – reminded him of the poems that he had heard early in the war, when he and six of his men were entertained one night by a warlord. The tradition of hospitality likely saved them from death at the hands some of the three hundred Afghan warriors in the compound.

‘Hospitality’, he said, ‘cost them their country.’

I asked him what he meant.

‘They let Osama bin Laden stay here.’


Over a bridge we lumbered. The rule of law specialist was explaining that the MRAP was designed to disperse the charge of an improvised explosive device when the gunner in the turret swivelled around to take a closer look through his sights at something in the distance. In the tense silence that followed I wondered how the soldiers would react if one of their own was killed on account of poetry, and then the convoy stopped in front of the Lincoln Learning Center. This is a joint project of the embassy and the local department of information and culture, which offers classes in English and computing, presents films and workshops, provides information about the United States. (In other countries it would be known as an American Corner, but anything with American in its title in Afghanistan is a target for the insurgents.) Soldiers took their positions around the courtyard, with one standing guard at the door to the library, where poets, writers and journalists had gathered around the table. The director, the author of several novels, said that two hundred students were enrolled in classes, with separate sections for men and women, and in his welcome to the writers the colonel said that he hoped to see more programmes like mine. During the introductions a woman in a blue burka, which covered her eyes, lamented the oppression of women: how they could not leave their homes, how they had no opportunities.

Our conversation turned to the very different ways in which Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had responded to the American Civil War. Whitman, I said, had taken an active public role in the capital, volunteering at a military hospital, writing letters home for wounded soldiers, publishing poems that addressed the national tragedy, while Dickinson rarely left her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, finishing more poems during the bloodiest year of the war, 1862, than in any other year of her life – poems which did not refer to the carnage that darkened Whitman’s vision of democracy but which nevertheless seemed to be drenched in it. I was careful to add – it seemed important for me to stress – that the vitality of American poetry depended upon both ways of proceeding, the public and the private. But since I was born in Dickinson’s home town I decided to round off my comments by quoting one of her last poems:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And reverie.
The reverie alone will do,
If bees are few.

There was some discussion with the translator about the meaning of the word reverie, and then for some reason I decided to mention an argument, advanced by my friend Steven Kuusisto, author of Planet of the Blind, who from an examination of Dickinson’s manuscripts concluded that her dashes and capital letters had helped her to orient herself on the page. She had stayed in her room, Kuusisto surmised, because she was legally blind – a fact that led one of the men at the table to joke that the burka made the woman in blue as blind as the American poet. But she had the last word, reciting a landai – a poetic form used by Pashto women to express themselves, often anonymously, in a culture that does not want to hear from them. The poem concluded with a threefold curse:

May you fail all your exams.
May you become a slave, like me.
May tears run down your face, like mine.

It was time to leave. The soldiers in the courtyard were posing for photographs, and the drivers of the MRAPs were getting anxious. The director asked the colonel to assign more patrols around the centre – insurgents had bombed several music stores in the city, there was no sense in taking any chances. Then the guard at the gate, eyeing the colonel’s 9mm pistol, asked him for his bullets. The colonel, who struck me as someone not easily surprised, shook his head, smiling. He had never heard such a request. He gave the guard seventeen bullets, saving the one chambered in his gun.

‘Now I’ve seen everything,’ he said.

That night I dined in the canteen with a forester who told me that she regretted not being able to walk in the mountains, which were under Taliban control. She was also frustrated to have to work outside her field of expertise, helping farmers develop marketing strategies and better distribution systems, so she was extending her tour for another year in order to work in Kunar – which, she agreed, was dangerous. But she hoped to curtail the Taliban practice of smuggling felled trees across the border to Pakistan and then to China.

‘They’re cutting down their future,’ she said, and then she had to leave for a meeting. ‘Everyone works long hours here,’ she sighed.

A shabby Soviet-era hotel provided housing for the base, and I was staying in the room of an official who had gone on R & R. There was nothing to read except a Bible, his collection of videos held no interest and when I switched on the flat-screen TV there was a commercial on CNN promising coverage of the World Economic Forum in Davos – which, I assumed, would skirt the issue of Afghanistan. I watched a replay of the Manchester-Arsenal match before turning out the light, and I was on the edge of sleep when it occurred to me that the Taliban might mark the transition of power with a rocket attack. Then I was wide awake.


It was on the advice of a friend in the diplomatic corps that I had picked up the paperback copy of The Magic Mountain before leaving for Afghanistan. On my first trip to Kabul, in May 2011, my friend had looked after me when a problem with my visa threatened to keep me there for a month until it was resolved. He kept me posted on the progress of the Afghan employee who each day went to various ministries on my behalf, often waiting for hours in vain for a signature on a letter granting me permission to leave, and one evening he invited me to attend a special meeting of the embassy book club to hear a counterterrorism expert discuss some of the repercussions of Osama bin Laden’s assassination the week before. The meeting ended with a reminder that copies of the book slated for discussion in two weeks’ time were available for purchase. My friend suggested that I bring a thick book for my next trip: the vagaries of the weather, in what would be the coldest winter in twenty years, made it likely that I would get stuck again.

But the sun was shining the next morning when my host escorted me to a patch of gravel to join some soldiers waiting for a helicopter to take them to the airbase down the road (a two-minute flight: to drive there would require a convoy). There he met a friend from what he called a ‘kinetic unit’, who had seen a lot of action in Kunar. The soldier complained about the amount of money being wasted on the Afghans. You can’t train them to walk a block, he said. The lawyer argued that things had gotten better – the fighting had mostly stopped in Jalalabad – and then he drew my attention to the mountains dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan, in the direction of Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden had made his escape nearly a decade before. Soon a helicopter arrived to ferry us across.

Jalalabad from the air looked peaceful; the same was true of the mountains through which a plane leased by the embassy took me back to the airbase in Kabul, where there was still snow on the ground. One of the contractors who had flown with me the day before was waiting outside a building, stamping his feet to keep warm. His face lit up when he saw me.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘You left your book on the helicopter.’

‘Do you still have it?’ I said.

He opened the door to an office and called to the man inside. ‘Give me the book, the one on the shelf. It’s big.’


Photograph courtesy of isafmedia.

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