Afghanistan Diary
Monday, January 31, 2005

Today was my first day at work. As usually in those circumstances, I did not do anything productive. I met with my two bosses who seem very kind (of course, I’ve got to say that in case they ever read this, but it is actually true). My direct supervisor is younger than me (first time that happens to me).

I was again taken on a tour of the facility to meet everybody. That took a while, not only because there are a lot of people in this organization but also because Afghans are heavily into the whole greeting thing. It is possible for two men to greet one another for several minutes. It is purely traditional because they talk at the same time and therefore cannot understand each other. It is also tricky because men are not supposed to shake hands with women (so I have been told) although they typically do shake hands with others men. Many times we have been asked to sit down for a tea, but this is a ritual invitation that one should refuse. After the tour, we went for lunch. It is a local tradition in Afghanistan to eat at one’s workplace and DACAAR has a cantina that serves all its employees. Food is ok and it is one less thing to worry about. I should add that I haven’t had even as much as an upset stomach since I have been in Kabul.

The main topic of conversation is the weather. Everything freezes: the road, the water pipes, the gas pipes, etc. With the electricity being down also, that leaves little facilities that work. I was upset at myself for having burned my sleeve while playing with the bukhari (furnace), then I realized that everybody in the house did the same thing. Last night the temperature reached -18C and five people froze to death.

I found a radio station (in French) that broadcast the news daily. I have yet to see any place where it is possible to buy a foreign paper (and the cost would probably be prohibitive).

I am getting quite nervous about my work. I will have to immerse myself deeply into Access and VBA. I know VBscript (sort of) but my knowledge of Access is largely restricted to using it as a back-end for a website. There is a lot I need to learn. Luckily I brought the appropriate books with me. As a result, even though I am dying to start learning Dari (DACAAR will provide us with a teacher), I decided to wait a little and catch up with some computer skills in the meantime.

I should say regarding the security that we don’t really stand out on the road because we travel with unmarked local vehicles (and not big-ass white 4x4 marked UN). Furthermore, the consensus among Afghans was that I could pass (one even claimed that I resemble a local pop singer. I’ll have to check it out to see how ugly he is).

Sunday, January 30, 2005
  2nd day in Kabul
Woke up late today. Spent several hours with Lyn who showed me the city. I took her for lunch. We went to carpet street and flower street, two of the merchant areas. Pirated dvds are for sales everywhere. They cost around $2 a piece (but factor in that many don’t work).

I am tired of expensive restaurants for expats already and I want to try some street foods next. One of the local delicacy: French fries with onion wrapped in a naan.

Friday, January 28, 2005
  D Day + 2 To Kabul once again
Woke up after 14 hours of sleep. I had breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, next to a man who looked exactly (especially his size and voice) to Marlon Brando in the Godfather (part III).

My Turkish is slowly coming back to me. Amazing what a good night of sleep can accomplish.

In most places, I don’t find that Istanbul has changed that much. Sure, there are ATM and cell phones everywhere now and rather less beggars (though there is certainly no shortage of them). One neighbourhood that did change on the other hand was Cihangir (or at least the part of Cihangir where I used to leave). I went to see the street where I used to live. It has change so much that I am not sure I even recognized the street. It used to be made out of dilapidated houses, inhabited by peasants new to the city. In the winter, there was a permanent fog caused by people heating with low quality coal. The air is clean now and nearby there are western looking stores.

I went to do all the tourist things for the rest of the day. Taksim, Eminonu, the Egyptian Bazaar, the grand Bazaar, Istanbul University, Sulthan Ahmet most, Aya Sophia, etc.

My travelling skills are rusty. When visiting Sulthan Ahmet mosk, I coudn’t get rid of a guide. When I did, he tried to extort $35 out of me. I gave him five liras ($2.5) and told him to bugger off.

Upset stomach caused me to rush to the nearby public toilets (not for the faint of heart) where customers mistook me for the cleaner (proof that in the right context, I can pass as a Turk).

On the way to the airport I met Larry, a friendly guy who trains police officers in Afghanistan. From him and others people I have talked to while waiting for the plane in Kabul, I get the picture of the typical (non-NGO) expat: works for a company that contracts with the military, does it for the money, bored out of his skull in Kabul, capable to tell you about a murder that happened in the same tone of voice as if he announced the weather.

Many organizations used to refuse dealing with Ariana Afghan Airlines, due to their poor maintenance records. I am starting to understand why. Once at the airport, I learnt that the flight will only depart at 1:30am (two hours later than schedule). The plane itself is the shabbiest I have ever seen. Stewards wear worn-out uniforms. There are only two women in the plane. I feel that I am the only person in the plane who is actually excited about going to Kabul. The plane is also held in Baku for several hours.

Eventually I arrive. I am introduced to some of my colleagues by Lynn, one of the women I will be living with. Lynn striked me as a good-natured person with a generous heart and also somewhat of a party girl. Lynn and I will share a car. Driving here is no small endeavour (and the fact the car is a stick shift – which I never used – is the least of it). The Roads (if you can call them that) are full of enormous potholes, and covered with snow, ice and slush. As if this wasn’t enough, you also have to try to avoid cyclists and forthcoming traffic (even on a one way street).

