My contradicted self.

Owing to a certain unrestrained, and often unfocused generosity of my mother, I am a life member of the Qantas Lounges. This is not as cool as it may sound. To get in the lounges, you have to be flying Qantas on your next flight, and Qantas are generally way more expensive than everyone else, with less comfortable planes and way more disinterested staff. Their lounges are crowded with FIFO workers, and supplied with pirate crew of surly, superannuated stewards who specialise in making you feel bad for asking for a peanut.

Anyway, Qantas, sensing the writing is on the wall, have done a deal with Emirates (who will soon emerge as The Global Airline). This deal means I can go in Emirates lounges when flying Emirates. 

All that is preface. I arrived in Dubai this afternoon after 4 weeks in Kabul. It was a good four weeks. No one died. That’s not a blithe comment. It is a part of our considerations these days. I helped keep things going. I supervised security improvements, scoped for a new head office, consulted on various projects, picked up the bits and pieces, incinerated old documents, tried to encourage the team, hosted a weekly BBQ. I am grateful to have been there and it was a privilege. And do not think it was a hardship: the electricity failed only once, I had hot, running water, fans to keep me cool, and ready access to most conveniences. Kabul is not what it once was.

So, on arriving in Dubai, I find the Business Lounge is shut and I am directed to the First Class Lounge. I have been in the First Class Lounge twice before: my reckoning is that people are more likely to sneak into Business Class. Those who are going into First Class have a massive sense of entitlement, all you need to do is emulate that. So I did. I just walked on in. The first time, I spent 6 hours there. The next time, after about 30 minutes, they found me and said, ‘Mr Sparrow, you should not be here.’

‘Yes’, I said.

‘Will you please leave now?’ they said.

‘Yes’, I said. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But today, I am ‘entitled’ to be here, so to speak. In First Class, you order your meal. The whiskeys are 15 years old. The seats are leather. It is preposterous, in every sense. I enjoy the peace it affords me, but I rail against it. It is wrong. It is wrong because I left a place where people do not even have clean water to drink. 

I look out the window at the endless steam of jets taking off, and think of the massive contradictions humans are capable of. Me included. 

A visit with M

On Wednesday afternoon, M. comes to visit me.

We met properly in 1999, when we started in the community development project, based out of Mazar. He was one of the four Afghans working with us in those remote, poor, difficult villages. Later we hired five more local staff, and within a few years, M. had become the team leader. He was educated, and so was granted a natural status, and he knew it. He was also, variously, sulky and easily irritated. Mind you, perhaps we all were back then. It was a sulky time, and the Taliban were world authorities in irritating people.

But he grew in leadership, and in character, and in servanthood. By the time we closed the project down in 2005 – the area by then being saturated with NGOs doing development work, mostly badly – he was mature, competent and a valuable part of our team. We opened a new development front, 8 hours to the West, in the tiny outpost of Maimana, but he didn’t want to move there – his wife was still working in Mazar, and their son was at high school. Unsurprisingly, he soon found a job with another NGO. I caught up with him again in 2007, and we kept in touch over the years as he worked for Oxfam, TEAR Fund and other groups, steadily growing in responsibility and stature.

It is wonderful to see him. He climbs down from the 4WD that he has arrived in. He is a big man. He lifts a back pack, the sort most aid-workers use. He has a beard, flecked with grey now, I notice. We go back to the office and I offer him water, and we share our news with each other. His son, U,  is married, and has a daughter; their first child died at birth. U is working for a mobile phone company now: U, now a man, who I knew as a child. M’s wife is not working – ‘She is older now, and the offices don’t want to employ an older woman. She has white hair, like me.’ It is an exaggeration, M is probably the same age as me and his hair is black and thick. I remember how M. and his wife shared a genuine love and affection for each other, I still have the photo of them sitting together, cradling Pietà when she was little.

M. phones his son, U, and I talk briefly with him, and give congratulations on his marriage and his little one; I show M. photos of my family, and he gasps at Pietà – she was four when he last saw her – and chuckles at Elijah and Rachel, and he offers condolences on the death of my father and mother.

