Something There: Love, War, Basketball, and Afghanistan 1
An Antidotal Memoir2
“The goal of encouraging…historical sympathy is achieved not by telling people what has been lost but by
getting people to see what is there.”3
If we can find something in “nothing” then we can find something even in those that seek to destroy all
In November 2001, the town of Ithaca premiered Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin, a film that
documents how Italian doctors created a humanitarian hospital in war torn Afghanistan. Afterwards, in the
conversation that I had agreed to facilitate, I was unable to evoke much beyond the usual sense of helpless
guilt and hollow moral stridency that comes from seeing others suffer. Suspecting that just below their
easy sympathy lay hidden assimilationist presumptions, I pressed the audience with these questions: Is
there anything we need from Afghans, Afghan cultures, Afghanistan? Can we find some lack only they can
fill? If not, what impulse stops us from simply accepting the loss of this culture? Even those few who had
passed through Afghanistan seemed baffled by this line of thinking. Finding no takers, it occurred to me
then that I could pose these questions to myself.
An earlier version of this essay was prepared for the conference “The Future of Cultural Memory,”
University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, February 14-17, 2002.
I am grateful to Hugh Egan, Zillah Eisenstein and Meili Steele for gently pushing me to risk a form that
departs from my zone of comfort. Thanks also to Chris “Bunder” Brown, Sorayya Khan, Joel Dinerstein,
Gordon Lindsay, Cassie Primo, Lori Amy, Kim Correll, Duggie Gil, Jane Marie Law, Mark Duffy, Lisa
Loomis, Laura McNeal, and Ellen Straurowsky for their comments and encouragement.
“The Artistic Challenge of African Music,” John Miller Chernoff, Black Music Research Journal, 5,
Spring 1985, pp. 1-20. Quote from page 11.
Gordon College provided little competition on our home court. In the winter of 1972, it would have been a
short drive from their campus in Rawalpindi to ours in Islamabad. Crossing into the compound of the
International School of Islamabad (ISI), they entered a recognizable yet unfamiliar and oddly
heterogeneous space -- something not-America and not-Pakistan. Their bodies must have sensed and
absorbed the gravity of the uneven, overlaying, and jagged cultural force fields flowing, protruding,
infringing, and breaking all around. On the one hand, there were the smooth soft polished brick red of the
octagonal campus walls, with inner courtyards centered by star shaped fountains beds and waterless wading
pools; windows from floor to ceiling, carpeted classrooms, sports fields expanding into the distance, and
the large yellow, not blue, school buses waiting in the too large parking lot. Not to mention the not-yet-
men boys, with hair long and so well-groomed that the desire to touch it was leashed only by the all
powerful straps of decorum. And I imagine that after viewing the miniskirt clad teenage girls, the
unbearably mundane displays of sexual affection, hyper-groomed boys, and the bouncing, shouting,
infinitely beaming cheerleaders, they put away these snapshots and probed them only once they were out of
the compound inside their blue bus.4 Without the topographic charts and compass needed to navigate the
plate tectonics of ISI, their psychic vigor must have been sapped before tip-up. But there was more; the
basketball court itself was surrounded -- by those on the bleachers and others sitting on the ground.
What, I wonder, did the Gordon College players make of the fact that more than a few times the bleacher
crowd – students, teachers, and parents – burst into a medley of a badly copied but emphatic Urdu cheer:
In November 1979, ISI would be attacked and the U.S. embassy would be burned down by Pakistani
mobs after General Zia failed to counter an Iranian radio broadcast claiming that the Americans had
occupied the Grand Masjid in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Overnight ISI’s yellow school buses were painted
blue. This is one of many themes in Sorayya Y. Khan’s “In the Shadow of the Margalla Hills,” Malahat
Review, 110, Spring 1995, pp. 5-70.
