"Hey," she said, startled, woken suddenly by a sensation not unlike the entire room vibrating with fear, "Life isn't great TV here anymore," and she took me by the hand and led me down… down into the darkness, down past the sound of loud bombs hitting other people's houses, tripping down blindly, down through the Scotch mist, down into a ravishing, open plan valley which takes you, via a chain of convoluted plot developments, to the very edges of the borders of the lower plains of a place most commonly known as Kandahar…
All night, I rode on and on, relentlessly onward towards Kandahar town itself. The taxi I flagged down eventually dropping me outside a vague hotel: in actuality a Kandahar State Travel Lodge. After a few seconds, I kissed the driver (sensible type, dressed as a sailor) passionately on the lips -- a symbolic gesture, yet the symbolism of the gesture feeling wrong. Feeling as if somebody was watching us. They were. Confused Afghans. Wearing platforms. Brandishing Kalashnikovs. They spoke at me in raised voices using coalmining lexis from 1842… a dialect I simply could not understand. (They were merely happy to see me, I later realised.)
I slept precariously, unsatisfied by my inauspicious arrival… once or twice dreaming of attractive people fucking me in the night… the next morning I silently concentrated on finishing my Kellogg's in the breakfast room, obscenely young Financial Times correspondents everywhere, mostly clean and friendly-looking: "What are you doing here?" one asked me. "Trying to find something real? Trying to connect with the people? Trying to root out the truth?"
"I don't actually know," I admitted foolishly. "What about you?"
"I'm trying to create a time machine," he told me. "I'm planning to go back in time and kill the inventor of the funky bass-line, thus eradicating completely all failed pop-funk crossover attempts from 21st Century popular music culture…"
"Good luck," I said, envisioning a better world, one without the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. But soon I realised I hadn't thought through my own being here quite so systematically. At the Kandahar State Gallery of Self-Exile and Exhibitionism, walking through Views of Macho-Faced Gangsters: a sweeping, visceral selection of vast watercolours and sculptural landscapes taking a wry look at consumerism in the West… I just felt confused. "It's a remarkable triumph," noted the young Catholic postman standing next to Jeff Koon's Child Bride. I agreed, but quickly moved on to Spectacular Car Chases (1982) and Thrilling Stunts, Crashes, Pile-Ups (undated) to avoid further conversation, conversation I felt unqualified to fully immerse myself in.
Arriving in Kandahar, I had discovered, is not easy. I also discovered that getting stoned in Kandahar doesn't solve anything either. Further layers of confusing disorientation follow. Exquisite travellers weaving past you eating banana fritters and chattering a stream of English obscenities. You suddenly hear people talking like this:
"Beneath the surface, this heaven on earth is less than perfect..."
"Personal conflict and petty jealousy are fermenting to create a violent rivalry..."
"A series of tragic events might fragment our community..."
Then there's this thin French man at a table. Offering the occasional deep exhalation. His large jaw tapering into…thin air… Pulling up an expression to oblige you. Telling you things: "Someone to rip off… I actually broke in… other rooms too… the girl touched my arm sadly... they all collapsed like dominoes... I hit the ceiling… floated around… Indian visions of myself… into the dream... then someone turned it on… the man's light… but it never woke me…" Doctors and other professionals would probably consider this to be perfectly sensible terminology, while non-medical, blue collar citizens might well feel it to be a haze of unnecessarily obscure jargon…
Further downtown, where a variety of tropical fruits are sold out by middle of the day, you will usually find David Mamet shooting and re-shooting scenes for a documentary he's making about Kandahar -- called Kandahar! I found Mamet scratching his beard, deep in thought, interviewing Ken Holt formerly of The Independent, who now releases former drug barons back into the community. In the camera lens, Ken looked old. Ravaged by travel and too much tourism, Ken said: "… the wonders of modern technology, like computers, video games, cell phones, pagers and the Internet, are all designed to make our lives more enjoyable… to facilitate communications… but the complexity of the digital world is overwhelming… ironically leading to a feeling of unreality… of… er, being disconnected… are you actually filming this?"
