2012
06.19

SYNOPSIS:  WHAT DAY IS IT?!  DEPARTURE AND FINAL REFLECTIONS

“But your flight is tomorrow!”   Said the clerk behind the desk after looking and looking at the computer forever, which had already made me wonder what the heck was wrong.  Tomorrow…  I guess, that said it all.  I just had enough of Afghanistan, so much that subconsciously I had departed a day early talking myself into believing it was the right day.  “Man cheli moshkel hastam!” I replied (something like “I am such a problem!” even though it was grammatically completely wrong, of course)  “Moshkel niest”.  The clerk assured me that it was much better to be a day early than a day late.  He asked if I wanted to change my flight, but I was in no mood to throw good money after bad and asked him for a standby.  If there was no room, I could always go back.  But everything worked out very nicely.  The plane had at least 20 empty seats and without any further trouble at the desk, I was able to fly today.

Except that a few minutes before departure another clerk frantically ran from one foreign woman to another in the waiting hall, asking for their names.   When he came to me, he had found what he was looking for:  Trouble with my luggage!  I knew what it was.  I had taken a chance.  I got away with it in Iraq but it looked like I was busted now…  I had picked up several empty ammunition containers here and there, wrapped them nicely into toilet paper, and intended to take them home as classroom-material.  They had passed two checks already.  But now no begging helped.   A report was filed and I had to give them up.  Thankfully, I made the flight.

I had no idea if I could make my two other connections one day early, but I did not care.  I was happy to move on and leave Kabul behind me.  I had no money to afford another day with a driver, and in Kabul I had seen what I wanted.  I took stock:

I think of traveling on three different levels.  Most people travel as tourists.  As a tourist you want to have fun, experience something new, and enjoy yourself on your time off.  Typically, I think of myself as a traveler.  The touristy fun is a nice byproduct, but not the main reason I am going out into the world.  I want to learn, broaden my horizon, and I don’t mind some hardship to get there.  And finally, I travel as a teacher.  When I travel and take pictures, I constantly think of how to use the experience or image in a lecture or in the classroom.   What “point” can I make, what does this exemplify?  How does it help me to make sense of this world; what can I tell my students.

If I assess Afghanistan under these three aspects, I have to say that it was a complete touristic failure.  I cannot even think of another country that would rank this low.  I can’t blame Afghanistan for it.  It has been through so much!  I cannot blame Afghani Logistics & Tours (ALT) either.  They were a professional bunch from the top down; helpful and generous under the circumstances we had, without exception.  But if anyone wants to hear my opinion:  If you think of yourself as a tourist (even an adventurous one like Neil), forget Afghanistan.  Wait and see how the situation will change after 2014.  If things get better, if the roads open up, if the worthwhile sites that are left become accessible again, this country has quite a bit to offer.  For now, it is not ready.  It is not worth your money and your time unless you want to be reckless and risk your life.

From a traveler’s perspective, I saw a lot.  In fact, I met several people who are stationed here and in some cases have been here for several years.  I have seen more than they ever have or will.  I did learn about a part of the world that is inaccessible even more than Iran to most of us, particularly us civilian Americans.  I know that what I saw and learned made me richer as a person.  I am grateful for that.

And from a teacher’s perspective, this trip was at least a partial success.  I come home empty-handed as far as all the major UNESCO or historical sites are concerned, but I come with insights into the daily life of the Afghans, some of their personal stories, some of their hardships.  I know I will put this to good use in the classroom one way or another, sooner or later.

Would I go again?  Only if I have a guarantee to see Guldara, Bamiyan, and the Minaret of Jam.  Would I have booked this tour knowing what I know now?  The answer has to be a categorical “no”.  With the money I had to spend on 20 days in Afghanistan, I could have financed 60-80 days in another country.  I know that the benefit of that (no matter what country I would have visited) would have outweighed the benefits of what I bring back from Afghanistan.

But then…  putting it into a ten year global perspective:  Afghanistan was a “must do”.  It rounded up the picture I now have of the Middle East and Central Asia.  It put the icing on the cake of a ten-year travel mission which I consider for now completed.    Of course, Saudi Arabia is still open…

But for now, I will turn my way to Southeast Asia and the Far East.  Tune in for more travel adventures next May.  I am sure I will be on my way again to somewhere.  In Shahallah.

And so the glass is still half full.

I thank my pantheon which guided me through all of this safely and without any problems.

Good night.

P.S.  Because of my early arrival, I got stuck in Turkey for a day which “forced” me to spend a lovely evening in the Old City of Istanbul.  I had dinner at a beautiful garden restaurant, had a beer, took public transportation, roamed the hippodrome and the bazaar without my head scarf, and realized once again how privileged we are in half of the world.  Life is not fair.

2012
06.14

SYNOPSIS:  A WILD GOOSE CHASE TO FIND THE GULDARA STUPA.  THE LAST SUPPER WITH THOMAS AND NASSER AND A LOOK INTO THE EXPAT SCENE OF KABUL.  A LONG BLOG WITH MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.  FOR SPECIAL INTERESTS ONLY.  NOT WORTH READING FOR ANYONE IN A HURRY.

By the time the three of us sat down for a late lunch in the afternoon, exhausted and sweaty from seven hours of a useless search, I was in tears.  I could feel how my nose got red and my face puffed up as the tears started to roll.  Navo, the lanky, tall driver and Shirin, my stocky “gun” looked away, uncomfortably playing with their food, not knowing what to do with me now.  They had tried so hard, but we had been doomed to fail from the get-go.

It all started yesterday when at the Kabul Museum, I saw a full-sized wall picture of a Buddhist Stupa I had studied under my beloved Professor Kane years earlier at the University of Michigan.  I recognized it instantly and I had listed it on my original wish list for sites to visit in Afghanistan:  The Stupa of Guldara.   The confusion started immediately.  I asked the guard on duty if the stupa depicted was still standing.  I thought I made myself perfectly clear with the few appropriate words at my disposal:  Aks pier?  Aks yavonne?  Stupa chub?  Kudjost?  Is this an old or a recent picture?  Is the stupa all right?  Where is it?  The guard seemed to indicate that the stupa was leveled.  When I dragged her to a nearby map to determine the location of the stupa it became clear that she was illiterate.  She had no idea where this building was, nor could she read the map, nor had she ever seen it.  But a nearby officer, busy with the two important British ladies pointed to the map instead:  According to the map, this place was south of Kabul, not far at all!

To get more reliable information, I approached the office of the Museum Curator.  A nice woman behind the desk was happy to tell me that the stupa was well and standing and that the picture was indeed quite recent.  Not only that, only two days earlier, some museum staff members had visited the site and one of them entered the office as we spoke!  He confirmed:  The stupa was standing and accessible and in his assessment safe enough for a visit.  It was also reachable within a day.  What was I waiting for?!   The curator told me that the stupa was near Charikar.  But that was north of Kabul…  I was confused.  That was the road I had traveled so many times, I did not even want to count anymore.  Why had Mubin kept this from me?!  Why was I at Istalif, or Charikar when there was Guldara!?

Back at the ALT office, I confronted Mubin and put my foot down for the first time:  I showed him the picture of the stupa, explained how important it was for me, and requested a car for the next day including a driver who knew his way to the site, and all of this without charge.  Bamiyan had been skipped; this should have been its replacement.  The only acceptable replacement in fact; not picnics, not Istalif, not Charikar.  The museum staff had been there recently; it was safe, it was accessible, and I was going.  End of discussion.  ALT owed me.  I inquired why on earth he had not included this in the itinerary in the first place.

One of Mubin’s talents is to tell stories when he wants to avoid an uncomfortable answer.  He is good at that and the stories he has up his sleeves are usually entertaining and delivered in true theatric fashion, like this one:  A very mean police officer is in charge of Guldara and gave him and a group of clients a lot of hassle the last time he had gone there.  The details of the exchange with the officer started to drag on and I had to cut him off:  if that was the problem, I would take my chances.  Just give me the car and a knowledgeable driver and that by 9 AM.  Everything else would be my problem.  Was there anything else I needed to know?   Any wisdom, he could share about this monument?  No.

