Kabul Diaries: the lock down


Kabul Diaries: the lock down
by Princess

The van pulled up in front of a big wooden gate set in a long mud wall. To one side a small metal door opened slowly as a guard stepped out with a rifle hanging from his shoulder carrying a long metal stick with a mirror attached to the end in one hand. He walked around the car examining the underside of the van presumably for car bombs. After he was satisfied he gave the clear sign to another guard who opened the gate for us to enter.


We entered the front court of a restored 19th century fortress which was perched on the slope of a hill overlooking the city.  This oasis housed not only the NGOs offices, but also the extensive lodgings for all international staff, overnight accommodation for some local staff, as well as a number of workshops and classrooms for traditional Afghan woodworks, ceramics, jewellery,textiles and calligraphy.

The classes are run by Ustads, who in some cases come from 200 years of lineage in their area of expertise. At the time these masters had been approached to come and teach their skills, some of them were selling fruits in the market trying to make ends meet. The struggles of the last three decades, which had forced them to abandon their crafts and opt for menial work, meant that with them centuries of knowledge and valuable skills would die for ever.

One of the main aims of the educational component of the foundation is to ensure the continuation of Afghan traditional skills by training the next generation of artisans and increasing the income of the craftsmen by marketing high quality artefacts to an elite cliental.  Hopefully this will help rebuild their cultural pride and national identity as well. 

As soon as I got off the van and my suitcases were unloaded, a middle-aged man in a kaki outfit and a baseball cap approached to greet me. He shook my hand and after exchanging pleasantries directed the porter to take my suitcases to my room and me to an office where I would be meeting the operating manager of the foundation. I had spoken with the operating manager several times on the telephone from London.

A few minutes later I met a young lean and soft-spoken Englishman in his mid 30s who reminded me Christopher Robin. He greeted me warmly before we set out for a tour of the institute. During the tour I found out that he spoke an immaculate Dari and was very much in tune with the Afghan culture. I was impressed to hear a very European looking man speak perfect Dari. I had to smile.

Walking through the grounds and visiting various workshops, where different groups of students were hard at work, completely rejuvenated me. In one of the courtyards a couple of artisans were putting the finishing touches on a carved wooden column with lapis inlays. The beautiful piece, along with a number of other pieces of furniture were due to be shipped to an international interior design fair in Dubai. It didn’t take me long to realise that the international staff are a very ambitious, energetic and young bunch. They had already accomplished an impressive amount of work since the set up of the foundation three years ago. It felt good to be amongst them, but I still had not seen where I would be working.

I was given a couple of hours to rest and freshen up before lunch. All meals are taken communally in the spirit of the Afghan culture. A number of in-house cooks prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner, which are normally taken in a cosy communal kitchen off the main courtyard of the Qala.

After lunch one of the drivers drove us to Kabul’s old city, where I would meet my other colleagues. During my stay I would be joining a team of five international architects and engineers working along side of local architects, structural and civil engineers as well as hundreds of local labourers to restore the medieval city. I would be the only female in the team on the ‘ground’.

The bumpy car ride with the managing director and the operations manager was short, but it was long enough for me to be briefed on the extent and the political sensitivities of the restoration projects. Upon our arrival, one of the architects gave me a tour of the construction sites and the completed buildings. In its first year of operation, the foundation cleared 8000 cubic meter of rubbish from the streets and alleyways of this old quarter of the city. In some areas people had to climb over piles of garbage onto mud walls to enter their houses. 

The courtyards of once lavish merchant’s homes or abandoned serais in whose rooms once business and politics were conducted were left to decay in neglect. These amazingly beautiful courtyard buildings with their traditional intricate carved wood panels are some of the most enchanting structures I have ever seen. To think that all these beautiful jewels could very easily have been lost for ever, left to rot in piles of rubbish, gives me the chills.

The team has already done a lot for the community by clearing the streets, restoring historic buildings, saving old private dwellings from collapse, providing a community health centre, an elementary school and a playground for the children, as well as providing employment for every body in the area who is willing to work.

The work doesn’t stop there. One of the largest serais is being restored and redesigned to house the first accredited Higher Institute for traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture. On an even larger scale, work is underway to provide this community with the first central sewage and water treatment facilities in Kabul and thereby the whole of the country!

All this work has only been possible because of a tight link between the local community and the development team. We share offices with local colleagues and community leaders. We all eat our mid-day meals together and when a security situation arises, the community provides advice and protection. The significance of a strong connection to the local community became apparent as many people stopped by to chat and introduce themselves during my walk around the sites . 

