Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chicken Street

We made it to Chicken Street before we left Kabul. Our last live shot was at 4:30 in the morning. It took me until about 6 am to wind down, finish answering e-mails and fall asleep. We'd done it. After the last hit, I was standing on our live shot platform on the roof of the sandbagged house that Fox occupies in Kabul. You can tell it used to be some wealthy Afghan family's house. Now it has the constant hum of an industrial strength generator and an HMI spotlight lighting up the blue tiles of its neighbors' rooves so that we could broadcast back to the U.S. It was still dark but there was what looked like a full moon. You could see the tops of the mountains that ring Kabul and give it that just out of National Geographic feel. As we stepped up one last time to go live, the muezzin had broken the night's silence just before dawn - early enough since it was Ramadan so that anyone who wanted one last meal before sunrise would have time.

My wingman and producer Justin Fishel came out to the roof delirious from not having slept in 20 hours. He was trying on Conor Powell's local shalwar kameez - the pajama like outfits that men in Afghanistan wear. He looked like a member of the Taliban. We did the hit. I tossed back to Jon Scott and we turned the lights off. The sound of yelping puppies in the courtyard had quietened in the past 24 hours - there always seem to be stray dogs and yelping puppies in war zone capitals. I took a step off of the platform only to be embraced by cameraman Bryan Cole, whose wife Amy is also a breast cancer survivor. He knew what it was for me to stand back up there after the year I'd had. Then photographer Eric Conner emerged from behind the lights and hugged me. His mom is also a survivor. Justin came in for the group hug. We'd done it. We knew we had had a kick ass trip. Colleen Williams and Jacqueline Pham back home had edited two days of knockout pieces. It was overwhelming.

Of course, I was still recovering from the live shot with Shep the day before. Something about the familiarity of his voice, which I hadn't heard coming down a satellite line for nearly a year. So familiar, So empathetic. He and I had been on a similar roof in northern Israel and broadcast live once during a particularly harrowing Katyusha rocket attack. He knew what it meant for me to go back to my stomping grounds. That's when the tears started rolling and didn't stop. Former Vice President of Fox News John Moody had called me 5 years before after I had had a particularly emotional live shot when we were covering the tsunami in Thaliand. Cameraman Mal James, producer Yael Kuriel-Rotem from our Jerusalem bureau and I had not slept in days, had seen more dead bodies bloating in the hot South Asian sun and seen far too many bedraggled tourists looking for dead family members. It was New Year's Eve and the bulletin boards of missing were just too much. We were reading the appeals from family members in search of those who had been drowned by the sudden wave and just as the clock struck midnight and they came to us, I broke down.

Now I know you are not supposed to cry on TV. ("There's no crying in baseball!" - A League of One's Own), But everyone understood and Mal James - war-hardened photographer that he was - was balling behind his camera so I wasn't alone. Moody called a few days later when we were back in Jerusalem to see how I was doing. He said it was one of the most moving live broadcasts he had ever seen and then added with his typical fatherly tough love, "Now don't ever do it again." I laughed and I promised.

Well, I broke that promise as soon as I heard the warm slow Southern cadence of Shep's voice, as soon as he said, "How are you, Jen?" Oh well, what can I say. At least we made it to Chicken Street.