And that’s how Navo and I started out this morning.  I had tried to consult online resources to find out more about the stupa and its current status.  The sources online could not agree any more than the map with the curator at the museum.  Some put the stupa north, some south of Kabul.   I could not make any sense of it.   I had to trust the driver.  In typical Mubin fashion, he had decided one more thing without consulting me:  Shirin, “my gun” was to be picked up on the way for extra security.  If ALT would pick up the pay, I had no reason to object.

And so we came to pick up Shirin, on his day off at a small police checkpoint on the main road.  He showed up without a gun, in a fine, white traditional shawal-e-kamiz.  As a former mujahedin he is known in the valley and Mubin must have figured that he could put in a good word for me when needed and that I would be better off with two men, gun or not.  I almost felt that I had more chances playing the dumb tourist, pushing both my German nationality (Afghans light up when Germans or French come their way) and my “teacher” button, but Mubin got it his way.  I could not hurt.

We turned into the valley only 15 km outside of Kabul.  That seemed a bit too soon, but what do I know?  Navo and Shirin both assured me that we were going the right way.  Within a few more kilometers we came to the police station described so dreadfully by Mubin.  A friendly officer checked my passport, wrote down my name and my father’s name (just like at the Panjshir Valley) and wished us farewell.  Was that the end to the hurdle?!  I had to wonder how many other decisions Mubin had based on bad stories from long ago.  In Afghanistan one thing is clear:  Security issues change like the weather.  What was dangerous yesterday could be fine tomorrow; but it also worked the other way around.

We wound our way up into a picturesque valley, alongside a river, drove through walled in vineyards and past small mud-brick homes.  Eventually, a plaza opened up with a few shops.  That must have been the heart of Guldara.  And on we went along a bumpy one lane dirt road with little more traffic than our car and a few donkeys carrying loads of grass, wood, and other equipment.

My mind drifted.  If I could see Guldara, the whole trip would be redeemed; the loss of Bamiyan would be offset.  Guldara is the best preserved stupa and monastic complex in all of Afghanistan.  As a reminder of the region’s Buddhist past, it is most likely as interesting as Bamiyan, especially since the giant Buddhas and sites such as Hadda have been destroyed by age-old fighting and the Taliban.

Guldara is ancient.  4th Century AD easily, perhaps even older.  The stupa has a drum faced with Greco-Bactrian columns and is a testimony to the cultural and intellectual exchanges that took place along the Silk Road.  Two stupas are at the site and several cells around a courtyard from the adjacent monastic complex.  I got so excited.  To walk in professor Kane’s footsteps was the original impetus for this trip. To finally see at least one of the monuments and how it had changed since she had been here more than 30 years ago would be just so, so special!

We reached a small widening in the road and definitely the end of all drivable territory.  A narrow footpath led us out of the village and into the mountains.  A man passed us who looked like some sort of authority.  In typical Afghani fashion the three of them greeted each other as if they were old friends, exchanging pleasantries.  But my two guys did not look too happy after he parted:  According to the man (the local veterinarian), there were Kuchies (gypsies) out here and the Taliban was about 10 km away.  Do gypsies attack, I asked?  No.  Then let’s go.  We went and went and went.  I knew the monastery was outside the village, but I did not know how far.  We were walking through rolling hills covered with vegetation but I knew the stupa sat on a barren hill.  Where were the barren hills?  How far, I inquired?  We don’t know, was the answer!  What?

It turned out that neither Navo nor Shirin had ever been at this site!  Mubin told me that he would give me a knowledgeable driver.   What on earth did he think that meant?!   Now we all got a bit worried, especially since there was no more phone service.  We could not call Mubin for clarification of the way.  Two clueless men had passed us with their donkeys.  I had shown them my digital picture of the stupa.  Kujost?  Where is this?  They did not know.  How could they not know?!  They may not know the significance of this monument, but they live here.  They must have seen this, for god’s sake!

At some point we decided to turn around.  Just about then, two more sophisticated looking men approached us – thank goodness; somebody to ask who might know something!  But they were not here to answer questions.  They had come to fetch us!  Word had gotten around in the village that three strangers were on a hike that made no sense.  These were two plain-clothed officers that had been sent after us.  Warnings of kidnappings had been issued in the area since some of the kuchies had started to collaborate with the Taliban.

I am worth a minimum of $100,000 to any criminally minded person scrupulous enough to deliver me to the Taliban.  To the Taliban I am worth a minimum of $500,000 but more likely close to a million.  Or I am just a nice “picnic” for them, as Mubin joked around once in a while, a foreigner to be killed…  What are you doing here?  I showed the men my picture…  They looked at each other bewildered.   They had never heard of the stupa of Guldara.  What are you doing here?!  Didn’t we hear about the warnings?  Well, sort of…  Driver and gun were visibly relieved by the arrival of this guard and with the two-officer escort we retraced our steps back to the village.  That had not worked out so well.  What next?

We drove past the police station.  Why did you not ask them for help, I inquired?  They don’t know.  Really?  It is not their responsibility. Really?  Just like Mubin, Shirin and Navo made up the weirdest excuses at times.  I did not get it.  Let’s call the Kabul museum.  They know.  OK, it’s a plan.  But we had no number…  Let’s call the ALT dispatch.  Let them find out the number.  OK, why not.   Mubin was not there…  The dispatch did not know how to get the number…

By now we had reached the main road again:  Square one, where we had picked up Shirin this morning, next to a small checkpoint.  Both Shirin and Navo were on the phone simultaneously now, explaining the situation to various dispatches at the office.  Finally, Mubin surfaced at the other end of the line.  He started to tell his story about the mean policeman again!   Stop it!  Please get me the Kabul Museum’s phone number!   Come back to Kabul, go to the museum and get the information face to face, was his response. He must be kidding!  That’s a 45 minute drive.  For god’s sake get me a phone number!  The atmosphere got tense, but after losing contact, after valuable minutes waiting, after even more minutes calling and recalling, we had two phone numbers for the Kabul museum.    Thank goodness.  Now, let’s call them.

Navo did and talked and talked and talked and then hung up.  What did he say?  He had gotten some engineer at the museum?  Somebody who had never heard of Guldara?  Geez!  Why did you not ask for somebody else or ask for another phone number or somebody who can speak English!?  Navo called again.  No answer.   We waited.  He called again.  No answer.  We were still at square one…  Call the other number!

Navo did and talked and talked and talked and then hung up.  What did he say?  This time, he had gotten the director of the museum!  That man knew exactly what we were talking about.  He told Navo that he needed to go to the Ministry of Culture and Information and get a permit to visit Guldara and a guide and all.  Why did you not let me talk to him?   This man obviously did not understand that we are on the road and don’t care about permits.  We need to know which village we need to go to!  We are in the wrong village, don’t you get this?!!  We need information, not a lecture!!  Where is this damned stupa?!

Not knowing the language and constantly being at the end of the information flow certainly took its toll on me.  Shirin and Navo were trying hard.  But their communication skills were limited and their knowledge of the site, zero.  We had been up and down a very bumpy road in vain.  We had been hiking for miles for nothing.  But at least they were not giving up.  I needed to be kind.  Please, let’s call the Kabul Museum again.  The director knows, but I need to talk to him in English, OK?

Navo called again.  No answer.  We waited.  He called again.  No answer.  And still, we were at square one.  Shortly after, Shirin came running to the car.  He had been on the phone with who-knows-whom and a boy overheard him.  The boy knew!  Shirin showed him my picture and the boy confidently pointed to a hill across the street.  There it is!  I was impressed.  A bit earlier, we had picked up a teacher and given her a ride.  She had never heard of the Guldara stupa before nor did she recognize my picture.  But the boy knew…  This was too good to be true.  With renewed energy we took off following the boy’s directions.  All my hopes resurged.  This was going to work out after all!

