Mr ‘Azrael’ and the Polyglot Waiter
Wednesday, 4 June 2003
The billboard on the square on the edge of our neighbourhood which was first announcing the return to Afghanistan of the German industrial company, Siemens, and then promoted the fight against polio, is now promoting photocopiers and other office machines from the Japanese company, Ricoh.
Further down the road, on the left hand side, a big building has been reaching completion in the space of a couple of months. And the price of bricks has gone up by more than 30 per cent in the six weeks since Hashem Jan bought some to revive our garden. It should all be seen as good news, indicating a rise in demand, at least from some people.
Another advertising banner that I saw in downtown Kabul had a very different message: “Eat cooked and warm food and wash the vegetables with clean water before eating them to avoid diarrhea.” The sign was on the pavement, facing the traffic on a very busy roundabout, where most drivers are too busy finding, or fighting, their way through traffic to read anything.
Most passers-by are also in a rush to get to go to work, shopping or home, unable to stop and take in the message. Most of them are illiterate, anyway. On top of all that, most Afghans are too poor to eat anything other than vegetables, and most of them do not have access to clean water.
So what is the banner doing there, and who put it up? One of the many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who are here to help the people of Afghanistan. Now, one cannot doubt the noble intentions of such an organisation, but one does wonder how much thought went into this particular campaign? To what extent is this symbolic of the so-called ‘development’ effort?
Still speaking of signs, one near the office which carried an anti-drugs message has now been turned around to ask the public to keep their city clean. The anti-drugs face, which is now facing the sidewalk, carries a statement saying, in Pashto and capital letter English, that ‘DRUG ABUSE IS FORBIDDEN IN ISLAM’, making you wonder if ‘the use’ of narcotics is not forbidden in Islam, and when their consumption might not be described as ‘abuse’. When the user is having a good time, for instance?
The new position makes the sign less visible, though I have no idea how effective it was when it was facing the traffic. Officials said a few days ago they were determined to destroy the opium poppy crops in Kabul province. One journalist said he had had no idea that far from being eradicated in the rest of the country, poppy cultivation had now reached Kabul.
In the morning, after writing up the text of my Police Academy talk, I wrote three reports on our three training courses, two at television and one at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and felt rather pleased with them. Two hours later, at the Ministry, only one of the six appointed participants had bothered to turn up. Last week, there were two. I spent about two hours working with the one committed trainee. My colleagues who work at the Ministry were embarrassed and apologetic and promised to look into this.
On the plus side, as always, I learned that Mary, the determined trainee who is a full-time Ministry official, was also taking English language lessons, from 5 to 7 in the morning. A mother of four, Mary takes her youngest child to the class with her. This was impressive and exhilarating and made it absolutely worthwhile to work with such a person. My friend Ehsan goes to English language classes from 5 to 6am. He has now gotten into the habit of reading the English language newspaper, Kabul Weekly, which we keep on our shelves.
Another happy event today was that I finally managed to take a picture of Hashem Jan, who has started renovating the lawn and flower beds around our office in the UNDP compound. The picture of a smiling Hashem Jan standing next to a massive satellite dish in a garden he had made earlier looked brilliant. We ran a copy on our colour printer and everybody loved it, especially after it was placed in the frame I had been given yesterday at the Police Academy for my ‘certificate of appreciation’. I had said at the time that I would use the frame for an office picture, but had no idea it would come in so handy only the next day.
There then appeared in our office a young man, a colleague’s relative, who had very clear and robust views on women and their rights – ‘robust’ in the same sense that a BBC reporter was using the word to describe the way British soldiers had treated the Iraqis they had captured. He said he would not allow his wife to visit her father’s house, next door to theirs. If she could do that, he said, you would not know whose house she was going to visit next.
He added that his wife would not do anything without his permission, anyway. Asked whether this was because she loved or feared him, he said it must be mostly fear. My colleague, his relative, said that the gentleman was feared by everybody in the family, like Azrael, the Archangel of Death. The analogy may well be apt, at least intellectually, because he said he would rather see a woman die of illness than be treated by a male doctor.