With security being as it is in Kabul, we are not allowed to wander anywhere outside the neighbourhood without having a local community member accompany us. We are neither allowed to drive nor take taxis when we want to move about the city, instead at any given time the foundation has an number of drivers to take us around, be it for meetings, shopping or socialising. As an avid walker who equally enjoys walking in the countryside and wandering through strange cities, I imagine this lack of independence and the inability to go anywhere on foot by myself can quickly feel immensely restricting.

Since I have arrived here, every morning my colleagues and I pile up in a van and are driven to work. The driver waits there for us all day while we are working to then drive us back home in the evening. This is to ensure that if a situation arises we can immediately be evacuated from the site.

Shortly before dusk we were all driven back to the fortress in order to be home before it gets dark. After dinner I excused myself to go take a hot bath. I crashed into bed by 8 pm. Despite the fatigue my sleep was interrupted twice. Once, by the barking Palawan, a good natured milky coloured Labrador, getting excited by the neighbourhood kite runners who pursue their hobbies late at night; a second time by the howling of the wind and rainstorms which freshened and cleared the night air for a new day to come.

Normally the team leaves for work very early in the morning, but as I was jet-lagged and knackered, I was supposed to be driven to the site a bit later at 9 am. By 7 o’clock, shortly before the guys arrived at the site I was woken up by the ringing on my mobile. Our security adviser shared the news of an attack to a UN guesthouse about 1.5 miles from us. A ‘lock down’ was declared. All movement of international staff was frozen until further notice. On my first day at work in Kabul, I was trapped in a fortress while my colleagues were stuck at the other end of the city unable to move. We were all extremely anxious following every bit of security briefings, wondering if we could get the guys back home safely before the day was over.  

Hours after the attackers were killed and clearer information about what had really happened started trickle in, finally the guys were driven home in the dark. We were all very happy and relieved to see them safe and sound. They recounted that while they were working on site a couple of missiles destined for the presidential palace had passed over their heads. Then some of the Afghan colleagues rounded them up and took them indoors pretending to need a meeting, while the rest of the crew carried on working.

Later that night as I got up and said good night to go to my room, one of my colleagues shouted behind me: “Welcome to Afghanistan.“ I thought to myself, yes, and what a welcome, indeed! 


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more from Princess
Multiple Personality Disorder

Flawless writing

by Multiple Personality Disorder on

…and the Blog Image is beautiful.


Bah! Bah! Princess jaan what a beeeeuuuutifuuul picture!!

by Anonymouse on

Everything is sacred.


Dear Mariam

by Princess on

Thank you for your comment. I love the organisation because it seems to unique. I would encourage anybody to come to Kabul to see the city and meet the people in person.

Thanks for reading. 

Mariam Amiri

Dear Princess

by Mariam Amiri on

When I read your first blog I wondered whether the NGo you work for was Firuz-Kuh Foundation (Turquoise Mountain), but when you mentioned the Japanese library and the hotel in London I was quite sure it was the same charity I suspected.

I really love their work and efforts in preserving Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage and I hope someday I will be able to visit Kabul and see the restored Murad Khane. 

Looking forward to see your photo essay.





Dear Bajenagh jan :)

by Princess on

I can see why all one hears and reads about Afghanistan is about destruction. It takes a bit of digging under the surface to recognise the resilience and strength of this nation. Afghanistan has a lot of extremely ugly and brutal sides to it which then to overshadow the beauties and overwhelm the outsiders. I feel like I am time travelling. This is an extremely traditional conservative culture. Sometimes I am confronted with scenes here that could easily be from the 18th or 19th century. It is unreal! I will talk about these more in the next parts.

In the meanwhile, thank you very much for reading my blogs. 


Dear Desi

by Princess on

Thanks for your nice message. I would definitely love to meet your friend. My time in Kabul is quickly coming to and end, but I am seriously contemplating on quitting my job in London and coming back here for a longer period. If I do that I would love to get in touch with your friend and hopefully see some of his photographs. Thanks.



by yolanda on

Hi! Princess,

     It is very interesting that there is a Thai restaurant in Afghanistan. It is very cool! .....Just like what BN said, what coming out of there from main media is mostly bad stuff. I read many stories that wrong houses got bombed by Americans. I watched this either 20/20 or 60 minutes special that American soldiers got wrong tip, they bombed the wrong house and killed everyone in the house except one boy....Taliban executed 2 Afghan women for running a prostitution ring serving US soldiers, they even have a video for the execution...oh my gosh! The violence is scary....I am looking forward to your photo essay! It is amazing that people like you and the British guy, you mentioned, heard the calling to go there to make a difference. It is incredible that the British guy could speak fluent Dari. I am sure Dari is way harder to learn than Spanish! ...I almost forgot I did hear some positive thing about Afghanistan, it is their very popular TV show "Afghan Star", it is similar to "American Idol":


It is absolutely cool to hear your 1st hand report from Afghanistan! It is a milestone for IC, also! 