The house where we live is fine, it is protected day and night by one or two guards (a standard measure for all expats here). The main challenge is the bitter cold of the afghan winter. It is quite cold outside and the house has no central heating. It is heated by bakharis, a furnace that uses either wood or sawdust as fuel. However the bakharis can only do so much. I am sitting next to one now and despite being warmly dressed I am cold. There is sometimes city electricity at night, however we also have a small generator that we can use (but the generator is not powerful enough to use an electric heater for instance).

The streets are full of carts from vendors of anything. Some collective taxis pass as well as big ass white UN vehicle with a large antenna. Oddly, there isn’t really any music played in the street (legacy of the Taliban?). The roads are so icy that women wearing burkas have to lift them over their head to look at the road.

We went to a French restaurant were we met others NGO workers. The place is enclosed and guarded by two men carrying an AK47, but already I am not paying attention to the weapons as they are everywhere. The restaurant is in a nice house, there is a swimming pool even for the summer. The restaurant is a place for expats obviously with the prices indicated in dollars. It is quite expensive.

The people we meet are interesting. The average expat seem to have spent 4-5 years outside his/her native country. I spent 11 but that does not really count because most of it was in cushy places (UK, US). It is very easy to meet others NGO workers here but I do hope that I will also get to meet Afghans (and not just because they are waiter in the restaurant I am at). I realized that I will life like an expat here. I always tried to live like a local before. Living like an expat is much easier but I don’t think it is as satisfying.

Some people imagine that because Kabul is “dangerous”, it must be scary and exciting. In fact it is neither. It’s not like we are dodging bullets here. It merely means that we need to follow some security guidelines, which is a hassle. Many organizations are stricter around security and set curfew, no-go area, etc. DACAAR (the organization I work for) set some general guidelines and leave it up to us to implement them or not.

Thursday, January 27, 2005
  D Day + 1 stuck in Istanbul
My entire itinerary was Albuquerque-Chicago-Paris-Istanbul-Baku-Kabul over 48 hours. I made all the connection to Istanbul only to learn that the plane to Kabul was cancelled due to bad weather. Weather permitting I was to leave the next day. I suppose that there are worse things in life than to have to spend a day in Istanbul.

I did something I would never have done had I not an insanely heavy bag with me: I went to the hotel reservation desk in the airport and booked myself a room in an expensive ($50) hotel. But by that time beads of sweat were dripping from my forehead into the floor and I had already been travelling for more than 24 hours. All I wanted was a bed and a hot shower whatever the cost.

I used to live in Istanbul ten years ago and hadn’t been back since.

Inflation has been terrible: the highest banknote in circulation ten years ago does not even pay for a bus ticket today.

To my disappointment my Turkish seem to have almost entirely vanished.

After taking a shower I went for a walk. I meant to walk to Sulthan Ahmet, then Gulhane park and then to Eminonu. Instead, I walked the wrong direction and I ended up in Aksaray. That neighbourhood sure hasn’t changed much in ten years. Still the same street sellers of Chinese knock-offs, and the same “natachas” (Eastern European sex-workers). I got to Sultan Ahmet in the end but exhaustion caught up with me (I had barely slept the night before) and after sending some emails from a internet café (they are everywhere) I felt asleep.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005
  D Day
I went to the airport three hours early. An unpleasant American Airlines clerk made me take thirteen pounds off my eighty-three pounds duffle bag. I pleaded with him, I argued, I even offered to pay to no avail. I ended up carrying the extra weight in my hand luggage. I fail to understand the point of all this, since, whether it is in the cockpit or in the luggage department, the plane will carry this weight regardless. Bureaucracy is not designed to make sense.

I was worried that airport security would give me a hard time due to the fact that I was travelling to Afghanistan on a one-way ticket. Actually, nobody looked at my passport nor at my ticket closely enough to notice where I was going.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

"You are going WHERE?" That was the most common reaction I got from people when I told them about my intention to work in Afghanistan. Some of my smart-ass friends were more sarcastic: "Why Kabul? Was Falluhah already taken?"

Some never understood why I wanted to work for a Non-Governmental Organization for a pityful salary in a war zone.However, as a whole, I have been absolutely amaized by the support I received from family, colleages and friends, who made my departure possible by volunteering to keep my dogs, sell my car, etc.

During the week prior to my departure, I had several farewell parties organized for me. It was really rather nice.

Most everybody was worried about me and my departure, except me. Perhaps I was just too absorbed in getting everything ready for the trip (getting vaccinations, stocking one year supply of prescription medicine, obtaining my visa, etc.) It may seem like little but everyday I found some new errands that I must imperatively do before my departure.

I am having some second thoughts about writing a blog. The world sure does not need another mediocre piece of self-indulgent writing (which seem to characterize most blogs I have seen).

This is my diary. My name is Lev and I work in Kabul for a non-governmental organization (

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 /

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