Asked how he had been authorised to decide that a woman should die rather than live – a power that only God can have – he said he had been given the right by his conscience. Would I, I asked, have a similar right to decide that he should die? Without responding directly, he said I had to understand that he was a Pashtun, and this was part of their tradition and culture. I had heard about this before, but always from non-Pashtuns. There was not enough time to discuss the matter further with the youngish, and otherwise kind, pleasant and family loving man. All I could do was to thank him for having given me much to think about.
In the morning, a colleague had been having trouble editing a table in a Word document. A couple of us tried to help, but failed. I asked the colleague if she was going to do the table again in Word, this time avoiding the design problem. No, she said, she’d do it at home, in Word Perfect, which she uses all the time, adding that computer software was very difficult to give up – like religion. If it’s so hard to move from Word Perfect to Word, it cannot be that easy to give up centuries-old habits of treating women, men and children. With that reflection, I have a little more sympathy for my new friend, ‘Mr Azrael’.
Thursday, 5 June 2003
This has been a day with a very happy ending, our seventh meeting with the four leading Afghan women journalists who are forming a group to hold a series of educational conferences for their colleagues from across the country. We finalised the list of speakers, had a list of names of women to invite, and narrowed down the choice of places for their accommodation and for holding the conference, in Kabul at the end of the month.
But the best part of it all was that we were able to select from among the four ladies a chair, a deputy chair, a secretary and an accountant, in keeping with the procedures needed for funding such projects. If that sounds boring, you need to keep in mind that the choice was not easy because the four ladies are very prominent in their fields, have a lot of self-confidence and considerable political differences.
No one was willing to volunteer, risking the accusation of seeking power – even though there’s very little power to be won in this setting – or, much worse, to be vetoed by the others. No one would nominate another one either, for this would have amounted to an admission of the other person’s superiority. Voting would have not been practical or desirable, given the group’s small size.
I suggested they should make the decision by themselves and inform us. Not only was this rejected, but one of the ladies said they had so much confidence in me that they wanted me to make the decision. Flattered as I was, it was inappropriate for me as a male UNIFEM official to say who in a group of highly qualified women should do what. At this point, it occurred to me that we perhaps had no choice but to draw lots. The idea was accepted. I wrote down their names on tiny bits of paper and there was a draw.
As it happened, the first draw was the name of person who was most interested in being chair, and would do a very good job of it. The second name was that of another very competent lady with lots of management and leadership experience. The other two posts went to ladies who would not have any serious quarrels with the competence of the first two. When I told Ermie about this, she said this showed that God had been with me and had directed the draw.
We could not have dinner at the guest house this evening because of a chemical attack that we had arranged against the cockroaches in the kitchen. Agha Sarwar had removed all utensils and crockery from the kitchen which he had disinfected thoroughly after the roaches had been bombarded. So we went out, to a restaurant called B’s place, set up by an Australian, somewhere in east-central Kabul.
It’s an old house in a fairly big and fairly beautiful garden. Perhaps the best thing about it was that even on a Thursday evening – the night before the weekend here – most tables were empty. We sat in a very quiet corner, in a room with a bay, at a nice wooden table with a pretty table-cloth with huge amounts of needle-work, made in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The waiter, Ahmad Faheem, came to us and took us through the items in the menu in machine-gun English, with a slight Indo-European accent. He also exchanged greetings with us in English, French, German and Russian, among others. One item on the menu was Fish of the Day, which made us wonder how such a fish would end up in Kabul. ‘Fresh from the freezer’, explained a member of our party. When the fish did turn up on our table, it was found to be very delicious. So was the steak and grilled cheese that had been recommended by Ahmad Faheem, along with baked potatoes.
Asked how he had learned to present the menu in such speed, Ahmad Faheem who does not look older than thirty-something said he had spent 16 years of his life catering in various Islamabad restaurants, including an Italian and a Mexican one. Having come to Kabul recently, his hopes of opening his own restaurant had been dashed by lack of money and the destruction of his family house during the war.
