My taxi driver white-knuckled his way down a boulevard in central Kabul toward a checkpoint up ahead. He was stressed, and I was hoping that his obvious anxiety wouldn’t prompt a search as we passed through. The tires clunked over gaping potholes and my driver steered erratically down the street. It wasn’t just the perpetual military presence and general tension of life in Kabul that had him on edge; he also knew I was smuggling a couple bottles of booze.
It was 2012, and I was in Afghanistan on a video assignment for a few months during the bleak, windswept winter. It was my first time in a war zone in a strictly Islamic republic. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had thinned out, but the American military presence was still pervasive. This hardly lent a feeling of safety—the opposite, actually. A few factions of Taliban loyalists regularly fired mortars from the surrounding mountains, aiming to rattle Kabul, but with little success. They did, however, succeed with occasional suicide and car bombings in the Westerner-friendly commercial centers. But more often, the casualties of these attacks were Afghan civilians.
Because I was the project’s producer and therefore in charge of taking care of my crew, I had to supply my fellow foreigners with certain creature comforts that I felt were necessary in such a place—decent long-term housing in our own walled compound, a live-in cooking crew for three hot meals each day, and, of course, libations. Eight of us had traveled to Kabul from the U.S., and we had unanimously agreed our endeavor would be far more successful without a security detail, relying instead on the help of our local Afghan fixers and other members of the community. In those conditions, comfort for my crew was a top priority.
The driver and I pulled over at the checkpoint. I was unsure of how laws were enforced here, but I had been told by other journalists that Westerners were legally allowed to bring two bottles, or two liters, of alcohol into Afghanistan.
I looked up to find multiple assault rifles pointed at my head and chest
The driver was one who specifically hauls Westerners around Kabul. He had picked me up from the Italian Embassy earlier that evening, and I was carrying a paper bag concealing two bottles of exceptional Barolo. I also had whiskey on my breath from a quick session behind closed doors with the Italians. My travels have led me to one conclusion: Man will imbibe and escape immediate reality, no matter the cost or consequence. I hadn’t told the driver what was in the bag when he asked me at the pickup location. I simply replied, “It’s a gift for a friend.” But he knew my answer was bullshit, because of the alcohol on my breath and the obvious shape of the bag, and the clink of the bottles inside it.
Several armed Afghan National Security Force soldiers approached the vehicle. I sat tight, but the driver began skittishly speaking in Dari to one of them outside his window. I could only assume he was covering his ass and throwing me under the bus, and he had every right to. Two soldiers pulled me from the front passenger seat of the vehicle, and knowingly pulled the paper bag out from beneath the passenger seat. I was tossed into a ditch that ran along the street where a sidewalk could’ve been. After the first few moments of being roughed up and yelled at in a language I didn’t really understand, I looked up to find multiple assault rifles pointed at my head and chest. I pictured spending months if not years in an Afghan jail, all for smuggling two bottles of Barolo.
After a tense few minutes, the company commander had the soldiers ease up on me, as he lectured me about alcohol and the laws against it in Afghanistan. He threatened me with harsh punishment should I be caught doing this again. He then turned and walked away. The soldiers picked me up and put me back in the passenger seat with my booze, instructed the driver to take me back to my compound, and off we went. I was confounded. The drive back was awkward, and I could feel the driver silently damning me.
Do you want to try Afghan drink?
Once back at the compound, shaken by the prospects of Afghan prison, my colleagues enjoyed the wine as I regaled them with the tale of what happened en route. We had two fixers at the compound with us that evening: Aziz, who spoke flawless English; and Farhad, who spoke broken English. (Names have been changed to protect the fixers’ identities.) They worked in tandem, securing our filming locations and negotiating deals with the local government, federal government, and property owners.
At the end of the evening, with the two bottles of wine dusted, and the few scattered cans of Tuborg kaput, Farhad and Aziz approached me before heading out for the night. Aziz translated for Farhad: “Do you want to try Afghan drink?”
“What? What’s ‘Afghan drink?’”
“A spirit—made from the green raisins you have been eating.”
“Meet me at the Flower Street Cafe tomorrow at 12 o’clock, and we will make an arrangement,” Farhad said.
Apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson after the dust-up at the checkpoint. Earlier in the evening, Aziz had made me aware that anyone—Westerner or Afghan—caught smuggling or consuming large amounts of alcohol could face penalties in accordance with Sharia law: considerable fines, jail time, skin-splitting lashes, and deportation. The penalties differ per person, per offense.
The following morning, I ambled down to the Flower Street Café for some Kabuli eggs and Persian coffee. I got there early enough so I could bail before Farhad and Aziz arrived if my nerves got the best of me. Farhad showed up early, and he was alone. Aziz wouldn’t be coming because he was working, Farhad told me in his broken English. Wonderful. I followed him out to the street where a van and driver were waiting.
Thirty minutes into the ride, winding through trenched dirt roads and old, fringe neighborhoods whose residents have probably never seen an American civilian, Farhad said we were close. We were in rural Kabul Province, on the outskirts of the city, near the base of the towering, snow-capped Hindu Kush.