THERE'S A WAR GOING ON, AND I'M BLEEDING.
An unfortunate situation, to be sure, but considering it's 2 a.m., fresh snow is falling and I'm squished in the back of an old army truck with a band of Afghani freedom fighters who, to avoid being bombed by the Soviet planes circling above, have decided to drive without headlights through the Hindu Kush Mountains over unpaved icy roads laced with land mines, it's also one without obvious remedy. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Ask the driver to pull over for a sec so I can squat behind the nearest snowbank to change my tampon?
I don't think so.
It's February 1989. I am twenty-two years old. My toes are so cold, they're not so much mine anymore as they are tiny miscreants inside my hiking boots, refusing to obey orders. In my lap, hopping atop my thighs as the truck lurches, as my body shivers, sits a sturdy canvas Domke bag filled with Nikons and Kodachrome film, which I'm hoping to use to photograph the pullout of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Actually, I have no idea how to photograph a Soviet pullout. Though this is my second story as a professional photojournalist, I'm still not clear on what it is photojournalists actually do in a real war.
The first story I covered, the intifadah, was more straightfor-
ward. Organized, even. I'd take the bus early every morning from my youth hostel in Jerusalem to the nearby American Colony Hotel, where all the other journalists were staying (and where I eventually wound up staying when my clothes were stolen from the youth hostel), and I'd go straight to the restaurant off the lobby. There, I'dingratiate myself with any photographer I could find who had information about the day's planned demos, his own rental car, and a basket of leftover Danish.
After eating, we'd drive around the West Bank and wait for the Palestinian kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, which we knew they would do only once a critical mass of journalists had assembled. Then we'd record the resulting skirmishes onto rolls of color slide film while trying to evade arrest andor seizure of our exposed films by the soldiers. Next, we'd all rush back to Jerusalem to the Beit Agron, the Israeli press office, where we would lie about what we'd just shot ("religious Jews," we'd say, or "landscapes,") and get our government-issued shipping forms stamped and signed accordingly. Finally, we'd head to the strange little cargo office at the airport in Tel Aviv to send our film on a plane back to our photo agencies in Paris. Simple.
But here in Afghanistan the situation is more obscure. I'm alone, for one, which among other things means I have no one to help me figure out basic puzzles like how to get my exposed film out of the mountains. Or how to write captions when no one around me speaks English, and I have no idea where, exactly, these photos are being taken or what it is I'm actually seeing. I'm just assuming that at some point, someplace, I will see some dead or bloody mujahed, or some dead or bloody Russian soldier, or some mujahed firing off his Kalashnikovs, or one of those great big Soviet tanks whose names I can never remember, or, well, something that looks vaguely warlike that I can shoot and send-again, it's murky to me exactly how-back to my photo agency in Paris.
I look over at Hashim, who's rearranging blankets, knapsacks and boxes of ammunition to clear more leg room on the crowded truck bed. He yanks my maroon nylon backpack from the center of the pile, fills in the newly empty space with a green metal box, mimes "Can I sit on this?" while pointing at my backpack, and, when I nod yes, he wedges it into a corner and plops his 180-pound rump right on top of it. A gentle crunching sound ensues, followed almost immediately by the smell of rubbing alcohol. Shit. My mind races to try to recall what else, besides the bottle of alcohol, I packed in that outside zippered pocket.
Then I remember. My box of Tampax. My one and only box of Tampax.
Well, now. I'm fucked.
Oblivious, Hashim slowly inhales a Winston cigarette and kneads his amber worry beads through his ragged fingers. Trained as a journalist, he's the one Afghani among my forty-seven escorts who actually speaks a few key English phrases such as "Food soon," "Danger, stay in cave," and "Toilet time, Miss Deborah?" But even though I know he will probably understand me if I say, "Please get off my bag," he definitely won't understand "because my tampons are exploding." And because "Please get off my bag" sounds sort of rude, and because the squishy backpack does look like a comfy place to sit while all of us are scrunched together on the back of this rickety old truck heading God knows where, and because my hygiene woes do not hold a candle to the miseries of jihad, I say nothing. Besides, I'm covered from head to toe in an electric-blue burka-an Islamic veil, worn like a Halloween ghost costume-which tends to hinder communication. Not only does it muffle my speech, it makes it impossible to guess, for example, that underneath all this rayon, under my shiny blue ghost costume, I cannot stop crying.
What on earth possessed me to come here?
In a word, Pascal. It's Pascal's fault I'm here all alone, and when I get back to Pakistan I'm going to kill him.
THE FIRST TIME I noticed Pascal it was from afar, at a café on the rue Lauriston near the Sygma photo agency. That would have been in late September 1988, about two weeks after I'd arrived in Paris, ready to start my life. Every day, I'd go to that same café and spy on the photojournalists eating lunch there. Most afternoons, I'd order a croque monsieur and place my
portfolio ever so casually on the chair in front of me, hoping that the sight of my work along with the Leica around my neck would somehow draw a photographer over to my table. In my fantasy, the photographer would ask to take a look at the pictures and then, duly impressed, he'd invite me to come join the rest of his gang at his table for an île flottante and a round of espressos. I'd sit down and, after modestly refusing to do so, I'd be persuaded by the other men-they were all men-to pass my portfolio around the group, one of whom would be an important photo editor who'd want to send me that very same afternoon to go cover a war. It didn't really matter which war because I knew better than to be picky. Any war would do.