Our fans had learned it on a road trip from the fans of Lahore American School, an institution that had no
choice but to be embedded in a city measuring its age in millennia. For those in our bleachers, this cheer
was nothing similar to say, “Craig, Craig, He’s our Man; If he Can’t do it, Chris Can…” More so, like
much of the Urdu learned by my teammates and classmates, it was part of a tainted language or a “pidgin”
absorbed in a thin contact zone. The Gordon College players were sure to have known the cheer and to
have wondered if this double “call and response” was imitative flattery or if it was one more spin spun for
On the other hand, while waiting for the ball to go up, if they turned their eyes to the West they saw
Margalla Hills – gateway to Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, and Kabul. Or if they followed the Hills to the
North, they would find the greatest mountains on the planet with K2, Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi, and Tirich
Mir soaring into the sky. Nearby, to the east jutted the high continent composed of Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet,
Sikkim, and Bhutan. Like the lines on the court, they would have known this geography.
Another sign of familiarity: Sitting under the South basket were twenty, sometimes thirty, men wearing
different shades of either Shalwar Kamiz or pants and shirts. Ranging from their twenties to their fifties
these were the servants of the school: chaukidars, malis, bearers, typists, clerks, janitors, drivers, P.E.
assistants, and handymen. They congregated for home games. If you are thinking that they secretly
cheered for Gordon College you anticipate well but miss some of the complexity. Because, you see, they
rooted for me.
Not for the Pakistani team, for that risked severing them from the economy of ISI. Nor did they seem
especially inclined to show support for us. But when I did something notable, they exhaled. They risked
releasing murmurs, even gesticulation, thinking perhaps that in cheering for me they at least cheered for a
home team player. Could there be harm in that?
Distant as I was from them, I pretended not to notice -- even if a part of me shone in their pride. The
triangular tension between those clothed in garments of service and me with my typical Punjabi features
framed by long black locks kept in place by the blue and white threaded headbands lovingly made by the
cheerleaders – all under the supervision of the white faces of power -- must have registered on the Gordon
College players. Just as did the perfect dry heat of the winter sun on our bare skins.
And then there was my beard – an outgrowth of the internalized rage that I could not vent on my school.
My parents understood the danger. The beard did not withstand the directives of my father and the far
more effective pleas of my mother. The Gordon College players, though, took my beard to be a sign of
meditative depth – “Sufi Saab, aup ney kamal kur theia.” Meaning: Sufi sir, you’ve done an amazing
thing.” That comment came from the player who was guarding me after I connected on a no-look behind
the back bounce pass from the key to a base line cutting Tom Morgan. It was indeed a good pass, but not
unusual; Craig Steiger and I were given creative license by our two coaches – Stu Young the fastest,
quickest, and most graceful human being I have ever known, and Gordon Lindsay, a man in search of
wisdom in whom the art of teaching shown in his every gesture. “Sufi” can refer to anyone wearing a
beard but also connotes a sense of respect due to someone who ponders the mystical. Perhaps the Gordon
College player meant to compliment my deft and lucky pass, or perhaps he meant to comment on my
personal rooting section, or perhaps he meant my seeming ability to read the pathways in this rupturing
hybridized space. I smiled, hoping he would accept my silence. It would be nearly thirty years before I
would find words -- these words -- to respond.
The year before, under Stu Young, we had traveled ten minutes to play at a nearby school in Model Town –
a northern suburb of Rawalpindi. The court was inside a crowded compound of two story buildings. There
were perhaps two hundred students watching but it felt like double that. Or maybe we felt crowded
because of the cheering, screaming, and unconstrained hostility surrounding us. The physicality of the
game became its defining feature, a skirmish becoming true to itself. When, finally, an opposing player
rode Tom Morgan’s head into a nearby wall we did not look for exits -- our fates, we knew, would be
Near his father, Tom betrayed miniscule twitches of fear. This could seem puzzling since he was a six foot
three beautifully sculpted young man of tremendous strength and athleticism. From a distance you might
mistake Tom as the colonel’s bodyguard. But the colonel was not just the ranking U.S. military officer in
Islamabad. Somehow he let you know that in his hands he held terrible final power. Tom was usually a
sweet natured fellow whom we taunted when we needed his best game. Sufficiently enraged Tom could
control the boards and harass any player, big or small, into panic. When he lost his temper – his square-
jawed, crew-cut haired, pink skinned head would remind me of a freshly cut beet. Those with sense
dispersed without pausing to blink. Running was not a good bet since Tom was as fast as he was strong.
The strategy, we all knew, was to get out of his vision and hope that he either aimed himself at someone
else or that he defused himself before he put his hands on you.
