I am at the Embassy again, trying to complete our visa process. Let me add parenthetically, that all this is for a layover in Delhi of less than 24 hours… I could not come last week as there were credible threats of attacks. I could not come on Saturday because of concerns that Sunday was 9/11, and there might be more attacks. In each case there were no actual attacks in Kabul, but after gaining the region team leader’s permission, I am here today.
Learning from my last experience, I arrive at 10.30 promptly. A few minutes later I am permitted entrance. On the way in I check to see if the security staff still have my scarf that I left here last week. They deny all knowledge of it.
Inside I join a long, defeated-looking queue of men. With glacial speed, we are called up one at a time to enter a small, dark room where the power is off, and where an Indian visa-bureaucrat-King exercises his rule. He finally takes my collection of passports and forms, and then spends several minutes on the phone, talking to his colleagues, dealing with other passports, and eventually glances at mine.
‘Wait five-ten minutes. I will finish these. Go outside.’ I demurely accept. Outside I wait for maybe 20 minutes, and then an Afghan sidekick emerges with my passports. He staggers off to a dimly lit hallway. 20 minutes later he returns, and I overhear the conversation:
‘No fax… no number… no clearance…checked?…. Yes but nothing… check some more…’
After another 30 minutes I go inside to another section, and… and…really, dear reader, it is too tedious to recall all the petty details of our sorry visa saga. I was ticked off for filling out the forms wrongly (despite them approving them last week: no use pointing that out, I was told not to argue, in the same tone a parent might use with a naughty child), I was told to fill out more details, and then sent back to another room, where, after more chitchat and humdrum and to-fro, I was told to pay $240 to another man in another room. This man, with a comb-over and the eyes of a slow-loris, with the care and slowness of a monk copying parchment, this man wrote 5 separate receipts, and told me to return at 4pm.
I exit, resigned. I decide to stay in this side of town. It is 12.15pm. It will take me 30 minutes to get back to the office, and I will have to leave at 3pm to get here at 4, as traffic will be bad.
I kill time by visiting Chicken St, once a place of old beauty and modesty: shops with genuine artefacts and antiques, carpets rare and beautiful, wonderful leatherwork, lapis jewellery. It is all being torn down.
The old shops are disappearing, to be replaced with concrete and glass. The old things are gone, replaced with cookie-cutter Dubai gold, fake Pakistani ship sextants and compasses, awful Chinese tat, lions and jugs and ashtrays made from shiny marble and plastic. This, if it is progress, is unspeakably horrible. The shop where Julie and I bought leather waistcoats in 1996, hand made and beautiful, is now rubble.
I find one old shop, and sit and talk to the owners. We bemoan the loss of Chicken St, and deride Kabul’s planners for destroying the one place that could have been, indeed was, a kind of tourist drawcard. A Petticoat Lane, a village within the city. ‘What to do?’ The shopkeeper shrugs. He has a tv on, and then he turns to me: ‘Have you seen what is happening?’
I watch with him the live reporting: about 1km away, the US Embassy is under attack. And then there are the unmistakeable crumping noises of explosions. I can’t quite believe it, partly because outside, there is absolutely no change in behaviour: people are carrying on as usual, they wander up and down the street, are supremely unconcerned, they shop, they chat, they sit together and laugh. Are they so inured to violence? So resigned?
The shopkeeper looks at me, ‘What is our country now? What sort of place is this?’
I used to say, that here in Afghanistan, if nothing else, I was a person of hope. But I have nothing to say to this man. What can I say to him? I struggle for some words, and after a few more minutes, I leave, and walk slowly back to the Indian Embassy. Security there now is tight, and I am barely permitted entrance: I have to convince the guards of my peaceful intent, I am frisked and searched several times. Finally at the Embassy, I get our visas, but there are new attacks on the road between me and where we live, at De Mazang and Habibia school. Roads will be blocked.
I walk. It is safer, I am not stuck in traffic, or held up. I avoid the crowds, and am told to walk around the police station near our home where the police are still mopping up. It takes me an hour and a half, but by 5pm, I am back home.