Qala-e No Burj: HQ of Turquoise Mountain

18 May 2007 / 28 Saur 1386

“Qala” means ‘walled compound;’ “no burj” means ‘nine towers.’ I have visited the headquarters of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF) several times. But on this particular evening, the light on the partially-ruined complex was remarkable.

sky above Qala-e No Burj

Of the nine towers, only one remains intact. One of the ruined towers is visible on the right, clearly built using pakhsa construction. In this technique, courses of adobe are laid down in 60-cm deep layers; allowed to dry, and then the next course is added.


The massive, white-washed wall with high windows reminds me of the Potala in Lhasa. The one intact tower is visible on the left.


The light behind the qala was exquisite.

6 4
In the photo on the left, the wall was re-topped with adobe, leaving the streak-pattern over the older whitewash. On the right, the ruined tower looks like something out of Mordor.


A girl was also watching the sunset, and then she saw me (another foreigner at TMF) taking pictures. She was amused that I photographed her as well.

A day in the life

17 May 2007 / 27 Saur 1386

I have just learned enough Dari to ask politely if I can take a picture of someone that might be sensitive.


Due respect and admiration goes to the Afghans who have lost a limb, and need to navigate the streets. It is one reason why I am unequivocally in favor of applying accessibility design guidelines here in Kabul. I think the accessibility guidelines are the most important design innovation that Americans have ever made.

Wheeler with sign

As the gentleman wheeled off, I saw something I had never seen before: he had an advertisement mounted on the back of his wheelchair. I assume he gets some income from this. I was stunned by the audacity of the idea; neoliberals want to make everyone into “entrepreneurs.” Here, rather than the state developing the capacity to help the disabled, the disabled get some revenue from being turned–literally–into part of the expanding advertising market. Systemically, I have a problem with this. But on a human rights level, I guess it is objectionable if it hurts the dignity of the gentleman in the wheelchair.

Inspection mirror

Sorry for the oversize picture, but this one depends a lot upon the composition. It is just a normal thing, like the still-life photo of a shovel laid up against the wall. But it is a truck-mirror and flashlight welded to a stick so that you can inspect the underside of cars for explosives. I like the texture against the rough-plastered wall.

Tired cart driver

Part of my challenge is to show how Kabul in so many ways is modern and ‘normal’ in your reference frame while still being different in some ways. Most of the traffic is cars. But some people still use horse- and donkey-drawn carts.

some fries with your human rights?

I was having a quick lunch with my students when I noticed the wrapping-paper for the french fries. Many foreign publications are funded by international donors and are therefore not only free, but also printed on good-quality paper. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, because human rights are very important to Afghans, as you will find on other pages I write. But just that the environment is a little weird when this is the available wrapping paper.

However, with the following sound clip, I am being sarcastic. This is one minute of a popular show on Tolo TV. Enjoy!

A little reality-check

16 May 2007 / 26 Saur 1386

Imagine life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, who ruled Kabul and most of the country from September 1996 to October 2001.

Okay, now let me contest that vision. Yesterday I met a fellow who is specialized in information technology. We chatted for a bit, and he said that he had worked in IT support in the offices of the Municipality during the Taliban. That’s right: dealing with Microsoft Windows, and networks, and whatnot to keep the city government computers working.

What was life like in Kabul under the Taliban? Well, the economy was very bad, and they passed a number of “stupid” (I quote) laws by decree, but it was stable.
Let me put that in context. The US-supported mujahideen pushed out the Soviets in 1989, but the communist government persisted in Kabul until 1992. When the mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, there was a brief period of government under Sighbatullah Mojaddedi, and then the civil war started. This was a war between mujahideen factions, and it took place in Kabul. Before that, there had not been military combat in Kabul itself. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the city between 1992 and 1994, as hundreds of thousands fled. Since the factions were no longer fighting atheist communists but rather other Muslims, it was no longer appropriate to call them mujahideen; from that point forward they were just commanders. Law and order broke down between 1992 and 1994, and remained collapsed until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. As the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan point out, women became effectively housebound under the commanders, because women who were out alone at midday were seized and raped daily in Kabul.

So the Taliban were welcomed into town like the Magnificent Seven. They were very heavy-handed, and their forms of public discipline were similar to what the Romans, French, and British used to maintain law and order (Public executions make quite an impression). The Taliban required that women be accompanied by a male relative outside the house. Grossly sexist, yes; but also a way of engaging the populace in assisting with policing, because they could not protect the honor of every woman everywhere in Kabul. And honor and public morality were very important to the Taliban. In that sense, I think The Kite Runner and the film “Osama” misrepresent the Taliban.

