Kabul Days (19)


Kabul Days (19)
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 Roadmap to Nowhere

Tuesday, 29 April 2003
At least 13 killed and nearly 70 wounded in American shooting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah has once again put Iraq at the top of world news. For the past few days, Iraq had been overshadowed by SARS [Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a respiratory disease in humans], in spite of the continuing, and worsening, misery of the Iraqi people. Even now, the killings in Fallujah have been quickly pushed down the American and British broadcast bulletins that I’ve been listening to and onto the inside pages of their internet sites. This would have been unthinkable if the soldiers had been Iraqi and the victims American or British.

Here in Kabul, we’ve had a lovely day. The sun shines so brightly that even some of my Afghan friends are complaining. A beautiful sight on the streets was a wide jube (ditch) full of water. It was dark green, but clean, a refreshing sight compared to the dusty days we’ve been through. Another beautiful scene was that of a group of about ten children who had gathered around a tree covered in blossoms. One kid had climbed up and was picking bunches of blossoms for the rest. It may not have been a totally environmentally sound exercise, but it was great to see the children happy simply to be holding flowers in their hands.

Wednesday, 30 April 2003

Tonight I had my biggest personal adventure since coming to Kabul: a 30-minute walk back to the guest house, well after dark, through neighbourhoods I had not even seen in daylight. It went well, otherwise I would not be here writing about it, and it gave me a chance to see a bit more of night-life in Kabul, at least around that part of the town where we live. In the whole thirty minutes, I don’t think I saw more than 50 people walking, though there were plenty of cyclists and cars on the roads.

The biggest crowd of people, about thirty, was along a road leading to the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, and half of these were people running small, fruit-, drinks- and grocery-stalls whose clientele must be the visitors to the hospital. This, and the little movement I’ve seen elsewhere, must to some extent be caused by people’s habit of feeling insecure about going out at night, rather as it was in Iran years after the end of the war, even when the komiteh-style patrols were hardly visible.

In the afternoon, we had a media skills workshop at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as an introduction to a six week series. We had lots of discussions about the role of the media, the meaning of news, human rights and the death penalty. The last two points arose because of a newspaper story about the arrest and prosecution of the Taliban’s Minister for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Molla Qalamoddin [the pen of religion]. One of the ladies said she believed in human rights as a policy, but her personal view was that the molla had hurt the people of Afghanistan so much that had had to be hanged immediately. She did not think much of the argument that even if hanging were to be the correct punishment, the man’s guilt had to be proven first. I am sure we’ll revisit this debate.

My biggest professional exposure came this morning when we went to Afghanistan Television to see last week’s edition of the bi-weekly programme, Woman and Society, which is produced jointly by ATV and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. There is a whole list of what can be done to make the programme more attractive, but my strongest impression is one of immense professional respect for people who produce any TV programmes here at all. Their salaries are about $40 per month, which means they often do not have lunch, come to work after a breakfast of tea and bread, using very poor public transport, and work through days that can sometimes be ten hours long, with equipment that is mostly thirty or forty years old.

This morning, as we were watching our programme in a room not much bigger than an average dining room in London, other producers were working on five different programmes. There was so much noise that it took magical skills to ignore everything and concentrate on your own programme. Just imagine the range of the material being played out today – a quiet day because two machines were off:

    •    An ‘interview’ with a popular 1970s Afghan singer, Zahir Howaida, who’s now abroad. The ‘interview’ consisted of questions being read by the presenter and the answers coming from Zahir Howaida’s dozens of hits.
    •    A nature programme from the Discovery Channel, showing a family of tigers wrestling and running about.
    •    A documentary about a textile factory in Mazar-e-Sharif which looked impressively new, tidy and well-run.
    •    A music show using numbers from a series of Afghan singers – all of them men, you can’t play women’s voices on air.
    •    And a Chinese TV show with two male gymnasts in tight black shorts and nothing else performing strange contortions while grasping each other’s arms or legs and sometimes hugging each other, poses which might be considered obscene on British TV.

Two producers, a man and a woman, were working on the Chinese tape. I asked the gentleman if the public would not object to such displays of skin and muscles and close contact between two men. ‘No, because their hijab is complete,’ he said, grinning. I asked whether a show with women observing the same degree of ‘completion of hijab’ would be acceptable. No, he said, because they would be women. My criticism that this was gender discrimination was received with broad smiles from both producers, especially from the female one. I wonder what Molla Qalamoddin would have made of it all.

Thursday, 1 May 2003
Last night in Ramallah, Palestine, the representatives of the US, UN, EU and Russia delivered their ‘road-map’ to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas. What the poor man was being given was a flimsy red folder which looked very much like the menus in the inexpensive but filling Chinese restaurant, Wong-Kei, on the edge of Soho in London.