We crossed the street, went into the village and all of a sudden everyone knew.  We were pointed in a seemingly consistent direction.  A local man even offered to lead us on his motorbike.  The mountains were bare over here.  We were near!  The man’s destination however, seemed questionable.  But confidently, he led us up a pass, towards a sandy hill, arriving and proudly pointing at it:  The Dragons’ Caves!  Dragon?  I shook my head.  There was a cave, but give me a break!  It looked nothing like my picture.  What was he thinking?  Does anyone around here know the difference between Buddhas and Dragons?!  But the man did not give in.  There was more.  The real thing was on the next hill.  Just another 20 minute hike.  This could not possibly be right!  But did we have a choice?

Can we please call the Kabul Museum again?  Please?!  Whenever anyone was listening to what I had to say, I repeated my plea:  Let’s call the Kabul Museum!   But by now we had lost the phone signal again.  On another hike we went and of course, there were more “dragon” sand hills at the end but not a sign of a stupa.  For Pete’s sake, did you tell these people we are looking for a BUDDHIST STUPA?!  Buddhist!

It dawned on me that neither Nova nor Shirin would have a clue what a Buddhist Stupa is.  In all their efforts to get the locals to assist, I have no idea what they even told them we were looking for.  My picture was clear but in their eagerness to help, every local who directed us was seeing what they wanted to see and pointed us to what they were familiar with.  It was much better to give us wrong directions than to admit ignorance.  What a total mess this was.  Can we please, please call the Kabul Museum?!

After another futile hike to the next hill of dragon caves we turned around.  And once again, we found ourselves at square one, the little checkpoint at the main road.  The officers there now took notice and seemed perplexed about our return visits.  They came to the car and got to hear the whole story from my two trusted men.  They took great interest in my picture and then my two men and the two officers started to scan the hills, wrinkling their foreheads, and finally, a light-bulb went off!  Fingers were pointed and the excitement mounted!  It’s up there!

Up there?  That’s where we started at 9 AM in the morning.  It was 3 PM by now.  But sure enough, Navo and Shirin insisted on heading back up the valley.  And so we wound our way up a second time into the picturesque valley, alongside the river, drove through walled in vineyards and passed small mud-brick homes…  I was too drained to protest.  What the hell.  The day was gone.  Again, we reached the police station with the friendly police officer who already had all my data.  He too, was perplexed to see us a second time.  Now, we showed my stupa picture to anyone who was willing to look.   And from former mujahedin to current police, about 5 men now scanned the mountains, wrinkled their foreheads and pointed fingers…  But no more light bulbs went off.

The verdict was:  There is no such thing.  One mujahed had once walked the entire valley to Bamiyan.  He had seen everything between here and there.  And now he acted as the acknowledged authority.  One mujahedin story must have led to another; the men laughed and had good time when it began to sink in:  I will not see the Guldara Stupa.  This was an utterly and senselessly wasted day!

We returned to square one, the little checkpoint next to the main road.  I finally reached the director of the Kabul museum and in English explained to him that I was a scholar from abroad who was trying to find the Guldara Stupa. I needed to know the name and coordinates of the village near which the famous stupa was located:  It was 22 miles south of Kabul.  It was Guldara in Logan province, not Kabul province.  From there one has to hike about 15 km into the mountains to get to it.  I had barely hung up, when the same information came over the other phone, from Mubin.  It had taken us 7 hours to get this far: to get the right information…

It finally became clear that Mubin was as clueless as his driver and his gun.  He did not know this monument.  He had never been there.  But he had not admitted this nor had he pointed us to the right place.  At least the right place should have been known to him but I was too broken to express my anger.  When Mubin wanted pity because he had supposedly been researching this all morning and had not gotten any lunch yet, I cut him off:  Driver and Shirin had not gotten any lunch either and that was due to his ignorance.  There was nothing more to talk about.  It was four o’clock in the middle of a hot and dusty afternoon.  By the time the three of us finally sat down for lunch, exhausted and sweaty from all the hours of pointless searching, I was in tears.

I was not only in tears about today, but about all the disappointments, all the stupid picnics, all the missed monuments and all the shattered expectations.  Everything caught up with me.  This was the most horrible trip I have ever done, ever!

Back at the ALT compound, I walked straight to my room, locked myself in and avoided contact with Mubin or any of the other Jamshadi brothers.   In the evening I had a dinner date with two guys from the Goethe Institute.  I had to recover from this day first to face them.

Nasser, a young Afghan, and Thomas, a middle-aged German were my dinner companions tonight.  I had met them on my second day in Kabul and we had agreed then to conclude my trip together.  After a nice dinner at my favorite garden restaurant, Thomas mentioned an expat club in Kabul, where mostly British and American troop members as well as Afghani government officials got drunk!  That was something else!  It was part of the subculture you will never see by driving or walking through Kabul.  You just have to know.  I wanted to see this so badly.  But it was late.  No problem.  Thomas was up for a walk to the club.

There is no sign on the door, no hint of anything.  You knock on a huge, orange metal door and I guess, if you look “right” Sesame opens up.  Three armed guards greet and pad you down (not me, I am a woman!).  Another guard will take your passport and there you have to purchase coupons.  There is no more cash exchange after this point. You pay with your coupons:  $10 for a beer, for example…!   Thomas invited me to a beer and so we had a drink in the most beautiful garden of all Kabul.  A central fountain, nicely landscaped paths, beautifully lit terraces, several bar areas, a basement bar, and even a full-range food menu.  If you get too drunk you can also rent a room and sleep right there!

After an hour it got loud across the lawn and Thomas mentioned that this is no rare occurrence.   Kabul is stressful and I can’t hold it against the men (and women) who are stationed here year after year for letting off some steam.  But it also fed right into the stereotype of the loud, obnoxious and rich American to be here in the first place and to behave like this in the second.

We did not stay long, but I surely was fascinated and grateful that I had seen a slice of this part of Kabul as well.   And it was about then that I was willing to allow myself to be grateful again for having come to Afghanistan in the first place.  I did see a lot.  I did learn a lot despite all the disappointments and shattered hopes.  But it was not easy to make the glass half full again.

Good night.

 

2012
06.11

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE LONG OVERDUE VISIT TO THE KABUL MUSEUM, THE NATIONAL GALLERY, THE SULTANI MUSEUM , THE ZOO, AND ABOUT MEETING THE DONORS OF THE GARDEN OF LOVE AND HOPE.

The final two days are starting.  I am on my own, just as I was 16 days ago.  But now I feel a bit more comfortable with my environment and I tested the waters of my newly-won freedom today.

The ALT driver took me to the Kabul Museum late morning.  As you may know, its fate has not been kind.  I am surprised that there still is a museum after that area was the prime battle ground between the Soviets and the mujahideen (who thoroughly rated the museum for the best pieces to sell), and after the Taliban had their field days here smashing and slicing anything that looked un-islamic to them.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get close to any of the higher up museum officials since two important looking British ladies were roaming the facilities occupying many of them.

Some photographs on display indicated the state of affairs after the latest destruction.  Some rooms looked rather shabby with dusty floors, empty walls and a few dimly lit glass cases full of pottery or metal objects – some actually quite fine.  But the Buddhist section had been nicely restored with a still sizable number of objects on display.  And a special exhibition documented the progress at a new excavation site just 40 km South of Kabul.  Arya Mesa claimed to be on par with Buddhist Sites such as Hadda and Bamiyan once excavations would conclude.  The objects on display and some of the giant Buddha figures shown in photographs looked indeed promising.

Since the day was still young, I decided to proceed to another museum in my book, the National Gallery of Kabul situated right next to the Sultani Museum, a small private collection of artifacts.  Since my driver did not know the way, we made a quick stop for him to find out.  It happened to be near the zoo, so I asked for a 15 minute break to quickly see what the Kabul Zoo would have to offer.  First, I really had not thought there would be a zoo at all in this country.   If you have an image of any zoo in your mind, it would likely not live up to that.  The most popular attraction was a small Ferris-Wheel and an ancient, squeaky, electric swing in the shape of a boat which held about 10 screaming Afghanis.

Birds far outnumbered anything in the zoo:  Pheasants,  vultures, owls, and kites among them.  But there were also wolves, gazelles, camels, an ice bear (!) and a brown bear.  The cages were spacious enough but looked in general neglected.  For a display of fish there was an extra charge and since foreigners always pay ten times as much as locals, I skipped that display and got ice cream for the driver and myself instead.

