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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 from the 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.

The main 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, newspapers, offer 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 a 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 city 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 me. 

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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By Roozbeh Shirazi



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