Encounters with power: 3

I have written previously about power and its corruptions in this country. And I had intended that my next post, i.e., this post, be about the struggles we are having in Faryab province – our long term development work being undermined, sidelined and devalued, by the rising tide of uncritical aid money being splashed about. The crazy thing (or one of the many sad and crazy things) is that in those parts of Afghanistan where peace reigns, the development dollar has been the weakest: that is, proportionally far less has been spent on basic infrastructure, education, training of professional and technocrats and so on. Those places that are least stable – so, more poorly positioned to actually thrive – have had the most money spent. Big aid follows the military machine. It is called the peace penalty, it is well known and roundly criticised by people like us whose opinions never reach further than the next street.

In Faryab – seeing as I have now started – it used to be peaceful. Then some Taliban moved in. Then the US came and shot up some valleys and had some of their drones drop some bombs. Then one of our staff got kidnapped and lots of NGO staff got threatened. The insecurity continued to get worse, in part it seems, because people realised that insecurity attracts money. And sure enough, the big money came. And now, people in the villages – those few places where we can still work, where security is sufficient that it permits us a presence, big uncritical aid has corrupted the local people so comprehensively they no longer want to be participants in development. They want it all done for them. They will not contribute free labour: they want to be paid. They will not send their sons and daughters to literacy classes: they want incentives – wheat and oil – before they will give their children permission. And so on. And there goes our approach.

But more on that later.

So: it is Thursday. I have dropped some friends at Chicken St, and then I continue to Bush Bazaar, where I intend to stock up on provisions for our friends, Tom and Lyn, who are coming to Kabul to teach at the kids school. I buy oats and bacon, soap and shampoo, hot chocolate and real Italian pasta, weetbix and real coffee. It is a successful expedition.

I return to our car, and notice my front tire is flat. This is a frustration, as I am meant to be home in 15 minutes, so Julie can go out to lunch. The little boys who attend the vehicles, occasionally polishing them with filthy rags, in the hope of receiving a few Afs compensation for their re-arrangement of the dust, notice my arrival and gather around.

‘You have a flat tire’, they trill.


‘But it was the police. See, they have taken your number plate too.’ I am slow to catch on. It was the police?

‘Yes, you can’t park here. They said. They did it. They tore off your number plate. See, look! Come, see!’ Their excitement is palpable: a foreigner in trouble is high entertainment. I go see, and sure enough, the plate is gone. I look down the row of variously arranged cars; abandoned it seems, for such is the Afghan way of parking. I notice that perhaps half have similarly had their front tires punctured. Others are without plates too. It is not just me then.

Now my anger begins to build. Issue me a fine for parking in a wrong place (though post some ‘No Parking’ signs first), but take my number plate? Puncture my tire?

‘When did this happen? Where are they?’ I demand of the boys, as though they were complicit (they possibly were: they certainly encouraged me to park there, and I can’t be sure they don’t benefit in some way from all this).

‘Up there – see – if you run, you can catch them.’

It seems I have little choice. To have no licence plate is a serious problem and who knows to what graveyard of remote offices the hapless number plates will be borne and hidden? It could take me days to find. Better to try to retrieve it now. I set off jogging down the street, acutely aware that about $300 worth of goods are now sitting in my car in open sight.

After 5 minutes I catch the police. There are about 30 of them. Good Grief. How many coppers are needed to stab tires and pull off plates? Is this an all day thing? Is it such hard work? But more pressingly, who is in charge? Which is the commander? Who do I talk to? I gabble to various underlings and thrust my registration papers at many lowly police toe-rags before finally finding the Commander, and puff out my story. I am not abrasive  – perhaps I should be, or might be, if I hadn’t run the best part of a kilometre. I mainly want my number plate back, and starting a fight with 30 police officers is not going to work. See, I have learned something in the last 12 years.

The Commander scans my papers and grunts. I babble apologies. He takes a single appraising look at me, as if to ascertain how much trouble I can cause, or perhaps how much I am good for.

‘Give him his numberplate’. This is a concession to the fact that I am a foreigner, I am sure – an Afghan here would be told to get lost, to come to the office, to come back in three days. The Commander, without raising his eyes, starts to write something – a fine, perhaps, and then his sidekick, based on some subtle communication from the Commander, jumps to life and tells me, ‘1000Afs’. About $20. It is not too much, though whether it is a bribe or a fine I do not know. Should I protest? Is it too much? Is it official? An official bribe perhaps. The Commander writes out one, two, three, four, and then a fifth copy of the receipt.