He had tracked down the addresses for our next location and so I arrived at the Sultani Museum and the National Gallery in plenty of time.  At the Sultani, the security guard had to wake up the door keeper who in turn had to disable the alarm and turn on the lights just for me, his lonely visitor.  Three rooms were filled with an astonishing range of objects, mainly tiles, coins, a miserably displayed huge Koran, manuscripts, and lots of unlabeled ancient oddities, like stone balls which had markings that indicated the use in soccer or some such game about 3000 years ago.  A small gold mask was interesting and seemed completely out of place – strikingly similar to masks found by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae, but about 1/3 of the size.  There were no labels and the gatekeeper spoke no English, so I left a bit bewildered.  I understand that this is a private collection and that the origin of many objects is rather questionable.  But the collection seems to have found an unchallenged niche here.

The National Gallery did not quite live up to its lofty name, but there were some curiosities nonetheless.  It pretty much is housed in the same building as the Sultani but under government control.  European trained Afghani artists of the last century have their oils on display featuring mostly landscapes or portraits.  An interesting tidbid is that the ravaging Taliban was stopped by a few quick-minded artists who painted over about 120 paintings turning people into mountains and horses into trees, etc.  and therefore saved them from destruction.  About 15 second-rate, contemporary French artists are also on display with abstract works of the last 2 decades.  How they got in there is anyone’s guess.  Photography was an extra charge and I am seriously running out of cash, so I skipped that.  But I bonded with my minder, a middle-aged woman who followed me through the entire museum – again, I was the only visitor.   She slowly warmed up to me and allowed me all of three pictures for free – enough for me at least to remember the place.   I chose to photograph a copy of the notoriously famous picture about the single man returning  from an otherwise completely destroyed British Army by Lady Elizabeth Butler.  I amused myself with information like:  Title:  Fruit.  Artist:  Foreign.  And I chose a typical Romantic, western looking landscape which sported a Burka-clad woman walking through the woods.  Talk about culture-clash!

The collection is housed in a stately building which must have been an emir’s residence or some such thing at one point.  Two floors are open to the public with some rooms also featuring period furniture. All in all – the museums were the expected disappointment.  But now I know what there is and that counts for something.

Behind the museum there was a landscaped garden and as I strolled through it, I came to a door with a sign:  Garden of Love and Peace.  That sounded like an invitation.  Rose bushes were planted in a four-square layout with a fountain in the middle and ponds in the center of each of the four paths.  An older man greeted me, like I was an expected friend and it turned out, I was meeting Donald, the designer and sponsor of the garden from Italy and a US expat.  He told me the most remarkable story of the garden which sprang from a vision he had in a dream!  His wife Nora was present as well and she and I sat for a long time chatting while all kinds of people got busy in the nearby house, preparing for a big dedication ceremony on Saturday.  What a shame that I will be gone by then.

After sponsoring this garden, Nora and Donald are getting busy trying to ignite some music programs in Kabul.  For that, they had an Italian conductor in tow who was checking out the music department at the Kabul University, and a Music Institute teaching traditional and western music to highschoolers.  Afghanistan’s recent history has not treated music kindly.  Especially under the Taliban, music was banned completely.   The younger generation has little encouragement to start up with real instruments since electronic devices provide such easy substitutes and their parents are typically ignorant about music.  I am not sure how Afghani music differs in comparison with Indian or Central Asian traditions; I suspect quite a bit of overlap.

This encounter was such a delight and completely unexpected.  It also filled in some questions I had tried to answer about music in this country.  It was around 5:30 PM and rush hour traffic.   I could have called the ALT driver to pick me up – I had already prepaid for all these trips, but I decided to see if I could find my way home in this jungle of streets and intersections.  I just wanted to see how it felt to walk through Kabul.  No guide, no gun at my heels.  I had no map and no clue where I was.

First, I had to find an English speaking person who knew the landmark I knew was near the ALT compound:  Chicken Street.  I had him write this down for me in Dari (Farsi) and give me an estimate of about a 30-45 minute walk.  Equipped with that paper, I double-checked my direction once in a while until I came closer and closer to buildings I recognized from our many car trips.  The difference between walking and driving boils down to two main items:  In the car you can turn on the air conditioner and protect yourself from the gusty dust clouds which come your way ever couple of minutes.  And in the car you can lock the door and drive by all the beggars and gypsies; here called kuchies; I had to face and fight both.  At the famous Chelsea Supermarket (I  kid you not!), I did some essential grocery shopping as all food, except for breakfast (which still boils down to dry bread and tea and most recently a few slices of pasteurized cheese) are now my own responsibility.

To the amazement of the ALT guards and drivers, I knocked on the door of the compound by around 6:30 PM. I was proud of myself.

This was a good day.  Good night.

 

2012
06.10

SYNOPSIS:  THE CONTINUATION OF THE OFFICIAL AND UNOFFICIAL STORY ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS – PASSED ON TO ME SECOND HAND – AND A FEW OBSERVATIONS I MADE WHILE TRAVELING.  READING DAY 35 PART I FIRST MAKES THE MOST SENSE.

Let’s call her Mina.  She had fled with her wealthy Afghan family during the Taliban regime to the United States.  She and her father had decided to return to their homeland after the U.S. involvement to make a contribution to rebuilding the country.  Her father ended up in a government position, Mina wanted to work with women.  She started a workshop for women, particularly those who had been injured during the war.  She developed courses to teach handicrafts to those with disabilities. She involved them in her business.  The women started to come from near and far.  What they produced was sold in a little store in Kabul.  The business boomed, the women loved it until …  the women were harassed.  Before they even reached their destination in Kabul they were stopped on the street by strangers:  Why did they go there?  What was their role in this business?  Why were they out without their husbands?  What were they up to? The women became scared.  They stayed away.  Mina’s business dwindled.

Mina decided to visit women in prison. She started to collect their stories and found out, that most of the women in prison were there because of “sexual infringements”, not even sentenced properly.  Many “infringements” continued in prison with some of the very people who had the power to sentence or to free them and with other higher-ups in the government.  Mina traced the cases of some of these women only to find out that somewhere in the corner of a ministry (perhaps, the very Ministry of Women’s Affairs I visited?) these files were stacking up in a dusty corner with nobody in sight who showed even the mildest interest in solving or pursuing these cases.  These women were damned, abused, and forgotten.

As Mina continued her interest in the affairs of imprisoned women she began to receive threatening phone calls:  Stop these visits. Mind your own business. Watch where you go. Your life is in danger.  Mina continued, but realized that these were no empty threats.  She no longer answered her phone and she began to avoid gatherings with other foreign friends in order not to endanger their lives as well.  A good friend of hers told me this.  I can’t verify any of this and I don’t know Mina.  But I have little doubt that this is very close to the truth and reflects a subculture and attitude well and alive, with or without the knowledge of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Back to the Ministry:

What about Burqas? Not only here, but elsewhere have I heard this:  To assume that women beneath a burqa are in need of liberation is naïve.  I tend to agree.  The burqa itself means little.   Mubin has told his wife numerous times that he does not want her under a burqa, but the minute they arrive in their family village, she will cover, not to spite him, but to be accepted socially.  I would call this peer pressure.  What was news to me is the fact that burqas originated (way, way back) as a sign of wealth.  They were so horribly impractical that you could only afford to wear one if all the manual labors were done for you by servants.  They typically would be worn by rich city women, never in the villages.  Today, the picture is clearly the opposite.  In the cities, you see mainly beggars or women who want to hide their faces under burqas.  Most women wear head-scarves.  In the villages, almost all women are fully covered. The signature blue burqa dominates the scene, but in shrines or occasionally on the street you can find white burqas or light green ones.  In one store I have even seen a canary-yellow one.  I wonder who would dare to wear it.  Or is it supposed to be some sort of turn-on?

