Back in the USSR in the 1980s, my schoolteacher warned me that if I didn’t study hard, I’d get drafted into the army and sent to die in Afghanistan. I studied hard. I moved to America. Twenty years later, I found myself in Afghanistan anyway.
After finishing my PhD in Biophysics, I realized that I didn’t envy my professors’ jobs. Instead of continuing on in academia, I shipped out to Jalalabad in December 2010 to join the Synergy Strike Force.
The SSF was assembled by a neuroscientist named Dave Warner, who has spent the past decade trying to apply science and communications to the problems of poverty and isolation, particularly in war-torn regions. The primary goal of the group in Jalalabad was to blanket the city with internet, to teach residents how to keep the internet functioning. The group was technically unaffiliated with the US government, but Dave had many contacts in the military, particularly at DARPA, and they knew we were there.
We operated “outside the wire,” that is, not inside the big military base on the outskirts of Jalalabad. We lived at the Taj Mahal Guest House, where the SSF had set up a powerful internet broadcasting system. Antennas on the roof beamed wireless signals to the tallest water-tower in the center of town. The signals reached hospitals, schools, and individual homes via a mesh network of aging routers and makeshift tin-can antennas. This citywide network had been assembled by local geeks trained at the Afghan Fab Lab. A few of the local geeks now worked with the SSF at the Taj Mahal.
When I first met Sudir he was about to graduate from Nangarhar University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. His side hobbies in DIY computer networking, solar power installation, and blogging set him apart from other Afghan boys. Sudir had a spry demeanor and the physical frame of someone who prefers running to walking. A few weeks after we met, he noticed that I wasn’t getting any exercise and invited me to play pickup basketball with his friends. I had played some basketball in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, so of course I said yes.
The only basketball court in town was at Nangarhar University. Since the school was short on space, the court saw many uses. At sunrise and sunset it was a mosque. During exam time, the court was lined with desks and littered with cheat sheets. We’d clear the desks only to slip on schematics of chemical reactions annotated in Pashto. Beside the court, some Nangarhar University students lived in windowless spaces that resembled maintenance closets. There they did their laundry and defecated beneath the stands.
Most of the Afghan basketball players stepped on the court barefoot; a few wore sandals, others worn-out dress shoes. The vast majority of them wore traditional Afghan baggy pants that Pashtuns call partoug and the American soldiers have nicknamed “man jammies.” In time, the hazy fog of Afghan players coalesced into human beings with names: Big Boy Nasrat, Fleet-footed Sudir, Haji Najib, Young Azar, Engineer Izatullah, Lefty Ashoq.
Sudir and his friend Najib stood out. They wore shiny yellow sneakers embroidered with the logo of Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee. The shoes had been distributed at the national basketball tryouts in Kabul the previous year; Sudir and Najib were among the participants. From the moment I laid eyes on those shoes, I wondered what it would take to get a pair.
Najib and I had a special connection; we both spent the ’80s in the Soviet school system. After the Mujahideen killed his father, who served as an officer in the Afghan National Army, Najib was raised in an orphanage in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. He’d lived in half a dozen countries and learned a number of languages, including my native Russian.
In the late 1990s, during the regime of the Taliban, Najib returned to Jalalabad to reunite with his mother and extended family. At the age of 31, he was now married with three small children.
Soon after we met, Najib became my driver, translator, and primary confidant. I relied on his insights and commentary while navigating Afghanistan.
You can learn a lot about a culture from how it plays sports. In Jalalabad, the overall court manner was selfish. The players rarely passed to their teammates, preferring to run head-on into a crowd with a prayer that something spectacular would happen. Instead of giving every call the benefit of the doubt, they argued vehemently for their side.
The bigger player tended to win, and the biggest player was Nasrat. His behavior was disruptive. At the second game, I confronted him over ball possession and immediately regretted it. I feared that I had initiated a showdown with the alpha male without having shored up support. Remarkably, Nasrat relinquished the ball without argument. He brought a whistle to the next match, and handed it to me, thereby conferring on me the role of trusted arbiter.
