Kabul Days (14)


Kabul Days (14)
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

Always Finish Your Tea

Friday, 11 April 2003
This has been a sunny, warm and very much Friday-looking Friday. I did go into the office, but only for a couple of hours to check my email and do some research for Afghan TV presenters’ training tomorrow. I came across an EU paper disusing talk shows – which is the subject of the course – from a gender point of view. I could not have asked for anything better. You can read it here.

My team’s room at the office was being repainted to get rid of some ugly remains of a leak that happened during the rainy season. So from tomorrow, we’re going to feel even better working in it. At this point, let me tell you that as I am writing this letter, much earlier than usual, I am also listening to the BBC World Service on FM that carries Persian, Pashto and English programmes. It’s a strange feeling, being in Kabul but feeling as if you were in London – thanks to the story about the end of Michael Douglas and CZJ’s historical court case. [Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones had just won their privacy action against a celebrity magazine over unauthorized photographs of their wedding. The case, at London's High Court, lasted six-week.]

Back at the guest house, we were soon joined by Somlaz, Massi and Deniz Kandiyoti , from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and went out to have dinner at Shandiz. We had one of the restaurant’s best tables, with a direct view of a massive DVD display. When we sat down, the screen was filled with semi-clad beauties filmed on a California beach, I guess, dancing to the music of Hassan Shamai’zadeh. Then there was a thirty-something Iranian lady with big black hair and an equally big chest, singing the usual dele-e man, dele-to, and dancing to classical damboli-dimbol. Then, a more stylish group of women, with colourful, rural looking outfits danced under the leadership of Mr Khordadian, who was recently harassed and arrested in Iran for having made such recordings.

The DVD did contain a few pieces of Indian and Arabic-Indian music with sensual, but more elegant, dances and a Tajik singer with a much more graveful demeanour, the product of several decades of Soviet stylisation of folk music in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The real impact, though, came from the sight of Iranian women appearing, in Solmaz’s apt words, as ‘suggestive’ – rather than ‘digestive’ – biscuits, moving about to tunes that do not seem to have changed very much from the time of the Qajar kings, even though they are now being produced by electronic keyboards and electric guitars.

The ‘best’ that could be said about the recording – apparently made in Pakistan - is that it did not include a recording of Iranian, or other, girls’ private parties. Overall, the show was unpleasant, especially for our group that included five women – I could not see any other women around -- and two UNIFEM staffers.  On our way out we asked the manager to provide something more artistic, perhaps more folkloric music of the Tajik type. He said he would.

Later in the afternoon, sitting on the balcony and drinking tea with Parvin, Denise and Solmaz, we discussed journalism, the war on Iraq, Palestine, Ben Laden and 9/11, as well as Iranian and Afghan sweets and gender relations and habits in Afghanistan. Another idyllic day in our small UN-iverse.

In the evening, for the first time all four of us had dinner in front of television. At another time, perhaps, we could have been watching something entertaining, and chatting. Tonight, we all sat staring at the screen as one report after another showed the continued destruction of Iraq, now by some of its own citizens, right in front of the eyes of the ‘liberating’ troops.

But even here, there was a comical note. Trying to explain why the ‘coalition’ forces could not stop the fighting, an American military spokesman said the responsibility was partly with the Iraqi people themselves who had ‘to decide what kind of behaviour is acceptable’.  

Things got more interesting, as usual, when Rumsie described all of this as ‘untidiness’ and part and parcel of freedom, which gives people ‘the freedom to do bad things and to make mistakes.’ Rumsie reminds me of Ayatollah Khomeini with his description of war as a blessing. The resemblance was strengthened even further by a BBC report in which an American journalist presented part of one of Rumsie’ briefings as a poem:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know. 
-- Feb. 12, 2002 news briefing

You can read more about this here.

Saturday, 12 April 2003
In Iraq, looting, or the ‘untidiness’ of the transition from local tyranny to foreign occupation, continues to plague the Iraqi people, some of whom are now stealing property from each other’s houses. Outside Iraq, a debate is raging among the big powers as to how best to loot the entire country, especially its oil.

Meanwhile in Kabul, we had a relatively quiet Sunday. At the office, it was nice to step into a freshly painted room to prepare for the first session of the Afghan TV training in the afternoon. The course focuses on presenting panel discussions.

There are six participants, two of them women, a bit different from the group of four – two of them women – that I had asked for when we first discussed the idea of the course about a month ago. The rise in numbers was revealed to me on Thursday, two days before the course was about to begin. And all six nominees were men. I said flatly that I could not run such a course - the number had to go down, and half should be women. After a long discussion between the course organiser and the television management, two of the men were replaced with women, but the total number stood at six.

