May 2012


I’m nearing the end of my second basketball camp here in Kabul – the last practice is this afternoon and the week’s mini tournament is tomorrow – and it’s included more inpiring, rewarding and occasionally frustrating experiences.

In the frustrating category, I had to cancel my planned trip to work with the brand new team in Jalalabad due to a minor medical issue that forced me to postpone two days of this week’s practices (everything is fine now; nothing to worry about). Since the timing for the trip was so tight – I literally didn’t have a single day off scheduled for the last month of my time here – there was no way to make Jalalabad happen without cutting short the current week’s camp, something I wasn’t willing to do since J-bad was a last minute inclusion and the groups I’m working with this week had been waiting for their camp for months.

Fortunately, we found a workable solution to the problem that will get the new players in Jalalabad the introductory training they need and will further another goal of mine in the process. Two of the player/coaches I’ve been working with this week – Sher and Mirwais – will travel to Jalalabad after the big national tournament and will lead a week of training themselves. Both guys have taken naturally to coaching and leadership and are already helping me run training sessions just a week after theirs concluded. They’re both excited to be chosen for this opportunity, though I don’t think either is particularly looking forward to trading the dry mid-80s weather in Kabul for 110 degree, humid days in Jalalabad in late June. Sorry, guys.

This is an exciting development in spite of my disappointment at not being able to make the trip to work with the Jalalabad players myself. It’s the first step toward my long term aim of building a base of coaches here in Afghanistan that can help to spread education and widen wheelchair basketball’s impact from within the country itself.

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Mirwais

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Sher

Sher told a story in our classroom session for coaches yesterday that really brought home what playing basketball means to him and the other players.

Sher was injured at 12 years old when a rocket explosion severely damaged his spinal cord and left significant wounds on his legs. Eventually, both legs developed gangrene and had to be amputated near his hips, leaving him a high level paraplegic (his spinal cord injury is around the same level as my own) and a double amputee. 

When he was old enough, Sher decided he wanted to get a job to help provide for his family. His brother, though, told him that since he was disabled, he needed to forget this idea and be content with staying home and being taken care of by family members. Sher said this life was impossible for him to accept. In the years after his injury he would spend days on end lying on the floor of his family’s tiny one-room house waiting to see if anyone would manage to bring him home something to eat.

Eventually, Sher decided to apply for a micro loan from the ICRC to start his own business selling gasoline from free-standing barrels; a necessary commodity in Kabul at a time when most homes ran on electricity from gas generators. The business was a success and Sher was able to bring home food for his mother and sisters. A few years ago, though, Kabul finally implemented a centralized power grid, bringing 24 hour electricity to the city for the first time. While this was great news for the populace, it rendered Sher’s business obsolete and he lost his ability to earn a living.

Struggling to find a sense of purpose, Sher took the opportunity to start playing wheelchair basketball when the first Kabul teams were organized by Alberto and the ICRC last year. He said the first reactions he got – and continues to get – were, “Basketball?? Don’t  you have to run and jump to play that game??” He said it’s still common for people to laugh at the very idea of people in wheelchairs playing a sport, and that his brother has repeatedly insisted that he quit wasting his time with such a ridiculous pursuit. Sher has never flinched in the face of this reaction. He says that soon enough, his family and friends – and the rest of Afghanistan – will see him and his teammates playing the game with the skill and determination of true athletes. Then they will understand.

Since I met Sher for the first time last May, he has started a successful job selling a line of clothing in the Kabul bazaar. He struck me with his quiet confidence last year, but he’s taken a huge leap forward since, both in terms of basketball skill and team leadership. In addition to his role as a player/coach, Sher is now the vocal leader that I hoped he could eventually become.

The most popular TV station in Afghanistan, Tolo TV, sent a news team to our morning practice yesterday and interviewed a few of the players, including Sher. They say their plan is to air significant coverage of the national tournament in June as well. Since Tolo TV’s news programming typically sets the agenda for all the other TV stations here, this could lead to significant local and national media pickup of the event. Sher’s vision of his country watching him and his teammates and seeing what people with disabilities are really capable of may become a reality in the very near future!