In spite of the polished performance, there was a touch of sadness on his face and in his eyes which Parvin commented on later, saying she had felt sad for someone so talented not being able to run his own business. However, he was also upset because his daughter’s illness had kept him up overnight and she was still not feeling well. He said he had not been able to find a good doctor and asked us to pray for her ‘as a form of medication’.
Parvin’s sympathy is well placed, but in Ahmad Faheem too I have seen a young Afghan who has overcome traumas that would incapacitate many people in richer countries. As Shappi Khorsandi says in her show, rather than trying to keep the Afghan asylum seekers out, Western countries should invite them in to solve their problems – problems that have defeated Bush, Blair and Berlusconi –three ‘B’s places’ that the likes of Ahmad Faheem could run a lot better.
Speaking of the first two Bs, I’ve just read Kipling’s powerful short story The Man Who Would Be King, which I had already seen as the very good film with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It’s about two Englishmen who con their way around colonial India and then head for eastern Afghanistan’s mountainous Kafiristan [Land of the Unbelievers], renamed Nuristan [Land of Light, after Islamization of the area in 1896]. There, they deceive people into thinking that one them, Dan Dravot (Sean Connery) is a God, and the other, Peachey (Michael Caine) is a high priest of some sort. Using deception and guns they control various villages and tribes in the area and Dravot crowns himself King.
Their fall, with Dravot’s death and Peachey’s mutilated survival, comes when going against Peachey’s warning and local advice, Dravot forces the local people to offer him a young woman as his wife. I won’t give you the details because the story is worth reading or watching, if you have done neither. What I would say is that the tale reminds me of Bush as Dravot and Blair as Peachey. Believing that he had become the King of Afghanistan, with Peachey Blair’s help, George W Dravot decided to take Iraq for a wife, ending up in troubles predicted by many, but not understood by him. Will the current pair suffer the same end? ‘Only time will tell’, as the cliché goes. You can read the story here.
Friday, 6 June 2003
Afghanistan’s new draft constitution was produced a few weeks ago and is now being reviewed by a committee of experts before being voted on by a Loya Jirga in October. Groups of officials have been going round the country and to Afghan communities abroad to ask for their views on the new constitution, without the draft having been published so the public would know what’s in it before they start commenting.
In an interview, a senior official involved in the review process was asked about this. The gentleman said it was not necessary for the public to know everything there was in the draft constitution. All they needed to know about was the type of government and a few other general points. The rest of the details would be taken care of by experts who were, he said, like architects building a house for the nation. They would get the general idea from the ‘owners’ of the property, in this case the Afghan nation, and then plan the structure.
In spite of being described as the ‘owners’ of this new house, it seemed that the public at large were really being regarded as unskilled construction workers who would have to make sure the constitution worked, without knowing much about its content. To be fair, the gentleman said people’s wishes on what they want the new constitution to include were being stored in a computer. They would then be collated and presented to the experts. A fine idea, provided the computers and the people running them do their job properly.
A friend said the other day that test dialing of one mobile from another, each one held in one of the same person’s hands, had produced the following message from the control room of phone company: ‘The number you are dialling is out of reach of the network.’ The conclusion, said the friend, was that ‘we have gotten even computers to lie’.
Two continents away, two senior New York Times editors resigned for having allowed a young reporter, Jayson Blair, write numerous fictitious reports. The young man’s namesake, Tony Blair, has also being accused of having lied to the world at least for about a year. Perhaps the name is in fact Bliar.
Saturday, 7 June 2003
The first thing I don’t need to tell you is that I am alive. The attack on the poor German soldiers’ bus happened about twenty minutes’ drive from where we live and work. The main impact on our lives so far has been that one of our colleagues and her father-in-law were unable to visit her husband who’s in hospital after a car accident yesterday. He is in the same ISAF hospital to which the victims of today’s attack have been taken.
