I came down the concrete alley, struggling with a heavy suitcase and groceries. It had been months since my last visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, when the virus had forced me to rush home early. Now, I was not sure what to expect. In a society where crowded mosques and weddings are the glue of human interaction, everyone was now fearful and hunkered down. Even the few other foreigners I knew were locked into their compounds and not allowed visitors. It was going to be a lonely trip.
As I trudged along, passing armed guards with masked faces outside door after door, I steeled myself to find no one waiting for me outside my office entrance. For years, when I was based in Kabul as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, I had fed a variety of neighborhood cats there early each morning, then sat in the garden with my coffee as they played in the grass — a calm and cherished ritual in a place where violence could erupt at any moment.
One of them, a frail but scrappy ginger cat, I had taken home to Virginia with me several years earlier, after a massive truck bomb blew out the windows of my upstairs office where she often sat in the sun. Having miraculously survived, she would now be safe at home forever, and when I returned there I knew I would find her napping in her favorite chair, next to the window in the office where I now spend much of the day writing and thinking.
But I also knew that by now, the cats of my Kabul alley would have long given up on me and retreated into the shadows of subsistence street life, nosing in garbage piles by day and hiding in secret culverts by night. I had always left supplies of cat food with the guards, but I was never sure how often they would put them out after I was no longer around to humor.
I knew some of the cats might have been injured or fallen sick in my absence, or perhaps even died. I would have no way to know what fate they had met. Each step felt heavier. I did not want to reach my door, find no one waiting, and hear the steel barricade clang heavily behind me.
Then, with half a block to go, I glimpsed a familiar gray and white cat sitting on a wall. She was not one of the friendlier ones who had often ventured into my garden, but I had fed her from time to time outside. At that moment, she heard my footsteps slowing. She instinctively crouched, ready to jump down and run, but briefly turned her head my way.
Her eyes widened, then lit up in what I can only describe as joyful astonishment. She uttered a long, musical call, plaintive and surprised and slightly recriminating. I understood every word as clearly as if she had been speaking English. It's you! You're back! Where have you been? Why were you gone so long?
Then she jumped down and ran over to me, swishing back and forth against my legs in that unmistakable feline gesture, both trusting and proprietary. As I continued on my way, she trotted beside me. When we reached my barricaded entrance, it was indeed bereft of cats, but I suspected she would soon inform the neighborhood of the news.
Sure enough, early the next morning when I went out to the garden, there was a black kitten waiting on the wall, and a familiar shaggy tabby watching from under a rosebush. Twenty minutes later, the cat I had been most anxious to see appeared on the roof, saw me and leaped down immediately. She was a slender gray cat with topaz eyes, keenly observant and intuitive.
Two years before, after a close friend of mine had been killed in the war, she and I had spent many hours there together, sitting on a wooden bench and contemplating the mysteries of life. Unlike the others, she did not rush to eat this morning. Instead, she found a comfortable spot near my ankles and curled up on the grass. I knew she would be back every day.
The gray and white cat, basking in the distinction of having spotted me first and announced my arrival to the waiting multitudes, regally ignored us all and groomed herself in a corner.
As I watched her, I thought about the concept of recognition and its several meanings. I have received a few formal honors in my career over the years, and I have heard some politely appreciative words spoken about my work in war zones such as Afghanistan. But the look of unabashed welcome on that cat's face, when she spied me coming down the alley, was all the recognition — and appreciation — I could ever want.
Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post's foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s. She wrote this for The Washington Post.