Riding the flush of a trio of Beefeater martinis, I’m usually a pretty glib bastard. Cocktail party chit-chat has never been much of a strain for me, yet in the days leading up to my departure to Kabul, no matter how much wine and top-shelf liquor I kick back, I’m decidedly short on funny shit to say. I’m especially tight-lipped on the subject of my impending trip. Nothing clever comes to mind, and this despite the fact that I’m going there, ostensibly, to interview comedians, cartoonists, writers and poets, and this, also, despite the fact that I spend the days before my flight making the rounds of Dubayan society parties, often with a topped-off drink in hand, typically with gin sloshing and spackling my silk ties, Brooks Bros blazer and penny loafers. Instead of being clever during the lead-up to my Ariana Afghan Airlines flight into Kabul, I’ve become cynically self-deprecating, even wilting, a sort of kinder gentler Steve.
Late-night, I’ve been spending a lot of sleepless hours staring at ceilings and wondering if I’ve been a good boy, sort of like I’m expecting to meet Santa Claus wearing a pakhol and mucking about with the Taliban (not that I’ve scheduled any meetings with the Taliban). I’m particularly worried about whether I’ve been a good father to my six-year-old daughter, and whether flying to Kabul isn’t a definitive neglectful-dad-type move, one that she’ll someday justifiably despise me for. Tally is still in the second grade, and I don’t want to upset her childhood by getting killed.
When I’m not worrying about Tally, the dorky MFA-grad in me jots lists of literary precedents for my dash to a war-zone. Lots of my favorite writers have pulled, if not stupider, at least similar moves—Orwell nearly winding up as a Robert Capa subject while fighting in Spain, Denis Johnson entering Liberia with $4,000 sewn into the seam of his pants, Carolyn Forché’s stint as a writer for Amnesty International in El Salvador in the early ‘80s. The fictional precedents are there too; hell, they’re practically infinite. Paul Bowles turned the early landscape of my literary imagination into a minefield of protagonists who head in but never come out—Kit in The Sheltering Sky, the Professor in “A Distant Episode,” Dyar in Let It Come Down. And then there’s Don DeLillo. As my departure date nears, I find myself fixating on the tragic arc charted by DeLillo’s blocked novelist in Mao II, Bill Gray. Gray takes off for Beirut to meet a terrorist and dies along the way. The memory makes me wince, especially when it occurs while I’m lying in bed sandwiched between my beautiful wife and daughter the night before my flight.
To distract myself, and also to let my wife get some sleep, I get up and scan the bookshelves of my cousin’s home in Dubai for something appropriately soporific. My cousin has a masters in French lit (a credential she’s somehow parlayed into a managing editorship of a Dubayan style magazine, hence my presence at fêtes thrown by the rich and would-be-famous), and I discover, in addition to several French versions, an English translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time among her tilting jumble of books. Thinking it’s just what I need to settle my nerves, I pull it down and flip open the pages of Swann’s Way in search of close descriptions of bourgie normalcy: Paris apartments, red-roofed country houses clustered around 13th-century steeples, trains, loaves of bread jutting from bicycle baskets, stuff like that. I’m actually quite fond of French bourgie normalcy. For the last several years, I’ve developed mid-life joneses for baguettes, sauvignon blanc and bicycle racing. So I start to read Proust looking for a little Latin comfort. Instead, I discover a world of anxiety.
I’m fearful and can’t decide which way to turn, and so is Proust. I’m annoyed at my failures as a writer, bogged down by my responsibilities as a father, and wondering where I got off the track—why can’t I write a complete sentence that pleases me? Proust is similarly flummoxed. He claims his whole massive memoir is a search for the beginning of the novel that he’s sure he’s got in him. In an effort to find the start, he turns to his childhood looking for stories and discovers Gordion knots. He remembers the cocoon of bedcovers he constructed “bird-fashion” to allay his various fears. He would make a nest of blankets, shawls and pillows “like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth.”
This is fat and luxurious prose, stuff that makes my mouth water even though I know it’s too rich for me, that I’d screw it up if I tried to imitate it. But Proust wields it effortlessly, like some mad pastry chef twirling pastillage along the edges of a perfect tier cake, adding flourishes without overwhelming the substance, which is his childhood, which makes me think of children in general, which takes me back to Tally blithely sleeping next to her mother, never suspecting that her father is in the grip of internal discord because he’s about to leave her and fly into a war.
