Friday, September 30, 2005


Rocky week

It’s been a rocky week, and I am only just coming out of a weird externally induced work paralysis that has left me unable to either work or relax.

The post-elections violence hasn’t helped. A couple of days ago the UN announced ‘White City’ due to a suicide bombing of a bunch of new recruits for the Afghan army – 8 dead. It means that our movement is limited now and there are more attacks threatened.

What is more, we have bad news from our friend in Mazar, the Young Archaeologist, who has been working with what he described as a ‘very rich and very good’ parliamentary candidate, for whom he has been writing speeches and generally helping out. On Tuesday night, this very same candidate Mr Ashraf Ramazan, was assassinated. The Young Archaeologist sounded understandably rattled – he could have been in that car also. I got an affecting letter from him today, delievered by hand along with his application to study archaeology in Chicago which he wants me to proof:

“On Tuesday evening at 6:10 my candidate Mr Ashraf Ramazan and his body guard were killed by unknown persons.
Now, I’m very sad and sad,
Not I have not any thing for speak, I had loved him very much, because he was a very good man, and was very famuse in Balkh, he was a yang man by a good feeling.
Oh. This happen is very sad.”

There are some good stories associated with the elections though. For all the messiness and danger and bloodshed, this is not Iraq, and something impressive has happened. Of course the jury is still out until we see how many war criminals are in parliament.

But it is noticeable how many people assured me that they would not vote for the sullied old guard, in favour of pretty any much any newcomer instead. The man from whom my Young Bride purchase her new Roshan sim card – a recently arrived Pakistani-born entrepreneur who told us very proundly how many languages he could speak, without having been to school - said that he planned to vote for Sabrina – and you could see why. I would probably have voted for her too, knowing nothing about any of the other candidates except the most notorious. Sabrina’s posters stuck out very noticeably amongst the incredible crush of innocuous faces pasted around Kabul. For a start she was the only one smiling. And a WOMAN smiling at that. Then there is the fact that she is young and good looking with an eyecatching yellow headscarf – I was told she is 24 or 26, and grew up in Iran. This is not surprising – you can’t imagine a girl used to the grinding Kabul routine of being started at if you brazenly show any hair would campaign with such a comparatively raunchy style.

It isn’t the only case of female candidates causing a stir. A lot of men have said they will vote for women as they are not seen as being sullied by the years of violence (I am not sure about this – the common argument that ‘if women ruled the world, everything would be peaceful’ does not stand up to much scrutiny if one looks at actual examples of women politicians, and there is no reason that women politicians in Afghanistan should not turn out to be corrupt and venial and brutal and incompetent as any of the others). But also there seems to be a common element of ‘sex sells’ in a very Afghan way. I have heard that the campaign posters of a female candidate in Herat have even been changing hands for cash – private cars and taxis being adorned with the pictures as they might be with any doe-eyed hindi heroine from the silver screen.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Bah Humbug!

It is a very good week for news about Afghanistan. Because of the parliamentary elections on Sunday, agencies like IWPR and HRW who regularly report on Afghanistan are pulling out all the stops, and the others which only give fleeting attention to Afghanistan are drawing their focus closer, even with all the excitement of Hurricanes and the UN summit and elections in Japan and Germany to draw their attention away. Even the egregiously shallow gaze of the BBC World TV, to which all expats are inescapable informational martyrs, has flitted and fluttered round the country a little, with its ‘Day in Afghanistan’ yesterday. What I saw of the coverage was pretty terrible.

Thus we were promised by someone called Jeremy Cook, or something like that, that he would ‘track Afghanistan’s progress’ by ‘visiting some of the remotest areas of the country.’ As my Young Bride pointed out, it is not normally the strategy for tracking a countries progress to purposely seek out those areas which have been most cut off from progress. But dirt sells, I guess. It’s a patronising attitude though. You cannot imagine BBC World reporting from Japan and coming up with

‘Here I am in deepest rural Hokkaido, and from what we see around me, the technological revolution in Japan has not really happened – many of the houses around me do not even have central heating. In fact we can see that Japan has a long way to go to catch up with the sophistication of cities like London or New York.’

But somehow with Afghanistan they get away with this.