The court was in the ground path of an active runway at the US military Forward Operating Base Fenty. (It later served as the launching point for the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan.) Like expert birdwatchers, we learned to identify the low flying specimens by their beaks, tails, and plumage. We distinguished the subspecies of drone (Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk) by their tail configurations. The military helicopters flew in twos or threes. The terrifying Apaches, sleek Blackhawks, and monstrous Chinooks circled around, and occasionally I thought I could make out a hand waving from the cockpit. The big-bellied blue transport helicopters, owned by a Canadian firm that Americans code-named “Molson Air,” always flew alone. Less frequent visitors were the charters and cargo planes from Defense Flight Services, Embassy Air, and the United Nations. The rarest bird of all was the military jet.
Along with a young Englishman named Rory Brown, the only other foreigner playing on the Nangarhar court, I joined the Afghans in watching this dizzying aerial diversity with the awe-filled, wide-eyed stares that little boys reserve for heavy machinery and fire trucks. The drones were almost never out of sight, whether coming, going, or circling overhead. At first, their extremely loud engines puzzled me. But when the continuous buzzing became too commonplace to notice, I realized it was persistence, not stealth, that was their true strength.
A couple of months after our first pickup game, Sudir and Najib told me that a call had come from Kabul. The Afghanistan National Basketball Federation (ANBF) was organizing a tournament and had invited our team to represent Nangarhar Province. They asked me to come along as their coach. Our conversation went something like this:
– You realize that I know nothing about coaching.
– . . . still probably more than we know about being coached.
– All I have to offer is common sense.
– It might work well in combination with what we’ve got.
– I need time to consider.
– There is no time. The tournament is less than two weeks away.
Given the short notice, we had, at most, ten days of practice. I was worried about taking time away from the Synergy Strike Force but Dave Warner encouraged me to give basketball “all the time that it needs.” I called up Rory, the Englishman, and he was in, too.
Big Boy Nasrat—moody, bellicose, and belligerent—became our official team captain. The tallest among us, he was naturally suited for center. Instead, Nasrat fashioned himself a point guard. He dubbed us the Nangarhar Stars, ignoring the team’s opinion that the name was pretentious.
Security posed a challenge. The most deadly terror act in Jalalabad since 2001 had occurred just a few days earlier. Several recent graduates of Taliban training camps located in Pakistan had crossed the border, walked into the main branch of Kabul Bank wearing Afghan National Police uniforms, shot civilians and police officers who were collecting their salaries, then successfully blended with the victims and detonated suicide vests during the rescue operation. Two guards at the Taj Mahal Guest House lost their brother in the attack.
Living “outside the wire” meant being responsible for our own safety. Avoiding patterns was one of our core principles. We didn’t plan far in advance, and we didn’t advertise our movements ahead of time. Ten consecutive days of practice would constitute an unmistakable pattern. Therefore Rory and I decided to implement an experimental scheduling strategy and test the team’s battle preparedness at the same time. The two of us would agree on the time in advance but only share it with Sudir and Najib half an hour before practice. This triggered a series of calls: “Drop what you are doing and come play ball!”
To be less conspicuous, Rory and I came independently. We arrived in our Corollas with a basketball in the trunk. These elaborate precautions failed to deter our most frequent visitors, a pack of boys who seemed to emerge from the lot itself and whom I came to recognize in time. When a new face appeared in the crowd, however, I’d watch the person carefully and review the quickest escape route in my head: Jump over the stands. Luckily, at least at this time, these were harmless and excitable boys who cheered us on and fetched water for the players. After much coaxing, one of them, Azar, joined us on the court.
Rory and I had never coached a team before but we tried to cultivate a team mentality. We used a collective vocabulary even when addressing individual players: “Nasrat, you are the tallest and strongest, and your team needs you to rebound under the basket.” We asked players to value their contribution to the whole above individual performance. We tallied assists instead of baskets.
This message of team spirit had to stew in a pot of languages. We were in an ethnically Pashtun region where the most common language was Pashto. Dari, a dialect of Persian, is Afghanistan’s other official language. Rory, who was the regional manger for the Afghan NGO Safety Office and had studied languages at Oxford and in the region, was able to converse with the players in their own tongues. I communicated through an intermediary language—either English or Russian, depending on whether Sudir or Najib was closer. They were fitting translators, since they were also the natural leaders of the team.
Najib had previously played on a school basketball team at an orphanage in Tashkent, and later honed his street-ball skills in Kiev. He was worldly by Afghan standards, but among Muslims his biggest credential was having made a pilgrimage to Mecca. This earned him the designation Haji Najib. When he had the ball, his teammates shouted “Haji” instead of “pass,” and the stands cheered “Haji!” when he scored.
