Kabul Days (30)


Kabul Days (30)
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 Hand-Glider

Friday, 13 June 2003
A hot Friday cleared the streets and sky of Kabul. Without the packed traffic and diesel fumes, it was easier to see how Kabul’s flat surface is suited to bicycles. On the other hand, I also learned today that cyclists are vulnerable to mugging in some parts of the city. This valuable piece of information, like much else, came from Hamed, who had invited us to his house for lunch with his charming and extremely generous family. Like all Afghan hostesses, Hamed’s wife had prepared a huge meal with lots of fruits, including juicy, white, pink and purple mulberries from the Shamali plains.

Hamed’s family live in a neighbourhood with mud-brick houses, at the end of a very narrow alley which gave the 4x4 a margin of a few centimeters on either side. They’ve not had electricity there for more than ten years, and use rubber buckets to pull water out of a 10-meter deep well. In other parts of Kabul the wells could be as deep as 140 meters.

Hamed is one of 9 brothers and sisters, his wife one of 11 siblings. They have two very sweet sons. There was also his brother and his family of four, and his ailing father who climbed up a steep flight of stairs to join us, whereas we should have gone to visit him. The rest of the much bigger family are scattered in various parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, the US, Canada and Germany.

Hamed and his wife had a more modern house nearer to central Kabul, but it was destroyed in the war, and sold when they went to Pakistan as refugees. Having come back, they live in his father’s house, built some fifty years ago, until they can afford to buy a piece of land and build a house. With only Hamed and his brother working to support 10 people, the prospects of saving are probably not that bright.

Another sad side to this account is that Hamed’s brother’s son who’s finished high school but has not been able to enter the university now has to work to earn some income. He wanted to study journalism – for which I thanked him – but now works in an automobile body repair shop. Hamed’s brother is also a professional driver, as was their father who worked with a team of French archaeologists for twenty-five years. Hamed himself, being very bright and well informed, would love to move into another job, but like most people in the world, finds himself in an occupational trap – the curse of class, even harder to break in a war torn society.

Hamed’s father had worked with some Iranians many years ago and gone to Iran on his way to Mecca. He loves Iran, but not Pakistan so much, because there ‘the language is different and the people aren’t so kind.’ He had also seen and loved Iranian films, one of which he described to me almost scene by scene, with much of the dialogue, after forty years.

Both before and after lunch, the office was cool and quiet, helping me write some more of the 8 March report, which I hope will be published before 8 March 2004. By the time I had finished, around 6:30pm, the weather was less hot and some more cars had appeared on the streets, but not enough to cause lots of noise or air pollution.

Just before the round-about on the corner of our neighbourhood, there was a postcard scene: a bright day, with the sun setting behind a mountain ridge to the west of Kabul, and the full moon appearing on top of another ridge. Down below, in the middle of a big empty plot, there was a dusty clearing with a group of boys playing cricket - England, without clouds, and without grass.

Saturday, 14 June 2003

A very hot and sunny day developed into a very hot and cloudy day, with predictions and prayers that it would rain. What we got for all those hopes were strong winds that blew soft sand around, without managing to clear the players form our local cricket ground - another demonstration of determination by people in Afghanistan.

Determination is also on display by the man I have come to call the ‘Hand-glider’, who’s based at the crossroads before the office, near the sign that promotes cleanliness and admonishes ‘abuse of narcotics’. Right at the centre of the intersection, there is a raised platform in the shape of a layered wedding cake – with vertical black and white stripes around each layer – and a parasol for the traffic policeman, who often has to step down and walk around the platform, in between the vehicles, in an effort to untangle the knot.

On the eastern side of the intersection, right in the middle of the road, marked by a string of concrete blocks spaced from each other by about half a meter, you will find the ‘Hand-glider’. Wearing a striped turban round his head and a thick black beard covering his thin face, he sits on a wooden platform as wide as his buttocks and as long as his right leg. His left leg is missing.

