Kabul Days (27)


Kabul Days (27)
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 General's Makeup

Monday, 2 June 2003
More beggars have approached me over the past few days than at any other time since I arrived in Kabul exactly four months ago. It first happened on Friday, down on Chicken Street - Koucheh Morghfroushi, or Koucheh Morgha. At the corner of Koucheh Morgha there is a bookshop where I bought two books on Afghanistan: a 1965 Historical Guide to Kabul, by the Swiss scholar Nancy Hatch Dupree, and a 1991 book on the war in Afghanistan by a group of Soviet scholars – the Soviet Union was still around in 1991.

Over on the other side of the road is the Shirzad leather goods shop where I had bought a pair of slippers, both for the left foot. Mr Shirzad Senior, with his thick beard and thicker glasses and a big smile on his face said his son, who had sold me the slippers, had realised the mistake when he had spotted two right foot slippers in his stocks. These had been kept in a corner waiting for me to return. The slipper crisis was thus resolved.

The begging, with which I started this note, happened before I had done any of my shopping. The moment our UN 4x4 stopped in Koucheh Morgha, we were surrounded by a group of children, some of them offering newspapers I had already bought, others simply asking for money or whatever. The advice always has been not to give – hard to accept, but wise.

On one occasion a few weeks ago when we had stopped at an intersection, as soon as I had given some money to a boy who had cleaned our car’s windscreen, another boy came over to demand his share. Telling the second boy that the first one had done something and the job was now over was of no use. The second boy first opened the door of the car and tried to grab me, not violently but persistently and desperately, shouting all the time that some member of his family was sick. When that did not work, he flipped our windscreen wipers out to make it difficult for us to move on.

At this point our driver was about to get out of the car and physically restrain the boy. We stopped him because it would have looked really ugly for someone to get out of a UN vehicle and get into a quarrel with a poor boy on the street. Fortunately the road cleared and we were able to drive on, feeling really awful.

Since then, I have avoided paying any beggar, unless he/she is really old or really weak and there’s no one else around. I do feel bad about this, but there really is nothing any individual can do to solve what is a huge social problem. I sometimes buy newspapers, books or maps from beggars who have been turned into newsagents – very much like the sellers of the Big Issue in Britain.

I have been sold a really old map, a very old magazine, as well as the English language biography of Afghanistan’s Defence Minister, Marshall Faheem, one of the commanders of the war against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan’s communist government. Some of Marshall Faheem’s former comrades who are not in the government are now denounced as warlords, and the Marshall himself is the subject of widespread rumours.

Back to begging, which as you can see is such a difficult subject to follow through that I’ve been going away from it, and into other topics. My second encounter this week came on Saturday, on the way back from a training session at Afghan TV. On the opposite side of the street from our office, an old man, about seventy, I would say, was sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall, the right side of his face swollen to the size of a galia melon. Without any hair, from a distance, it actually looked like a melon. It may have been what one has read about as elephantiasis. Fortunately, I was about five meters away from him, in a rush to get back to the office, and could control the pain of total helplessness.

The pain came back the next morning, yesterday, when I had gone downtown to do some shopping. Crossing a very busy intersection, I saw a woman on the edge of the street, by the railing that separates the carriageway from the pavement, walking, if that’s the right word, on her hands and knees, all four bandaged heavily. She had raised her head, with a surprisingly cheerful face and sparkling eyes, and was pleading with a policeman to let her get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Over on the other side of the road, there was a man on a wheelchair, with two amputated legs, selling I forget what. One of many such vendors, in a land full of guns and mines.

Now it might just be that there’s been no change in the number of beggars, but I’ve been paying more attention to them; or that good weather allows the beggars to be more visible. But it’s also true that the more stability there is in Afghanistan, the higher people’s demands are going to rise. Without sufficient resources to meet those demands properly, begging, drug pushing, and prostitution are bound to spread. War, on the other hand, would suppress all sorts of demands and make poverty appear as commonplace.

The context for my heightened observation of misery in Afghanistan will be complete when I tell you that over the past few weeks there has also been much criticism of foreigners, including the UN, as the main beneficiaries of the little aid that has been promised to the country. As life gets tougher and the pressures on limited resources rise, various people, factions and institutions are highly likely to turn on each other.

Please do not think that my entire day has been made up of such sad thoughts. Not by any means. I have finished the second draft of our 8 March report, which now looks like a very respectable document. And I’m looking forward to a session tomorrow at the Kabul Police Academy, to talk about improved communications and the use of the media to give women an incentive to join the force.