The arrival of the Coalition Forces, the Northern Alliance, and Karzai into Afghanistan have brought a lot of money. Although it is very unevenly distributed, the economy has generally improved in Kabul since 2001. But we cannot evaluate a new regime only by getting the urban population above starvation-level. There is a question of legitimacy. Has rule of law improved in Kabul since 2001? Rapes are on the rise again. Prostitution–including the trafficking of Chinese prostitutes into Kabul–has become a major new phenomenon, as has AIDS. And now that land is valuable, land seizures are a serious problem in Kabul and in the provinces.

We need to remember that the Taliban were pro-business. They were initially backed by the Afghan trucker’s guild, who were tired of losing an unpredictable amount of their cargo to ‘taxes’ at scores of checkpoints across Afghanistan in the early 1990s. As Ahmed Rashid points out in Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad and Unocal even began negotiations with the Taliban for a pipeline that would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Government revenue was a chronic problem for the Taliban. The Soviets has scorched the countryside, the commanders had traumatized the capital, and a drought had set in. It seems that bin Laden was able to buy the Taliban state by replacing scandalous opium-revenue with donations from himself and other hard-line Gulf Arabs. Unfortunately for the Taliban, bin Laden had a broader agenda that brought the Americans down on their heads.

At Bonn in December 2001, the US legitimized the commanders and most of the spots at the negotiation table were given to them. But now that you know this bit of history outlined above, did the US just let the foxes back into the coop? Furthermore, how do we understand the transition from the Taliban to the Karzai government? Perhaps the official-name transition is more accurate: from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Not night and day.
Did the US have to reinstate the commanders? The apologist reply has been: Who else could run this devastated country? Implicit in that rehetorical question is the assumption that the Taliban (and now Karzai) are the whole state. That is why I began with that little anecdote about the IT specialist. There was an administrative apparatus in Kabul and the provinces. That continues to be the apparatus which runs the day-to-day business of the government. The presentation of the Taliban period as some surreal suspension of all government justifies the reinstatement of a thin layer of very corrupt leadership at the top of the state. The US did this at Bonn in December 2001.

Other bits and pieces of information challenge the prevailing Western view. Refugees started returning to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, because the Taliban had finally reestablished stability and security, even if they did not manage economic recovery. Afghans who had fled to the West also began to return and reclaim the houses they had abandoned in the 1980s and early 1990s. And apparently there was land-grabbing and certainly plenty of land-occupation of abandoned houses. So disputes and reclamation of property began under the Taliban, and only accelerated under Karzai. The implication of a ‘break with the past’ in 2001 has nothing to do with the reality on the ground in Kabul.

Khak Bad: the “dust wind”

15 May 2007 / 25 Saur 1386

Generally the wind blows from the north here. But starting in May, the wind sometimes blows from the west. It is one thing for strong wind to pick up all the dust in the streets of Kabul. It is quite another to have the city enveloped in a 2,000-foot-high rolling cloud of fine dust.

I cannot convey the sinus headache you get when this happens. But at least this sequence of images will give some impression.

What it normally looks like…

Khak bad arrives
You know it is coming when the sunlight changes color.

Khak bad abates
It arrives suddenly, but it abates slowly as the fines settle down.

post khak bad
Afterwards you can still see the squall-line of the wind-storm moving off.

I got caught outside in such a storm last year without a scarf. I had a hacking cough for the next three weeks which progressed into pneumonia. Many Afghans have tuberculosis, and I feared I had contracted that. I found out later that I am unlikely to suddenly contract TB, because I am not malnourished. The difference in access to a balanced diet alone means I am living in a different world than many of the Kabulis around me.

Sultan’s Qala, Shomali Plain

12 May 2007 / 22 Saur 1386

Hill of roses

I was invited on a picnic to Sultan’s qala just north of Kabul. Here, Sultan is growing roses which he hopes that Kabulis will buy, rather than the plastic flowers which are the current fashion.

Sultan with roses

Sultan, maestro of roses.

qala in distance

Next to Sultan’s land is a qala which was built in 1941. The interior is now in ruins.

Qala entry

One of the brothers who owns the qala let us in to see it.

Qala tower

This method of construction is called pakhsa. Adobe (gil) is laid in courses about 60 cm high, allowed to stabilize, and then additional courses are added. The foundation-stones are dry-laid, to prevent ground-moisture from wicking up into the adobe and rotting it. Flat capstones protect the pakhsa from rain, as does a re-coating every two to ten years.

