Alive in Kabul
I have experienced here a feeling
that is not as common these days as I'd like, and it is hope
By Roozbeh Shirazi
June 21, 2004
For the next few weeks, I will be living and working in Kabul,
Afghanistan. I was drawn here for many reasons, some professional,
and some personal. Regardless of the reasons, I believe that this
experience will not let me leave the country unchanged. Built and
named after the site of a small straw bridge that once stood here
long ago (Kah Pol, or Straw Bridge) modern Kabul does not seem
to have glamorous parts; many of the buildings are in ruins, half-built
or half-destroyed, I cannot tell >>> See photos
Still, my colleagues told me that at least in the airport, there
seemed to be greater stability and more order than the last time
they were here, though the queue at the customs office suggested
anything but that. Conspicuous foreigners were picked out by Afghan
customs officers or by the Canadian soldier who patrolled the terminal
to a special line, including two of my coworkers and Geraldo Rivera,
with whom I had a brief and interesting conversation. To
my delight and later social benefit, I was not easily identified
as a foreigner, and so remained in line avoiding the clamoring
luggage porters working the foreigners.
Foreigners are everywhere. Germans, French, Americans, and others
have opened schools and other development projects here and there
is a visible and vibrant aid-worker culture in Kabul, complete
with some leafy green
hideaways where one can have a pizza, drink
a beer, and hear young ex-pat idealists and cynics trade stories
and come to similar conclusions; being in Afghanistan is intense.
I am here to work with the Ministry of Education on literacy
curriculum development through UNICEF and my school. Looking out
window of the Ministry of Education five floors above, the streets
of Kabul look alive. People, cars, buses, and carts noisily and
seamlessly weave through each other, miraculously defying death,
collision, and chaos in the absence of traffic lights.
thoroughfare looks like DNA coiling as U.N. SUVs, taxis, and buses
double helix through each other on their way to nowhere. A loud
speaker blares the traffic police's ignored directives while
drivers load and unload their passengers and cargo seemingly anywhere
they wish, including in the middle of the intersection.
Everything here is the color of dust, even the trees blend into
the landscape of soft browns, tans, and yellows. Streets are walled,
giving homes the privacy desired to act as one wants. Occasionally
you walk by an open door and meet the eyes of someone you are
not intended to look upon, or see a splash of violent green
from gardens and grapevines in these courtyards. Women no longer
universally wear the burka, but the infamous garment has far from
disappeared-I have yet to see a woman's head uncovered outdoors.
Most of the women you see outside appear young. Men walk hand
in hand under gigantic posters of the late guerrilla leader Ahmad
Shah Massoud, the heat of the
sun is dry and exhausting and even the fruit in vendors' stalls
look thirsty. Absent from schools, children here sell cigarettes,
to weigh you, and even volunteer to serve as
your guides and guards.
Assault rifles are as common here as cell
phones are in New York City; I have counted over one hundred
in the week I have spent here. The lack of Western bathrooms, and
with them soft toilet paper and other luxurious goods are but
small part of all the things here that make you realize that
your American shit does indeed stink, and seeing your life's privilege
here humbles you.
This city is alive, congested,
and somehow still cosmopolitan despite 23 years of war, bombings,
and strict curfew. Much of the
has been carved into the mountains running through it, which
has the effect of making Kabul stretch endlessly into the horizon.
Long and heavily guarded convoys of soldiers
in armored vehicles steam through town; they are the only ones who look unhappy
and tense to me.
Though the movement of foreign workers is restricted, I have
had some opportunities to see Kabul beyond the panes of automobile
and building windows. One does not get a sense of conflict and
strife walking through the bazaars of the city; vendors hawk their
wares against the sounds of Indian
pop music, Googoosh, and traffic
from the street. Kabobs, spices, doogh, and piles of fresh bread
all capture and dazzle your eye as you walk through the street.
People have been only friendly, and very welcoming to me, happy
that I speak Farsi well considering that I was born in the United
States and do not seem to have ulterior motives for befriending
To me Afghans seem more straightforward than Iranians,
and have a great penchant for spontaneous laughter in our conversations,
to an extent caused by my mistakes when speaking Farsi. Still,
making mistakes is the best way to learn from them, and I feel
my Farsi improving dramatically because I have had to translate
abstract concepts and professional terminology, forcing me to have
to make culturally appropriate analogies to convey my points and
purchase a Farsi-English dictionary for when I don't.
My Afghan colleagues challenge and inspire me - the UNICEF team
has come to help them develop new textbooks and pedagogical practices,
but it is me who is learning so much in my discussions with them.
We have different opinions about how to achieve certain objectives
and often our most emphatic points are lost in translation, but
we share the goal that these materials should be reflective of
Afghan ideas and culture, not prescribed from outside, and help
move the country forward from its turbulent past.
It is too early for me to say what I feel or how I think about
the country, but I can say the conversations I have enjoyed the
most have been with a young Afghan colleague of mine at the Ministry
of Education who is my age and lived in Iran for twenty years before
returning to Afghanistan. We enjoy discussing the differences between
Afghan and Iranian cultures, the similarities of our histories,
and stories of each other's childhoods. Most of all, we have
discovered despite our different personal histories, we have a
talent more making each other laugh, and we are making our relationship
more personal and less formal.
I have experienced here a feeling
that is not as common these days as I'd like, and it is hope. Despite
the setbacks, the political
intrigues, the unclear role of coalition forces in stabilizing
the country, despite the violence, poverty, and limited resources
for continuing our work, I have hope that things will improve.
Over the last few days, different people have asked me here what
Americans think of Afghanistan and what they want to happen here.
I have told them that there are many opinions among the American
people, and it still was not clear to me what America ultimately
wants in Afghanistan.
Sitting down and writing this a few days
after those conversations, I hope that Americans will understand
we have a responsibility here, and it is not to tell these people
what to do or occupy their country; it is to enable them to rebuild
and restore their homeland. And I hope that, upon understanding
that responsibility, that the citizens of the United States will
hold their government accountable for its actions >>> See photos
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