On the absence of privilege.

At 8am I drop Rachel at D’s house, where she will spend the morning, playing with her friend. Julie is teaching at the school. I have decided to drive myself to the Indian Embassy, rather than get a driver. I am hopeful that I will be able to talk my way in, past the barricades and the gates and the guards, and park close by.

The drive in is surprisingly open. We are in general warned against going into the business/ Government sector in Kabul before 10am, as statistically, most suicide and armed attacks occur between 7 and 10, when traffic is at its peak. But I want to get to the Embassy early; I have plans of being in and out quickly.

I am refused entrance at the first gate. No point in arguing that they let me through here last week; then I had Rachel with me, and Pieta, I was clearly a family man, and Rachel was being cute, and it was Ramazan, and people were trying to be kinder, in order to win favour with God. Today, I am refused, and a guard swings his gun on me as I turn the car around. I find parking about 2 kilometres away, and jog back to the Embassy, arriving at 9.00. My haste is pointless: the Embassy is closed to those seeking visas till 10am. The guards are officious and punctilious, to the point of violence. I wait demurely in the shade, trying not to think too much about the havoc wrought here two years ago, when the Embassy was attacked and 30 people killed. I console myself that now, security is so much tighter, that any attack is highly unlikely.

As I wait, several well dressed Afghans approach the guards, and are let in. They are applying for visas on behalf of their Western employers: diplomats, other Embassies, the UN. Some are getting visas themselves; they have connections, show cards, phone someone higher up and are permitted entrance. I see several of the big Landcruisers, blacked out windows, no number plates. Always there are two men in the front; one driving, the other holding a weapon.  They have short hair, sharp eyes and plenty of muscle; they drive right into the Embassy.

Our organisation has no such connections, no such facilities, and I find myself resenting the absence of privilege. Being a foreigner, being white-skinned, English speaking, confident – it all counts for little today. I wait alongside the other Afghans, squatting in the dust at the roadside and trying to avoid the wrath of the guards. I try to remind myself that this is what it is like to be poor and marginalised; this is the experience of countless thousands of Afghans and poor people the world over, every day, for all their lives. They watch as the powerful people, the big men, walk right on in and receive preferential treatment. I have done the same many times: when our son fell from the second floor and split his head, we went straight into Cure hospital and were seen by an American doctor. No waiting. We go into the Serena hotel, or the Finest supermarket and spend our wealth, exercising our privilege. To be stripped of something I am used to is unpleasant, and it is a humbling experience, and at times humiliating. The guards shout at us, the man next to me is struck. They can make us wait, and they do. But at some deeper level, there is much more that is wrong here. Mainly, it is that I am resenting being treated like a nobody. What I should resent, I realise, is that people – anyone – is treated like a lesser person. My feelings are selfish, they are about me being brought low, not that such inequalities of access and power exist. My temporary journey into the poor Afghan’s world unsettles me, makes me question myself, but all I want is my privilege back.

Finally at 10.45, I am permitted to enter and am able to submit our applications forms. It takes another 50 minutes, and I am forced to rewrite certain parts of the forms, in the way a teacher might give lines to a naughty child. The strange thing is that I play along; I become submissive, grateful for any assistance they give me, polite to the point of cravenness, I fold myself into myself to occupy less space. It is because they have power and I don’t. I want something only they can give or withhold at whim.

It is done, and I exit the Embassy; the line of people waiting as long as it was. I jog back to the car, and spend 5 minutes checking it for magnetic bombs: cars left unattended can be targets. A convoy passes me enroute, and I quickly photograph it, such convoys are rare in Kabul these days, as the military mainly now bypass the city, trying to avoid civilian confrontations and attacks. My car is safe, and I drive back to our area, arriving sometime near 1pm.


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