‘Why five?’ I ask. Foolish, perhaps, but why do I need so many?

‘Five hours. 200Afs per hour.1000 Afs’ The Commander’s meaning is oblique. ‘Eh? Five hours of what?’ I start to ask, and then decide the better of it. That I was ‘illegally’ parked (note, there are no signs what so ever forbidding parking in the entirety of the street) for only one hour is not going to get my 800Afs back, and if I start to argue my case I might just find myself in his car along with my numberplate.

I get the number plate, the five receipts, my registration papers, and begin the jog back. It now takes only about 45 minutes to locate the jack, the tire lever, pancake myself under the car – now so low to the ground that you could barely slip a pizza underneath – jack it up and change the tire. The jack is the sort that you turn with a small handle, and it offers very little mechanical advantage. With each turn, the jack raises about 1/10th of a millimetre. It is a slow business, and with every turn, my knuckle knocks on the underbody of the car. In warm weather it would be painful, in the wintery 5˚ C, it is murderous, and at one point, I get up, kick a rock and say a bad word. The Afghan boys are delighted, and laugh openly: ‘He has a flat tire! He is changing the tire! He is angry!’

I derive only a small amount of satisfaction from the fact that I am a source of amusement to small boys. More interesting is the solidarity I feel with other car owners, who return to find their number plates gone and their tires down. They too look disgusted and angry, and when our eyes meet, there is the brief recognition that we have been wronged, together.

Finally I am done. I am filthy, from the mud, the oil and grease caked around the jack, the black of the tire, the effort, the blood from my banged knuckle.  I lower the car, hang the punctured tire on the brace at the back of the car, and I drive home, and though vexed, I am not furious. Perhaps I am getting better at managing these situations. Or perhaps I was just too irritated to get really enraged. Or just realised at a subconscious level the futility of it.

I continue to speculate as I drive. If my encounter with Kabul’s police was archetypical -and all I know and read and am told suggests that it is – I wonder how the people of this country are meant to vest trust in its institutions and its officials. I wonder at what point it tips, when enough people decide that on balance, ‘this’ state of affairs is preferable to another. What corruptions are acceptable and what aren’t? What will people put up with? I know it is a world I am largely not part of, and when I get home, I tell our watchman what happened. He says little, but looks at me in a way I can’t quite fathom. It is almost – almost, like he is thinking, ‘Now you’ve had a taste of it’. I do not mean he is mean, or vindictive – far from it, he is a kind and gentle man. But he knows, and I know, that I rarely ever experience anything like the privations and pains that he does, that poor people do. I would not blame him at all, for taking a measure of satisfaction that for a brief minute, I shared something of the hardness of the life of the poor.

Later I go out the bazaar and get the tire repaired. It is only 100Afs.

I please myself the following morning, by being able to laugh when the same watchman comes to the door at 7AM to tell me that I have two completely flat tires.


Buying a hammer, reprised.

As mentioned, Wonderful Wyoming, in the middle of Mazar-I-Sharif. Note also the fake antique-y carvings, apparently dug out from the ruins of Balkh.

From this shop, the one with the smaller red traffic cone outside, in the summer of 2000, I bought a hammer.

It was an intensely irritating and confronting experience, and made me think long about violence, hurt, rage and reconciliation, and what we do with our anger. I wrote a piece about it, subsequently published anonymously in a magazine. I have reprinted it, below. Anger and its ugly relatives are more and more common in this country, and yet no one is really talking about how to deal with it.

Buying a hammer.

A provoking encounter the other day. I have been looking for a hammer, a nice heavy hammer with a good handle. Most of the hammers I see here have big heads and crummy handles, held on with bits of nail and glue and they look like at the next big swing the head would fly off and bury itself into your neighbour’s wall or even your neighbour himself. So, finding a little shop on the east side of the Rouza and seeing it had pukkah hammers, I was delighted. 1.7 lak *, not a bad price. I looked it over, pulled the head, twidled it around, much to the amusement of the shopkeeper, who said smilingly – ‘Its strong! You can’t break it!’

I said, ‘No, it looks good, but if it does break, I’ll bring it back and you can swap it’ and he said, ‘Yes, yes, of course. It is 2 lak, but for you, a guest, 1.7’.

So I bought it. Took it home. Told Julie about it. Ate lunch, thinking about my nice new hammer. Hit my first rusty bolt with it, trying to loosen it. Put the claws under the bolt and pulled, and ping! the claws snapped.