Today, I had time to read the text of the ‘performance-based and goal-driven roadmap’ [‘The roadmap: Full text’], with its unappealing management speak, which is guaranteed to fail. To see who is meant to be ‘goal-driven’ and have his ‘performance’ measured, all you need to do is to count the number of references to the two sides and what they should do and what should happen to them: Palestinians and Arabs, 52 counts;  Israel, 35. What the Israelis did was their usual practice: an offensive into Palestinian areas, Gaza this time, and killing a dozen people. Quite a ‘performance’.

Once again, away from all that, we had a great meeting with four of the most senior Afghan women journalists and made a lot of progress towards organizing the first of four quarterly conferences to discuss professional issues. This is the first time that such a gathering of women journalists in Afghanistan is being planned. It looks very promising, especially since all four ladies, with quite different backgrounds and political views, have agreed to cooperate.

As we concluded our meetings, some of our colleagues came back from a three-day visit to Ghazni. They brought along lots of raisins, walnuts, ghoroot or kashk (curdled yoghourt), as well as, on my request, pictures of the grave of Soltan Mahmoud of Ghazni. I have not seen the pictures yet, but one member of the group has brought me a piece of rock from around the mausoleum. She says the guardians of the place gave them the rare privilege of removing several layers of covering from the top of the grave so they could see the engraved stone, the most magnificent stone carving she’d seen.

Tomorrow – once again – we are not going to be able to go plant and flower shopping, because there is a lot to do at the office. The work is necessary and enjoyable, but so are plants and flowers, and we need to find a way of getting them soon. What’s worse, I’ve had to book and un-book our gardener, Hashem Jan, twice and feel embarrassed to ask him a third time. Maybe we’ll just pop down to the city center and get the thing done quickly.

To make up for the plant-shortage, we might be able to go to the Intercontinental Hotel oHotto see a handicrafts exhibition organized by the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees, DACAAR, on the occasion of May Day. May Day used to be a holiday in the ‘communist’, PDPA, days, but not so under Islamic rule, especially the Taliban. Now the PDPA has disappeared as an organisation, although many of its former members are active, mostly in social work, through non-governmental organisations, such as women's groups. The years of war and migration have dismantled what there was of an industrial working class in Afghanistan, so a Danish-backed aid organisation seems to be the best candidate for maintaining the tradition of the international working class.

Friday, 2 May 2003
I did go to the Afghan handicrafts exhibition at the Intercontinental Hotel. The display was small, but the quality was generally very good and the prices were reasonable. There was even a blue burqa’ for ten dollars. For a few moments I toyed with the idea of buying it, but decided not to because in spite of its beautiful colour and the fine geometrical shape that it acquires when worn, more than anything else it is a depersonalizing garment – not too distant from a military or prison uniform.

Sitting at my desk in the guest-house this morning, I was listening to non-stop music on a new FM radio station, Radio Arman (ideal). So far it has been playing a very pleasant mix of Afghan, Indian, Arab, Iranian and Western music, by male and female singers, but it also promises to start news programmes soon. The VOA also plays music, but in the middle of news programmes which are not likely to attract many young people. There’s probably more music on the BBC Persian service, but in weekly slots.

The only other station with more music is the ISAF radio, but its programming too is governed by the force’s remit and the idea of promoting stability, rather than entertaining the audience. So Radio Arman might have a very good chance of success, especially if it manages to add a good, short news programme to its music stream. [By 2005, Radio Arman had set up stations in other provinces was described as ‘the most popular station among the youth of Kabul’.] This is the same formula used in the transformation of Radio Azadi into Radio Farda.

Over the past year, broadcast journalism courses have been run in Kabul by the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Canadian organisation, IMPACS [The Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society.] There have also been print and news agency journalism courses and television training. UNESCO has rebuilt Kabul University’s School of Journalism and given it, and Afghanistan’s news agency, Bakhtar, a full set of computerized equipment. The Japanese have built an entirely new production department for Afghanistan Television. With all this effort to improve communication, one can hope that in the near future there will be greater clarity of purpose and mutual understanding among various groups in Afghanistan, and talking, rather than fighting, will become the dominant mode of resolving conflicts.

But there is one big hurdle that could seriously get in the way of all such forms of communication: power shortages. You may remember that after much letter writing and appeals to authorities, we were given the promise of 24 hour electricity, to prevent the need to turn our massive and noisy generator on. The generator noise has been a problem not least because we have been told that every now and again a senior government official comes to the house next door, which he is said to own, for a couple of hours of rest in the afternoon, ‘to help keep his blood sugar level down’.

Apparently, before we contacted the authorities, power to our guest house was being cut, along with some other houses, as a way of rationing a limited resource. Since our contact, we have been taken out of the rationing system and will have electricity as long as power reaches the local sub-station, but when there is no power, there is no power. Still, we are among the most privileged people in this city.



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