Thursday, February 24, 2005


The Kabul Grapevine

It’s been a good week for free lunches. So far this week, I have not eaten in the office a single time, which is a blessing indeed. The food is not so bad, but repetitive, and one yearns to get outside. So far I have had one lunch of Iranian potato crisps and cherry juice at Mazar airport, courtesy of the Debonair Deputy as we waited for the tiny, late plane to land and take us back to Kabul. This was followed by a mid-afternoon kebab when back in Kabul (mmm! Afghan kebabs – delicious tiny chunks of sheep flesh interspersed with sparing little lumps of sheep-bottom fat and grilled over charcoal).

One lunch of insipid pseudo-Italian food was with a bunch of Afghan cinema bigwigs before going to the premiere of ‘Bullet’ a lavish Hindi beat-em-up starring Asad Sikandar, an Afghan man-of-action who had starred in, directed and produced it. It was a pretty standard Hindi action moving with lots of kung-fu and beautiful girls and energetic dance numbers. I didn't stay for the whole thing, but I enjoyed the speeches at the beginning. The film bigwigs that I went with were acting up in an jolly way, clapping enthusiastically to try and cut short the speeches of their film bigwig mates who were holding forth from the podium about the future of Afghan cinema.

One lunch was with my Boss, talking about ‘ways to move forward’ – a lot of beard-scratching, brow-rubbing and scribbling over our spicy beef at one of the few Chinese restaurants that has not been recently closed down for doubling up as a brothel in the Islamic Republic, introducing ISAF soldiers and foreign contractors to a selection of flat-faced girls plucked from some godforsaken muddy village in central China. I won’t go into my work now though – I have been reading about my brother and sister bloggers recently, and I notice that the UK can now claim its first case of a guy who has been fired for his blog. I understand that this is known as being ‘Dooced’ after the blog Dooce, which I have also taken to checking quite often. It is addictive this brave new world of personal revelation. I have had a look at the Persian ones too, which are very interesting, but I am a little bit too lazy for it as I sneakily surf in between my daily obligations. The table-talk was interrupted at one point by the spotty Afghan teenager serving us who wanted to know if that Blonde woman my boss ate with was his wife. Very strange. We could not work out who this mysterious blonde should be. The only blonde around in Afghanistan at the moment that I can think of is La Petite Anglaise, and she is not a likely choide, as she could be the Boss's daughter, and what's more, she has never eaten with him at the Chinese restaurant. When we mentioned it to her though, she noted that the Boss had once joked to the baggage check at Dushanbe airport that she was his wife. Might there be some kind of sinister inter-waiter/airport official grapevine at work? As soon as the Boss left the airport, the baggage guy was on the telephone warning all waiters in the larger region that contrary to popular belief, the Boss is, in fact, married to young blondinka.

A further lunch was had at the adopted home of the Mild-Mannered American, with its standard collection of Afghan-American returnees trying to rebuild the country and/or make money. It was very quiet and mild-mannered, and I wasn’t up to the sparkling conversation I normally aim at (it’s been like that all this week, in fact) and the Wild-Eyed Tajik who I had brought along in tow, was even more silent and morose than I, but things pepped up as we got into an interesting conversation with one of the Afghan-American contractors who gave us his angle on the bloody government, and the godawful shortsighted poppy-replacement plans that every Tom Dick and Harry NGO is coming up with these days. He poo-poohed the funky ideas that you hear bandied around of replacing poppies with roses in order to extract and market the expensive roseoil, or else Saffron – the labour-intensive spice to be extracted from the stamens of a certain variety of crocus. Roses – do you know how much land you need to cultivate to get a tonne of rose petals? In short, a shitload. Sure the roseoil is expensive once you have extracted it, but how many poor Afghan farmers are going to be content to plant their opium fields with a flower that produces a few KGs of petals each year? Saffron? – Crocus schmocus! This guy was all for proper agricultural analysis to pick viable conventional crops, and the rehabilitation of irrigation and electrical facilities. Sound enough, but where is the money? The US money flow seems to have let up for the moment – as Billy Holiday tells us ‘Love is like a faucet… it turns off and on’, and the word is that USAID's love is flowing towards Indonesia and Iraq at the moment.