The bit I did see was also very bad journalism. That BBC anchorwoman with the weird Newfoundland accent was talking to the Governor of Parwan province, and for some reason they had decided to walk along a dusty street, an activity that seemed to be taking up all the attention of the journalist who was not listening to what the governor was saying (not particularly surprising as he was not very interesting – just making a list of the things that he needed – money for hospitals, roads, schools and all the rest of it). Instead she was gazing anxiously off camera in the direction she was walking. Was she afraid of something? Was she planning on doing something when she reached her unknown destination? Meanwhile the Governor rabbitted on without being noticeably interviewed. Eventually they reached the end of their walk… and the climax of the interview was to reach a shop, where it was pointed out that there was no electricity, but the shop had to use a generator.

Bah humbug!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Politics and development

Last night we watched Visconti’s La Terra Trema. What a sad film – it is about these poor Sicilian fishermen who go through life being exploited by the wholesalers who supply the boats and the nets and then buy their fish off them at low prices, while the fishermen labour and lose their lives at sea. The story is focused on the struggle of one family’s attempts to break to model of exploitation. It reminded me a lot of Afghanistan in fact, and it made me feel more content with the idea of development, which I often feel very skeptical about. The film makes quite a good case for microcredit programmes that allow the very poor to break the cycle of poverty by allowing them to invest in their livelihoods in a small way, without getting into back-breaking high-interest debt. The problem is that there is such a lot of bad development going on, as well as some really great programmes.

The political side of things is the real cruncher. The poor and vulnerable will always be open to exploitation unless there is rule of law which protects them from the bigwig’s club, and rule of law is very difficult to preserve without transparent political system, and how do you put together a transparent political system. No one knows. Sometimes it just happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Experts on the subject talk about establishing civil society – and you can do a lot in that direction – Soros’ OSI being a good example. But you would have to be a pretty devastating historian to be able to put your finger on the right mix of causes. When did it happen in Europe? I am not very up on European history, but in England I guess it was somewhere between the 16th and 19th centuries – with the rise of the economic power of the bourgeoisie, and the birth of democratic movements embedded in society. Historians! Can you explain it more clearly to me – or suggest a good book on the subject?

When will it happen in Afghanistan? Well, much of the country is somewhere in the feudal era here. The warlords are something like medieval squires – some are exploitative bastards, others are strongmen who do at least protect their own. They control through direct taxation of trade routes, and the taking of tithes from their underlings. When you talk about corruption in Afghanistan it is rather deceptive, as it gives the idea of a poorly run democratic system which is being attacked by the worm of kickbacks and nepotism. In fact it is almost the opposite – the system that prevails is based on family, rank, contacts and economic power, and there has recently been an attempt to insert a new system based on democratic principles, rule of law and so forth.

And of course Kabul is a different world, much as London was a different world in the 17th century, where there was even an element of direct democracy exerted by the famous London mob which expressed its political opinions with brickbats. Talking with the fat-bearded merchant father of the Mazar Logistics guy, over a delicious rice meal one evening in his house in Kabul, we agreed that things would have to start in Kabul. It just needs peace to hold, economic freedom to be ensured, lawyers to be trained and the legal system to be overhauled, the power of the gunmen to be broken and the institutions of representative democracy to be put in place.

It might work. It is an exciting time to be here. The parliamentary elections seem to be so far unmarred by violence or intimidation (except in the south and east where the Taliban have turned themselves from a government in exile into a rather effective guerrilla force and are running around assassinating pro-government or pro-democracy figures every week.) We have had a few people from Human Rights Watch link staying with us at the guesthouse in Mazar, who are here to prepare a report on anything that might go wrong, but as far as major human rights violations goes, it seems that they might have more profitably used their plane tickets to go somewhere else. They display a peculiar mixture of frustration and relief when they talk about it – it’s good that there is not much going on, but it means that they could be doing something more useful elsewhere. Of course there are a few dodgy things going on – the odd journalist beaten up, and that kind of thing, but generally the candidates have been allowed to do their thing.

Having said that, so far the elections seem to have 2 major flaws:

1. People don’t know who to vote for
Almost all of the people I have asked here so far have told me that they do not know who to vote for, that they are overwhelmed by the number and variety of candidates. Driving along in the car yesterday, the Panjshiri Driver asked the Uzbek Engineer, ‘who should I vote for’. The engineer said ‘whoever your heart leads you to’. The driver persisted with ‘Yes, but WHO?’