The invitation has come from a Canadian consultant, a lovely old lady, who was herself the director of the police academy in Canada, but has not seen any of the 600 sequels of the Hollywood film of the same name. I’m glad she has not, because I don’t think they would make the best training material for the police in Afghanistan. I guess I’ll have more to tell you about this tomorrow.

Tuesday, 3 June 2003
The Canadian Police College and the Afghan Police Academy turned out to be better hosts than the Free Union of Afghan journalists. The journalists invited me to speak at their founding conference two weeks ago and then cancelled the speech without telling me! The two police colleges, by contrast, not only kept their promise, but also gave me a certificate of appreciation for taking part in their workshop on encouraging women to join the police force. My talk was about effective means and techniques of publicity. For more information, if you have the time, see the text after this note.

The Academy consists of a set of well constructed buildings on the slopes of the mountains in North-East Kabul, a bit further up the road from the Polytechnic that has been the site of so many events I have been to. On the first day of the workshop, yesterday, they had gone through the difficulties they face in their job - a long list that included not having been paid for three months, not having been promoted on time or at all, and not being respected by the public.

The task today was to find solutions to these problems and discover ways of getting more women into the force. I have already told you that only 40 women have joined the police force, which is expected to have 50,000 officers across the country.

In one room, there were about twenty women police officers in full uniform. All were in their late thirties or early forties, some of them having joined the force more than twenty years ago. Two had the rank of general. Sitting around the classroom, they created an image of authority that was in sharp contrast to the clichéd Afghan woman’s burqa’-covered image that looks like a fully enclosed badminton ball. I pointed this out and said my talk would focus on how this positive image could replace the older one.

After a lady from the Ministry of Education had offered recommendations on how to get students interested and I had gone through my media bit, small groups were formed to discuss the issues in detail and come up with recommendations. Going from one group to another, I heard some pertinent and well thought out ideas such as forming a committee to look into pay and promotion; getting women police officers more widely involved in investigating family disputes, especially domestic violence against women; guaranteed places for women in the Academy’s entrance exam; and qualified officers replacing the ‘illiterate jihadi’ fighters who are now in charge of law and order, or lawlessness and disorder, as their critics would have it.

In one group, though, I was introduced to a very confident and articulate officer, a general, with a biting sense of humour and lots of frustration with her job. She was unhappy with her pay and working conditions and lack of promotion. Like most officers, she would wear her uniform only after entering the Academy’s premises. And although she was in charge of 350 women, including clerical and manual workers, at the Academy, she would not let her daughter join the police force so ‘she would not suffer the same hardships and humiliation as her mother had’.

The officer said she and her colleagues had been mistreated even on this workshop. At the end of the first day, she said, some of them had been driven to the center of Kabul in a vehicle and then told to get off by the male driver, who had treated them ‘like a flock of sheep that needed to be herded’. The officers’ lives were in danger, she said, because of the uniforms they were wearing, a comment that somehow undermined the prospect of any fresh recruitment. Our general, though, had managed to hire new vehicles for all her colleagues and send them safely home.

The officer also revealed that she would accept money to help speed up the cases of people who ended up having business, or I guess trouble, with the police. Asked if this was not an abuse of power, she said she had no choice, living on a salary of 40 dollars a month that barely covered the cost of her makeup. Asked why she would use so much make-up, of which she had plenty on her face today, she said she would wear make-up even when visiting her father’s grave.

The general was irreverent and very funny, but really not typical of the class we met. All the others appeared really serious about their occupation and wanted the police force to get better and be kept in high regard. I believe they have a good chance of making a difference. Like all the other women I have met, they showed a lot of self-respect and steadfastness, especially in coming back to their posts after five years of exclusion by the Taliban.

They and the rest of the Afghan people need a few years of security and peace to recover from the debilitating effects of chronic uncertainty and fear created by continuous warfare, and release the imagination and creativity that has enabled them to survive the war.


This is the English version of my talk at the meeting, ‘Workshop on recruitment and integration of women into the Afghanistan police force’, under the title, ‘A media strategy for encouraging women to join the police force’:

The confident and reassuring image of Afghan women police officers here today is in sharp contrast to that of the oppressed and powerless burqa’-covered Afghan woman that is seen by much of the outside world. This talk is about the tools and techniques needed for presenting the positive image that we see in this room to the Afghan and international public.

A person, group, activity or product is its own best publicity. The best advertising campaign cannot hide a bad performance forever, and bad publicity cannot damage a good performance permanently. As the old Persian proverb says,

Moshk aan ast keh khod bebouyad / Nah aan keh attaar begouyad

Musk should speak by its own scent / not by the seller saying it’s heaven-sent

The best advertisement for the Afghan police force would be its personnel’s appearance and conduct and their ability to create order and a sense of confidence among the citizens. Nonetheless, the police force would have to use all means and methods of information dissemination to raise the public’s awareness of what it does, particularly to encourage women to join the force.

