Afghanistan Diary
Sunday, February 27, 2005
 

The word on the street is that DACAAR is in dire financial straits and that the organization will need to undergo drastic changes in order to accommodate to changing NGO funding mechanisms.

 
Friday, February 25, 2005
 

One of my afghan colleagues invited a few of us, foreigners, to drive to one of Kabul’s dams. The view of the snowy mountains was spectacular and we had a great time walking in the snow and (more foolishly perhaps) on the ice. Later, four of our afghan colleagues came to join us. It was very nice.


One of the strange sights to be found in Afghanistan is that of abandoned shipping containers. They are usually in the middle of nowhere and you can’t help but wonder how they got there in the first place. We even saw an adobe house built around one.


In the afternoon, I took part in a hash. The hash (not to be confused with the local pharmacopoeia of the same name. The full name is Hash House Harriers) is, short of a better description, a traditional hiking society with a drinking edge. The whole thing sounds very British to me, although the group itself was international. We walked around a soviet built hospital complex, then passed some villages. The view of the adobe houses and of the wheat (?) fields with the mountains as the backdrop was wonderful. A funeral was taking place in the village. There was a procession, with at the front, four men carrying a bamboo bed on which lay the deceased covered by a blanket. A large chanting crowd was following.


For the next part of the trail, we had difficulties due to the slippery, ankle-deep puddles of mud. Some of us eventually, abandoned the “road” altogether and climbed the hill leading us to our destination instead. We passed a cemetery on the way. Many of the tombstones were literally that: a simple flat stone with some inscription painted on it. A green flag decorates the tomb of men who led pious lives.


We arrived panting to the top of the hill were stood the remains of an olympic size swimming pool built by the Soviets. We had perfect view on Kabul, the mountain (snowy on one side, earth colored on the other), the airport, the palace, the intercontinental hotel, etc. I don’t know how they built the pool, but today there isn’t even a decent road to get to it and it looks utterly absurd. Kids were playing soccer in the empty pool and nearby, next to an abandoned tank (there aren’t too many of those, but a few can be seen in and around Kabul).


I saw many women today and the large majority of them wore burka (the rest wore only headscarves). And that’s in and around Kabul, I would imagine that the burka would be more prevalent in some of the provinces. Interestingly, wearing the burka does not preclude wearing high heels in some cases. Burkas did not end with the Taliban.

 
Thursday, February 24, 2005
  Spring is coming

The weather is definitely warming up. Spring is coming. At last! The snow is melting in our garden revealing the lovely sight of piles of dirt and heaps of garbage (there is naturally no garbage collection in Kabul. We have been waiting for somebody to pick up the trash and bring it to the dump for a while now). The snow melting on dirt roads is creating mud all over town, making it harder to walk or drive. But roads are terrible anyway. An amusing detail is that I know of no city where there are more speed bumps than Kabul, and yet, I know of no place where they are less needed: between the potholes, the mud, the improvised garbage dumps and the ditch that serves as a gutter, it is impossible to go fast. Cars do take a beating here, and the fact that some Soviet-era Skoda are still in use speaks volume about the talents of afghans mechanics.


Today, instead of going to Dacaar’s cafetaria, I went to an expat restaurant (Flower Street Café). A rather pleasant place, though nothing fancy. There we ate very good sandwiches. On the way back to work, we stopped at a small afghan shop to buy some cookies that were amazingly cheap. We calculated that for the price of one sandwich, we could have bought 9Kg of cookies. Nine kilos! The disparity in wealth in this country is unbelievable.
In the evening, we went to a party (Thursday night is the big night out, since everybody is off on Friday). Getting there was actually more interesting than the party itself. Every car was following another car, although nobody knew where to go. The roads were pretty bad and we got stuck in the mud. It was an NGO party again, this time hosted by a French organization. Clearly, they were not geared for the number of people who showed up, and shortly after we came, they only let people in if there were on the guest list. I had rsvp’ed, without having ever been invited. Anyway, it was nothing special, crowd of people packed in a room in the basement, dancing, drinking or smoking hash. Alcohol was in short supply and the party was rather dull really, but I had a good time talking with my friends nonetheless.
I have been told today that I look strikingly like a Serbian actor. Some time ago, it was an Afghan pop star. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that I must have a very common face.


There are aspects of our life here that are reminiscent of college life. We live in a shared house, meet only single people who are roughly our age (none of whom have kids), and go to parties every weeks (or for some people, who shall remain nameless, every day).

