26 April 2007 / 6 Saur 1386
I am only writing up this day several weeks later, after I did a bit of research on it.
In May of 2003 I stayed at the edge of Shir Pur while I worked at the Ministry of urban Development and Housing. My little guesthouse, “DreamLand,” was next to unused Defense Ministry land with some informal houses overlapping it. In August of 2003 an ugly incident hit the international press: the Defense Minister, Fahim, had given land in this area to his friends and informal homes wer being demolished. 23 houses were destroyed before Miloon Kothari, an assistant to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, witnessed the demolitions and called a press conference. Apparently Brahimi tried to hush him up, maintaining a policy of toleration for the behavior of the new Afghan leadership at a ‘sensitive time’ (see my May 16 essay for some historical context).
This year, on our second outing, I took the class to Tapa-e Bibi Mahro for a view of the northern parts of the city, and then we walked down the hill to Shir Pur.
|An interesting scene at the famous empty pool atop Bibi Mahro hill.||Actually, if they can restore it, the setting is stunning.|
|Nawin photographing the forlorn diving tower. Notice how the air at the horizon shades into a clay-pink, similar to the foreground.||Descending into Shir Pur. These mansions are maybe 1 meter apart, with no back yard either.|
Sher Pur is named after Sher Ali Khan, who built a new city for Kabul here in 1870. Most of that city was destroyed by the British in 1880, and became the site of their second cantonment (the 1838 one was presumably destroyed/reclaimed by the Afghans in 1842). After the British were decisively driven out in 1919, the former cantonment seems to have become military land. The eastern part was platted and sold off publicly in the 1960s, now forming the famous Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. The land which Fahim gave to his friends was the last remaining part. There is a well-established procedure for coverting government land into private urban development, which was used from the 1920s onward as far as I can tell. So Fahim was actually breaking the law, not just unethically abusing his power as Defense Minister in this giveaway.
As a pun, most Kabulis now call this area ‘Chur Pur.’ ‘Chur’ means ‘grab,’ and I think in this context ‘Chur Pur’ means ‘grab all that you can.’
|My students call this vulgar. Who am I to disagree?||Given the massive private investment, how about funding some public services? That is what tax is for…|
As Rachel Morajee recently pointed out, these homes cost several hundred thousand US dollar to build: they often have more than a score of rooms, and maybe ten bathrooms. They were designed to be rented to foreigners. In the one pictured below left, that little sign says “FOR RENT” and gives the phone number, only in English. So far as I know only the Spanish Embassy has rented one of these monsters. I will talk to them about that, if I get the chance.
|Inspired by Queen Amidala’s palace on Naboo, perhaps?||The sidewalk-blocks, razorwire and mirrorglass give that welcoming touch.|
I have tried to withhold my judgment on the rather exuberant style of the new architecture in Kabul. In a suspended-ethics way, I like it: it is rather festive (see my comments from last year). But the politics of this neighborhood, and many sites to the north and west of here, are very ugly. On the right you see an example of the “mirrorglasss” architecture I will refer to in my dissertation. I am more interested in the culture of impunity and exceptionalism that it represents.
anonymous. “Lack of social justice and growing corruption” Anis editorial (in Dari), September 15, 2003.
Constable, Pamela. “Land grab in Kabul embarrasses government: Mud homes razed to make room for top Afghan officials.” Washington Post, September 16, 2003.
Synovitz, Ron. “Afghanistan: Land-Grab Scandal In Kabul Rocks The Government.” Prague: RFE/RL September 16, 2003.
Morajee, Rachel. “Out of the ruins…” The Financial Times. May 4, 2007