Kabulis Question US Motives


Cars are speeding the wrong way around The Great Massood Roundabout – careering headlong towards each other, only to veer off at the last moment in a haze of dust and the blare of horns.

There aren’t many roundabouts in Kabul, so you can forgive drivers for the confusion. However, there isn’t a driving test either, and in this city, you won’t be pulled off the road for not having a windscreen. Afghanistan, you might say, is the Wild East.

Like the driving, life in Kabul is a heady mixture of the unpredictable, the outrageous and the downright pitiful. But it’s difficult not to grow fond of these ingeniously industrious people who are struggling to build some sort of life after 23 years of war.

In a 15-minute walk to work, my cheery “salaam a-laykums” are replied with “hello meester, how are you” from shopkeepers, street-sellers and even the blind beggars who know a good thing when they see it.

There’s the fur dealer, who is always keen to show me the snow leopard pelt he keeps at the back of his shop; the man who sits cross-legged on the pavement delicately cracking a huge pile of almonds with a stone he has fashioned just for the job; and the teenage boys who have a line of 20 brightly polished teapots lined up waiting for thirsty customers.

A photographer waits next to a bulky Edwardian-era contraption, complete with huge black cloth and cocktail of developing chemicals. Children crowd around a basket of freshly-baked cakes and a grease-stained teenager unrolls a grubby cloth at the side of the road that suddenly transforms into his business, a cycle repair shop.

Everywhere, everyone is doing something. Buying, selling, hurrying somewhere. Only the beggars move a little more slowly. There’s no welfare state here so the old, the infirm, the war-damaged and the orphaned rely on handouts from the slightly better off.

Twelve months ago, the news of the staggering events unfolding 6,000 miles away in the United States filtered through these streets just as it did everywhere else in the world. At the time, I was teaching a workshop on Internet journalism in England, while my friend Mohammad Ajmal was at the university students’ hostel in Kabul listening to Voice of America on the radio.

Political analysis was thin on the ground then – as it still is – and it was only when the Americans piled in a month later to drive the Taleban out that Afghans began to realise they were playing a major part in one of the biggest international incidents since the Second World War.

Even now, the significance of their country’s role as the supporter and hiding place of Osama bin Laden is little appreciated. The oft-repeated conspiracy theory here – that the Americans knew about or even set up the events of September 11 – is not just the late-night musings of a few crazies but pretty much the official line from the man on the street.

They feel the US wanted a foothold in Central Asia to keep an eye on Saddam and Iraq to the west, and China to the east, not to mention those nuclear new kids on the block, India and Pakistan. Well, the Americans are here now é but not in any great numbers and not particularly visible.

The majority of us westerners were not here a year ago. It is difficult to imagine life in this bustling, noisy, smelly, mysterious city under the cruel Taleban regime. Only today, I’ve seen kites flying, watched birds in cages, heard some disastrous music blaring out from a shop and watched a group of young mums chatting around a street corner, dressed in a shimmer of colourful veils with their children balanced on their hips.

All such activities were deemed unlawful by the Taleban and strictly prohibited by the feared religious police.

The sparkling blue burqa – probably the West’s biggest single image of life under the Taleban – is still here and still popular among many women, especially older ladies. I’m told they wear it by choice. It’s easy and anonymous, similar to wearing a school uniform and having no worries about sporting the latest designer gear.

My friend Armadjan doesn’t worry about designer clothes either. In fact, he doesn’t worry about much at all. He brings my lunch round in a battered metal dish from his open-air fast food emporium on the pavement behind the aptly named “Magazine De Livers”.

The meal will be meatballs, potatoes and beans in a delicious stew with bread, and a gloopy yoghurt drink if I’m lucky. I’m embarrassed when it comes to paying because all this costs just 14,000 Afghanis. That’s 35 US cents or 23 British pence – peanuts whatever way you look at it.

He has to sell a lot of dinners to bring in anything like the 10 dollars a day that an English-speaking translator can make working for one of the hundreds of international aid organisations dominating Kabul’s more genteel areas.

He smiles a toothy grin as I give him a modest tip – not enough to buy a squirt of washing-up liquid back in Britain – and ask for his help with this article.

In Sarahat – one of the 140 or so newspapers circulating in this city where two thirds of the population cannot read or write – is a gruesome picture of one of the 34 people killed in the car bomb explosion here last week.

Alongside it is a small image of that plane smashing into the side of that New York tower block. I ask if he knows what story either picture tells. He wants to help me. He is my friend. But neither image really registers.

There is washing-up to be done, and Armadjan has moved on. Life goes on in Kabul.

Alan Geere is IWPR’s trainer in Kabul. This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/.