With the offending player still hovering near him, Tom’s face radiated that color of disaster. We waited for
the decisions -- Tom’s, his fouler’s, and the crowd’s. Fists clenched, he looked only at us, locking us in
and pleading: “help me do this right.” Coach Young, I assume, had run to get the bus driver. Before free-
throws could be shot our team was sitting in the Tayota mini-bus speeding back on the highway towards
Margalla Hills and Zero Point. At cruising speed, Coach Young broke the silence of our near brush with
god knows what. Always with a smile, as if he had cheated death at an early age, he said: “Do you want to
hear a cheer that I learned for a situation like this?” As one, we thought: “A situation like this? Has
anybody ever been in a situation like this?” “It goes like this,” he said: “Shit! Shit! Shit!…”
Is that a kind of pidgin? I don’t know. But for the rest of the twenty minute ride back to our homes, we
chanted the mantra of a spirit somehow enlivened by defeat: Shit! Shit! Shit! Coach Young had risked the
contact zone and it had not gone well.
I was not the only Pakistani at ISI, not even the only Pakistani in our senior class of twenty three. But as
starting guard and a recognized jock, I did have a larger profile. Most of us “locals” were there due to the
largesse of the school, and more precisely, to the U.S.’s posture of charitable condescension towards
Pakistan. After three years working for his doctorate in Bloomington, Indiana, and then a year in Flushing,
Queens, followed by more than two years in Geneva Switzerland, my father had given up his post with the
UNDP in 1970 and accepted a position to found the international relations program at Islamabad
University. Soon after arriving in Rawalpindi, my brothers had gained admittance to St. Mary’s, but I had
been rejected. The length of my recently chopped but still too long hair and my aggressive and sulking
body posture were deemed “subversive” by Father Burn – the British headmaster. Even after further
cutting, no Pakistani school would take me. Eventually, my father and I traveled to ISI, where I was
accepted and the tuition – twelve times my father’s yearly gross income – was waived. It was a small but
growing school which even in 1973, my senior year, had no more than 300 students from K to 12.
While my rejection by Pakistani schools had been explicit, my acceptance into ISI did not mean, of course,
entry into the mainstreams of American and European culture within it. There is Yale and then there is
Yale of the Bushes.
My senior year we had two great coaches and a well fashioned team. At center was the soft spoken and
thoughtful captain, Mark Wood, who would later join the Merchant Marine and then the Navy. At six-
three, he was lean with long arms, owned a reliable jump-shot, and was a great defensive presence who
could muscle rebounds away from stronger players. At one forward was Tom Morgan, a physical
specimen – although he reminded me that at his D.C. school he was considered average in most ways. At
the other forward there was competition between the younger Ron Rice and the older Chris Herse. Ron
was more reliable but inexperienced as a freshman; Chris was versatile but did not bring focus every day.
Ron would become a Professor of Agronomy in Florida; Chris a firefighter in California. Craig Steiger, at
six foot and 160 pounds was a guard whose age at 14 belied his confidence, leadership, and knowledge of
the game. His goal in life was to play professional basketball. He had creative dribbling skills, was a keen
passer, tenacious on defense, and was a natural leader. Even Tom would listen to him. Craig would go to
Dartmouth then Harvard Business School. I was the smallest of the starting five, but with the fastest legs
and the quickest hands. Craig and I played constantly both in and off season at his house – the house that
his mother would use as the base for the Islamabad re-election campaign of Richard Nixon. We were
competitive and close, knowing at all times where the other one would be on the court. The only occasions
we did not get along were when he felt I was trying to dictate flow instead of playing within the team. Bart
Hellemans, a five foot six fire-plug and determined lefty from Belgium would spell Craig or I at guard or
would come in when I would get in foul trouble. Bart was the son of the Belgium Ambassador. The others
were sons of USAID employees, Embassy staff, USIS officers, and, no doubt – although we did not
consider such things at the time – of intelligence officers. Politics were definitive but, of course, had to be
ignored so that we could imagine living out our high school lives.