The platform itself sits on two ball-bearings, in the back and the front, the front one controlled by a small steering wheel held in the Hand-glider’s right hand. In his left hand, he holds a block of, perhaps, wood shaped like a door-handle that he pushes to the ground to balance his body and slide the platform around.

Staying close to the concrete blocks, the Hand-glider moves up and down the line of cars when they stop at the intersection, and knocks on the side or window of any car with a promising driver, to ask for money. He does this for a couple of hours in the morning, inhaling huge amounts of diesel fumes.

I had more time to watch the Hand-glider this morning as I was walking to the TV station for the English language news writing course. I got there about 10 minutes late to find all the participants waiting for me – a change of habits from the previous weeks. The session went very well: five out of six had the Kabul Weekly with them, and the typed scripts I had asked for. The writing was better, and most were also more vocal, even making jokes in English.

The afternoon session on panel discussions also went well, covering the techniques of introducing and conducting the programme. The subject of this week’s exercise was women and girl’s education. The customary view is that Islam, tradition and the Taliban have held back Afghan women’s education, and preaching the virtues of education is often the only cure that is offered. As usual, things are not that simple.

In our short ‘brain-storming’, or rather ‘brain-stirring’, the participants came up with a list of 7 factors that could stop parents – not always fathers – from sending their daughters to school. Only a couple of these had anything to do with the parents’ religious or traditional views. The obstacles were expressed in terms of incentives for education that are needed but, as you have gathered at the very least from my notes, are very badly lacking:

    •    Security for girls to go to school and back home:
    •    there are many reports of girls being kidnapped on their way to school
    •    in some areas girls’ schools are set on fire
    •    in one area the drinking water in a school was poisoned
    •    and at one school a girl has disappeared, with suspicions directed against a teacher who had threatened her on account of her behaviour
    •    Adequate and secure transport facilities.
    •    Having enough schools with adequate resources.
    •    Employment prospects for educated women.
    •    Assurances that going to school would not ‘corrupt’ the girls.
    •    Assurances that education would not lead to marital problems.
    •    The general fear of staying outside the home, resulting from several years of war, especially the rocket attacks on Kabul, which was sometimes hit by up to 200 rockets a day.

At the end of the day, I saw the latest cut of our 8 March video: a simple diary with beautiful shots and clear ideas about equality presented eloquently by women from across Afghanistan. It should be ready in two weeks.

Sunday, 15 June 2003
My favourite public information sign, the double-sided one that is aimed at promoting cleanliness and preventing the ‘abuse of narcotics’, tries to achieve the cleansing objective with a fairly complex and problematic message. ‘Dear fellow citizens,’ it says, ‘cleanliness is the route to health and happiness, while lack of cleanliness will lead to a poor quality of life. The choice is yours.’ Looking around me every day, I can see few people outside our UNiverse and similar entities who could really be described as having a choice in pretty much anything.

If people don’t wash their bodies or the vegetables they eat, it’s not because they enjoy having a layer of grime on their faces and hair, or the smell of armpits, or the taste of mud and insects in their food. It’s simply because they do not have either water, or power, or soap, or any of the above. To preach to someone in that state merely serves to ease the conscience of someone more privileged, and probably less well informed. On the plus side, producing the sign provides work for an artist and material for a passer-by’s diaries.

Another unpleasant interpretation of choice arises when one looks at the state of traffic in Kabul. Today I saw a fairly serious accident about 10 meters from the office: a motorbike hit by a car which seemed to have been trying to make a U-turn. The bike was twisted and a man who appeared to have been hurt in the accident – maybe the biker – was being placed on the back seat of the car to be taken away. Yesterday, there was another, much less serious accident, with two cars sliding by each other and one’s side mirror smashing the other’s.

