’Cat Washers’ and ‘Dog Washers’
Tuesday, 22 April 2003
On the way to work in the morning, what caught my eyes was a mini-bus with a ‘Norwegian Refugee Council’ sticker on its rear window. It showed Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan, after Palestine – remember Oslo? – and Sri Lanka. As a NATO member, Norway is also part of the military force that’s been fighting whatever there’s to fight in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where Norwegian fighter planes carried out their first bombing since WWII.
Unlike the UN and some other agencies’ vehicles, the sign on the back of the Norwegian van was quite small, as if trying not to attract too much attention. It reminded me of another van I saw a couple of weeks ago with an even smaller sign reading ‘BP 7’, or ‘BP 8’. You could easily have taken it for one of the numerous advertising signs that are stuck on many vehicles. It does make sense to keep a low profile if you represent an oil company in a land where an intense battle’s going on for control of oil and gas resources. Kabul must have one of the world’s most diverse and intriguing international communities.
It’s not only the foreign community that’s peculiar, but so are the Afghan returnees from the West who have taken up senior positions in the government. More than once I’ve heard criticism of them as people who are unaware of the realities of Afghanistan and are trying to impose their westernised lifestyles and attitudes on the country. Some critics believe that these returnees do not have any technical or managerial skills either, arguing that if they had any, they would have had such high profile jobs in the West that they would not want to come back to Afghanistan. Some critics even say that in the West, these people worked as peshak-shour (cat-washer), or sag-shour (dog-washer), the lowest means of earning an income. If there is some success in running the country, though, these epithets are likely to be forgotten.
Speaking of running the country, I’ve been asked if Afghanistan, or Kabul, is safe. Well, Kabul is by and large safe. In the nearly three months I’ve been here, one person has been killed in a mine explosion on the outskirts of the city, and there have been several other explosions that have not hurt anyone. This is nothing by the standards of Qandahar, where there is heavy fighting around the city much of the time – let alone the American bombing of the mountains most of the time. Or by the standards of Maimana, capital of Faryab province in the north, where nearly twenty people were killed last week in clashes between two factions.
Generally, the farther away from Kabul you get, the greater the chances of violence. Local commanders, once glorified as Mojahedin (holy warriors) and now denigrated as ‘warlords’, are in charge in most places and some of them are said to be receiving several million dollars a month not to fight the central government. Obviously, no one is paying them, or paying them enough, to stop fighting each other.
Within the government too there are differences. Next Sunday is the anniversary of the fall of Dr Najib’s communist government. The Defence Minister, General Mohammad-Qasim Fahim, himself a former faction leader, is said to be organising a military parade in Kabul, against the advice of the head of state, Mr Karzai. The parade is expected to include tanks and other vehicles going through the city and helicopters flying overhead. Since it’s not clear what might happen, we’ve been thinking of asking our Afghan staff not to come in at all, because they live far from the office and we would not want them to get stuck in any traffic jam.
Sometimes there are security alerts that don’t lead anywhere - luckily, one might say. Today, there was a report saying that the Americans had information about planned attacks on foreigners during the day, Tuesday, and that Americans had been advised to stay indoors for 72 hours. Fortunately nothing has happened so far. We did have such alerts a couple of times in the past but, again, nothing happened.
In the afternoon, we had an excellent meeting with Jamila Mujahid, in preparation for setting up an organisation to bring Afghan women journalists together. She told us of a very recent meeting with several hundred highly educated Afghan men and women, celebrating the 7th anniversary of the satirical magazine, Zanbel-e Gham. As part of the celebration, a famous male poet had recited a poem about the difficulties of polygamy, with a refrain which said, ‘I have two wives, two cows and two donkeys.’ The poet had been applauded loudly by the audience, including the women.
