Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive, Fulbright scholar, and college journalism professor. He has traveled widely throughout the Balkans, Western Europe and Central Asia and has lived and worked in Romania and Kosovo. His narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages (Belfast), The Kenyon Review Online, Green Mountains Review, The Common and elsewhere.
Begging in Kabul
By Timothy Kenny
In February of 1990 I lived for a week at the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua, a faux Mayan palace semi-famous for housing a reclusive American billionaire named Howard Hughes who dated Hollywood starlets and flew fast airplanes; today, only old people know who he is. In the hotel lobby I bumped into Jimmy Carter, in town to monitor Nicaragua’s presidential election, even as the United States waged its contra war against the Sandinistas.
A short block from the four-star hotel acres of land lay stripped and barren, eighteen years after an earthquake. Chunks of concrete pushed through the ground like bones in a third-world graveyard. Goats and rib-skinny dogs foraged for food.
Almost everyone I interviewed about the upcoming vote — pollsters, shopkeepers, political scientists, Nicaraguans who lived in collapsed buildings — said the same thing: President Daniel Ortega was certain to defeat Violeta Chamorro, the etherael-looking, white-haired widow of an assassinated newspaper publisher. She dressed in white and was carried to political speeches on a litter because of a foot injury. Chamorro understood the drama of politics. She also spanked Ortega in a landslide election victory.
It turns out Nicaraguans don’t like telling strangers how they plan to vote.
After thirty-five years away I returned in April 2012 to my native Detroit. Just off Woodward Avenue the once powerful Motor City reminded me more of Managua than any of the forty-five states I’ve visited. Blocks of brick homes that once kept people safe and warm were scraped clean of everything but rubbish and memories; native prairie grass grew in lots plagued by packs of wild dogs. Away from Woodward’s eight lanes that run north from the river, dead neighborhoods idled, waiting for a proper burial that was slow in coming. The ruin shocked me.
After college I moved from Michigan to Oregon and then to Virginia and later still to Romania and Kosovo and Connecticut. There was no one to talk to about Detroit. Any mention of the city while I was away would trigger odd childhood memories: Tommy Wagner’s father going to communion. He always shifted his weight back and forth at the communion rail as he knelt, waiting for the priest to arrive. Going back to his pew one of his shoes squeaked. Every other step on the marble floor gave his walk a bright, upbeat cadence. Heads turned. He’d find his place and sit for long minutes in the back of the church, his butt on the bench, his gray hair buried across forearms that rested on the pew in front of him. That’s what Detroit was when I lived elsewhere: the remembrance of good men who went to six o’clock Mass every morning before work.
I talked to a lot of Detroiters about their city. Most seemed angry about its steady slide, uncertain about its future or what should be done. Everyone had ideas. People railed against corrupt mayors, unions, automakers, the federal government, House Republicans, racism, all of which made some sense. None of the people I talked to blamed themselves for Detroit’s desperate fall from grace.
I used to find reassurance and understanding if I compared what I did not know to what I did. The meanings of things used to get more complicated the farther I traveled from Detroit.
I live now in the heartland of eastern Connecticut’s “quiet corner” where crime is low and residents keep up their property and drive decent cars. Despite almost a decade of regular visits to my daughter’s school and the local gym, it’s rare when anyone offers a greeting. I tell my New Hampshire-born wife I’m not looking for friends; a nod would be fine, a curt hello acceptable. She says perhaps I should smile more and say something first. I tell her that I can’t seem to make eye contact; I remind myself that Connecticut’s unofficial motto is “The Land of Steady Habits.” I think about the Detroiters I met who did not see their own lives as part of the city’s relentless, downward drift. Maybe my wife is right.
In Kabul, Afghanistan, where I worked for most of May of 2010, I frequently saw a woman wearing a bright blue burqa, begging on the sidewalk outside a grocery store that catered to foreigners and wealthy Afghans. Surely, I thought, she was desperately poor and without family to humiliate herself in this way.
She walked back and forth near the front door, muttering in Dari, a small, calloused hand stretched out from under her gown. The store security guys let her beg, which means someone was paying them off, surely not her. Her eyes, visible behind a screen of blue gauze, never met mine. I saw her several times and each time I thought about giving her money.
I was often uncertain about much that I witnessed in Afghanistan, as I was about Nicaragua twenty years before and in Detroit and my small Connecticut town. It’s unusual for women to beg; perhaps there was more to it than what I could see. Afghanistan’s drug problems, once just bad, are now epidemic.
My tight-lipped Connecticut neighbors don’t believe they are unfriendly; they are reserved. Too much friendliness is slightly suspect in eastern Connecticut. It strikes me as odd, but I am from Detroit, a city whose disappearance into neglect and disregard makes even less sense than politics in Nicaragua or the social graces of southern New England.
I find that my assumptions about people are often wrong, even when I filter initial certainty with caution or disbelief. What nags at me is this: The chance that something might be untrue does not make it so. It’s rare to see a woman begging in Kabul.
So when I do see a begging woman, her face and body hidden from the world under bolts of blue cloth, I worry about upsetting some unknown equation that provided balance in a place that always teetered on an unseen precipice. I was afraid of what might happen if I gave her money. I never did.