Friday, April 10, 2009

Blending in with the locals

An Afghan-American friend was renting a white Toyota Corolla station wagon. Behind the wheel, he looks real local, and to look local means less risk of being seen by the dangerous evil enemy. On every road in Afghanistan, at every corner, at every stoplight, one is surrounded by Toyota Corolla station wagons and sedans. The Corolla is the national taxi, and most international organizations in Kabul probably have at least a few staffers who drive Corollas. It’s also the car bomber’s vehicle of choice.

My friend, who sports a big beard like most Afghan man (to not have a beard is to be a woman or a boy), says he blends in so much that Afghans try to wave him down. He jokes about picking up a few fares to make pocket money, and maybe he’ll buy his own Corolla, “trick it out” with a “Mashallah” sticker – praise be to Allah. A lot of cars are decked out with decals of Bollywood starlets like Aishwarya Rai. Yeah, we cruise along, heading to a weekend soiree, convinced that we ride as if invisible, blending in. No one will notice us.

As we approach our friend’s well-guarded fortress, we see a light at the house flashing off and on. We think, aw yeah, party straight ahead… and then a monster SUV slides out of its parking space and pulls out to block the road about 30 meters in front of us. The doors open and four beefy Western security dudes pile out, automatic rifles drawn, pointing straight at us. One guy, holding a handgun, signals with his palm outstretched before him to stop. I stare incredulously, wondering how Western guys can come in such large sizes.

My mind races. The Blackwater shooting spree in Iraq… the cars that drove too fast near U.S. and Nato military convoys and were gunned down by nervous soldiers… all those U.S. and Nato military press releases about suspicious vehicles and civilian casualties… the incidents flood my head, and I hold up my hands to the windshield in surrender. I’m wearing the grey boiled wool hobo gloves that my Brooklynite designer friend made and a Patagonia cap, and I wonder if the beefy mercenaries can see that I’m a woman? Can they see both my hands up and the hip fingerless gloves? “Uh, stop, uh, we gotta stop, uh, that means stop,” the idiotic words spill out of my mouth.

My friend presses the brakes, and with his left hand, slowly rolls down the window… at which point Amadou Diallo with his wallet, not a gun! flashes alive among all those memory archives. Forty-one bullets fired, courtesy of the NYPD, nineteen of which make contact with the suspicious black man. Poor Amadou. I'm terrified of excessive force and impunity. I'm scared that if I die, no one will notice. I'm just another Asian, and there are so many billions of them in the world. But no, "I'm American," I tell Afghans as they eye me suspiciously when I tell them where I'm from. "Like Obama," I say, and they shrug, knowing that it's true. We come in so many shapes and colors, but do the security dudes know that there are Afghan-Americans among the international community in Kabul, too?

Keep your hands up at the windshield, I order myself, but then can they see past my hands that I’m a woman? But I’ve got dainty fingers. But shoot, why did I cut my hair so short? But I always wanted to look ambiguous like androgynous Pat so that I could walk Kabul’s streets free of the Afghan man's oppressive glares and catcalls. The curse of being a woman in Afghanistan, but how I wanted so much to look like a woman in that passenger seat.

My friend bravely leans his head out the window – surely the gunmen see beyond his beard, his electric blue eyeglasses and a knit cap like a Sabrett hot dog vendor wears in the winter. “We’re here for the party, man,” he says. Was his drawl thick enough? Did the scary security dudes catch the American accent? I can barely breathe.

“Sorry,” one of the dudes says, and they point their weapons back at the ground. They tell us they received reports of a suspicious white vehicle on the tail of the VIP foreign embassy convoy that had just arrived at the party. Get the sirens roaring. Red alert: Suspicious white Corolla station wagon approaching. Bearded Afghan driving. Did you see the two passengers? The suicide bomber goes it alone.

The scary security dudes let us drive past and park the blending-in car, the one that looks like almost every car in Afghanistan. We slowly get out of the car – no fast moves, don’t make the gunmen nervous – and make a beeline for our friends, the music and drinks. Never did tipple taste so sweet.

Trying not to look shifty, but worried that my effort makes me look shifty, I turn around to glance at the dudes with the guns – my friend tells me they’re Blackwater – and though a voice in my head rages, my lips are too scared of their itchy trigger fingers to scream:
Jeez Louise. Get a grip.

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