I’ve watched Tally make her little forts among the bedcovers. She builds them nightly, lining the walls of her fabric parapets with stuffed animals to ward off the monsters. Her quilt castles never quite work, and she’ll toss and turn for hours unless I lie next to her and let her hold my hand. She grabs it, pulls it to her chest and pats it reassuringly until she falls asleep.
Proust isn’t helping, so I put down the book, slide the back door open and wander out into the courtyard where I stare over the walls at the massive Emiraté flag Sheikh Mohammad, the local monarch of this nailed-down banking and shopping oasis, has ordered erected and illuminated on a 24-7 basis. The gulf breeze has all thirty meters of the red-white-black-and-green pennant fluttering on its massive pole at the south end of the fashionable Jumeirah beach neighborhood, where my cousin lives with her North-African-raised-American husband, two French-speaking kids and Moroccan nanny.
Here, across the straits from Iran, the media covers Afghanistan more closely than in America. In the last several days, my cousin has pointed out multiple reports from Kabul of kidnappings of Westerners and random bombings in the capital. Skip your flight, she tells me in between asking my advice on earrings for the evening’s restaurant opening. Skip your flight and let’s go camping in Oman with our kids.
I’ve traveled to dangerous places before. I once hitchhiked from Amman to Baghdad, but that was before the wars and the Twin Tower flattening, and anyway, I was younger and kid-less. Until now, concerns for Tally have been relegated to my subconscious. The night the plane tickets arrived (mailed south to the States from Canada because you can’t purchase a flight to Afghanistan in the US), I dreamed that somebody broke into my house. I shot the burglar with my skeet gun then rolled him over and discovered one of the coaches of my daughter’s mite hockey team. Opening the front door, I was confronted by Tally and her whole hockey team staring slack-jawed from beside a parked SUV. I don’t need Freud to explain that my dream was a manifestation of my concern that I might screw up her childhood by getting killed. I woke, marveled at the images a moment, then brushed aside the dream and went back to sleep. But now, the flight’s in the morning, and I feel like that time I discovered cocoa-coffee in a Sumatran coffee shop and drank three cups with four sugar-coated donuts: I’m wired.
I pace around the backyard over-examining my situation until I’ve nearly convinced myself that the insomnia’s a good thing. DeLillo’s fictional Gray is similarly afflicted: “He rarely sleeps past 5 a.m.,” his assistant tells us. “[He] wakes and stares. When the sun comes up, he shuffles to his desk.” And Proust was famous for it: “A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness,” he writes. So maybe the not-sleeping is a positive; the point of my trip, after all, is to jumpstart my writing, which hasn’t so much stalled as fractured and blurred.
Proust credits his allergies, aches and agues for making him more perceptive: “Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyze processes which we would otherwise know nothing about.” The world was under Proust’s skin and writing was his outlet for release, the medium through which he sought to rid himself of the painful intrusion of simply being. But Proust’s worries are not my worries. My fears are about stagnation (or they were before I scheduled this trip). They are about the fact that my wonderful life as a father might somehow be connected to writer’s block.
Fatherhood and the attendant responsibilities have confused things. I’m certainly at odds with the world, and I still have plenty to say about it, but I’m also trying to model a less manic parental figure for my perennially happy kid. The upside is big. Living with Tally is like having a bottle of chewable Ecstasy tabs rattling around in my pocket; a couple glances in her direction and I’m even-keeled for hours. Irvine Welsh would be green with envy.
The downside is that for the last several years I’ve become a passenger on board a boat on autopilot; I no longer control my own destinations. I’m a functioning automaton who moves swiftly from professional obligations to parental commitments—planning English classes, packing my daughter’s lunch, coaching afternoon sports at the boarding school where I work, cheering Tally on at the hockey rink, correcting the personal essays of college-bound seniors—while ignoring the potentially distracting events taking place outside these corridors. My life has become regimented and also nearly overwhelmingly sweet. Even after I’ve satisfied the panoply of obligations, my after hours are filled with saccharine fixatives: eating papaya salad with my fingers at the local Thai restaurant, drinking bourbons with a similarly blocked painter friend, sharing stories with my buddy the orthopedic surgeon who describes his day’s surgeries for me over martinis. To some extent, my problem is that my life is too good.
