Staying in Afghanistan… part II

So now you have a visa, a work permit and a concession from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that you may become a registered NGO. (read it: How to Stay in Afghanistan legally) But this is only enough for you to be in Afghanistan till the visa and work permit expire. To stay here, you must be part of a real NGO, and for that, your NGO must actually become a registered NGO. And for that, the Ministry of Economy is necessary.

Now, you have already been to the Ministry of Economy, because you went there by mistake way, way, way back, when the grass was still green and the humming fish swam and the brown barbaloots hung out in their barbaloot suits eating truffula fruits. Now, with the authorisation letter from Ministry of Foreign Affairs tight in your hands, you must go back… Back to where it all started.

So, you go. Early in the morning you go, believing this will be a good time to catch people in a good mood. Your drive yourself to town, in the Landcruiser with the faulty clutch that sticks, so that you stall in front of an oncoming amoured personnel carrier, bristling with angry soldiers. But, you make it without being killed or run over, and the happy people at the Ministry of Economy gate let you park inside, unlike the folk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who made faces and made you park miles away. At the MOE you traipse upstairs to the second floor, and then after a few minutes wandering, up to the third floor, and find, with difficulty, the office of a cheerful elderly Afghan who is nicknamed ‘Urfanzada’. Zadan is the verb to strike or hit in Dari, and so you guess that it means he was once hit by an Urfan. It clearly had a lasting impact. Urfanzada talks a lot, slipping between English and Dari and waving his hands and complimenting you on many things: your language, your country, your aims, your hopes, your life. He is a complimentary fellow. He evetually instructs you to go across to the neighbouring building to the fourth floor, where the big boss, ‘Basirat’ will give the order for your registration process to start. Until then, ‘Nothing, nothing, haha, no, nothing’ laughs Urfanzada, ‘Haha, nothing can happen. You speak beautiful Dari.’

The two buildings are joined by a walkway on the third floor. To save going down three flights, then up four, you decide to use the walk way. You walk over there. To save people using the walkway, someone has locked it. You go down three flights of stairs and then up four, and then down one, because Basirat’s office is now on the third floor, you are primly told. You have no idea who this man is, or what he looks like, and no offices are labelled, so you wander around, calling out, ‘Basirat…Basirat’. Like you had lost a kitten.

Finally you find an office and there is a loud altercation going on within. The men look at you suspiciously, but are all smiles as you explain your mission, and luckily, you are in the right place, but unluckily, Basirat is out. No one else can give the order for things to start without him, you are told. ‘Haha, no’. It seems he is like the man with the starter pistol at a race. Looking disconsolate, you are told to come back at two o’clock. He will be here then. The men resume fighting as you turn away.

It is now 10am. Four hours. Four hours is a long time to pass in Kabul centre. Outside is broiling heat, the traffic is snarling, and you don’t know where to go. You meander around and find a shop that sells roller skates. Another shop that sells pipes and toilets. A man offers to shave your head. A boy comes and peers at you from well within your personal space. And so on. Finally, it is two and you return to the Ministry of Economy. No messing around now, you zoom up find Basirat’s office and he is in, but you will not see him. He stays behind a door. A man comes and takes your letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it is whisked inside, scribbled on, and handed back. As you hasten back to Urfanzada, you ponder. Is Basirat terribly ugly? May no man look upon him and live? Is he a pigmy? A rogue? A talking parrot?

Urfanzada is thrilled to see you, and full of compliments. But, his face falling, he tells you that the Bigger Boss also needs to sign off. Basirat is only the (invisible) second boss. And the Bigger Boss is not here. He will be back at 3pm. You will wait, you decide. And so you sit and Urfanzada and you swap stories and he brings you hot tea, perfect for a 38 degree day in an room facing the sun, with no air-conditioning, and only a fan that chirps and wheezes and occasionally spins a bit.

After a while you begin to suspect. Urfanzada is still talking, chattering, friendly and happy and bright eyed and interested, nauseatingly so. But no sign of the Bigger Boss. Eventually, you ask: ‘Is he coming back today? The Bigger Boss?’

Urfanzada looks crestfallen, slightly ashamed even. ‘No’ he says, ‘But! maybe you could come tomorrow? We could drink more tea. Come tomorrow. How beautifully you speak.’ It is as you thought. You were a great day out for Urfanzada, and he wants more of your delightful company.

You determine you will not go tomorrow.

A few days pass and you go back, this time, taking your charming kids and beautiful wife. They will surely accelerate matters. And to an extent, they do. Clever tactic. Urfanzada is warm and appreciative and hospitable, and with only a few minutes delay, you are brought in to see the Bigger Boss. He takes your form, the one from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Basirat’s scrawl on it, and appends his own. ‘Why don’t you speak Pashto?’ he asks. (You remember slow-eyed Taliban prodding you with this same question, their AK47’s hanging limply from their hands). ‘Errmmm’ you mutter. ‘Ermmm. But I speak speak beautiful Dari’. 

