Kabul Days (13)


Kabul Days (13)
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

The Museum of Death

Tuesday, 8 April 2003
The name of the FAO garden tree is still shrouded in mystery. My FAO friend, who did not know the name of the tree but had promised two days ago to find out but did not do it yesterday, did not turn up today at all. Instead, I now know that in the garden of our UNIFEM house we have a Russian willow, and an apple tree which has blossomed. As the days get longer and warmer, we can spend more time outdoors, which is why I was out on our balcony this morning and took a careful look at the trees.

Another redeeming feature of our garden is that an old generator parked in a corner of it has now been taken away. The generator had been brought in months ago and had been put aside because it was too noisy, but the supplier had not bothered to come back to collect it. Our day-time guard, Ashraf, is enhancing the view further by preparing flower beds and planting roses.

I may have told you already that about two months ago, when I went to Sahel-e-Sabz for the first time, they had yoghurt on the menu but not in the kitchen. It took us about two weeks of campaigning to get the manager, Javid, to deal with this unacceptable anomaly. This Saturday, we asked for cheese and it was brought in on Monday – along with walnuts and raisins.

Seeing how much faster the response had gotten, we went for yet another improvement – this time requesting a couple of tables out in the UNDP courtyard where we could sit in the sun. When I first asked for the tables on Sunday, an assistant manager said it was a very good idea, but it was something that the UN staff had to ask for. I pointed out that I was staff and I was asking for it, but knew even then that this was not enough and I had to mobilise support.

Today, another colleague said, without any prompting from me, how nice it would be to have a table outside. I pointed this out to the assistant as proof that there was now popular demand. It turned out that such an addition to the establishment would need authorisation at much higher levels – though not from the UN Secretary General. So it may get done, but perhaps by the end of the summer, when the point of it may have been lost.

Another culinary experience today was a first visit to the Italian restaurant, Popo Lano, a two storey establishment with a big ground floor area which is a bit too dark, and an upper level that is brighter and more cheerful. We went there while searching for somewhere to have a snack and a discussion at the same time. My colleagues had ice cream which must have been good, because they finished it. I had a delicious espresso. Much as I find the concept of such eateries in Kabul indigestible, I don’t mind visiting Popo Lano again. All the staff are from Afghanistan and I did feel at home with them, and the prices are reasonable. Two ice creams, two coffees and a bottle of water came up to under $4.

For some time, my housemates had been complaining of lack of exercise. This morning there was a suggestion that before going to the office we would take a walk down the road and back, but there was not enough time for that. On our way back home, I suggested that we get off the car at the top of the main road leading to our area and walk the rest of the distance. One colleague had two bags and no walking shoes on. So we decided to go home for unloading and a change of shoes and then walk round the neighbourhood.

In about half an hour we walked around six blocks, without seeing a single house with Afghan residents. It seems all the properties are used by UN agencies, aid and assistance organizations or consultancy companies from various Western countries, media organisations, including the BBC, and a couple of Christian charities. One exception is a house used by the Afghanistan Progressives’ Association. In one part of the neighbourhood, the only Afghans to be seen were the guards outside the buildings. In another, on the edge of what must be a more ‘national’ neighbourhood, women and children were also out on the street.

From the very first day that I entered our neighbourhood, I had been intrigued by a sign which said ‘OMAR Museum’. At first I thought this was some religious site, glorifying the age of Prophet Mohammad’s second successor, the Caliph Omar, during whose term Islamic rule spread far beyond Arabia, and who’s respected greatly by the majority, Sunni Moslems. The thought surprised me, because such a site could have made Afghanistan’s Shia Moslems unhappy, to say the least. I soon discovered that OMAR stood for the ‘Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation’, and that the museum displayed not ancient Islamic artifacts, but very modern mines, mortar shells, and bombs, some produced locally, but many imported from the much richer parts of the world.

Today, during our walk round the block, I suggested that we visit the OMAR museum. When we got there, a kind gentleman opened the gate - enough so you could see a stack of huge shells in one corner of the courtyard - but told us that the museum was closed and we had to come back the next day, at 9am. I explained that we were UN staff, had to be at work all day and could only visit the museum early in the evening when we’re back at our guest-house, just on the other side of the block from the Museum. The gentleman, who’s called Mohammad Nai’m, took my card and went inside to call for instructions. On return, he said he’d do his best to make sure a curator would be around at 5:30pm tomorrow so we could see the place.

Mr Nai’m also gave me a flyer about the museum, in a format similar to the one I produced for UNIFEM, but with a front cover of Shams, a little boy who’s lost both his hands and a leg in a mine explosion. Inside the flyer, there are scary drawings of ugly looking objects that blow up as soon as they are touched.

There are also instructions on how to avoid mines and ‘unexploded ordnance’, or UXOs, i.e. grenades, shells and bombs. One instruction sums up the impact of millions of such objects that are spread all over Afghanistan. ‘To keep yourself safe,’ says the leaflet, ‘stay away from areas like: Military bases, battle fields, destroyed houses, places where scraps are scattered, unused roads, suspected tunnels, rivers, streams, wells, springs, canals and jungles.’

