Kabul Days (37)


Kabul Days (37)
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

Poisoned Reporter, Expensive Melons

Wednesday, 30 July 2003
Voice of America’s Dari Service, sometimes with fluffing presenters, two-day old news stories, and sensational reports that are not backed up by any other source may not be the world’s best news programme. However, every morning I look forward to the daily Afghan tune that it plays as a marker between its international and Afghan news. I have been keeping a list of the singers that I like most – about thirty.

There’s an amazing range of voices and styles, from the mellow Indian to the more rhythmic dance music, especially considering it has survived all the years of fighting, during which time most artists went into exile first to Pakistan and then to the West. Very few, if any, went to Iran, whose own musicians had either been silenced or fled to California, where their output has often been inferior to the sound of silence.

Although there’s still a long way to go to compensate for the stagnation and degradation of Iranian music in the 1980s and 90s, the revival of the past few years, resulting in the rising exports of rock music from Iran to the West, has been encouraging. What marks the young Iranian musicians is that many of them sing as well as play and write music, unlike the previous generations who had only one or the other of the skills. Many leading Afghan musicians, by contrast, sing, play and write music.

On my way back to the office, I bought some Afghan music from a local shop that also sells all kinds of Hollywood and Bollywood DVDs, as well as Alpen and other cereals, and Iranian made washing powder. As I write, I am listening to a collection of US concerts by one of the most popular Afghan musicians, Zahir Howaida. He passed away on 5 March 2012).

Right now Howaida’s singing a song written by another leading singer and musician who took up music in spite of his father’s strong objections, and adopted the pseudonym Nashenas or Anonymous (//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashenas). Other popular musicians include Ostad Hamahang, or Harmonious, and Ostad Sarahang, literally meaning the Master Maestro, who passed away some time ago, but still influences the music of Afghanistan.

The king of them all, of course, is Ahmad Zahir, Afghanistan’s equivalent of Elvis Presley and Pavarotti rolled into one, who was well liked in Iran as well, and who is still revered, more than twenty years after his death in 1979. Official reports said he had been killed in a car accident. But some say he was assassinated by the communist government, although little evidence is produced to support this claim. Our driver, Hamed, who himself likes Ahmad Zahir’s music, says he was killed by the communists because ‘he was making too much noise’.

What is not so exciting about music in Afghanistan is the emergence of young pop performers, especially women, who took up music in exile, cut off from their homeland’s rich musical history, sometimes adopting as their model 2nd or 3rd rate Iranian performers in Tehrangeles. While young people in Iran are improving their skills at mixing hard rock and heavy metal with classical Persian poetry, the treasure that is classical Afghan music may be giving way to characterless clatter.

Thursday, 31 July 2003
The mystery of diminished supplies of fruits has been solved, thanks to a local newspaper report blaming transport problems. The long and narrow Salang Tunnel, that cuts through the Hindu Kush mountains and connects Kabul to one of its fruit supply areas in the north of Afghanistan has been closed for months because of repair works that are expected to take another few months. The much longer land route has added to transport cost, raising the Kabul price of melons, for instance, to six times the price in the northern province of Kunduz.

The report also says that some of the best melons are being exported to Pakistan, which might explain why we have had rather tasteless melons the past couple of days. The newspaper says fruit wholesalers are optimistic that the price of melons will fall by fifty per cent within the next two weeks, but gives no evidence to back up the optimism, especially given that businesses generally welcome higher prices.

The newspaper with the melon story also carries a report about one of the paper’s journalists apparently having been given spiked food by someone who then robbed him while he was unconscious. The incident, says the newspaper, happened when the journalist had gone to a friend’s house to stay the night. A friend of the friend’s brought them two readymade meals, saying he had bought them from a hotel. The report says both men lost consciousness after eating the food and the third man stole around $300 dollars and a Chinese-made bicycle from the flat, as well as some money from the safe of a pharmacy next door. The culprit is said to have been arrested and confessed to the crime.