Everyone knew their roles and we were producing an undefeated season. We had beaten the various men’s
teams composed of marines who guard the U.S. embassy, and the younger men from USAID, the
Embassies, and other international organizations. We had beaten Gordon College, the Karachi American
School (KAS), the Lahore American School (LAS), and later in the year ending tournament, where we
would go undefeated, we would also beat the Muree Christian School (MCS), and the American
International School of Kabul (AISK). But the tournament in late March -- the summit of our emotional
and social hopes --was ahead of us. As a tune-up for the tournament and as a part of the inter-life of our
five schools – KAS, LAS, AISK, MCS, and ISI -- we took a trip to Kabul where we were scheduled to play
three teams: Ghazni, University of Kabul, and AISK. We did not know that we would be traveling the
paths taken by some of the greatest conquerors known to history; conquerors who would find on this road
what conquerors secretly hope for: the warm liquid humility that comes from their own inevitable defeat.
The plan was to fly from Islamabad to Peshawar and then on to Kabul. The problem was that to leave and
re-enter Pakistan, Amjad Zaman (the other Pakistani on the team) and I would need a “NOC” – a no-
objection certificate. Seemingly in league with Western Orientalists, the Pakistan Government made it
nearly impossible for its own citizens to travel and know their country. Extracting these certificates from
the teeth of the governmental bureaucracy was a job left to the always-able Stu Young. On the day of the
flight, the “NOC” was, of course, not ready. Amjad and I were left behind. But Stu was not yet done. He
arranged things, a story I will need to extract from Mr. Young one day, so that Amjad and I would
somehow still make it to Kabul. The head driver put us in a school-owned Toyota, and, with the skill and
gambling that would have left Mario Andretti in awe, drove us from Islamabad, past the Attock Fort
completed by Akbar in 1585 where the Kabul and Indus rivers meet, and on to Peshawar. It was the second
must amazing feat of driving I would experience. More than twenty years later it would be outdone by an
18 hour adventure from Skardu to Islamabad with my wife and I sharing the front seat of a jeep next to one
of my soon to be heroes, Ismail – the five foot two manifestation of serenity: our driver, guide, body guard,
and rescuer. But that, I am sorry to say, is another story.
Arriving in Peshawar, our driver handed us off to two Afghan Pushtoons. Let’s stop to ponder this for a
minute. You may be thinking, -- that was a different world.5 Can we now imagine an American teacher
giving custody of two in his charges to strangers crossing the Khyber Pass in order to play a basketball
game? To be befuddled by this question, however, is not to understand the sense of honor – nang -- that
serves as one part of the binding force of the anarchical society that ranges from the Attock bridge to
Kabul. This is the land of the Pushtoons, a mountainous area containing and creating a culture of people
who have never paid taxes to a conqueror: not Alexander, not Jengis Khan, not any of the Mughuls, not
Ranjit Singh, not the British, and not any government of Pakistan or Afghanistan. These days, whether we
admit it or not, assessing the value of these people comes too easily to us. Even the keen eye of the
brilliant Iranian filmmaker Mosen Makmalbaf regards their anarchy as a mere absence: of unity, of
nationalism, and of modernity.6 “Nothing of value” is the screen he and we plaster over the Pushtoon and
Afghan cultural topography – that is, before and after we have flattened it with bombs. The Pushtoons
serve as today’s (but only today’s) symbol for an all purpose abstract lack. The more abstract the lack, the
wolf might say, the better for us to project our civilizing fantasies.
I once got a multiple guess question wrong in my “Introduction to Freudian Psychology” class at Michigan
State University. A person dreams of a large salami going in and out of a vase. We are offered various
A year earlier my cousins had hitch-hiked from London to Islamabad in Shalwar Kamiz. My French
teacher Claire Gilloux’s and her husband had driven their Deux Chevaux from southern France to
See Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Limbs of no body: World’s indifference to the Afghan tragedy,” (
http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2001/June/Afghan/index.html ),The Iranian, ( http://www.iranian.com ),
June 20, 2001. The best but also worst qualities of this important and passionate article are replicated in
Makhmalbaf’s film, Kandahar (2001).
choices on interpreting the dream. Now I was well aware that understanding the context before proceeding
to an interpretation was a central theme of this course. “C” was the correct answer: There is insufficient
information to formulate an interpretation. But as I looked at “C”, I thought, common, a salami and a vase!