This guy also ranted a little about the Karzai administration. I’ve been hearing a lot of this recently. Accusations of cronyism and corruption are bandied about fairly regularly amongst expats, and worse among Afghans. One of the Afghan film guys I had lunch with tells me that the mood against Americans is getting worse and worse. Particularly after the Kam air plan crash a couple of weeks ago in which 104 people died, and which many blame on the Americans for refusing the pilot permission to land at Bagram airport when the weather was to bad to allow it to land at Kabul. I don't think this is true in fact. A British Embassy fellow told me that the plane flew out towards Bagram to make a turn and return to Kabul again when it crashed. But the anti-American angle has been very successfully spinned (spun?) and people are happy to believe that it was an action of fatal high-handedness on their part.

Another Brit, a Camp Veteran of Afghanistan's expat community (and to be a veteran here, you have to stay longer than a couple of years - this guy, however, has been here since the eighties, and seems to have his ear to the ground) gave me his own particular angle on American unpopularity. He was showing a bunch of visiting dignitaries around the site of a renovation project, and the US ambassador was telling the VIPS about how terribly the Taliban had damaged Kabul's physical environment, to which our Camp Veteran bristled and replied that no, in fact it was the Mujahedin, including the Northern Alliance guys that the US would later ally with. He told it well - I wonder how cheeky he was in fact. Anyway, the ambassador did not take it kindly, expecting to hear something that cleaved more to the party line. Whingeing poms.

Today, I fear, it looks like I will not be invited for another lunch, so I am wondering whether to break my record and eat the inevitable rice and heavily-stewed meat, or else go out and grab another kebab with the wild-eyed Tajik.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Ahh, back in beautiful Kabul! Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Ashura - a family day. Posted by Hello

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Day of mourning/ Day of freedom

Well I am glad at the effects of this blog on my spirits. It is a good reason to get off my arse and make the effort to foil the cordon and get outside and see something of this place. It’s easy to give in and just sit around read in the stuffy heat of the guesthouse – as I did yesterday, but it is nice to have something to show for it when I actually do go out and make the most of things. I still haven’t gone public with this blog – I mean to send it round to friends and family to check out when I have a decent backlogue to read through. It’s probably enough by now in fact.

Today is Ashura, the tenth day of mourning for the siege and slaughter at Kerbala of Husayn, son of Ali and grandson of the prophet Muhammad. I won’t go into all that though, as some people only have limited interest in the historical antecedents of Muslim religious festivals (weirdos!). Maybe I will try and find a good link about it. Anyway, there is quite a spectacle associated with chanting and crying and self-flagellation, so I wanted to go out and see if I could have a look.

Here are a couple of interesting links then:

Wikipedia general information
A bit more poetic, sums up the mood quite well

I am still in Mazar, normally easier to walk around in than Kabul, but today we had a security warning to stay away from things today – bloody spoilsports! For a change this is not because of threatened attacks on foreigners, but rather the possibility that there will be some kind of lashing out at the Shi’a population who take Ashura most seriously. The Shi’a in Afghanistan are predominantly Hazara, a visible minority because of their pronounced mongoloid features who have been oppressed here for a long time – warred against, attacked, oppressed and enslaved in the 19th Century, by Abdur Rahman Khan, the Iron Emir, they continue to be hated and despised by many, possibly because of being connected with Shi’a Iran, suspected of meddling in Afghan politics, and particularly in view of a series of particularly brutal war-crimes carried out by Hazara militias during the years of war. They were notorious for the Dance of Death, where you get a man, cut his head off, and seal the neck with boiling oil so that the blood is sealed in, and the corpse runs around, throwing himself about as the blood continues to pulse in his veins. The extent to which this kind of thing went on is probably exaggerated, and of course every side perpetrated war crimes in Afghanistan, but you get the sense also that possibly there was a spirit of exceptional revenge for all the years of bad treatment. Hazaras are still the butt of many Afghan jokes and stereotypes (I was told a very dirty joke of this variety recently, but I will leave it till another day – it is possibly not appropriate for such a solemn festival – indeed possibly not appropriate for repetition, full stop). So that’s why there was a security warning out for today – avoid all Shi’a areas and Shi’a mosques. To compound my luck, Mr Security, was up here for the weekend, sitting on the guesthouse sofa, nonchalantly flipping through a book about security for international NGOs, or something like that, his lips moving as he read, so the opportunity for sneaking around was pretty limited.