What’s as curious as the free meal and burglary story is that it is printed right above the melon price story. The headline on the top story says JOURNALIST POISONED, and the one below shouts, in larger font, KABUL MELON PRICES TO FALL SOON. The comic effect is enhanced by the fact that the story about the journalist does not even include his/her name. On the other hand, the melon price story, which is twice as long, has a picture of some forty melons piled up in a shop. If the doped journalist had been from another paper, his predicament might well have been ignored altogether, or reported underneath the vital melon news.

Friday, 1 August 2003
Within five minutes’ walk from our house – about 10 minutes in hot weather – we not only have Kabul’s first and only Iranian restaurant, Shandiz, but also the first Iranian bank in the city. I came across this establishment when I went to Shandiz to order food for our workshop at the University. Sitting outside the restaurant waiting for the manager, I met a man with today’s typical Iranian looks – gray hair and looking several years older than his real age, with a tired face. Form his conversation with a member of staff it became clear that he had something to do with the restaurant’s management.

Curious to find out who he was, I introduced myself and asked him if he was involved in running the restaurant. He said he was the manager of the first branch of an Iranian bank in Kabul – the second foreign bank in the city, after a British one. However, it’s not really a bank, but a currency exchange shop which also runs current accounts and takes deposits.

There are no signs outside the shop to indicate what its business is. Inside, though, there is a well designed office every bit like a bank branch, with three computers for the staff, one of whom is the manager’s wife and the other are two young Afghan women.

Iranians abroad being generally distrustful of each other, I was amazed at how readily the bank manager took me along to show me his office, the current account slips – not cheques, because he does not yet have a banking license – and the deposit books, as well as some account books with the names of his customers. It was perhaps because I had approached him and introduced myself first. Whatever the reason, it was very pleasant to hear the tale of this business being set up alongside the restaurant only four months ago, by a man who had retired from Iran’s Bank-e Saderat va Ma’aden, the Exports and Mines Bank, which used to be ridiculed for the huge number of branches it had across Iran.

The manager said he was modeling his branch after Bank Saderat where he had worked for thirty years. Indeed, everything about the office – including its layout and the design of the account books - reminded me of Bank Saderat branches.

The manager said he had recently had a visit from a delegation of officials – from the Afghanistan Central Bank, the police and the Prosecutor’s Office – who had been suspicious of his operation. Their concerns were allayed, he said, when they had heard a detailed account of how the business was operating according to proper legal procedures, and particularly after they had heard the name of a shareholder in the business: Commander Almas (Diamond), one of the most influential military figures in Kabul, who’s also involved with Shandiz restaurant.

Saturday, 2 August 2003
Within an hour this morning, our Kabul University workshop was moved from possibly the worst room in the University – broken windows, shattered chairs, tatty curtains, no electricity, facing the sun, with one of the worst possible views of the campus – to absolutely the best hall, the Faculty Conference Room. The switch resulted from a change of mind on the part of the Dean of the Faculty of Journalism, Dr Kazem Ahang, who decided at the last moment that a fairly important event in his department should have a more prestigious venue.

A few days ago, when I saw the room for the first time, it did not bother me very much, except for the heat, and I offered to take along a couple of fans from the office to cool the oven down. On the second visit, though, my colleague, Halima, suggested that we should look for a better place. Led by one of the lecturers, we discovered a newly refurbished building with good architecture, brand new western-style furniture, air conditioning, a computer network, a big and fully equipped kitchen and a great conference room just the right size for our workshop. We met the director of the department who said he’d be happy for us to use the conference room when they themselves had no meetings. We agreed that our journalism lecturer friend would check this with the Dean.

When I rang the Dean to find out the result, he sounded upset and told me that the lecturer had had no idea what he was doing; he should not have taken us to other departments; we would be very well placed in the room he had given us because ‘we’re not giving up our old belongings to get other people’s new stuff.’ I said we’d do as he had said. But on Friday, when I called him again to check up on something else, he said that on Saturday he was meeting the Chancellor, who was to open our workshop, and would ask him if we could use the Faculty Conference Room.

