‘Man is snow, melting’
Friday, 28 February 2003 – am
First of all, let me announce, with some sadness, the disappearance of my favourite signpost, ‘The Green House of Khorassan’, down the road from our quest house, after you take the first left. It has been painted over. I don’t know why, and I suspect I never will. It was green, large and cheerful and gave the house an identity. It may acquire another one now.
Today, we are meant to go Bagh-e Zanana to find out about tree planting for Now Rouz, but there’s so much work to do that we’re at the office now. It will in fact be very busy for the next two weeks because of the Women’s Day activities.
So much happened on Thursday that I have to look at my diary to remember everything. In the morning, we had several rounds of wrestling with the Persian and Pashto software with which we have developed our flyer. It was installed on our computers by a very young and shy man, wearing glasses, and seems to work well only when our expert is around. Once he’s gone, the Pashto characters begin to misbehave. With time running out, this is a serious problem. So we’re going to get him over to the office on Saturday, fix the flyer and then turn it into a PDF which we can have printed.
For a few weeks, we’re having a new colleague from UNIFEM’s regional office in Delhi, who’s in charge of marketing Afghan women’s products in the US. She arranged for a large number of women to visit the office with bags and cases full of hand-made goods. A big American delegation is due soon and we hope they will open the way for the Afghan women. It’s interesting that the marketing for the Afghan goods should be done by someone from India, which is itself in need of such markets. The good side of it is that we people from poor nations are helping each other.
After lunch at Sahel-e Sabz, I met an experienced journalist who’s interested in producing a written account of the 8 March events with a team of reporters. The journalist is a man, as was someone else who came over to ask for work as a reporter. It would be relevant to have women involved in the project, but we have not had the time to look around far and wide enough. On the other hand, it would also be good to have a man and a woman covering the events to reflect their different perspectives.
No sooner had I finished my discussions with the senior journalist than we had to negotiate with the TV training team whom we would like to produce a video account of the events. The discussion was long and convoluted, centering on the question of copyright. Would it be owned by UNIFEM, or would it be kept by the camerawomen? After an hour and half, it was decided that the TV trainers, a young Frenchman and a young British woman, would discuss the matter with the camerawomen and let us know their decision.
Immediately after that, I went to the BBC’s Persian and Pashto office in Kabul that is in the same neighbourhood as our guest-house. With about 15 journalists sitting around the room, we talked about radio journalism for more than an hour. At home, I had dinner – soup, salad and lasagna – followed by Agha Sarwar’s wonderful cake made with ginger and Iranian dates.
Friday, 28 February 2003
This has been a very interesting Friday, because even though we did not go to Bagh-e Zanana, we did get to see a few new places. I could perhaps write an essay about it, but at this time of the night, let me just take you through the items in my diary.
I woke up to listen to the news and then to Kabul radio’s announcement of the memorial services taking place for the dead in various mosques in the city today. Now, to some this may seem funny, to others sad and morbid. It is neither of those and can be very informative about life in Afghanistan, when you think about it.
Today was Friday, the day for religious activities in general. People here are very religious and keen on observing the memorial services. In fact, I myself went to a service today, in memory of the father-in-law of the sister-in-law (pedar-e showhar-e khahr-zan) of Ehsan, one our drivers. I’ll tell you about that later.
Religious gatherings are one of the few social activities that are available to a public still suffering from years of intense and continuous fighting. The death rate in Afghanistan is unfortunately very high, especially infant mortality and mother’s death the time of delivery, the latter rate being one of the highest in the world. So there are bound to be lots of memorial services.
Lots of people have been separated from their relatives and friends, who could otherwise have told them about the death of a loved one. In Iran, news of death is carried by newspapers, some of which have little else which is believed by the readers. In Afghanistan, newspapers have much lower circulations and far fewer pages. So it’s natural for the national radio to provide such an important public service.
On our way to the office, we passed by a gathering of about one hundred men in overcoats and yellow hard hats, brooms in their hands, lined up in front of a fleet of trucks on the empty plot of land – the place where a few weeks ago I had seen the flock of sheep who had survived Eid-e Qorban. Ehsan explained that this was the beginning of a campaign by the government to clean Kabul.
In the news, I had heard that Japan had given Afghanistan some money for exactly that purpose. So any Japanese officials who have been in Kabul over the past few days could have seen their money actually being spent on the job. However, in the evening when we drove by the same place, there was not much sign of it having been cleaned up.
The cleaning brigade must have gone to the surrounding streets, for television news in the evening had a long report on what the campaign had achieved around town. It is easy to be pessimistic and say that such efforts are likely to dissipate under the weight of all the difficulties of life. But there’s no denying that the service is needed and lots of people could be employed to provide it.
There was a funny side to the TV report on the campaign. On a day when much of Kabul’s open space is covered in mud because of rain, and heaps of rubbish, with prominent clusters of tangerine skins on many sidewalks and street corners, the camera crew caught a poor old man who, presumably as part of his daily habit, had just dumped some rubbish on an existing heap outside his house. Under questioning, the old man agreed that this had not been a good thing and promised not to repeat it. We’ll see.