Have a safe trip!


bajenaghe naghi

princess jan

by bajenaghe naghi on

Amazing account of what is going on out there. It is strange to read stories about what you write about, since all we read or hear about Afghanistan are about killings and bombings and destruction. No mention of the type of building and renewing that you are involved in.   


Dear Princess

by IRANdokht on

Thanks so much for the explanation and the insight on the inner works of the Afghan politics.

Some of these concepts are hard to guess or comprehend from afar. For example I couldn't guess what the Afghans would think of Abdullah's withdrawal without knowing how they really feel about him to begin with. I must say from where I was watching, he sounded like the better choice...  

Thank you for taking the time to answer and I wish you a safe and productive stay. We'll wait and hold our breath waiting to hear more too!

Best regards



Princess, kudos to you.

by desi on

Princess, kudos to you.  Wow!  what an amazing opportunity.  I just read the diary posted on Oct 31st and now this one.  This is a very interesting read.  Keep up the good work and I'm looking forward to your next posting.

Incidentally, a friend of mine just arrived in Kabul 2 weeks ago.  He's working for Skateistan.  His name is Yoon and he's a photographer.  If you should ever have the opportunity to see this facility it's pretty cool.  Mind you I've only seen the photos from the website.  It's pretty impressive.

Stay safe, Desi 


Dear Monda,

by Princess on

I have had the chance to talk to a couple of Afghan guys in their early 20s. I shall write about it in the coming days. I hope to get a chance to speak to a few young women as well, but so far it has proven much more difficult. 

Thanks for reading Monda jan. 


Thanks for enlightening us with your fabulous journal

by Monda on

As I read your wonderfully detailed writings, I hope at some point in your journey you would have the chance to talk to their younger generation. Is devastation a natural state of life? I wonder how they have integrated the disastrous state of their land in their personal lives, hopes, dreams, ambitions.... I have seen the nation's joie de vivre through many clips and photos: How they manage their personal resources is what boggles my mind.

Stay safe my dear and keep us informed. 


Yes definately try their chicken kabobs but not necessarily

by Anonymouse on

Yes definately try their chicken kabobs but not necessarily their beef or Lamb kabobs.  I love Afghan chicken kabobs, especially when they make it in larger cubes and season it.

I like it more than our own chicken kabobs because it has more "texture" and not soft (sometimes) like our's.  I eat Afghan chicken kabobs all the time.

I'm sure they have them around, as long as they're not cafeteria style.  If you didn't get a chance there, you can try it when you get back home.  But for sure you'll have a better basis to compare if you try it both there and in London ;-)

Everything is sacred.


Anonymouse, no I haven't.

by Princess on

We are only allowed to eat at (UN) approved restaurants, and so far I have only been to a Thai and an Indian restaurant.

Is it something you recommend? I eat a lot of local cuisine as all our cooks are Afghans, but we haven't had kabobs yet. I shall specifically look for it on the menu next time. :)


You got it, JJ.

by Princess on

I couldn't agree with you more. Let's hope the world comes to its senses. This nation is already traumatized enough. Wars and military means are seldom constructive, but in case of Afghanistan the destruction is beyond imagination. This country needs a long term commitment of gentleness and a lot of patience.


Azadeh jan

by Princess on

Thank you for your support and thanks for reading.



by Princess on

Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot coming from you.


Dear Yolanda

by Princess on

Thanks for your suggestions. The artifacts produced by the Ustads and their students are marketed to an elite cliental, largely thanks to excellent connections of the CEO of the Foundations. The intricate woodwork has furnished a library in Japan and a reception room in the Connaught Hotel in London. I have also seen a whole exhibition of the beautiful ceramic work from Istalif sold out in matter of days London, But the key to real success is to develop a market of the products here in Afghanistan. That still poses a big challenge.

