Answer to Steven.

My old, good friend Steven read the last post here and commented: ‘I’d value your current insights; questions that others might like to ask too:

So, do you want Kabul to be like Perth or Dubai? If so, how? 

If not, why not?

Is Perth poor?  If so, how?  

What are the Kabulites teaching you? Are they rich in other ways? 

What do you want Kabul to look like when it is ‘finished’?’

Good questions, and it is true that it is easier to criticise than to find solutions, so here is my attempt:

So, do you want Kabul to be like Perth or Dubai?

Kabul, I think, doesn’t know what it wants to be. It lost 30 years to war, and the reconstruction process has been driven by expatriate Afghans and foreign advisors, who have imposed a hybrid Middle Eastern/ Western/ American persona on the city. It is a poor graft. I suppose I would like Kabul to become like Delhi; with a preserved and functional old city, and a new area where the business and political sector can function. But the old city is largely already destroyed, such heritage has little currency in Afghan eyes.

If not, why not?

I don’t want Kabul to emulate Dubai. Dubai is Babylon, the city that defies everything and attempts to show that money and engineering can overcome any environmental limitations and natural constraints. There is a saying in Arabic: ‘My grandfather rode a donkey; my father drove a car; I fly a plane. My son will ride a donkey.’ Something like that. They recognise themselves, at one level, their lifestyle is utterly, foolishly excessive and unsustainable. When the energy crisis comes, UAE will rupture. And they are doing nothing to build longevity into their culture: Arabs themselves do nothing in the UAE; all labour and technocratic work is done by Philippinos, Pakistanis, Indians and Europeans.

Is Perth poor?  If so, how? 

Yep. We have become almost completely a nation of aspirational materialists. Sadly, a globalised world has taken from us the chance to develop, slowly, our own culture; instead we have bought into a US model of society, based around consumption and the car. We preserve nothing of our own (post colonial) heritage (I mean at a personal level; not the corporate preservation of colonial era buildings), small though it is. We break down and build anew, history means little. We pay tiny, grudging reference to our Indigenous history and have anyway reduced it to smoking ceremonies and the Aboriginal tri-colour.

What are the Kabulites teaching you? 

That’s harder. My encounters with poor Afghans make me reflect on my own wealth and power. My encounters with powerful Afghans (police, officials), make me aware of the corruptibility of any person. My encounters will small boys remind me of the mischievousness and hope of youth. My wife’s encounters with young men teach her that young men are pretty much the same anywhere, when it comes to women. Her encounters with Afghan women are mixed: some welcoming, some not. My encounters with Afghan women? I don’t have any. But what is real in all this? There is still so much pure survival going on here, though, that the best of the Afghan person is often not revealed, and such strong currents of fear, hostility, uncertainty that the public person is more a reflection of Afghanistan’s own chaos. I fear that by the time we are past survival, Afghans themselves will have lost something key to their identity, at least those in the big cities.

Are they rich in other ways? 

I don’t know. I used to be greeted with wonderful hospitality in villages. I am less present in villages these days but I suspect this reverence for the guest is still strong, despite the latent, growing anger at Western military and social imperialism. It is hard for village people to be so welcoming when their last encounter with foreigners was from the wrong end of an M16.

In Kabul these days, most Afghans want little to do with foreigners, at least at a social level.  We rarely get the invites to funerals, weddings, circumcisions, that we used to get: too close an association with foreigners now, in Kabul, will see you reported to the local Taliban, and lead to an interrogation, a threat, a visit. There is still great thrift, inventiveness and skill; but that is not unique to Afghanistan; rather it is pretty much common to most places that have been decimated in conflict.

What do you want Kabul to look like when it is ‘finished’?’

I don’t know. I find that sort of question difficult to answer these days. I feel little hope when I look at the big picture. I draw hope mainly from the small, lasting, positive changes our work brings. Mere tweaks at the edge of things, perhaps. But in a sea of poor quality work, bad development decisions, and careless spending, they are good things.

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2 thoughts on “Answer to Steven.

  1. Thank you, Phil.

    You identify a common problem between Perth and Kabul, loss of history and identity. This loss of real value seems to me to be driven by consumerism, materialism, and by corporations (both business and national) – in a ‘nice’ way in the west and in places like Afganistan as the underbelly, but same effect, the same sorts of losses.

    If if is any comfort, as a historian I would suggest that living in survival mode doesn’t necessarily mean that people will lose the key to their identities. Of course identities evolve, but most nationalities are stamped by suffering – either of themselves, or others – and many have developed very specific traits with a traceable heritage (obvious example, Israel). I would even suggest that identities are crystallised by suffering… of course this must be balanced with the incidence of cultural genocide and/or genocide where simply not enough is left to rebuild… Maybe cultural genocide is what we are seeing all over the world as a result of the drive to have more. Hmm. So, not so comforting. Sorry.

    Perhaps the energy crisis will come in a time and a way which will enable us to find all of ourselves again.

    May God have mercy on us.

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