2012
05.21

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE LIMITS OF MY NEW WORLD AND THE BABY-STEPS BEYOND:  A VISIT TO THE GOETHE INSTITUTE AND THE SUPERMARKET AND A DINNER OUT.

It isn’t so much a bomb attack you would have to fear in Kabul these days but the kidnapping.  A visibly foreign woman like me should not walk the streets without anyone accompanying her and certainly not any time after dark, really, after 6 PM.  That seems the protocol around here for visitors and NGO’s.  Since I booked my tour with ALT, I need to abide by their rules:  I can go out, but I will be driven and picked up everywhere I go (and that costs, of course).  ALT seems to have a good reputation around here.  The taxi drivers at the airport were delighted to hear that I was taken care of by ALT, and two more people confirmed this.   Muqim started out less than ten years ago with three old cars which he fixed and maintained all by himself.  Today, he is running quite an operation, over 15 brand-new vehicles, and quite a fleet of drivers, mechanics, and administrators.  He provides transportation and escorts, and a lot more than that.  The heart of the group is the four brother-team Muqim, Wahid, Najid and Mubin, my future guide, whom I have not yet met.

I have been in the ALT compound for nearly 24 hours and it is agonizing.  My view through the window is through a mesh of wires and for a broader view, I can go to the roof-top.  The internet was down for the last day and only up for about an hour today (after many hours of “fixing”), and then only intermittently.  I am going stir-crazy.  The reason I got here so early is that my flight from Tashkent only goes a couple of times per week.  It was either getting here early or exhausted and late.

Forming initial opinions about a new country based on trash, smoke, traffic and women will put Afghanistan towards the bottom.  Ann in one of her comments rightly put food on the list and I have to say, I am spoiled rotten from Uzbekistan.  Two weeks, and with the exception of Nukus, I got delicious and lovingly prepared breakfasts:  the soft round Uzbek bread with jam, butter, some lunch meat and cheese. Little dishes of joghurt, or sweet rice, fermented and curdled mare’s milk, a fried egg and perhaps, a few dried apricots.  All of this comes with either green or black tea.  The tea was neither green nor black and for my taste always on the weak side, but that would be my only complaint. Two weeks of soup and there was not one day when I did not get a filling, interesting, and wonderful meal.  Except for Nukus, where I had the same soup two days in a row, I had a different kind of soup the entire time.  I don’t know any of their names, but they were prepared with care, full of healthy ingredients and delicious.  And the plov dinner I had in the desert was phenomenal.  Overall, Uzbek cuisine is on the mild side.  I was reminded of that when on the Air India flight I was served a typically Indian, spicy cauliflower dish.  But Uzbek food was never bland or boring; just not hot-spicy.

And now Afghanistan:  There are no food shortages, but the sticky, plain rice dish I had last night was nothing in comparison with the plov in Uzbekistan.  And the bread, for breakfast; just forget it!  It was dry and came with a plain yoghurt dish, a hard-boiled egg and an apple.  There was nothing to put on the bread and there was no love in the preparation either.  I would have thought of this as perhaps just an isolated incident, had I not heard from Thomas at the Goethe Institute that he has already suffered through 6 weeks of horrible breakfasts.  It’s just not part of the culture, I guess.  I will hold overall judgment after traveling through the country.  Perhaps, it’s different in the rural areas.

I was looking for a destination which would not take away from the itinerary that will start on my official tour tomorrow:  I figured the Goethe Institute would be a great place to start to see how a cultural institution operates, perhaps, make some connections, and meet some people.  I asked to be taken there.

What Kabul looked like in earlier years, I will never know.  But it has become a fortified city with walled-in and barb-wired compounds.  Many walls have just recently been erected out of movable parts.  The Berlin Wall was once made in similar segments.  The wall between Israel and Palestine is built like it.  And Iraq is certainly full of it. It’s the same building block principle everywhere.  You can cover vulnerable openings like windows and doors quickly.  You can reinforce flimsy walls; and most importantly, you can create narrow zigzag corridors which are nearly impossible to overtake unless you come with super tanks.  The Goethe Institute is housed just behind such a wall.  I had to pass three check-points.  After I snapped three undetected pictures between check point one and two, I promptly had to surrender my camera.  My bag was inspected three times, and I had to cross security doors like in an airport.  Once inside the compound, you are in a different world.  There is a friendly house with class-rooms, offices, and lecture halls.  There is a lovely garden to sit in and even a little shop.  You are shielded from the street noise and might as well be on another planet!

