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  The museum is divided into two sections:  historical documents and photographs and a section on art and manuscripts mainly featuring copies.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.






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.




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.