Sorry for the dearth of posts lately; my coaching schedule in Kabul has been so intense that I’ve spent every moment not on the court or in the classroom trying to catch up on sleep. Here’s a long recap of the end of my first week here to make up for lost time.

The first week in Kabul wrapped up with an 8-team tournament on Thursday. I have to say, as much as I’ve enjoyed every team and player I’ve worked with since arriving in Afghanistan, that was the most fun week  I’ve had yet. As I mentioned previously, having Alberto and two of the physical therapists/coaches playing with the team in chairs made every practice so much more entertaining for me and the players. Also, the two groups of players just had great energy on their own – they wanted to learn and picked everything up faster than any of the previous groups as a result. Even though most of the Kabul players are paraplegics, and thus lower functional classifications than the leaders of the other cities’ teams, they have the chance to overcome their physical disadvantages at the national tournament in June with better teamwork and superior knowledge of the game.

The day before the tournament, I arrived at the morning practice and saw that the players had already started a scrimmage game between themselves. As I entered the court, I noticed that Alberto was watching and looking a bit upset. When I asked if he was alright, he threw up his hands (a very Italian gesture) and said, “I can’t believe it! They are completely forgetting everything you have taught them and are playing just like they used to. It’s terrible!” I laughed and explained to him that trying to break over a year’s worth of self-taught bad habits isn’t going to happen overnight (or even in a single week of coaching), but told him I would address the team about the issue before practice started. I gave the whole group a stern dissertation on the necessity of their being self-motivated and dedicated to improvement, making the point that I would only be teaching them for one more day, then they would be on their own until the big tournament. I also told them that the Mazar, Maimana and Herat teams were already practicing hard to retain and perfect the techniques I had taught them, so if the Kabul teams didn’t focus on the same things when I’m not there actively teaching them, they would lose for sure.

They took the whole thing with their heads hanging down, but nodded that they agreed with my point and mumbled that they would do better. When we broke for practice, the team showed a new found enthusiasm and we had the best practice of the week. They even learned to properly execute a bounce stop at high speed and shoot with control, something only the team from Maimana had been able to do correctly before them.

The tournament ended up going two days because there were so many players. We had seven teams originally, but, after selecting the teams to make them as equal as possible, we came to the realization that seven teams can’t play a round robin tournament with each team playing the same number of games unless the tournament was 21 games long (and that’s only for the first, non-elimination round). We didn’t have nearly enough time to do that, so we decided to add an eighth team to make the field an even number. Since all the players were already accounted for, that meant Alberto and Malang, a huge, bearded physical therapist, would have their own team. I could tell Alberto was thrilled to get the chance to play in the tournament, especially when I woke up the next morning and found out that he’d told a temporary house guest, my friend Andrea from southern Italy, that he had woken up with a fever, but didn’t want Andrea to tell me because he was afraid I wouldn’t let him play. The guy just turned 60 and he refused to sit out of a wheelchair basketball tournament even though he was legitimately ill!

The tournament – the first played on the brand new Ortho Centre court – was a huge success. The ICRC Kabul delegation even shut down an hour early so everyone could travel to the Ortho Centre to watch. When the crowd arrived after the first couple games, the court was surrounded by the most internationally diverse cheering section imaginable. There were probably 75 people from no less than 35 different countries, all chanting player names, doing the wave, and screaming like crazy any time a player made a shot. I can’t even describe the looks of unadulterated joy on the players’ faces any time they scored and felt the power of that positive reaction from an entirely able-bodied group of spectators. At one point, a couple tourists walking down the street happened to see the action through a gap in the wall surrounding the Ortho Centre campus and asked if they could come in to watch. It was such an amazing thrill for everyone involved and gives me great hope that wheelchair basketball can eventually become a popular spectator sport here in a country where very few of those are available. Considering this was just a small end-of-the-week mini-tournament, I’m really excited to see what kind of crowd we can draw for the national championship in June!