 
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
  Work

I have done something stupid at work and I am still dealing with its repercussions. Yesterday, somebody from a ministry came to discuss our possible participation to their “Electronic Afghanistan Project.” That project consists in putting as much information on Afghanistan as possible online, and since DACAAR possess a lot of useful information, it was natural that they ask for our help. They wanted to get an idea of what our database structure was, it order to see if it would be possible to integrate the data we have with that of others agencies.


I understood that we were collaborating with this guy more than we actually were, and to cut a long story short, I gave him a copy of one of our database. It was rather poor judgment on my part, naturally. Not being a complete idiot (admittedly I came pretty close), I did require from him assurances that he would not use the data without our prior consent, which he has since put in writing. Basically I don’t think it is too bad. I think that it is in our interest to contribute to this project if it ever takes off the ground, and he gave us guarantee that they would wait for our approval before doing anything to the data. However, people in some departments did not see it this way. Management was already heard of the fiasco, and it has taken meetings and efforts to find a situation everybody would be comfortable with.


I have been working with Microsoft Access for a month and I now developed a love-hate relationship with the software: it doesn’t scale for shit, it is pathetically unstable and yet, it is so user-friendly it is almost irritating. I lost whatever little respect I had for Access developers: this stuff is so easy! Ok, I shouldn’t get too cocky because I certainly have a lot more to learn, but it is possible to build in minutes forms that would take hours to develop on the web (my background). I guess the internet is still not a very mature environment, although it is slowly getting there.


Since this blogg is the place for my witty and informative comments on life in Kabul I am going to share some observations I made from buying groceries: bread is almost for nothing, fruits and vegetables are very cheap, but canned products and imported goods are relatively pricey. The odd thing though is that as far as I have been able to observe, people really don’t eat many vegetables here (though they do eat salad).

 
Saturday, February 19, 2005
  Ashura

Today is marked by the celebration of Ashura, one of the holiest days of the Shiite calendar. Believers march or in some case flagellate themselves to commemorate the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

It makes me very sad that I haven’t been able to see much of it. This was due to a combination of not managing to join a group, not wanting to go alone, not knowing where to go and having a car that did not start that day. The little I saw was from my neighborhood (which is not especially a Shiia neighborhood), although I also heard from people who have been able to observe more than I have.

Anybody who has watched CNN’s reports on the Ashura celebration in Iraq or Iran, expect to encounter an angry mob ready to destroy anything on its way and people flagellating themselves with sharp blades. Ashura in Kabul was nothing like that. Most (though not all) Shiias in Afghanistan are Hazaras, who form only a minority in this city, which might be why they toned the celebration down.

In town, I saw some cars and motorcycles, brandishing black or green flag with Persian writing on them, sometimes with some loudspeaker on top of the car. Deep in Shiia neighborhood, one could see in some mosques circles of people beating their chest and chanting, but all in a friendly and peaceful atmosphere, I was told. I heard that in one mosque, there were some scenes of gore, but I haven’t met any first hand witness.

 
Friday, February 18, 2005
 

Today, I turned down a couple of invitations to do my nerdy things at home (basically studying Dari). I decided that learning Dari has got to be my first priority since, only when I will be able to speak some dary get richer interactions with afghans. Granted I am bad at practising what I know but that's mostly because the extend of my knowledge of Dari is "Today I am in the office. Who is in the office?"

 
Thursday, February 17, 2005
  Just another evening, another week

Thursday night is the big night out (since almost everybody has Friday off) and we went to an Iranian restaurant tonight. I like it because in addition to having very good food, it also is the only establishment I know in Kabul that actually looks like a restaurant. This is not to say that others places are not be nice, posh even, but there is always something broken, an ad hoc lighting system in the restroom, a flakey generator, or some other detail to remind you that you are in makeshift restaurant somewhere in the third-world.

When we got there, we immediately noticed a few men in uniform standing at the entrance, as well as a herd of black Benz parked in front of the restaurant. We took that as a cue that something official was going on, and indeed we caught a glimpse of the Agriculture minister who was leaving the premises.

On this occasion, we primarily came to the restaurant to drink tea and smoke shisha (waterpipe). I did not smoke though because I kicked that habit over a year ago and do not want to start again. The group consisted of three expats (including your narrator), two afghans, and a Pakistani couple. The later were especially interesting. Obviously they were part of an educated elite. The man talked much about politics. His younger girlfriend was more into piercing and having fun. Body piercing is not something one typically associates with Pakistan, and I found myself wishing that “she” would be more different from “us”, which I have absolutely no right to do since naturally “she” has the right to be just as [fill the blanks] as “we” are. When traveling, you often encounter elites who see Westernization as a salvation from their own society, which they consider oppressive. Since you travel in part because you are looking for something your own society does not provide, this kind of encounters are destined to be disappointing.

