Archive for August 2008
Today is the last time I will be posting from Kabul. THANK YOU to everyone for reading. And for giving me really supportive comments that helped keep me focused.
I have 10-12 hours of footage which I think is just barely enough to produce a short 15-25 minute film. A meditation. I am leaving Afghanistan a lot sooner than I would really like, but actually my feelings are a little mixed about this. I will not miss the paranoia and tension. While it provides a needed dose of adrenaline to counterbalance the altitude-induced deficiencies in my osmotic pressure, I don’t like feeling like every moment has to be worth the risk I’m taking to live it– it’s tiresome. I hate fearing my own countrymen as they rumble through the streets in armored convoys sighting bystanders with their 50-calibers… But I didn’t come here to observe the war, opium production, or Taliban extremism, which are covered by very talented journalists already. I neither have the skills nor the logistics to make a dent where they tread. But there is a lot I didn’t know– hadn’t seen– about Afghanistan “beyond the conflict.” That phrase from Michael Bhatia was my lodestar for this trip. I know I didn’t leave the Kabul bubble but I hope I at least got a start understanding the dizzying vastness of this country and this culture.
I came here very much as an American. I feel a measure of responsibility that it is my nation fielding its lethal powers here on the other side of the earth. That so many have bled here and died in this conflict– young Americans like the people I went to high school with. Michael Bhatia. Just last week, 60 children near Herat in a mistaken American airstrike.
This is a generational struggle. In the past thirty years outsiders have not been innocent in the internecine war that has caused such vast damage here. First the Russians and their capital crime of invasion and a million killed. The Americans and their happy proxies– religious zealots with C.I.A. financed SAM’s downing Russian choppers so the cold war could be won. But when the Russians withdrew those men and the arms and powers we provided them remained. The Afghan people were abandoned to the carnage that ensued, far from our concerns. But blowback was a bitch; Osama Bin Laden found his helpmeets here and America was attacked.
America returned to Afghanistan on a mission of imperial vindication. As we blew away the Taliban regime, and took the international community with us on the adventure, we once again have failed to really concern ourselves with the Afghan people. There has been a criminal level of neglect– as always, not among the professional military men whose real work is wiping out the enemies they face with unsparing force– but among the planners and the polity. Iraq was a distraction. But this war never stopped, and nowadays looks trickier than ever.
Signs of progress are everywhere, and I’ve been documenting them. But the Taliban believe themselves to be the rightful rulers here, and are gaining in ferocity as the Afghan people are drawn to their strength in the face of international weakness and Afghan government inadequacy.
My basic thrust here is, this place is important. It deserves the effort and the money. We can’t abandon it again.
I will admit to feeling depressed at how much better I am at tourism and picnics than journalism, aka telling stories with verifiable facts. Or filmmaking, aka mastering the technical bedevilments of cameras under the pressure of dust storms and chaotic environments to capture good footage with a steady hand. Or photography. Or writing. Maybe I’m trying to do too much at once, when really I just like to chill in the Afghan style and watch the stand up comedy competition on Tolo TV.
Yet there is too much that is too serious here for me to be entirely comfortable being my flaneur self. So I go try to visit hospitals and refugee camps and “get a story” but I’m not really too solid on all the details, so things slip and I return to being a tourist, except I’m a disaster tourist.
I’m sure I’ll get it down at some point.
All I ever wanted to do in life was to come to Afghanistan and go on many picnics, and now I am living my dream. Here are the dudes on the Salang river after an awesome picnic yesterday. Parwan province and various patches north of Kabul have a good security situation for now, perfect for picnics.
I ended up drinking a lot of water from the Salang river which I’m assured is direct from the Himalayas and fresher than any bottled water. So far so good. We ate the best kabobs procurable by the river. There was a lot of good food to pick up on the road home, too: crazy ice cream, gooey fried bread with green onions called “buloni”, and a sour milk/cucumber drink to refresh and revive.
The day before that I was allowed a rare hike to the top of the Bala Hissar fort with the aforementioned British altruists. It was a strange place; its strategic value was obvious, as the view encompassed the city all around. In fact the Afghan army intelligence school is located up there, and I met some retired military good ol’ boys who are contractors now and who teach there. There are supposedly still mines and other hazards off the beaten path, but everyone was careful. UXO (unexploded ordinance) and blown-out tanks from the last battle (the taking of Kabul in 2001) littered the grounds.
We then descended the hill and took photos of the fort from below, where a graveyard strewn with the green flags of the martyrs creeps up the embankment towards the fort’s walls.
Later that evening, a garden party and a speech from the British ambassador. It was completely surreal.
Hello– I am fine but working on some things and hence, no update. Thank you for reading and for the kind comments. Only 4 more days left here…
Today (Saturday) we went to visit shrines in the old city and the Kabul Museum. Along the way we passed the ruins of Darul Aman Palace. It was built in the 20s as the abode of King Amanullah Khan, and has been destroyed like clockwork during important moments in recent Afghan history– the communist coup in 1978 and the civil war of the 90s. It is slated to be restored by a European firm.
Right next door is the restored Kabul Museum. There were a lot of beautiful antiquities there. A few examples:
I was really swept away by a room full of artifacts from Nuristan (land of light), in northeast Afghanistan. Known as Kafiristan (land of infidels) until its conquest in the late 19th century, it was home to a distinctive ethinic group which practiced shamanism and polytheism. In legend the Nuris owe their distinctive appearance to descendance from Alexander the Great’s army, but they were probably a group indigenous to Afghanistan before the arrival of its current dominant tribes. (Thanks Wikipedia!) IN ANY CASE, the carved wooden statues were strangely affecting and reminded me of west African traditional art.