We woke up with very little time before we needed to catch our flight but I was determined to buy a rug. After all, I had never left Kabul before without a duffel bag full of rugs. Our team, including our Afghan gunmen, dashed over to Chicken Street, the Rodeo Drive of Kabul. I still have the grainy black and white photo on my bureau back home that Greg and I had taken on Chicken Street alongside Abdullah, the AP fixer, back in 1994. At that time there were still street photographers with pinhole box cameras operating on the street as though it were the 19th century. That was before the Taliban. Chicken Street looked exactly as it did before. The same lapis lazuli shops and rug merchants and local fur coats that look like they could have been worn by Davy Crockett. Where's PETA? I used to spend every Friday (after the carpet wallahs in Islamabad would return from the mosque) drinking tea and bargaining in their crowded shops for carpets. Justin and I walked into the back alley shop lined with carpets from the ceiling to the floor and they started frantically laying them down. I had forgotten one trick and in my impatience I let the carpet seller know which one I really wanted too soon in the bargaining process. Suddenly, the ones I didn't want were 100 dollars a piece and the one I wanted was 500, even thought there was very little difference in quality. I walked away - across the courtyard to another carpet seller. Justin stayed and bought a very fine rug for 100 dollars and I acted like I was interested in the carpets in the other shop, but I had already seen the one I wasn't leaving Kabul without. It was a mixed carpet/kilim. Unusual. Sublime. Our guards were getting anxious. We needed to keep moving. But I thought of one more trick and went back to the original carpet seller. And acted as though I really wanted a prayer rug that was hanging outside I made him show me all his smaller rugs and dismissively asked how much. 100 dollars a piece. OK - I said I'd take two and then almost as an afterthought said for 350 total he should throw in the first rug - the one I really wanted. He wanted to move product and I had reopened the negotiation in a roundabout way. He acted as though he was going to cry and he said he was losing money (the usual carpet seller sob story). Sold. Before I knew it they were wrapping the carpets up and we were on our way back down Chicken Street. I managed to also buy Greg some lapis lazuli cuff links for his tux. It's his birthday on Wednesday so shh!! He proposed to me after my first trip to Kabul in 1994. It was the night before he was leaving for South Africa to cover the country's first post-apartheid election and I surprised him by getting a ride back to Islamabad with the Red Cross a day early to see him before he left. So to have a carpet and cuff links from Kabul for his 50th birthday is pretty special.

About as special as two days before when Akbar, the Fox stringer who Geraldo first hired back in the Tora Bora days, heard me waxing nostalgic about Kabuli Pulau (the amazing Afghan rice dish with raisins and cashews and saffron and shredded carrots). It's Greg's favorite. Lo and behold the next day Akbar shows up with a pot big enough to feed a small wedding party of Kabuli Pulau. His sister had cooked it for our team - during Ramadan no less - during the day while she was fasting and probably very hungry. It was delicious and so generous that it really made us blush.

The scene at the airport was a bit different than the one on the way in. Leaving Kabul were mostly Western aid workers, with loosely covered scarves over their long blond hair, some traveling with children being raised in Kabul. One blond-haired little girl sat quietly on her car seat - a Western safety precaution that looked a bit out of place in the rough and tumble streets of Kabul. Given the daily risks that her parents were having by living with her there, I think you probably could forget the car seat. Anyway, on the way in it had been a scene right out of central casting at the airport in Dubai. The lounge was filled with one bald, muscle bound security contractor after another. It looked like a casting call for Blackwater, Inc. Now I get the bald thing. being fit and having a bald head I now know how strong and somewhat intimidating that can make one feel, but really it is such a cliche in a war zone - and where do they all get those wraparound sunglasses?

We boarded the Safi Airlines flight back to Dubai. Did a little duty free shopping. The boys stopped for a Happy Meal at the airport McDonald's. (I nearly broke down and had a french fry - afterall, how much worse for me could it have been than sucking the black fumes of the fires set by the anti-narcotic task force as they demonstrated how they captured all sorts of heroin and hashish at their training camp south of Kabul? But I didn't. We boarded the plane and my phone rang. It was my dentist's friend who had just been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Mother of 3. I could tell in her voice she was terrified. She was starting chemo next week and was going to look for wigs on Sunday. On the tarmac in Dubai until it was wheels up, I tried to take myself back to those feelings of fear less than one year ago when I too didn't know what awaited me. I tried to remember what all of the survivors who had coached me through that time had said - what was helpful, what was not. I wanted to empathize but i also wanted to give her the old Vince Lombardi - get back in the game pep talk that helped me psychologically get through. I hope she knows that I totally empathize and know what she is going through. She kept telling me she was frustrated the doctors' wouldn't give her a prognosis. I said they never will and even if they did, don't listen to them because "you are going to survive," I told her. "From one mother who knows, no matter what they say, you are going to survive." I promise.You just have to kick cancer's ass and never look back.