Regarding your request, I have taken lots of photos of those courtyards and the intricate screens. I will post them in my photo essays as soon as I get back to London.

Thanks for being so enthusiastic. 


Red Wine jan,

by Princess on

Thanks for the nice clip and the beautiful rendition of 'aghe ye rooz' in Turkish! I enjoyed it very much.


Dear Vildemose

by Princess on

Thank you for your words of encouragement! You are extremely kind.


Dear Irandokht

by Princess on

The Afghans are extremely practical. They are fully aware of the level of corruption of the Karzai government, but speaking to a couple of them before Abdulah decided to announce that he would boycott the elections, they told me that if Karzai did not 'win' the elections, there would be a bloodbath in Afghanistan.

They believe that Abdullah has had his chance when he was part of the Mujahedin, and that his only motivation is to gain power, not to help Afghanistan. I sense a lot of them are extremely irritated by his (in their opinion) reckless behaviour, because they say the Pashtoons which constitute 40% of the population would never cooperate with a government led by someone who is not at least partly Pashtoon.

As for the Westerners, they seem rather nervous and watch the events anxiously, buy try treat the whole thing as 'joke'. There are those who think that slightest sign that elections have been rigged, means the West has completely failed in its mission here, while other have a more practical approach in believing it is better to have a government we can work with, than a 'democratically' elected government that would throw the country into more of a chaos.

Rumors spread very quickly here, and then every little word gets interpreted to death for its possible meanings.

Just at dinner right now, one of the Americans was saying hat Abdulah's spokesperson has announced that he is going to give a press conference tomorrow and Karzai is not going to be happy about what he has to say.

So we all wait and hold our breath. We shall see.

Thank you for reading! 


Princess have you tried any local chicken kabobs?

by Anonymouse on

Everything is sacred.



by Princess on

Thanks for your encouragements. I will try to at least add a photo to the next one, and am planning to submit a photo essay once I return to London and a faster internet connection.

Jahanshah Javid


by Jahanshah Javid on

Anything to revive culture and living conditions in Afghanistan is a blessing. It is this kind of action that should be given top priority in terms of budget and manpower. Instead billions are spent on war, which brings death and destruction AND undermines humanitarian work.

Azadeh Azad

Dear Princess

by Azadeh Azad on

You are a courageous woman and the reconstruction works done by your NGO are truely commendable. I also love the warmth and humanity that transpires from your writings. I'm so proud of you. Take good care of yourself, my friend.


Ari Siletz

As worthy as writing can get

by Ari Siletz on

Informative, personal, relevant and caring. Keep safe and keep writing.



by yolanda on

Wow! You file reports faster than CNN. I still have some questions for your previous blog, and then you have just finished the 2nd blog. I am so glad that they teach young people the traditional Afghan woodworks, ceramics, jewellery,textiles and calligraphy. I hope you can post some pictures for us later on the Afghan crafts. I was thinking that the crafsmen and artisans should sell their crafts on www.ebay.com to introduce Afghan crafts to the rest of the world and they can also make some profits for themselves and create jobs. I do see a lot of Afghan lapis necklaces on Ebay, I bought a Afghan lapis necklace off Ebay a couple of years ago just like this one:


but I believe the Afghan necklaces and other crafts have gone thru many layers of profit taking, so that artisans have made very little money for themselves. If the Afghan artisans sell their stuff directly on Ebay, they can keep the price affordable for Ebay shoppers and make more $$$$ for themselves.

     If you have pictures or video for this part, that will be great:

These amazingly beautiful courtyard buildings with their traditional intricate carved wood panels are some of the most enchanting structures I have ever seen.

take care!


Red Wine


by Red Wine on

You are there ... watch this Video .. I am sure you like it .


Take care Princess jan .


Dear Princess: Excellent

by vildemose on

Dear Princess: Excellent diary and thank you for sharing. Keep us posted please. This diary of yours could easily turn into a best seller...

take care and be safe!



by IRANdokht on

Dear Princess,

I left Iran in the middle of the 8 year war. I could never imagine anyone volunteering to go to a land where the bombs fall.  I admire all you folks' courage for helping out a nation that needs it the most and especially while there is still such clear and present danger!

I am curious to know what the Afghans and the westerners in Afghanistan think of the latest developments in the election, Dr Abdullah and his dropping out of the run off, and of Kharzai's second term. If you do have a conversation about the subject, I'd definitely appreciate an insight.

Thanks for continuing the Kabul diaries!

Be safe and well,