At the TV station, no sooner had the trainees and I sat down for introductions than a gentleman wearing a necktie rushed in, accompanied by another gentleman with some papers in his hand. The tie-wearing gentleman got the paper-carrying gentleman to sit down at the table where I was sitting with our group of six. When I asked the paper-carrying gentleman whether he was meant to be with the group he said ‘yes’, and explained that he belonged to a unit two of whose staff had been nominated for the course, and the other person would soon follow.

While my group were writing down their names and a few lines about their backgrounds, I asked the paper-carrying gentleman to step outside the hall so I could find out what had happened. He said his name and that of his colleague’s had been on the list, but had suddenly been withdrawn, without their manager, i.e. the tie-wearing gentleman, having been informed, much less consulted. The manager had then decided that he could not put up with such behavior, because it would undermine his department.

I explained to the gentleman that I had asked for a group of four to make sure the trainees would get more out of the course, and had insisted that half the group should be women because I was in Kabul to train women journalists. Now, I said, there were six people in the group, making it too big as it was, and any addition would make it less useful to everybody. So I asked him to bear with us and sit this one out, and we’d make sure he’d be on the next course.

The paper-carrying gentleman not being in a position to make such a decision, we went up a few floors to meet his manager, the tie-wearing gentleman. Reading the sign on the door of the office which said ‘military broadcasts’, I thought this was not going to be an easy meeting. And it was not, but it was not too tough either.

The manager explained to me, resentfully, that his staff had been nominated by the head of radio and television, but no one had taken the trouble to tell him that subsequently they had been withdrawn; that this was not the first time his department was receiving such treatment; and that his staff had to be on the course to make sure this behaviour would not be repeated.

I explained to him the reasons behind my decision to have a small group, and the compromise I had made on numbers. I also pointed out that the changes had been made late on Thursday; that perhaps someone had tried to contact him, but had not succeeded; that senior managers could not have meant to be disrespectful to him; and that if such minor issues could not be solved in a friendly manner, we would have little chance of solving Afghanistan’s other, much bigger problems.

After these words, and believing that I was sincere in what I was saying, the tie-wearing gentleman adopted a much softer tone and said that the moment I had stepped into his office he had been embarrassed about what had happened. He said he wanted to solve this problem amicably, but did not want his department to lose out.

I stressed that since raising the number of people on the course would harm the trainees, the best option would be for his staff to wait for the next course and meanwhile deal with the administrative problem through the proper channels. Alternatively, if he was determined to have one of his staff on the course, he could nominate a woman and I could then agree with the numbers to be raised to seven.

The manager liked the idea and asked one of his staff to look for a female member of staff to join the course, but she was nowhere to be found and the manager seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that his staff would not attend this course.

As I got up to leave, the paper -carrying gentleman who was sitting next to me pointed out that I had not finished my cup of tea. I said that was alright, but he said it was not, because if I were to leave without finishing my tea, people might think we had not reached an agreement. Learning such a lovely, delicate point of etiquette was worth drinking a pot of tea. I then went back to the training session on my own.

At the end of the session, one of the deputy managers whom I had met came to the conference hall to apologise to me for what had happened. He said the people concerned had had a military background and that’s why they had decided to force their way through this administrative problem. I assured him that no apology was needed and that I had enjoyed the chance of meeting a few more people in an organisation where I would be working for a while.

Back at the guest house, I had time to sit and chat to Saied, another of our guards. He told me about his six-year old son, Sho’eib, who has been accepted in school because he’s learned to read and write at home. He was now enjoying his time at school, in a class of about 25 pupils.

Talking to Saied, I also learned that the neighbours to the right of our house were an Afghan family from Kabul. In the morning, Ashraf had informed me that the neighbours to our left were also from Afghanistan, but from the district of Panjshir, the hometown of the military commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed – apparently by Ben Laden’s group – two days before September 11. Massoud is revered as a hero. His pictures are everywhere and there are also two huge billboards with his picture, made in Iran, one of them at the top of Bibi Mahroo hill, right behind our house, next to the diving board of the semi-ruined swimming pool we visited soon after I got here.

After the fall of the Taliban who were mostly Pashtun, members of several other communities were given senior positions of political power in Afghanistan. The Panjshiris have the ministries of defence and intelligence and a few other positions, leading to some newspaper reports that this is not representative democracy and has to be changed.

Finally, I also discovered that Saied has recently started working in a clothes shop selling Chinese products, including a nice spring jacket he himself was wearing. It is exactly the kind of jacket I need now that it’s getting hotter. Tomorrow, I’m going to Saied’s shop to buy one.

