Moussa, Where’s Taqi?
Thursday, 13 March 2003
Right now, I’m listening to Kabul radio’s Ashura evening program – lots of poetry in praise of Imam Hossein, read romantically by a lady with a beautiful voice, against the background of melancholic Iranian flute and violin, or Indian-style music, mixed with poetry read by a man. This is interspersed by Arabic-style music, along with more poetry about Islam in Pashto. Considering that most Pashto speakers are Sunni Moslems, even this short sequence gives you some idea of the delicate ethnic, religious and cultural balance that needs to be kept here.
During the day, I saw several groups of people on their way to the Ashura services, but I did not have the time to go and see any. Instead, I was at the office translating three proposals from Shia groups, so I suppose this counts as something close to observing the rituals. Perhaps even more than that, because the proposals have come from some of the most deprived communities in Afghanistan, a fact which is easy to grasp when you realise that the plans involve the employment of doctors, nurses or master carpet-weavers at monthly wages of $200 – the same as an experienced driver.
Translating the texts into English was a good exercise in thinking more deeply about their details which produce yet another picture of the devastation that the people of Afghanistan have suffered from. Still, some of the worst tragedies, such as death at child-birth and many cases of infant mortality are preventable at a small cost – only if the resources could be delivered and applied in safety and security. At the same time as I was working on these modest projects – costing no more than a few thousand dollars – Afghanistan’s modest national budget was being discussed a few hundred meters up the road at the Ministry of Finance.
Speaking of the budget, I am reminded of Afghanistan’s Finance Minister, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, saying a few days ago that the country does not lack capital or commercial expertise – a lot of which is now outside Afghanistan, not only in the West, but also in the Persian Gulf region and in Russia. The people with capital would like to come back to Afghanistan, but are worried about security and the lack of infrastructure. People inside the country too are not all that eager to invest when returns cannot be guaranteed.
As I’ve said several times in these letters, and as we keep telling each other at least once a day, the return of security and stability to Afghanistan depends heavily on what happens in Iraq. So, there will be no rush of capital or expertise into Afghanistan in the next few days or weeks.
This being a holiday, Sahel-e Sabz was closed and I went to ‘Chief Burger’, that describes itself ‘the best fast food in town’. The food is in fact quite good, with delicious roast chicken, but fast it was not – at least not today. I first asked for
Choopan Kabab, or shepherd’s kebab, which is made on stones heated by a burning fire, but it was not available. I then asked for Russian salad, but only ordinary salad was available. Chicken pizza was my third choice, but it would have taken 25 minutes to make.
I asked the young waiter what could be delivered fast. ‘Chicken piece,’ he said, using the English words that have been picked by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. OK. But even that took 15 minutes, apparently because the order had not gone further than the cashier’s desk. The food did eventually arrive and it was good. The delay was not a big problem because no one was in a rush, and I spent the time watching news of Ashura around the region on Iranian TV’s satellite news channel that was on all the time.
Back at home, there was some more Ashura reporting on Iranian TVs and lots of other Islamic programmes on most Arab channels. Elsewhere, there were reports of Tony Blair ‘simplifying Saddam Hussein’s tests’ – I wonder why they do not include cycling efficiency, or moustache trimming.
Friday, 14 March 2003 (Ashura)
It’s been a ‘Londony’ kind of day – overcast, drizzly and rather cool. Indoors at the office, it was very quiet, there being only four people around, including our very smart and witty driver, Hamed, and his 14-year old nephew, Abdullah. Abdullah was curious about my speaking ‘Iranian’, because he himself had lived in Iran for several years before coming back to Kabul four years ago. He had liked it in Iran, living in Baqerabad, near Shah-Abdol-Azim, where an uncle of his still lives, working as a tailor.
By the time I had finished translating the three proposals I started yesterday, gone through my emails and tidied up my papers, it was time to go out and buy some
soghati for my forthcoming trip to London and have lunch. The shopping was quick, as I had already decided what I wanted to buy, and where from, having been to the shops with other colleagues during the previous weeks.
