Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Happy New Year!

I was slightly dreading returning to Afghanistan after my little holiday in Central Asia. But having carried my ridiculously heavy luggage across the Russian built ‘Friendship Bridge’ from post Soviet Termez (or Tirmidh if you are used to the Arabic transliteration) into Afghanistan, I was picked up by our friendly young driver and he set off with his foot on the pedal, amidst clouds of dust, weaving perilously in and out of other carts, street vendors and children crossing the road, and it made me feel happy to be back. It has been a jolly time since I have been here, boding well for the next month before I repatriate myself for a little while. Another great Afghan festival in Mazar-i Sharif – Nawruz, the pre-Islamic Persian new year which of course has taken on a Muslim edge in Afghanistan.

I arrived in Mazar on Nawruz eve tired from travel, and so had mixed feelings that we had a bonanza party planned at our organisation’s guesthouse, but in fact it was great – a good chance to drink and dance with the local staff. Kebabs on the grill and hired musicians in the garden. I discovered yet another of the seemingly endless supply of Afghan plucked instruments, all subtly different. This one was the Tambour, with a long neck and a ridiculous number of strings, and unlike the rubab, you have to play all of them. It is also a pretty quiet instrument with a nice jangly quality that does not really come across on microphones, so we were very lucky to have the local Tambour star right before us, playing requests, just him and a tabla player. And the Afghans really got into it. The musicians came at 10 o’clock, and before then our resident DJ of Complex Ethnicity routed a few phat choones from his laptop to the Hi-Fi speakers. The Afghans weren’t really into the NY beats he spun. Though a bunch of neighbours’ children came and stood on the roof of our outbuildings and watched the funny foreigners – and danced along with us from their eminence.

But when Bahaudin the Tambour player came along with his tabla accompanist, things really started to get going. A fair few Heinekens had been sunk by then, and so the foreigners were properly fuelled, but the Afghans did not need it so much, except for the shyer mujahedin types, who were either too tough, too disapproving, or two leftfooted. The Friendly Young Mazar Driver was tireless though – arms out jiggling and joggling two and fro and constantly importuning the venerable musicians for requests of his favourite tunes. He was a happy sight to see, dancing up a sweat in the chill evening air, and particularly so as he was wearing a pleasantly incongruous T-Shirt with something like ‘Whispering Willows Christian Camp’ on the front and ‘Jesus saves, I mean REALLY SAVES!’ on the back. The dancing went up a notch when our Finance Officer joined in. He is a real good-time boy, and mixes a western hedonism with his Afghan chutzpah (not really sure what that word means, but it seems appropriate). But his dancing is all Afghan, and totally abandoned. I am not sure how to describe it really – words fail me now that I have embarked on this. He was appealing to the musicians a lot as well, but he was so outrageous in his moves that he almost seemed like he was on his own – his dancing had a flavour of air guitar in front of the mirror when no one is watching. And he would put his hands on the tabla to quiet the skins when he was particularly transported by the Tambour playing. Added to this was the Wild-Eyed Tajik who had found a Tajik doira (like a huge tambourine, with heavy metal rings to make a noise) and he was banging the life out of it, and shaking the rings along to the music with his head going back and forth as if he were a rag doll being shaken by a huge little girl. It was very good in fact. If I am that drunk, I am sure that I lose most of my sense of rhythm. Or at least my ability to translate my sense of rhythm into an accurate signal which will govern the movement of my limbs.

I was dancing up a storm too, it has to be said. I really like Afghan music, and the dancing is similar to what I was doing in Tajikistan, though in Tajikistan I would generally dance with women. Sigh. And Tajiks tend to pick up their feet more, kicking them out to the back. In Afghanistan too they do this funny thing with the feet where you cross one foot over the other and sort of tiptoe back and forth, with your arms stretched out. An old skinny black-bearded guy, I guess one of the support staff, a cleaner or a guard or something (I haven’t got my finger on who everyone is yet in Mazar) had a particularly sweet version of this – his boney frame facing forward with arms stretched out, a quizzical expression on his face, tottering from one foot to another.

