My day in Afghanistan started like most with a 5:30am wake-up call from the helicopters landing and taking off from the neighboring NATO military base. I was six months into a 12-month assignment in Kabul, longing for the day that I could sleep past dawn without being woken by the bone-rattling sounds of Blackhawks churning clouds of dust overhead.
Arriving at the office, I found a frenetic and frantic e-mail from Eliyahu, a dear friend and the lay leader of the Kabul expatriate Jewish community. Eliyahu had one foot on a plane for vacation, a sacred time to those who work in conflict zones, when he received a phone call from the translator of the last Jew in Kabul, Zebulon Simantov. Yeah, you read that right. The last Jew in Kabul. Zebulon may be the only one left in Afghanistan. And he needed matzah for the Seder. So, his translator called Eliyahu, who had supplied Zebulon in the past with Jewish ritual foods and other assorted items. Eliyahu reached out to me to acquire the matzah. A strange situation, most definitely. However, in conflict zones, strange situations are routine and as normal as the occasional explosion or rocket attack.
There are few things I would not do for Eliyahu and most of those are illegal. He and his partner were two of my first real friends in Kabul and were bedrocks of the expat Jewish community. I called the translator, Ismatullah, and promised that I would help and procure matzah.
Ever tried getting matzah in Kabul? Most people in the US, Western Europe and Israel are used to seeing boxes of matzah flooding grocery store aisles come early spring. Getting matzah in Afghanistan…not so easy. In fact, ever tried getting any international product in Kabul? The import process takes roughly two to three weeks, depending on the item and place of origin. However, that timeframe is a “guideline,” with packages and shipments sometimes in transit up to three months. Another useful piece of information: in order to receive packages in Afghanistan, a compound, office or individual must have a special PO box. Hence, planning way ahead for a holiday celebration is essential.
Through the grace of heaven and multiple individuals, the expat Jewish community was in good shape. The nearby NATO base hosted a multi-denominational place of worship and could receive packages from the US. Another key ingredient: Eliyahu had a great relationship with the NATO base’s chaplain, ensuring that every Friday evening, Jewish services were held at the chapel. This gave the expatriate Jewish community access to the chapel’s storeroom and PO box, which was essential to the success of my mission.
While Eliyahu was away for the holidays, I was co-organizing a seder with a friend at the US embassy. Needless to say, weeks before Passover, e-mails were flying about how many boxes of matzah had landed at the NATO Base, who was getting them, how many would be left over for the seder at US embassy…. were there enough for everyone??? A month before Passover, a last-minute care package was sent to Kabul, holding only matzah. Just in case…
Now, we were one week out to Passover and Zebulon needed matzah. However, no one can simply walk onto a NATO base and access a private storeroom. Doing so guarantees immediate detainment and potential arrest by military guards. In order to access the base and the golden matzah, I needed an escort, or someone living on the NATO base who would act as a glorified babysitter during my visit.
My regular NATO escort was on home leave. Before leaving Kabul, he graciously introduced me to his colleague, an Afghan Zoroastrian named Charles, in the event I needed an escort. Charles was more than happy to help but, due to his schedule, could only escort me the night before Passover started. I jumped at it, called Ismatullah and we arranged to meet outside the gates of the NATO base the evening before Passover.
The night before Passover arrived and after work, I went over to the base to meet with Charles. While waiting, I was treated to the hospitality and raucous joie de vivre of the Georgian NATO soldiers. Though not a NATO country, the Republic of Georgia had been sending soldiers to Afghanistan for over ten years. During my time in Kabul, these soldiers served as the guards at the NATO base. Having worked in Georgia for almost three years, it was like visiting old friends. One of the guards was even teaching me chess, a game at which he excelled, and at which I was a work-in-progress. After fetching me, Charles and I proceeded to the chapel and the blessed storeroom. There we found about 10 boxes of “kosher” for Passover “goods” and not one box of regular matzah. There was chocolate covered matzah, cookies, jelly candies, more boxes of chocolate covered matzah, enough candles to light every menorah in lower Manhattan, macaroons, and disposable seder plates.
My heart sunk…Zebulon was so excited about this matzah! While I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do, the new NATO chaplain stuck his head around the door. Apparently, he was not accustomed to random people rummaging through the storeroom. I explained the scenario and he smiled. Remember that extra care package of matzah mentioned earlier? When it arrived at the chapel, he had secreted it into his office; he had a feeling it would come in handy and be needed. Although a devout Southern Baptist, he knew the street value of matzah in a conflict zone. His “plan ahead” attitude was pure divine intervention. Without a moment’s hesitation, I gave him a huge hug and, on the spot, invited him to the upcoming Passover seder. To his credit, he took my affection in stride, probably shrugging it off to weird behaviors adopted in conflict zones. After accepting the seder invitation, he handed over three boxes of precious matzah.
I virtually danced across the NATO base with Charles running to keep up. By the time we reached the base’s exit, I had two minutes to meet Ismatullah and hand off the matzah. My armored car and guards were waiting for me outside the NATO base exit and suddenly, I received a call on my cell from Ismatullah, whose car was parked ten feet from my vehicle. He got out of his car and approached me. Not the wisest idea. My guards immediately moved in front of me and asked, in Dari, why this random Afghan guy was approaching me and what his intentions were. I broke in very quickly, saying I knew him, and handed over the matzah. Ismatullah thanked me effusively, jumped back in his car and took off. My guards just stared at me shaking their heads, no doubt convinced that my tenuous grip on sanity had finally snapped.
I did not care, as Zebulon had matzah for Passover. As we drove home, my mind sifted through all the pieces of the puzzle and all the people, Jewish, Southern Baptist, Zoroastrian and Muslim, who had helped one Jew have matzah in Kabul. In Kabul, atrocities and violence were and are a regular part of life and cannot be avoided. In the face of tremendous senseless brutality, it is easy to forget the true value of human connection, compassion and love. And yet, and maybe to spite the violence, I had just witnessed and been involved in a true act of kindness, one which was carried out despite ostensible boundaries and barriers.