Great demand on resources and tight security meant that no visitors were allowed to see the young man. All we know is that his condition is better than yesterday and that he could be visited tomorrow. All of us at the office are quite concerned for this young couple who came to Afghanistan from Pakistan less than a year ago and married in March.
Workwise, the English language news writing workshop on Saturday mornings is coming along well. Three of the group of six – two women and one man – none of whom were in the habit of reading newspapers when we first met over a month ago, came in with the latest edition of the English/Persian language, Kabul Weekly. Five also had written the assignments I had set for them, and two had typed them. One participant had even had got herself a copy of the Jungle Book following my recommendation of Kipling’s writings. During the session there was some more writing, with results a lot better than the past two sessions. Given a few months, I have no doubt that they could write very good news reports in English.
The afternoon session had to be cancelled because three of the participants had been given urgent reporting assignments. But three others did turn up, including one lady who has been absent from most sessions on account of illness. Their presence was of course partly out of their kindness towards me as a friend, but I am sure the sessions have also meant something to them. The head of television whom I met later said the participants had been pleased with the workshops because for the first time they were hearing technical advice from someone speaking their language and sharing their culture.
For evening entertainment we went to the opening of the Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS) in old Kabul, on the slope of one of the hills in the middle of the city. From the outside, there’s nothing but mud-brick walls, uneven dirt roads, with all sorts of recyclable objects everywhere. The center though is based in a very big and old building of the type still seen in many provincial Iranian cities, with an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’ courtyard and rooms around them. [photos]
The place was covered in all types of flowers with which I grew up: jasmines, eglantines [nastaran], geraniums and a whole spectrum of colours of snapdragon, which we in Iran call the monkey flower, I guess because of the row of tiny flowers on each stem that look like a monkey’s head. There were also exquisite fruit trees including pomegranate, covered in the sharp red flowers that give carpets their distinctive colour, and sour-berries that are still small and look more like some kind of Christmas decoration.
The programme started with a young woman reciting the Qor’an rather tonelessly, which was a shame because this is the type of thing a woman has to do a lot better than men for her to be counted as their equal. There was an opening address by the organiser who thanked the center’s sponsors, including the World Bank, whose support was described as ‘devoid of any impurity’, surely a rare occasion for the Bank to receive such an accolade. The favour was returned by the Bank’s American representative in Afghanistan who gave a brief address in English as well as in colloquial Afghan Persian, with many more emotional phrases than the English version.
The show included a long play about conflict and violence among tribes and suggestions that the application of human rights would eradicate all that. One aim of the play had been to criticise the custom, ‘bad’, according to which should a man kill someone, the killer’s family should give away a daughter of theirs to the victim’s family as compensation. This does happen and causes a lot of strife. So it was a good job to address it.
What was strange, though, was that a centre which proclaims women’s equality as one of its aspirations had only three women in the whole programme that we saw. These included the girl with the unfortunate Qor’an performance, and two women in the play, which had about twenty male actors. Rather than being champions of women’s rights, the two women in the play were powerless victims who spent their time weeping and cursing their fate. The audience was also mostly male, some of whom said they had liked the play.
Where the centre had done a very good job was its exhibition of paintings, photographs and wood carvings. The skills and taste displayed in most of these were remarkable, especially against the background of the Afghan people’s suffering all these years. A very interesting feature of the wood carvings exhibition was the prices of the items, ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to $100,000. I think the high prices had been set really as a moral and political signal, indicating that the artists value their work highly. Should anyone be interested in buying, I believe the prices would drop considerably.
Going through the exhibition, I came across a white board with notes from some kind of a training session about political systems, not necessarily related to the art show or the cultural centre. The topic had been ‘Dictatorship’, with a table listing dictators’ features, habits, style of rule and the public’s response to them. The very last column had as its title: ‘Where are dictators mostly found?’ The answer was: ‘among feudal land-owners and tribal chiefs; in the military; and among the NGOs’. Not very good news for the more than 1,000 NGOs present in Afghanistan, whose effectiveness comes under question every now and again, and who have recently been accused, along with the UN, of having used up 70% of the aid promised to Afghanistan.