At one point the girls were dancing with the Toothy-grinning Ustad with his grey-yellow walrus moustache. The Ustad was getting into it as you could tell by his cackling wheezy joyful laugh, spinning La Petite Anglaise round and round (I am surprised she managed to stay upright in fact – hat off there). The Boney Bearded one was coaxed on to dance and did his thing facing outwards, arms spread, I thought rather unnerved by the female presence in his dance space, but was almost immediately abandoned by the girls. I felt a twinge for him, but he was possibly relieved. It is not every Afghan who can handle one of these foreign girls, particularly on the dance floor.

It is interesting though – I guess it must be a little strange if you are just never used to dancing with girls (not that I know this to be the case – I haven’t been here long enough yet, but I haven’t heard of it yet). It is a possible reason for the slightly ungendered dance styles I see Afghan men adopting. I mean, a lot of the moves out there are ones that a self-respecting European male would not try on except in jest (which covers many occasions, it has to be admitted) because they are too ‘girly’. But if you are used to dancing just with other men, then I suppose it makes sense that the scope of means of expression becomes wider. If there are no occasions where men and women dance, then possibly there are no roles specific to men and women on the dance floor. I will have to follow this one up.

The next day was Nawruz and we made good use of our precious time by lying on the terrace in the sun. As a result we missed the famous raising of the red banner, which goes on at around sunrise. (This banner business is the centre of the celebrations, but don’t ask me what the banner is all about – I did ask several people, but most of them didn’t know, and a few said vaguely that it is something to do with Ali.) But we did go and see some buzkashi, the forerunner of polo, where a dead calf is dragged around a stadium by men on horseback, in order to win a prize of some kind. I did not concentrate on the game that much, which is well nigh incomprehensible unless you have a pair of binoculars, or are willing to risk your life by getting really close. I did lap up the atmosphere though, and got into a few chats with some old men. One asked me whether I was an Inlander or an Outlander, and I was very tempted to try and pose as an exotic type of Afghan and see how far I got. Instead though I just said that I was from ‘Belgique’. It seems a good country to come from in Afghanistan. I usually come clean and tell them that I am from ‘Englistan’, but somehow I don’t like to admit that when there is a large crowd surrounding me as on this occasion. Mind you there was a nice atmosphere – a holiday atmosphere indeed.

I got a couple of photos of people on horses with my spy camera. Afghans pretty much always look good in photos - it is a photographer’s dream this country.

Clockwise from top left: buzkashi horseman, spectators, milling around after the game, buzkashi horseman at rest

Otherwise I went to the mosque again and had a wander round. There were all sorts of queer attractions surrounded by big circles of people all shoving and pressing to catch a good view – fortune tellers, wrestling matches, quacks and charlatans and religious demagogues. One man was wielding an enormous metal axe, and asking a small boy a series of question. Well, bellowing a series of questions in fact, so that the very tendons on his neck stood out beneath his salt-and-pepper beard. They mainly revolved around points of Islamic dogma and the names of the Prophets and the Imams. He would first always ask the little boy ‘Do you know such and such?’ or ‘Do you understand such and such?’ or ‘Can you tell me the names of so and so’, and the boy would bellow in his hoarse voice ‘I know!’ or ‘I can!’ Then the boy would recite the names of the 12 imams or whatever and the man would congratulate him on his remarkable memory and tell him and the crowd that he was ‘A Pure Child.’

Another man demonstrated how he could set alight to a piece of paper using only faith. He took some clear holy oil from somewhere or other, and some reddish holy dust mixed from the soil of such and such holy place, and smeared the oil on the paper, then dusted the dust and folded the paper over, and low and behold – it caught fire! I don’t know whether the crowd swallowed this one.

It all reminded me of the Canterbury Tales or something like that – this mixture of religion and entertainment that seems to have largely disappeared from Europe, but you get a flavour for in medieval writing.

The celebrations went on well into the night. I went to a rowdy concert with classical Afghan musicians and jokes from the audience in between, and energetic but not always effective crowd control from the young policemen who seemed obsessed with trying to get the audience to squat down on the floor instead of stand. Every now and again one of policemen assigned to the concert would run at the crowd with his stick and get them to sit down by pretending to hit them. Then he would turn round and watch the concert again, and they would get up in time for a repeat. It was all very jolly and good-humoured though. Even the policemen seemed to be enjoying it, and as well as the music and the jostling to entertain, there was a series of pubescent boys who came out of the crowd spontaneously to dance. Oh- that is another thing I forgot to tell about Afghan dancing. You do solos a lot – sometimes dance in pairs, but a lot of the time you have a circle of people and one person dancing in the middle. As well as this spectacle, I was also transfixed by a man who squatted right at the edge of the stage wrapped in a white blanket, with a beanie on his head, and would at intervals hawk up a bogey and launch it across the stage before the audience, with a little shower of phlegm illuminated by the strong stage lights. He was completely calm and self-possessed – he even seemed a little self important, as if he had been especially requested to sit on the edge of the stage and gob for the delight of all.