Even if all you know about Afghanistan is what I have been telling you, you know by now that if you really want to follow that straight-forward piece of advice strictly, you should leave Afghanistan altogether. But of course that’s silly. Not everybody can, or would want to, leave their birth-place. The people of Afghanistan should be helped to rebuild their lives wherever they want, including, of course, their homeland.

Some of the powers that made it possible for Afghanistan to be so generously equipped with a massive carpet of mines and UXOs are at this very moment busy doing something similar for the people of Iraq. The war coverage this evening got particularly dramatic after some of the ‘liberated’ people of Basra began ‘expropriating’ whatever they could – including huge bags of food loaded onto a huge, white rubbish truck; a boat towed by a 4x4; and a grand piano rolled down the streets from a luxury hotel. All of this was happening in front of the British soldiers who said they had ‘secured’ the town, with commanders who believe the people need a couple of days of such activities to ‘let off steam after years of suppression’.

But what really turned the heat up was the killing of three journalists by the Americans in Baghdad. One was Tarek Ayoub, a reporter from Al-Jazeera, the station that had already been attacked verbally by several US and UK government officials. Al-Jazeera paid a moving tribute to the 33-year old Tarek who’s survived by his young wife and their baby. He had been in Baghdad for a few days only, having come in from his base in Amman, Jordan, and had given a live interview and filed a report just before being killed by the Americans [For details and pictures, see the BBC; Common Dreams; and  Al-Jazeera.]

Flicking through the other Arab channels, there was no sign of the previous nights’ stupid films and silly discussions. Almost all were reporting the killing of the Iraqis and the destruction of Baghdad and Basra – cities that were flourishing centres of civilisation long before London, Washington and New York.

About ten journalists have been killed while covering the war away from the protection offered by the American and British tanks and naval vessels. In the meantime, some of those staying with the invading forces have done much damage to journalism itself. A Fox report had an interview with an American fighter pilot who said his missiles had done exactly as the advertisements had said they would do – as if he were talking about the varnish advertised on British TV, with the slogan, ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’. A presenter on the same channel said cheerfully that later on they would ‘throw in some strategy’.

Some of the most shameful abuses of language and the profession happened on BBC TV. The introduction to a report about men from other Moslem countries that have come to fight against the US and British forces described them as ‘mercenaries who have been paid to commit suicide attacks’, (I’m pretty sure this is what I heard, though the exact wording may have been slightly different). The writer was apparently unaware of the contradiction between the two activities referred to in this short phrase.

The same report included an interview with a British soldier who said some of the fighters who had resisted the British advance into Basra had been ‘foreigners’ – as if he himself was a born and bred son of Basra. Of course, he is entitled to speak as he chooses, but any informed, thoughtful and alert reporter would either have pointed out the discrepancy, or left the whole thing out as irrelevant.

Also a few days ago, John Simpson, who was turned into something of a hero after receiving some minor injury in the American bombing that killed his Kurdish translator – as well as 14 Kurdish peshmerga and some American soldiers - was complaining that he had been shot by the Americans while ‘being on their side’.

To be fair, the war coverage by some BBC reporters has been quite good and Rageh Omar has been wonderful. I have also seen some very good BBC reports on the global protests against the war. Two excellent pieces came from reporters in Indonesia and Thailand who had interviewed university students – most of them girls. These young people’s honest and thoughtful comments on the need for international rule of law, and their well-informed critique of US policy - including their surprise that the American nation had a leader such as George Bush - made me hopeful about the future of the human race.

Wednesday, 9 April 2003
Let me give you the good news that the FAO tree mystery has finally been resolved. I met my FAO colleague in the morning outside his office and asked him for the name of the tree. Being a very nice guy, at first he told me with some embarrassment that no one in his office had been able to help. He also said that he had told his colleagues that they should know the names of the plants in their own garden – at least – and these names should be inscribed on plaques and put on the trees. I said that was a great idea.

At this time, my friend noticed another of his colleagues outside the office and called him over to see if he could help. He could, and he confirmed the apricot verdict given by a UNIFEM colleague two days ago. Later in the afternoon, I went for a third opinion – from our driver Ehsan who’s from Shamali and knows a lot about agriculture and nature. He looked at the tree carefully and said it had an apricot trunk, but had been grafted with sour-cherry and that gave it the distinctive blossoms. So now we know.

For dinner, I had been invited by Solmaz to the newly opened Iranian restaurant, Shandiz, named after a summer resort area near Mashhad. Two of Solmaz’s colleagues and a mutual friend form the BBC were also there. The consensus was that Shandiz, which has a hotel by its side, was the best restaurant in Kabul. Shandiz is visited by Westerners, including Americans, but what gives it the edge is that Afghans also go there, while not many of them would eat at the Chinese restaurants, or the Thai one just a couple of blocks away from where we live.

The Shandiz complex has been built rapidly on a plot of land about 10 minutes’ walk from our guest-house. From the outside, it looks like any good Western restaurant. On the inside, it looks even better, with a ceiling that has been decorated in the shape of the roof of a tent. There are about twenty tables on the forecourt, plus about ten semi-enclosures along the perimeter which provide a bit more privacy and a view of the floor.

