The Kabul Scarf

The "exit" isn't there by accident.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and last night my colleague at Waging Nonviolence, Eric Stoner, returned safely from Afghanistan. He was there as a journalist and activist with an envoy of peacemakers, meeting networks of Afghans and internationals who are working to end the endless war, to which so many young people in that country have never known any alternative.

He brought back a sack full of Afghan scarves, and offered me my pick of them. The one I chose, the yellow one, is what I’m wearing now. What the picture doesn’t show, but which was the first thing I noticed when I put it on, is the smell. One scarf smells strongly; the smell of Eric’s sack of them is tremendous. He didn’t notice it when he was in Kabul, because everything smells this way there. With my scarf on, I’m carrying that city with me today, into the new year. I’m breathing the city that my country has occupied for nearly a decade now.

I can try to describe it, but I’ll never succeed. It’s a bit like the smell of a wood fire, but there’s much more too. There’s also the trace of burning trash, which people use to supplement their insufficient wood and coal, for heat and cooking. There’s smog in it too, from a city where people can’t afford anything but the lowest-grade gasoline in cars, and where the snow-capped mountains all around trap it in. There’s also dust, because the cars are driving over mostly unpaved roads. And there’s the hint of unnamable filth, from the scattered sewers that run along the roads, open to the air. This would be just unsanitary in a city of thousands. But Kabul has swelled to four million, thanks to impoverished refugees pouring in from the war-ravaged countryside, their ancestral land lost and trading good, clean air for what I’m smelling now.

In late 2001, I met a woman who worked at the Pentagon. When she learned I had been protesting the invasion, she argued with me. She said, as we parted, that someday I’d understand that this was right. I’d get over it. Well, I still don’t. I haven’t.

The year to come will only really be new if we make it that way. Let our mere prayers for peace be made acceptable by our actions, by our willingness to shed the pride and importunity that keeps us trying to have our way with drone strikes and night raids. They will fail. There is no victory from making widows and orphans. In a new year made truly new, we will no longer accept the waste and horror of war as the policy of normalcy. We will stop trying to take what isn’t ours. We will starve the bottomless hunger for revenge, and sit down with our enemies, and eat together.

Let God be the first to know, and Congress second: it’s a new year. War, the demon-mother of poverty, is no good in our sight, and we are the ones who can stop it. This year, may the four million human beings in Kabul breathe clean air again. Amen; let this be done.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.