Anyway, La Petite Anglaise and I managed to persuade a driver to take us out to have a look at things from the car – I’ll post a photo or two up above this. Its not ideal snapping through the car window, but you get the general idea. In fact there was a particularly jolly mood in the streets on Mazar today. I was expecting the kind of mass-grief that I have seen in Shi’a mosques in Syria and Iran, but there was a holiday atmosphere with huge numbers of women wandering round with little dressy shoes poking out from their burkas to show you that they were dressed up – little fake-jewelled open-toed sandals or boots with stiletto heels and pointed toes. Its nice to see so many women around – many with their faces showing – well, not many, but many more than usual. I wonder why. It seems to be a day for the whole family to get out, at any rate. People from the same neighbourhood have rented buses to take them round to the Takiya-Khanas where they pray and listen to the readings of the story of the disaster at Kerbala.

So this is the end of 10 days of Muharram mourning. It’s interesting to think that people have been doing this every year at the same time for… how many years? 1400? Well, not at the same time in fact, because Muharram is a lunar month, so it comes at a different time each year. Having said that, there is nothing universally correct about the solar months, now that we get into it – though the solar system is in synch with the agricultural calendar, so more appropriate for planning when to put the daffodils in. The use of time though is a fiction really. I mean that if it were not for occasions like Ashura, and the planting of daffs, and Easter and Remembrance day, we would not need months and years. In fact, if we look at it like this, then Ashura really only came once – a drop in the great ocean of time, and it is just celebrated at regular intervals, based on arbitrarily selected astronomical events – these intervals eventually helping us to structure our lives and our memories. But you need something truly joyous or catastrophic to act as this kind of marker. Ashura is certainly one of these – wow! – what misery that they can summon up! Though watching TV today, in fact the Iraqis mourning at Kerbala seem to be rather jolly, jumping around and flagellating to an upbeat. And in other places many people are just patting their heads absent-mindedly. Still, in the past in Iran and Syria, I have seen readings of the story of Husayn, and they really do sob. I guess there is probably a psychosomatic reaction (is that the correct word?) of some kind where by if you display the physical elements of grief, you become truly sad. So while I have seen people with tears quietly rolling down their faces, the norm seems to be head in hand, shoulders violently heaving and shaking and trembling with the vocal grief.

In fact I did manage to get out and have a wander round later. I went to the great mosque in the centre of Mazar-I Sharif, the ‘mazar’ that the town is named after – an alternative shrine housing an alternative burial place of Ali to the one in Najaf in Iraq (don’t ask how is body got up to northern Afghanistan… someone saw it in a dream in the 13th century. I am not going to question it.) Mr Security went over to the office in the afternoon, and I looked out of the gate and there was no car, so I told the guard that I would walk the 10 minutes to the office, rather than waiting for the car, and set off towards the office, then doubled back and struck eastwards to the great mosque. It was the quietest most uneventful stroll round a town absorbed in a gentle, holiday atmosphere, rather than the commercial chaos that usually engulfs the centre of Mazar, but my pulse was racing and I was very pumped. I chatted to a little boy selling chocolates who proudly bore the name of Ahmad Shah, afterAhmad Shah Masood, the Panjshiri Mujahid, I went in to the mosque and visited the museum and looked at a bunch of old trinkets and a few new ones (I particularly appreciated the plaster deer with blue light-up eyes, and the ornamental sword donated my 'The large General Mumamad Ata'). In the museum, I was lectured by the good-natured curator who told me why I could not visit the main section of the mosque (something to do with purity), and made me slightly nervous as everyone else in the one-room museum turned their gaze upon me to see what I had to say for myself. I just nodded and said 'yes', and 'correct' a lot.

