It was a bright October morning in Kabul, a few years prior to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The sky was cloudless, a polished blue dome that matched the lapis necklace my wife had haggled for in Mazār-i-Sharīf. We walked through the cobbled back-streets of the city to the Iranian consulate to arrange our transit visas for the journey back to Europe. The air was crisp and we were glad to be wrapped our Afghan sheepskin coats.
When we arrived at the consulate the massive wrought-iron entry gate was chained shut, and an irate throng of gesticulating Afghan men had gathered in the street in front of it. Two nervous policemen with batons in their hands stood guard between the gate and the restless crowd, and when they caught sight of us they hurriedly motioned us forward. The situation looked like it might turn ugly, but at the same time we had to get our visas. We had already bought our tickets to Istanbul and the bus was due to leave the following morning, with us or without us. I took my wife’s hand and we threaded our way through the crush of bodies. A few of the men gave us hard looks, but they grudgingly moved out of our path. A narrow metal door was set into the bottom of the gate behind the policemen, shoulder-width at best, with a steel-mesh view port at eye level. A pair of suspicious eyes studied us carefully, and then the door opened inward just enough so we could sidle through.
Behind us the Afghans stamped their feet and shook their fists in the air. We were greeted by a pot-bellied Iranian consular official in a white shirt and tie with sweat stains under his arms. We explained that we were in need of transit visas and he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “That way,” he said hoarsely. “Visa section. Follow the signs.” He returned to his view port and stared out at the mob with obvious unease.
“What are they so upset about?” I asked.
“They desire work permits,” he replied. His English was impeccable. “They take jobs in Iran, carpentry, labourers.” He spat on the ground. “Most of them are rogues and miscreants. Smugglers and petty thieves. The government has put a new quota system in place. These ones won’t get permits.” He shook his head. “So they are angry.”
A babble of voices erupted from the street, increasing in volume, and the sound of fists pounding on the gate reverberated through the morning air. A dusty leather sandal sailed over the gate and landed at our feet, followed by several more. A flock of pigeons roosting on the compound wall exploded into flight and vanished into the sky. The narrow door squealed open and the two policemen squeezed through, dragging two folding plastic chairs with them. The consular official cursed beneath his breath, kicked the door shut behind them and shot the bolt that secured it to the gate. He yanked a radio from his back pocket and yelled into it.
The gravel entry road curved roughly a hundred metres from the main gate to where the first of the embassy buildings were situated on meticulously landscaped lawns. Its entire single-lane length was flanked by ten-foot high mud-brick walls, and was bordered by a line of low shrubs interspersed with thin, scraggly trees. I grabbed my wife by the hand and we sprinted toward the embassy grounds. The two policemen raced past us a second later, followed quickly by the consular official who was still jabbering into his radio. He was remarkably fleet of foot considering his girth. I glanced over my shoulder and watched the entire gate sway to and fro in slow-motion before it buckled inwards, partially torn from its hinges. A ragtag mob of Afghans surged through the gap and pounded down the road toward us. I lifted my wife up bodily and threw her behind the largest shrub I could see, then leapt off the road after her. Our backs were against the brick wall, and the stream of howling men thundered by right in front of us. Two of them were waving the policemen’s folding chairs over their heads, and to my astonishment I saw that many of them were laughing aloud as they ran. Turbans unraveled as they charged toward the embassy, shoes and sandals came off, shawls flew through the air, and they hollered and laughed as though the whole escapade was just a good old-fashioned Pashtun romp.
A pair of embassy pick-up trucks emerged from behind the buildings and skidded to a hard halt nose-to-nose, blocking the the road. Uniformed security guards spilled out of them and formed a defensive perimeter, holding automatic rifles at the ready. An officer with a megaphone shouted something at the crowd, and the flock of Afghans gradually shuffled to a halt, looking at one another a bit sheepishly, as though embarrassed about the whole thing. They milled around for a moment or two, then turned and trooped slowly back toward the damaged gate, gathering up their abandoned turbans, shoes and shawls along the way. One or two of them winked and grinned good-naturedly at us as they traipsed past our hiding spot. Our transit visas were stamped into our passports a few hours later, and we waved a sad goodbye to Kabul the next day.
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his three pieces for Memoirist, Island Fever, And Yener Danced and Herat, 1968
Lawrence Morgan was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize, April 2020.