Mazar is now literally pasted-over with the posters for parliamentary candidates. As I understand every one gets 2 minutes air time on the radio to introduce themselves, but seeing as they all say things like ‘I am going to improve schools, build roads and factories, and uphold human rights’, it is difficult to choose between them. I guess this is the case elsewhere too. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a few politicians who said things like ‘I am going to appoint my family to all the cushy jobs, I am going to steal from the public budget and use the money to buy myself a whole load of big gold chains like Mr T.’ Then you would know who to vote for. In Afghanistan it is exacerbated by the fact that this is the first time, so amidst all the patriotic seeming school teachers and university professors and doctors who are running, the only people who have any public recognition are the ones who people know that they don’t want – the commanders and the ex-combatants who are not known for the experience in legislation, but for chopping people’s heads off and burying them in ditches, or for stuffing their enemies into shipping containers and leaving them in the desert to suffocate or fry.

2. The bad guys have not been eliminated from the candidate list
This was the main problem that HRW guy identified. More could have been done to eliminate the baddies from the list. Of course, it is a fine balance. The Americans and UNAMA and the other politically-involved actors in Afghanistan clearly did not want to rock the boat too much, but you can see the effects already, as even now the parliamentary candidates argue that because they have not been eliminated, that they must therefore have been proven to be innocent of war crimes for anything they have done in the past, because the electoral protocol clearly states that no one who has committed war crimes can stand for election, and here they are standing.

My favourite thing about having the HRW people to stay, was that whenever the phone rang, the team leader picked it up and said in his best telephone voice ‘Human rights watch.’ The kind of voice that you expect a secretary in a large building to use, to be followed by ‘…how may I help you?’ I had imaginings of people calling up from Kandahar to say ‘Yes… is that Human Rights Watch? Yes, I’d like to register a complaint. My local councillor came round to my house and has been torturing me with an electro-shock baton for the last half hour.’

Was that in bad taste? Probably, but there was that atmosphere to our conversations. Like many professionals they had a tongue-in-cheek manner of discussing subject matter which they considered deeply serious – so doctors make jokes about horrific disease, and teachers ridicule their most tragic students. Thus any aid worker who has seen Beyond Borders, which stars Angelina Jolie as a UNHCR worker, will struggle to recognise themselves in the atmosphere of po-faced hand-wringing displayed by characters with nerry a moment taken off for the welcome release of irony. Oh, where is the film in which NGOs are portrayed as they are?

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Borders and Christians

September 11th and so far, the small number of Afghans I have asked do not remember this as the day of the falling of the trade towers. They know it is around this time, because it is a few days after the death of Ahmad Shah Masud, the Mujahid and anti-Taliban military leader who was blown up by a couple of fake Arab journalists (that is they were fake journalists – not fake Arabs) 3 days before September 11th, an event which was seen to have had greater immediate consequences for the war in Afghanistan than the fall of the twin towers – though as we know, September 11th was a pretty significant event for Afghanistan in the end, and bizarrely … Iraq also.

This is a non-sequitur, but I did not mention it when talking about the trip in Tajikistan. We had saw a funny little group on the crossing from Afghanistan to Tajikistan – which consists of a battered, rusty old Soviet era barge across the wide river – the Amu Darya, and a lot of irritating waiting. Each of the borders in this part of the world is very different. I am most used to the Termez-Hairaton border from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, where there is a bridge to cross the river, and all is very high-security and involves a lot of tiresome questions from Uzbek officials. The Tajik border has a much more relaxed feeling – the same stupid questions of course:

‘Are you carrying any narcotics?’


‘Smuggling any arms?’


This line of questioning leads one to suspect that either there are some very stupid people out there (‘…Only this 5 kilos of Heroin as a present for my mother’) or that the guards do in fact expect you to declare your drugs and guns:

‘Yes, errm – how much do you charge for 50 kilos of unrefined opium?’

‘That’ll be 14$ cents please.’

‘There you go. Keep the change’

‘Why thankee sir… Have a nice day’

Our fellow travellers mainly seemed to be Afghans taking a break in the glitzy metropolis of Dushanbe, getting some vodka down them, no doubt. Some were taking a few sneaky crates of beer back with them. Then there were a couple of Tajik traders maybe, and a man who told me he was the head of the Afghan border commission in Hairaton – he invited me round sometime.

On the clattery old bus which took us 500 metres or so to the river and the boat, a little debacle erupted between a Tajiki guy in military uniform and a skinny, high-cheekboned Tajik who had something of the air of the vagrant about him who was accompanied by a clean-cut young man with the suggestion of a goatee and a baseball cap, and a bewildered looking young woman with white socks and sandals, short hair. They were Christian missionaries who had been converted by some charismatic sect in Tajikistan and were now having an argument with a man in military costume about Jesus. They were working for an organisation called something like Help Famine International, and when we came across to the other side, we saw that they had the telltale Christian fish in their logo. These Christians, honestly! Why do they come to Afghanistan? Of all the nations in the world, Afghanistan is not one where faith is in immediate danger of falling before the forces of secularism.