I urged Ms Mujahid to write up her view that the poem had been degrading to women and have it published in Zanbel-e Gham itself, as the most effective way of getting people to reconsider their concept of humour. She agreed with this request, as well as with all of our suggestions about organising the women’s media forum. It promises to be a very lively activity. It may even change the mind of the ‘cows and donkeys’ poet.
Several of our colleagues went over to Charikar today to attend a meeting at the women’s centre and brought back many bundles of tulips and other flowers from the Shamali plains. Del Agha quickly created vases by cutting cups out of several empty water bottles – of which we have a large supply, as we drink only bottled water at home and office. For the rest of the week, our desks are going to look a lot more beautiful.
Wednesday, 23 April 2003
The good news is that we’ve gone more than forty-eight hours without any power cuts. This followed an appeal to the electricity department on the grounds that our house was in fact a UN office with staff working at all times of day and night. The transfer of status from residential to professional does involve a rise in our status on the rate cards, so we’ll have to pay more for the power that we consume. But if it also means that the power won’t be cut it will be worth it, because uninterrupted mains power also means that we and our neighbour will not have to tolerate the music of our diesel generator, even though it practically murmurs now that its shed has been more thoroughly sound proofed. Before, the little cubicle, especially its corrugated iron roof, in effect acted as a resonator.
Power, or rather lack of it, was also one of the main problems mentioned at a news conference on education this afternoon as one of the main problems in the sector. On top of that, there is the shortage of teachers; low pay - $36 per month for a teacher whose family need a minimum of $100 just to survive; shortage of textbooks, on the one hand, and the flooding of the market with Afghan school textbooks pirated and printed in Pakistan, on the other; the burning of girls schools by the anti-government factions in the south and east; a university without a building in the eastern province of Nangarhar; two universities in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north, and Herat, in the west, in buildings that belong either to the local authorities, or to the Ministry of Education, rather than the Ministry of Higher Education.
The Ministry of Education needs $200m this year, of which $85m has been pledged by the donors. The Ministry of Higher Education’s budget is $50m, of which it has received $28m. The Minister of Education,Yunus Qanuni, said that last year government officials had had to go to people’s houses to get them to send their children to school. This year, lack of funds could lead to major catastrophe, with government officials having to stand outside under-resourced schools to prevent children from entering. The education system also suffers from the less than expected rate of return of highly qualified Afghans from abroad.
On top of all this, the two ministers have to deal with a lot of criticism from the press and the public. Twice in the news conference, the Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Sharif Fayez, denied accusations that students had been admitted to universities because of their connections. The Minister of Education, who generally has a very good reputation among the public, was attacked strongly by a newspaper last week, with charges that he had employed incompetent people, did not spend time in the ministry, and had more security guards than clerical staff who could answer people’s questions. The criticism was so harsh that the editor of the newspaper was detained, which in turn opened the government to the criticism that it did not respect freedom of the press.
The news conference was one of a series organised by Massi Ttorfeh who now works as the chief information officer in a government department that is responsible for coordinating the aid that is given to Afghanistan. It was held in the Gulkhana [Flowerhouse] Palace, one of the few intact, old and beautiful buildings I have seen in Kabul, the other one being the Foreign Ministry. Both are located in large gardens with a variety of trees and flowers.
On the steps of the Gulkhana Palace I met another friend from the American University of Beirut, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, one of the Maldives group of students in Beirut, who is now a senior and highly respected UNICEF official, based at the Ministry of Education in Kabul. Our Maldives friends left the AUB after graduation in 1977, but Waheed and I had met up coincidentally in Stanford, California, in 1987.We updated each other on the rest of our Beirut group and also remembered the other Maldives friend, Maizan Hassan Maniku, who died so suddenly only a few months ago. [Hassan (1953-2002), as we called him, has been aptly described in his obituary as ‘a mentor, friend, colleague, academic, researcher, historian, environmentalist, artist, poet, writer, photographer, and many other things to many people of different walks of life and nationality. Dr Mohamed Hassan Waheed became the President of Maldives in February 2012.]