And then I collected my boots and the door of the mosque, turned around and headed for the office, with Ahmad Shah following along next to me, out of curiosity and companionship. As I say - pleasant, but extremely uneventful. Logically I knew that everything was quiet and safe, but the whole thing was so NAUGHTY! As I walked through the streets, every time I saw a big white 4-wheel drive of the kind the NGOs use, I half ducked, and checked to see if it was from my organisation. It is very weird this life we lead. I have not felt quite like that since I turned 18, and was able to go to the pubs in the UK without the nagging fear that someone would check my fake ID and throw me out. In the end it is annoying though. I really must develop more reliable means of slipping the cordon and being able to enjoy a more relaxed brand of freedom.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Too few strings: Badakhshani dutar Posted by Hello

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Musical Rhubarb

I finally made it to Kucha-ya Kharabat last Saturday – the long-planned outing of my short life in Kabul. This area of the old city proved to be suitably ‘kharab’ – falling-down mud brick walls, shop awnings made out of emergency shelter bivvi-bags, and mud, mud, mud, mud, mud - thick seas of mud sucking in and out like the tide.

On previous occasions when I had planned to come here to investigate the instrument makers, I invited a bunch of other people, but despite vaguely positive answers, no one ever got off their flattened weekend backsides to come, and indeed something always went wrong with the transport (don’t get me started on the situation with booking cars in our organisation – it would produce many pages of tedious bile). On this occasion however I announced that I was going come what may, a car did turn up – half an hour early no less, and I had 3 other people besides the driver, accompanying me. Ahaha! Decision is the key!

We followed the signs for instrument makers – faded Technicolor hoardings with tabla and dutar depicted, and after a couple of closed-down shops, we came into a tiny workshop with a few dusty instruments hanging around, and a couple of young men – the instrument maker and his androgynous friend. The instrument maker didn’t seem to be very busy, and sat us down on plastic chairs and showed us his wares. Most of the instruments he offered me were old ones – long-necked dutars with 2 strings – nice-sounding in the right hands, but I wasn’t sure I had the correct helping of Afghan instrumental charisma. A fantastic singer-songster like Mir Maftun from Badakhshan in the remote and mountainous north, who strums up a frenzy with his songs about smoking Hashish and beautiful young boys could excite the senses with a single string no doubt. But I thought I wanted a bit more to handle. Rubabs are funny-shaped things with about a million strings, so I was immensely put off those as well. What I wanted was something with a nice even number of strings – 4 or so, that I could play nice simple tunes on. The first he offered was a beautifully inlaid rubab that he said he would part with for the sum of $1200 – I had been thinking of a cap of $100, so I was a little taken aback, but Afghanistan is always more expensive than you expect. The stocky German tells me that this often the case with post-war economies – something to do with the roads and telephone systems having been shot to pieces. As it turned out, you don’t actually have to play all the strings of the rubab – just 3 are actually to be played upon, and the rest vibrate in harmony, so that gave me courage. There was one rubab that was half finished, that I could have for $120, but I thought I would shop around a bit first.

The androgynous friend offered to take me to find a teacher - a man called Ustad Ghulam Hussein - a fattish master-musician with fingers like sausages and a curling smile-grimace who lives in a broken-down room, in a muddy hovel behind a hoarding made from a piece of UNHCR shelter in the broken-down old city. I was introduced by the startlingly female male and the master sat me down crosslegged among his mates, knee-to-knee around the electric fire and played to me with his grimacing smile playing softly round his snarling black teeth, with one of his rubab students and a tabla master busking along. It was great. I love these plinky-plonky instruments, and there was something so effortlessly rhythmical in the way they struck up a ditty. Then we negotiated a deal for lessons. He told me that he had taught an American in his house before and charged such and such, but I worked a cheaper price for coming to sit knee-to-knee with him once a week in the old city. I tried to convince him that perhaps it would be a waste of his time to teach such a one as me up from absolute scratch, and that possibly I could learn from one of his students, but he told me that no, I could not learn properly from anyone else. The student (a middle-aged man with a pointy face, and a book filled with the scribbled notes from months of lessons) chimed in agreeing that yes, that you had to be taught properly at the beginning in particular, and that there was no other master in Afghanistan now who could do it – they were all abroad or dead. How could I gainsay this endorsement? Now I have to try and manage to slip past the security cordon once a week in order to get a taxi to his house and back for a few hours. Not easy, but probably better that telling logistics that I want to take a car there once a week, and waiting for the vehicle that never comes.