One final argument in regards to the burqa I have heard repeatedly:  In times of lawlessness and danger burqas are protecting women from attack as they hide the identity of the bearer:  It is not visible if a young, old, rich, or poor woman is walking beneath that shuttle cock.  I guess, that is true, but the protection it provides seems rather whimsical to me.

What about separation of women in public places?  Supposedly, this is done to protect and honor women and give them privacy.  Perhaps.  But men are always allowed to go to the women’s quarters – married men or relatives, that is – whereas the opposite direction is forbidden, except for foreigners like me.  This system makes no sense to me, even less than the history of and the reasoning for the burqa.

What about riding a bike?  Yes, women can ride bikes, but they would not want to…

After the mid-range official in charge of funding at the ministry had answered most of my general questions, I asked her about her personal life:

Was her husband proud of her work? Yes he was and always had been, but he had passed away three years ago and now she is a widow.   She is the sole breadwinner.  I was impressed.

What about her life during the Soviets in comparison to now?  She bemoaned the loss of Islamic values during the Soviets and praised the improved current situation in that respect and in general.

What about life under the Taliban? What we know about the Taliban in the West, she claimed, was very one-sided and by far not as bad as it was presented.

Had she ever been abroad and been able to compare life of women in Afghanistan with life of women in the West?  Yes, she had traveled in France and in Belgium.  She felt sorry for all the responsibilities women had to bear in the West.  How much easier and better life under sharia law for women was here.  She would not want to ever live in the West.  “Our religion takes care of us very well!”

What if the Taliban regains power after the withdrawal of the international security forces, sends all the women back home, forbids women’s education, etc?  “The Taliban are our people.  We will obey!”

I kid you not – out of the mouth of an official at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs who was old enough to remember the Taliban regime, with a glowing face, without hesitation, and speaking not only for herself but for all of the women in Afghanistan:

We will obey! 

In dismay and in the hope that the Minas of Afghanistan will multiply, receive support, and will succeed, I rest my limited investigation into the affairs of women.

 

2012
06.09

SYNOPSIS:  THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND THE MINISTRY OF WOMEN’S AFFAIRS – THE OFFICIAL AND THE UNOFFICIAL STORY ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS.

The National Archives are located in a stately mansion and organized chronologically.  Many fading photographs of emirs and dignitaries provide a chronological overview of the history of Afghanistan.  It was quite interesting, but I certainly could not recall the details after just one visit.  The museum is divided into two sections:  historical documents and photographs and a section on art and manuscripts mainly featuring copies.

One thing is strikingly obvious: Afghanistan has been a country full of struggles, invasions, intrigues, and power wrestling ever since its conception, and if this teaches us anything – the likelihood that this will ever change is slim.  Mubin and I spent a good two hours at the museum to take it all in.

Our stop after lunch was not on the itinerary, but since that one had gone out of the window for the most part anyhow, and since I was the only person left on the trip, I had requested it:  the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.  I had seen it from the car a few times as we were driving through Kabul.  I wanted to find out more what was happening there, especially in lieu of talking to “real” women on the street.  As much as I had wanted that, it was obviously not happening.

As any secured compound typical for official building in Kabul, you enter it in a zig-zag fashion, get patted down and you have to leave your data with a receptionist.  This time, my father’s name was of no interest.

We walked through a garden, which could have been pleasant had it not been obstructed by a series of concrete wall segments.  Multi-storied buildings were full of offices – where to go?  We found an office with an English-speaking man and a woman in their forties who were willing to take time, talk and answer my numerous questions.  They did not even seem surprised that I had come out of nowhere and was not affiliated with any NGO or organization.

Here is in a nutshell what I found out:

Funding for this agency comes from various international donors and organizations; none of them from the Afghani government, e.g., tax-payers.  If you ask me that is a problem.  Handouts, handouts, handouts!  Yes, Afghanistan needs international help.  But that the indigenous government is not giving a single penny for this cause is shameful and speaks volumes.  The two officials, who after all were in charge of linking donors and various programs, were not willing to disclose their budget.  About 400 people work in the ministry; about 60 percent of them are women.  Almost all leading positions are held by women.

The majority of cases that come in are related to sexual abuse or domestic violence.  The agency provides legal aid for the affected women and follows up on their cases afterwards.  Another large group of cases deal with divorce, child- and/or forced marriages.  Again, focus is on free legal advice.

But the agency also provides education for women.  For example do they have courses in teaching women how to drive!  I have to suspect that these courses are not very popular since I have not seen a single woman behind the wheel in two weeks.  But I was nonetheless impressed that they existed at all.

And finally, the agency links women with other appropriate institutions or humanitarian aid organizations such as the ministry of health, or institutions dealing with human-rights violation.  It all sounded quite wonderful.   But as we know, the full spectrum of women’s affairs in Afghanistan is not quite that rosy.  Either the ministry is not reaching far enough, or they are kidding themselves and others.

I asked about how the ministry gets news about its existence and services into the farthest corners of the country and into the minds and hearts of completely uneducated women.   The usual channels were mentioned, from billboards to TV.  And then one unexpected channel surfaced:  the local imams in the mosques.  Imams as women rights’ activists?  I was skeptical, but the woman in this office insisted that these imams are educated, enlightened, concerned and very effective.  Since they have clout in the community they are also effective instruments in following up on issues concerning both women and men.  According to her, local men respect their judgment.  I am still skeptical…

To my surprise I heard that men, too, may involve the services of the ministry.  The officer explained that really they are the office for gender affairs.  Ah, what about issues of homosexuality?  Do they exist?  Does the ministry help people who are persecuted or are victims of hate crimes?  I should have known better.  What stupid and corrupted questions these were!  Of course, the ministry is not dealing with homosexuality.  These issues do not exist and are not there to be dealt with.  They are forbidden and if they are found out, they are duly punished according to (sharia) law like any other crime.  I get it.  Thanks for the clarification.

THIS BLOG WILL BE FILLED IN SOON.

SORRY, I RAN OUT OF TIME!  GOOD NIGHT.

 

2012
06.09

SYNOPSIS:  POTTERY AND PICNIC, DOGS, THE OLD BIRD-BAZAAR AND MUBIN’S STORY.

Another day going north…  And since there is only one road, it’s the same road I have been on for the umptiest time.  I asked Mubin if we could not go south for a change, but he claimed that there is nothing of interest for a long time except desert.  I have to trust him on this.

Istalif is a village at the western edge of the Somali Valley.  It’s picturesque, especially, since you can have a fine view from a maple-tree park across the village which is climbing up the opposite hill.  In the far, far distance you can make out the white rooftops of the military base Bagram.  When you look at Istalif you understand how hard hit especially small villages in this plain were.  There are bombed out houses next to new construction.  People seem to abandon their homes rather than to rebuild them.  With the relatively cheap and quick mud-brick construction that makes perfect sense.

While I was scanning the village for photo opportunities, a young woman approached me and wanted her picture taken with me!  That is something that has not happened since the first time I arrived.  I was thrilled and in exchange asked her to have her picture taken with my camera as well.  That was Tamina, on vacation here from Jalalabad – another town I would have liked to see between Kabul and the Pakistan border.  But like everything else outside of the larger cities, I was not permitted to go due to security risks.  Tamina was a student of English and hoped someday to be employed by the American Services as translator.  I wonder how many people like her are there, who prepared over the last few years for employment with the foreign forces and who after 2014 may have their dreams and hopes shattered as the troops and the employment opportunities vanish.  Tamina was happy to hear that I knew about her famous name-sake:  The bride of Rostam whom he supposedly married at Takht-e-Rostam at the stupa near Masar-e-Sharif.  I wish I had had more time to chat with her, but her parents and her young brother were waiting and so we parted after just exchanging a few pleasantries.

Mubin, in typical fashion had planned another picnic; this time, a lunch picnic.  He had picked up deep-fried triangles and a spicy sauce which we consumed next to the village stream.  A little ice-cream parlor was located with a beautiful view into the valley.  A young man saw us sitting there and without much hesitation came up to me:  “Hello, do you speak English?”  Since I confirmed, he sat down to talk.  He was from the village and had learned English in Kabul.  Now he is teaching young children in a private school how to speak English, as a part-time job.   He hung out with us until his share taxi, which was filling up in the village square, was ready to leave for Kabul.