But that was just the fantasy. In reality, I had to settle for eating my sandwiches alone and in silence.
On that first day I noticed Pascal, he strode like a bulldozer into the café, pushing in the cool autumn air from the outside with his angular torso. With what seemed like a single fluid motion, he unhitched the camera bag from his shoulder, placed it in the pile of sacks already there on the banquette, greeted his colleagues with an ironic "Salut, les potes!," pulled off his blue cashmere crew neck, knotted it around his shoulders, lit a cigarette and sat down to fondle a menu. His features were sharp and finely chiseled, his eyes sparkled with what appeared to be a touch of mild insanity, and his lips had corners that turned up when he smiled, like the Joker's in Batman. When his steak au poivre arrived, he sliced into it with the grace of an aristocrat, the tines of his fork facing down then up as one by one the freshly cut morsels disappeared into his mouth, each effortless bite punctuating the rhythm of his fraternal chatter. He is magnificent, I thought.
Pascal was an up-and-coming war photographer, and I admired his work. His pictures didn't just show action, they screamed action. Bombs exploding, young children crying, soldiers cowering, grimacing, dying. Exactly the kind of images that I was desperate to start shooting, if only I could figure out how.
After two weeks of getting nowhere with my portfolio-on-the-chair ploy and spending far too many francs on croque monsieurs, I realized I'd been going about it all wrong. With my shaky French, I called the general number for Sygma and asked to speak to Claude, the editor in charge of news photos. For whatever reason, perhaps because he couldn't understand me on the telephone, perhaps because it was a slow news day, he agreed to a meeting. The next afternoon, when I arrived at his desk, he started to laugh. "You're the little girl from the café," he said. A few of the photographers I'd been stalking, Pascal included, stared and tittered from behind the glass wall of the photographers' room.
As Claude flipped through my portfolio, which was bulging with photographs of strip clubs and the men who visit them, his eyes opened wider and he began to shake his head. Then he muttered "Putain!" I knew putain meant "whore," but at the time I did not know it could also be used idiomatically to mean something more tame, like "wow" or "holy cow." But before I could figure out where the epithet had been directed, at the strippers or at me, Claude looked up and said, "Tu voudrais aller où?"-
"Where would you like to go?"
I cocked my head. I crossed my arms. "Israel," I said, more of a dare than a word.
Claude smiled and, to my amazement, replied, "Fine." We made a deal: I'd pay for the trip; Sygma would pay for my film and development costs and then distribute the pictures upon my return. A break. At last.
As I turned to leave, Pascal caught my eye and winked. Whenever I thought about that wink afterwards, I'd shiver.
The next time I saw Pascal, it was two months later. I'd just arrived back from Jerusalem. Chip, my colleague and occasional lover, an American who'd lived in Paris for most of his adult life, invited me as his date to a dinner party Pascal was throwing with his live-in girlfriend in Paris. The live-in girlfriend part should have tipped me off, but then Pascal cornered me in the living room and challenged me, with his mischievous smirk, to a staring contest. No problem, I thought. I'll beat him hands down. But after what must have been less than sixty seconds of locking eyes with the man, I didn't just lose. I was hypnotized, rendered incapable of higher thought. Or even medium thought, like "Stay away. Girlfriend shares his bed."
Within minutes of losing the staring contest, and battling an overwhelming urge to sniff Pascal's neck, I cooked up a plan. It was a simple plan, really. One that would solve what I was beginning to understand would be a constant dilemma: companionship on the road. With our cameras in hand, we'd leave Paris, our worldly possessions, the live-in girlfriend, and my less sexy lovers behind. We'd spend the next couple of years traversing the planet, bouncing from coup to insurrection, war to revolution, passing our days shooting pictures and our nights under the stars, making love to the gentle thrum of incoming mortar fire.
Afterwards . . . well, I wasn't exactly sure. I didn't think in afterwards.
Okay, so I had an active fantasy life, but this time I could smell the thoughts as they popped into my head. Or maybe it was just the big slabs of steak that Élodie, the live-in girlfriend, was preparing in the kitchen. In any case, while Elodie was off in the kitchen preparing the meat, while Chip was embroiled in another conversation, Pascal suddenly turned to me, blew a puff of his cigarette into my face, and said, "I'm going to Afghanistan next week. Why don't you come with me?"
I sucked on my own cigarette, choked on it really, and blew the smoke back into his face. Then, composing myself, I shot him a conspiratorial smile. "Sure," I said. "Let's do it."
It was as simple, and as complicated, as that.
Copyright 2002 by Deborah Copaken Kogan