After the lesson-discussion, I did buy myself a rubab at another shop, and spent the evening plinking away happily and tunelessly to myself, interrupted only by the occasional shout of ‘Ed.. shut the fuck up!’ from one of my colleagues. Ah, what man must suffer for his art. Just wait till I have had a few lessons with the grimacing master, and am able to charm the very birds down from the trees! (What trees?)

After the Ustad, I tired myself out - I am so unused to walking around, its incredible. I suppose I must have been walking for a good 3 hours after Lunch at the Mild-Mannered American’s. It was a nice occasion - he is living with this Afghan American who has come back to invest in the country and make money, and apart from being nice to get out of the guesthouse, it was lovely to have dinner with some Afghans- they were basically a whole bunch of old men, plus me and the Ruddy-Faced Mild-Mannered One. The old codgers were mainly returnees, plus a few others – people involved in business or ministries of one kind or another, and very kind and friendly. After lunch we went into a separate room for tea, and a very sweet old fellow with white hair gave us chocolate and an Afghan sesame nougat, and we listened to our elders talk about Afghanistan and London and this and that. The host is a family friend from way back it seems. We talked a bit about Arthur Miller who has just died, and it was a nice change to talk to someone would spontaneously bring a playwright into the conversation. Possibly only Bouncing Brendan (he of the inspirational blog – see my first post), amongst my colleagues, has spontaneously quoted literature at me. There seems to be a heavy predjudice towards non-fiction amongst these development types. I was trying to remember which Miller play I have seen, but Tenessee Williams plays kept jumping into my head. It was A View From a Bridge, I remember. A great man has died.

And we talked about nationality and identity, with a good amount of anecdotal evidence to draw on, with the Afghan who has long lived in Virginia, the Mild-Mannered American who has an English mother, and myself having pledged my love to an English girl brought up in Italy, as well as having by now a certain sense of detachment from the country that first saw me take breath. Mind you, this ambiguity does not, at present, seem to project far beyond my own self-image. As far as this little world is concerned I am the perfect Englishman. At least since I came to Afghanistan. I have heard this before, but never as strongly as I hear it now. I put it down to being surrounded by Americans who often seem to want to idealise a kind of static, stratified, unchanging England, and so will pounce unquestioningly on anything that they feel approximates to the idea. I suppose I have myself played up to this in the past. At Oxford I briefly went out with an American girl (possibly ‘stayed in’ would be a more appropriate phrase) and felt myself feeling strangely drawn to acting the bumbling stuttering Hugh Grant Englishman. God – its embarrassing to look back on it! It was doomed of course, but I have learnt my lesson, and I don’t allow myself to get into that – possibly also why I object to the stereotype. Still, I do appreciate the convenience of stereotyping, and in fact, it is likely that ambivalence to nationhood is possibly quite a ‘typically English’ trait in any case. Something to do with the end of empire and guilt for the colonial past.

Our host said that he catches himself referring to ‘The Afghans’ and ‘The Americans’ as they. And if he does so, he sometimes corrects himself and changes it to we. And then he gave the inevitable compromise of calling himself a ‘citizen of the world’, or something like that. The key fact being that what he loves about his home, is his home in the smaller sense – his house in Virginia, and his family and friends. It is interesting – the case of the returned Afghans. Something I will have to watch. The general term used by ordinary Afghans for the returnees is ‘Sag-shui’, or Dogwasher – because of the fact that they are seen as having gone abroad and debased themselves through menial work, while the others stayed at home and suffered the woes of their country. As for our host, he clearly doesn’t come in that category, but clearly he keeps himself somehow aloof.

