Rogers: The world’s greatest divide |

Rogers: The world’s greatest divide

Aspen Times editor Don Rogers

Aspen and Afghanistan could not be farther apart.

The world’s richest and poorest, best and worst educated, culturally, technologically, in faith, in governance, in skiers per capita in mountain towns.

All that and you could tunnel from here to the other side of the globe and emerge not far from the Durand Line in the forested frontier of northeastern Afghanistan/northwestern Pakistan. A true opposite. No aspen trees, either.

I barely knew where Afghanistan was before 9/11. A vague someplace amid the other “stans.” Most Americans still don’t, somehow, and hey, a kinship in ignorance, you won’t find many Afghans who have heard of Aspen, never mind grasp the wonders we take for granted, even complain about.  

“The Kite Runner” in 2003, Rory Stewart’s brave walk across the country, as chronicled in 2006’s “The Place In Between,” and then a torrent of books, articles, white papers, histories, documentaries, poems called landays eventually burst forth for me. My list of books is nudging 130. Yeah, I’m counting.

I’m reading three now: Mir Tanmim Ansary’s “Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan,” Craig Whitlock’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” and Ayad Akbar’s “Homeland Elegy” a second time with heightened interest in the diaspora from the region, including the Pakistani and Iranian experience.

I recently finished “Veil of Roses,” a silly romance by Laura Fitzgerald, and the “Brown Album: Essays on Exile,” by Porochista Khakpour, who lived in the same apartment row neighborhood and went to the same high school I did in South Pasadena, part of the vast suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, both of us taken young from our original homes, hers Tehran and mine Honolulu.


My fascination flamed over as the 2000s crossed into their teens. Can’t say why, exactly, but around then I surprised myself writing a couple of chapters about an imagined Pashtun-Kalasha woman deep in the Hindu Kush borderlands. I wrote about her before I knew the Kalasha existed, kafir holdouts in a few valleys near Chitral, light skinned, light haired, light eyed. I’m sure the girl on the National Geographic cover had something to do with that, though I’d forgotten her.

Of all the interests I could take, this is the strangest, the farthest out, even the why of it beyond my ken. I never wrote fiction, knew next to nothing as I began, have no idea how I could possibly come to care about this part of the world.

So, of course, I go all mystical in trying to explain: A muse flew in, see, talons wide, and gripped a shoulder she hasn’t released yet. Nothing soft and warm and inspirational about her, a fierce, yellow-eyed raptor. The only way out is through the story she gifted or cursed. So that’s what I’m doing, writing. Maybe then, when I finish, maybe then she’ll let me go.

I won’t try to tell you what it’s about. I’m only transcribing anyway. And researching, which mainly consists of scribbling to see what I need to learn, then going from there. My book list grows, my wife too frightened to let her husband travel there, though this may be fated. I want to see.

I want to see if what I read and imagine lines up as it has with Bolinas and Bluff, two other places I had never been but wrote into the story and was stunned at how they matched reality. I found a key pile of kelp all alone on the beach right where I’d written it in. I had a long conversation with the actual owner of a restaurant I’d put in the story before going there who told me in life (and then the story) she was a physicist by profession and had worked with Gordon Moore. The sci fi part depends on Moore’s law.

Yes, I totally believe in serendipity, a beautiful contrast to our too-calculated existence. The gut bears its own funny wisdom. Here in form, at least, lies art.


Aspen presents one way of living in a mountain community, and the high frontier of northwestern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan quite another.

True, I know ski town life by living and working in several over these past 25 years. But I know the internal life of Malala’s Swat Valley, Jamil Ahmad’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, Nadia Hashim’s rural and palace Kabul better through their books than I would passing through these places, wondering how people there live, what they think about, not able to see inside as I can mainlined from their minds via text, the ultimate human code.

To that end, Aspen Words Literary Prize winner Jamil Jan Kochai’s work serves as guide to life in the country and to the diaspora in Sacramento.

I know by reading how our experience of the world is so different. I also know, reading deeper, just how we are so, so much the same, we people living in the mountains of Aspen and we people in the mountains of Afghanistan.

How much less the gap between American Republican and American Democrat?

Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at