But as we talk, I notice M. is increasingly quiet. He often repeats a phrase – ‘kho, zendagi ast’ – ‘Well, this is life’. I think I know what he is feeling, and I feel it too: the passing of years, and the intractability of life. It is 15 years since we met, we are not young men anymore. Afghanistan is still beset by innumerable problems, what has changed? He reminds me of when we were both North of Kabul, in Kapisa, back in 2007, and I told him that things would get better here, that a time of peace was coming.
‘And now we are here, and still there is no peace, and perhaps tomorrow or next year I will get shot, or hit by a rocket.’ He shakes his head. ‘And will you tell me again that peace is coming?’

I don’t know what to say. I hope what I am seeing is just something I have seen with many Afghan friends who have lived so much grief – someone taking a moment to unload, to tell their story. But I am not sure. M. is not really unloading. He is not telling a story. He is just being honest.

After a while, M. takes his leave, and heads off to stay with his brother on the other side of town. In a month or so, he will start a new job with an NGO he has worked with before. ‘The salary is less, but the people are honest. There was so much corruption in _____. What could I do? If I stayed there, I would be counted as one with them. One man cannot change all that. It is better for me to have less money, but be with people who are just and truthful. We have things in common.’

We embrace, and shake hands, M. swings his backpack over his shoulder and walks slowly to the corner.

A visit with Nooria.

When we first came to Afghanistan, we lived in Mazar. Like most foreigners here, we soon employed a local woman to help with cleaning our home. While the idea of regular domestic help remains repugnant to me (I kind of think you ought to be able to keep your own house in order), we were persuaded that in Afghanistan it was a good idea. For a few reasons – it gave a poor woman employment, and unquestionably, in those days, the widows of Afghanistan needed it. It gave Julie an easy way to make friends with local women, and in Taliban times, that was helpful. And, we were here to work. We were not here simply to ‘be’. Having someone help keep things in order meant we could both work, full-time. When Pietà was born, having no family here, our khala-jan became a defacto auntie. Over time, Fatima, who was calm and gentle, became a dear friend to Julie and a loving nanna to Pietà.

Then, when we returned to Mazar after 9/11, Aziza came to work with us. She was more animated than Fatima, and sometimes brought her grandson, Quorban along to play with Pietà. She too, became a loved part of our home.

In Kabul, in the later years we had S. work with us. We inherited her from the previous family, she kind of came with the house, and she quickly made it clear who was really in charge. We didn’t get on with her so well, I think it is safe to say. Lastly, Nooria worked with us. Julie knew of her from earlier times, and liked her, and she had a lovely manner, though her life was very difficult and she was well acquainted with grief. Her husband had some kind of mental illness, based almost certainly in trauma, and was often violent. Particularly, and for no obvious reason, he very hostile towards to their 10 year old son. It was so bad the son could not be in the house, and this was very hard for Nooria. Julie helped get the husband some medication, through one of the expat Doctors here, and like many mental illnesses, as long as he kept the dosage stable, he was much improved. When he forgot, or ran out, things got awful very quickly.

He died a month ago. I saw Nooria a week back, and after the usual salaams, I said, ‘I know your husband died. Razi- Khudawand bashed.’ May he be welcomed by God.

Nooria began to explain, in a matter of fact kind of way –

‘Yes, it was very odd. He began to swell up, first his stomach, and then his chest. He couldn’t easily breathe, simply to draw breath was difficult. We spent so much on medicines. Then he got a little better, but his feet swelled and he couldn’t walk. Then his chest swelled again…’

Nooria stopped talking and buried her head in her hands. It was a while before she could speak. I sat and waited.
Wa, baz faut shud wa bas.’ ‘And then he died and that was the end.’

After a while she continued. ‘My son, he doesn’t accept it. He has said, “where is my father? When is he coming home?” He just sits and waits for him to come. He has said he will not go to school until he comes, and that is 18 days now. He is just waiting for his father to come home. I do not know what to do, and we have spent everything now on doctors and medicines and now we have nothing.’

I am able to give her some money.

Later I think about this thing of giving money. Many expats here do not give money to poor people here, at all. The rationale is that it doesn’t help in the long run. Better to train people, give them jobs, advocate for social reform. I agree. But those who say giving money to poor people doesn’t help, have never, I think, been so poor.

Fatima with Pieta, 2001. Julie was able to visit Fatima in Mazar last year as she was dying of cancer; she died a few months later. Razi- Khudawand bashed.