I hadn’t had dinner so, I ate, and it was rather uncomfortable to eat in front of some people (such as my 21 year old boss) who probably couldn’t afford a meal there. To make things worse, I suffered from a fine but persistent hand tremor that made it a real challenge for me to bring food from my plate to my month without spilling it all over.

On the way back we heard of a party organized by an Italian NGO and we decided to check it out. It was your typically NGO party. The building itself was located in a back street accessible from a dirt road. There were 150 people or so, virtually all Whites (expect for 2-3 Asians, 2 Blacks, an Iranian and a Jew). The only Afghan present were the chawkidar (guard) and two drivers. Almost everybody was smoking (usually tobacco), which made the air inside almost unbreathable. I had the opportunity to put my (naturally deficient) social skills to the test. In fact, I had some nice chats with a few people, danced a little and I also helped myself generously to the bar. Overall a good night out.

 
 
Unlucky me! One of my filling came off yesterday. It is quite large. I don't know if I will be able to wait twelve months before getting dental care. I might have to visit a dentist in Peshawar.

I started to take Dari lessons. It is quite hard, because it takes me a lot of effort to learn in a different alphabet, but I am very enthusiastic about it and can't wait until the next class.
 
Monday, February 14, 2005
  Chawkidars

Our house is surrounded by three meter high barbwired walls. It is also protected by one or two chawkidars (“guards”). They stay next to the entrance in a wooden shack whose comfort level is somewhere in between that of a dog house and that of a shed. Within this small space, they cram a gas heater, a stove, and a few cushions. Their primary duty is to provide security. In that respect, employing them is unavoidable: any international staff lives in a house that is at least as protected as ours. The chawkidars also performs a number of additional duties, such as collecting the sawdust for the bukharis (furnace), turning the generator on and off, etc. They might perform heavier tasks such as removing the snow from the roof (Afghan roofs are not snow proof), but this is more controversial, and I have seen them arguing that it was not their job to do so.

On most days, we eat naan for breakfast. Breakfast is not a formal affair in our house. If we have time, we drink coffee and eat some naan covered with honey or peanut butter, standing in the kitchen. Today, my housemate asked me “Don’t you like naan for breakfast?” I knew of course, that it was her very polite way to ask “Why didn’t you get the naan this time, you lazy bum?” A very valid question, indeed. "Getting the naan" consists in asking the chawkidar to buy it for us. So far, I had been too embarrassed to ask him to embark on the perilous two hundred meters journey through ice, slow and slush that separates our house from the “bakery.” When the naan is there, I eat it with appetite, naturally. I just pretend not to know how it got on the kitchen counter. My hypocrisy has no bounds.

Today, I “dirtied my own hand.” I walked to the guard and asked him if he could get me a naan. He was a little disconcerted but not for the reasons you might expect. “One naan, not two?” he asked.

On a more serious note, two hundred and something DACAAR field employees were fired today. This was due to financial problems and changing donors requirements.



 
Saturday, February 12, 2005
  Driving lessons in Kabul

Like many people who learn how to drive in America, I only know how to drive a car with automatic transmission. Here, all cars have manual transmission and today I had my first driving lesson. We started going back and forth in the back streets adjacent to the house. Naturally, the whole driving lesson did not go unnoticed in the neighborhood, and kids and adults alike were watching the whole scene, amused. Then we decided to follow a path we had never taken before to see where it would lead us, and this was not, I emphasize not, the thing to do. The “path” quickly disintegrated into an accumulation of ice and mud forming a highly irregular terrain with half-erased car tracks over it. Things were getting worse as it progressed and more than once, I thought the car was going to tip over, but the real miracle is that we didn’t get stuck in one of the many mud holes.

Later I actually drove in town. Kabul is not exactly the easiest place to learn how to drive. Besides the chaos, there are immense potholes, giant ice blocks, poorly designed street bumps, an undetermined number of lanes, and naturally the prevailing traffic code (which is basically a local variation of the law of the jungle). I stalled six times in front of a bus, and at least once (let’s not sell myself so short, it was probably two or three times), in the middle of a busy roundabout. somehow, I made it though.

 
Thursday, February 10, 2005
  Bukharis

Yesterday, one of my housemate got sick. The pipes of her bukhari (furnace) got clogged and her room filled with smoke (which she inhaled). She went to the hospital after she repeatedly fainted, but was discharged. She is doing better now.