Driving back to the office along the more real, packed and dusty road, I spotted a cart with a load of watermelons on an even more packed and dusty sidewalk. A purchase had to be made. We stopped and bought two huge watermelons at the cost of about one pound each – equivalent to a teacher’s daily pay. Surprisingly, they turned out to be quite sweet and were much appreciated by colleagues at the office, one of whom found even the smell of the cut watermelons irresistible.
On the same side-walk there were also stalls selling potted plants: geraniums at 60p per pot, and roses for a pound each. The mere sight of the stalls was refreshing, once again proving that, in spite of all the devastation and chaos, if you really want to find something in Kabul you can.
Thursday, 24 April 2003
I needed some gift-wrap paper today, to give a present to one of our colleagues who produced the best PowerPoint presentation in the workshop that I had organised yesterday. There were six trainees and Ermie was teaching. The two-hour session was so full of laughter that you could hear it from outside the office. The winner was Laila, who paints and draws well. I decided to give her an Iranian calendar with Maryam Zandi’s pictures of Iranian poets and writers, and a notebook with lines from Sohrab Sehepehri’s poems.
Many of central Kabul’s stationery shops are located along the same street where I bought watermelons yesterday – but on the opposite side. Other businesses on the same side of street include photocopy shops and leather jacket and sheepskin coat shops. It took a bit of searching to locate the biggest stationer’s and get gift-wrap paper, not one of the fastest selling items on the Kabul market.
The next stop was by a row of ‘surface-based’ newsagents, who spread their papers on the ground, under the blazing sun that takes away their colour before the day is over. Before I had time to cross the street to walk to the office, I heard Hamed calling me from his 4x4. He and two other colleagues had been to the city centre where one of them bought a decent shirt for 40 Afghanis, around 60p, and then had to spend 60 Afghanis, around 1 pound, to buy ice cream for the others in celebration!
The last stop of the day was a meeting with a group of very well known women journalists who are interested in helping set up a professional organisation, supported by UNIFEM. [The four included Jamila Mujahid, editor of the monthly, Malalai, and broadcaster on Afghanistan television; Shukria Barakzai, editor of the weekly, Aina-ye Zan (Woman’s Mirror), and director of the Asia Women Organisation; Suraya Parlika, editor of the weekly Faryad-e Zan (Woman’s Shout), and director of All Afghan Women’s Association; and Najiba Muram, editor of the monthly, Effat (Virtue), and Deputy Director of Afghanistan’s Bakhtar news agency.]
We worked out the outlines of the organisation and its functions, including four annual meetings/conferences. A lot of detail still needs to be worked out, but it was a great pleasure working with such strong, enthusiastic and witty women. If we’re right in our assessment, this should turn into a fantastic event by any standards. It’s certainly the first of its kind. The ladies are particularly excited because they think this may be the beginning of a union for women journalists, while their male colleagues have not yet been able to set up a union.
Friday, 25 April 2003
This has been the most varied Friday for some time. The day began with a visit to the office to check email, do some work and then take our visiting colleagues, one from UNIFEM in New York and the other from Delhi, on a tour of Kabul. We drove to West Kabul to see the devastated Ministry of Defence, as well as several other equally destroyed government buildings, and the remains of Kabul’s museum and zoo. The old Russian Embassy compound was gutted, as was one of Kabul’s biggest schools, Lycee Habibia. One of the few buildings that did not seem to have received much damage was the Ministry of Commerce.
This reminds me of yesterday’s visit to Afghanistan Radio and Television which has very large grounds housing several buildings destroyed in faction fights, a massive satellite dish partially torn to bits by rockets, and a massive, half finished structure which was started by the former German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, which is now part of the reunited Germany. Radio programmes use 40-year old facilities, also built by the Germans, this time the Western half, in the shape of the electrical industries company, Siemens, which is now making a come back to Afghanistan.