This dream is about sexual intercourse, which was the choice “B.” My friend Mark Duffy chided me for
getting that one wrong. I have resisted the urge to call Mark, whose office is no longer in the Trade
Towers, and say that the correct answer applies not only to dreams but also to geopolitical fantasies. All
our attention to the veil, revenge, changing allegiances, the Pushtoon love of weapons and fighting, allows
us to believe that we can get this one right if we simply choose the obvious. Who are the Pushtoons?
Answer B: the lowest remnants of barbarism in a part of the world mostly untouched by modernity. Right?
Maybe not. Or, at the least, if it is right, that judgment still needs a context uncharted by either you or I.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Back to the truck. I wish I could conjure up the details of the hand off to the two drivers. I can barely
remember the size of the truck or the features of the two men. Indeed, I cannot recall the details of the
debate Amjad and I had. I do know that the discussion was on religion and spread over the nearly 200 mile
ride from Peshawar, up the Kabul Gorge, and into the night lights of Kabul. It was less that Amjad was
trying to convert me to Islam and more that we were formulating how Godliness expresses itself in
landscapes, in routine actions, in body language. The two drivers were in the cab, we two sitting on the bed
of the truck; our backs and theirs separated by metal. As we talked we were taking in the view of all that
we had just passed.
They spoke Pushtu and we Urdu and English. We stopped twice. The first time for prayers. I stayed in the
bed of the truck while the drivers and Amjad made their motions on the side of the road. The three of them
bowed towards the fruit fields and further towards the distant hills hinting of green. I watched them
thinking that as they offered gestures of humility they seemed to be filling themselves with grace. The
second time we stopped for food; lamb and naan. We sat and ate the four of us without a word. The
drivers did not ignore us; but neither did they look to probe our hearts. They seemed eager to apprehend
that we had enough to eat, enjoyed the food, and that they had done enough for us The four of us honored
the ritual where they tried to relax our stiff formality as their guests, and we thanked them continuously and
It was then that I saw in their eyes a sureness, a calmness, a carriage of confidence for which I still strive.
In my short life I had ventured in three continents but this was novel. I offered them a view that contained
my flowing hair, now clean-shaven Punjabi face, bell bottoms, and my shameless non-offering of prayers.
As they took me in, I felt it. They did not know what I was trying to become but neither were they eager to
solve the mystery of my being. I felt a warm and inviting indifference; a firm rhythm stirred by the quiet
spaces between words. Recently, my friend Duggie Dupree, a life-long lover of Afghanistan, deciphered
that feeling, “it’s the confidence of the unconquered” she said. Yes, yes, that and more.
When I was not yet six, I had felt that feeling before with Pushtoons. It was the winter of 1960. About five
hundred yards from our cul-de-sac brick house near the University of Peshawar was a Pushtoon village. It
was in these villages that my father labored as a kind of an ethnographer for Ford Foundation funded and
Michigan State staffed development institution called the Academy for Rural Development. Earlier in his
life, my father had been hired by a German anthropologist as a local informant for his village studies. He
had learned quickly and shortly afterwards had accepted a position with the Academy. Our lives were
about to shoot forward powered by teleological engines. A token of our belief in this acceleration was our
brick house complete with large lawns, servants’ quarters, running electricity and tap water, flush toilets
and the occasional picnic at Warsik Dam.
The five of us – mother and father, and we three boys – were all huddled together in bed trying to eat
dinner and stay warm. Our cook had just cleared the dishes when he returned to the bedroom. Too soon I
thought. His pace was interrupted by the four masked men who followed him in. They showed knives and
guns. Instantly my mother covered the recently born Noman, hoping that they would not risk taking the
real gem of her labors. They gave oddly differential orders to my father. He obeyed. I noticed a figure
moving outside in the light of the moon. Minutes passed and we all heard a call. The chaukidar from the
house next door – the only other house on the street -- having seen something or sensed too quiet a night,
climbed to the roof and let burst a call. The thieves quickened their grabbing and hurried the getaway.
Minutes later, most of the men from the village surrounded us. Guns in their arms, they seem to fold us
into their life as we trembled. They had interrupted their dinners, grabbed their weapons and run to our aid.