I went out later in the evening to get meat and mandarins, and so I went back to the shop too. I just put the pieces on the bench and told the shopkeeper what had happened. It was very apparent that he soon realised he was reasoning with a fool. Anyone could see that the claws had broken – but not the head. It the head had come off, he would replace it – ‘without question! But this is the claws – how could you fix this? You can’t replace this!’ I said, ‘Yes, you could and what’s more, you said you would.’

It would be hard to describe the excitement that ensued. The conversation had begun reasonably enough, but soon it just escalated into a whole new dimension. The shopkeeper began remonstrating loudly with me, his partner and everyone else in the area. Anyone who came it was told the story, persuaded of the facts, asked for a verdict, dressed in robes and put in the judge’s seat. “I was a foreigner, it was ridiculous, I should be giving him money, not him giving money to me. What could he do with a broken hammer – you couldn’t sell that for 10,000Afs”.

In the microsecond when he drew breath, I interjected,  ‘Yes, you could sell it – there are plenty lots worse than that at the second hand bazaar’, to which he said, ‘That’s absurd! You want me to go to the second hand bazaar! I’m a shopkeeper! You go to the bazaar. This hammer’ – he held it disdainfully – ‘this is from China! Of course it will break. If it was from Pakistan, or even better, Afghanistan – then it would not break. See my hammer ‘ – he pulled out his own wooden-handled, creaky-looking nail-banger – ‘This hammer would never break’. It looked like a stick with an iron potato stuck on the end. Nothing to break, I thought. He was still going: ‘If you sell me a car and I drive it, and have an accident, can I bring the car back and you pay for it? Can I?’

‘Give me 1 lak then, that’s all. Finish it’, I said.

‘A lak! A lak?’ Another round of haranguing, wringing of hands, impassioned pleas and shaking of fingers. A lot of it was beyond my infant Farsi, but the meaning was always clear. Finally I said, ‘Ok, give me 80,000Afs. That’s less than half. Half your responsibility, half mine’. He just wouldn’t budge. ‘Shame on you’, he said. ‘Shame!’

He wrapped up his case with an angry flourish and turned to serve less obstructive customers and I stood there, raging, and thought about it. To leave with the hammer would be frustrating. If I demanded the money and refused to budge, I could probably eventually maybe get 50,000Afs, and feel rotten and angry and win a lifelong enemy. So I took out my wallet and took out 30,000Afs and put them on the counter, with the bits of the hammer.

I said, ‘You said, Shame on me. You said I am the foreigner, I should be giving you money’. I said ‘I am a Christian, and you said this cost 2 lak originally. I am giving you the full price. I am giving you money. I am upset, but Jesus said we should be good to one another. I do not think you have been good to me. May God be with you.’

So then I got back in the car and left. No hammer, no money.


* This was before the currency was revalued. The Afghani was so inflated then, that everything cost hundreds of thousands of Afs. The term ‘lak’ – common across Asia was used to denote 100,000. $1 was about 140,000 Afs.


So, on this recent trip back to Mazar, I went into the shop. The same shopkeeper was there. We chatted a while, I looked at his jigsaws and drill bits. I am sure he did not recognise me. I don’t think my actions back then meant much to him, then or now. I doubt my response lead him to view God, forgiveness or reconciliation much differently. Back then, I simply realised it was the right and the righteous – the graceful – thing to do. I still think that, and in this country which increasingly affords so many opportunities to build and hold anger, I wish more people were thinking and acting similarly. Well, I have had plenty of furious moments here. But I aspire to be a person who defuses anger, who shows grace.

Angry Afghans

Blood red sky in the Central Hazarajat.

It is a few days ago. I have arrived back from Lal and am in a car, being driven back from the airport. Amin is my driver, and he is normally a placid old man. Today he gestures at the narco/ graft palaces and his old voice barks. ‘This is where the American dollar goes. These… houses! Look at them. Look at the people they employ! Look at this. Where did they get such riches? This money is for Afghanistan, but they have taken it! They have a contract with the US army. They send one truck of cement to Kandahar, and write that they sent 10 on the bill. Then they take the money.’

Afghans are angry. Not all Afghans, and not all the time, but after four months back in country, in this our seventh year here, I am fast concluding that this is becoming an angry nation. In Taliban times, it was a depressed nation. Dark, sad and moribund. Then there were a few years of optimism, and I clearly remember the time when America was a favoured nation amongst ordinary Afghans.

