A journalist by the name of Foley was beheaded, the news of which swamped the fact that a foreigner was similarly treated on the main road to the airport in Kabul today. An event that has suddenly put everyone on their toes. But I had an appointment to have an ultrasound done. So off down town we went, caught in traffic and mindful that anyone out there just might be interested in targeting a foreigner. Especially a wandering one. For while we had an address, it was not such an obvious place to find. As with so many markets and shopping centres in the Middle East shopping enclaves are built around a specific product. If you want to buy water pumps there will be 24 shops in a particular stretch of road that sell water pumps. Nearby will be shops selling pipes, then shops selling valves. If you want second hand Seiko watches that last ticked in 1974 there are 17 shops at a particular square the owners of which will be happy to look after you. Flower Lane. Butcher Street. Near the square that feeds onto the street leading to the Ministry of Interior, where guards are hypertensive, everyone watches everyone else, and the scent of fear and worry permeates the air there are dozens of shops selling stationery. Note pads. Reams of paper. Not a street of ultra sound clinics. We hold our piece of paper with the address and peer at the shops, walk to the end of the block and pause in the sun. I step around the corner and off the main road. I am about as hyper vigilant as I have ever been here and every instinct is screaming “Get off the street”. I try and look relaxed and lean against the wall while my colleague makes a call. Soldiers peer at us from across the street. The barrel of a machine gun wobbles and shifts slightly in the port of the concrete bunker in the middle of the street. An art shop vendor peers at us then ducks inside. The call is finished and we retrace our steps and turn into narrow doorway between two stationery shops. My colleague laughs and taps a faded to grey piece of Dari script that assures him we are in the right place. I have no idea. I am just happy to be off the street.
The stairs are as shattered pieces of marble as I have ever seen that stone. Sections of plaster fall from the wall even as we ascend. The window at the landing has little or no glass. Dust and rubbish pile in every corner, blown there no doubt by our ferocious winds. I push through a hanging brown blanket at the top of the stairs, the best colour to hide the dust and find myself in a crude waiting room of sorts. We show my appointment slip to a man who squats at the edge of a bench, looking like a bookie with all his little slips of paper, and take our seats behind four or five others. The carpet was here when Afghanistan last had a king, the windows have never been cleaned and the timber is mainly unpainted. Worse we look out into that square. Security is non existent. We chat for a few minutes before the doctor comes out and we stand and shake hands. He compliments me on my salam but I have to confess my Dari is non existent. He is in his sixties, quietly spoken, with good English. He apologises and explains there is a woman patient being looked at and that he will be with me as soon as possible. I urge him to take his time. He leaves us and we continue to talk. A woman, fully clad in a blue burka enters and sits opposite us, her husband too. Suddenly, with no warning she throws the burka off and chats with her husband. I am not sure what to do. Where do I look? There are other female patients with uncovered heads, but what do I do about this one? I err on the side of caution rather than run the risk of upsetting her husband and continue the conversation while looking at the floor.
Despite my protests I am immediately placed at the head of the line when the incumbent patient departs. One of the staff motion me towards the blanket hanging in the doorway which leads to the clinic. Once through I am motioned to a bed discretely hidden behind a curtain and asked to take off my shirt and lie down. A folded rag substitutes for a pillow and the mattress is one in name only. But the machinery is first rate. In this decrepit, dusty, run down two room shanty hum modern ultrasound machines and computers and printers.
The doctor starts pushing his ultrasound head around my abdomen. I am there to have one specific section of my chest checked but he decides, possibly for his four students, that “While you are here we might as well do everything” so walks the machine around every organ he can find, pointing to the students, who peer over his shoulder, what to make of this and what to make of that. Kidneys. Liver. Spleen. Duodenum. Upper. Lower Intestine. Stomach. Pancreas. In the middle of it all he tells me of his training in Germany, how he is the head of radiology at X hospital and that this is his family business. And that he has family in Sydney. He then declares to his audience that “he has the prostate of an 18 year old” Nice to know (I think) especially given that I was not there to have this checked. All the students seem pleased on my behalf but I ungraciously think “I bet he says that to all the boys”. Yet he is beautifully courteous and offers me tea which I accept and decline. He has a business to run, I remind him, and there are patients out there waiting to see him who are waiting an extra period of time because of me. He is visibly pleased with my diplomacy. We shake hands and he refuses payment so when his back is turned we pay his clerk out the front and make our way down the dusty and broken stairs and back out onto the street. From there we decide to drop around a couple of city blocks to the enclave where pipes and PVC fittings are sold. It’s next to the block of one hundred shops that sell ceramic bathroom fittings – toilets and hand basins. We need to buy some PVC tubing and so find ourselves sitting in a store drinking tea and eating caramel sweets watching Kabul walk past, beheadings forgotten. Besides, turning down two offers of tea in one day would be bad form indeed.
Diary 20 August 14