I had strolled through their village a few times with my father and once with our cook, but we hardly knew
them. Yet, even though we were Punjabi, modern, purteh-liqkeh, that is educated and effete, they
considered us as within the circle of their hospitality. Despite the comfort of their security, from then on,
as the sun set towards one point on the horizon, I felt fear floating up from the opposite point. Moving to a
different house the next day did not stop the nightmare horse hoof sounds of the of Ali Baba’s forty thieves.
In this struggle between shadow and light, I saw the Pushtoon villagers as undauntable, generous, and filled
with an honor that they absorbed from the earth itself. The robbers had taken watches, a radio, cash, jewels
and the Pushtoons had deposited in me an awareness of what is possible even in the chilly dark of winter
I’m romanticizing. I am romanticizing and you are right to object. That same sense of honor, hospitality,
and love of anarchy has a darker side that can host plans for local and global blood letting. I know this dark
side -- and not just conceptually. But is this simple dialectic not true for every people? If I highlight my
desire for their excellence, do I commit therefore the sin of partiality? Much depends on the context,
What does it amount to my speaking on their behalf? Can it counter or undo the fantasies of those who fail
to see that their own dark side has the materiality of a Cristo wrapping? 7 U.S. foreign policy drapes the
globe in an infinitely stretchable but thoroughly transparent fabric of righteous fury. Ironically, like
Afghans, Americans have difficulty finding lovers. But, this is so for opposite reasons: for Afghans we
cannot locate the desire to learn something; the people of power, on the other hand, we know all too well.
But because the people of power dismiss as mere envy our rejection of their suffocating embrace they
simultaneously refuse our knowledge of their tragic blind spots. Is it any wonder, then, that we respond by
Christo (Javacheff) is world famous for his wrappings. He has wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris (1985) and
the Reichstag in Berlin (1995). He is also known for his “Running Fence,” rolling through 24 miles of
Sonoma and Marin Counties, California (1976).
withholding and canceling our love for their light? So, if I romanticize, maybe you can forgive it as a kind
of antidote. Recovering a desire for Afghanistan may be the only means of doing the same for the U.S. If
we can find something in nothing then we can find something even in that which attempts to destroy all
Amjad and I were cold when our truck arrived in Kabul at night. The lights rising in the sky I mistook as
the towers I had seen so often New York City. In the morning sun they vanished, replaced by the kutcha
adobe dwellings of the poorer Kabulis living in the hills. I was hosted by a U.S military family with two
German Shepards. A quick cross-town call to my former ISI schoolmate Chris Brown and I was back in
the familiarity of a Sitar playing, kurta wearing, lover of all things other. In their social accounting the
German Shepard family no doubt must have notched my behavior in the bulging column marked “typical
manifestation of ingratitude.”
The gym hosting all three games was perfect with shinning wooden floors, high ceilings, and bleachers.
But it was not part of the American International School of Kabul’s compound. It could have been built by
the aid money pouring into the city from all directions – Soviet, U.S., French, Italian, German, and British
funds were making Daud’s Afghanistan into a rentier state. Soon the unintended consequence of this aid
would be to allow Daud to sever his decision making from the institutions of the jirga – a kind of
anarchical democratic feedback loop between villagers, khans, and the elite in Kabul. This severing would
then set the stage for the coup by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and then in short order: the
Soviet invasion, the Saudi and U.S. founded and the CIA and ISI8 trained Mujahideen, the Taliban, and al
The unintended problem that foreign aid created for me was that I had never played on a wooden floor.
Unlike my teammates who wore two double thick cotton socks and then placed their feet in state-of- the-art
Addidas hightops, I wore the thin cotton of Pakistani socks putting my feet in white canvass shoes. Unable
Officers of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency were the logistical operators of the political
economy of aid, weapons, and heroin that drove the Mujahideen resistance against the Soviets.
Parts of this story are told in rigorous detailed by Barnett Rubin in The Fragmentation of Afghanistan,
Yale University Pres, 1995.
to generate traction on the wood, I was reduced to softly aiming one handed runners, hoping that angles and
gravity would do the work of a vertically sprung well fired jumpshot. Nevertheless, our lead against the
local team – Ghazni – was large enough for me to deposit this game in the win column. My mind had
already turned to how I might get Chris Brown to loan me some proper socks for the next game.
