Images of recent weeks

None of these are particularly brilliant photos, but they each symbolise something important about enduring well here. This first photo is Khristo and my son, at a small roadside kebab shop, just off Flower St. I used to eat at places like this all the time. Then I got busier, and some of these places closed down, and a hundred other things happened. Going there with Khristo reminded me of how much I like Afghanistan. The kebabs were delicious, the pilau was fragrant, the tea was hot. The place was warm and small and the owner was friendly. More than that, he was an ordinary Afghan: not someone I work with and am in a position of authority over; not some cop whom I am being pushed around by. It was a simple, relatively equal transaction, with no expectations other than those of a man buying food, and a man selling food. I really, really liked it, and I realised how few such simple, easy, human transactions like that I have these days. It was renewing.

Our daughter in the Christmas nativity play. She was the lead role and quite beautiful.

For Christmas, we got all creative and made toffees and chocolates in the shape of lego pieces. It was good to do Christmassy stuff. For anyone interested in how to make these, it is not hard: find it here.

Finally, walking to work this AM, I saw the local rubbish truck. While much of what I see happening does not represent real progress, I think you could say this does. A real system of rubbish disposal. Sure, they are not recycling – not in an official sense – and sure,  the rivers and ditches are still choked with the trash of years, and no, there is not much civic pride, but three cheers for the garbage collectors.


At the Indian Embassy again.

I am at the Embassy again, trying to complete our visa process. Let me add parenthetically, that all this is for a layover in Delhi of less than 24 hours… I could not come last week as there were credible threats of attacks. I could not come on Saturday because of concerns that Sunday was 9/11, and there might be more attacks. In each case there were no actual attacks in Kabul, but after gaining the region team leader’s permission, I am here today.

Learning from my last experience, I arrive at 10.30 promptly. A few minutes later I am permitted entrance. On the way in I check to see if the security staff still have my scarf that I left here last week. They deny all knowledge of it.

Inside I join a long, defeated-looking queue of men. With glacial speed, we are called up one at a time to enter a small, dark room where the power is off, and where an Indian visa-bureaucrat-King exercises his rule. He finally takes my collection of passports and forms, and then spends several minutes on the phone, talking to his colleagues, dealing with other passports, and eventually glances at mine.

‘Wait five-ten minutes. I will finish these. Go outside.’ I demurely accept. Outside I wait for maybe 20 minutes, and then an Afghan sidekick emerges with my passports. He staggers off to a dimly lit hallway. 20 minutes later he returns, and I overhear the conversation:

‘No fax… no number… no clearance…checked?…. Yes but nothing… check some more…’

After another 30 minutes I go inside to another section, and… and…really, dear reader, it is too tedious to recall all the petty details of our sorry visa saga. I was ticked off for filling out the forms wrongly (despite them approving them last week: no use pointing that out, I was told not to argue, in the same tone a parent might use with a naughty child), I was told to fill out more details, and then sent back to another room, where, after more chitchat and humdrum and to-fro, I was told to pay $240 to another man in another room. This man, with a comb-over and the eyes of a slow-loris, with the care and slowness of a monk copying parchment, this man wrote 5 separate receipts, and told me to return at 4pm.

I exit, resigned. I decide to stay in this side of town. It is 12.15pm. It will take me 30 minutes to get back to the office, and I will have to leave at 3pm to get here at 4, as traffic will be bad.

I kill time by visiting Chicken St, once a place of old beauty and modesty: shops with genuine artefacts and antiques, carpets rare and beautiful, wonderful leatherwork, lapis jewellery. It is all being torn down.

The old shops are disappearing, to be replaced with concrete and glass. The old things are gone, replaced with cookie-cutter Dubai gold, fake Pakistani ship sextants and compasses, awful Chinese tat, lions and jugs and ashtrays made from shiny marble and plastic. This, if it is progress,  is unspeakably horrible. The shop where Julie and I bought leather waistcoats in 1996, hand made and beautiful, is now rubble.