A few of the players had performances or stories worth mentioning specifically:

–          Safi, the best of the Kabul players and a new player/coach, was the tournament’s leading scorer and the captain of the winning team. He’s a quiet guy most of the time, but can get fiery when he’s in a competitive environment, particularly if his teammates are playing sloppily. He had the best post-score reactions of any of the Kabul players, rivaling Shapur from Maimana for pure, unbridled enthusiasm. Any time he’d score, Safi would spin around and look toward the crowd with a nearly blank expression, his hands raised triumphantly, and start shaking his arms back and forth in a sort of spastic version of the “raise the roof” motion. It was awesome every time. Below, Safi watches the tournament action with Sher, one of the two stars of the League of Afghanistan trailer and a fellow player/coach.

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–          Wahidulla, the long-haired player who was the other star of the League of Afghanistan trailer, has the nickname “The Crazy Horse” for his frenetic style of play and boisterous personality. One of his teammates at the tournament, a player/coach named Mirwais who is a great student of the game, was obviously not thrilled to have Wahid as a teammate since, according to him, “Wahid only yells and moves fast, but he doesn’t listen or play the right way.”  When their team actually started playing, though, Wahid and Mirwais were the most communicative players of the entire group and ended up taking second place overall. Mirwais admitted afterward that he had been wrong about Wahid and that he was happy they had been teammates.  It was a great transformation to see. Here’s a picture of Wahid (left), Mirwais (center) and their teammate, Sadiq.

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–          One of the newest players, Husain, who joined the team just a couple months ago, has an amazing background. He’s a paraplegic missing several teeth who was, until recently, a very serious heroin addict. Alberto met Husain about 10 months ago when he came to the Orthopaedic Centre to get treatment for a pressure sore; he immediately took to Husain’s peaceful, sincere nature and decided he had to help him kick his addiction. He found out at one point that someone was smuggling heroin into the Centre and selling it to Husain during his treatment. Alberto spoke to the families of the other patients at the Centre and told them there was a drug dealer in their midst who may very well be selling to other patients (including their loved ones) as well. The family members ended up tracking down the pusher and beating him severely enough that he has never returned. Husain has now been clean for over seven months and has discovered a new life through wheelchair basketball. He’s still very quiet, but he listens well and is picking up the game quickly enough that he’s already one of the 10 best players in Kabul.

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–          When I commented to Alberto the other day that I was having even more fun teaching this group than I had any other, he looked at me seriously and said, “Mr. Jess Markt, do you realize what this means to these people?? Before basketball they had nothing. They felt like nothing. Now they have something that defines them and that they can immerse themselves in. Mohammadulla (a paraplegic player from a conservative Muslim family who is one of the nicest, quietest guys I’ve met here) said to me not long ago, ‘Now that I have basketball, I sleep eight hours every night, straight through. Before I could never sleep. I never have bad days anymore either, because now I always have basketball practice to look forward to the next day or the day after or the day after that. How can I feel sad when I have this?’” It’s hard to put into words what it meant to me to hear that. I just know that impact is exactly why I’m doing this and that I’m honored to have even a small part in that kind of transformation in these players’ lives.

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A few more pics from the week:

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Teaching the Kabul coaches (from left) – Alberto, Malang and Wasiqulla – how to stop their wheelchairs  while executing a bounce stop maneuver.

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Lecturing the Kabul players about something really important while my interpreter, Raz Mohammad, tries to figure out how to translate my blather into understandable Dari.

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Taking a post-tournament photo with Amin, an incredibly shy kid who barely said a word all last year, but who’s blossomed into a confident, mature player over the course of this week.

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Wahid displays the enthusiasm and joy that makes this whole experience so much fun for me.

 

My first few days back in Kabul – and the first couple days of the first of three consecutive basketball camps here – have been great. It’s nice to be back in a familiar environment and reconnecting with the players and coaches I worked with on my trip last year. 

Thursday was my first full day in Kabul and my one day off for the week, so Michael and I decided to spend the afternoon hiking up a hill near Alberto’s house that is renowned for having amazing views of the city and surrounding mountains. Following the travel experience coming back from Herat – flying through the aforementioned hail and wind storm – it was great to wake up to a sunny day with scattered white clouds and highs expected to be in the mid-70s. Perfect for a climb.