As for me, my sense of home is by now pretty diffuse. I love to return to London, but really now I only feel at home where Flora is.

Monday, February 14, 2005


Sober bridal wear

I am getting married. It is still a strange and wonderful thing, though the deal was clinched on September 4th last year, and had been in my mind for a long time before that. Some of the details are laborious and anxiety-inducing, but on the whole, it’s a fine thing to get distracted by. I have absorbed by clothing options in recent weeks. We did the whole fabric-choosing thing when we were both in Italy together at Christmas, and I got myself some stuff to make into a suit, and the dress fabric was chosen, but recently I have been trying to tempt Flora with by the afghan wedding wear - dresses incrusted with metallic thread, and rich with shimmery silks and beads. As for men, you can get the most decedent-looking Arabian Nights-style shoes, turned up into points at the toes, and similarly embroidered with finely patterned filigree. If pressed, I would have to admit that perhaps these are not the togs to go up the aisle in (what does the guy say in the service? – that “…marriage is not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but soberly, discreetly, advisedly…” and all that). So I wonder whether we can programme a series of changes into the occasion, with different outfits at different points of the party, like in the gala concert of some old-school superstar.


Afghan wedding dress. Pretty funky eh? Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Ed Blogs Afghanistan - A New Start

I started my blog a few days ago, but I have decided that it is better to be placed on a site with some kind of searchability so that what I write actually has a chance of being seen. So I have abandoned the little backwater of the web that I had registered as my own (in fact originally designed to serve as an instruction board for the guests of my forthcoming wedding) but unwilling to abandon too my little font of verbosity, see below for the first few posts.

20.41, Friday February 11, 2005

I spent the day trying to get to Mazar yesterday. We left early in
the morning. It has been snowing as heavily as I have seen this winter, and so it looks like I will not be able to get there for at least a couple of days. We drove for a couple of hours up towards the Salang pass with the weather getting thicker and thicker and the hills growing up around us, the landscape more and more densely muffled in white, and stopped to eat and take stock. So it was that I spent the most of the day in a restaurant on a snowy hillside drinking green tea and playing chess as my colleagues called regularly to check on the status of the pass. Finally we were sent back because it was blocked up with snow. It has snowed like billi-o for the last few days, even in Kabul which hasn't seen this much snow in years. The papers and the airwaves these days are full of bulletins about refugees dying in the cold and it breaks the heart even more than usual to see the beggars on the street – little girls with plastic shoes and no socks or pregnant mothers shivering in thin dresses, trudging through the snow and appealing for ‘maaney, maaney, dollar, dollar’. Of course you just walk by just as usual. I suppose I give to beggars with rather higher frequency that I do in London, and always accompanied by the same mixed feelings arising from the strange relationship of giving, the irritation at being hassled, and wondering whether it is going to do any good, and where it will go. I always come away wishing that I could have some kind of more human relationship with these people, regretful that I do not seem to be able to.

As well I always have a sense of irritation at being spotted as a foreigner. I have always liked to blend in when I am abroad, or at least be taken for something other that British. When I lived in Syria in 2000, people used to ask me if I was Chechen or Albanian (possibly taking me for one of the masses of Islamic students who come to Damascus to brush up on their Quran, Hadith and Islamic Law, though I didn’t sport the de riguer knitted cap and scraggly beard). In the gulf I often get asked if I am Lebanese. All this pleases the hell out of me. But in Afghanistan, foreigners really LOOK foreign. Afghans are a bit darker that folk in the middle east, but also I guess foreigner just look so green. Most of us shut up in compounds for most of the time, let out for swift, secure shopping trips, we know doubt glow with beacon-like naivety as we stumble through the uneven streets, our radio handsets buzzing.