Incendiary images

One of the consequences of being an organisation that has been around for 40+ years is that we have accumulated a lot of junk. Old emails, newspaper articles, manuals on how to install HF Codans, recipe books (eh?), leadership seminar evaluation feedback forms, countless transparencies on how to manage your interpersonal skills, old Annual Reports, agreements with donors on funding for wells from 1999. 

We do have a shredder. It is a fragile and gentle creature, unaccustomed to hard work and resistant to the idea of document destruction. Consequently, it shreds two pieces of paper at a time, works for for 5 minutes, and then needs a good rest for two hours. 

So we have resorted to the time-tested approach of incineration. But believe me, burning the 30 or so trunks of documents we have, is also quite the job. Paper burns great one or two sheets at a time, but throw in a ream or two and you get a lot of singed edges and a whole lot of very readable remains. So we now have teams of staff, scrunching paper, throwing it in the two burn barrels, stirring up the burning contents, shovelling out the ash. It would be a pretty nice job in winter. In 40˚ summer, during Ramazan, it is less popular.

IMG_2267 IMG_2268

Images from Bamiyan.

Friends invited me to join with them on a day flight to Bamiyan, in the central Hazarajat.
We flew over the wonderful Band-i-Amir lakes, copper colouring the water a fantastic blue.


We saw the Buddha caves, of course. I remember when they were destroyed, the bemused response from Mullah Omar to the outrage of the world – ‘They are just stones – do you not care for the suffering of the Afghan people?’

We then drove out to Shahar Zohak – the Red City – a very ancient, and large destroyed fort complex, some 2000 ft up a steep climb. The minerals are right in front of you in these hills:


Reds, blues, greys, magenta, yellow and the deep green of the valley floor.



Of top of  the fort complex was a small bunker, from the Soviet era.


And an old gun.

It was good to get out of Kabul.

Images from a summer in Kabul


I watched as this woman and her child slowly walked up the street, and then sat down at the corner. The mother spread a little plastic square for her daughter to sit on. Later, I went over to her: ‘Khala-jan, ena. Bi-giren paisa.‘ Sister, take some money.


Day labourers, taking a rest in their barrows in the Karte Se Bazaar.

Jam stall.

A kind of quiet has fallen on Kabul. People are anxious about the election outcome. Many people dislike Abdullah Abdullah, as he is a jihadi, and people fear he will take Afghanistan back to the time of the Mujahideen. On the other hand, Ghani’s Vice Presidential pick is Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord of the north. Ustad Atta, the powerful Governor of Mazar, and a man I used to have tea with, – how shall I put this? – pretty much loathes Dostum, and has put his (essentially private) army on alert – ‘If Dostum comes to power, be ready for war.’ A Northern/ Tajik - Southern/ Pashtun divide is emerging.

I doubt though, that we are looking at civil war. Protests definitely, a lot of shouting, and some violence. But the majority of people do not have the energy for war. I think.

Kabul, 2014

Up until the fall of the Taliban, and for a short time thereafter, begging was very common in Afghanistan’s cities and towns. Mainly women, but disabled men and children also. Then, for several years, the numbers of people by roadside, hands held out in supplication, seemed to drop off. The relative state of the economy had something to do with it. More jobs, more money, more being spent, more people giving zakat, more waste, just more.

There has been a change since we left here in 2012. It is very visible, and it is hard to look at. I would rather look away. Entire families are camped out at corners, in the middle of the roads, tapping on car windows. I haven’t seen so many people begging for years – since the harsh times of the Taliban. Troops have pulled out, and for every soldier, there was probably three or four Afghans that found employment: fixers, translators, drivers, cooks, cleaners, logistics, guards. Aid budgets have been cut, and the same metric applies. Less money is flying around. Fewer jobs, less spending, leaner times. Fine for those have have some kind of padding, but for the vulnerable, there is no buffer.

And the proof of all that is on the streets. There is still plenty of money – four and five storey residences are being built all over the place – but that money is moving in much tighter circles, and the vast majority of urban poor are locked out.

I suspect most people knew those good times were an aberration. That the economy resets is not a bad thing, in the long term, at a macro-level. No country can continue to be subjected to so much careless money; it would end in chaos or revolution. But at the human level, Afghanistan is heading for much harder times. As the crutches are removed, it will be dreadful for poor and vulnerable people in the cities.