At the office, I corrected the Persian translation of a paper on budget from the women’s point of view; produced temporary business cards for myself and three colleagues; and then went to the memorial service for Ehsan’s relative, a seventy-year old man who had been physically and mentally ill for several years – just imagine the trauma suffered by him and by the family members who had been taking care of him. The service was in an apartment in a Soviet-style housing estate, broadly similar to the cheap, working class housing complexes built in Western Europe in the fifties and sixties, but with inferior material and fewer amenities.
In Kabul there are five such estates, called by the Russian name microrayon, micro district, built between the late 1960s and 1980s. At the beginning, they were considered smart accommodation for government officials and other well to do people. Today, in a terrible state of disrepair, they’re still home to government officials, as well as people from business or professional backgrounds, including several of our UN colleagues who are Afghan nationals.
This is because 60 per cent of Kabul’s housing stock was destroyed in the war, including some fashionable houses in West Kabul that I wrote about earlier. Many of the remaining smart houses have been rented to foreigners, including the UN, for $3,000-4,000 a month. By contrast, a 3 bedroom apartment in microrayon goes for $150 a month. Some of the owners of the smart houses have rented their properties out and live in much cheaper accommodation in Kabul, if not abroad.
The microrayons have electricity every other night from around 2pm to around 11pm, which is better than several months ago, when they had power once a week. We were told that the rich people living in the same buildings either own generators, with all the noise, or would simply pay some money and get a direct connection to the main power lines. The estates used to be heated by massive central heating systems, but these have broken down in some areas and the apartments have to be heated by kerosene heaters like the very old wood/saw-dust ones we used to have in Iran when I was a child, and during the Iran-Iraq war when there was a fuel shortage.
Piped water is available, but only reaches the third or fourth floors. People living higher up have to take water up the stairs in buckets –as we did in Beirut during the civil war of the 1970s. The buildings have not been repaired or painted for years and the furniture is mostly old. Outside the buildings, there once used to be trees, flowers and shrubs. Now there is only dust in dry weather and mud when it rains. Still, children were out playing today and it was lovely to hear their voices and see their cheerful faces and bright eyes.
In spite of all the shortcomings, Afghan hospitality is as strong as ever. At the memorial service, there must have been around forty people. We sat around rooms, on narrow mattresses; a wash basin, a jug of water and a towel were handed round, starting with me and my colleague, Khalid, so we could wash our hands; a plastic sofreh (spread) was laid on the floor and food was served, each two guests sharing a plate.
The food was Qabeli-Pelow, rice cooked with saffron, almonds and raisins, heaped on chunks of lamb, along with a separate plate of meatballs in a thick stew, and a plate of light coloured halwa for dessert. Spoons were provided for Khalid and me, but the others used their fingers to eat. We ate quickly and returned to the office to pick up our female colleagues who were meant to have lunch at the other UN compound.
After lunch, Khalid and a colleague from Delhi, the lady who’ll be marketing Afghan women’s products in the US, wanted to go and see two of the producers. We all decided to go, but not before a short stop at a leather goods shop, where a smiling, smart old master, with grey beard and very clever eyes behind thick glasses, makes really good cases, shoes, slippers and so on.
We also went to a jeweller’s shop next door, who does sell very pretty things, but at high prices and with a very sad face. I tried to cheer him up, but did not quite succeed. We then went to a women’s handicrafts exhibition and shop with beautiful clothes, glassware, papier mache ornaments and carpets on display. The UN ladies bought lots of things, and the ladies running the shop served us green tea, Afghan noql candies and Iranian chocolates.
The next stop was a women’s training centre, with literacy, computer skills, tailoring and embroidery classes, in a four bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of another Soviet-style housing estate near the airport. It was an impressive set up with very modest resources, supported by a number of women’s organisations abroad. What they had for sale was beautiful – clothes, beddings and so on.
In the literacy class, there was a white board on the wall with a detailed plan of the group’s preparations for the 8 March celebrations. Another room was a sweet crèche with ten beds for the women trainee’s children. The lady who set up the centre and trained herself to be a trainer is being nominated for an international award. Her daughter also works there, teaching computer skills.
The next stop was Khalid’s family’s apartment in another part of the microrayon we had visited in the morning. We met his wife, Yalda. They got married in Pakistan last year and we saw lots of picture of the wedding. Khalid’s sister was also there, but his parents who live in the same apartment were not in. We were served tea, more noql, this time with almond centres, as well as several other types of sweets and dried fruits. Khalid, his wife and his sister are themselves so sweet, charming and innocent that they give you the strength to hope for better days.
Driving around Kabul, I noticed some other sights. The city has rows of spare parts shops to keep the cars running, plumbers to keep the water flowing, and pharmacies to heal the people. There are also doctors, though far fewer than the country needs. I saw one row of buildings which appeared to house nothing but doctors’ offices, pretty much like the big medical centres in Iran. But in poor Kabul, there was little to distinguish the doctors’ block from the spare parts shops.
But let me finish by telling you of some nice things I heard or saw today:
Names: Fereshta (Fereshteh, in Iranian dialect, meaning angel), Arezou (wish); Shokoufa (Shokoufeh in Iranian dialect, meaning blossom)
Shops: Shahanshah (king of all kings) Pharmacy; Pahlavan (champion) restaurant, with a door through which even a small person would have to be squeezed.
Writing on the back of a mini-bus: Ensan barf ast, dar haal-e aab shodan – man is snow, melting.