We then drove up to the top of the Television Hill to get a panoramic view of Kabul – impressive for showing the whole city and the mountain ring surrounding it, and sad because it allows a view of several neighbourhoods where there is hardly a building with a roof or four walls. We also saw the poor old revolving restaurant that was bombed not by the Afghan factions, but by the Americans. Work seems to be underway to rebuild it, and there were several pieces of German machinery – a power generator and so on. Workers were busy getting the rubble out of the restaurant, without any safety gear. By the side, there were a few ISAF vehicles, again German.
As we were touring the area, Hamed was telling us which faction had been holding which building, street, hill or mountain, each one using their vantage point to fire rockets and mortars into other parts of Kabul held by their rivals. On the one hand, it was easy to see how four years of this could have depleted the strength of all the warring factions, and their popular support, making it pretty easy for the Taliban to take the city – though not without a fight. On the other hand, seizing and holding some of those mountain tops did not seem easy at all, so the people who did it must have had a lot of determination and perseverance.
A form of perseverance has been the name of the game here for more than twenty years, aimed at getting what you want by destroying those who have it, or are thought to have it. Khalid once told me that many years ago, when his family left Kabul, they removed the tyres of their car to make sure it would not get stolen, only to learn later that it had been lifted from the ground by men who then loaded it onto a truck and took off. I told Khalid that while I was sympathetic with his family’s plight, I was also impressed by the looters’ determination and wished that they had applied it to something else.
Kahlid then told me of people who dismantle cars that are brought into Afghanistan form Pakistan under a tax-free transit arrangement. The parts are then taken across the border back into Pakistan through terrain that cannot be reached by border guards. In Pakistan, the vehicle is reassembled and sold. Along the same road, travel constant trains of men carrying all sorts of other goods, including refrigerators, on their backs.
And, of course, this is also the export route for huge amounts of drugs. The smuggling trade – excluding the drugs – is estimated to cost Pakistan $4bn in customs revenues every year. But no Pakistani government has found it possible, or desirable, to do anything about it. Any serious effort to stop the cross border trade will make the government even less popular than it is in the border regions.
After lunch at UNICA - where we met a Persian speaking, non-Iranian, Canadian lady - we took our visitors for a shopping trip along Chicken Street and Flower Street, with rows of shops selling carpets, sheepskin and leather goods, and jewellery. In addition to a few souvenirs, we bought croissants, yes croissants, for breakfast from a shop which also sells baguettes – made in Kabul, of course.
A couple of shops up the road, there were bottles of Spanish grape juice, the sight of which reminded me of the painful sight of the vineyards of Shamali that have been razed to the ground. Just imagine, this is the land which had raisins as one of its biggest exports items – as well as wine and cognac! And shops in Kabul now sell grape juice brought over all the way from Spain.
Another discovery at UNICA, with one of the few bars in Kabul, was its barman, a sweet little old Hazara from Ghazni, called Jom’a Khan. With his thick glasses and mysterious smile he would have fitted nicely into movies. Having seen a few men from Ghazni with similar features, I have been wondering if Soltan Mahmoud Ghaznavi was also of the same mould. Several other men in history who mobilised troops and conquered huge parts of the globe were short.
In the evening, there was a phenomenal change in our TV viewing habits. After watching BBC World for a little while, both Parvin and I decided that it was not telling us anything we did not know – and this is the best of our 50 or so satellite channels. We then switched over to Afghanistan TV. A music programme was on, commemorating the biggest Afghan singer of all times, Ahmad Zahir.
Then there was a long interview with Ismail Khan, governor of Herat, on the border with Iran, who is not quite in line with the central government but has to be tolerated and officially, at least, respected to keep him from turning fully against Kabul. Both the music show and the interview had technical problems, but at the very least they were about real people and real events. Unlike much of what appears on global satellite stations with their increasingly look-alike and often superficial coverage of everything.
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