Image: City Safari: A travel diary of old Afghanistan

Edward Field.

When I was in high school, I discovered the work of poet Edward Field. Some time ago, after thinking that the poet had been dead for years (the poet is very much alive despite the tendency among poets to commit suicide), I came across Kabuli Days, an account of the poet’s travels in old Afghanistan.

Kabuli Days is a travel diary on old Afghanistan, prior to the Taliban and the rise of radical Islam.   

In 1971, after the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the death of Janis Joplin (and the rise of Joan Baez, etc.), poet Edward Field did the unimaginable: he bought a ticket to Afghanistan, inspired mainly by a photograph he had seen of the country in National Geographic Magazine. He was almost fifty years old at the time, an age when most men seek the world of “safe” travel (a comfortable room and Continental breakfast at a Hilton Hotel), not a rustic trial-by-fire experience in the form of hotel rooms without water, landscapes where the air is thick with the dust of human and animal waste, and a daily “tourist” life where sometimes one is treated by the local police as a potential criminal.

But the ever-adventurous Field put his fears aside and embarked on a trip that produced “Kabul Days: Travels in Old Afghanistan,” one of the most interesting travel diaries--especially considering recent events in that country-- on record.

As a Jewish gay man, Field committed to spending one year in a rural Muslim environment. It goes without saying that this took courage and daring. 1971 of course was years before the Taliban and the worldwide rise of fundamentalist Islam. Field’s odyssey would not be possible today, but in 1971, the Islamic world was still pretty much an overly romanticized place: the land of T.E. Lawrence and Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet,’ where bejeweled women rode on the backs of camels-- the stuff of poetry and dreams.

From the moment his journey begins, Field’s days become a labyrinth of challenges.   

He notices right away that foreigners traveling in pairs don’t talk to anyone else. “Sitting next to me is a Pakistani who told me Christians are considered dirty by Muslims. I wanted to say, ‘I’m not Christian, I’m Jewish,’ but felt that might be worse,” he writes. But nobody ever guesses that Field might be Jewish, and even when he tells them he’s “Christian” he’s never questioned further. The matter is mysteriously dropped. Field, after all, is not there to prove a point or argue his right to say “who” he really is. His mind is so open, it might as well be a sieve: when asked to pray with rural farmers or a group of men he’s just met, he complies with the sincerity of a possible convert, repeating the name Allah over and over again. He fits into every situation like a snake in the grass.

While accepted as a non-Muslim, Field occasionally experiences disapproval, such as when he hears a man comment that because he wasn’t a Muslim, “he was worthless.”      

The sight of scores of roughhewn men simultaneously bowing their bodies in prayer strikes him as “beautiful,” but his poet’s eye notices that during the pre-prayer ritual, the men squat to pee, “which makes it quite a private act, though difficult with those flowing native clothes; then washing hands, feet, nose, ears, and mouth…and finally the kneeling and bowing exercises that go with the prayers.”

He writes that the process of taking care of oneself “spiritually and physically” is a source of endless fascination.

In the countryside, Field observes stark naked dervishes, or holy men, with their cock and balls exposed sitting under trees. In another instance, he becomes protective of a female French tourist and discovers that were she to go out alone at night any man would have the legal right to “seize her.” The Afghan romance begins to dim somewhat, especially in areas of eating and drinking, when meticulous attention must be paid to the water. Even bathing in certain rivers can invite incubating bugs and the onset of severe diarrhea. In Kabuli, as in all of Afghanistan, there may be no roadside bars or cafes, but as an alternative to a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay, there’s plenty of hashish to be had. Unsurprisingly, he winds up smoking a lot of hashish with strangers who invite him into their homes for tea, melons and whiffs from their pipe.

“While stoned, I was thinking again that I don’t really like drugs,” he confesses. “They befuddle the mind. It’s like being hit over the head.”

While he attempts to limit his intake of hashish—he writes that it makes him feel vulnerable around strangers-- he’s open to acquiring opium, if it’s available.       

Melons play a big part in this Afghanistan journey. Everybody, it seems, is either carrying a melon or slicing one in two. Field’s dinners, in fact, include yogurt and melons with random samplings of chicken but in the end he’s not a great eater. How he gets by so long on so little food, or the “wrong” kind of food, is a mystery, although he explains it by saying he has a sensitive stomach. (Or an eating disorder.)

He meets American hippies, “who make no attempt to learn any of the languages,” while he makes an impressive attempt to master Farsi. Later, he will purchase a turban and authentic Afghan dress but it takes him a while to feel comfortable wearing it in public.

“People shit everywhere, especially by streams in order to be able to wash themselves, but in the dry air excrement dries fast and becomes the dust that blows in your eyes and mouth. It’s probably antiseptic,” he muses. But oh, what a feeling!

He detects sensuality in this new land but this does little to erode his feelings of frustration. At the local post office, he’s invited by the postmaster to sit down and chat. “He was wearing striped pajamas and holding his prick—so the men do touch themselves in this country, but I still get very little sensual feeling from them. Another thing, I talk and talk with them but never feel I’ve made a friend. Is sexuality out because of my age? In Iran I certainly didn’t feel any such thing. Here, I’m not sure where the sexuality is.”

Field finds Afghan men very handsome and longs for a special friend or a comrade-in-arms, but when opportunities present themselves suddenly he’s not in the mood. At one point a buggy driver offers him a young man, but the poet (unlike Andre Gide or Allen Ginsberg who would have pounced like hungry leopards), Field let’s the offer go unanswered.

Another time, while sleeping on a shared bedroll, a handsome soccer player puts one foot on his and “tugs at my pants to pull me towards him.” Field, however, does not respond. When two twenty something student tourists make it obvious that they want to spend more time with him, he mysteriously declines, then regrets his decision the moment they leave his hotel room. When a boy of twenty is attracted to him and they have an “intimate conversation of the eyes,” Field does manage to get his address, but that’s all.  “How I wish he were going my way,” he laments, later admitting, “I’ve made no real friends here and it’s my own fault. And with all my frantic searching and bargaining, I didn’t buy any rugs. I didn’t live in the part of town I love. I never got laid or found a lover. I only scribbled in this diary and felt foolish.”

You snooze, you lose.

Lucky for the diarist he seems to have an endless supply of money, so he’s able to shell out cash when hotel proprietors and others overcharge him. Despite his fears of getting robbed, that does not happen.

There’s a fascinating description of the poet’s visit to Bamian Valley, or the Grand Canyon of the giant Buddha

that the Taliban blew up years ago. Field climbs the hill “to the head of the great Buddha, sitting down to rest in the shade of some caves with smoke-blackened roofs.”  The rock, he says, “is cut in a smooth arc over the Buddha’s head, framing a postcard view of the valley.” Scouting through the nooks and crannies, he discovers a family living in the caves behind the great statues.               

Field may have felt foolish for not getting laid or buying a new rug, but this is no foolish epic. As a portrait of pre-Iraq war Afghanistan, “Kabuli Days” becomes something else: a serious look into a culture where life, social values and “morals” are so unlike our own.

How Field navigates through this landmine is a testament to his genius and ingenuity.

The book is a small classic of sorts. 

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