At the entrance of Istalif, a sign pointed to the existence of a school for girls sponsored by the Belgians and the French.  I tried to find out more about it, but neither this young man nor the guy at the ice cream store knew anything.  Obviously, the girls of the village were going there.  But did it cost money?  What was their curriculum?  Who were their teachers?  My questions remained unanswered…

The only reason to visit Istalif is its pottery tradition.  The pottery is so pitifully rural, heavy, and crudely glazed that it is almost charming.  It’s no Chinaware and no Meissen Porcelain but it’s all there is. If there were anything else to visit around here, we would not have ever have dreamed of making the stop.

The village was on its dreamy, quiet midday break.  The men came and went to the mosques, the women were invisible, and the children probably were still in school.

After I dutifully purchased two small souvenir pieces, we returned to Kabul to see the Bird Market.  It is the oldest part of the bazaar in Kabul and one that still lives up to the promise of its name.  Most of the stalls in that one narrow street are filled with birds; from singing birds to chickens, but nothing exotic.  One stall stood out for me since the owner also had two German Shepherds docked in the back, obviously his pet dogs.  If anything, I would have thought that dogs would be uncommon as pets, but from the rooftop of ALT I had actually seen another man walking his dog on the first evening here.

And after the bird market, Mubin and I went out for dinner.  I begged him to walk and to leave the gun behind.  To my astonishment, he agreed.  We went to our favorite restaurant, the Herat Gardens and ordered food.  Mubin had mentioned how his family had come from riches to poor and I wanted to hear more about it.  I asked him to tell me his story.  Mubin loves to talk and I must have pushed the right button:  he recalled his and his family’s story under the Soviets and the Taliban.   It was an eye opener!

As the oldest son, he felt responsible to save his family from having to sell every carpet they owned and finally, the family estate.  Recently married, with a 7 months old son, he smuggled himself out of the country to Iran to find work to support his parents, his six younger brothers and his sister as well as his wife and child.  For nearly two years he was gone, wearing one set of clothes, picking up old shoes along the way, working in construction sites, doing double-shifts in dirty old car repair shops, and slowly but surely making more and more money to send home.  He kept no more than what he needed for dry bread and tea for himself and eventually returned home with the same old clothes he had left.  The story was so emotional for him that at times he had to stop to fight back his tears!

This was perhaps the first time that I saw a Mubin “behind” the Mubin I had met.  The one you meet is funny, talkative, but also moody, arrogant, and at times quite selfish.  Against this backdrop, I got a very different picture.  I understood why he has little patience for beggars or people who don’t work hard.  I understood better why he is so deeply religious.  And I could see what a steep, hard road he had walked to reach the top on which he now stood.  I also understood that it was his contribution that got all of his brothers started on the ALT business; without Mubin, no ALT.  Yet, today, all five brothers work together.  It is Mubin who is on the outside, the loner, the one who goes his own way.  Nothing makes that clearer than the fact that in that beloved subdivision of his, the entire family is building a huge duplex for all:  The parents, all brothers, their wives and children.  But Mubin is building a separate house, just one street over for just his family (wife and five children).  I wonder…

We must have sat at that restaurant for three hours or more, exchanging stories.  I am very glad we had this time.  It gave me a much better appreciation for Mubin, but also a greater appreciation for a company such as ALT and the fate of numerous other migrant workers who went a similar way.  Mubin not only went to Iran once, he also went to Pakistan.  And he made it very clear that if the situation in Afghanistan changes for the worse again, he will once more pack up and leave, this time with his entire family in tow, and this time to Dubai.  In anticipation of the worst ALT is expanding already in Dubai.  This is a bunch of very smart, driven and hard-working people.  My hat is off to them.

It was late at night by now but Mubin agreed to walk back to the ALT compound.  It is only 10 minutes away, but  this was my first night walk through Kabul without our gun.  Fun!  It seemed safe enough to me.  There were few people on the road.  In front of many compounds the armed guards were pacing.  In fact, there is probably no more-guarded and fortified city anywhere than Kabul.

Good night.

 

2012
06.09

SYNOPSIS:  MUBIN’S VILLAGE, BAGRAM AIR BASE, CHICKEN STREET, AND YET ANOTHER PICNIC ALONG THE WAY.

Really, the Panjshir Valley could have been done in one day:  Getting up and going a bit earlier, skipping the picnic at Mubin’s future subdivision and if need be, cutting the drive into the valley a bit shorter.  But then, what else would we have done?!  Wasting time is one of Mubin’s talents and picnics are one of his favorite methods.  I am not complaining, just noting.  He is in a bind as much as I am.  He has to entertain me for 16 days and our options have been severely limited.  But I am getting tired of it!

We left the valley and at least took a different way home.  A smaller road which lead us passed Mubin’s, the driver’s and Shirin’s village.  I get it!  Why are these people employed at the ALT office?  They share an upbringing.  The idea of family is very strong here and in other Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries.  In Pakistan Nicole and I were joking that every guide we ever had, no matter how far from Islamabad was either an uncle or a cousin of Saeed’s; and that was always true.  There seemed no end to the extent of family.  The same is true here.  How does ALT operate so effectively in the security sector? Because there are “brothers” and “sisters”, uncles and cousins everywhere in the country who will call in with the latest news from anywhere in the country.  The term brother and sister is used loosely here, since it extends to people who have become close over time either by upbringing, by sharing school or college experiences, etc.

Passing his village prompted Mubin to tell me about the time the Soviets came.  His mother tried to keep her family (six boys and one girl) safe by taking them out of the house and into the countryside.  Mubin, the oldest of them, recalled many nights sleeping near the river and under trees and eventually ending up in Kabul with extended family members.  He was in second grade when this started and his years of schooling were severely impacted by these uncertainties.  His village is located in the Somali Plains, north of Kabul.  It was one of the most fought-over areas due to its flat layout, the close proximity to the Soviet border, and to Kabul.  Stories of the mujahedin (often barely out of their teenage years), their bravery and their injuries abound.  Mubin recalled a few for me.  He said it only takes a few men sitting around at night over a cup of tea, to get them going.

We crossed the Panjshir River, now far outside the valley and there was our picnic stop.  It was a nice one and a typical Afghan style one:  A booth, sitting on stilts at the edge of the river, shielded with curtains on three sides for privacy and open to the dirty brown river for the view.  We sat, read, relaxed and watched the fishermen wading in the current with their nets catching the next client’s lunch.  We were not in the mood for lunch and just shared a huge watermelon.

As we were sitting minute after minute beggars stopped at our booth, fortune telling Kuchi (nomadic) women, kids looking to shine our shoes, or peddlers trying to sell anything from spices to fresh fish.  It got a bit tiring since none of them would take “no” for an answer.

Bagram was on our way and anyone who has only followed Afghanistan news with half an ear would have heard about this:  The big American Airbase north of Kabul.  I wish I had known about this an hour earlier as I would have preferred to cut our picnic a bit short for a detour to get as close to Bagram as possible.  But I also wanted to go to Chicken Street today and had to make a choice:  A small detour only.  For the military buffs, this would have been worth a closer look.  Photography was out of the question as we got near the base.  Bagram is still a nondescript little village in the Somali Plains.  But at the end of the main bazaar street, it feels like a dead end (even though there is a little road out both to the left and the right).  Huge observation towers, fortified lookout booths and rows and rows of those big sandbags blocked the road.   That was the beginning of Bagram, the military base which houses around 10,000 military personnel, presumably nearly all Americans.  It is also the Bagram which is known for a notorious detention camp constantly watched over and accused by Amnesty International for human-rights violations.

The history of Bagram goes way back to the Silk Road and earlier.  Alexander the Great camped out here, gathering his forces for an invasion of India.  It was the summer capital of the Buddhist Kushans and had archaeological remains which by now all have been run over or destroyed by war.

An animal market was held in a nearby village.  An interesting gathering of animals for sale each marked with a distinct strip of color, probably in case they run loose:  Cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and the occasional camel.  I think Afghanistan consumes a fair share of meat every day.  The idea of being vegetarian must be quite a foreign and elite-sounding concept.

