A few evenings back, as I was about to close my curtains before dusk swept the city I paused to watch kids kicking a ball between them in the dirt square below. Within seconds my attention was preoccupied with a tree near the edge that seems to sustain itself on a diet of paper kites, judging by the increasing amounts strewn in its branches as the days go by. When I looked back, the kids had stopped and their eyes were diverted to the sky, where mine soon followed.

Above our heads were a flock of brown and white pigeons gracefully flapping, swooping and gliding with a haste that can only be conjured from a burst of pure joy and exhilaration – unified in the hazy, dust filled sky. The freedom was beautiful, so at peace in a city where security and honour define and restrict its people’s movement day in and day out – just meters below. I saw the birds were kept in a series of cages on the roof of a typical concrete rendered house with a precarious upper extension in the far corner of the square. An Afghan house, which is becoming a rarity as ‘Pakistan Palaces’ – gaudy, intrusive masses being built by the dozens as truckloads of bricks, dirt and materials would attest to in the diagonal plot. To live caged on the roof was but itself a privilege for the flying freedom fighters now domesticated though not without the instinct and ability to survive outside of captivity.

A man was whistling, his eyes never leaving his flock, continually waving a wand (nothing more than a net wound around the edge of a large stick given his proportions) in a circular rotation above his head – his body rotating as the flight path widened and organically altered.  This time two weeks back my assumption of the motives for the birds to return would have been superficial at best – reliable food, basic protection from the elements, company from others. Then I realised, the birds may fly removed from their holding space, but they are not free. Their release is temporary and all the while controlled. A boy, the bird keepers young assistant, stood two feet shorter and would release single aviators in spurts from his small and steady hands. It was a reunion after reunion following hostage. With each release the pace quickened, the swoops become bolder and their rotation became more sporadic – it was a game of strength in numbers.

Afghanistan is a country you need to experience to understand. Its numbers are made up by family members – of whom many never fly far from home.

Security makes movement difficult and life sometimes restrictive. I find myself on the roof more and more. Tonight I look down, and out, on thousands of lives being played out. The local wedding hall is a mysterious shadow at night, draped in its green and blue ‘pearls’ like layers of wealth on the neck of royalty. The strings to the West side are red, and remain a solemn and constant hue that stills the darkness encompassing it. Below I hear glasses being washed as slippers scuff across the smooth concrete patio of a family home impossible to silence – despite an old man shouting ‘quiet!’ to hush the giggles of young children. Through the branches that have begun to shed their leaves I see shadows of generations sat around their dinner. Potatoes, nan bread, some oily vegetables and dishes of meat I cannot identify – they make a spread that would entice any foreigner and yet probably fail to fill the stomachs of such a household. Crisp, light winds nip at my cheeks, while it carries scents of firewood burning and meat grilling. In the distance, the hills where illegal settlements claim the slopes of Kabul’s mountainous ring are lit by specks of twinkling red, yellow and white like the dying stars that blanket African skies a hundred miles from civilization. Somewhere drums play in repetitive strokes that forms a harmonious tempo in time with cars honking and manufactured gates from old shipping containers slamming. A TV flashes its light through the green mesh of my balcony lining. Kids chase a cat in streets so dark it is hard to make out anything but their shadows beneath swift feet and an occasional screech of a victimized feline. An accordion had joined the drum, while the musicians remain strangers, and I begin to choreograph my dance if only I could join the life just a few hundred feet away. The mosque turret glows green, a pillar of stillness, grace and strength. The beacon projects a faded light that catches on intricate scars designed in plaster, protruding and running up the megaphone-crested core.

So close I sit, in my oversized wicker chair that cuts into me as the cushion is nowhere to be found. My uncomfort is not so much physical as it is emotional. I watch lives that has seen so much more of what it means to live, than I will ever understand or be able to fathom. I am not sure if looking up at the nights sky makes me more lonely than looking down at life that refuses to give up.

It is time to retreat to my room where I will rest like the pigeons in their cages across the square – where my strength in numbers often struggles to get past ‘one’ sometimes, but am able to spread my wings and fly when released. I will draw my heavy Sound of Music curtains, until morning when I am ready to look out again under a harsh sun that never fails to help overexpose my Kodak memories, and look forward to the day I am playing football, cleaning dishes, chasing cats and pounding drums – looking back at the dim lights protected behind compound walls.


3 thoughts on “Strength in Numbers

  1. “I am not sure if looking up at the nights sky makes me more lonely than looking down at life that refuses to give up.” – powerful thoughts and words. thank you so much for vividly capturing part of the world that many of us have never been to.

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