The ten practices ran like chapters in the CliffsNotes version of what Rory and I had to teach. Each session was divided in two: review drills with a revolving daily focus on a particular skill—jumping, layups, shooting, picks, or crossovers—were followed by scrimmage, where we expanded our repertoire of offensive plays and defensive strategies. Elaborating on the theme of team mentality, we introduced the concept of the huddle. The boys gathered around to pause, rest, and reflect on our play. Above all, we tried to inculcate respect for the referee. Rory, who had to stay in Jalalabad but would be with us in spirit, warned that arguing with the referee in the tournament would hurt the whole team.
On the eve of our departure, Sudir and Najib paid me a late call at the Taj Mahal Guest House. In the trunk of Najib’s car were a dozen shiny new yellow tracksuits with Afghanistan’s flag and the Olympic logo. And, better yet, matching indoor soccer shoes for our ramshackle, partly barefoot team. “We just got these through Nasrat,” they said. “Try them on and choose your size. You get first pick.”
I was very moved. As I tried on a uniform, Najib mentioned rumors about an impending roadblock on the western edge of town, where the highway to Kabul passes by the university. Tensions between local factions of strongmen and Governor Sherzai—an outsider who was governor of Kandahar before Hamid Karzai appointed him to the helm of Nangarhar—had long been brewing. Seizing upon the sense of insecurity in the aftermath of the Kabul Bank incident, the opposition united in accusing the governor of failing to protect his people and offered themselves as alternate protectors and arbiters of justice. This meant setting up roadblocks outside town.
I had been trapped by a roadblock at the university before. Men in civilian clothes, armed with Kalashnikovs, corralled students and unwitting car passengers onto buses headed for the center of town. Everyone was let off at the center, where they formed a “protest.” If the rumors proved true, tomorrow the protesters would be demanding a public execution of the captured insurgent from the Kabul Bank bombing.
We evaded the blockade by leaving for Kabul before dawn, well before our scheduled 8 AM meeting with Nangarhar’s Minister of Sports, who was supposed to shake our hands, pat our heads, and send us off with a few words of wisdom. Nasrat had scheduled the meeting through his family connections, but we had a basketball tournament to get to.
Having successfully averted a delay in Jalalabad, we encountered another on the road to Kabul. Driving in Afghanistan is like playing a perpetual game of chicken with people who don’t place much value on their lives. Drivers plow into oncoming traffic with only a prayer for a plan to merge back into the flow of traffic in their own lane. And when they can’t, they either crash or stall, leaving the other vehicles on the road frozen for kilometers. Najib shrugged off the several-hour delay necessary to dismantle the gridlock. “In Afghanistan we call this face to face.” He grinned devilishly. “During the time of the Taliban we did not have such encounters. Everyone kept to his lane.”
By the early afternoon, we were flying down a crumbling road in a progressively narrowing canyon. An hour later we wound up through the treacherous switchbacks of Kabul Gorge. Burnt-out tanker carcasses and mangled passenger vehicles were scattered cliffside, but we managed to get through.
The old city in Kabul is a living testament to the civil war that ravaged Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal created a vacuum of power and an overabundance of arms. Many buildings are still in ruins or without electricity. In the dead center of the city’s Olympic complex, run by the Afghan National Olympic Committee to train future Olympians, lies Ghazi Stadium, the preferred venue for public executions during the time of the Taliban.
A spiked iron fence, adorned with Olympic rings, encloses the soccer stadium and half a dozen other specialized gymnasiums. Only one Afghan has ever won an Olympic medal, but the confident athletes crisscrossing the quad in shiny tracksuits—rushing to archery, taekwondo, or soccer practice—clearly intended for this record to change.
The basketball arena itself was approximately the size of my high school gym in Newton, but by Jalalabad’s standards it was truly Olympic. Preparations for the tournament were still underway. Climbers without safety harnesses draped a banner from the rafters that welcomed us to the “Etisalat Basketball Cup.” (Etisalat is an Emirates-based cell phone company.) A huge poster behind the scoring table displayed a life-size stock photo of basketball players contesting the ball in mid-air. Their jerseys had Chinese characters and the players didn’t look like Afghans. The tagline read: “Champion Clubs from All over the Afghanistan!” We filed onto the court, tracking along mud and snow from the street.
