Whoever first pronounced that “forty is the new thirty” likely was not a male suddenly unable, at age forty-one if my case is exemplary, to sleep through the night without waking at least once to urinate. Typically this disrupted sleep is due to a prostate gland that, after four previous decades of relative dormancy, is now blossoming like a desert lily at daybreak; and which delights in tickling a bladder that subsequently demands evacuation no matter what the present volume. I certainly did not have this problem at age thirty. Now, in my early forties, I can rarely escape the nightly interruption, even if I attempt to dehydrate myself before getting supine for slumber. In fact, I could blood let myself to a near death before sleep but still find myself in the bathroom at 02:00.
I don’t mind the interruption if I am home, or even at my base in Kabul as the toilet is only several yards from my bed, and usually I can take care of business and be back asleep within a few minutes. But during my recent trip to Mazir-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where I slept in quarters without bathroom facilities, I found the nightly physiologic intrusion more burdensome. There, on a US military base that simply is a collection of plywood shacks and large shipping container boxes sitting on packed gravel and fenced by stacked barricades, I awoke each night to the famed Afghan 100 Days of Wind – extended in Mazir-Sharif through the moonlit hours and accompanied by the ample airborne dirt and silt from the surrounding desert. Every night, I awoke and trekked in the dark thirty or so yards to the toilet trailer with my head down as the dirty air stung my eyes; but I did notice one night that young, thin trees planted by the camp’s headquarters, virtually stripped of leaves either by the wind or a local goat, bent at nearly ninety degree angles in the gusts.
Every night, before I even began another quest for uninterrupted sleep, I took notice of the wind. In fact, the first time I lay in my bunk I thought that an active loading dock sat behind my quarters, as I heard the intermittent percussion of wood and metal colliding. The following morning, I discovered that the sounds were from the corrugated sheet metal, used as roofing on the buildings and shelters surrounding me, lifting in the wind and then crashing together or into the wooden beams that were supposed to hold them firmly in place.
The dirt raised by the wind permeated everything, even the interior of the buildings themselves. The nearby Afghan military hospital, where I spent two days, had a film of dirt everywhere: on the floors, on the patient’s blankets, on the operating room equipment. The dirt simply overwhelms the new hospital’s air filtering system. I went to inspect the ophthalmology equipment at the facility and instruct the staff, which is devoid of an eye surgeon, on its use. The room marked “Eye Clinic” had been locked for months, and when we opened the door I felt as if I were Howard Carter as he peered through the hole he had drilled into sealed door of Tutankhamen’s tomb, for I saw everything inside the clinic perfectly preserved under a soft, quiet layer of silt.
The weather in Mazir-e-Sharif remains very warm, and I was grateful for the sultry climate in the middle of the night when I walked to the bathroom in shorts and a t-shirt. I also appreciated the air conditioners that cooled most of the buildings. The recirculated air may have been dirty, with thin clouds of dust visibly emanating from the air conditioners’ vents, but at least the buildings remained a pleasant temperature. I tried to focus on the comforting cool every night as I returned from the bathroom and climbed back into my sleeping bag, comfortable again below the waist but tasting on my tongue the ancient soil that permeates the air in Mazir-e-Sharif.