A Peace of Afghanistan

07/12/2013 11:26 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013

"Well, this is just ridiculous," I said to myself, while trying to pee on the side of the road in a burqa.

Hopping back in the car, my driver and I sped westwards, praying the Taliban wouldn't stop us before nightfall.

Cruising past the carcasses of Soviet tanks, I spied, through the knitted screen of my burqa, an American surveillance aerostat hovering in the pristine sky. Had they detected this lone American woman traveling through Afghanistan in the name of peace?

My mission wasn't a secret one. Crossing the border on foot from Tajikistan, I had slipped on my burqa in the end zone of no man's land.

"Anything to declare?" the border guards said, as I handed them my passport.

"Just prayers for peace, from those Americans who want peace," I said.

As the gates to Afghanistan -- and perhaps my heart -- opened wide, I breathed a sigh of relief. But my mission was just getting started.

Each time I lifted my burqa at a checkpoint and revealed my Slavic features, the Northern Alliance soldiers laughed with surprise, and told me I took a wrong turn in Russia.

"You were supposed to go left -- not right," they would say.

Arriving at twilight in Mazar-i Sharif, where the turquoise mosque shimmered under white lights for Persian New Year, my driver invited me to stay with his family -- since every hotel deemed me a spy.

At the door, Aziza, his young nephew's wife, hugged me close like a sister, and led by hand through her two room apartment, which was empty -- save for a satellite TV. On a hot plate, a houseboy was cooking narenj palao -- rice pilaf with orange peel, saffron, pistachios, and chicken.

For dinner, I was invited to join the men.

"Who do you like better -- Shakira or Natasha?" the men said, pushing pop stars over politics.

While we ate with our hands around a purple tablecloth on the floor, the men stood up to shake their unholstered hips like Shakira.

"Can I look at pictures on your computer?" Aziza said, as the lights went out.

"Don't worry -- they cut the power every night to make it hard for the Taliban to communicate," my driver said, rubbing his full belly.

By candlelight, Aziza and I viewed snapshots from my Silk Road solo travels -- Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan. All of which, for both of us, seemed worlds away.

The next day, we rose early to drive to Balkh to visit the tomb of Rabia Balkhi, a 10th century female Persian poet, and the medieval home of Rumi's father. As we passed U.S. tanks on our pilgrimage to mystical Sufi shrines, it was strange to be so close to my countrymen, and yet so far away.

Days later, an attack was imminent; it was time to move on. Before parting, my Afghan host family and I embraced in self-congratulatory hugs -- we'd transcended ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, and united in our shared dreams of peace. Instead of an enemy or occupier, they'd welcomed me as a member of their family, and parting with them was like leaving a loved one behind.

"We are Taliban," said several Afghan men to my face in a crowded shuttle bus near the border.

"And I am an American," I said.

"Why are you here?" they said.

"To bring peace from Americans who want peace," I said.

Though I was speaking Dari, it might as well have been gibberish. To them, I was an enigma -- how could they help but stare? After their attempts to quiz me in Islamic law backfired, they helped carry my bags off the bus, and wished me well.

When I returned home to America to teach Sufism at Columbia, the national discourse had shifted towards one of economics -- this war is just costing us too damn much. What if, I wondered, we spoke as much about the principles and promises of peace, as we did the bankrupting cost of war? Or became proud soldiers of peace, instead of the world's police?

From holding my father's Purple Heart in my hands as child, to glimpsing firsthand the atrocities of war as an adult, I've come to believe that there's nothing more important project than peace -- and no better time for it than right now. But peace will not come, until we walk bravely and as a nation into the war zones of our own making -- united in our common humanity, and fearing nothing but our own apathy and indifference.