From the Bigger Boss, you head back to Urfanzada, who trills about your excellent achievements, and tells you with great earnestness that now, you must go to see Jalil. He will give you the forms you need to fill out. Then, your case will be heard by a five member commission. Then if all goes well, (here Urfanzada spreads his hands wide), ‘The High Commission will sign off on it. And why shouldn’t they? Look at you! For the mercy of God! Now, off to Jalil’.

Jalil is in the next office. He is hairy and crouched, and ill tempered. He is possibly psychotic. He is certainly pedantic. He takes your forms and imperiously directs you to sit, on a sagging seat that gives you a toilet posture. He then spends maybe 15 minutes reading the name of your organisation to himself. ‘Hagar. Hajar. Hajra. Hagar. Hajra. Hajr-ah!. Haa-jara. Hagar. H-a-j-a-r-a. Hag-jar.’ He looks displeased. He tries again. ‘Hajar. Hagra. Hagara. Hajira.’ On and on it goes. Finally he fixes you with an evil look. ‘What is your organisation called?’ You tell him, and explain the story. Hagar, a servant of Sarah, who was the barren wife of Abraham. Sarah suggests that Abraham sleep with Hagar, to try to found the dynasty God had promised. Then, Sarah finally does get pregnant and insists that Hagar and her new son be abandoned. Left to die, Hagar and her son are saved by God’ Etc, etc. You wind the story up with a compelling flourish: ‘So, we work with vulnerable women. Like who Hagar was. Or as you say in Dari, Hajera.’ 

Jalil is not convinced.’ But why are you called Hagar?’ You look at him blankly. He is astonishing to you. You tell the whole story again. Jalil nods, agreeing, but he still doesn’t seem to get it, and resumes his chant, pronouncing to himself, ‘Hagar. Hajara.Hajra. Hagara.’

You play your only trump card, and bring in your wife and children from the hall outside. Jalil looks up, frowning. His manner improves, and there is a imperceptible increase in the speed with which he mutters to himself. He gives up. It is too hard. He fools around in a hidden shelf and finally brings out a crumpled collection of papers. He selects a combination of the least crumpled and presents them to you. There are in Dari and English, and are not hard to understand: Name of organisation. Purpose. Budget. Staff. Aims. Signatures. But Jalil is not done, and he takes a further 30 minutes reading it all to you, and explaining in high Persian what each means. ‘Yes, yes,’ you murmer, with increasing testiness, ‘Yes, it is good. I see, yes. Very fine. You have had trouble. Yes, I see. Don’t trouble yourself further with this. I see. Yes. Please don’t trouble yourself.’ But Jalil is troubled by it, and it is only finally after about an hour, with the kids slack with boredom and slumped in their chairs and your wife glassy-eyed, that he finishes and lets you go. ‘Fill it out and bring it back’, he shouts as you leave. ‘Yes, thankyou, yes, I got it. Thankyou. Yes’, you shout back, running from the building before he starts the name-muttering thing again.

It takes only a few days to fill out the forms and get them translated. And so you must go back.

On a fine morning, you return to the Ministry of Economy and to Jalil. Maybe, you tell yourself, he was just being careful. He wanted you to get it. Fussy. He was being fussy.

Jalil is in. He doesn’t appear to have left, in fact. He is still hairy, and still crouching at his desk. He looks up and waves at you to sit. ‘Salaam’, you begin, politely. He silences you and sucks his teeth for a while, and rearranges a pen. When he is ready, he takes your forms. ‘Ahhh. Hagar. Hajra. Haajera. Hajira.’ His eyes are fixed on the first line. But this time, he lurches out of first gear and reads the pages. There is only a few small errata. Firstly, you have not been clear enough as to the nature of the health assistance you plan on giving to these vulnerable women.

‘See here what you have written’, he says, and gestures to a tiny box on the form, about the size of a postage stamp. ‘What do you mean by health assistance? Why haven’t you summarised what you will do? You haven’t summarised it.’ ‘But’, you say, ‘the box is very small. There is not a lot of room to write. I think health assistance is ok, it means we will assist them with health issues. That is clear enough.’

 ‘Oh no. No, no’ he says. ‘No. NO. It is not clear. Maybe you are giving them medicine. Or maybe first aid. Or maybe birthing help. So. Which is it? Eh?’

You look back at him. ‘It is health help. Health assistance. It will be different with each person’, you reply. Jalil sucks his teeth. His arms are hairier than a bear, and he has large hands. ‘Ahhh, but which kind? Maybe you are giving them medicine. Or first aid? Which? Which is it? First aid, or medical help?’ This goes on for a long time, and in your mind you drift off to the green happy country. Here, time moves differently and so it is, that although this matter is clearly important to Jalil, you out-last him, your stubbornness rating exceeding even his, and he gives up. Rocking back in his chair he fixes you with his evil eye again. ‘Now, then. So you will not change the health assistance summary. Well. Where is your file?’