Then just before the half their star player entered the gym and the game. The partisan Afghan crowd
started to chant: Ghaz-ni, Ghaz-ni. I waited for him at the top of the key as he brought the ball up the court.
Three feet in front of me he fired the ball – something between a jumper and a set shot. Off the mark. I
shook my head. Next three sets went exactly the same way. He came down and released shots that were
out of my range both physically and conceptually. Inside, I mocked his work – even in a game of horse I
wouldn’t reveal such desperation. Just before the half he hit one. Lucky, I thought. But something
bothered me as I walked to the bench – how did he allow himself to take those shots? Still, the seventeen
point half-time lead seemed secure.
In the second half, he came down and let go from seven feet beyond the top the key. Swish. Then again:
Swish. Stu and Gordon called a timeout. Craig and I were to pick him up at half court and funnel him into
Tom, Mark, and Chris who would swallow him up. He crossed half court, drove past me as planned but
stopped to put one up from a range closer to half court than the key. Swish. The crowd erupted: Ghazni!
Ghazni! I was confused. Why was his coach tolerating this? Why weren’t his teammates demanding a
share of the ball?
Next set, same move and swish. Finally I got it, he was the team; the other players served only to feed him
the ball. But my body was still confused. It did not have the muscle memory to guard someone taking a
shot from near half-court. Not until 1974, when I saw Michigan State’s Terry Furlow score 48 and 50
points in two nights did I see a shooter with as much confidence. Those nights, everyone knew that Furlow
would get the ball, go up high, and shoot it from anywhere past mid court. And we knew his shots would
fall. The remarkable part was not the smooth momentum-less trajectories that gently settled into the nets.
No, it was the audacity needed to allow your body to relax into the movement. I recognized the same
confusion in his defenders, their bodies unable to acknowledge that, yes, they had to go chest to chest and
challenge his shot even near half-court when what they really wanted was to let him shoot and smirk.
Stu and Gordon probably made a mistake. After he had fueled the crowd with his first twenty points, they
should have put Craig on him. But by then the game was over. The mile high Kabul air, and our inability
to understand either their tactics or their confidence had lessened the coherence of our labor. They had
spotted us seventeen points and beaten us badly. Today I still wonder about that shooter. Where did he
come from? How had he developed those skills?
Our next game was against the University of Kabul. Well let’s pause there for a moment. The University
of Kabul had a basketball team? How did that come to be? I hope to research that one day. These were
tall, strong, bearded, magnificent looking men. Next to them our blue and white headbands and gangly
bodies looked silly. Sure we had played and beaten the U.S. marine team in Islamabad, but this was
different. AISK’s coach, Bill Heim, later told us that this group had played together almost their whole
lives. Played together their whole lives?! In what gym? Why did they play basketball and not soccer or
volleyball? Who coached them? How could that be, I still wonder.
The biggest difference between Craig and I was that he expected to win every game whereas I went into
every game expecting to lose. He wanted to create the inevitable; I wanted to resist it. Before the game he
wouldn’t talk to me, knowing full well what I would say (“We don’t stand a chance!”), and fearing that his
inner ear would hear my murmur. As Gordon and Stu later confirmed, we played our finest game, staying
with them in the first half. The second half was an onslaught of fast-break ball the likes of which I would
not see until the UNLV teams of the mid-Seventies.
We had played our best game of the year and they beat us by forty. But it was the astonishing quality of
their play that stays with me. I saw slow motion turn around jumpers from the top of the key that left me a
mere fan. When I went back to defend on fast breaks, rallying the courage to position myself to take a
charge, I learned that to avoid a charge you could use your two steps to the basket not linearly but
diagonally, like a sideways V. One second they were in front of me as I braced for impact and the next
they were behind me softly rolling the ball off the glass. A few years later, I would watch Chinese
Malaysians making an art of their anti-linear drives to the hoop (dubbed “Chinese lay-ups”). They would
go in one against five trying to find openings for slashing, direction changing, body contorting drives. It
was kinetic highflying acrobatics that needed judges not referees.
The third day we played AISK, getting the win we expected. I do not recall a sense of shame or loss at our
1-2 road trip. Nor a sense of accomplishment for beating the one team that was actually in our league. No.