For lunch, one colleague wanted Chinese food. One of the many curiosities of Kabul is that it has at least three Chinese restaurants: one in a hotel, the other on its own, with a sign which simply reads ‘Chinese Restaurant’, and the third one opposite the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in other words opposite Cinema Zeynab, which is still a better known landmark. Kabul does have a recently–opened Italian restaurant, Popo Lano; and a more recent Iranian hotel and restaurant, the result of the resumption of Iranian presence in Afghanistan after the Taliban years.
The Chinese presence in Kabul, at least as far I have seen, is limited to a newly refurbished embassy very near our office, with an entrance which was decorated a few weeks ago with red Chinese lanterns. I was told that the embassy had been repaired and redecorated by workers brought in from China, which has a largely Moslem western region with a 91 kilometre border with Afghanistan.
China exports lots of goods to Afghanistan, but the volume of trade cannot be significant for the Chinese economy. What makes Afghanistan much more important to China these days must be the presence of the Western troops here. This can also explain the emergence of several Chinese restaurants, one of which has young girls in mini-skirts serving the customers. It is not beyond reason to think that the restaurants can serve as point of attraction for the Western community here, who could be in possession of information which the Chinese authorities consider useful.
At lunch time today, though, there was no one in the restaurant when we went in and got some soup, sweet and sour pork, rice and vegetables. The food turned out not to be very good, but it was interesting to see a group of three young Chinese, two women and a man– none wearing a mini-skirt - who did not speak Persian or English. Eventually, they summoned an Afghan assistant who took the order. A bowl of soup was brought over a few minutes later, but was taken back when we explained that that food was ‘to go’.
I got myself some bread, yoghurt and cucumbers, while Hamed got a chicken and bread for himself and Abdullah, all of which we spread on a desk, with some cello-taped pieces of paper as our
sofreh. Over lunch, Abdullah said how much he had liked Iran, which had been clean and tidy and had had good roads. In particular he had liked the Nowrouz celebrations, ‘13 days of fun,’ as he called it. Abdullah’s father is also a UN driver, and he himself had come in on a Friday to work as an apprentice with the Pakistani electricians stationed in our compound.
While Abdullah and his family had been in Iran, Hamed had been a refugee in Pakistan. Hamed told me of families torn apart during the years of fighting and exile, each individual or group going to the closest place of safety, not knowing where their loved ones had gone. As is well known, women and children have suffered most, being deprived of the chance to learn new skills and improve their lives.
The streets of Kabul are full of children who make a living by begging. I try not to give them money, not only because it is a bad incentive, but also because if I give money to one, several others turn up and there’s no way anyone can look after all of them just by distributing money – inevitably in small amounts. I have said before that some organisations have persuaded some children to sell newspapers, and this works to some extent – yesterday a 13-year old boy sold me not only the latest newspapers, but also a map of Afghanistan printed in Iran, and a copy of a magazine almost exactly one year old – I looked at the date when I got home!
But occupations of this kind are not the solution to the plight of hundreds of thousands of children who need food, shelter, education and training. And this, of course, would require huge investment and support, in a safe and secure environment. With the police and army in Afghanistan complaining of not having been paid for months, and tension in the country rising as the threat of war on Iraq approaches, the future for women, children – and even most grown up men – in Afghanistan could once again get cloudy.
Abdullah is so sweet and charming. At the age of 13, he is the eldest of seven siblings – four boys and three girls – the youngest of whom was born three days ago. After we had lunch, he helped tidy up and got ready to go home. At the door, he turned back and said, in the typically hospitable Afghan fashion,
Shab khaaneh-ye maa baashed (please come to our house in the evening). I thanked him and said that with all the duties he had as an eldest child, especially when his mother and his three-day old brother were in need of his help, I should not impose myself.
Abdullah reminded me and my Filipina colleague of our own 14-year olds, with the worlds of difference that separate them. Afghanistan’s children, and its men and women, deserve a much better life, taken away from them for several decades by people running up and down the land with guns, in jeeps, helicopters, planes and tanks. Can we - in our white UN jeeps, comfortable houses with running water and electricity, satellite television, mobile phones and lap-top computers – do anything that will make a difference?