About halfway up the hill, though, we started to notice a very imposing, very black cloud lurking behind the mountains in front of us. We could see the dark streaks of rain descending from the cloud, so we spent a few minutes trying to figure out which way the weather was moving and if we needed to turn back. I ended up deciding that, based on the wind and the movement we could observe, the cloud was going to pass to the west of us and that we should continue the climb to the top. I turned out to be right about the direction of the weather, but hadn’t been able to see another, larger black cloud bank that was just behind the top of the hill we were climbing – and headed right for us – until we crested the summit. Woops.

The first few drops of rain started just as we reached the top, so we followed a young Afghan boy that had been walking with us for the last several hundred yards of the climb to a tiny shack with a covered porch at the edge of the hill. Problem solved. Or so we thought. The resident of the shack emerged – a short one-eyed soldier who came out to look at the approaching storm – and when he saw us taking pictures of it with our cameras, made a gesture that didn’t leave much doubt that we should find another place to get out of the rain. We crossed the top of the hill as the rain and wind gradually picked up and found that it had a fairly large covered patio at the opposite end. It was the perfect shelter until the wind reached such a peak – and the rain turned to hail – that it started whipping ice pellets horizontally under the roof of the shelter. We ended up crowded into the far corner of the patio with about 25 Afghan civilians, soldiers and kids – all standing with our backs to the now screaming wind and hail. Michael and I ended up standing directly in front of a father and his four scared little kids, letting them use us as shields to avoid the worst of the storm. As cold and uncomfortable as it was, it was a really cool bonding experience with a completely random group of people I otherwise never would have come into contact with.

Here’s a picture of the approaching storm – which looked a lot like “The Nothing” from cinematic classic The Neverending Story.

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And a shot immediately after the storm passed by, taken over the husk of an old Soviet tank that sat rusting on the edge of the hill.

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On the basketball side of things, I’ve been having a great time teaching the first two groups of Kabul players and coaches. Ever since the hilltop hailstorm passed, the weather has been perfect and we’re playing on the brand new ICRC Orthopaedic Centre court that Alberto had built just in time for the first day of camp. It’s a full sized court, elevated above the surrounding Ortho Centre campus, with a high metal fence that keeps the balls from escaping but allows passersby – both within the Centre and on the street outside – to watch the action. I haven’t seen the insides of the few gymnasiums in Afghanistan (other than the one where we practiced in Herat), but this is definitely the nicest outdoor court in the country. Maybe it could still be improved in one respect, though, as we found this morning when one of the players approached Alberto and said, “I fall out of my wheelchair sometimes. This concrete seems like it will hurt. Is it possible to remake the court out of wood?”

Commentary about the playing surface aside, the energy of the players in Kabul is great and is bolstered by the presence of Alberto and several of the able-bodied physical therapists, all of whom work at the Centre and are volunteering as coaches and referees. Best of all, the coaches are all participating in wheelchairs, learning the same skills and techniques as the players. This has made the practices the best of my trip thus far and everyone is having a ton of fun.

He’d kill me for saying this, but Alberto just turned 60 last week. Still, he’s been out there at one or both practices each day (3 hours apiece) in a chair, pushing hard enough to make his fingers bleed. It’s hard to quantify how much his presence means to the players, but suffice it to say that they’re having the time of their lives playing alongside one of their real life heroes and a legend in the Afghanistan disabled community. 

Michael and I arrived safely in Kabul yesterday, but not until we had the most miserable/harrowing flight experience either of us could remember. We were flying on the 20 seat ICRC plane, which is small enough to be very noticeably affected by even marginally inclement weather. There was nothing marginal about the weather yesterday.

As we descended into Kabul over the mountains (roughly the last 20 minutes of the flight, though it seemed like hours), we found ourselves stuck in a giant hail storm that had moved into the area just before we arrived. This meant flying through a seemingly endless, impenetrable bank of clouds while hail that sounded disturbingly like bullets ricocheted off the sides and wings of the plane. This was accompanied by a screaming ninety degree crosswind that buffeted the plane so hard and with such regularity that it felt like we were inside a ping pong ball being batted back and forth by the gods. Most of these movements were very jarring, but at other times they were so smooth that it was hard to tell the plane had completely changed direction until I realized my stomach was floating somewhere a couple hundred feet above, below or to the side of the rest of my body. At some point the altitude alarm started blaring to tell us, presumably, that we were too close to land for our air speed. Thankfully the pilots quickly switched it off so the rest of us could pretend we didn’t hear it in the first place.