I’ve little to complain about, but certainly none of the things I’ve just mentioned are decent excuses for my failing confidence in my writing. Lots of people crank out work while satisfying busier schedules and larger families. The writer Karl Iagnemma once published a book of short stories while completing a PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT. The bottom line is, I’m having trouble completing things—sentences, paragraphs, stories, chapters—and I don’t know why, my shrink doesn’t know why, nobody knows why, and very few people care; really, there’s just one person who cares—me. But I care a lot.
The novel I’ve been building has two hundred openings and no chapter three; an earlier, completed one hasn’t sold. I need a new direction, some jolting raison d’ecrire that doesn’t threaten my marriage alla Updike or complete my transformation into some pathetic, Roth-ian onanist. Is it so strange to seek inspiration in a trip to Kabul to meet artists? Is it odd to hope that the influence of a bunch of creative types trapped in a war-zone might offer a sort of artificial insemination to begat words?
So I’m off to Afghanistan, at least I think I am. Or maybe I’m not. It’s two in the morning, and I’m debating—to go or not to go—while bathing in the warm wind of the Persian Gulf. It was similar moments of churning internal debate that caused me to take the job at the prep-school in the first place, to give up my dedicated hours of daily writing in order to earn a salary and satisfy obligations that would pay for, among other things, my daughter’s soccer cleats. What’s the correct path when personal ambition conflicts with loyalty to your child? I watch the spot-lit flag flutter and feel hopelessly suburban, hopelessly mediocre. It’s no wonder I’ve been unhappy with my writing lately. I’ve clearly got nothing to say.
I’d call off the trip, I really would—just throw in the towel and go camping in the desert—but now, at 2:30 AM, I reflect on the Emily Post stuff. It simply wouldn’t be polite to change course now: a taxi’s been called, a man who works as a fixer is expecting my arrival in Kabul, a woman who runs a guesthouse has a reservation for me, and all these people would really like me to pay them. More than that, all those people would like mild reassurances from me that it wasn’t wrong of them to become a taxi driver or a fixer or a guesthouse manager. All of that seems ridiculous, of course, in the face of my mortality, in the face of the possibility of my daughter’s disappointed face, and yet it’s politeness more than anything else, the obligation to finish what I’ve started, that causes me to open the door when the taxi beeps and walk out to meet him.
I throw my carry-on into the back and get into the front passenger seat. It’s still dark, not quite 4:30 AM, and I ask Rajat, the driver, about his life. Do you have a family? He describes the weekly Skype call he exchanges with his wife and daughters back in Patan. He’s separated from them for most of the year, and I sympathize with him while trying to convince myself that I’m better off flying to Kabul for a week than facing the possibility of being separated from my wife and daughter for a year. He drops me at Terminal 2, and the place is deserted except for the Ariana counter where a ragged line has already formed.
Dubai International Airport has three terminals. Terminals 1 and 2 are massive multi-storied, gleaming, post-modernist mega-malls that appear to offer flight service as just one of their many amenities. They serve first world destinations. Terminal 3 is a squat, non-descript box, without jetways or Duty Free stores, separate and plopped down at a distance from the other two. It serves the Persian Gulf and the subcontinent. The men waiting for my plane are dressed in Afghan dress––salwar kameez, turbans and pakhols––they sit on canvas bags or on the floor next to boxes tied shut with plastic twine. There are no families and no women.
An Ariana employee arrives to process us, taking my paper ticket and leaving me with the carbon copy. Thirty minutes later we step out onto the warm tarmac and my anxiety increases. The dawn appears and turns the sky the color of sliced cantaloupe as we march past a line of Airbuses toward an antiquated A-310. There’s still time to quit, I tell myself. You can still turn around and retreat. Just walk back to the doors of the terminal and arrange for a cab to return you to Jumeirah Beach, to my cousin’s still sleeping house. There’s still time to trade this in for camping in Oman.