Kandahar was starting to gradually make sense, I realised…
"In Kandahar, all the cafes show the latest Hollywood films," Harry Zabir told me, briefly resembling Will Smith in Enemy of the State. An American Muslim, Harry left North Dakota to re-limb landmine victims, then formed his own highly successful PR company. "Kandahar was a place without an image, before I arrived…" he boasts. And here in Kandahar, sons remember their mothers with touching affection: "Bitch," an ironmonger said. "Man, she was one hell of a good bitch…" (Currently, the favourite TV programme on Kandahar State Television is Johnny Deformed starring Matt Dillon as Johnny Deformed -- a show which is beamed twice weekly into over 12,000,000 homes direct from Zadie Smith's subconscious.)
As for quality live entertainment in Kandahar: looking for drugged-up girls? Jumpy with adrenaline, through the darkness of the nearest table? Performing for you? Wondering, what innocence once dwelt there within that delicate frame of long hair, lost eyes, repeatedly opening/closing legs? Well, Kandahar isn't really good for that kind of thing, I've found. But assignations can be mutually arranged through a camcorder viewfinder… zooming into several lazy teenagers: one a beautiful Yugoslavian. (Possibly German?) Quarter of an hour later back in my hotel room: black coffee. "If you want to look through my CDs…” I say, just before she gets to the same level, the same inner space as me, after so many minutes on quite a different plain: "Travel," she claims, "is the search for experience, the quest for something different…"
Wide awake, cockroaches scuttling around my room like journalists.
She is awake and cross-legged, talking about the Bad Werewolves of Kandahar. She says apropos the Bad Werewolves of Kandahar: "Kandahar is not a particularly superstitious place. Some people believe in the Bad Werewolves of Kandahar. Other people do not. It's best to believe in them I find. If you do, they will like you. The Bad Werewolves of Kandahar are generally kind to tourists and keen to promote the tourist trade. They will be empathic and fuck you slowly, sandwiched hard against the Formica. If you don't believe in them, they will not be best pleased. They will introduce you to heroin addicts and set fire to you and leave you smouldering quietly for days. Then they will fuck you slowly, sandwiched hard against the Formica. And if you report them to the authorities, the authorities will shrug their shoulders and laugh the incident off as "high-jinx". The authorities wisely don't want to get on the wrong side of the Bad Werewolves of Kandahar, you understand…"
That night she didn’t sleep… she sat cross-legged until morning, telling me about her plan to form a rock band so bland it could sell Gap khaki trousers to untold millions of website designers… how urgently I longed to bid her a fond adieu with one single, spectacular incident of entertaining bloodshed…
The next day I switched to a new hotel: in actuality another Kandahar State Travel Lodge. Went walking. Dodging falling coconuts along the promenades. (NOTE. 2.5% of all trauma patients admitted to Kandahar State Hospital have been hit by falling coconuts.) Music permeating the back streets and flight paths of Kandahar…
Music oozing from its walls and monuments and architecture… Music is everywhere in Kandahar, I observe, and although My Sweet Lord is permanently Number 1 in the Kandahar State Top Ten (figures provided by Gallup), the Alt country scene is really big news here. The most popular bands being the Silver Jews and The Handsome Family. The fashion industry is starting to exert an influence too. There are no restrictive dress codes in Kandahar's numerous bars and restaurants. Men have goatee beards, women wear stylish leather burqas. Getting to the bar can be problematic, however. Media types frequent them doggedly. Celebrities who have moved house to live in Kandahar include: Sidney Lumet, Miss World 1970, Noddy Holder, David Niven, Iris Murdoch, Brian Adams, Mira Solvino, Johann Strauss, Christopher Walken, Pele, John Cleese, Gloria Estefan, Burl Ives … Others, including Meat Loaf, Zinedine Zidane, Gary Shandling, Michael Moorcock, Neve Campbell, Harrison Birtwhistle, and possibly Jamie Lee Curtis, are seriously considering it. (NOTE. Although, there are no homosexuals in Kandahar -- and homosexuality does not officially exist here -- it has not been outlawed. In fact, new homosexuals are now actively being recruited to run media-friendly virtual tapas bars and funky post-coital noodle eateries…)
"Fucking hell," said a novice monk I discovered listening to Limp Bizkit in my hotel bathroom: dark haired, brown eyed, looking up disappointedly from a bowl of Gazpacho. Then with the briefest glimpse of a finger, he nodded, and slumped back into a Scottish accent, telling me a most unlikely tale… and following his directions, I set off on a journey, following and swimming his directions, swimming across an open sea from one island, and jumping from the top of a 120-foot waterfall, swimming his directions from one island to another, crawling past armed guards… but swimming back because it got late, so late the monk was already sleeping in my bed by the time I got back to my room…
"Hey," I said.