Maranjan hill

11 May 2007 | 21 Saur 1386

On this Friday I went to Maranjan Hill with Samiullah.

Maranjan Hill and city center

View of the old city from Tapa-e Maranjan. The straight avenue that heads towards the pass is Maiwand Avenue. It was cut through the Old City in 1949 by the mayor, as part of the work to modernize Kabul.

Tomb of Nader Shah

This is the mausoleum of Nadir Shah, who ruled from 1930 until his assassination in 1933. His son, Zahir Shah, succeeded him and remained king from 1933 to 1973. At that point he was deposed by his cousin Daoud Khan. Daoud ruled as President from 1973 to 1978, at which point the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) executed him and his entire family, and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Their revolutionary program was so aggressive that they immediately provoked a rural insurgency. By September, 1979, it looked like the PDPA regime was going to collapse. Soviets sought to stabilize the communist regime, but in December they decided that only direct occupation would prevent a civil war on their border.

Meanwhile, Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy from 1973 to 2001. He returned to Afghanistan, and has played some role in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, but did not push for reestablishment of the monarchy. His son has worked on environmental protection of a poor neighborhood just north of this hill, and his grandson is a member of the new United Front movement in Parliament.

hill and city center
This is a view of Kuh-e Asmayi from the east. Compare with the May 8 panorama.

Maranj tower
I have used this tower to frame previous shots with a foreground element. But the tower itself is pretty interesting as a ruin.


In the old Macrorayan the pipes for the district heating are being replaced. A Ukrainian firm, familiar with this type of Soviet housing block, is carrying out the contract.

Ashiqan wa Arifan

10 May 2007 / 20 Saur 1386

Our fourth field trip was to Ashiqan wa Arifan, one of the oldest existing neighborhoods in Kabul. I took the class there on our fourth field trip, to see conservation, restoration, and the role of historic urban fabric for urban identity.

Entry street
Entry street in to Ashiqan wa Arifan neighborhood
Open area
Reconstruction raising dust
old wall Mosque door
Older, timber-laced construction Entry to mosque. Note the post inside.
Courtyard facade detail of facade
Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has restored this house. Most of the facade is carved cedar (archeh).
room interior jalsiya screen
The upstairs has a central room divided from end-rooms by screens. Rather than closets, niches are built into the walls.
mosque courtyard balcony assembly
Courtyard of the mosque of the Uzbeks (masjid-e Uzbekha). Poplar (chenar) is used for most posts and beams.
entering prayer hall glazed back wall
The caretaker of the mosque. The enclosing windows are a 20th-century addition.
describing remodeling diagonal view
Engineer Habib describing AKTC’s restoration-decisions here. The mihrab of the mosque has a clock rather like Saint Gregory’s.
mihrab and minbar detail
The minbar, on the right, is built into the wall. People who often come to pray leave their prayer rugs in the mosque. Mud-plaster finish has been restored on the right; but painted wood has been left as is.
street stair
A repaired street, outside another restored house.
The students discuss materials and choices made.
The combination of wood and plaster is
reminiscent of historic Japanese houses.
cornice details M. Nazir
Mud-plaster detail work is often quite delicate. Muhammad Nazir was born in this neighborhood.
Nawin and worker happy Nawin
Nawin discusses restoration with the carpenter. Nawin likes this house.
cantilever sar-e sarak
This restored street reminds me of Fes. You can build out over the street if your neighbor
agrees to it; but you must build the supports.
covered drain street scene
Drains run down the middle of the street.
These covers allow easy clean-out.
The beams and braced frames of overhanging floors create wonderful forms and shadows.


Panorama from Safi restaurant

8 May 2007 / 18 Saur 1386

Shahr-e Naw (New City) is redeveloping dramatically these days. Dawn Erickson led me to the top of a building that didn’t exist four years ago and I photographed this panorama of the central part of Kabul:
Kuh-e Sher Darwaza

View southeast. Kuh-e Sher Darwaza, middle; Kuh-e Asmayi, right; Char ray-e Haji Yacoub, bottom left.

Kuh-e Asmayi

View southwards. Kuh-e Asmayi, background; Char Rah-e Ansari, middle distance.

Kuh-e Ali Abad

View southwest. Kuh-e Ali Abad has informal housing up half the slope. Middle distance: Shahr Ara fort.

Kuh-e Afshar

View west. The blocky building on the hill is the Hotel Inter-Continental.

Kolola Pushta

View northwest. Back: Kolola Pushta fort. Forground: all-new buildings in Shahr-e Naw.

