Kabul Diaries: first impressions

I arrived in Kabul at 7:10 am on Tuesday morning completely exhausted after a 38-hour journey, which involved three flights, 17 hours of layover in two airports, and a mere 5 hours of sleep in 48 hours. It was a Marco Polo-esque endeavor.

The last few days before my trip I was becoming increasingly nervous and excited. Nervous, because the security situation in Afghanistan was getting worse leading to a not so rosy prognosis for the future. Excited, because I was finally going to Kabul to explore the possibility of working with an extraordinary NGO to help restore the historic city of Kabul and help strengthen the sense of national pride and identity of the some of the most disadvantaged Afghans by investing in their traditional crafts and reconnecting to their rich cultural history. 

Kabul had been calling me for a couple of years already, but my previous attempts to visit this city had been unsuccessful due to time restrains, irregular and bad connections to Kabul and security problems.

Recent news coming out of Kabul had not been encouraging. The attacks on the international forces had increased and expanded into Kabul. There had been a deadly attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The Taliban insurgents warned to increase their operations as the run-off elections approached. I had been in contact with the organisation, which was going to provide my board and lodgings in Kabul. They had sent me a pre-arrival package with detailed travel, health and security advice. I was to be picked up directly from the airport by their liaison officer and driven to the Head Quarters.

The approach to the airport runway was spectacular. I could see the beautiful mountains of the Hindu Kush from my seat. Hindu Kush literally means Hindu Killer. Apparently thousands of Indian soldiers froze to death in these mountain ranges during military sorties on Kabul. As we approached the runway and taxied to the gate, I noticed different sorts of military helicopters and personnel in the airfield. If there ever was any doubt that I was entering a country still at war, it disappeared there and then.

It was a crisp chilly morning. The passport control was in a relatively small room furnished with about 6 cabins. By the time I entered the hall two rows of bearded men in shalwar kameez wearing either turbans or Pakols were waiting to get through at the only two open desks.  I had never seen such an image other than on TV. The picture looked intimidating and slightly familiar from the Taliban images I had occasionally seen on the news.

I was relieved when, upon our arrival, they opened two more desks. Quickly I got in line behind a number of other Europeans who had been on my flight. As my turn came I hesitated to approach the immigration officer. I had a valid business visa, but when I went to pick up my passport from the embassy the day before my departure, I had noticed that they had misspelled my last name. Luckily, I spotted the mistake in time to ask them to correct their mistake, but I was a bit suspicious when the clerk whited out my name on the visa and hand corrected the mistake before she stamped it. I wasn’t sure if that would get me through the border.

I approached the counter and presented  my passport  trying to smile. The young man, who couldn’t have been morethan 25, picked up my passport, opened it, then smiled broadly and said,‘Tehran beh donya oomadin’? Irani? I relaxed and replied, ‘Yes, Irani.’ He then asked, ‘Chera beh Tehran naraftin?’ Returning his smile I said, ‘Beh Tehran ham raftam.’ He than stamped my passport, put it on the counter and uttered the words, “Beh Afghanistan khoshamadid.” Grateful, I thanked him as I picked up my passport and made my way to the baggage claim area. On my way, I couldn’t help but think to myself how many Afghans get that kind of welcome from Iranians.

The baggage claim area was another small room of about 20m by 35 m with two conveyor belts. My suitcase appeared after about five minutes. I picked it up and made my way to the double glass doors, and started walking towards the VIP parking lot, where I had been told a car would be waiting for me.

My suitcase was heavy, but I did not want any help with it, so I politely thanked all who approached to help while I tried to quickly make my way to the parking lot. After going through the first parking lot and not spotting anybody holding an A4 sheet with my name on it, I started walking to a second and a third parking lot. From the types of cars parked in each lot, it was clear that the further away I got from the terminal, the closer I got to the ordinary Afghan life.  I couldn’t help but notice, that there were only men around the gates of each lot, either offering to drive me to my destination or exchange my dollars into Afghanis.

Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I started to increase my pace until I got to the end of the third parking lot. I had come to the end and did not know where to go next. As I stopped to think I turned around and noticed a man in his 30s who had followed me. He walked up to me and asked if I needed a cab. I thanked him and said that I was supposed to be picked up by someone. I then asked him if I could use his mobile phone to call my contact at the NGO to double check in which parking lot they would be waiting for me.

The man dialed the number for me and handed me his mobile. I must have sounded stressed because my contact at the other end told me not to be nervous. She said, ‘Homayun is already at the airport. Stay where you are, I will call and tell him where you are. He will make his way to you shortly.’ Slightly ashamed, I replied that I was very calm and would stay put until he arrived.

Ten minutes later a van pulled up in front of me. The driver stepped out, opened the door and put my suitcase in the car for me. He seemed delighted to find that I spoke Farsi. As soon as we started moving he began to tell me that he had spent years in Tehran. He seemed enthralled by the beauty of Iran and the connection between his and our culture. The warm welcome and the small talk put me immediately at ease.

The drive through Kabul to our destination took about 30minutes. The sharp lines of the Hindu Kush landscape that I had seen from above had turned into a hazy cityscape filtered through a perpetual cloud of dust. Men in turbans pulling carts next to motorcars on the roads, small ramshackle shops with corrugated iron roofs lining the sides of the roads, fruit vendors setting up their trays of blackened bananas and golden brown grapes off the side of dirt roads. All this against a backdrop of the smell of sewage, intermingled with the scent of dry dust. I could hardly breath.

The last turn from the main road into an uneven dirt road brought us to the front gate of the fortress where I would be staying during my stay in Kabul. I was delighted to have finally arrived. 

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