The good news is that the weather is slowly getting warmer and we *shouldn't* need bukharis for much longer.

I went to a Chinese restaurant yesterday (to celebrate the Chinese new year) with a few colleagues and many others people. I’ve got to specify that this was indeed an honest establishment because in Kabul, many chinese “restaurants” are places of ill-repute where more than food is on the menu. I enjoyed talking to Jesper, a guy who lived in China for many years and speaks fluent Chinese as a result. The food was plentiful to say the least. The check was actually not so high in Western terms, although completely prohibitive by local standards.

I discussed with some others folks the possibility of traveling to Mazar-e Sharif, which is the place I wanted to go to. There is a plane but my potential traveling companions, where keener on going by road (which worries me a little).


 
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
 

Today I had lunch at Dakaar with two visitors from Denmark, who were somewhat concerned by the possibility they might get sick from the food. I promptly reassured them by telling them I never encountered problems here. Not until long after the meal did I realize the enormity of this lie. How could I forget that everyday my guts are bubbling and screaming after every lunch? Because it is so much part of my daily routine that I don’t think about it, that’s why.

Today, I fixed a puny little database problem that had been nagging me for a few days. It is only two o’clock but I think I should leave it at that. Why not end work on a good note?

 
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
 

I have been putting off writing about this for a while, because I did not want to disclose how corrupted I became, but here it is: We (that is me and the three girls I live with) are getting a cleaner for the house. Although I heard all of the arguments that are supposed to soothe my oh-so-wounded petit bourgeois conscience (it provides employment, it stimulates the local economy, …), I can’t manage to be completely scrupleless about it. So, I plan to be a hypocrite instead, to reap the benefits of a clean house, while claiming some moral superiority because I have some moral qualms about exploiting a cleaner. Because, even if we pay her well by local standards, I find it difficult to say that we are not exploiting her.

You may not realize, reader, that you are hardly in position to judge. Aren’t the Nikes you are wearing made in a sweat shop in Pakistan, etc? And how long has that bother you, really? But there is something more “in your face” when you hire a worker yourself. It is quite possible to live very comfortably here and to have a cook, a driver and a maid, but it is not what I came here for though.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest country in the world (all living standards indicators are horrendous) and I can only live there as a rich man, among a few middle class Afghanis and surrounded by others people who are incommensurably poorer. The challenge is to be a decent rich man by both local and one’s own standards. Of course it is greatly ironic that I am a rich man here, given that my salary is only a fraction (roughly a quarter) of what I was earning in the US, making me a little more than a bum when I’ll be back to the States.

At any rate, the first candidate came the other day. It was very interesting. The woman wore a complete burka, yet, once in our living room, she took it off in the presence of two men. She was proud to say she could use a vacuum cleaner (not your everyday afghan thing). She wanted a job because there were too many men at her current job and that made her uncomfortable. She came from Mazar-e Sharif, close to Turkmenistan. A fascinating place which I would love to visit some day.

 
  Gloom

I spent today continuously working on an Access VBA macro. At around three o’clock I was staring – not without a certain desperation – at the pitiful yield of my efforts: 50 or so lines of buggy code. In the following hour, I found a more efficient way of coding that reduced the number of lines down to fifteen. That works out just under two lines per hour. I’d hesitate to say it was a productive day.

I came here because I thought that working for an NGO would make my work, and by extension my life meaningful. It hasn’t been two weeks I am here and already I know that, although I might gain a number of things from this experience (and lose an equal number of things), it won’t give any meaning to my life nor work. I am just the same little clog in the machine, doing petty little work. Spent much of the day mulling over similar somber thoughts.

 
Saturday, February 05, 2005
 

Khalid, an afghan man who works at DACAAR volunteered to take me and others visitors on a tour of Kabul, which was very nice of him. I wasn’t sure he would come because there was 30cm of snow but he did.

There were perhaps less shelled houses than I expected, but mudjahedeen looted the whole city shamelessly. The communist period is not one that is remembered fondly because; the government did nothing for the people in rural area. However, in Kabul the regime did build a lot of the housing (many of which still exist today) and infrastructure. Once there was a great public transportation system. Today all that remains is a heap of busses, from which every mechanical part has been taken and sold on a market in Pakistan or Iran. There was a tramway system and good phone infrastructure, but looters have removed until the last cable. We also saw the remains of the palace, the newly remodeled Olympic stadium (infamous in Taliban time as public executions took place there), the University, etc. We saw a lot of houses. People seem either to live in Soviet style apartments, in squatter settlement build on the mountain (but there is no running water there) or squatting the remains of shelled building.