I find one old shop, and sit and talk to the owners. We bemoan the loss of Chicken St, and deride Kabul’s planners for destroying the one place that could have been, indeed was, a kind of tourist drawcard. A Petticoat Lane, a village within the city. ‘What to do?’ The shopkeeper shrugs. He has a tv on, and then he turns to me: ‘Have you seen what is happening?’

I watch with him the live reporting: about 1km away, the US Embassy is under attack. And then there are the unmistakeable crumping noises of explosions. I can’t quite believe it, partly because outside, there is absolutely no change in behaviour:  people are carrying on as usual, they wander up and down the street, are supremely unconcerned, they shop, they chat, they sit together and laugh. Are they so inured to violence? So resigned?

The shopkeeper looks at me, ‘What is our country now? What sort of place is this?’

I used to say, that here in Afghanistan, if nothing else, I was a person of hope. But I have nothing to say to this man. What can I say to him? I struggle for some words, and after a few more minutes, I leave, and walk slowly back to the Indian Embassy. Security there now is tight, and I am barely permitted entrance: I have to convince the guards of my peaceful intent, I am frisked and searched several times. Finally at the Embassy, I get our visas, but there are new attacks on the road between me and where we live, at De Mazang and Habibia school. Roads will be blocked.

I walk. It is safer, I am not stuck in traffic, or held up. I avoid the crowds, and am told to walk around the police station near our home where the police are still mopping up. It takes me an hour and a half, but by 5pm, I am back home.

Image of hope

Sometimes, at the right time of year, at the right place, Afghanistan is a wonderful place to be. We have had three long days of real heat, and then today, it rained. Not much, but enough. The dust was caught up in the moisture, and as the call to prayer sounded at Iftar, the smell of lamb and chicken on the charcoal spits mingled with the rain and it was all wonderful.

Nothing is ever perfect: last week there was an attack at the British Council, and we fully expect the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to be significant. But we have to take the good moments when we can. In Faizabad, in the north east last week, I helped a new team of community development workers with their training; all going well, we will start work in another set of remote communities within a few weeks. Our renewable energy work there is extraordinary, thanks to a committed Afghan team and a scrupulous German engineer. Villages that would otherwise be forever using candles and torches are now having electricity via hydro-power, every night. And our adult education program is bringing people into new countries: critical thinking, interrogation of long held beliefs, voicing opinions, forming civic groups, standing up against injustice.

I sat tonight and smelt the rain and felt grateful that I can be here.

Untitled reflection

I remember reading of an aid worker who had gone to Angola for a year. I think she was a nurse with MSF, and over the course of the year she was there, she was involved in intensive, life-saving surgery and emergency work almost every day. Famine, fighting, malnutrition, ignorance, custom and culture meant she saw an awful lot of deaths, pain and blood. And at the end of it, she said, the worst thing was that almost nothing had changed. All the work she had done, the effort, the wrenching, endless effort – Angola was as worse off at the end of her time there as it was at the beginning, perhaps more so. Not that she thought she would change the course of the nation, but at least, that something would be better as a result of her effort.

No. She could not see that they were. People had lived, yes, who otherwise would have died, but they lived only to die later. And meanwhile someone else died an equally stupid, avoidable death. Dynamics of care, cultural practices, attitudes towards war and conflict, the rhythyms and rhymes of bloodshed – nothing had really changed at all.

It was depressing reading, but it resonated with me deeply. It summed up how I felt about Afghanistan, only I had spent three or four years here.

W and T, two friends of ours who are at this time returning to Nepal, where they have spent the last five or so years as doctors wrote something to a similar effect recently:

…The first time we went to Nepal, there was a sense of excitement and adventure, and the second time we felt we had learnt the language and put time into relationships and could build on those, but now, after 5 years in Nepal we see all the difficulties ahead of us –conflict in the country, a busy hospital with long working hours and emotionally draining work, working in a culture where values like integrity, honesty and good work ethics are not valued. For us, going back this third time is about being obedient to God.

Yep. As Leonard Cohen puts it (always a good man to listen to when you are on a downer), ‘I did my best. It wasn’t much.’