Not any longer. I did a recent straw poll of the neighbourhood where we live, and every fifth house has been, or is being pulled down. New, monstrous, flashy, concrete and glass, narco/ graft palaces are built in their place. Each of these – we live opposite four such houses – is owned by a businessman, an army general, a Member of Parliament, a warlord, someone who has found  a way to get rich from the flood of money being drained into this country. And each of these wealthy, powerful men employ a small militia of private security (all armed with Kalashnikovs or side arms), drivers, guards, droolers, cookers, cleaners, hangers-on and helpers-out. They are lucky. The wealthy men and those in their employ. They have found a way to suck at the cash cow, and they suck hard. Others, ordinary people, the little people stand by and watch how these people – their countrymen – have grown fabulously wealthy in the last few years. For a while they wondered at it. Then they frowned at it. Now they are just angry.

It is a dangerous time. Poor people are not stupid people and they know what is going on. None of this is building peace.

As a taxi driver told me a few years ago, ‘Wait till the Americans go. Then the streets will run with blood.’

Blame, anger, opportunism.


I am in the bazaar at Pul-e-Surkh. I am buying bolts, screws and a few other things: Ken and I are trying to finish some work on the playground at the kids school. The kids used to have an old steel frame, the same I had when I went to school, full of sharp edges, lethally high, unpadded, an insurer’s nightmare. Someone gave us some money for them to have a proper playground built, so a range of Dads with a range of skills have been working on it for several weeks. Snow, rain and winter are coming and the pressure is on, so I have taken a bit of extra time to try to finish it, and today, Ken has come along.

Though it is only about 10.30, I have already dropped off a washing machine to the guesthouse that needed repair; attended a security meeting where we discussed the new, emerging, discouraging trends (more on that later); picked up the school photos that I got printed for the students; tried unsuccessfully to book flights from Kabul to Dubai, and driven here there and everywhere. It has been a stressful morning. I do not want to have to be at this bazaar again: it is crowded and traffic is at a standstill. But someone had to get the bolts.

To the left of me, a gap clears. Directly ahead of me, a taxi has stopped. In Australia, he has decided to park in what we would consider a traffic lane, but this is Afghanistan, and you can park just about anywhere you want. Though this still infuriates me, I have become used to it. I edge the car out past him. Surprisingly, I nudge his bumper. It is a slow, gentle kiss and as I pull past the driver, I bend down and check: he waves at me, he knows it was nothing. I smile, wave and prepare to drive on, when there is a loud bang on the car, and an angry face appears at the window. I do not know who this is. The man starts to shout and scream at me, he gesticulates furiously. I wind down the window a little and he reaches in and tries to lift the lock. With his other hand he drags at the window, forcing it down. I have no idea what he is saying; though it is Dari, he is incomprehensible. I am beginning to react, I push his hands out of the car and try to wind the window up. The man wrenches at my wing mirror, threatening clearly to snap it off. I sign to him and shout back, ‘Ok, I will pull over’, and he relinquishes. I pull in and try to understand him. He is saying something about hitting his car. What is he talking about? I have no idea who he is. I bumped one car, yes, but we sorted that out. Who is this man? I shout to make myself heard to him: I do not know you, I did nothing to you. I repeat myself, and then tell him, ‘I am going.’

I pull out, but I am blocked by a bus. The man thinks I am trying to flee. He is right. He bangs on the roof, and pulls at the wing mirror again, and now a policeman appears. I round the corner, agonisingly slowly. On every side traffic hems me in. I wind down my window to talk to the policeman. His weapon is cocked, threateningly towards me. I try to explain, and again deny having anything to do with this man, but it is complicated by the fact that I did hit one vehicle. I try to clarify:, yes, I hit a car. But not his car. Another man’s car. And that man, he didn’t mind, it was nothing. No mark, nothing. But no, he is not here. He has gone. And this man? I do not know him.

That’s it. Suddenly I am angry. There are 15 men gathering round. The traffic opens and I accelerate into a gap. I watch in the rear view mirror as the man reaches down and seizes a rock and throws it furiously after me. It strikes the tailgate. But driving away is pointless. The traffic closes again, and now a pickup full of police coasts up beside me, and they dismount. Driving away looks like fleeing, and fleeing looks only like guilt. One policeman positions himself in front of my car, his gun pointing straight at me. He braces, meaningfully. I am about to be killed over a traffic dispute. The original party has caught up with me and again has locked his arms on my wing mirror. His plan seems to be to injure my car, as I injured his. Except that I didn’t.

