Saturday, 28 November 2009

Butchering Sacred Cows

It’s Eid in Kabul. The city has shut down.  Locals head to mosque, then home to their families.  American expats are celebrating Thanksgiving; the rest of us are simply enjoying a long weekend.  When the two groups do cross paths, Afghan kids have been known to light firecrackers behind the feet of unsuspecting Westerners before running off giggling, leaving the foreigner, shocked and alarmed, to quickly search for cover from what can only be assumed to be incoming fire.

At the Indonesian embassy Rock'n'Roll classics are butchered by way of karaoke.  Outside, cows and goats are ritualistically slaughtered for the holiday.

Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, is one of the few countries that has maintained a diplomatic presence in Kabul throughout Afghanistan’s turbulent past.

Situated next to the embattled Indian embassy, the Indonesians don’t need to be reminded of the importance of upholding the appearance of neutrality in Afghanistan’s pugnacious politics.  Picking up stray body parts off the embassy tennis courts leaves a powerful impression.

But like the Indians, the Indonesians know all too well the threat of Islamic terrorism and can ill-afford to remain completely impartial on the topic of Afghanistan.  For the moment, however, there are painfully fresh kebabs and a harmonized "More Than Words" guitar sing-along to contend with.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bristling Bureaucracy

My second week has been spent trying to navigate Kabul's bureaucracy. What I thought was a six month visa, purchased at the accordant price, now appears to be valid for only one. I have two weeks to exit the country.

Working strictly from hearsay, the only apparent source of information here in Kabul, I can now either fly to Dubai and brave the lines at the embassy, armed with a convincing yarn on why I am deserving of the scarce commodity that is the six month multiple entry visa. Alternatively, I can work towards finding a trusted Afghan fixer who can work the system and, for a modest fee, secure any visa.

Most firms here have dedicated staff to resolve such issues. As a freelancer I'm left to rely on the kindness of others or fend for myself. From what I've gathered a successful freelance journalist cannot be above the transparent calling-in of favors or even the forging of official documents.

On a recent mission to scour the streets of Kabul for a cheap iPhone, my companion, an Afghan of few words and gentle features, explained that Kafkaesque bureaucracy is nothing new to this country. Under the Taliban he was forced to wear a beard of at least eight centimeters. Erring on the side of caution he kept it at ten. Looking back at pictures as a bearded 29 year old, he thinks the facial hair added at least ten years. For the first two months the beard constantly itches but then you get used to it, he says. Sleeping was difficult though, the whiskers tickling at your face and neck. Now clean-shaven and baby-faced, he doesn’t plan to sport a beard until at least 50. Apparently a gray beard in Afghanistan is license to make your own rules.


Monday, 16 November 2009

Quick Compartmentalization

I'm approaching my first week here in Kabul. It's been filled with all the expected first impressions of a foreign conflict zone: the layers of military security and precautionary protocol; the motley crew of bacchanalian expats, myself among them; romantic notions of Afghanistan's storied past, rugged terrain, defiant people.

Coming from a nugget of truth, cliches serve as a shorthand and ought not be dismissed outright. But it's still worth being mindful not to slip into these the well-trodden pitfalls without at least of bit of resistance.

This week's evenings have been spent meeting dozens of aid workers, diplomats and journalists, and a few elusive security contractors. The days on learning how to navigate the city enough to feed myself and exerting mental energy on figuring out exactly how I'm supposed to make rent. It's going to take some time to understand exactly what's going on here, how things function, and who's who.

While still getting settled, events continue without me. A military convoy was bombed Friday morning (a friend said he heard his windows rattle), only a few days ahead of President Karzai's inauguration this week. I'm told most of the city will be even more locked down than usual for the event. Offices will be closed, roadblocks will choke the city, foreign staff's mobility will be restricted to a few secured locations and curfews are to be tightened. Still without a presspass, I'll likely be doing the same.

Monday, 9 November 2009


On the 20th anniversary of the seminal political event of my lifetime--my earliest political memory at that--I'm off to what is arguably the location where the chain of events that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall was first set in motion. Read into it what you will.