As I’ve said before, speeds in the city are low, so it’s unlikely that anyone would die in an accident. Outside Kabul it’s a different story. On the way to Shamali, there’s a stretch of road in pretty good condition, perhaps because it leads to the American base at the Bagram military airport. Here, on a Friday, people drive at speeds of up to 140 kilometres an hour, some of them with no training or skill, with licenses bought for about 5 dollars. One such driver was at the wheel of the car in which Halima’s husband, Haseeb, was so badly hurt.

Kabul traffic jams are also becoming more frequent and longer lasting. By contrast, I heard the other day that under the Taliban few people would take their cars out onto the streets fearing they would be confiscated for battle front service. This led to a rise in cycling. And it is here that the question of hard choices arises: Do you put up with the Taliban and their veil-and-beard-and-whiplash-and-clean-air-and-quiet-street life style, or do you go for freedom, coupled with shaving-perfuming-doing-your-hair-and-getting-stuck-in-the-car-at-a-traffic-jam? The choice, as the sign says, is yours.

Monday, 16 June 2003

Such a thick blanket of fumes has risen over Kabul that not only the ‘Hand-glider’, but even a hang-glider would not be able to escape it. This is what a hundred thousand cars have done to this city in only two days. There is no sign that the situation will get any better. In fact, it is quite likely to get worse, since cars keep coming into Kabul and will continue to do so if there is any improvement in the country’s economy.

There has already been a visible rise in the number of ‘non-white’ 4x4s, with blacked out side and back windows, obviously belonging to rich and/or powerful people who do not like to be identified. Every now and again, there is an official statement warning that any vehicle with ‘unauthorised’ blacked out windows will be seized. Every now and again some are and the black ‘film’, as it is called, is removed. But a new one is immediately put up and the car goes back into circulation.

Walking back to the office from the TV station in the morning, I noticed with horror that the fumes were so thick they had blocked the view of the mountains around Kabul. For health and aesthetic reasons, it would be great to cut down the use of diesel fuel and improve the engines of the vehicles for better combustion and reduce the exhaust fumes. Wishful thinking.

I had gone to the TV station to see a senior official to discuss the purchase of equipment for a department with which I work. The appointment had been made by the official himself for 9am, but when I got there at 8:55, I was told he was not there; it was not known where he was, or when he would be back; and he had not taken his mobile along, so he could not be reached either. I sat on a chair in the corridor, facing the closed door of the toilet and the semi-open door of the pantry, and waited until the person with the key to the waiting room turned up.

The waiting room was quiet; the bullet holes on its walls and ceiling seemed to have been filled in recently; and its furniture was old but comfortable. I sat on the sofa for half an hour, without the official turning up. I leaned my head back and shut my eyes and had a very pleasant Rest and Recuperation experience. I then left a note for the official and went to see the production of part of Woman and Society in another building.

Walking around the corridors of the radio and television station, I came across several rooms with large numbers of men sitting down and having tea – in one room a meal was being prepared. The only places where some TV production was going on were two small studios with ancient video machines. The thought then occurred to me that having a place in the radio and television station was not so much a job, as a way of life. There is no other way to explain the existence of 1,700 people in an organisation with a limited output that could be produced by a fraction of that staff.

The same is and has been true of the staff of other big organisations, namely the government ministries, whose output is probably even less than that of radio and television. For years, people have been coming to the huge complex of semi-demolished buildings that has not only provided them with a source of income – a very meagre one at that – but with an opportunity for socialising in conditions where no other such opportunities have existed elsewhere.

Not only the critics of the government bureaucracy, but also those sitting on top of it, seem to be unaware of this vital function of these seemingly ‘useless’ entities. Even if it were financially possible to make most of the staff redundant, while paying them the same salaries in order to increase the efficiency of production in the various organisations, cutting tens of thousands of people off from their sources of social livelihood is bound to lead to incalculable psychological and emotional losses. For years to come, there may be no choice but to live with bloated organisations that give large numbers of Afghans a small, but invaluable, dose of happiness for a price far less than that of keeping the international military force in their country.