There were a few stories of persistent weirdos getting themselves in trouble at the time of the Taliban for proselytising, but now I guess there must be quite a few. In Mazar there is a strange organisation deviously called Partnership in Academic Development (PAD) which I had suspected for a while after having gone there to check out their library and English language programme. I went in and was shown round their library by a pale birdlike young American girl who showed me into an freezing cold room lined with uncatalogued books – some useful, some incredibly inappropriate (The 10 day MBA, Ballet for Toddlers, that kind of thing). The girl vaguely agreed that it was a shame that more students did not use the library, and she was mildly evasive when I asked about their future plans. She then showed me the books they used for their language course, which was something like a 6 week course, with a lot of emphasis on vocabulary needed for expressing emotion, friendship, love and morals. This particular girl had been there a couple of months, and did not know how long she would be staying. She did not really like Afghanistan. I could not speak to the leader of the programme – a Korean lady, because there were sitting in a room, having tea and mumbling.

I spoke to an Afghan friend recently who confirmed my suspicions. They go for students and offer them free English and computer lessons, and then start talking about Jesus and love. I was told recently that the mullahs rumbled them, and they had to move to a different part of the city, near the UN office, and keeping a low profile.

It’s all so underhand. I can’t imagine Jesus carrying on like that. I don’t see anything wrong in going around with a T-shirt saying ‘Jesus Loves You’, but I can’t stand all this slinking around and lying. One of my colleagues in Tajikistan once told me of a group of Christian dentists who set up a missionary organisation in the central American country she was then working in – Honduras I think. These dentists had the admirable aim of providing free dental care – with just one condition – you had to sign a conversion statement to receive treatment. You can imagine the thoughts of their happy clientele. Salvation and a free filling – what a bargain!

I met another such at a party in Kabul – she was quite sweet really – very young, from Manchester, with a very round moonface and pale skin like an egg. I asked her why she came to Afghanistan when there were so many unbelievers in the UK. She was vague but thought that they needed it. I asked her that surely it was better that the Afghans at least all believe in God, which can’t be said about Mancunians. Islam is a monotheistic religion, too. But she said

‘Yes, but Jesus said “I am the way”’

In the end, her implication seemed to be that a Muslim was more astray than an atheist. All very dubious theology.

Mind you, the Afghans also have a certain amount of dodgy reasoning in this field as well.

I bought a dastmaal for my head the other day. I thought it would be good to keep the sun off my head. I have had a couple of suits of shalwar kameez (or pirahan tumbaan as they call them here) for a while now, and the dastmaal – looking like a rather attractive dishtowel – finishes off the look. A Mazari filmmaker who happened to be with me tied it on for me, and as we walked back to the guesthouse, the bysquatters (generally more numerous than bystanders here) passed remarks, mainly inaudible, but one clearly said ‘Ah! Now he’s become a Muslim?’ The filmmaker remarked with the kind of derision one reserves for one’s own people,

‘You see – all you need to be a Muslim is to rap a dastmaal round your head. It’s very simple.’

I now have a great desire to tie it in a proper manner, which is more difficult than it seems. When I first got back to the guesthouse, the grimy guard said I looked Uzbek in the style that the filmmaker had tied for me. Interesting that you can tie your headdress to imitate a particular ethnicity. I have been out and about since, trying different ties and drapes, but I always feel a little unauthentic. I will clearly have to practise.

I will add a posting on the various different headgears to be seen, if I can get round to it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005


The Seven Lakes

(The photos are taking a long time to load. I will do them one at a time. Sorry for the delay)

We have been in Tajikistan for the past week. Not strictly related to the title of this blog, but it sure was lovely – we went walking in the mountains near Panjakent, up a tribute valley giving on to the Zarafshon river. The area was called Haft Kul or the ‘Seven Lakes’, because of the 7 lakes created by ancient landslides blocking the flow of the river - leading one after the other up the valley. It is an incredible place to travel, because it is so peaceful and remote. From it took us about 10 hours to get there to Rashna, the village we stayed at. Though we were told that at the time of the Soviet Union, there was a steady flow of SSSR hikers heading up the valley, we never see any foreigners on our trip. Unsurprising, as outside Dushanbe you rarely do see foreigners in Tajikistan in general. Once we were up in the valley, we did not even meet anyone who was even from another part of Tajikistan.