Saturday, 15 March 2003
For the second time this month, I’ve travelled outside Kabul, which must be more than many others in the UN community have, considering the frequent criticism about the white jeeps not being seen in other towns or villages. To be fair, given the state of security, the scale of devastation and the immense resources needed to do anything serious for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, you’d need more than the current fleets of 4x4s in the countryside. It takes thousands of trucks, bulldozers, cranes, tractors, tillers and other heavy equipment, after a thorough mine-clearing operation, so these vehicles don’t join the wreckage of tanks and armoured personnel carriers by the side of the country’s main roads.
Once again we went to Charikar, capital of Parwan province to attend a local celebration of the International Women’s Day. On the way, I heard more details about the huge orchards, vineyards, farms and houses destroyed during the war. The most shocking account I heard this time was that a long stretch of road cutting through Charikar had used to be covered by a thick canopy of leaves from trees planted on both sides of the road, with branches touching each other. Today, there is not a single tree which can cast a decent shadow around itself, let alone over the road.
A colleague told me that a while ago he had travelled to see the remains of a village along the road where a friend of his had used to live, only to find out that the friend could not identify the site of his family house. I also heard about villagers from different backgrounds depriving each other of whatever water is left in the area. All of this gives real meaning to the figures of millions of people in need of food aid. This aid, in turn, can turn into a target for violent people, with the result that several vehicles from the UN’s World Food Programmes have recently been looted.
The women’s meeting went well, in spite of the heavy presence of local male officials. There were several speeches about women’s important roles as mothers and supporters of men, and about Islam having saved the women of Arabian Peninsula – a theme which was present in the 8 March celebration in Kabul too.
The local representative of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs who talked about women’s role as managers of the household, their contribution to the war effort by feeding the fighters and boosting their morale, while at the same time teaching their children at make-shift schools. She also gave a list of the women’s centre’s activities, including courses in sewing, carpet weaving, make-up, literacy (with 2,500 students so far), and Qor’an reading, English and Persian languages and mathematics (with 400 students). Praise for education was the first line of a song by a group of sweet little girls: ‘Happy will be the day when women find home in schools.’
On the way back to Kabul, I heard an account of a colleague’s family who had been abducted in the mid-nineties by a group of Islamist fighters, after having gotten into a car which they thought would take them away from their neighbourhood that was about to be bombed by another faction. The men in the family had been separated from the women and had been beaten up severely. Their lives had been saved simply because a friend of the family, now a fighter with another faction, who had been passing on his bicycle carrying bread for his own family, had spotted one member of the detained family and learned about their predicament; had gotten in touch with powerful people in his own faction who had put pressure on the faction that had carried out the arrest; and had secured the family’s release, minus their money. The beaten men had needed medical treatment.
Back at the office, another colleague told me of his six-month imprisonment just after the 1978 coup that brought Afghanistan’s communist party to power. My colleague’s family were not informed of his being taken away from his office – in the Literacy Organisation – to detention in the Prime Ministry compound. [Interestingly, quite a lot of similar actions in Iran after the revolution used to take place at the ‘Prime Ministry’ which became a by-word for the secret police.] He was beaten and tortured with electric shocks and asked about his political activities, but was released when nothing could be proved against him.
Yet another colleague told me how he had been harassed by the Taliban about two years ago, when he was working with a foreign aid organisation, and had been asked by the Taliban to spy on the group. Soon after taking over Kabul, the Taliban had confiscated my colleague’s stock of 2,000 video tapes that he used to rent out, driving his business to the ground. After the second encounter, he decided he could not take it anymore and went into exile in Pakistan, coming back after the Taliban had been overthrown. He said no one had had any hope of the Taliban going away, and that the American attack had only dislodged them.