Sunday, 13 April 2003
TV reports of the London Marathon were full of sunshine. Kabul’s been fuzzy, warm/hot, overcast and dusty, looking like it’s going to rain – but has not so far. This evening, it’s cooler and there’s still a chance that the clouds might burst. Last night, the clouds broke apart by around ten o’clock. The upside was that the sky became full of stars, plus a fattening moon.

Today, I got my 100% cotton Jiachengushi summer jacket from the shop where Saied works. It took some discussion last night to convince Saied that I would get the jacket if only I could pay for it. He agreed very reluctantly, but insisted that I could only pay 500 Afghanis, around 6 pounds [$10], for it rather than the 600 that the other customers pay. A few hundred meters form Saied’s shop, the same jacket is sold in Kabul’s biggest shopping centre for 750 Afghanis.

Saied’s shop is one of probably a hundred men’s clothes and shoe shops in a very small area of downtown Kabul called Sara-ye Bagh. I was meant to meet Saied there at 10 o’clock, but he had had to take his little brother-in-law to their house on the other side of Kabul. Saied’s father-in-law, Del Agha – not the Del Agha at our office - was in the shop. He helped me try a few jackets until I found the right size, one of about ten jackets, in two shades of brown, left from a shipment of 500 imported from China. The batch had also included black jackets which had sold out.

Sara-ye-Bagh is a court-yard with shops on all four sides. In the middle, there are two islands of back-to-back shops separated from each other by narrow alleys. The place is fairly cramped, with clothes bursting out of the shops and hanging everywhere, but it is also very tidy and clean. The shoe shops and many of the clothes shops sell imported second-hand goods, although the supply of brand new goods is on the rise.

Before going to Sara-ye Bagh, Khalid and I had gone to a tiny electronics goods shop nearby – in a multi-storey complex of such shops - to buy a couple of radios for the guest-house. We asked to see a small, neat looking Chinese radio. The shop-keeper showed us three radios with almost identical boxes, but different names and prices: 350, 600 and 900 Afghanis. In response to my question about the difference between the three radios, the gentleman said there was no difference on the outside, but there must be different technologies inside them.

Finding this answer not very helpful, I asked the gentleman which radio I should buy. He said a customer should never buy anything on the shop-keeper’s advice. I said I always bought everything on the shop-keepers’ advice because they know much more about what they sell than I possibly could. At this point, he said I should not bother with the cheapest radio, but I could go for either of the other two because they were identical.

Asked to explain this mystery, he said the 600 Afghani radio was one he himself had imported from China because it was of the type that the Chinese sell on their domestic market, while the 900 Afghani one was the brand the Chinese supplied to the Afghan market. The 600 Afghani model, he said, was as good as the more expensive one and might even turn out to be better, but he was selling it at cost price because it was new and had to find its place on the market.

The gentleman also told me about his visit to China that took two months, flying from Pakistan to western China, which has a large Moslem population, and then travelling by land to Beijing. The details he was giving and the tone of voice left no doubt in my mind that he was being completely truthful, and I bought two sets of the type he had recommended. I paid in dollars, for which he gave me a very good rate, without me having asked for a discount.

Before leaving, I got the gentleman’s name and phone number just in case I needed to go back for more purchases. He then told me that should he not be in the shop, I could look for him by asking for ‘the Doctor’. ‘The Doctor?’, I asked. He confirmed that he was a doctor, specialising in the treatment of face and jaw. I said I was sure he was successful in business, but was this not a loss for patients? He agreed, with sadness in his eyes and gestures that said ‘What can I do? This is life.’ Outside the shop, Khalid explained that in the not too distant past, doctors and other professionals had had to make a living by driving taxis or selling potatoes on the sidewalks.

On the way back to the office, we walked around Bagh-e Zarnegar (The Garden with Gold Inscriptions), one of Kabul’s six legendary parks. The park once formed part of the palace grounds of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901.  The Amir and his favorite young wife, Bibi Halima, had adjoining bungalows in the park. I did not see any sign of Bibi Halima’s bungalow, but the Amir's is still there, as is his mausoleum with a dome and minarets. (You can read more about Amir Abdur Rahman Khan here.)

Bagh-e Zarnegar is now a fraction of its original size, much of it having been turned into official buildings, such as the Kabul Municipality and the Ministry of Education. In one corner of the park a mosque is being built, funded out of the bequest of a very rich Afghan businessman who had the franchise for Bridgestone tyres and became known as Haji Tyre.  

At the time of our visit, in mid-morning, there were not many in the park. About ten years ago, Khalid said, you would have seen groups of people huddled in the park, smoking hashish. I guess those seeking mental escape routes nowadays must have other means of getting high. Or perhaps they are too poor to afford even grass.



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