Google Earth tour of Kabul

Sunday, 6 May 2007 / Yakshanbeh, 16 Saur 1386

From the Airport to Kabul University

To this day, Kabul has no address system and there is no formal agreement on street names. However, I just realized that for the past year Kabul has had an effective address system for internet-users: it is the precision coordinates that can be entered into Google Earth. To demonstrate this, I am going to take you on a virtual tour of Kabul.

This technique is pretty straightforward (I believe this is what Iraqis are doing right now to get across Baghdad without getting killed). What you need to do is enter the degrees, minutes, and seconds (down to the hundredth) in the search field of Google Earth. How do you obtain such precise coordinates? Zoom in on a place you know, put the cursor over the exact location you want to identify, and then read the coordinates at the bottom of the screen. Note! Google Earth’s syntax is very exact, for reasons which I will not cover here. So I suggest you just copy and paste from this web page into Google Earth.

Kabul Int'l Airport, aircraft side

Kabul International Airport (Maidan-e Hawayi).
34 33 39.64 N, 69 12 42.15 E
This is where the vast majority of foreigners first arrive to Kabul.

Kabul Terminal, city side

Cult of Massoud, anyone?

Great Massoud Road, with the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic on the immediate east, the Macrorayans further east, and Bibi Mahro Village on the west. Bibi Mahro is an old village which has now been absorbed into the expanding city. The Macrorayans were built with Soviet assistance; the fourth one is still under construction.
34 32 32.58 N, 69 11 49.51 E

Menar-e Massoud

Char Rah-e Massoud, looking west from Microrayan-2.

Massoud intersection

Keymap of Ch.Massoud, matching Google Earth from 1000m.

The blockage of Great Massoud Road.
34 32 12.24 N, 69 11 33.84 E
This is one of the most symbolically important streets in Afghanistan. But the American Embassy happens to be on it, and the Americans decided they would block this central arterial rather than move their embassy to a more secure and defensible location.

another roadblock

Note that for my safety, and the safety of the guards, I am showing a picture of another roadblock. There are many in Kabul, but none so important as the blockage of the central avenue.

From here all cross-town traffic is diverted west through the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood.

Wazir Akbar Khan
Char Rah-e Wazir Akbar Khan. The billboard in the center with the girl on it is from USAID. Note the mobile-phone tower on the right.

The Wazir Akbar Khan neigborhood was used by the Taliban leadership (read The Kite Runner) so it was relatively intact when Westerners started moving in. Since 2002 landowners here have been charging several thousand dollars a month for rent of houses to government organizations, NGOs, embassies, banks, and high-end restaurants. Rachel Morajee has just published an interesting article about the shaky political economy of this area in the Financial Times.
34 32 07.23 N, 69 10 47.14 E

The Kabul Business Center was just beginning to be built when I lived near here in 2003. It is the main office of several airlines now.

Shahr-e Naw
Sinama Park, Shahr-e Naw (New City). This area was originally developed in the 1930s, in the early years of Zahir Shah’s rule. I have put the coordinates on top of one of my favorite kebab-khanas: Risturan Nawi. Calling this restaurant ‘atmospheric’ would be an understatement; think Blade Runner.
34 32 07.86 n, 69 10 08.31 E

Kabul City Center Mall

Kabul City Centre, exterior view. Located on Ansari Intersection.

Kabul City Center mall

Kabul City Centre, interior view of the mall on the lower levels.

Char Rah-e Ansari, named for Tamim Ansary’s family (read West of Kabul, East of New York). The Kabul City Center mall is on the south side. Walk through the metal detector, get your bags inspected by armed guards, and you, too, can shop in comfort.
34 31 58.60 N, 69 09 55.68 E

Chicken & Flowermarket Streets

Kuchi Gul Furushi, Kuchi Murghab (Chicken Street), and Behzad Books on the north corner of the intersection.
34 31 46.32 N, 69 10 16.78 E

Char Rah-e Sedarat. Hotel Mustafa on the north, photo shops on the east.
34 31 33.33 N, 69 10 12.43 E

Char rah-e Deh Afghanan from pedestrian bridge

Char Rah-e Deh Afghanan.
34 31 16.30 N, 69 10 24.62 E
Massive outdoor shopping, especially shoes. Ministry of Education on the north, Municipality in the east, and the Mosque of Haji Abdul Rahman (pictured below) further southeast, next to the Municipality building.

