News out of Afghanistan is often overshadowed by the horrible stories of bloody conflict in Iraq. But Afghanistan is no party either, with armed terrorists hoping to take down the fledgling government and American troops still patrolling the country. But, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is at least safe enough for a war zone reporter and producer to venture out among the people. As evidence, I relay to you this lovely epistle, sent from blogger #1 JJ Sutherland, currently in Afghanistan:
I spent today in Kabul's bird market. A 10-foot-wide packed dirt alley walled by two-story mud shacks. The first floor is the store. There are birds of every type and color. Canaries, finches, doves, fighting cocks, quail... the ones with the needle looking feathers... the ones that are the size of your thumb... the ones that I can't even describe, let alone know the name of.
And the cages, metal and wood. All made there. They were beautiful, not in the ornate Chinese way, but in the simplicity of form and curve. I can't quite figure out how to ship them back.
I was there because I had read Steven Coll's Ghost Wars. In it, he describes how Arabs would go to Afghanistan, for months at a time, to indulge themselves in the sport of kings. Falconry. Of course, my translator doesn't know the word "falcon." But he does know the word "hawk." But more importantly as we walk down this crowded market, he knows the word "hunter."
"Who sells the hunters?" he asks. Small children have gathered around us at this point -- a crowd of 10 or 15 who watch everything I do with my microphone and recorder. (Though they are quite accommodating when I motion them to shush when I'm trying to get ambi of the birds.) I talked to a number of people who spoke in rapture of the heavenliness of canaries. When I ask why, they say, "because they are clean and they sing." I remember an interview I did the other day with the Minister of Economy. In his top floor office (OK, maybe it's only five floors, but the only "skyscraper" here is maybe 12 floors high) he has three cages of canaries lining his windows.
But while canaries appear in shop after shop, only one man sells hunters. He brings out a young falcon (I say "young," only because it looked more slender than an eagle or a hawk, though it was small -- maybe a foot high). "It is young," he says. Half-trained, though he assures me he could train it in a month. "Twenty dollars." It is beautiful as it gnaws the carcass of a smaller bird in his hand. I look guiltily around at the other prey birds a few feet away.
She is beautiful. An evolutionarily designed killer. She is sleek and her talons are sharp and her beak curved and I fall in love right there. Although my wife did tell me I wasn't allowed to bring a falcon home... I mean, once she sees her, right?
And then there's this other man who tells me how he began to hunt with birds when he was only 8. He caught five the first day. For 15 years he has been hunting with birds, although he looks older than me. And he said that under the Taliban, Arabs used to come and hire him for months at a time to take them hunting with falcons. And I remembered the part I had read in Ghost Wars. Bin Laden had invited all these wealthy Arabs to go hunting with birds, for months at a time. This was in 1998 or 1999. The CIA had an observation team watching one of these hunts. And they almost sent a cruise missile in. But they were worried that maybe bin Laden wasn't there, or that there were possibly members of the UAE royal family.
And then the man invites me to go hunting. Every day they go out near Bagram Air Field (the main U.S. base here). I picture trying to sell a series on falconry to my editors and realize it probably ain't going to happen. But I'll gather the tape anyway. And stand outside in the morning light and thrust a bird into the sky off a leather-draped arm. That's a dream I've had since reading The Once and Future King as a boy.
Right after I get back from Kandahar... I'm heading there on Sunday with the military. But then I imagine myself on my balcony in D.C., flying my falcon, hunting pigeon.
The falcons are 20 bucks. I'll bring 'em back for $100 plus expenses...