Hope When the Roads Turn Black

Things here seem to stay where people set them. Our mentor team rotates, here for 45 days or three months or six months or a year, and some of the Afghan instructors rotate in and out as well. In Lab 15, there are four dead computers gathering dust under desks and in corners — two Dells, two off-brand — in addition to the 20 sheet-shrouded operational computers running down either side of the long room with a single row of battered metal chairs facing front in the middle. There are computer parts in tattered cardboard boxes, a boombox for playing English-language listening and conversation practice cassettes and CDs, a DVD player, a VCR, a marker- and dirt-smudged Smart Board hanging on the wall. In the back corner of the room, there is a metal wheeled cart with a TV set and a dirty mug and three boxed sets of children’s games. Each of the operational computers has a small uninterruptible power supply next to it because of how unreliable the electricity is. Under the teacher’s desk, there are two more power supplies on their sides, unused, a white thermal carafe, styrofoam forms for packing electronics, woven reed baskets, a CRT and a 13-inch flat-panel monitor, remote controls hidden under stacks of years-old student papers, an empty rosewater bottle. The rooms we work in accumulate the detritus of instruction, including the superannuated technological capital associated with computer-based teaching.

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When I first arrived here, I moved freely from my office overlooking the airfield to Lab 15 or to other classrooms to observe the Afghan teachers, though that freedom of movement was and is circumscribed by the boundaries of the small campus. It’s fenced on all sides, accessible only through checkpoints with gates, crew-served weapons, and armed guards. We drive past the airfield to get here: on one side the civilian Kabul International Airport that the Ariana and Kam and Safi jets fly out of with the few here wealthy enough to travel on them, and on the other the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters and C-27 cargo planes of the Afghan Air Force. It was easy enough to take a break from working on the computer — before I learned to I needed to get out of the office and move in order to do my job — and watch the planes taking off and landing, just as I used to watch the cargo ships go up and down the Hudson from my office at West Point.

I see similarities to the large-scale mobility of the multinational military presence here — the helicopters and cargo planes, flying missions and materiel and personnel beyond, within, and across Afghanistan — in the critique Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu offer in “Composing in a Local-Global Context” (2009) of the formulation by which “success… is imagined in terms of the extra-territorial mobility achieved: the ability of the few across the world to constantly move, untied by emotion or responsibility to any one territory, identity, or career” (122). Transnational and transterritorial mobility is a marker of privilege, much as we see in “Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World,” where Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Gorjana Kisa, and Shafinaz Ahmed (2009) use “the term transnational… to signify a growing group of students who are at home in more than one culture… These students typically speak multiple languages, often including varieties of English from outside the United States, and maintain networks of friends, family members, and other contacts around the globe” (56). In some instances, mobility itself possesses agency, rather than the things that possess that mobility, as in Horner and Lu’s assertion that “the extra-territorial mobility of capital robs individual locales, lives, and lines of work of any vestige of stability” (123). The tribally and socially connected nature of Afghan culture feels deeply local, with little of the assumed privilege we associate with the American fetish for cars and planes and so-called footloose capital.

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Since the recent incident, it’s become harder for Americans to move around the campus. We don’t go anywhere alone, and there’s a check-in and check-out system, and increased security measures all around. Body armor any time we go outside the gate, even if we’re still inside the wire. Within the gate, there’s little freedom of movement, and few places to go. We draw the shades in our offices, and I no longer watch the comings and goings of the planes.


As a privilege, mobility has its costs. In some contexts you can’t simply go in and get out. There are some who stay in the barracks and work in the headquarters here at the airfield and never go outside the gate: the only Afghans they see are the KBR and Sodexo service workers and the merchants at the little shipping-container bazaar. I admire the provincial reconstruction teams; the ones who are able to get far out and work closely among the Afghans. From what I understand, that experience is rare, and many — even or perhaps especially those far away from the bases — keep to their own enclaves, their own units, providing security against perceived threats rather than working with local communities. I think about the so-called “kill team” and the horror of what they did and wonder if part of the explanation lies in the fact that

By September 2009, two months after their arrival, the soldiers of the Third Platoon were conducting two missions a day to villages and compounds scattered throughout an area of operations many felt was too vast for them to influence. “We went to the same town every few weeks,” one of the defendants, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, said… “We did not seem to have any familiarity with the locals. The unit was always making empty promises on how often we would return.”

Like us, most move from place to place in armored vehicles, extraterritorial in the way we seldom engage people that populate and constitute the territory. Borders are by definition local phenomena, and exraterritorial or transterritorial mobility transcends the local in the worst way: by possessing the privilege and the outward security — the armor — to ignore it.

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What strikes me as problematic is precisely that sort of extraterritorial or transnational mobility, or in globalizations’ fetishized ability to move across — to transcend — local borders. The importance lies in those borders themselves and the places where things come together. In my work here mentoring faculty and helping the Afghans to develop their own curriculum and pedagogy, the most productive time I spend is the time I spend having tea with Afghan teachers in a tiny, overpacked group office with battered metal desks and walls badly needing paint and overflowing bookshelves. In the introduction to The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha writes,

It is in the emergence of the interstices — the overlap and displacement of domains of difference — that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between’, or in excess of, the sum of the parts of difference…? How do strategies of representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable?