the big new mosque

Independence Monument

Menar-e Istiqlal (Independence Monument). Commemorating those who died fighting the British for independence in 1842 and 1919. To get here we have passed through the Lion’s Gate, where the Kabul River flows between Kuh-e Asmayi (Sky Mountain) on the northwest, and Kuh-e Sher Darwaza (Lion’s Gate Mountain) on the southeast. Immediately west of the monument is the Kabul Zoo.
34 30 36.27 N, 69 09 28.73 E

Char Rah-e Deh Mazang, with the Ministry of Transport on the north side.
34 30 38.30 N, 69 09 11.67 E

Ghazi High School

Lysa Ghazi. One of the three leading high schools of Kabul in the 1970s. It remains unrestored, although thousands of students attend classes in the blasted shell of the building and the tents outside. Why is it unrestored? As I understand it, this was Zalmai Khalizad’s high school. He wanted to restore it himself, but he got distracted by Iraq, etc. So Mr. ‘market-led reconstruction’ has left a testament to what the market can do for public infrastructure.
34 30 39.03 N, 69 08 43.69 E

Engineering, repaving beginning

Faculty of Engineering, Kabul University. Workmen are preparing the entrance path for new paving, which was designed, funded, and contracted by students in the Faculty.
34 30 57.41 N, 69 08 22.47 E

You have arrived at the end of this tour! Please make sure you have your belongings with you and step away from the computer now…

Hearts, minds, and dancers

Saturday, 5 May 2007 / Shanbeh, 15 Saur 1386 (Hijra Solar)

Where the Damage Remains

This morning I pulled out of my side street and merged with the stream of bicycle traffic on the side of the main road towards the university. Then I noticed that the cyclist in front of me had crutches strapped to his rack. Then I noticed that he only had one leg. My first thought was ‘Oh, I am seeing fewer amputees these days.’ My second thought was that my expectations are definitely recalibrating to local standards here.

There is a sharp difference between age cohorts in the degree of visible and emotional scarring. An unverified rumor here was that in the mid-1990s, foreigners and expatriate-Afghans could be quickly identified by their absence of scars and mutilations. That might be an exaggeration in terms of visible scars; but Afghans assure me that psychological damage among adults is widespread if not universal. Last week I was riding in a taxi and the driver took a wrong turn away from where I was going. When I reminded him where I was going, he mentioned the neighborhood several times in a distracted way, then pulled over, stepped out of the car, and slowly put his hands to his head. “Saram kharob ast…” he began; ‘my head is no good.’ He became very upset and seemed to lose the ability to concentrate on navigation–the core asset of a taxi driver. I had to talk him down and guide him across the city, which I suspect was mortifying. But that loss of ability to concentrate on abstract items looked like a classic case of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The real destruction in Kabul is not the blasted buildings, which are only 20% of the city, maximum. The real damage resides within the hearts and minds of a whole generation of middle-aged Afghans. In the US this would be the high-earner cohort, at the peak of their economic productivity.

Music and Dancing at the Sarai

Aga Khan Trust for Culture runs a variety of projects in Kabul. One is the restoration of Babur’s Garden, another is a music school. By chance I got to sit in on a concert given by the master-musicians for the masons, carpenters, and engineers who are restoring Babur’s Garden.

Left: restored entry of sarai; Right: passage into court.
Sarai entry Passage into court
Panoramic from the balcony level
Left panel right panel

Food for thought about Western voyeruism and interpretation of difference: I took the following photos, and you will look at them. Westerners love to do this. In the 19th century, Muslims visiting Europe noticed a disturbing tendency of Europeans to stare at them (ref: Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, chapter 1) . For several hundred years now, Westerners have marketed spectacle as commercial entertainment–from the Scala opera house, to Exhibitions, to televisions. You will see other Westerners in these pictures: up on the balconies, at some remove, taking pictures. Voyeuring, as we are now. The difference is eerie, even among savvy Westerners who would probably rather be down there dancing as well.

Rather than getting too caught up in the pretzel logic of alienated self-consciousness, I ask:
How many songs can you sing, on demand, that represent your culture?
How many dances can you do?
How many stories can you tell that express your identity and worldview?
We have been sold ‘entertainment’ as a commodity. I suggest we take it back and become carriers and producers of our own culture again, not just consumers who are nostalgic about other people’s fun.

Culture of the gaze, visually consuming ‘real’ events.
Dancer and photographer Wallflowers

Meanwhile the fellows who got out to dance are all men. Among most Afghans, mixed-gender dancing in public would be considered lewd. For all you women sitting behind the pardah (modesty screen) of the internet, I think this glimpse is considered proper:

Workers with the moves
Duo, first photo Duo, second photo

Fabulous. Now I owe the workers six prints of portraits I took. Thank God they have good photo-finishers in Kabul.