All the other expats were in the office by the time I woke up from my booze-induced dreams (in Afghanistan, Thursday night is, of course, the new Friday night) so after a quiet little read of Rumi, and a bit of sitting in an armchair, indulging emotions of bitter yearning for Flora, I slipped through my organisation’s cordon and wandered round the streets of Kabul. After a few days of confinement you really appreciate the human organism’s need for movement after every now and again. I forewent the opportunity to play squash earlier this week due to seeing-off the Square-Jawed Yank, and was shocked to find that my brisk walk (if you can call such a stumbling, squelching trudge through the snow, mud and (to be explicit) shit, a ‘walk’) was inducing breathlessness and perspiration. God knows how I will perform when I finally do manage to set up the squash match. Anyway it felt good to be out. I was taking close note of the appearance of the Afghans as I walked, to see if I had any hope of emulating them and escaping notice. I don’t consider myself a blushing flower normally, desperate to avoid all attention, but beyond my perennial delight at being taken for anything other than British (or German or American, now that I think about it) in Afghanistan working for an NGO, there is so much hoo-haa about security for foreigners that one naturally ends up wanting to disguise oneself. The number of beards sported by the expat community here is massively higher than at home, as we men take the opportunity

a) to indulge growths that would be laughed out of town back home


b) to indulge our natural laziness, and just not bother to shave

While I early on toyed with and discarded the idea of a beard for myself, I have been considering getting myself a Shalwar Kamiz and some shiny black shoes, and going native. A few hours on a sunbed wouldn’t go amiss, though at a pinch I could pass for a Badakhshani or a Nuristani or some other pale mountain-dweller. My friend Nick, who travelled through Afghan a few months back, gathering material for his travel book, went to Lashkar Gah dressed as an Afghan is as pale or paler than me, and despite his best efforts to dress, walk and piss in true Afghan fashion got spotted, so he relates it, for walking like a foreigner. It makes sense. I quite see that the usual Oxford-London head-down, eyes-on-your-shoes gait giving off the wrong vibe.

With all this in mind, I carefully inspected the walking patterns of my fellow pedestrians. I have to say, I did not come up with much. They do not put their hands in their trouser pockets, for a start, so I dug my hands into my coat pocket instead, which also served to conceal the tell-tale aerial of my handset. Still though, people would stare at me, or give the little mumbled ‘Howarryoo?’ This remark, it seems is never designed as a question, or anything for which a response is expected. For a start, it is normally let loose when you have passed a good few steps beyond. And the tone is never questioning. Normally it is just rapped out in a monotone, or sometimes there is a little touch of derisive humour. Its basic meaning seems to be “Ha-ha! I have spotted you. You’re a foreigner!”

I did a little better when I took my hat off. My sister gave me a black trilby-like hat for Christmas – the kind which has been reinvented from an older style of male headwear, and has been seen gracing the heads of pop stars, and the members of guitar bands, though I like to turn it up at the back to give it a more old-school look. It has in a short space of time become a battered and dusty-looking hat, and though I could imagine an older Afghan man, of the generation educated in the years of Russian ascendancy, giving head-space to such an article, Afghans of my age tend to be wearing beanies or else kafiya-style scarfs wrapped round the head and face, or else letting their curly hair, or greasy curtains bounce free. So I crumpled up my battered trilby and stuffed it into my pocket. Rather better, until I put on my glasses. Very few people seem to wear glasses, and certainly not like the over-sized squre monstrosities that I am left with at the moment. So whenever I specced-up to catch my whereabouts, or to squint at the grey surroundings of snow-covered wintry Kabul, I would be greeted by more howarryoos, and outstretched hands from the wandering packs of beggars.

Funny though, when I got tired of aimless wandering, and sat down for a kebab in a disreputable looking and very grubby café, and would have been happy of a bit of a chat, I was studiously ignored by the clientele, who continued their discussion about Baluch insurgency in Pakistan, and glancing at the TV screen which was showing a very fuzzy 70s Bollywood film. In most other countries I have visited, someone would eventually strike up a conversation out of curiosity – at least to find out what country I am from, but they let me munch my liver and lamb in peace.

Tomorrow I am going to continue my weekend’s fun with a trip to Kucha-ya Kharabat, fingers crossed. I want to get a Dambura I think – 2-stringed thing that you beat like a drum with your thumb as you strum.