More so, I think we tried to consider we had just witnessed. We knew it was something. Something.
Perhaps it was that we had grown. We experienced something we did not expect. Our pre-conceptions
were shattered. The Afghan teams were un-awed by our appearance, indifferent to our hegemonic gait.
Ghazni beat us with skills and tactics developed locally; the University of Kabul dismantled us with a
finesse that comes from understanding the structure and form of the game.
I, whose body had swallowed of US cultural hegemony and who had, nevertheless, generated disparate and
random antidotes saw in Afghans an alternative way of being. Not hubris, nor the defensive aggressive
arrogance of the compromised, but the quiet confidence of those whose grounded-ness in their particularity
allows them a relaxed and graceful posture towards the not-yet-known. I need that -- this ability to be still
and mindful in the face of fear and opportunity. I want to know how they have it, where they got it.
Now that I think of it, my mother’s mother, my nani, had it too. We sat at her feet when we made our
migratory returns to her house in the village of Kolo – visits my mother managed despite her utter lack of
topographic orientation. She willed us there with an irresistible determination. Raised in that house and
with more than a dozen pilgrimages performed in all seasons and through many ages, I do not recall a
single look, not a note of disdain, never a sharp movement hat indicated any judgment on my appearance,
my Americanization, my loss of language, or my inability to squat. She was a small woman getting smaller
all the time with large glasses and a permanent inner smile. Right to the end she smelled of fresh milk.
Like every home, except for that of the feudal lord of the village, hers was an adobe with shared walls on
four sides. And the walls of those houses were also shared ad infinitum making the village into a hive of
colors sparkling, smells far too alive, a surround-sound of people sleeping, snoring, arguing, babies crying,
and everyone working to light fires, cook bread, and create the pace of daily life. Over the course of thirty
or so years, the adobe was replaced by brick; the water carried from the well by my uncle Anis – cold in
summer, warm in winter – replaced by a hand pumped nulka; the wall dried dung patties replaced by gas
cooking stoves; then electricity; telephones, television antennas, maddening amplified lectures from the
masjid, pool halls, video games, VCR rentals, and in a few houses, satellite dishes delivering the BBC,
CNN, MTV (Asia), and Star Television. Rectangular in shape, her house has rooms at the long ends
making a ten by ten square courtyard with a tree to one side next to the stairs. The roof is a passage way in
day light and a village wide bedroom during star domed summer nights.
In that house my grandmother lived most of her life. While not the biggest or richest in the village, it was
kept with pride. It was a spiritual focal point for the village because my nani and my nana – whom I never
met except through my mother’s reverence for him – were considered, I am told, to be cultivators of
wisdom and leaders of religious thought and practice. My Nana was raised a Shia but broke with his father
to become a Sunni after his long trek and study at the Deoband. On my father’s side, he tells me, his whole
village was Sikh for decades before converting to Islam. This is as far as I have been able to trace the
lineage. Conversions, like miscegenation, are the real “normal” of history, no?
When I take my children to Kolo, to my nani’s house – despite the relentless protestations of all those
whose mania it is to secure themselves against germs, disease, dust, mud, and attacks on the olfactory
system (“go yourself, but for God’s sake, think of the children! How can they survive in that
environment?” they exhort) – I want to say the following to the two children whom my wife pushed out of
her body in Syracuse: “The specificity and particularity of space-time are not just important, they are
decisive. A part of you emerges from this courtyard. Unlike salmon you do not have to die when you
return, rather it is from here that you become free to live the universal. This is where my knowledge of
time and space begins and will end. There is nothing more important that I will leave you than some small
feeling for this place.”
I haven’t verbalized this to them, of course. But perhaps they can sense it in the resolve I inherited from
my mother. So I hope you see now, as I finally do, that what I look for in Pushtoons, Afghans, and the
country I have known from Lahore to Kabul, is something I wish to retrieve in myself. It’s my own rescue
fantasy. Except I want to imagine that you can distinguish it from those who glean their facts and the worth
of others from the high altitude scans of the New Yorker’s satellite riding reporters.
We bomb them. First with our blueprints for their future, then from 30,000 feet, finally with the deadliest
weapon of the three -- help. We bomb them there flattening them to nothing, not noticing that as something
crumbles there, something crumbles here.