I’ve flown on a lot of planes and been through some pretty rough turbulence, but I’ve never been airsick before. Michael said he was the same. Yesterday both of us had paper bags clutched in our fists, ready to lose our breakfasts at any moment. I could feel my face turning white as cold sweat beaded on my brow. Michael couldn’t even film the experience because he was both afraid he’d have his camera ripped out of his hands and smashed by the violence of the plane’s movements and because the thought of looking through a viewfinder was too sickening to even attempt.

By the time we finally emerged from the clouds, we were maybe 100 yards above the runway and the plane was still darting left and right while tilting crazily in the wind as the ground came up to meet us. When the pilots managed to right the ship just in time for a rough-but-safe landing, I put my barf bag down long enough to lead the six passengers in a round of sincere applause. Nobody said a word for the first few minutes until the pilots finally turned around while sharing a relieved smirk and announced, “Whew. Welcome to Kabul, everybody.”

Whew. Welcome to Kabul.

The Herat mini-tournament was this morning, marking the end of my week here. I had been a bit concerned about a subtle lack of leadership and energy from the Herat team earlier in the week, a problem I made every effort to remedy by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the four player/coaches and the need for the other players to follow their lead. I also prompted them to cheer their teammates’ successes during practices, even during mundane drills – something they finally started doing of their own volition at the final practice.

There were close to 100 spectators (Afghans and expats from the ICRC, representatives of other organizations like the UN, family members, etc.) in the cavernous Herat gymnasium to watch the tournament – at least 90 more than the players had ever been watched by at once before – so I really hoped the team would put its best foot forward and show the community how exciting wheelchair basketball can be. I’m proud to say the guys really came through! They played relatively under control, used the techniques I’d taught them and didn’t even take too many ridiculous prayer shots. When one of them scored, though, it was pandemonium. The members of the crowd (and the teams on the sidelines) were chanting player names, clapping and yelling throughout. My housemates, none of whom had ever seen wheelchair basketball before, came to lunch buzzing about what an amazing experience it had been. Way to go, dudes!!

Unfortunately, the tournament ran a bit long, causing two problems. First, all but a few members of the crowd had to leave before semi-final round of the tournament to return to work. Second, the soccer team that was slated to take over the gym for practice after us was a bit impatient when we asked for 30 extra minutes to finish the tournament. At first, one of them agreed to the extended time, but when all his teammates arrived, they started arguing about the fact that it was their time and demanding that we finish in five minutes (this at the beginning of the second semi-final game). When the negotiations between the Herat coach and the soccer players didn’t seem to be going in our favor, I finally asked who their captain was and negotiated a truce myself. They would give us 30 minutes to finish our tournament and the basketball team would give up part of its practice time on Saturday to the soccer team to make up for it. Problem solved. After the agreement, the soccer hooligans were very supportive and cheered on the last two games as though there had never been an issue.

The best part of the result was the fact that the two teams who finished the opening round in 3rd and 4th place (out of four teams), ended up beating the top two teams in the semi-finals and playing each other for the Herat city championship. This had all the guys grinning from ear to ear and, when the 3rd ranked team won the title, everyone cheered mightily. We then met up at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre for a traditional post-tournament feast of cookies, tea, interminable speeches (only one of which was by me) and an arm wrestling match between the team’s two strongest players. Party!

Tomorrow I head back to Kabul on the ICRC plane to prepare for three consecutive weeks of camps there (back to two-a-day practices as well!) leading up to the national tournament in mid-June. I may also make a brief trip to Jalalabad, a city in the east of Afghanistan that I’ve never visited, to work for a few days with the brand new team the ICRC just formed there. More updates on that later.

In the meantime, here are a few random pictures from Herat (tournament photos will have to wait until Michael can send me a few pulled from his video footage).

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A typical street scene in Herat – lots of motorcycles and cars, with pedestrians and bicyclists effortlessly dodging them while enjoying the surrounding greenery. Those are the towers of the previously pictured blue mosque in the distance.