Valentine's day next week, and I am not sure what to do about it, other than invest
in a nice long mobile phone call. I looked in to Interflora to Kyrgyzstan, but I am
not sure that it would be trustworthy outside of Bishkek, and they don't
look as nice as the English ones. It;s a bit depressing. Still, I have been stocking up with Italian classics and Romantic flics from Kabul’s excellent selection of pirated DVDs to make sure that my next R&R has the right flavour.

OK, I had better go. Our fun-loving Ismaili Head of Reporting has just very sweetly called to find out if I am coming to dinner. The one good thing about being shut up with your colleagues all day and night is that you do develop a sense of community very quickly.

10.55, Wednesday February 9, 2005

I have a certain sense of fear that now I have announced myself to be ‘blogging Afghanistan’, it will seem to be humbug to the general reader, who finds that I have less to say about Afghanistan and more to say about picking the lint from my navel during the long cold evenings. Still, if this is the case, I suppose that I can keep the very existence of this site to myself. And besides, the lint-picking side of things is definitely one of the characteristic features of expatriate life in the security-intensive environment of the International NGO in Afghanistan. It has an interest in its own way. Life in the golden cage has a way of sending people stir crazy in a matter of weeks.

Things have been particularly quite since the Square-Jawed American left for Indonesia yesterday, to add our efforts to the scrum of NGOs fighting over the tidbits of international relief money. Yesterday evening there was a kind of ghostly quiet in the guesthouse where we live, despite the fact that La Petite Anglaise brought along a mild-mannered French Embassy fellow back after dinner to liven the company up. The Wild-eyed Tajik entertained the company with a series of obscene and hilarious Russian anecdoti (I am considering adding a special link entirely dedicated to these in fact, so that the more well brought-up readers (and Mum and Dad) are not offended. But possibly this should wait until I have got into the rhythm of my blog.) La Petite Anglaise is doing her best to widen the field of experience open to her in this constricted life of ours, and as a result she has been doing the Kabul restaurant circuit justice for the last few days, perched on the back of the Frenchman’s motorcycle – no doubt a delicious sensation after several months of our organisation’s security rules which limit the extent to which we can even tread the streets. Having said that, of course there is a tendency to bend the rules, as one generally considers that mental and physical health comes before the slight risk of bombing or kidnapping. But I am still playing it safe for the moment, until I get a real sense of what it is like out there. So far Kabul has seen no major security threats since the kidnapping of the 3 UN people last October, but clearly you don’t want to be stupid. Still, I have been trying to get to Kucha-i Kharabat for the last few weekends to no avail, and I am beginning to get frustrated. Kucha-i Kharabat is set in the conflict-battered old town, the quarter where traditionally, the musical instrument makers had there workshops.

It is a very redolent name. ‘Kharabat’ means ‘the ruins’, and used to refer to the run-down outskirts of medieval towns, where the city authorities were less rigorous, and where as a result, the pimps and the gypsies and the Christians and the wineshops and the dancing girls and the barflys and general merry-makers and dubious types would gather to do their thing. So it was an exciting revelation for me to hear that the musicians of Kabul still populated a quarter with this name. Of course there are not so many craftsmen left as there were, but still, some have returned to set up shop. I will let you know when I manage to get there finally. Not this week, I fear, as I have to get the car from Kabul to Mazar-i Sharif tomorrow, to try and find some land in Mazar on which to build a cultural centre. OK, I am going to load this up now, and see what happens. If I do manage to get the car to Mazar tomorrow, then I will probably have a good chunk of time to put to blogging on the road, or at least as long as the battery on my laptop lasts. Fingers crossed that the Salang pass is not blocked up with snow – it has been snowing pretty hard these last few days… apparently the first time in 12 years that it has snowed in Kabul, and therefore it looks like the end of the several years of drought. If it is fine weather, I will try and get some photos along the way.

14.11, Tuesday, 8 February 2005

So this is my first attempt at setting up a blog, inspired by the excellent words on Afghanistan from my colleague Brendan (see
Brendan's blog ). I will not write anything much now, as I should be at work in fact, but you can be sure that this page will soon see many a maxim and pithy apophthegm.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


me Posted by Hello

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?