Maybe the idea is that in future, the floor area could be the stage for live music and dance. Right now, there is recorded music and tonight it included Hotel California by the Eagles, and a couple of Celine Dion numbers from the Titanic. Anyone with a distaste for such entertainment could eat in the restaurant’s two private rooms, one of which, we were told, was being used by the Iranian embassy staff.

Two interesting and unusual features of Shandiz: a big display of Iranian sweets and ajeel right in front of the entrance; and brown paper cups that, I am told, are meant to keep hidden any strong drinks that the customers may choose to bring along. Shandiz does not serve alcohol, but apparently customers can bring their own. There are, I am told, other restaurants with even less qualms about serving booze.

Back at the house the television was on and one of Saddam’s statutes was being pulled down by an American tank. It was a hollow construction and collapsed less elegantly than the marble statutes of the Shah in Iran twenty odd years ago. Elsewhere, a ‘liberated’ Iraqi was filmed pushing his penis into the mouth of a poster of Saddam Hussein that had already had some beating from someone else. Such is the close link between politics and sex.

Saddam has been a very ruthless man, but perhaps no match for Donald Rumsfeld who shook hands with Saddam in the 1980s and has now directed his downfall. Rumsfeld, described by Kissinger as ‘the most ruthless man’ he’d seen [BBC World Service profile], may now have Syria and Iran in mind for further acts of ‘liberation’.

Give me the FAO tree mystery any day.

Thursday, 10 April 2003
This evening, we watched an episode of Frasier in which he ends up harassing an Asian news agent when trying to establish friendship with him. In the process, Frasier smashes the guy’s hand under the shutter of his stall, which he then sets on fire after he dumps some cigarette ash into a waste paper bin. The last sequence of the show has the Asian news agent sitting in the middle of the smouldering remains of his kiosk, while Frasier is trying to convince him that all this has happened in the way of friendship. Of course, none of this works, and Frasier walks away from the Asian man and the ruins of his little business which the man says he had ‘inherited from my uncle, God bless his soul.’

On the news channels, American and British armed forces were being shown doing something very similar to the Iraqis. The ‘Asian’ character in Frasier was badly acted by an American. In the real ‘show’ in Iraq too, there are Arabs trying to gain leadership, except they have been away from Iraq for such a long time that their performance is not very convincing.

Later bulletins brought news of the killing in Najaf of a London-based Shia clergyman who had come to Iraq only a few days ago presumably to take part in running Iraq. In the south, the Americans have brought in a man, Ahmad Chalabi, who, according to one of his critics, has lived outside Iraq for 48 years and does not know the name of any of the streets in Baghdad. He has also been convicted as a fraudster in Jordan after a bank he had been running collapsed some years ago [see Wikipedia’s Ahmad Chalabi (//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmad_Chalabi)]. Pictures showed the chubby man, with a little bit of a belly, protected by equally big-bellied American guards covered in various types of weapons. In Baghdad, all types of places were being looted, including a hospital.

In spite of the long paragraphs above, I assure you that I have not watched a lot of news tonight. In addition to Frasier, I watched a little bit of Scorsese’s Casino before beginning to read a special edition of [the Persian language academic, feminist, journal,]  Nimeh-ye Digar [The Other Half], which focuses on violence in the family. It is a compilation of excellent articles and a very good reminder of the work done by Parvin and her colleagues for fifteen years. I am learning a lot from it and will probably use it in my training work. What I would love to do is to get a whole set of Nimeh-ye Digar here as soon as possible.

During the day, we had a very informative meeting with the director of the BBC’s Afghan Educational Programmes, AEP, which produces educational radio dramas funded by a variety of UN agencies. They have offered to produce a series of programmes on the theme of women’s rights, to be funded by UNIFEM. The discussion helped us learn a lot about the AEP, one of the biggest BBC outfits outside Britain. We also looked at how women’s rights could be incorporated into their radio dramas which are rather similar to the BBC Radio Four serial, The Archers.

Bad news was not confined to Iraq. In Afghanistan, several people were killed in clashes between rival factions in the north-west of the country. Two days ago, an American bomb aimed at armed groups fighting the American and Afghan forces in the south-east hit a house about one kilometer away and killed a family of 11. A newspaper said that three days ago that five fuel tankers full of explosives had been captured by the International Security and Assistance Force, ISAF, in Kabul. The report is alarming, especially since it says ISAF forces have arrested four people in connection with the explosives find. My colleagues and I figured out that the five tankers must have had five drivers and perhaps five assistant drivers, or ‘cleaners’ as they’re called in Afghanistan. Therefore, as many as six people may have gotten away.

But this is all happening some distance away from the UN-iverse. In our compound, we had another pleasant meal and fresh apple juice at Sahel-e Sabz. The weather was nice and walking under the sun was very enjoyable. We also had great fun asking several people for the names of other UNDP trees, to no avail. But the idea is catching on and we may in the end become amateur tree experts.



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