Back in Kabul, Chicken Street was on my program.  It used to be the street, obviously, where chickens were sold.  Today, it is the famous souvenir street of Kabul with a heavy emphasis on carpets, jewelry, and antiques.  It does not look like much when you enter.   Like everywhere else, there seems to be perpetual construction going on.  Traffic is slow and bumping along an uneven unpaved road.  But the stores are filled with trinkets and if my luggage would not have been as heavy as it already is and if my cash would not have dwindled to less than $50, I would have been really tempted to go crazy here.  Every store owner greets you with some English phrase like:  Welcome, come in.  Looking is free.  Come here!  Competition is fierce and consumers are dwindling in these uncertain times.

Two stops were fun.  In a carpet store I got a good introduction into rugs and designs.  Afghanistan has quite a tradition in this craft.  Jaffer, the young pockmarked man in the oldest carpet store on Chicken Street was knowledgeable and honest.  His prices were remarkably un-inflated as Mubin assured me, who had been sitting silently in a corner observing our interactions.   Jaffer’s father appeared after a while, delighted to hear that a German was in his store.  More than 40 years ago, he had taken German classes at the Goethe Institute in town and his German was still remarkably good.   I did not buy anything (yet), but the assurance that they could take my visa card was promising.

At the other end of the street there was a small store with a most funny and agile, bald, old man in it.  He too, was dancing of joy over having a German customer.  He insisted on feeding us tea, then sweets, then cherries and with great excitement he pointed to various Pashtun bead works.  I liked those:  Small, affordable and unique.   I had to have one and could finally check off my list:  Afghan souvenir.

And after a dinner at AFC (you can guess what this stands for!) this day, too, had turned into night.

Good night.

2012
06.08

SYNOPSIS: ABOUT MUJAHEDDIN, MASSOUD AND TANKS IN THE RIVER.

You would think he is running for president if you wouldn’t know otherwise: Ahmad Shah Massoud. His picture is everywhere, from full wall-size depictions on government buildings to posters in every grocery store or motorbike repair shop, to postcard sized on the windshields of cars. Laughing, contemplative, shooting, reading, praying or instructing and always, always good looking! He is the born Hollywood star, the Che Guevara of Afghanistan. And though dead since 9/9/2001 (assassinated just two days before 9/11) his fame and glory seem constantly on the rise. Massoud the martyr. Massoud the savior.

He must have been a charismatic man. Coming from humble beginnings he united the men of the Panjshir Valley and the rest of the country; he brought together Tadjiks and Uzbeks and even Pashtuns to fight the Soviets. He defeated them multiple times on his unconquerable home turf, and achieved the one and only ceasefire agreement between the Soviets and any Mujahideen ever. For most he was and is a national hero. His military achievements were enhanced by a simple yet sophisticated life style. He did not own property, but a huge library. He spoke fluent French and had moderate Islamic views. He had five beautiful children. All in all, he was unique. Not everyone adores him for, like any mujahid, he has more blood on his hands than is good for anything. Especially the Hazara hold a mass killing of their people against him. And many Kabulians will not forgive him for needlessly reducing their town to rubble in the 1990’s. “My gun” Shirin, was a local commander under Massoud and to this day is proud of it. I was glad to have the chance to see his valley, his home and his tomb.

Once again we took the road north, the one I have been on for three or four times by now. And once again, Mubin went shopping for a picnic at his beloved subdivision. But before the dreaded Salang pass was even near, we turned right into the Panjshir Valley. No wonder Massoud was so successful in holding this valley. A very narrow entrance, just the river and a two-lane road allows for total control of access. Even today this serves as a checkpoint. The officer in charge carefully took down my data, including my dead father’s name (my female name alone counts for little) and then handed me a snippet of paper with his personal phone number, just in case.

From here, the valley slowly widens into a fertile plain with villages and fruit plantations, animal grazing land, wheat fields and an occasional mountain top. The story is that Massoud evacuated the entire native population multiple times to have a clear shooting range against the Soviets. He also could hide out in the mountains and anyone coming through was like a sitting duck to him and his men. Today, the valley flourishes once again. But many destroyed buildings, in one case an entire bombed out village – remind you of Massoud’s legacy. In fact, people here seem to relish the past and keep it alive by preserving some of these grim artifacts.

It was impressive to see the many rusty tanks littering the otherwise pastoral landscape. Some tanks were upside down, others stuck in the river bed, others lining the road. Next to the monument recently upgraded over Massoud’s tomb, some of the equipment he had snatched from the Russians and then used against them was still lying around to the enjoyment of hordes of kids who had come with their parents to pay respect to their hero. They had a lot more fun pointing cannons and turning wheels rather than gathering around the tomb in silent prayer as many of the adult visitors did.

A simple white drum with a green dome covered the tomb until recently. Now it is an octagonal superstructure which looks a bit more pretentious than Massoud would likely have approved. But it follows some of the architectural types of tombs placed over the grave of important people that are found in Iran and Central Asia.

Mubin deemed the valley unsafe for walking, but he took me on a nearly 2-hour slow driving tour into the valley and back which allowed me to photograph what I wanted and see much more than I could have on foot. I never understand when he puts on his safety breaks, but I am at his mercy. To me it all looks sunny, friendly, and just the same.

But security was high. When we stopped at a roadside restaurant, I had barely stood there for more than two minutes watching the fast-paced feeder stream when two police officers walked up checking my documents. That had not happened to me when I was on foot.

We stayed at a rundown and dirty hotel about 20 km into the valley, operated by the government. It had no services but made up for it with a great view into the valley and a wraparound balcony on which I could do my work. The moon was nearly full and shone straight down on us. But since Mubin would not allow my gun to go to sleep as long as I was sitting there, I relieved him and retreated into my room. My single, energy efficient light bulb (the only kind used in all of Afghanistan), was plugged into the wall via bare wires…

Today, for the first time, I got bitten by something. Four bites, one on my thumb, two on my elbows, and one on my shoulder created huge hard swellings. Those must have been some potent mosquitoes or what else could it have been? Bedbugs, fleas?

Good night.

2012
06.06

SYNOPSIS:  THE DREADED TRANSIT BACK TO KABUL.  ABOUT ICE CREAM AND FOOD, BRIBES AND CARS.

I had braced myself for hell again and that was good so – since traffic lacked any animal herds today and for several stretches the race-driven Afghan drivers held back, a whole hour was shaved off the hellish part and the ride felt almost manageable; but only in comparison to day 28.  Not once did we have to back up – amazing!  But don’t get me wrong.  Knowing what I know, I would never again agree to this trip unless the tunnel is fixed.  There are flights after all…

The lack of any new material today will allow me to catch up on a few odds and ends I have been observing and thinking about.

TRAFFIC AND CARS: 

The streets of Kabul (and the rest of the country) are almost a history book of the 20th Century struggles for power in Afghanistan.  There are the occasional Moskvitch cars which are still bumping along the road.  They are robust.  We had them in East Germany and just recently I had seen them again in Uzbekistan.  Only in a once Soviet-occupied country will you find them; and here they were – testimony to the 1970’s and 80’s.

What baffled me completely was when I first realized that most drivers sit behind the wheel on the left side of the car as I am used to, but then there are others who sit on the right side of the car like in Pakistan or India.  But they do drive on the right side of the road…  How is that possible?  These cars speak of the ambitions Pakistan once had.  As part of their expansion policy lots of cars must have made it into Afghanistan.  I am sure they would have liked to turn around the driving direction as well, but that obviously did not happen.  These cars are grandfathered in now.

When you look at the many UN vehicles or other NGO cars, you will find almost only Japanese models – this is an observation Neil made – while all the police and military vehicles you see are Fords, or American-made.  Both types are huge 4WD, often armored and equipped with antennas which allow for coded messaging.  Why are UN vehicles armored?!  It speaks volumes of the situation in this country.

