Accepting Thirst: Edward Field’s Kabuli Days [Hippie Squared] [BOOK WEEK]

A travel journal is a kind of quest tale. In 1970 poet Edward Field journeyed to Afghanistan questing for Sufis (as a Gurdjieff fan); “sex, as all travelers are;” and “a little hotel clinging to a rock in the middle of a rushing river” which he saw in a National Geographic in his dentist’s waiting room. And while a tourist goes looking for sights and souvenirs, a lone traveler with a notebook is seeking transformation.

Kabuli Days: Travels in Old Afghanistan is the journal of his inner and outer travels, published forty years later but still relevant. Afghanistan is ever with us. 1970 was only three years before Afghanistan’s king was deposed and the Russians invaded, before the mujahedeen and the Taliban and the decades of wars that still continue.

Field’s an accomplished poet (After the Fall: Poems Old and New, 2007, among many others) and memoirist (The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, 2006, on Greenwich Village bohemia), known for a direct poetic voice, “the simple language of truth.” Born in 1924, he became a poet in World War II. He was in his mid-forties when he wrote these pages.

A travel journal takes its shape not from authorial design, like a novel, but the inescapable rhythms and patterns of a life, wrapped around the spine of a journey. Still, from Mashad, Iran, across the border to Kabul by bus, the first leg of his trip sets up scenes and themes that will recur again and again. Crowded bus rides on painful benches over rough roads past ruins, children squeezed in anywhere, with passengers from all over the world, Swiss and Pakistanis, English and Australians and French, until the bus breaks down in the desert.

Field has a poet’s close eye for people and their ways, noting rituals, clothes, and even elimination habits. There are no rest areas along these roads. The bus breaks down at dawn, and the men go off separately to squat and pee, an act made private by their flowing clothes. Then they wash hands and faces in an irrigation ditch, in preparation for morning prayers.

This is 1970. Hippie spiritual drug tourists make frequent appearances, passing through to India or Katmandu, generally dirty and stoned, keeping to themselves in filthy “hippie hotels” and paying little attention to the land and its people. Idealistic Peace Corps volunteers also crop up regularly, teaching English to villagers who have no use for it.

Kabul becomes his base, from late June through late August, “a huge small village going in every direction, and dusty from the wind” surrounded by mountains. At first he wonders how he can ever stay, it’s so strange. But he encounters frequent courtesy, and begins to feel better about it. Teahouse proprietors consider him a guest and refuse to let him pay. On his first day in Kabul, one gives him a piece of hashish.

Hashish is prevalent in 1970 Afghanistan. In a mountain cleft on a goat trail high above Kabul he encounters a plaza and temple over a sacred spring in an underground cave, where the caretakers have set up a small hashish factory. Field describes their process and samples their product.

From Kabul he takes frequent short trips. To the Bamian Valley, where he climbs into the Buddha statues since destroyed by the Taliban. To Mazar-i-Sharif and a shrine to Ali—the man whose status as fourth Caliph or first Imam of Islam is the fissure that splits Sunni from Shiite. To Balkh, Mother of Cities, destroyed by the Mongols—in a country laced with such ruins from thousands of years of conquests and re-conquests.

Different again from a novel is how important mundane comforts and discomforts are to the experience of his journey. Field’s chief daily concerns are what to eat and whether it will make him sick; finding shoes that don’t hurt his feet; bug bites; and the proper politics and rituals of pissing and shitting–how and where it’s done, how to keep clean, how not to get it on one’s clothes.

The beauty of Field’s journal is its egoless frankness as he observes and experiments to figure these things out. He gradually decides that he must get a suit of the clothes that Afghans wear, and once he’s brave enough to wear a turban and figures out how to tie it, it helps him with the sun and wind, with blending in and getting around. At first he often complains of thirst, before deciding, “The solution is to adapt to the dryness. You have to accept the thirst.”

He finds his quasi-underground Sufis—after asking a religious-looking bearded man in the street three times, “like in a fairy tale.” He’s directed to a khanega, or dervish house. He attends the ceremonies of two different sects, the Chishti, who make music like jazz to public spectators; and the Naqshe, who chant privately but allow him to join in. Through activities like these the dervishes enter ecstatic states. A chanter expels the breath; “Hoo!” then on the intake gasps the name of Allah, rhythmically, without ceasing, all night until dawn.

It’s not clear whether he finds sex. His journal is too discrete to be sure. But as a gay man, simply being in a society comfortable with public displays of affection between men is revelatory for him. He makes many male friends to whom he’s attracted. He flirts with them, they touch his feet with theirs at night on a stopover; he holds their hands and kisses them on the mouth.

He does find his hotel on the rushing river, in the northernmost part of Afghanistan near the border with China—where he spends the night behind French doors that open onto crashing rapids. “I woke up this morning in this incredible room, the cold river air pouring in, the sound of the torrent smashing about me.”

Does he find transformation? It’s hard to say. If this were a novel the journey would carry us on a rising arc toward some ultimate revelation. But it’s a journal. He goes through highs and lows, epiphanies and revelations. Its beauty comes from the continual real time impressions and illuminations of daily life, which might stick or get crowded out by subsequent impressions and experiences.

On the road to Faizabad he spends a night “in front of a teahouse under sycamore trees on a woven mat on the clayey ground…I lie down where I am and get up in the morning. I don’t make demands on life. Am I learning?” Still, returning from Faizabad to Kabul, “my grief overcame me. What is there to miss? Whatever that is, it’s home.”

Yet the next day after another bus has broken down, and while waiting interminably for a second bus to arrive, in a tea house with flies buzzing around, he watches a small boy play the tambour. “I’ve been fighting it, but… There’s a pleasant breeze, I’m in the shade, someone is singing and playing the tambour…Now I am content: Yes, one place is as good as another.”

You can buy the book here. It’s well worth the read.

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