There were eight teams in the tournament. Kabul fielded four of them: Kabul Municipality and Samandar Club, who were legitimate teams; and the Fireflies of Kabul and Logar Club, who were assembled to give young and developing players some tournament experience. The other four teams were from Afghanistan’s scattered provinces: Mazar-i-Sharif in the North, Kandahar from the South, Herat in the West, and our team, from Jalalabad, to the East.
Mazar-i-Sharif is in the Balkh Province of northern Afghanistan, bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Most of the players were ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks, skinny and tall, young and cheerful, either in their last year of high school or first year of college. They sported spiky, disheveled hair reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog. I asked whether this was the result of a team outing to a salon. Their best English speaker introduced himself as Mury Emo and proudly informed me that he cut his own hair. “Emo, is that short for something?” I asked. “No, but Mury is short for Murtazo. Emo is what my friends call me because I listen to the Fall Out Boys.”
Kandahar is a southern Pashtun stronghold, and its players did not look particularly ready. They were either very fat or very thin. They carried themselves with the air of grownups wearing shorts for the first time. One of the players refused to shake my hand. The captain, who spoke broken English, explained politely, “He thinks you are a foreign infidel.”
The team from the western province of Herat, near Afghanistan’s border with Iran, actually looked like a basketball team. They were tall, athletic, healthy, and walked with the cocky swagger of the jocks in my high school. With a hint of resentment in his voice, Najib told me that they were Farsiwans, ethnically similar to the Persians of eastern Iran. They were the only team with corporate sponsorship. Their neon green uniforms advertised Big Bear, an Emirates-based energy drink, across their chests.
It was a long and exhausting day of meeting people, posing for the camera, showing off and slipping on the mud-slicked court. The collective hormones in the room would have fueled us through the night, but I corralled the team back to the hotel for some R & R.
From the windows of our hotel you could see the “eye in the sky,” an intelligence-gathering aerostat that looked like a big balloon hanging over the city, peering back at you through its mechanical eye and mesh of image recognition algorithms. Surrounding buildings lay in ruins or stood scarred by bullets or artillery rounds. On the nearest rooftops, boys played with their captive pigeons.
Kabul is at the same latitude as Los Angeles, but at 6,000 feet above sea level it is much colder. In Jalalabad it had been a dry 70 degrees and we played basketball outdoors; here winter was in full swing, the weather wet, sleeting, and chilling to the bone. None of the Nangarhar Stars owned cold-weather gear. We hurried inside, drenched and shivering in their traditional cotton clothing. Even our thin laughter condensed in the air.
A welcoming delegation from the tournament greeted us in our room. The ANBF president, Ustaz Sabor, was accompanied by several of the Kabuli players who were helping to organize the tournament.
We sat in a circle, and after reciting a passage from the Koran to mark the start of the meeting, Ustaz apologized for the condition of the hotel. The official athlete’s dorm at the Olympic complex was still under construction and this was the best that the ANBF could offer with their budget. He welcomed us to the tournament, handed us a schedule, and invited us to the opening ceremony in the morning.
The Nangarhar Stars were allotted two rooms. Nasrat placed the larger room under his personal administration and doled out invites to share his captain’s quarters selectively. To their credit, the others banded together in rejecting his invitations. Having failed at implementing his tiered housing plan and too insecure to sleep alone, Nasrat joined the rest of the team in the smaller room.
Considering that we all slept in the same room, the toilet malfunctioned, there wasn’t any warm water, and everyone in Afghanistan takes their shoes off indoors, it didn’t smell that bad. The lucky ones got cots with squeaky springs, while the rest huddled on the floor. As if to spite the squalor, the players remained remarkably cheerful. The Kandaharis, who had the room above us, seemed to be dribbling basketballs up there, but we didn’t mind.
Suddenly, I was startled to find myself face to face with an unfamiliar character making himself at home in the room. Nasrat introduced him as Ibrahim, a fellow Pashtun from the tribal areas of Pakistan, somebody’s cousin, and our newest teammate. I was a bit unnerved by this development, but Najib assured me that he checked out. Ibrahim turned out to be our best player: calm and disciplined with the ball, adept at drawing fouls and making free-throws.
Our starting forward, Engineer Izatullah, had washed our uniforms before leaving warm, sunny Jalalabad, but hadn’t had time to dry them. We jumped on the beds and whipped each other with the moist jerseys—a rare carefree moment in the players’ difficult lives. Sudir grabbed me excitedly to ask whether Americans ever have fun like this. A seasoned veteran of fun, he expressed concern that Americans were incapable of similar shenanigans: “Americans are always serious.”
