The truck is literally older than John, but it lurches and lunges its way up the steep dirt road with impressive determination. Farshad drives, with John in the passenger seat gripping the glassless window frame to brace himself against the roll and jolt of shock-less suspension and soft tires. Mahyar and Houshmand ride in the back, shouting to make themselves heard with alternating comments on the passing scenery and criticisms of their brother’s driving.
When the road runs out Farshad stops the truck and they all climb down. The Afghans pull their rifles from under the truck’s seats and hang their water canteens over their shoulders. John leaves his pack and helmet, but brings his rifle and water bottle – the water’s essential, and the rifle’s as necessary to Pashtun ideas of decorum as pants are. He pulls his beret out from where it’s tucked into the shoulder tape of his body armor, slaps it open against his thigh, and puts it on. Mahyar and Houshmand are already striding up the steep, stony slope, but Farshad – mindful of his role as principal host – waits politely until John is ready to set off.
“Let’s go,” John smiles.
The sky is empty and immense, metallic blue from horizon to horizon, with the sun a small white circle high overhead. Down on the plains the heat is crippling, but up here the air is cool enough to make the strenuous hike nothing but pure pleasure. John strides out with a will, and makes fair work of keeping pace with the others, who are in no particular hurry anyway. At first they go in silence, content with private thoughts and the shared experience of the climb. After an hour or so they stop to rest – Farshad says he’s tired, which John knows is a courteous lie told for his benefit. The talk begins with the usual airing of parochial gossip and complaints, the Pashtuns ripping on the Baluchs and John ripping on the Americans. Then they move on to sport: cricket (Farshad backs India; he loathes them, but marginally less than he loathes the Pakistanis), soccer (Mahyar is the enthusiastic coach of both boys’ teams in the district, which does raise certain conflict of interest issues), and eventually rugby (John rejects the canard about buzkashi being the Afghan rugby, though he’s not sure if it’s the horses or the dead goat that make the comparison unacceptable to him).
They set off again, trading occasional remarks for a while and then lapsing back into companionable silence. After another hour of steady work they reach the top of the slope. For a moment they’re adrift on a narrow island of bare, dusty earth with nothing but sky surrounding them. Then they take a few more steps, and suddenly they’re on the other side of the peak.
“Oh my God,” John breathes.
On this side, the mountain falls away steeply, rank after rank of jagged rock going down and down and down to the plain far below. Spread out beneath them is a vast arena of low rolling hills almost completely surrounded by monstrous mountains. The earth below is a billowing patchwork of beige and brown, with a thin thread of silver bordered by precious, dark green and a few areas of urban gray.
“The Kabul River,” Farshad says, pointing. “Kabul, of course … and Jalalabad. Khyber, and Pakistan is over there.”
“My God,” John says softly.
He walks a few more steps, dazed by the sheer beauty on all sides. Farshad moves with him, quietly pleased by John’s reaction.
“My grandfather used to tell a Pashtun story,” Farshad says. “Allah made Eden for Adam and Eve; for Cain and Abel he made the Gandara valley … it was made for war. All the armies of all the empires have tried to take this place, and none has succeeded.”
“Better to be at war in Gandara than be at peace in Paradise, he used to say,” Houshmand adds.
“Amen,” John says, his eyes wide and wondering. “Amen to that, I say.”