The journey back today was rather less fun than the whole new year bonanza. We got up unpleasantly early, and spent a good deal of the time sucking up car fumes in the Salang tunnel on the way to Kabul. There were some beautiful scenes on the way though. When I left for central Asia, everything was brown still, but now the hills are beautiful and green – nawruz really has something to celebrate – regeneration, new life and that.

Afghanistan, green and pleasant land

I shared the car with one of my Afghan colleagues, and a couple of Afghan TV guys who were up in Mazar filming the festival. I was lost in thought most of the way, with little chats to the TV guys. They were a sweet pair, taking delight in capturing the sights on video as we went down. On the way up to Salang they got very excited by the cloud formations standing almost solid against the blue sky. On one side of the car they could see the word ‘Muhammad’ and on the other they could see ‘Allah’ written in the clouds. In fact I could vaguely see the 'Allah'. For myself though, all I could come up with was a pair of breasts, a cock and balls and a head with an enormous mullet. I did not share this with the group though. Anyway, I don’t know how to say ‘mullet’ in Dari.

Can you see God's name?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Up to Osh... and back again

It has been a while since I last clocked in (or blogged on, or whatever the lingo is). This is due to a period of frenzied papershuffling when the Boss was still in Kabul, a short period of illness, and my subsequent impetuous journey across Central Asia. Feeling sick and sorry for myself the Thursday before last, and bored of waiting for the Afghan film bigwigs to produce a peacock from their arses, I booked a flight to Dushanbe to go and see my love in Kyrgyzstan. In fact I should have gone ages ago. We have a kind of extra holiday allowance here called R&R – Rest and Recuperation, which is designed to knit the ravelled sleeve of care after working in a dangerous, dusty country for 3 months. It’s a very welcome perk and we get flights and pocket money paid.

So I arrived in Osh last Tuesday. The journey was a bit hairy, and very foolish. The planned route was plane from Kabul to the Tajik capital Dushanbe, and from Dushanbe to Khujand in northern Tajikistan, then by car from Khujand to Batken, Kyrgyzstan, then on to Osh, where Flora lives. The main problem was that I had neither Uzbek nor Kyrgyz visa, and on arriving in Dushanbe I was told that both take at least a week to procure. This was very frustrating, as I only had a week, and having left Afghanistan, my time was already trickling through my fingers. Nonplussed, I asked the people in Dushanbe to get me a flight to Khujand anyway, the next day, and ordered a car to take me on from the airport through the border into Kyrgyzstan by hook or by crook. I had left Kabul with alacrity, and enjoying the little propeller plane that the UN operates for NGO workers (I like the way that in these little planes, the pilots are not separated from the passengers, and so you can see through the front windscreen as they land – lining up for the runway, correcting, and bouncing down safely.) But by the time I got to Dushanbe, I was beginning to feel a bit anxious. There was no guarantee that I would even get a plane ticket to Khujand. During the winter, the road through north the mountains connecting up Tajikistan’s two major cities, Dushanbe and Khujand, is impassable due to ice and snow. It means that everything goes by plane, and flights are always booked up unless you book a good week in advance. However, our people do a lot of business with the airport people, and they know that there are always a few seats kept apart ‘just in case’. If you have an urgent need to fly, you just pay an extra unofficial booking fee, and bob’s your uncle, a flight to Khujand. Well, much as I find this sort of thing distasteful, I wanted to get to Osh to see Flora. Bob became my uncle, and I was soon in Khujand.