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One more shot from the Herat Citadel – this one with League of Afghanistan Director Michael Glowacki and the strongest tour guide in Herat, Nasir Ahmad.

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Teaching wheelchair basketball rules and regulations to three of the four player/coaches – Habib, Halim and Eqbal – with the help of my great interpreter, Farzan.

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Saying goodbye to Halim – player/coach, captain of the second place team and winner of the post-tournament arm wrestling match. Check out the mitts on that guy!

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Farhad, captain of the winning team and one of the player/coaches, asked for a picture with the team’s championship trophy and the bouquet of multi-colored roses the team presented me as a thank you gift. It takes a very secure man (or in this case, group of men) to give another man flowers after a sporting event, but I don’t think anyone’s about to question the toughness of Afghan wheelchair basketball players.

I’ve now finished three days of practices here in Herat. The team is doing well, though it’s a bit hard to move them through skills as quickly as I have the other teams since they have more limited practice time (because they play at a public gym instead of an ICRC orthopaedic centre court). Still, we’re doing the best we can and they’re good students. Offsetting the time challenges is the fact that Herat has hands-down the best basketballs of any team in the country. Check these bad boys out.

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Where do I even start with this?? You’ve got the implied “Jodan” (not Jordan) endorsement. Apparently “Jodan” wore number 28 (not 23) and went by the nickname “Fly Man.” The Chinese company that made these basketballs clearly went the extra mile to get Nike’s and Michael Jordan’s (sorry – Jodan’s) official stamp of approval. Well done, folks.

At the end of my first practice with the team on Thursday, I had just finished teaching them the basics of good shooting technique. I asked the players to close their eyes as they were getting ready to go to sleep that night and picture themselves shooting the perfect shot, the idea being that visualizing perfect technique would help them execute it physically the next day. At the beginning of the second practice I asked each player who actually remembered to do this to raise his hand. Only a few players did so, and the others looked around with a mix of embarrassment and amusement. When I asked what the problem was, my interpreter, Farzan said, “Last night was Thursday night, Mr. Jess. Today is their weekend.” I said, “Oh, ok. So they were up really late? Is that it?” He chuckled and replied, “No, they had… ah… ‘programs’ with their wives.” I burst out laughing and said, “Ok, say no more! That is a totally excusable reason for not thinking about shooting technique before you fall asleep.” Programs!

This afternoon I met with the group of four player/coaches I identified on the Herat team to go over rules, regulations and concepts like functional player classification. As I mentioned when I was in Mazar, I’m establishing player/coaches like these in each of the cities in order to build a base of technical knowledge among a few leaders on each team to ensure the correct rules are carried forward once I head back to the States. The session this afternoon went almost two hours and featured lots of great questions by the player/coaches. Every once in a while, though, they come up with a question that’s so out of left field that I’m not quite sure how to answer it. Today we were discussing the rules surrounding the ball going out of bounds and how to determine which team gets possession. At one point, Eqbal – one of the more promising players on the team – asked the following through Farzan the interpreter: “What if I’m inbounding the ball and I throw the ball off a defensive player, then catch it when it bounces off him while I’m going to the hoop and make a basket? Is that legal?” For anyone who hasn’t played basketball (wheelchair or otherwise) before, I can tell you the degree of difficulty of a move like this is pretty much off the charts. The only person I can remember ever doing such a thing and succeeding was Larry Bird. Definitely not in a wheelchair. I patiently explained to Eqbal exactly what would need to happen for this to be done legally, but summed up my answer by saying, “Passing to a teammate is a much better move, Eqbal. Always. Just pass. Please.” Still, you have to admire him for thinking outside the box.

