Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mazar e Sharif Airport

February 5, 2011

The small terminal that is the Mazar e Sharif Airport lies sleeping on a bed of flat river country.

It’s early morning and crisp--the dust has already covered everything on me; coat, purse, shoes, hair, hands, camera bag.  Black hawk helicopters swim back and forth over our heads from the American base next door. There is a small metal shack where a young boy in a frayed coat sells Red Bull and chips and biscuits and candy.  Otherwise, we are stand in an open yard of dirt and pebbles sectioned off by a wire fence waiting to go through security. 

The last time I was here a month ago, before you were sent to the large hangar to wait for your plane to land, you had to go through five checkpoints. Two checkpoints, consisting of a wide table and several guards, were spaced about 6 yards from each other.  You opened your bags, walked 6 yards and opened them all up again. 

This morning, all checkpoints have been reduced to one. There are a few silent travelers scattered in the yard. I am happy. My jet lag has me drained. I say quietly to myself, please get me through cluster fuck security quickly.
Guards begin opening up my suitcase, going through every piece of clothing. I hope they dont linger on my underwear, that's always awkward. No eye contact. They are surprised to hear me speak Dari to them.  They usually start talking about me,  then their mouths hang open when I speak back to them. Regardless, I might as well be a foreigner. 
The women have to get body searched in a separate area.  I walk into a massive container that lays like a beached whale in the airport yard, pull back a wool blanket door and step into a room, pitch black, lit only by a small fire burning in a rusty metal barrel. A woman sits squatting on a stool, her thighs cupping the barrel for warmth. I can’t really see her. She has tight black sleeves and her generous arms make the sleeves sag at the elbows. She wears what seems like an even blacker veil and her skin is dark and leathered, her cheeks plump like brown balloons. The rest of her is invisible. She does a quick search all over my body.
When she gets to my green shoulder bag she starts pulling out all my make up, piece by piece and examining it. Time slows down. Her fingers seem to move through my purse as if kneading dough. I think about how proud I am of this bag, I have bought it especially for my time in Kabul and Mazar. It has a compartment for everything. I ordered it on after searching through TJ Maxx and Marshalls for hours. There are pockets for my cell phone, money, keys, cards, eyeglasses. It’s a total geek’s travel bag. I would have never bought that bag in my 20’s.  I have become that woman now.
The woman in the container pulls out my Laura Mercier compact bronzer.

What is this?, she says without looking at me, opening the compact.
Uh, it’s blush-- for your face.

She dips her fat dirty finger in the blush and starts making little circles and asks,

Is it any good? She moves the finger to her cheek and begins to rub it.
Uh, yes. It’s good, it gives you color. She examines herself in the compact. 
It’s not working, she says, disappointed that the green bag has not yielded any treasure for her that she can make out.
No, it’s not that kind of blush, it’s subtle, it gives you color but not red cheeks.
Oh. Can I have it? She looks straight at me, her eyes nervous, yet steady.
No, you can’t have it.
Just give it to me, she persists.
I can’t give it to you because it’s the only bronzer I’ve brought with me and I don’t have another one.
I am getting irritated but feel stuck to her somehow.
What’s this?
That’s mascara.
Do you have any aspirin for headaches?
No, I don’t.
What’s this?
That’s eyeliner.
Can I have it?
No, I need that.
What will you give me then?, she says. Her voice hushed but quick. She knows she can’t keep me in here long because the guards outside will become suspicious.
I pause and squint. I can barely see her face fully. I make out a long thin jersey dress stretched over her body. Her hands are so dry and dirty. Her eyes lit only by the flicker of the fire. 

How many hours a day does she sit here?
I reach into my bag for my Clinique lipstick. 

Here take this.
What is it?
It’s lipstick, very good, from America. 
Yes, you can make it darker or lighter depending on the shade you want.
She fills in her mouth with the lipstick. Looks at herself in the compact mirror again. 
Oh, I see, she says.

She looks like an overgrown gnome with black honey lips.

When are you coming back?
In a few weeks, maybe.
You’ll bring something again?
I don’t say anything to her, but take my bag back, throw it over my shoulder. 

Okay then, goodbye, I turn to leave and she says nothing back to me. 

I can feel her recede into the darkness as I go out.I walk out into the morning sun. Have I been in there for days?The guard overhears me telling my crew that she took my lipstick.
Did she take something from you?, a tall young Afghan man in a uniform too big for him asks as his hand moves towards the AK-47 on his shoulder.
No, everything’s fine, I quickly tell him.
I realize I have to be careful. I am not at JFK, for Pete's sake.