Later we went to visit a camp of refugees who have fled to Kabul from southern Afghanistan, trapped as they were there between the bombardments of coalition forces and the exactments of the Taliban. R. took pictures while I filmed so I am going to hold off on publishing his amazing pictures. Coming soon to a something something somewhere something, once I can sort myself out.
Tomorrow: Bala Hissar with Sandy Gall’s Afghanistan Appeal (SGAA, click though to find out more)– hiking up to the fort where the British army was defeated in the Anglo-Afghan war to raise money for Sandy’s medical charity. I’m gonna be struggling keeping up the power sources for my various devices– which are hard to juggle between– while following along with 25 British ladies and gentlemen from the old mold.
Photos from the aforementioned picnic spot for Kabul residents, Lake Qargha.
It’s a man-made reservoir near the Kabul Golf Club where you can get a drink and rent a pedal boat or a horse to ride.
A boy came up and passed over me with the smoke of burning espan, a kind of incense from a desert plant. It serves to ward off the evil eye.
In the evening I came home and was very embarassed to fall asleep during a meeting in the sitting room with a Waziri emissary. He expressed confidence in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and I expressed my face into my lap; pinching myself didn’t work.
On Fridays the people of Kabul spend the day on picnics. There are several popular places: the Salang Pass, the Paghman valley, Qargha lake… another spot is Babur’s Gardens (Bagh-e-Babur), a park in Kabul that is the site of the tomb of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, the Mughal emperor who ruled India in the 15th century. Badly damaged during the civil war of the 90s, it has been restored by a German firm. It mostly attracted tourists at first but has now become popular with locals.
I talked to a few young guys about their day in the garden visiting with friends and filmed them. There’s a nice view, flowers, and it was a clear day.
I didn’t film any women because it’s considered rude for me to do so. The subject of women in Afghanistan is a delicate one to discuss; for one I’m a man and I feel very relaxed here precisely for that reason. Feeling at ease anywhere rests on going with the flow: if men here would be offended if I tried to interview women in public, I really hesitate to do it, even though I am very interested in what women would have to say. It’s a little frustrating.
Similarly, even if I gloss over the history of my French forebears with the chador, it’s hard to know how to deal with the phenomenon of the burqa. On one hand the image of the burqa is intensely mediated and is shorthand for all kinds of ideas about Aghanistan. On the other hand they have an intense beauty and stick in the eye like a dart.
Anyways I feel daunted by an overflow of stories, history and stimuli (the rice here is supremely delicious). Time is stretching out under the deluge.
I am trying to ease into taking pictures– not to mention video– which does make me a little nervous around here.
Here is the lovely garden at the buro…
I made some purchases on Chicken Street, actually. I’m trying to keep a low profile. Me and R.:
Well then, here I am.
I felt more out of place than I ever have in my life yesterday- I woke up groggy and found myself curled up in a knotty ball inside an aluminum tube hurtling through the air on the way to New Delhi… looking out the porthole I saw a forbidding carpet of arid mountains, with tiny settlements here and there like scratches in the dust, not knowing whether it was Iran or Pakistan I was flying over. Actually it was fear and doubt that kept me tied to the thread of my ordinary existence. Angst, and also the 25-channel video screen which was playing the end of “Live Free or Die Hard.” And also Star Magazine.
I love and hate traveling… I hate how airplane travel reduces the world and makes every country a franchise of Airportlandia, with overpriced food kiosks and exhausted people slumped over in uncomfortable waiting lounges getting sore necks… I was one of those people for a good long time (13 hours). However, the great thing is the people you meet. I forged soldarity with some of my fellow Kabul-bound passengers in that New Delhi transit lounge. Jean-Pierre, a bearded sojourner who told me of his Afghan and Nepalese days setting up clinics for Doctors Without Borders; Mr. Hani Shahgul, a Kabuli carpet salesman on his way back from Spain who impressed me by being my first live experience of fabled Afghan graciousness, forcing me to eat all his cashews and asking me which warlords I wanted to talk to in Afghanistan (he claimed to know them all), and also inviting me to dinner; and an assorted crew of French journalists on their way to embed with the French military.
Now I was feeling pretty nervous the whole time about this trip and everything else, but it did make me feel better that the sound guy with the TF1 crew (a major French TV station) got SO DRUNK that they had to put him IN A WHEELCHAIR to get him on the plane. I mean, if people are going in with that level of preparation I figured I was over-prepared.
It did hit me a bit as we landed, and I took in the rows of fighter aircraft and camo’d helicopters and bunches of soldiers all over the tarmac… shit, what did I get myself into.
Now it’s an hour later, and I’m sitting on a sofa with bowls of mixed nuts and a marble fireplace before me. A breeze is coming in from the garden beyond the french doors and a caged canary is chirping. I am staying at the New York Times bureau, and if it wasn’t enough that Ruhullah came to fetch me at the airport in a shimmering shalwar, grinning like mad, and brought me here and filled me with tea… if it wasn’t enough that something smells delicious coming from the kitchen… that they gave me a desk… and some of the world’s finest journalists and Afghanistan hands are about… and the kindest staff… if all that wasn’t enough, I have full-time internet access.