Today after practice, Nasir the security guard/tour guide took Michael, Vincent (my French ICRC colleague) and me to visit the ancient citadel in the center of Herat. The citadel was built by Alexander the Great around 300 AD and was renovated about 10 years ago, leaving it in amazing condition. Unfortunately, the refurbishing didn’t do a whole lot for the wheelchair accessibility of the place. My three companions ended up carrying me up and down countless sets of extremely steep stone stairs as we explored the interior of the citadel (it was closed to the public, but Nasir has a special letter that allows him to bring ICRC personnel inside). At one point we were below the upper causeway at the top of the highest wall. Nasir was adamant that I needed to see the view from the top of the structure and was equally convinced that the only way to get me up there was for him to carry me on his back. This struck me as very ill-advised given the treacherous footing on the dirt at the base of the stairs and the steepness of the stairs themselves (not to mention the fact that I’m probably 8 inches taller than Nasir and could picture my legs dragging on the ground behind him – or that I’d never had anyone carry me that way, ever), but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Who was I to argue? It was just our lives that were at stake. With my arms locked around his neck, Nasir lurched forward, almost fell down a dirt embankment, recovered, stumbled toward the staircase, and proceeded to climb on his hands and feet up the steps. Somehow we both made it to the top alive and I got to see the panorama of mountains extending beyond the northern border of Herat – a view that it’s fairly unlikely any other person in a wheelchair has ever laid eyes on before. It was totally worth the brief moments of terror.

A few pictures of the citadel experience:

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Just getting into the citadel was a bit of an ordeal – I had to remove both rear wheels from my chair and go hand-over-hand across these narrowly spaced entry railings (added a bit after Alexander’s time, if I’m not mistaken) while Nasir moved my chair frame forward with me.

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After climbing up two absurdly steep stone ramps (and with a lot of help from my friends), I arrive at the upper courtyard of the citadel.

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Nasir surveys the walls around the top of the citadel, figuring out the most dangerous possible way to get me up there (you can see the stone steps he climbed with me on his back a couple hundred feet beyond him – they’re a lot steeper and more treacherous than they look from the angle of this picture, trust me).

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The view from the top of the wall. The mountains in the far distance separate Afghanistan from Turkmenistan in the north.

This morning, Michael Glowacki – director of The League of Afghanistan – arrived in Herat to begin filming. He was a couple days later than expected after some visa-processing delays kept him trapped in Dubai for four days but, after a crazy flight schedule that had him sprinting from his commercial plane from Dubai to catch a United Nations flight to Herat at the Kabul Airport this morning, he managed to make it after missing just one Herat practice. As I’ve mentioned before, the first practice of each week is always the slowest (too much of me talking and demonstrating, not enough Afghans flying around like crazy in their wheelchairs), so the best action from the Herat team is all yet to come.

Herat is a beautiful city with tree-lined streets (fir trees – the first I’ve seen anywhere in Afghanistan – just like home!) and a very peaceful vibe. Ok, peaceful for Afghanistan… but still. Michael, myself and a French ICRC employee visiting from another province took a two-hour walk around the secure parts of the city with one of the Afghan ICRC security guards this afternoon, including a tour of the huge blue mosque at the center of the city. The inner courtyard of the mosque (pictured below) is an amazing sight. Even more amazing is picturing the entire expanse filled with people kneeling side-by-side, foreheads on the ground, during Friday prayer service. Unfortunately non-Muslims aren’t permitted inside during prayer.

As we walked through the garden outside the mosque, a young Afghan guy came up to me and started asking questions in English (Where are you from? How do you like Herat? What happened to your legs? Are you married? Do you have sons?). He was a university student studying English and was excited to have a chance to practice with a native English speaker, so I had a brief chat with him. When I shook his hand to leave, I turned around and saw that a crowd of about 10 little kids had gathered to watch our conversation, open-mouthed. When my companions and I started walking back toward the mosque, all the kids followed. As my security guard/tour guide, Nasim, explained, I’m the first westerner in a wheelchair they’ve ever seen (and the first he could remember ever being in Herat), so this was a sight worth paying attention to. At one point I had Nasim ask the kids if they had any questions for me. This prompted half of them to run away and the other half to continue silently staring. Hey, I tried.

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The inner courtyard of the blue mosque in Herat.

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Olympic Stadium in Kabul, where I met with the Paralympic Committee President. It’s a gorgeous stadium with a beautiful view of snow-capped mountains in the background. Hard to believe looking at it now, but during the Taliban regime just over a decade ago, the stadium was used not for sports, but for public executions (anyone who’s read The Kite Runner may remember a key scene that took place here).

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