In Khost Province by Martin Kovan

mkovanMartin Kovan completed graduate studies in English at Sydney University and UC Davis. His poetry, prose and non-fiction have been published in Australia by Cordite Poetry Review, Overland Journal, Antithesis, Tirra Lirra, Colloquy, Westerly, Peril Magazine, Group Magazine, and Southerly, and in a number of publications overseas. He has lived for long periods in Europe, India and SE Asia, and also works in academic ethics and philosophy.



In Khost Province

The roads—still mostly unpaved. I’ve always thought I’d get used to the shuddering, the relentless jarring of the bones. All the other places—always the same. (In Iraq, Markus said he got haemorrhoids, not from sitting on rubble, on broken concrete for sometimes hours at a time, in the middle of a hotzone, waiting for the free exit. He got them from the days, weeks, travelling on the rutted, desert roads.) Not sandy, not lush or smooth, not a movie-scape, there, or here. I’ve been in deserts, as full of waves as the sea—but not here, in the waking world. I’ve travelled through them in dreams.

More than a hundred kilometers, now, in the valley due south from Kabul. The rise of the mountains in the west, and further, towards Pakistan. The city I can’t describe—mythical, like so many cities here, minarets rising above poplars and fruit trees—but I can see it, in my mind’s eye, I work in images, in planes of shape cut by shadow, the way a human face breaks the formal mode and lets life break in. Life—breaking in, despite all the denial.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a coloured mural, a thing of wonder in Kandahar, a dream-evocation of democracy, the rich blues and greens promising Ballot not Bullet, in English and Pashto, a dove with an olive branch, the ballot-box an emerald gem-stone. It was like Berlin 1989, all over again, my first commission, the release, the promise, the promise, but here, now, more than twenty years of knowing this country, it was a dream blooming before me, school children walked by, talking and laughing, in clean laundered salwar kameez, young, unknowing, knowing too much. I took the shot, caught, stole the colour, the promise—sent everywhere, in every direction, far from Afghanistan.

I don’t know what is in the children’s minds, not really. We travelled to Khost with the convoy for the voting materials, from Kabul, under armed escort. I already know the country is full of betrayal—but I trust the children. So many of them are taken away—not always stolen in person, but their minds held hostage. The madrassas like toxic mushrooms, sprouting all over, I’ve seen them, the young girls like crows, full body chador, floating menaces in the streets, also young, too young. I didn’t photograph them, not out of respect for Islam, but their virginal modesty. Nor a disrespect for the religion, either—I respect the will of the person, of the woman to live as she wills. But these ones are so young, they can’t know what they want; they only know what they are terrorized to believe. I defended, lately in the press compound, that word—’terrorized’, that is so over-used. A mind that swims, at first, in innocence, can only experience that force of authority as a violence. It kills what is alive, what is already free, in it. There is no such thing as a moderate religious fundamentalism. Or, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen a lot—but not that.

I’ve seen the violence, of it, instead, in all these places. I saw it in Germany, as a child, long after the war, but deep in the denial, in the fear of facing the past. The schoolmasters who ridiculed my carrying a camera around. There was no time for art, they said, in the new Germany. I was sixteen, I didn’t know anything; only one thing: that with the camera I could, when nothing else could, identify, and capture, the truth. Not words; not politics, and it was still years before the Wall would come down. For a decade before then, I wandered the streets on assignment; small-town scandals, accidents, winter festivals. Whatever kind of truth, it was still the truth. Higher stakes now; and truth has become the truth, more than anything, of trust.

It is dry, but threatens rain. The foothills rise up like long, elongated birds in the distance. I don’t think so much about the National Army soldiers who accompany us here; they are quiet, like we are. We left Khost an hour ago, I don’t expect trouble here. I also know not to trust my expectations—but I’ve kept paranoia at bay all these years by not making a dogma out of it. There are always exceptions—which often prove the rule. I’m a believer—in my unbelief.

Always the people that draw me, out there on the roads. The elderly faces, as well as the young ones. Woman now by the roadside, carrying bound kindling on her back. A young man on a pony, catching her up. There are all these stories, biblical ones—but I don’t seek the narrative so much as the stills of realization, in the faces, the eyes, especially. A vast story within something that is already epic. You can’t see it on TV, in a three second newsbite. You can see it in large-format print, silent on a gallery wall. Berlin, two years ago—a moment of truth, as the cliché goes. How many moments…passed now. This one…and this.

We’re coming to the edge of Tani; a voting-station will be set up here, we’ll cover this new ‘moment of truth’ for the Afghan people. What will it bring? I don’t know, not yet. I only hope no threats, no suicide-bombs. Already last month in Kabul, two journalists killed. I can’t call them by name, anymore; the shock has been nearly as deadly, for all of us. I knew them too well, to know them in death. We don’t speak of them, now, under armed guard.

I’m not alone, never alone. A woman, a friend, braver than I am, just here, doing what I do in words, the words that escape me, but not the image. There is a security there, in the image, held in its frame: nothing can escape, and also, nothing can invade it: it is inviolable. When I cut the frame, I control the life it holds: it is contained, at long last. Also—safe; I bestow care, and compassion, on the image, the reality it exposes: everything there, left to the world to see, naked, disclosed life, but set free in safety. That’s something I do—the act of a mother, maybe. Not needing children, myself, already having so many, set loose in the world, in frame, enframed by the care I took in the conception, in the nurture, and in the letting go. Has that been my job, all along? To let the truth—of all this—free into the world, as joy? Then an alchemy, when I’ve got it right—a transformation of, often, base lead into gold, a living gold of the heart, of life, one that can’t be stored away or hoarded as capital, because it can only live in its freedom. That’s what, on good days, the work has been.

Not having ever really thought about it. I don’t think; I see, and hold, forever, what I see. Then I let it go, reconfigured. That’s enough, I think.

It’s strange though, to let the image float free, right out into the ether, across the feeds and the online networks, when I am myself surrounded by armed protection. The irony: my images more free than I am, who gave them birth. Would I be free at all, without my camera? I could go back home, and stay there, out of harm’s way. I could…and forget what it is to be alive. I don’t know. We do what we’re called to do. Schicksal. ‘Mein Schicksal’—too funny. I laugh when things are so true that they can never be understood.

The check-point ahead. We have passes, the right documentation, everything is in order. Like the Wall before the Fall. Like all walls—you have to merge through them, like a ghost, like liquefaction. I would like the car to stop so I can get out and take some shots of the dirt road leading up to the point of entry; the cordon of security, the men in full uniform holding subdued talk, guns slung over shoulders, the dust in the air, the smell of coming rain, that I can include only by invocation, or association, a kind of prayer. I would like to stop and pray, an unbeliever, a believer of children, in the dirt, stop and, even, a real surrender, lay down the camera. But I can’t, can’t say this even, to the driver, or my colleague; we are each silent in our—what is still called here—kismet: each in their fated world.

I am in this one, still here, the car stopping, now, for the police patrol. They are national servicemen, in our service, serving our freedom, our safety, that of their fellow countrymen. One of the men, he could be the unit commander, comes to the car, speaks now, I want to hear, I can’t hear, I can only see, I have the image, in my mind’s eye, I have caught it, it is conceived, the stillness of it, the eternal frame in my line of sight, he raises a gun to us, inside the car, faces down, he prays, too, says out loud Allahu Akbar! The caught image, life, breaking in, is mine—is free.
(In memoriam Anja Niedringhaus, killed April 4th, 2014, Khost Province, Afghanistan)