Tuesday, 17 June 2003
By a miracle - there can be no other explanation - I managed to come back from work by around 5:30 and thought I might as well write today’s note when there’s still light and I have not yet collapsed. It’s a very pleasant, Iranian type of afternoon in the neighbourhood. The air is cooling down and is filled with a mix of sounds: kids playing, prayers gently emanating from the mosque, and water gushing out of hoses onto gardens and courtyards. Typically for this part of Kabul, there’s also a 4x4 coming along every so often.

As I’ve said before, Ismail Khan the governor of Herat – which the spell-checker always turns into ‘Heart’ – has been the subject of a propaganda campaign aimed at presenting him as the most evil person in Afghanistan. This in spite of the fact that during the many years of warfare in this country, Ismail Khan and the late Massoud were considered as the cleanest of the Islamic commanders. Ismail Khan’s problem is that Herat is on the route which should take Turkmenistan’s gas to Pakistan, but he has not been playing ball with the powers interested in that project. His close ties with Iran have not helped him either.

Now, walking down the road yesterday, I bought a paper form one of the many little boys selling papers that had an article attacking the newspapers that have been attacking Ismail Khan. Although most of the piece was a reasonable defence of Ismail Khan’s record and fair criticism of shoddy journalism, some of it consisted of threats against journalists who do not know how to ‘behave courteously’ and ask ‘appropriate’, rather than ‘rude’ questions. Referring to one journalist who’s reported to have been beaten up by the Khan for asking a ‘rude’ question, the article said anyone doing the same again might have an even worse fate.

In such an environment, when the supporters of one of the strongmen with the best, or least bad, reputation threaten journalists who ask ‘inappropriate’ political questions, one newspaper editor has come up with an article that could be called extremely daring, or a suicide note. The article, in the weekly Aftab (Sunshine) that’s been out for just over 20 weeks, fills a whole page, under the title ‘Sacred Fascism’. Next to the title, there’s a picture of a pile of skulls. In the article, the writer names several of the former Mujahedin leaders with religious titles– not Ismail Khan - as men ‘whose hands are stained with the blood of the innocent’.

These people, the writer says, claim to be Moslem scholars and pious people, while ‘there’s no trace of piety in any of them and all of them have made fortunes out of corruption’. For good measure, the author also dismisses almost all other, unnamed, Sunni and Shia clerics as ‘people who have never spoken about the truth of Islam, but have always been at the service of kings, justifying their shameful deeds’. ‘Most clerics,’ he says, ‘have not been involved in any useful economic activity and have lived off the toiling people’.

When the paper came out two days ago, I kept a copy of the article because I was sure it was going to lead to something. Just now Kabul TV reported that the paper had been stopped and its manager arrested. The manager is an Afghan who has just come back to the country after many years as a refugee in Iran where he studied physics.

The paper’s editor has also been arrested. He’s an Iranian who’s also been in Kabul for a few months, having come here with his family, apparently as refugees, living under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In an interview with another newspaper, the editor had said what mattered to him most was that he should be able to write whatever his heart desires and let the people judge.

I saw the editor about ten days ago at the opening of a cultural center. He said he had been disappointed with what he’d seen in Afghanistan. It was impossible, he said, to believe this was the land in which some great works of Persian literature had been created. This was an amazing observation, for I never thought those works could have been created anywhere else. In fact, walking down the streets of Kabul, I always come across people whom I take to be the look-alikes of Ferdowsi and Rumi, living in conditions that have not changed much for centuries.

The intellectual detachment of these journalists form the circumstances in which they write reminds me of the hundreds of young Iranians abroad who went back home after the revolution and published newspapers not very different from Aftab. Their verbal exchanges with the clerics and their supporters soon turned into street clashes, first with sticks and stones and then with guns. Afghanistan and Iran have both had enough of that and I hope it is not repeated in either place.



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