In Khujand we had a parley, I called Osh and got their point of view, and we decided on a plan of action. The problem was not only that I no visa to enter Kyrgyzstan, but that the sensible route from Osh to Khujand takes in Uzbekistan as well, due to the lunatic map drawing of the Stalin era. (Say what you like about Churchill being pleased with himself for drawing the borders of Jordan in an afternoon, Stalin had the most devilish cartographic skills in imperialist history). The borders in the Ferghana valley were drawn, so the story goes, precisely with the object of splitting up populations, and making the people of the Valley, an historically rich and fertile, and independent entity, less likely to rise up and cause trouble. I am not sure I quite believe this version of the facts, but any rate the map is as complicated as you like (I will post it above this posting for you to have a look.) It’s a mess, however it came about. Some of the borders cut across ethnic blocs with no particular logic – Northern Tajikistan makes more sense geographically and ethnically as part of Uzbekistan. Sometimes though, ethnic differences are followed with bloody-minded pedantry – so the ethnically Tajik enclave of Vorukh in Kyrgyzstan is Kyrgyz. The Uzbek enclave of Shakhimardan in Kyrgyzstan however, was apparently given to Uzbekistan in order to provide the Uzbek communist party officials a nice place in the mountains for a holiday. As for the Sokh enclave, it is ethnically Tajik, stranded in Kyrgyz territory, and belonging to the Uzbeks.

And it was Sokh that caused the problems. Crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan without a visa is no problem, as the Kyrgyz are notably relaxed about policing their borders – there is a back route round the hills in Isfara with no border post. Chugging along in the car, watching the multicoloured, vegetationless hills go by, the driver suddenly said – ‘this is Kyrgyzstan’. There was no other way of knowing that we had arrived. What a relief! – first hurdle crossed. We arrived in Batken – a one-horse town if ever there was one, and I changed cars, bid farewell to one driver and said hello to the new one, and set off. I felt relieved, but knew that Sokh was still ahead of us. The Uzbeks are notoriously cagey about their borders – at least on an official level. Informally, you can normally bribe your way though, but this rule is subject to rapid change if the Uzbek government is feeling upset about terrorist violence - an undoubtedly internal problem which they persist on blaming on other countries. As we approached Sokh, the driver was also getting sweaty. He was also worried about the Uzbek border guards. He was a Kyrgyz, and so not too worried about the Kyrgyzes. The alternative to going across Sokh was to go round the enclave – not so far, but the road has been all but washed away during the winter rains and snows, so this would have added an extra 6 hours to the journey. I left the negotiations to the driver, preferring to play the ignorant foreigner (a part I feel particularly qualified to take on.) As it happened, the guards let us through the first post on entering Sokh with little problem – a bit of an argument about prices, but then we handed over the normal fee of $2, and went on our way. We were both still on edge as we drove through Sokh – a shame as it is a very beautiful place, nestled on the valley floor between rocky hills, apple orchards and poplars pointing at the sky, the people looking like the paradigmatic Tajiks – the men with moustaches and their little square brown hats with white embroidery, and the women with round faces and pink cheeks and colourful velvety gowns and bright headscarfs, worn so that the hair spills out at the front, all walking from one place to another with a simple bucolic ease, or standing around, watching us in our cars flash by. In fact we had nothing to fear from the Uzbeks at the post on the other side of Sokh – they did not even check my passport, and the driver grinned and I felt elated as the teenage soldier swung open the gate. Too soon. Contrary to expectation, a Kyrgyz soldier ushered us to the side of the road and had a look at my passport. He then called his superior over. The superior read every page in my passport, and as he was doing so, the driver asked incredulously ‘Have you got a Kyrgyz visa?’ I was surprised because I thought that one driver had explained it all – apparently not, and my heart sank. No doubt his did, but we put on our best toadying faces for the superior officer. I admitted my offense, and the driver dissappeared again into the guard’s shed, and returned another couple of dollars lighter. He did not like it though – the officer – he said next time if I tried this on, he would arrest my ass (or whatever the equivalent Kyrgyz idiom is).

So you get an idea of how things work in Central Asia. It is not great. I have never indulged in such a bribe-fest before, as one would like to practise a zero-tolerance policy to the dominating system of patronage and corruption. But when it came to the crunch, I showed my colours and said.. ‘everyone does it, and I need to get to Osh, damn it!’ Then it becomes a question of calculating the risk and the expense of the bribes. A colleague of mine in Osh, an collosally tall Dutchman has been having horrid torments over getting to Russia where he too plans to visit his love. When he found out that he should suddenly fly to Bishkek to wrangle with the Russian consulate it turned out that there were no seats on the plane. No problem, says one helpful soul – I know the pilot, and he comes back a few hours later to offer the enourmous Dutchman the tempting opportunity to bribe his friend the pilot a bribe, and fly to Bishkek sitting in the toilets. He stayed in Osh and went on a later plane, but you get the idea. Anything is possible if you have the right friends.