Amidst the joyful clamor, someone noticed that Sudir’s armpits weren’t shaved. According to Islamic Shari’a law, a man must shave his mustache, armpits, and pubic hair. Many of the boys worried Sudir’s armpits might bring shame to the team. When Nasrat sent our youngest player, Azar, to purchase a razor, Sudir immediately turned serious, and for the duration of the tournament he wore a T-shirt under his game jersey.
When it was time for dinner, Nasrat sent Azar downstairs to fetch it. We used chunks of flat bread to scoop up Kabuli Pilau topped with fatty cuts of lamb, drank green tea overly sweetened with rock sugar, and relaxed into a food coma. This wasn’t the kind of meal a nutritionist would recommend on the eve of a tournament, but the other teams probably had the same fare. The hotel menu didn’t offer anything else.
The Taliban would not have approved of either our music or our card playing. Najib cheated, but came up with increasingly evasive justifications that grew into elaborate stories, instigating a whole group storytelling session. The Kandaharis continued dribbling basketballs upstairs. It was amazing we ever got to sleep.
The following morning, the eight teams lined up for the opening ceremony like columns in a spreadsheet. I surveyed the ranks and confirmed what I had suspected: the Nangarhar Stars were operating at a triple disadvantage. We were the oldest, shortest, and heaviest of the teams. And definitely the weirdest. Nasrat was holding our team’s banner at the head of the pack. He was beaming, wearing a #1 on his jersey and bright red knee socks. He had bought the rest of the team green ones.
On the court, a choir of girls dressed in traditional outfits that covered all but their eyes and mouth sang the national anthem. They were flanked by a team of bodyguards who ushered them off the court on the final note.
The show match was between Kabul’s premier teams: Kabul Municipality and the Samandar Club. We cheered for Samandar because it was home to our favorite player, Izat, a tall, handsome, tranquil man originally from Jalalabad who now played on the national team. He earned $250 a month as a blacksmith in Kabul. Though he could dunk, he was disturbingly thin. After sending money to his family outside Jalalabad and covering his own living expenses, there wasn’t much left for discretionary spending. A stipend from the national team helped pay for his basketball sneakers and supplemental food. Since his job wouldn’t give him time off, Izat had to quit to participate in the tournament.
We cheered Izat wildly from the stands. When the game ended, Izat approached us first. He didn’t blink when Najib and Nasrat asked him to start coaching the Nangarhar Stars without resting from his own match. That’s how we got Izat on our sideline, and with him Samandar Club’s remaining Gatorade as a hand-me-down.
Now it was our turn to step onto the court and face the team from Mazar. Wearing bright yellow uniforms and hip spiky hairstyles atop their lanky frames, they looked like anime characters.
After our pregame motivational huddle, I assumed we’d throw our hands in the air with a battle cry. Instead, Nasrat’s cousin Ibrahim led a short prayer asking Allah to grant us victory. While he prayed, the others instinctively opened their palms to the sky, and when he finished they said “amen” in unison and brought their palms to their faces in a gesture of ablution.
It almost seemed like our prayers had been answered when Nasrat won possession of the jump ball and we ran up a quick lead, which we kept through to the fourth quarter, when fatigue and foul trouble finally brought us down. The younger Mazaris ultimately won a hard-fought and evenly matched game. We parted on good terms, heartily shaking a long row of hands while iterating promises to stay in touch. Promises we’ve kept.
Most of the team went home tired but I stuck around to watch the Big Bear Club from Herat play the team from Kandahar. In their neon uniforms with black stripes, the Heratis resembled a swarm of bees. Fluid in their coordinated movements, locking down passing lanes, capturing and protecting the ball, they stung frequently while running up the score. As a display of efficiency in the use of human machinery, the Heratis’ aggressive play was a pleasure to watch, but the prospect of facing them was intimidating. They trounced the Kandaharis, 73–12. After a series of runaway dunks they pranced around like basketball demigods, gloating in the other team’s defeat.
The following morning, we faced the Fireflies of Kabul.
We all recognized that having a Pashtun game coach greatly improved the pace of communication, so Jalalabadi Izat recruited another player from the national team to share coaching duties for the match. With them at the helm, I felt very relieved, albeit a little displaced and sidelined. Freed from my coaching duties, I ran up and down along the court shouting words of encouragement.