Khalid asked me why I wasn’t married (a topic I wasn’t very keen to discuss). No satisfied by my unarticulated answers, he said “You [Westerners] just worry too much about compatibility. You wait and try to see if you will get along. You should just go ahead and get married. I didn’t say a word to my wife before our wedding and we don’t have any problems.” Marriage in Afghanistan is a family affair. Traditionally, the groom’s family ask to the family of the bride to be and the proposal is either accepted or not. In progressive families, the girl is asked whether she wants to get married or not. I would imagine that in Kabul’s urban middle class, things might be a little different. But even among Kabul’s middle class division between the sexes remains. In my workplace, men and women share the same office space but I have seen women eating on their own table during lunch.

A plane from Ariana Afghan Airline flying from Kabul to Herat, crashed today. All of its occupants are presumed dead. One of Lyn’s friend was in the plane and somebody else from DACAAR should have been in the plane but wasn’t. Lyn’s face is swollen from crying. It is painful to look at her and I feel powerless about it.

 
Friday, February 04, 2005
  UN's money

I went to the restaurant again. The thing about Kabul’s restaurant is that many of them, especially restaurant for expats are located behind doors, it almost look like going to a clandestine house and they are hard to locate if you have never been there before.

Did I mention it is extremely difficult to find one’s way in Kabul? At first I thought it would be difficult because street names are written in Persian script but actually there are no sign at all. In here, you have got to break out of the habit of taking things for granted.

All this to say that we wanted to go to an Iranian restaurant, but we could not find it and we ended up going to a Thai restaurant instead. The woman who owns this restaurant has had an article written about her in the New York Times. Her business model is simple, she follows the UN. UN workers have money, she says, so as soon as they come to a country, she sets up a new restaurant. How humanitarian.

 
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
 

I haven’t even been here for a week yet, in some ways it feels like I have been here for months.

I am about finished reading my book on VBA for Access. Does that enable me to take over the development of these databases? Unfortunately not. However, my understanding of Access has increased.

Today when we got home, the guard who was visibly excited gestured for us to follow him. He took us to the kitchen were a surprise awaited us. All the stoves were lit like birthday cakes (we hadn’t had gas for a while because the pipes were frozen). We laughed and cheered. On top of that, we had electricity (without generator) and running water. The simple pleasures of life… To be frank, the discomfort we experience here does not bother me. I don’t think that electricity, running water, gas, heating contribute as much to happiness as most people claim it does. I never understood why people are perfectly happy to live in rustic conditions during a camping holiday, but consider modern facilities as essential for the rest of the year. [Ironically, while I was writing this paragraph, the overhead light went dim several times which is usually a sign that we won’t have city electricity for very long.]

I had a brief look at the monthly security situation summary from ANSO (Afghanistan Non-Governmental Organization Security Office). It is not especially a reassuring reading. Considering that last January was a quiet month, the list of security incidents that have occurred through Afghanistan is not slim. Kabul was very quiet though. The report notes “The country is observing a lull in security incidents due to seasonal, severe weather conditions.” I don’t know that we should look forward to Spring so much.

 
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
  Fine foods

Tonight, I was in mood to treat myself with the finest food money can buy in the immediate vicinity of my house. I walked carefully (so as not to slip on the ice) on a street that was solely lit by the stores’ gas lights until I reached a wooden cart selling the local delicacy: french fries, a hardboiled egg and halal sausage wrapped in a naan sandwich and flavored with curry powder ($0.2).

One man, dressed in rwipped clothes was busy collecting fries by sweeping the greasy counter with his hand. He wrapped a piece of naan around the fries and others ingredients (the whole thing looked somewhat like a burrito), then he wrapped a strip of old newspaper around it and hand it over to me.

While he was doing that, his partner – who was infinitely amused at the fact that I wanted to buy something from them - was deep frying fries in a dark brown bubbly mixture, only one foot above the pavement that carried all the remains of a market day.

I dare say: if we were in the US, I do not think this business would receive the approval of the department of health. However, it compares advantageously to Mc Donald in both taste and healthiness. Kabul is one of the few capitals where there is no Mc Donald, although, I have been told that there is a Wendy inside the American military base.

For lunch, I eat at my work’s cantina everyday. While the food there is not very good, I love this type of food and the way of eating it: stews with lamb, chicken and/or chickpeas, eaten with naan bread (they tear a piece of naan, then use to grab food off the plate). Today, the waiter brought me a spoon and a fork because I was a foreigner. I was a little offended, but I reminded myself he was just trying to be nice.

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

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Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
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