Anyway – I got there. I arrived on the evening of women's day, which in Central Asia is an extension of Valentine's day, where you offer your lady an expensive rose, and relieve her of some of her cooking and cleaning. I have had a lovely week in Osh lounging around going horseriding in the hills and watching the occasional political demonstration. After the last few months of pro-democracy ‘revolutions’ all over the former eastern-bloc, Kyrgyzstan opposition has decided to have its own, in response to the vote-stuffing, candidate-buying, neither free nor fair election that they have just had for parlimentarians. To follow up the rose revolution and the orange revolution, the opposition have now called for a tulip revolution to replace Akaev, the current president. As such about two-three hundred protesters were stationed outside the local government building all the time I was in Osh, shouting things in Russian such as ‘Rah-rah-rah! Rahdy-rahdy-rah! Rah-rah AKAEV - rah-rah rahdy!’ (Don’t ask me to translate – it would be impossible to render the exact idiomatic nuances of these slogans into English – you get the idea though)

In Osh at any rate it did not escalate much beyond that, and seemd to be largely Krygyz, leaving the other, Uzbek, half of the population out of it (one of whom told me ‘Protest schmotest – there’s only FOUR of them!’) But still enough to get people a bit twitchy – not being used to public expressions of political will, and I was told that this was why I had problems with the Kyrgyz at the border. It made for a bit of a dilemma on returning after the holiday though. How to get past without getting arrested? We looked at all the options, and ended up with... doing things exactly the same as I had done on the way in. We tried to get me a visa at the consulate in Osh, which is normally possible, but the right person to bribe was not there, and the others were feeling a little under seige. Yet another driver came to pick me up from Batken, and was instructed to negotiate with the Kyrgyz border guards on his way through Sokh to see whether I could get through safey. However the message got garbled, and he had spoken to the Uzbeks instead, who were fine with taking a bribe – this didn’t surprise me. Based on my experiences so far, the Uzbeks seemed to take bribes with an alacrity which made the seeminly ominous border posts transform in my mind from stern outposts of national security to little more than a queer kind of shop.

I made my way back across Osh oblast to Sokh listening to the Kinks to try and calm my nerves, and as we approached, the driver and I steeled ourselves for more justified ill-use from the Kyrgyz. Just as before though, the gate on the Kyrgyz side swung open, and it was the Uzbeks who caused all the problems. After looking at my passport, the driver was called in to explain, and then I was called in five minutes later. A bad sign. A young and zealous soldier said that no, it wasn’t possible for me to enter the Uzbek enclave of Sokh, and he would have to send me round the long way, and incidentally he was disgusted that I didn’t even have a Kyrgyz visa. I told him that my Uzbek visa was waiting for me in Dushanbe (true, as a matter of fact) and that I would go directly to pick it up from the embassy, but I just had to cross a couple of international boundaries to get me back to Tajikistan. He clearly didn’t like this, and was not won over by my charmingly broken Russian, but it won us a little time, and he brought in the customs official for consultation. The customs man was clearly an older hand, though similarly youthful. He asked me why I didn’t have a visa, and I repeated the Dushanbe story, and added that I was going to see my love in Osh, and had not had time to wait for visas, else my holiday would have been gone, and I would have passed up my chance to see Flora (also true, though I omitted that it was due to my impetuous impatience that I had left Afghanistan before getting round to getting the appropriate stamps in my passport). The customs guy seemed to respond to this, and his dark eyes were set a-twinkling. We raised the price offered to $4, though the young soldier was greatly offended, and we quickly drove off before anyone could change their minds. Another $2 to the other Uzbek post on the other side of Sokh and we were through. The Kyrgyz-Tajik border was no problem again, and I could enjoy the blossom of the apricot orchards, and the colours of the freshly rained-dampened hills all the way back to Khujand.

I won’t try this again though. It has been bothering me that the young Uzbek soldier was clearly right. We should have been sent packing, and it offends my sense of right that we were conspirators with the more worldly customs officer.

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