I don’t want to ignore that last part or to make this into a fairy tale about Afghans’ easy acceptance of Western advisors after three cups of tea. There’s conflict here, competition, corruption; mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. Given guns and money, it won’t be otherwise. But Bhabha starts to get at what’s important for me: not the crossing but the places crossed; not the privileged transcendence that homogenizes space for the traveler but the inability to transcend — the down-in-it-ness — at the borders between heterogeneous spaces.

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We travel perhaps two miles between bases in downtown Kabul: body armor, helmets, ballistic eye protection, armored vehicles with electronic countermeasures devices. The common advice is that we are not to break the seal of the door while outside the perimeter of a base. Inside the perimeter, there are multiple gates and checkpoints; crew-served weapons projecting from holes cut in metal shipping containers fortified with sandbags and concertina wire. These checkpoints are largely manned by Afghans, and sometimes by Macedonians or Belgians or Mongolians as well, depending on the checkpoint or the location. The Afghan guards always speak some English, and the signs at the checkpoints are in English. Americans aren’t the only ones who make our way through the multiple sets of gates, of course: there are trucks and buses and minivans full of Afghans, motorcycles and scooters, tiny pimped-out Corollas with chrome wheels and decals with slogans in stilted English on the back windows. We all have our identification inspected by guards, Afghan and otherwise, as we transit the checkpoints.

The “translingual approach” advocated by Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur in their 2011 College English opinion piece isn’t translingual at all, but an approach concerned with hybridity and points of intersection: it does not pass by or transcend borders, but complicates them, and concerns itself with how the borders themselves work.

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Once we’re inside the perimeter, we shut down the jammers and take off our body armor, but there are still checkpoints to traverse: NATO forces and Afghans, soldiers and civilians, all make our way between high stacks of Hescos four feet apart, sitting atop stone walls and themselves topped by chain link fence and woven green nylon sniper screens, with concertina wire atop the fence, and through more Hescos topped by corrugated tin and floodlights on either side and in through a doorway cut in one side of a shipping container and out the other, occasionally slowing to show our badges.

Most of the Afghans I talk to don’t have much good to say about Pakistan these days, but plenty of them speak Urdu or Punjabi, while others who spent time in Iran speak Farsi (Iranian Persian, to which Dari is the antiquated-sounding Afghan Persian counterpart; the accents are different, but not so much so as to be unintelligible to each other) or Balochi. Some have returned to Afghanistan after having fled for twenty years or more; a population large enough and gone long enough to have developed an appreciation for cricket while in Pakistan and brought it back to Afghanistan, where the sport enjoys increasing popularity: I see the cadets playing cricket every day in the field by one of the gated checkpoints when we depart.

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I think I’ve likely made it clear that I’m not so much interested in transnational mobility and the ability — the privilege — to move across borders and boundaries as I am in the points of intersection and the ways and places where things intersect. I’ve quoted this argument before, but I think there’s considerable relevance to what I’m doing here in Bhabha’s contention that

the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: “Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses.”

Afghanistan seems to me an arbitrary product of imperial modernity imposed upon a tribalism as old as anyone can remember, an ongoing constructed gathering bridge out of which the Afghans are building an identity that doesn’t look anything like the nationalisms modernity has known before. It’s provisional, tendentious, splintered, contrary, remarkably gracious, and sometimes entirely counter to what Americans might expect or imagine or hope for. Historically, the strife here has always come from Afghanistan’s place as a crossroads: it transcends nothing, but is the geographic and cultural embodiment of down-in-it-ness.

There’s a hailstorm as we’re getting ready to leave. One of the team calls the Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC) to check the status of the roads: amber, red, or black. Amber is the usual condition for NATO military movement on the streets of Kabul: it means travel with caution, jammers and body armor on. Red means essential travel only. No one travels when the roads are black.

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The roads are black. We learn from the BDOC that at one of Kabul’s immense wedding halls, there’s a demonstration of thousands of people. We’re immobilized, going nowhere. Eventually, the demonstration subsides; the Afghans depart the wedding hall parking lot on foot or by bus or scooter or van or bicycle. We can move again: we put on the body armor, turn on the jammers, head out. We find out when we return that the demonstration was against the Karzai government ostensibly supported and secured by NATO forces, but against the government from the progressive anti-Taliban, anti-reactionary side, rather than from the forces of radical cultural conservatism — although beyond that it seems to me as complicated as everything else in Afghanistan, a demonstration led by a former warlord criticizing the Karzai government for its weakness. I’m not sure if that’s reason to be hopeful or not, other than the fact that it was a peaceful demonstration by an opposition party demanding peace. There’s far more than I’ll ever understand here, and I don’t think it’ll never be understood by those wearing body armor and traveling between bases in sealed armored vehicles. It’s understood on foot, at the gates and borders and crossings between one place and the next.

Hope When the Roads Turn Black
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