Before I continue with this little photo-exposition, I should add that almost all the photos are taken by my young bride – except the obvious ones in which she herself appears – much of the merit of this posting goes to her therefore, while the faults are my own alone.

On the road from Dushanbe to Panjakent. Beautiful, but due to the dodgy pepper chicken at the Chinese the night before (I just knew it was too peppery!) my serenity was troubled somewhat by an unfortunate state of stomach.

The facilities required a certain sense of humour, and limited sense of smell

Our hosts in Rashna, the village in the mountains: from the left Daler, Abdul-Rashid and his wife. Do not be frightened – they were very lovely people with nice smiles and full of curiosity. However, the appropriate face for having your photo taken should be characterised by this rather Edwardian severity. Abdul-Rashid told me that it was better not to smile, as that way your features came together more.

The villagers gather to have a look at us on the night of our arrival in Rashna

On the road from Dushanbe to Panjakent, I had been feeling more than usually squitty with a persistant eggy burb. While the former complaint had cleared up, after arriving at Rashna, and finding a place to sleep, during the night I suffered from the strangest and most uncomfortable exaggeration of my sulphurous burping. By the wee hours, I was tossing around, wracked with discomfort. I would lay back for a few minutes, followed by the rapid expansion of my belly, and be forced by the pain and tightness to sit up and burb out a steady series of burbs like a steam-engine giving off steam. My poor young bride had to sleep through a night of noises and smells such as you might find in Satan’s boiler room.

You can be sure it was a relief to be up and out in the clear air the next day, and though feeling weak, once we had walked a little way above Rashna, I relished the sight of the first lake…

How stilly lie the limpid waters of fair Sogdiana! ( ‘Ach Zerafschon, so schön und wild’ as described by one poet whose hand-typed poem was proudly exhibited in the Museum of Panjakent). When asked by my host which lake was the most beautiful, I said, ‘erm, maybe the second’ and he told me, ‘no… the first lake is the most beautiful. Its waters are the clearest’. So there you go.

We stopped by the 4th lake to rest and have lunch. My bride was keen to march quickly onwards, but I vetoed, and it was lovely to recline under the mulberry trees and nap the noontide away.

After a little while, we were discovered by a group of curious boys who at first were quite shy of us, and sat a little way off, watching what we did. But we soon tempted them down to join us with chocolate wafers and tinned fish.

The ice was truly broken once we got our cameras out.

My young bride’s photography proved a very popular attraction in these parts, and once she had stopped to take a photo in the village of Nowfin, between the 4th and 5th lakes, it was very difficult to get away, for all the requests for photographs…

…some of which were relatively spontaneous…

… others a little more posed (note the little Churchill on the right)…

Dan, if you are reading this – doesn’t the girl on the right look a little like Alexandra?

The only foreigners around, we got the feeling we were the most interesting thing to be seen. We were silently watched as we went by.

The arrival of the foreigners with their peculiar instruments was the object of much fun at the house we stayed at in Rashna. Note the ubiquitous flower-pot hat of ladies in these parts. ‘Molto folkloristico’, as my young bride dryly put it.

Bride over troubled waters.

On the road

On the way home, the first evening, we stopped to share our provisions with a lonely wayfarer

The next day with a new strength and sense of purpose borne of not having a sulphur-goblin in my belly, we progressed rather higher, reaching the 6th lake…

A foolhardy plunge in the icy waters of the 6th lake. Brr!

A shady glade, a lad and his lady

We met a man who had walked from Panjakent – some 3-4 hours away by car, and he was shooting along the steep road towards his village, with his shy but brightly-dressed wife accompanying him. When we stopped him to ask him the time, he showered us with questions about the geography of Europe and other topics of interest to him, and invited us to stay the night in his village, above the 7th lake. I don’t think we could have kept up with him, but we took down his address to pay a visit next time.

And indeed, I dearly hope that there will be a next time. What a lovely place. You can apparently take a donkey to carry your food and do longer 1 or 2 week treks across the pass back towards Dushanbe. Next summer maybe.

For anyone who fancies a bit of the Tajik experience, you can come to Tajikistan pretty easily through a number of
  • travel operators
  • who can give you pretty much as little or as much guidance as you want, from just getting visas, to planning the whole thing.

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