For some people in Afghanistan, then, and they could be a large number, the bombing of the country must have been considered positive, in spite of the damages, such as the destruction of the planes at the airport, the publishing house that we passed by today and the revolving restaurant at the top of the Radio and Television Mountain. But my colleague did tell me that while unpopular in Kabul, the Taliban had been popular in some rural areas, especially in the south and the east where they are still active.
Just these three pictures are enough to give you an idea of the complexity, perhaps the impossibility, of any effort to go for ‘truth and reconciliation’ in Afghanistan. So much violence has been committed by so many over such a long period of time that to try to bring anyone to ‘justice’, of any sort, may do little more than re-open old wounds. For the time being, of course, this is not being discussed as an urgent matter, because survival is still the top priority.
Sunday, 16 March 2003
This is a very strange night. In about an hour, Messrs Bush, Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, are going to announce in the Azores what they want to do with Iraq. If they decide to attack, we have been advised to stay indoors for forty-eight hours, because it is expected that the situation here will get worse. How much worse? Nobody knows. What will happen next? Again it’s not very clear, except that if fighting starts in Afghanistan again, many of us UN staff will be relocated to the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent.
The day began happily, with the first sound of Moussa-koo-Taqi - the ringdove, whose cooing sounds as if they’re asking each other ‘Moussa, where’s Taqi? - a favourite bird of mine which is quite common in Khorassan, and whose cooing takes me back to my childhood visits to Mashhad. I felt just at home eleven years ago when I heard this same bird when I woke up after my first night in Tajikistan. After half a dozen sparrows sitting on the roofs around us yesterday, this was the second time that birds were announcing the arrival of spring.
I felt even more at home when I got into the jeep and the radio was playing an Afghan version of Koroush Yaghmai’s
Gol-e Yakh. The morning got even better when down the road, for the second day in a row, we saw youths playing football in the disused plot of land around which trees had been planted.
The UNDP compound and our office were clean and fresh, and the morning proceeded smoothly, with two meetings, one with a new Australian colleague, who’s just arrived from Cambodia, and then with a Canadian radio journalist who’s been running training courses and setting up radio stations for women in Afghanistan.
Then an Afghan journalist working with the Japanese paper,
Yomyuri Shimbon, came over to ask for figures on female literacy in Afghanistan and Kabul, for which quite diverse estimates are given, like so much else about the country. Some people speak of general literacy rate of 20%, and female literacy rate of 10%. Fortunately, there are less tragic figures which are also more plausible: general literacy about 30%; male literacy about 40% and female literacy about 20%.
Even with these more optimistic figures, the case for education for women and girls might appear to be self-evident. Not so for some men, who complain that while Afghanistan suffers from a shortage of roads, houses, food and health service, there are those ‘who keep going on about education for girls’. Prejudice against educated women aside, the shortage of infrastructure is, as I have said repeatedly, severe. The housing shortage is caused by the influx of ‘internationals’, i.e. people like us, who pay in dollars and drive the rents up, refugees returning to Afghanistan, and people who have been driven out of their homes but not of the country, and are now going back to their homes.
Government figures say 100,000 houses are needed in the countryside, and 60,000 ‘owner-built houses in cities’. But this will take a long time to materialise. Some potential ‘owners’, that is those who could afford to build their own houses, may not want to risk their money in Afghanistan’s uncertain conditions. Those, like a colleague of mine, whose family used to ‘own’ a house that has been ruined, cannot afford to rebuild their homes. Instead, they have to sell the land and what remains of the house, and move to another, cheaper neighbourhood.
Back at home, we continued working on our various projects. On television, the BBC and the CNN were following the Azores meeting. Some Arab stations were playing music, some had dramas and others sports. On Libyan TV, the masses were parading in front of President Qaddafi. On Iraqi TV, several fat men in suits and ties, with a chorus of middle aged, rather weighty and very anxious looking ladies, were singing songs in praise of Palestine, Iraq and President Saddam Hussein.
On Kuwait TV, though, there were public warnings on what do when the air raid alarms are sounded, and advice for travellers – of whom there must be quite a few these days – to check with their airlines all the time to make sure they could fly. The Kuwaitis seem to be convinced that something big is about to happen.
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