Against the Fireflies, we again ran up a promising lead, only to wear ourselves out. We’d practiced throughout our two weeks of training with a view toward exercise and stamina-building, so we kept pushing. Run, run, run. In a tournament you need to work the clock, slowing down to conserve energy when you are winning, making the other team wear themselves out. Unfortunately, we had failed to cover this strategic point in Jalalabad boot camp. Ibrahim was the only one who had this discipline. He must have picked it up in a better training camp in Pakistan.
Again we fell prey to fouls and lack of discipline. While we were still leading in the third quarter, it almost seemed like Ibrahim could carry the whole team on his shoulders. I ran alongside the court, flailing my hands and screaming “slow down, slow down.” But such discipline takes training and isn’t born of unsolicited advice in a foreign language. When the buzzer rang, we had lost again by a narrow margin.
Prior to arriving in Afghanistan, my assumption had been that I should hide my Soviet origins, but it turned out I could not have been more wrong. Whenever I shouted in Russian, in the street or on the court, Afghans would approach me and tell me their life stories, as if I were a roving confessional.
One of the referees told me he had learned to play in Tashkent, then a part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and that his primary occupation was as a correspondent for a Canadian media outlet. He even offered me a whistle and asked me to referee the games my team wasn’t playing, but I declined.
Perhaps the officials managed to read into my agony over not being able to play. A couple of them independently hinted that the rules could be bent for our upcoming game. This prospect made me both excited and anxious. I had cycled through many roles, from puppet coach to motivator, number-one fan, bystander, and photographer; what I hadn’t done was actually play in the tournament. I could not say no.
The prospect of actually playing made me tense to the point of needing to use the bathroom, but the single one at the stadium was closed. Sudir did me the favor of asking around and returned with the explanation that the maintenance staff feared it would get too much use. I tracked down some toilet paper and did what it turned out everyone else did, as evidenced by the treacherous terrain behind the basketball stadium. As I squatted, I saw the uncanny sight of the Omar Land Mine Museum just across the fence.
Our starting power forward and laundryman Engineer Izatullah handed me a uniform, but I still needed sneakers. For no other reason than the fact that he had the coolest hair, I decided to borrow a pair from Mury Emo. They were a size and a half too big and made me feel like a clown, but I tightened the laces and stepped into the ring against the neon bees of Herat.
At our pregame huddle, I tried to set realistic expectations. Having lost our first two games we were out of the running for the quarter-finals. The chances of winning against Herat were zero. Only self-deception could even the odds. We needed to redefine our measure of success.
I suggested maximizing our total fun while minimizing the number of their runaway dunks—”Make them work for it.” This was our last game, so it was also important to give everyone an opportunity to play. These were things we could actually win at.
Most of the players responded favorably to my proposal. Nasrat seemed more dubious. But if he took offense to the suggestion of a third loss, he didn’t say so. Per our newly established tradition, Ibrahim led a quick prayer. The Kandaharis vigorously chanted “Nan-Gar-Har” from the front row, just as we cheered Kan-Da-Har for our fellow Pashtuns when they played.
I scored a couple of quick baskets and two more points from free throws, but my self-appointed priority was to protect, advance, and distribute the ball. I also took it upon myself to guard our opponents’ most arrogant dunker, who had caught an elbow earlier in the tournament and was playing with a black eye. I shared backcourt duties with Ibrahim, Najib, Sudir, and Azar, rotating frequently to keep our legs fresh.
Nasrat’s frustration was visible from the outset and only grew more intense as the game progressed. Expressing discontent that we were already down by double digits in the second quarter, he started sowing conspiracy theories. He explained the absence of an electronic scoreboard as an official scheme to rig the tournament.
“Bullshit,” I shot back. Though truth be told, weirder things were happening, and you didn’t have to go very far to see them. The seams of the very court we were playing on had literally come apart, exposing long narrow strips of bare earth. The building structure was a mere shell without foundation. Large rubber mats resting directly on the ground constituted our playing surface. Given that our home court had similar cracks in its concrete, Najib joked this might give us an advantage.
But Nasrat wasn’t amused. He argued with the referees and then yelled at them. In most tournaments this behavior would have disqualified him immediately, but by Afghanistan’s forgiving standards, it was still within the range of normal.
Nasrat was clearly tired. Instead of taking a breather on the bench, he stayed in the game and insisted on guarding the Heratis’ starting center. When Nasrat could no longer keep up, he resorted to dirtier tactics.