Radio and television are the most important sources of information for the public, especially in Afghanistan with is dispersed population and low literacy rate. Good radio and television programmes are those that contain accurate, fair and balanced information, especially when presented as stories, not in the sense of fiction, but a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, often focusing on one individual’s experience.

One of the most effective ways of encouraging women to join the Afghan police force would be to produce radio and television programmes about the lives and activities of women who have already joined the force. Their experiences will demonstrate the obstacles that may have existed in their way, and the incentives and rewards that have led them to overcome those difficulties.

Such programmes, and any other form of publicity, should present the full range of services that women in the police force can perform. Rather than appearing only in activities such as firing guns or jumping out of airplanes with parachutes, women officers need to be presented in social settings: directing the traffic, helping resolve family disputes, getting women to the doctor or the hospital, and discussing or teaching law.

While only lawyers and university professors may be able to engage in detailed, technical discussions of the law, police officers should be capable of presenting the law to the public in an articulate and accessible manner. The police force should be seen not only as a law enforcement agency, but also as one that gives law its practical meaning.

Newspapers are vital for reaching the educated citizens whose support for and membership of the police force should be sought actively. The police force must be seen as one which is staffed by some of the best educated and most highly qualified men and women, rather than by people without any other employment opportunity.

Direct contacts are also needed for conveying the image and message of the police force. Such contacts include visits to schools, universities and sports fields, as well as mosques, workplaces and markets – especially where many men are present. Women’s equality can be accomplished only when men are convinced that it is in their interest too.

Clarity of thought is crucial for success in communication. Publicity efforts to persuade women to join the police force need to be based on clear answers to such questions:

* What is the purpose of having a police force?
* What does it do?
* What does it do for women?
* What kind of people have joined the police force?
* How many women have joined the force, and why?
* Why should more women want to join it?

Mass media work best with messages expressed in simple – but not simplistic – language that everybody can understand. Complex and flowery language that might be suited to a book or a lecture is not suited to the mass media. Language here needs to be as close as possible to the way people speak, without appearing vulgar.

In countries with high illiteracy, there is usually a wide gap between the written language, which is often formal and stylised, and the informal spoken language. This gap can be closed partly through rising literacy, but also by careful and imaginative use of the spoken language. Added to this is the necessity of taking account of different accents and dialects and, as in Afghanistan, different national languages.

While the police force would need to have its own information specialists, much of its publicity will be carried by journalists who work for the media. Building a mutual relationship of respect and trust is the most effective way of enlisting the aid of the media in promoting the force’s message, such as its need for women recruits. Journalists who could be induced or threatened into reporting what the source of the news, in this case the police force, wants them to do, are also usually the ones with the least degree of long-term influence on public opinion.

Good journalists consider it their duty to report what they believe to be in the public interest. If the police force is indeed serving the public, it can be sure of good media coverage. This does not mean that the force will be praised by the media all the time, but that it will be watched and reported carefully, accurately and fairly, with its successes, and failures, presented in the proper context, rather than blown out of all proportion.   

Journalists do their job by seeking information. Officials sometimes seem to believe they can keep their jobs only by withholding information. It is understandable that any individual, group, organisation or government may have a body of information that it regards sensitive because of personal, commercial or security reasons. But much of the information handled by public bodies, such as the police, in fact belongs to the public.

To ensure that the boundaries between public and secret information are respected by the public, including journalists, public organisations themselves must have clear definitions of the two that are clearly presented to and accepted, at least, by most of the public. Such acceptance can be strengthened by the public, including the media, having free access to public information, rather than being treated as if they were traitors or enemy agents who should be kept away from the nation’s resources.

Public service is open to examination that can include praise as well as criticism. Public servants can gain the public’s trust if they are seen to be open to the public’s views, even if unfavourable. Rejecting such criticism, perhaps because it is coming from ‘outside’, is not going to make the report disappear. The public will find access to it because of the proliferation of global sources of information, and their confidence in the police force will be weakened because of its dismissal of the report. The correct approach would be to accept any valid points in such reports, and point out any inaccurate information or unfair comments that they may contain, thus gaining the respect and trust of the people.

The prospects for open government are encouraging in Afghanistan, where ministers have recently been holding weekly news conferences, giving detailed accounts of their difficulties and the gaps between their expectations and achievements. That frankness and transparency has gained the ministers respect among journalists. The police force can also benefit from following this example. 



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