Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.
We are walking north along the Mahananda River in rural Bihar state, in eastern India.
In Kishanganj, a nondescript highway town, we walk into a dusty-floored pizzeria. The cramped establishment, called Pizza House, hunkers in an alley within the tumbledown bazaar. It is the first pizzeria I have encountered in many months, in hundreds of miles of foot travel. A rickety table. Some low stools. The melancholic pizza maker, Mohammad Afaque Quraishi, sits on a molded plastic chair and holds forth on the subject of war.
“We had all heard about the fight between America and Osama bin laden,” Quraishi says of the war in Afghanistan, the longest conflict in United States history, now bleeding into its 18th year. “But who doesn’t like money? And if there is any hope of making a livelihood, a man will go anywhere.”
Quaraishi went to Afghanistan to learn pizza making.
For two years, he worked in Pizza Huts at U.S. military bases outside Kabul. In 2014, when President Obama began withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan, Quraishi lost his fast-food job. But he is a methodical man. In the war zone, he had studied the Pizza Hut recipes. Back home, he bought a special oven to make his crusts with the same chewy texture. He special-orders ingredients from faraway Kolkata to make the same pizza sauce. His pies in Kishanganj are startlingly identical to the pizzas sold in the U.S. He misses the war.
“They would line up for pizza for two hours,” he recalls of the U.S. combat troops, “and then they would go off to fight.”
I was in Afghanistan as a reporter. I covered Iraq and Somalia. In the vast, pre-fabricated, fortress-like American military cities called Forward Operating Bases, I saw Subway sandwich outlets, Green Bean coffee shops, and TGIF restaurants. Men like Quraishi staffed the microwave ovens and mopped the floors. They also fueled vehicles, processed visitors through security, and collected the trash. For years, tens of thousands of such civilian contractors, many from economically struggling nations, fed, watered, and laundered American soldiers in the Global War on Terror.
Quraishi says about 70 such workers, earning an average of $450 a month, or roughly three times India’s median income, were recruited into the U.S. war effort from hard-bitten Kishanganj, a Muslim-majority town of 100,000 that used to subsist off leather tanning. While as many as 20 percent of U.S. veterans of Afghanistan experience post-traumatic stress disorder, the contractors in Kishanganj seemed to suffer mostly from severe pangs of nostalgia. The war boom is over. The Pentagon has dismissed most of its army of foreign workers. Now, the men of Kishanganj pine for their glory days in the bosom of the American military-industrial complex.
Buffered from immediate danger in Afghanistan by guards and earth-filled barriers, Quraishi recalls shopping privileges and unlimited food. He says he enjoyed a measure of freedom from the caste hierarchies—and, more recently, Hindu-centric politics—that have marginalized India's Muslim minority. (Related: Paul Salopek recounts his journey through Afghanistan.)
“There was no rich-man-poor-man stuff. No big colonel living in a big house, like here. On the base, we all ate at the same tables,” he says. “And when I came back, I got three of my sisters married. Big weddings. I got married, too. Look, I opened Pizza House.”
In the bazaar, another Afghan veteran agreed.
“There were times when we had to run to the bomb shelters,” says Mohammed Khalid Rashid, who worked as a carpool supervisor at Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Afghanistan. “But the place wasn’t all that bad. We always had air-conditioning.”
Rashid has opened an optician’s shop with his wartime earnings. Other ex-contractors have bankrolled grocery stores. Rashid says his Indian Muslim neighbors haven’t questioned him for joining the American battle against the Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan: “The Taliban are not Muslims, they are terrorists.”
In his pizza parlor, amid his chili flake shakers, Quraishi admits, however, that all is not well with the people at home. Few know what pizza is. And the most authentic American pizza establishment in Bihar state is failing.
"I'm before my time here," Quraishi says, waving his hand sadly over a menu.
He hopes, vaguely, for another American engagement, where his talents might be better appreciated.
This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek. Walking partner Priyanka Borpujari contributed to this story