Engrossed as I was in the game, and trying to keep my player from dunking on me too much, I had a hard time seeing the bigger picture. The double technical foul called on Nasrat and his defender caught me by surprise. While the referees conferred on the official version of the events, Nasrat lectured our bench about what “really” happened.
Nasrat’s father was a local strongman in Jalalabad, and his family knew people in the regional Olympic Committee—that’s how we got the uniforms, and that’s why Nasrat was our “captain.” I knew that the other players on the team didn’t like Nasrat, but did fear him—not just because he was a bully, but because of what his family represented. When we were on the basketball court, some of this was forgotten or put aside. But now it came back again.
Though the foul was charged to both teams, Nasrat accused the referees of “nationalism.” He used it in the way we might use the word “racism.” “The Iranians and Northerners (Tajik, Uzbek, etc.) are ganging up on the Pashtuns,” he cried. And on the next inbound possession, he started a fight. He grabbed the nearest opponent and dragged him to the ground. It was an awkward gesture. Nasrat relied primarily on his weight to do the work but artlessly spent most of his energy in the process.
The stadium went silent. Even the Kandaharis’ chant petered away.
I watched the pile of humans grow and the ball roll away, off the court.
The fight ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Nasrat packed his yellow duffel in a huff and paraded off the court. Eventually the rest of us followed. I returned Mury Emo’s sneakers. We were disqualified.
We regrouped at the hotel. On the way, Sudir, Najib, and I stopped at the bazaar for Afghan comfort foods–teacakes, cookies, candy bars, and a case of Mountain Dew. Najib purchased ten kilos of apples and oranges.
When we arrived at the hotel room, a feast of lamb pilau was waiting. Large plates of greasy meat and stacks of flatbread were served in the traditional manner, on a vinyl cloth unfurled on the floor. For the first time Nasrat fired up the propane heaters, which he had previously derided as dangerous and expensive. Tonight, it was hard to put a price on comfort and self-preservation. Jalalabadi Izat knocked on the door, having rightly sensed that we needed him. He took a seat and silently joined the meal.
In contrast to the chaos on the court, the atmosphere in the room resembled the solemn meal accompanying a wake. It was clearly the end of something, and the meditative silence betrayed our inability to articulate exactly what.
Nasrat couldn’t endure the situation for long. He felt natural in chaos and had no use for introspection. He began again with the rhetoric that marked our exit from the tournament, but his words failed to provoke the desired reaction. His teammates were in a reflective mood, and he didn’t provide an answer to their deeper questions. I felt their eyes expectantly converge on me. The tide had turned, and I was again in charge of my team.
Playing basketball was one of the last things I thought I would do in Afghanistan. Yet, there I was, in a foreign land, in a barely comprehensible cultural landscape, in a stinky hotel, mediating an inter-ethnic conflict in the guise of a skirmish on the court.
I remembered our internet connectivity mantra at SSF: The knowledge to maintain the network must reside with its users. As an outsider, I could only hope to frame the problem and leave the solution up to them.
“We’ve come such a long way from Jalalabad,” I said. “We were invited to join a national tournament in the capital. We faced the best players in Afghanistan. We made friends with the teams from Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar. Every aspect of this experience was beyond our imagination just a few days ago.”
There was something I had to say publicly to Nasrat. Since my words were inevitably skewed by translation, I needed to speak directly and simply so that my teammates could understand.
“Nasrat, we’ve heard your accusations, but what have your actions accomplished? A good captain doesn’t make unilateral decisions, but takes care of his troops. You clearly had your personal justifications, but the impact was on the whole team.
“Consider the situation from the perspective of our Kandahari friends, the girls in the stands, or our supporters back in Jalalabad. What impression did we leave?
“Instead of honorably playing to the best of our abilities, we started a cowardly fight that we couldn’t possibly finish. We walked off the court in shame, snubbing the organizers who had invited us to Kabul and had treated us fairly, and the stadium full of our peers.
“Nasrat, in claiming to defend Pashtun honor, you disgraced it.”
With this barb delivered, I stopped. It’s possible that little of this reasoning permeated Nasrat’s hot head. But my objective wasn’t to moralize, and my intended audience was the rest of the team. I knew that, even though they agreed, none of the other players could speak so plainly to Nasrat.