An Ariana employee leads us around the nose of the plane as the yellow rays of the sun break against the fuselage and engines. The plane looks like its been mugged by a Yeti. The body is dented and scratched, the engines covered by what look like claw marks. We line up and ascend the folding stairs. Even when I’ve followed them, even after I’ve filed in and taken a seat––there are no numbers on my ticket and a female flight attendant wearing a hijab instructs me to sit wherever I like––I’m still eyeing the open door to the cabin, still wondering if I won’t throw in the towel, just stand and stride out of there, back down the rolling stairs, back across the terminal, to safety.
The right arm-pad of my seat is missing, my right arm is resting on raw metal. Overhead, several of the luggage container doors are held down by twist-ties. There’s space between my knees and the seat in front of me, a good six or seven inches, a phenomena I haven’t seen on a commercial airplane since my first flights as a kid. On the wall at the front of the cabin is a splotch of dried brown glue, as if a precocious passenger has landed a muddy spitball there. On the floor below is a fallen sign announcing there is no smoking. The only Westerner in the packed economy cabin is a stiff-backed American in a golf shirt who pulled up beside me as we filed on and made a point to sit down next to me. Everybody else is reciting the Muslim prayer for travel while he and I get acquainted.
He’s a software engineer from outside Seattle headed to Baghram, the American airbase north of the capital, a family guy with two kids in college flying into Kabul for the pay. I nod politely and ask him if he has any advice for a first-time traveler to the city. “I don’t have anything to do with planning,” he says. “My company arranges everything. Kabul is a shit-hole. I don’t go anywhere without an armed convoy.”
I nod and try to answer casually. There’s no armed convoy waiting for me. I e-mailed the hostel manager asking for a pick-up, but I have no idea if she’ll follow through. I mention some of this and as I speak the expression on his face grows enigmatic then his eyes lose focus; he stares through me, past me, until he is clearly no longer engaged in our discussion. A moment after I’ve finished talking, he mumbles something unintelligible then feels about in his bag until he’s located a fat spy novel which he extricates, opens and studies. I sit there a moment processing that it’s fear that has caused him to cut me off; I’m carrying something that makes him nervous and he doesn’t want to catch it.
There’s still time. I can still stand, grab my bag from the functioning overhead bin where I’ve stashed it, wave goodbye to the military contractor, the flight attendant, the cabin of praying men and make an exit. There’s still time, I say, just as I’ve told myself countless times while sitting before my computer back in Connecticut, in the little room where I’m supposed to be writing. There’s plenty of time, so go ahead and make yourself a little snack. You’re tired from coaching or driving Tally to practice or planning lessons for your English classes. There’s plenty of time to read up on the Red Sox or surf the web to learn more about the etymology of the word fear––Old English, fǣr, ‘calamity, danger.’ You deserve it. You’ll write later. Months and months have passed since I completed a story. The last one that was finished and decent was published by a lit mag a year ago. I don’t have anything left to send out. And still I tell myself there’s time.
The cabin attendant crosses the front of the cabin and pulls shut the door with the soft padded thud of all airplane cabin doors, the soft “pomfp” that thickens the air, that makes the ignored atmosphere into a palpable thing. I stare at her as she backs away, finds her seat at the front of the cabin, and for the first time in weeks, acknowledge that my fate is no longer my own. I’m locked in. I’m flying to Kabul. This ancient plane may tumble down into the peaks of the Hindu Kush, the Talibaan may be waiting to kidnap me and drive me away to some little hidey-hole in the hills, a suicide car bomber in search of random foreigners may be filling his trunk with fertilizer and detonators as we begin to taxi, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. I’ve made my decision. Proust is on a bookshelf out of reach. Perhaps my inspirations are different from the Frenchman who famously retreated to a cork-lined room to write. It wasn’t Proust who fueled my fantasies as a kid. Already, my Harry–Potter-loving, hockey-playing daughter dreams of adventures, and I wonder if the day will come when I find her thumbing through my old copies of Orwell, Bowles and Forché. What is it about risky expeditions that inspire us? Why do we yearn (as Fitzgerald asserted so beautifully) for a thing commensurate to our capacities to wonder?
I slide a hand down to the shoulder bag between my feet, worm out the spiral-bound notebook and a pen and begin to describe the shudder of takeoff, the interior of the battered cabin and the mounting thrill of the unexpected something that awaits me in Kabul.