Phil Sparrow’s Afghanistan.

For those of you who missed the interview last night – here it is. I think I advertised the time wrongly, so big eggs to me.



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.

Shameless self-promotion, but about an important issue

There is a heated, polarised and not very humane debate going on in Australia at present about how to deal with refugees, arriving by boat to Australian territories. I wrote about this in ‘From under a leaky roof’ (taken from the Afghan proverb, ‘He ran out from under a leaky roof and found himself in the rain’), published back in 2005. But the issues are still pertinent, and while the Howard Government at the time congratulated itself on locking up refugees and treating them as criminals, essentially, and outsourcing their accommodation to poor Pacific islands like Nauru and Manus, I closed the book by saying, something along the lines of, ‘this problem has not been resolved. Refugees will seek asylum in Australia again; this is but a hiatus in an issue that will grow in magnitude and intensity around the world, as people seek better lives for themselves. When it happens next, will we have learned anything?’

Well, it seems not, as the Labor Government is following, or was following, identical trajectories to the Liberal Government it so roundly chastised. Anyway, I wrote a book, and its all about this very issue, so go out and buy a copy, peoples!

And in case you don’t trust my judgement, here’s what the critics said:

Still heading roughly forwards, mainly, mostly

Shocked and sad and grieving the death of the Eye Camp team, some of whom were friends and colleagues. Disrupted too, at a practical level, as we are meant to leave in less than a week. But we are still, mostly, mainly, heading back to Afghanistan. It just seems that the journey is never straightforward.

The fourth time

The first time you go to Afghanistan, people think you are crazy.

The second time, they consider you heroic.

The third time, you are disciplined and committed

The fourth time, it confirms that you are, in fact, crazy.

Interesting the process of getting ready to go back. I tried to explain it in the last post: it is about a relationship we have formed, or that has formed around us. We can abandon that, but it would be like abandoning a child.

Does anyone understand that? I suppose parents understand loving a child, but I suspect most people we know find it hard to understand that we have come to love Afghanistan in that way. No matter. As I said, I am not really out to convince anyone. In the early times, yes, I was truly evangelistic for Afghanistan. Lots of compelling words and energy for not much result: I spoke with passion to any one, any group, any place who asked. Conferences, camps, Rotary clubs, radio. It earned us lots of warmth and praise, but I started to feel like I was television for people: entertainment, not engagement. And no one joined in, anyway.

Now, my response is less elaborate: If you like what we are doing in Afghanistan, join us. If you can’t join us, give us money to do the work. And if you are a person of faith, pray for the country, for us, for peace. If you can’t or won’t do any of these things, then don’t let yourself off the hook with gushing sentiments. We don’t want praise, we want company.

No surprise: Afghanistan. Again.

It should come as no surprise that we are thinking about heading back to Afghanistan. What else have we done these last 11 years, but be in and out of Afghanistan? It has come to define us in ways I first never believed in, then rejected, then resisted, and now, slowly, am beginning to accept.

I was talking today to the inestimable Greg Miller, and over a fine piece of woodwork, he asked if in returning, we hoped to make a difference. The fluidity of my response surprised me, but I think it was true. I said that no, I didnt think we would make much difference. Being in Afghanistan was no longer about making a difference. It was about a relationship.

Going back to Afghanistan, is for me, a bit like knowing that you have to visit that crazed, distant uncle of yours, the one in the hospital. The visit won’t be much fun, you certainly won’t change him, and he will probably forget you soon after you have left. Maybe even while you are still there. But you visit him anyway. Because of the relationship: you are honoring the relationship.

In this case, I am honoring the relationship that has formed between us and Afghanistan; the one I never believed would come to be so inescapable.