Thank God he did, because we got permission to move into a grand hall, with electricity and new and comfortable furniture, arranged horseshoe style, in a leafy, cool and quiet corner of the campus. The décor was complete with a beautiful flower arrangement made for us on Flower Street.

The discussions went well, with some sharp but friendly exchanges between the working journalists on the one hand and the academics on the other. The level of information and quality of analysis varied greatly, but that’s what makes such workshops so exciting and rewarding.

The proceedings were enhanced by a very good Sahel-e Sabz refreshment service, ferried across Kabul in the morning and in the afternoon, because the university cafeteria is said to be even worse than our first classroom. Lunch was great, supplied by Shandiz: Zereshk-polo & morgh. For the rest of the week, we’ll have: chelo kabab kubideh w; filet kabab; jujeh kabab; and kabab-e barg.

Thursday, 7 August 2003
During a tour of Kabul University’s library, the Deputy Chancellor told us about the battles on campus during the faction fights of the 1990s. There had been such fierce firing all over the area that the warring factions had dug tunnels underneath the street by the side of the University so they could cross it. Among the damage caused by the war was the loss of lots of books and newspapers, including a rare copy of Afghanistan’s first newspaper. Later, when we went to the Chancellor’s office for the ‘graduation’ ceremony, he said that the fighters had even destroyed the walls of the buildings to drag out the electricity cables for the copper.

With half the Faculty of Journalism staff in the office, the Chancellor also gave a full account of the poverty in which the academics lived. The Dean of the Faculty of Journalism, he said, has a monthly salary of $45, while the door-keeper at the Wetern-funded Center for Policy Studies receives more than $300 per month. The other academic staff are on even lower salaries than the Dean, and have to teach 25 to 30 hours per week.

Therefore, the lecturers do not have the time to read any new books, which they cannot buy anyway, much less write anything new. So ancient notes are recycled and passed round by one teacher to another, without the new recipient being able to read, let alone understand, them. The Chancellor also told us of a lecturer who had been repeatedly asked a question by one of the students but had not responded in any way. It had taken a while for the class to discover that the lecturer was deaf.

In spite of all that, the lecturers’, and the Dean’s, full participation in the workshop during the whole week demonstrated that when there’s something worthwhile to do, they can get into action. All the lecturers wrote papers for the conference, even one who never seemed to me to have had much love for writing. And they all said the course had showed them new things. One provincial lecturer spoke of the need to revise the local Journalism Faculty’s curriculum.

They also appreciated the fact that so many journalists and journalism teachers from around the country had gotten together, and at Kabul University, and said this was the first time such a thing had happened. One lecturer had particularly enjoyed the discussion with the Chancellor, to whom they’re usually very deferential, but who was now criticizing the state of affairs at the University perhaps more strongly than they would or could.

Both in the morning and in the afternoon, we drove the provincial journalists around the city, including West Kabul, so they could see the destruction for the first time.



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Kabul with music

by radius-of-the-persian-cat on

Dear Hossein Shahidi, thanks to your Kabul diary one can learn that there is music back on the streets of the Afghan capital, showing clearly that the Taliban policy of declaring joy and pleasure as illegal was not succesful on the long term. It was nice to see that amid so much violence in the daily news there are still people like you who promote a more human view on the situation in the middle east. Have you by chance visited the Babur garden ?

One intersting detail you wrote about the security issues (Part 35): The suspicious Toyota Corolla that is supposed to be misused as a car bomb. A while ago, I was regularily approached by foreigners here on the streets of Munich, who wanted so desperately buy my old Corolla for a higher price than would have been reasonable. They claimed to need the car as a Taxi in Nigeria, and next day one man wanted to have it for his brother in Kabul. I did not know what is so special about an old Corolla, and thought it might have to do with its reliable engine. Than one day I heard in the evening news about another car bomb attack in Kabul, and that a Corolla stuffed with hundreds of pound explosives was blown up in the center.  Your post again made me wonder what is so special about the Toyota and car bombs ? Or is it just a coincidence ? Anyway, I am still  happy
that maybe I prevented another bomb attack by not giving my car away.