‘File? What file?’

‘Your file. You must bring a file for us to put all this in.’

You didn’t bring a file. Maybe, after the pink folder thing at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you should have known. But Jalil said nothing about a file last time, even though you pressed him most closely for all the items you would need. ‘No, you need a file. Look –’ he gestures to a bookshelf. It is filled with files with the names of other NGO neatly typed on the spines. No file or typing is alike, proving, you suppose they had each been purchased and labelled individually, by the unlucky staff of other NGOs,  who like you, had sweated in this very chair, under Jalil’s probing eye.

‘I don’t have one. You didn’t mention a file. Why didn’t you tell me? I would have brought a file. You didn’t mention a file. No file was mentioned’. Your tongue is thick in your mouth and you uselessly repeat yourself, ‘I wish you had said to get a file. You didn’t tell me to bring anything else. No file. I asked you. You didn’t tell me to bring a file.’ You look at Jalil.

He looks steadily back at you, a grin creasing his eyes. He looks almost pleased with himself. ‘No, I didn’t tell you.’ He doesnt apologise. ‘Go. Buy one. Buy a file’, he tells you, ‘The stationary shops are just there. Go and get one and come back. You see, we don’t have files. Look – see. Everyone else brought a file. You go and get one. A file. Because a file, a file is needed.’

‘But I can’t go now’, you whisper, you moan, you cry, ‘You didn’t tell me to bring a file. Why didn’t you tell me? I don’t want to go and buy a file. Look out there. The traffic. The heat. The parking. There is no parking. I am alone, I don’t have a driver. The heat, the traffic.’ What is about Jalil’s office that everyone starts repeating themselves, you wonder. Jalil hasn’t stopped: ‘A file! A file is needed!’ he intones, and his secretary, a woman who hitherto has neither spoken nor moved, springs to life. She is wearing orange and pink.

‘Yes, you need a file. A file’, she choruses, and smiles winningly at you. You slump back. And magically, Jalil decides that he has had enough of this, and reaches under his desk and pulls out a file. He blows the dust off it, and hands it to you and smiles. ‘Here is a file. You can bring us one next time.’ Hardly daring to breathe, you punch holes in the bits of paper, using the orange and pink lady’s paper punch, and she smiles again, a lovely happy radiant beam of light, and then she takes the file.

‘You will hear from us if there is a problem’, Jalil says. ‘And… if not? If there is no prob lem?’ you ask, edging toward the door. Jalil shrugs. His altruism is all spent. He shrugs again. Bowing and thanking and thanking and bowing, you back out, the way courtiers used to with kings, kings who could have you beheaded if you displeased them. As you close the door, Jalil crouches down behind his desk, and the lady freezes, an orange and pink statue holding a file.

You know you will be back there again.





14 thoughts on “Staying in Afghanistan… part II

  1. I sit in a cafe in Leederville… smiling at the story… very glad I am in a cafe in Leederville… and not trying to get past Jalil…

  2. Pingback: Backyard Missionary » Blog Archive » Before You Complain - Part II

  3. Praise God I work for an organisation large enough to have a full time national staff member deal with our work permits, visas etc! I have seen her laugh / cry with fustration at the process and your email enders me to her even more! Good luck with your subsequent visits 🙂

  4. I randomly found your blog and wanted to thank you for all of your posts and hope that since you now have 7 readers that you will continue to write.

  5. Hi Wevegotseoul. Thanks for the comment and the visit. I will continue to write! 7 readers! Yes! (Punches fist into the air).

  6. Do I get counted as an eight reader if I read a post a second time?

    Phil, serious topic – coffee. What is the coffee situation in Afghanistan? How do they drink it, do they roast it lcoally, and is it any good?

    Or is it all tea?

  7. Hi Grendel. Coffee is pretty much unknown. In fact I offered a cup of espresso to my guard once, and he took a sip and grimaced. ‘Is it medicine?’ No, I said, its like tea. He took another sip. ‘Do I have to drink it?’ I took it back off him.
    Its all tea…

  8. I just would not survive doing your job. I can’t cope with procrastinating for 5 years about ChildSafe, and they are not a patch on this story – less hairy and with a much nicer office, for starters.

    Maybe you should in fact be starting a meta-NGO in Af. Then you could provide assistance to vulnerable NGOs as a mission statement. Try and get that one past Jalil, with or without file/wife/kids/grovelling???

  9. ah, Phil… you make something so frustrating seem so humorous.Quite a skill. This has been strangely encouraging; it makes my frustrations pale in comparison.
    we are missing you guys.

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