We might achieve something positive. We might not. Change, in those terms, is not really that important to me any more. Those who seek to impose change – ideologues – become, invariably, tyrants, cynics, morons, or dead – spiritually, if not literally. Not that I have ever been afraid dying for what I believed in. But an ideologically driven death in Afghanistan is still a death, and Afghanistan has had countless ideological deaths. Suicide bombers are dying ideologically every day, and being a great source of inspiration to others. Afghanistan is not a Martin Luther King-type place. And there are countless aid morons, who move relentlessly from one place to the next, being ‘rewarded by the work’, ‘making a difference’, ‘seeing small changes’, etc etc. It is mostly because such aid workers are a] fulfilling their own need to be needed and b] because they never stick around long enough to see what really happens, that they can persist in such self-important fictions. [more on this another time – I know of the importance of disaster work and emergency teams; I resile more against development whoring, as Ridwan disparagingly described himself as doing..].

No, ideology is not what brings us back to Afghanistan. Love does, I suppose. I don’t feel particularly happy about another move. Moving our kids – three now, our momentum, our energies. But that is where we are called. And in following that call there is rightness. We are exiles here, anyway.

An Afghan story

A few days ago, I got a phone call from Alberto at the Red Cross Orthopaedic Centre here. Alberto has been in Afghanistan about 12 or more years. I think he is Italian. I have never met him that I recall, but I am told he is serious about his work.  I would imagine that he has seen alot of things change, and a lot of things hardly change at all.

Alberto wanted to refer to us a girl and her mother. The mother is paralysed and wheelchair bound. The girl is about 17 or so. She is studying in the 10th grade at a school here. Her father died when she was 2 months old, killed in the fighting. The mother is cared for 100% by the girl, who I suppose leaves her each day as she goes to class. They survive on Red Cross assistance and zakat, the Islamic requirement to give alms to the poor. They presently live in a room at the mother’s brother’s house. His patience and tolerance are wearing thin.

Alberto called me because the girl is getting increasingly frequent, serious death threats. He didn’t know what it was about, but he considered it beyond his remit. He has been trying to assist the mother with her degenerative paralysis; death threats are not his area.

I asked our program manager to go see the girl.  When Karima returned, she filled in the gaps. She told me that the girl’s other uncle – her dead father’s brother – wants the girl to get married to a man of his choosing – possibly to settle some debt, or seal some bargain. She refuses. So he threatens to kidnap and forcibly marry her, or kill her. He lives somewhere in Western Pakistan: it is not like we can go and visit him.

I heard the story and felt what I have so often felt here: this sense of hopelessness, this inability to change what is wrong, to help people with their ordinary sorrows and griefs.

We talked some more, and then I wondered aloud to Karima how they had arrived at the Red Cross centre from C District, which is a long way away. I wasn’t really questioning the integrity of the story, though I do often hear great fictions here. Red Cross assessments are thorough and reliable. It was more an idle wondering as to how this girl and her mother got around. You can’t push someone in a wheelchair through the streets here.

In response, Karima told me that the mother is so frail and thin, that the girl, in order to move her about, simply lifts her in to a taxi. They leave the wheelchair at home. On arrival to their destination, the girl carries her mother again, till a chair can be found. This Karima had seen with her own eyes.

I thanked Karima and told her to leave it with me. After several hours work on other things, the only thing I could think of doing was giving the girl and her mother some money. There is a fund here, which many of the expats contribute to, for times such as this. We just put money in every now and again, and then when something arises, we can apply for a few hundred dollars. Sometimes it buys food, sometimes rent, sometimes  medicines. Sometimes it is abused, and sometimes misspent. But sometimes, a few hundred dollars at the right time, while not solving everything, can help a great deal.

I asked Rachel for some money from the fund, and after a few more phone calls, we had secured it.

So today Karima went and got the girl, and after some more talking, gave her the money. We know there is no solution to the danger of her being kidnapped, or forced into marriage, or being killed. I know well that it is no long term solution. But some money towards rent might help the uncle remain sympathetic towards the girl and her mother – his sister. Maybe it might also buy some things to get them through the winter.

We talked about it afterwards. We will stay in touch with them. If the threats remain just threats, then in a year or two, the girl may find a job, or get married. Meanwhile, it is just an Afghan story:  common, intractable and sad, and there is not much that can be done.