And on a side-note:  Only in Mazar-e-Sharif did I see functioning traffic lights.  Everywhere else in the country they are either lacking or look like they at best worked 30 years ago.  Nobody seems interested in fixing them either.  Here and there you see traffic police in their yellow vests trying to do their best to keep the flow of cars going.  It becomes really ridiculous when one of these big police vehicles tries to go through and via loudspeaker yells at people to keep moving.  Where to?  When you are boxed in between four cars all trying to turn somewhere, to ask people to keep moving is a futile order.

FOOD AND ICE CREAM:

I am very surprised that I have not gotten any stomach problems yet.  Knock on wood!  In 16 days on the tour I swear that we had oily rice with raisins, mutton and shaved carrots 12 if not 13 days for lunch, which is the big meal of the day in this part of the world; but we also had it for dinner more than once.  One notable exception was the fabulous buffet we had at the hotel in Herat.  The other was more recently when Mubin had picked up some triangles made out of dough stuffed with beans and then deep fried.  We dipped them into a spicy tomato sauce and that was delicious.  But… Mubin got sick from it; the rest of us did not.  And the other night, Mubin and I went out for dinner – for many days I had replaced dinner with a trip to the ice-cream store (rice once a day is really more than enough) – and we had something else:  spicy spinach and a “vegetable” dish with beans, potato-cubes, and some peas mixed together.  If you are a pure vegetarian (or god forbid a vegan), you can forget it!  Even the so-called vegetarian dishes will have come in contact with greasy, oily fats or worse.  In all fairness, Mubin assured me that the Afghan cuisine women provide inside the home is a lot more varied.  I am not sure if it is a lot healthier though.

And speaking of ice cream:  Nowhere else in the world I have seen the way of making ice cream like in Afghanistan.  A scoop of cooked milk is combined with sugar and flavoring such as rose water, vanilla, or mango, and put into a round metal container sitting in a bath of ice.  The ice maker now manually has to twist and turn the bucket to solidify the liquid into ice cream.  It happens slowly at the top edges of the liquid and with a wooden spoon you hasten the process by mixing the solidified top with the still liquid bottom.  The more you put into the bucket, the longer the process takes.  Therefore, the ice-maker carefully calculates the amount needed and you are almost always guaranteed to get freshly made ice cream.  Many of the ice-cream makers also take pride to scoop out the cream in interesting shapes.  Like nice slim towers, or even cup-shapes with handles.  I had to try this to see how hard it is.  It’s not that bad if you do it for a few minutes.  But I could already see myself with unbearable back pain if I only had to do this for one single day.  What happens here is that 10-13 year old boys will start to help out in their father’s shop.  And then they are on a career path from which there is little escape…

BRIBES:

Perhaps, the most surprising little tidbit I learned from Mubin is how many bribes they have to pay!  In his company, they employ several guards, always one or two on shift at the compound and a third one available to go out with clients.  They support at least four licenses for machine guns and other weapons and the men bearing the arms 24/7.  Each Kalashnikov costs them $2500 in bribes per year (!).  And the price has just gone up to $3000 this year.  Unbelievable.  No wonder hiring this (or a similar) company is so expensive here.  The overhead costs are boggling the mind.  I wonder who is lining their pockets with this.

On the other hand, Mubin told me how corrupt the police used to be just a few years ago.  They would stop you, confiscate your bike and then force you to “buy” it back from them, just to give an example.  On the contrary, when we hiked up along the citadel rim, the guards at the police station invited us for tea.  Mubin proudly pointed out the positive development in that area.

Another day passed with “nothing”, well with a 12 hour bumpy tour on the road.  So it goes.

Good night.

 

2012
06.06

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT TO AN ANCIENT BUDDHIST SITE OBSCURED BY THE LEGEND OF ROSTAM.

Takht-e-Rostams are numerous in Afghanistan – the “Throne of Rostam”.  Rostam, if I understand this right, is kind of the Gilgamesh of Persian legend, a hero written about in the famous 10th Century Shahnameh, or Book of the Kings by Ferdowsi (Firdausi), a Persian writer.

Takth-e-Rostam near Samangan is an unmistakable Buddhist site due to the presence of a rock-cut Stupa.  Both Mezar-e-Sharif and Samangam are safer places than Balkh and my crew was a lot more relaxed today compared to yesterday.  I was even invited to walk around the bazaar, but it did not look like anything worth exploring.  However, the main attraction near Samangam, two hills with ancient Buddhist architecture will certainly count among the highlights of this trip for me.

Just outside of town, there are rolling hills which look like nothing much.  Even as you stand right in front of them, you do not suspect much behind some holes in the mountain.  But there are five caves, four large ones and a tiny one full of litter.  Cave One is circular and has a large single niche, likely carved to house a Buddha figure and a soot-covered ceiling in which you can still make out the petals of a huge lotus flower.  Cave Two is probably the most surprising as it has several niches carved out between two corridors.  The corridor closest to the mountain face is almost at level with the niches, but the one deeper inside, going parallel is substantially lower.  Conventional wisdom has dubbed this cave the “bazaar”, but the layout makes no sense as a bazaar.  It makes little sense as anything, really.  If these were monks’ chambers, why the second, lower corridor; why no privacy, and no third wall?  No decoration has survived but many chambers here too, are blackened with soot.  Cave Three is a big square with four niches and remaining carved columns on either side and atop the niche.  The corner architecture is interesting as it is reminiscent of the early muqarnas, an architectural form that developed in Islamic architecture to bridge the transition from square to round and eventually culminated in the signature “stalactite” effect found in many mosques today.  Cave Four has a curious floor indentation thought to be a bath and Cave Five is little more than a hole in the wall full of litter.

Without the stupa hidden in the second hill, these caves may leave even more questions unanswered.  Given the proximity to the stupa, it is safe to assume that their use was connected and that the caves were likely a monastery.

The stupa is completely unique as it has not been built up, but carved down.  Stupas are ancient burial mounds which since the death of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, have become Buddhist reliquaries and monuments for meditation, often associated with Buddhist monasteries.  A devotee would enter the monument through a gate on the East and find him- (or her-) self inside the circumambulatory pradakshina path.  The devotee would surround the monument clockwise as often as desired, shielded by a high fence from the outside world.   There usually was a secondary pradakshina higher up which symbolized progress towards enlightenment.

In this case, the stupa was dug down into a 28 meters (90 feet) tall cliff.  The shielding from the outside was automatic as the devotee would find himself engulfed in a narrow shaft between two rock walls.  But of the 28 meters, only about 8 meters remain, the rest seems to have filled in over time, or perhaps were never cut out.  You enter the lower path through a cave-corridor with a heart-shaped opening.  A badly damaged and hardly visible vestige of a staircase to the North of the entrance could have been the way up, long ago.  Today, in order to get up, you climb the rock face to reach the upper rim which allows you a look down into the shaft.  You are then also at level with the harmika, or superstructure which typically tops a stupa.  An umbrella indicating the central axis of the monument would have rounded up the set.  In this stupa, an unusual niche is carved into the Northern face of the harmika.  Did it once hold a statue?  That would be unusual, too.

If you want to follow the Rostam legend, then this is his throne and he got married here to Tahmina, the daughter of the king of Samangan.

It was first under the 3rd Century BC Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and later under the 2nd Century AD mighty Kushan Empire that Buddhism was promoted as a state religion and flourished.  And it was the proximity to the Silk Road that helped to spread and support Buddhist monasteries.  The Bamiyan Buddhas were the greatest extant record of this movement and of a style which merged Greek and Indian elements into what is also known as the Gandharan style.  Perhaps, the Buddhas which once stood in these niches were of this style?  What happened to them will forever elude us.

Mubin had a migraine for the second day in a row and was unusually quiet.  No jokes today, no stories.  I did not want to bother him with any additional requests for activities and decided to enjoy my VIP hotel room instead, and watch some news for the first time in a month on my big flat-screen TV.   I am finally caught up with all my work.  My computer has tried to rescue itself from whatever is going wrong internally.  I now have an automatic alternative desktop screen, have quarantined all but the most essential files and seem to be able to limp along for hopefully the remaining days of this trip.  Only one more week…

Good night.