Resigned, yet seething, I open the window. Another policeman suddenly reaches in and unlocks the door, opens the back door and then a junior cop is seated in the back seat, his Kalashnikov swung towards me. I turn to him. ‘Get out. Step down. This is a no weapons car. You must step down.’ I point toward the sticker on our windows: an AK47 with a line crossing it out. It is unmistakeable. Amazingly, the policeman gets out. A small victory. But another cop is demanding my license. I show him my Western Australian licence. I still have a licence from Taliban times here, but I look like a Talib myself in it. It is not the time for that document.

He studies it, and asks me to step down from the car. I go with him to the back of my car, I am so angry. But here I come face to face with fury. My accuser is pointing at a car. His car. The front bumper. I have never seen him or it. His car is a panelbeater’s daily bread: bent, rusted, warped, a thousand dents and distortions. He points to nothing: ‘See’, he screams, ‘Here! He hit my car. When he reversed. And then he fled! He did it.’

The cop bends down and looks at the man’s bumper. It is about a foot off the ground. Standard sedan height. He looks at my car, a 4WD. It is nearly two feet off the ground. Even to the cop, it is logically impossible that I hit the man’s car. And further, on my vehicle there is no scratch, ding, mark, nothing. The policeman is trying to be fair, I see, and he looks back at the man. ‘Where did he hit you? Come on. Show me. This car is full of marks.’

The man’s anger is incredulous. ‘There! Look! He struck my car! He hit someone’s car, then he reversed at hit mine! And then he ran away! You saw him!’

The difficulty is parts of this story are true. I did hit another man’s car. I did drive off. But I did not reverse, nor did I hit his man’s car. So if there was any hitting, it is because he drove into me. I don’t remember being struck, but such a memory, were it there, would not be much use. I cannot defend myself against such apoplexy. I have seen such altercations turn really violent, and already I can feel rage building in me. I am been used, I am being fleeced, I am being lied against. But I am sure he does not see it that way. To him, I am a foreigner, therefore rich, I am also therefore responsible. And responsibility and guilt are, in such an instance, almost interchangeable.

I hate this. If I hit this man’s car, I would pay up. But he is lying. He has convinced himself, and now is determined to get what he can from me. I resist. I tell the policeman I will not give him a single Af. I am not guilty.

It is useless. There is a crowd now of maybe 30 men, spectators on this exercise in human sin and failure. ‘Give him money!’ ‘ You are rich!’ ‘Look at the outsider!’ ‘He speaks Farsi!’ ‘Where is he from?’ ‘What nice Farsi he speaks!’ ‘ Listen to him!’ And again, and again: ‘Give him some money!’

I pull 100 Afs from my wallet and push it forward, and the man casts it to the ground. ‘Give him three hundred’, the cop advises. ‘Otherwise I have to involve more people, we have to investigate.’ I know he is right. I take out another 100Afs, and fold them together, my blood boiling. I am so angry I can hardly speak, but at least I have not become dumb. I am instead unusually fluent, and as I seize my license back out of the policeman’s hands, I turn to the man. ‘You are a thief. Shame on you. God has seen what has happened. He knows you are lying. Repent!’

It sounds better in Dari than in English, and it is actually the right way to address such an issue, to appeal to a man’s relationship with God. But what do I expect? The man to be convicted of his wrongdoing, to be overcome with righteousness, to turn and humble himself in front of all these other men? To admit he is taking me? To apologise? To let it go?

He laughs harshly, and gestures towards me, in front of his jury, ‘ You call me to repent! You’re the kaffir here!’ Real violence from both of us is very close now.

I get into my car, shouting back at him, ‘I am no infidel. I fear God. Unlike you.’ I spin the wheels as I drive away, raging. Or I try to. Our car has such lousy acceleration that I just kind of pull out sluggishly,  at a bit above walking speed.


So petty. Name calling, that’s what it came down to. ‘I’m more honest that you.’ ‘You’re a liar.’ ‘You are an infidel.’ ‘No, you are’. And 200 Afs finished it. Four dollars.

Over what? Nothing. Really nothing. Someone jolted his car and he assumed it was me, and that was suspicion. When he saw I had bumped someone else’s car, and was then driving off, that was the proof he needed. Despite there being nothing, no evidence, no damage. But by then there was something: a foreigner, with money, and then it became about saving face, and winning. He had staked himself against me, and for him, there could only be one acceptable outcome.

But it was about something, or at least it should have been: It should have been about honesty, and justice, and truth. About patience and grace.

On the days when I am a better man, I might have responded with love and patience and quietness and listening. I might have defused, not defended; responded, not retorted; accepted, not accused and attacked. I want to be that better man, but I was not.