Their eyes still maintained a steady gaze on me, wondering “What now?” That was no longer up to me. It really was time to remove myself from the equation.
I turned to Izat, who had been listening patiently. The whole team looked up to him. He was the kind of person you wanted around when the situation was calm and the appeal was to reason. I passed to him: What now?
That night, Izat and Haji Najib, our ambassadors, led a delegation to the Heratis’ hotel room. They were laden with peace offerings—apples, oranges, and a mixture of the remaining sweets. Given that Izat was a member of the national team, his presence provided additional legitimacy. The Heratis accepted the fruits and invited the Nangarhar Stars in for tea. Haji Najib, with his sense of humor and worldly charm, took charge. He whipped out his cell phone boombox, pressed play, and proclaimed it was time for a music party. The revelry lasted into the night, like an ecstatic ritual of allegiance between convening tribes.
The Nangarhar Stars washed their necks with cold water the following morning, packed the remaining fruit, and set out for the stadium repentant. The officials accepted us into the fold gracefully, referring to the whole affair as a valuable learning experience for everyone. Over shared pots of tea, they encouraged us to attend the final match. The tournament was won by Izat’s Samandar Club, which staged a late rally to beat the buzzing bees of Herat.
As I write, I’m sitting at the deck of my lovely home in San Francisco. My atheist friends are gathering for a Rosh Hashanah potluck. My life is full of good news. I occasionally don my shiny yellow Afghan Olympic tracksuit and matching shoes and head out for a night on the town. It is always a hit.
Half a world away, in a place with which I retain a tenuous connection, kept alive by the old laptops I gave to Sudir and Najb and the Internet infrastructure we taught them to maintain, the news is less good.
On May 20, 2012, Sudir and Najib were playing pickup ball with the usual gang and two Canadians who had joined the group after Rory and I left. A larger than usual crowd of spectators was courtside. The previous day, a Pashto news organization—the Wahdat Daily—had denounced the Canadians’ NGO as a missionary organization. Unfortunately, none of the players had bothered to read the paper.
At a certain point, someone yelled “Allah is Great!” and a nondescript group of men emerged from the crowd. They were holding cricket bats. Without fully comprehending what was happening, the basketball players banded together. But they were outnumbered and unarmed. The foreigners tried to flee by climbing over the stands, but they were caught and dragged back onto the court. University guards arrived in time to prevent any fatalities, but when they finally took command of the situation, Sudir’s arm was broken and so was the post of the basketball hoop.
The following morning, students of Nangarhar University gathered around a poster that appeared in the main quad overnight. It denounced Sudir and Najib as traitors affiliated with Western infidels. Sudir, who was born and raised in Jalalabad and had become a professor of English at the university, was no longer safe in his hometown.
On August 11, two motorcycle gunmen surrounded the car of Mehrab Saraj, the manager of the Taj Mahal Guest House and opened fire. Mehrab died from a bullet to his chest.
As I read the news, I noticed that Najib and Sudir had deleted their Facebook accounts. Our waning connection was sustained by the laptops and the internet, beaming from the Taj. SSF pretty much left Jalalabad after Mehrab was killed, and we continue to pay for the bandwidth, but I don’t know how long we can continue to do it, or how long the network we built will remain alive.
On August 21, motorcycle gunmen targeted Sudir and Najib’s car. Sudir managed to accelerate away unharmed. The rear windshield was shattered and three bullets lodged inside the cabin, including one in the driver’s seat.
Najib wrote to share a rumor of a circulating kill list with forty names. All of these people are Afghans who have been associated with Americans. His family has asked him to leave Jalalabad because his presence presents a danger to them. His cousins have split up his land with a ritual rite of inheritance, as if he were dead. An old friend of his from the orphanage in Tashkent, whom he’s found on a Russian social network, has taken him in.
Sudir’s family’s land was also confiscated, by neighbors invoking Ghanima law, which says that you can pillage the land of your enemies. Sudir had been saving earnings from his work for the SSF, but supporting his displaced family has now burned through these resources.
I don’t know what has happened with Nasrat and whether he is supporting his old teammates. As for me, their former “coach,” I sit here and read their emails helplessly. There is little that I can do. I tried to leverage our government connections to help extricate Najib, but encountered technical hitches in reconstructing the paper trail connecting him to our mission. It seems he might need to flee Afghanistan to a third country, or to a refugee camp, and file his asylum petition from there. I hope I’ll get to see him again.