First, I met Nasser, a young Afghan.  I explained that I was a teacher and curious to find out how life in Kabul is for an institution like the Goethe Institute.  He was happy to answer.   There are about 400 students (down from the over 1000, years ago) who study German mainly to emigrate to Germany.  Lectures and cultural programs are organized by the about 25 staff members of the institute.  Only two of the people who work there are native Germans; the others are Afghans.  I asked if I could sit in on the class in progress, but unfortunately, they were about to write a test.  That would have been a bit too boring.  Instead, I met Thomas, one of the native Germans.  He has been in Kabul for only 6 weeks of his 6 month contract.

He was the one who not only complained about his breakfast, but made a systemic point:  Life in Kabul is hugely expensive.  And because there are few alternatives, the people who run the expensive operations like guest houses, do not have to pay any attention to service.  Changing a broken light-bulb can take 6 days; a broken bed may never be fixed, etc.  But he felt that walking around Kabul, even as a foreigner is quite possible.  The odds of being kidnapped are still (overall) low.   We agreed on meeting again in two weeks, Nasser, Thomas, and I – to see how I experienced the rest of Afghanistan on my tour and for me to see if I would be daring enough to go out with them.  I was very happy to have met them.  This kind of local connection was just exactly what I had hoped for.

I had to call the driver again, to take me back.  Not only is Kabul a city of fortifications, it is also a city of beggars.  I saw more beggars in a 10 minute car drive than I saw in Uzbekistan the entire time.  No wonder, the war must have impoverished hundreds of thousands of people.  But it is hard to drive through desolation like this knowing how privileged I am.  In Uzbekistan, most people certainly were not rich.  But the poverty there did not translate into desolation or dehumanizing lives; here it does.

The contrast became even clearer when I asked to stop at a supermarket:  I passed the obligatory armed guard, entered a narrow dusty corridor, went up a few steps and found myself in a spic and span clean Western, fully stocked boutique-style grocery store!  This felt like going to the Intershop in East Germany (for those of you who may have lived through those days).   The owner of the store, behind the cashier’s desk welcomed me proudly.  “We did not have shops like this long ago”, he explained.  “I have had this for 5 years”.  He wanted his picture taken and then gave me as a present a few coins, hard to come by small Afghan bank notes – as a souvenir!  That was a fun experience even though I would have preferred the dusty old local grocery store at the corner every ordinary Afghan would go to, not the upper-class elite one.  But I guess, I will have many more chances.

In the evening, Maya and Huria, the two women on my floor went out for dinner to an Indian Restaurant.  They allowed me to come along.  At one point, we lost our way and there was a bakery shop with beautifully presented breads.  I went out to photograph it and Maya got very worried about me since cars were slowing down when I stood there, waiting my turn to get back in the car.  There is a level of anxiety and worry that is surprising.  I did not see anything dangerous in the situation, but Huria, as a native Afghan woman certainly knows better.  We had a fun evening chatting.  Both of these women had interesting lives and careers.  I wish I had more time to find out about Huria’s past.  I think she has experienced horrible things in this country.  But I did not feel right to ask too many questions.

These were the baby-steps I took today to venture out of my ALT compound.  Now it’s back to the confinement of my compound and a non-working internet.  After all that fixing this morning…

The weather is pleasant enough.  I might enjoy another cup of tea on the rooftop, listen to the muezzin calling from the mosque which is just a stone’s-throw away.  I might watch the turbaned men walking around in a garden across the street, or see the citadel at night.  I have a view of two old looking fortress-like structures.  If I had any idea where I am, I might be able to figure out what they are.

And I will have to watch my computer battery.  Three electric shut-downs have drained me already and you can’t be sure there will be enough time to recharge.  I am, after all, in Afghanistan.  That anything works surprises me.  And much of the infrastructure seems to work, most of the time, somehow.  There is as much gurgling and hissing in the lines as there is water.  There is water at times, but not at others – as the electric shutdowns also disable the water pumps.  But there is life in the streets and on the hills.  There is a surprising sense of normalcy.  Something that struck me like this last year in Baghdad as well.  People are resilient!

And from this long blog you can tell that I have little else to do.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. This is so scary and sad – from the barbed wire , to kidnapping, to simple safety at walking in the streets, to beggars everywhere, to trash. I can recall how I despised myself for being so rich as I walked though little huts made of cardboard and scraps in the Philippines – it is not a good feeling. Will we ever realized how precious this earth and every human being is?

  2. P.S. I love the photo “fixing the internet”. Just like here, right down to take off the shoes and let’s make everything really hard to get to. lol

  3. The conditions you describe in Kabul…I guess I am not surprised at them…yet to hear them described in detail by someone I know, someone who is right there, is quite shocking. Talk about the ends of the earth!!! Knowing you, I think you will find interesting things to see and do as the environment feels more familiar. But please, Elisabeth, use that very good brain of yours to weigh the risk-reward ratio of opportunities you encounter. Some may simply be too risky and not worth what you would get from them. I’m glad you have your pantheon with you.