He didn't move.
"Hey," I continued anyway. We formed a solid friendship, however, based on our common interest in the true identity of Jack The Ripper (Prince Albert? No. Gull? No. Maybrick? No. Sickert? No. Tumblety? Could be…) whilst visiting all 172 Kandahar State Libraries on a job-share rotation basis. Here, the Speaking History Books of Kandahar tell you things. Remind you that days weren't always so hunky dory. Like everyone, Kandahar had its problems. There was even a time of irregular conflict, I learn, when Kandahar was under attack. Despite radio broadcasts explaining things very slowly, nobody had much idea why they were under attack. The voice of a nine-year-old girl told me: "Once, the situation looked very bad in Kandahar. Bombs started falling from the sky. My father ran outside to find my brother and then he screamed. I ran to the door. They were both okay, but the bombs had killed all our donkeys and lions and some other people too. The bombing continued. Everywhere was bombed. My street was bombed. Then the street next to mine. Then the street next to the street next to mine. Night and day, they bombed all the wrong places...."
Happily, Kandahar moves on…
Happily, on March 26, Kandahar celebrates its birthday at London's South Bank with Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. John Travolta has sent his congratulations. Bob Dylan will sing "Mozambique". Charlton Heston has made risotto. Giorgio Moroder has broken off from his record-breaking tour of Hungary to perform Wagner's Parsifal, Bartok's ballet scores, and extracts from The Dandy Warhols' second album. On a lighter note, there will also be a performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, the comedy-opera based on the Palestian hijack of the Achille Lauro cruise liner in 1985. The new Mayor of Kandahar, Pierre Boulez, calls me into his office, a great honour. An object of fear and loathing for all those who lament the demise of the hummable tune, in person Boulez is softly-spoken, warm, witty: the epitome of French Gallic charm itself. Instantly he strikes me as one of the world's 3 or 4 nicest people. (His famous maxim: "I'm a rare idealist in a world compromised by commerciality …" is emblazoned right across the front of his desk.)
"Kandahar is missing something," he tells me.
"Really," I say.
"I don't know," he muses. "But… something."
He thinks for a moment.
"Kate Winslet!" he bellows, slapping the palms of his hands together. "Kate Winslet -- plus a really cracking production of Singin' In The Rain, possibly with Ray Winstone in the lead. Okay, scrub that last idea -- but Kate Winslet! Yes, Kandahar needs Kate Winslet! Or Minnie Driver? Or maybe Nelly Furtado? No, Kandahar needs Kate Winslet! Kate Winslet? Yes, Kandahar needs Kate Winslet!"
Kate Winslet will boost the economy, Mayor Boulez tells me. She will look good on posters, he says, and will be pretty useful at State functions too. ("That lady can also carry a tune," he points out.) It is with some urgency, then, that I am dispatched into the night with Steve Buscemi -- who will be driving a ten tonne truck across Kandahar State lines, while all other vehicles on the road explode into flames at the slightest provocation. I am to use every last vestige of my power to verbally persuade Kate Winslet to return with us to Kandahar. If this fails, I have a large tan suitcase filled with used, forged bank notes. If this fails, I am to render her unconscious (… the exact details of how are unclear…) and smuggle her back to Kandahar inside the large tan suitcase, now minus the used, forged bank notes. However, we are confident Kate Winslet will come round to our way of thinking… eventually. (NOTE. You see, this isn't the Kandahar you've read about in broadsheet newspapers or watched on CNN or studied closely on maps. This Kandahar is somewhere quite different; a truly beautiful place, and my kind of town...)
I remain optimistic about the future of Kandahar.
Kate Winslet will like it here.
HP Tinker, 32, lives somewhere in the North of England. He is not a big fan of the United States bombings of Kandahar or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. For more information visit The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity.