Airport Tyranny

We squatted in a corner, under the sparse shade of a steel fence.  The gravel below our feet was mixed with bits of broken glass and candy wrappers.  Women in long floral printed chadors huddled together on our left.  We were in Herat, a city on Afghanistan’s Western border with Iran, waiting for our flight back to Kabul.

Herat was beautiful, but strange.  We’d spent the weekend looking at ancient architecture, crumbling minarets, intricately painted shrines of princes and Sufi poets, and a citadel built by Alexander the Great.  The city’s narrative and sense of historical continuity, though, were disjointed.  Every monument was destroyed, to varying degrees, by Afghanistan’s many wars.  But certain landmarks were favored for restoration in Afghanistan’s intermittent moments of peace.  Major restoration projects were ongoing at the Friday Mosque and the Citadel, which sparkled, bustled with activity, and smelled of wet cement.  The Minarets of Herat however, held upright by steel cables, were mostly left to dissolve tile by tile into the earth – with only a rusted Soviet-era tank or an addict for company.  This was all juxtaposed with the thousands of political flyers and campaign posters hung about every part of the city for the upcoming parliamentary elections – giving Herat an erratic feel.  The battered down and the nearly renewed of the city lived side by side in the purgatory that is its present day.

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Friday Mosque

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Interior of Gawhar Shad’s Masoleum

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Minaret of Herat

The pat-downs by women at airports in Afghanistan were always an interesting experience.  They generally involved a hard smack across my chest and a lackadaisical brush over most of the rest of my body.  The guards at the Herat airport were no different.  After my perfunctory smack, the gruff-looking guards searched through our belongings — carefully eyeing engraved copper plates we’d purchased at a shop the day before.  They handed us a slip of paper to move on.

As we squatted waiting for our plane to arrive, a guard – who had just checked us – ran us down.  She demanded to look through my bag again, grabbing the copper plates.  She called a male guard over, who looked like a policeman out of a Bollywood film, with his dark mustache, sunglasses, and beaked cap.   My patience tended to short-circuit in this country, and I thrust the piece of paper the guard had just handed us in their faces.

“You’ve just checked this!” I yelled.

The guards ignored me and argued with each other.  Eventually, they brought us back to the initial checkpoint, searched us over again, and waved us on.

Our spot in the shade was gone by this time, as ever more Afghans crouched together in the open, waiting for the flight to Kabul.  So I sat on my backpack under the brazen sun.

“The guard said she was worried you were going to use the plates to hit someone over the head,” an Afghan woman with a distinctly American accent told us.  Her jeans and sneakers peeked out from under her long black jilbab.  Her hands were perfectly manicured and full of rings, but her face was free of makeup.  She was young, and was holding an adorable toddler on her lap.

“Are you serious?” I smirked, eyeing our scrappy arms.

“Yeah, they’re ridiculous,” she replied.   It turned out she was an American citizen who fell in love with an Afghan, and after they’d married, moved here temporarily to be with him.  He’s been denied entry to the States,  “And now I’m stuck in this hellhole,” she sighed — rubbing sunblock on the face of her baby.

After another hour or so we stood up, and walked through another series of checkpoints to get to the main waiting area.

“Where are you from?” a security guard asked Katy and me.

“Hindustan [India],” I lied.

“America,” Katy responded.

The guard squinted at Katy, and asked to see her copper plates.  Despite the fact that we’d both bought them, he was only interested in hers — the American’s.  He carefully scrutinized them, calling on his superiors and others to join him.

“How much were these plates? Where did you get them?  When did you get them?  Who sold them to you?” the security guard asked Katy repeatedly, with a growing crowd of his peers encircling us.  The questions grew ever more intrusive until Katy pulled out a business card and phoned Sultan Hamidi, the man who sold them to us.  I envisioned that, by the end of this ridiculous interrogation, the guard would steal the plates from Katy and Sultan Hamidi would be detained, his famed shop raided of its wares.

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Sultan Hamidi

After about thirty minutes the security guard relented.  Keeping the phone number and address of Sultan Hamidi, he finally let Katy go.  I sighed, grabbed my bags and quickly moved past the guards – and we made our way into the main waiting area.  Less than a minute after we sat down in the women’s section, another guard tapped Katy on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, please come with me,” he said.

Katy looked over at me nervously.  I rolled my eyes and cursed the damn plates.  We rose and were guided into an air conditioned, low-lit room adjacent to the main waiting area.  It was the office of the head of airport security; and there were seven men inside, chatting casually on orange couches.

“We need to see the plates,” the head of security demanded.  He was dark-skinned and older, and sounded very serious.

Katy handed them over once again.  He looked at them for a few seconds, and said, “No problem! It’s no problem!” wrapping the plates back up in paper.

“Are you upset?  We’re sorry if you’re upset, we just have to check you see,” he tried to explain, apologetically.

Katy and I both breathed a massive sigh of relief.

“No it’s okay,” Katy replied – conjuring up a sense of patience I found inconceivable at that moment, “Do people usually steal these – “

“Don’t ask that,” I snapped.

The head of security apologized again, offered us tea, and we accepted.  I pretended I was from Hyderabad, India (where my Dad is from), and we had a conversation about the city.

“A very, very beautiful place – where you are from,” he said.

I nodded and smiled.

A fitting end to an absurd day.

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About Afreen

I'm a Masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I'm spending the summer in Afghanistan working for a women's rights organization, and documenting their initiatives in central Afghanistan.
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