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.

Settling in

1 May 2007 / 11 Saur 1386

In the two weeks since I last posted, I have designed the urban policy course that I will be teaching; I have met and coordinated with a Kansas State University team which is helping the Engineering Faculty for the long term; I have an intriguing project for my students to work on; and I have more or less adapted to the environment. Too much has happened for me to give even a decent summary. So I will just describe bits and pieces.

A walk in Deh Mazang

I’m happy to work on upgrading the infrastructure here so long as they keep these amazing hillside neighborhoods! A car-free zone with quite a view.

Babur’s Revenge

Since Mexico City is famed for a gut-ailment, I will nickname the endemic respiratory problems around here after Kabul’s famous ruler. When I first worked in Kabul in 2003, I returned with a sort of hoarse, Telly Savalas voice from dust-irritation. In June 2006 I contracted pneumonia. This time I am back earlier in the year, but the dust season has already begun. Afghans have a term for this seasonal weather: khak bad. It translates literally as ‘dust wind.’ This time there is an added bonus: traffic has greatly increased in Kabul, and most of it is unmitigated diesel. So along with the heavy load of particles we are actually evolved to cope with, there’s those nasty microparticles making us all hack a bit. I hope I don’t crack a rib coughing.

Thank Nixon for signing the Clean Air Act, and Bush Sr. for renewing it. Shame on Reagan and Dubya for crippling it. You just don’t know what you have until you live in a city with an atmosphere unpleasantly close to Mars.

Looking south over District 7

Fantastically scenic, but that haze is not benign.

Playing in the mud

I finally got tired of the mud pool at the end of our street. So I borrowed a shovel from Abdel Hamid to do a little improvised surface-drainage. I am proud of my little bit of infrastructure-assistance. At least I know I will have done something useful here.

the local jui

I just dug out the black mud you see on top. My, what an amazing new smell I’ve discovered!

This may have been stupid to do; I think I could get hepatitis from digging out drainage ditches here. But I was rewarded in several ways. First of all, the exertion cleared my lungs. Secondly, I noticed the next day someone else had done more water-diversion to help the road drain further. Thirdly, I was outside when a storm was coming in; just after I took the picture above, I took the one below:

barash miaya!

I am not sure what the odds are of getting a handheld photo of a lightning-strike, but I was pretty pleased. Of course, a few minutes later I had to retreat into the house as the wind began to move the dust in a big way:

City of Dust

Mmm…so thick, you can taste it.

Then the rain came, and I was processing photos a half-hour later when the afternoon sun came out brilliantly. I thought: rainbow. So I went upstairs and shot this:

Double rainbow over sky mountain

I was too close, without a wide-angle lens, to photograph the whole rainbow, but it was a full double.

The Hijra-Solar (H.S.) calendar

I show a dual-calendar system on many of my blog posts from Kabul, but the second date is not the Islamic Lunar (After-Hijra) calendar. It is the Hijra Solar calendar, used only in Iran and Afghanistan. This calendar is an Islamic calendar because of its start date (622 AD, the year the Prophet left Mecca to govern Medina), but it is not used for religious purposes. As in the rest of the Islamic world, religious days and months are reckoned by the Lunar Hijra calendar, which precesses through the solar year so that months such as Ramadan come more than a week earlier during each solar year.
The Persian solar year always starts on the spring equinox, and is in fact more accurate than either the Julian or Gregorian Christian calendars (see the Wikipedia article for a detailed explanation). Below I have built a correspondence table of Hijra Solar (H.S.) and Gregorian (A.D.) years, beginning with the year in which Sardar Daoud Khan declared H.S. the official state calendar of Afghanistan.

H.S.

A.D.

H.S.

A.D.

H.S.

A.D.

1/1/
1336

3/21/1957- 3/20/58

1/1/
1354

3/21/1975- 3/20/76

1/1/
1372

3/21/1993- 3/20/94

1337

3/21/1958

1355

3/21/1976

1373

3/21/1994

1338

3/21/1959

1356

3/21/1977

1374

3/21/1995

1339

3/21/1960

1357

3/21/1978

1375

3/20/1996*

1340

3/21/1961

1358

3/21/1979

1376

3/21/1997

1341

3/21/1962

1359

3/21/1980

1377

3/21/1998

1342

3/21/1963

1360

3/21/1981

1378

3/21/1999

1343

3/21/1964

1361

3/21/1982

1379

3/20/2000*

1344

3/21/1965

1362

3/21/1983

1380

3/21/2001

1345

3/21/1966

1363

3/21/1984

1381

3/21/2002

1346

3/21/1967

1364

3/21/1985

1382

3/21/2003

1347

3/21/1968

1365

3/21/1986

1383

3/20/2004*

1348

3/21/1969

1366

3/21/1987

1384

3/21/2005

1349

3/21/1970

1367

3/21/1988

1385

3/21/2006

1350

3/21/1971

1368

3/21/1989

1386

3/21/2007

1351

3/21/1972

1369

3/21/1990

1387

3/20/2008*

1352

3/21/1973

1370

3/21/1991

1388

3/21/2009

1353

3/21/1974

1371

3/21/1992

1389

3/21/2010

*Because of inaccuracy in the Gregorian calendar, the equinox now occurs on March 20 on every fourth year, beginning in 1996. In those years, the H.S. and A.D. calendars are offset by one day. In the table below I give the start date of Afghan months corresponding to AD years in which the spring equinox begins on March 21; but keep in mind that this must be adjusted for every fourth year until the Christian calendar is corrected.

Name Begins Length Name Begins Length
Hamal March 21 31 days Mizân September 23 30 days
Sawr April 21 31 days Aqrab October 23 30 days
Jawzâ May 22 31 days Qaws November 22 30 days
Saratân June 22 31 days Jadî December 22 30 days
Asad July 23 31 days Dalv January 21 30 days
Sonbola August 23 31 days Hût February 20 29/30 d

Shir Pur, a.k.a. “Chur Pur”

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.

the pool scene the diving platforms
An interesting scene at the famous empty pool atop Bibi Mahro hill. Actually, if they can restore it, the setting is stunning.
Nawin photographs the pool descending into Shir pur
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.’

crass-mansion row public services (not)
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.

Palazzo mirrorglass
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.

References:

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

Field trip to Kuh-e Asmayi

19 April 2007 / 30 Hamal 1386

On the way to the university campus I noticed these men rebuilding a street drain. There have been several rainstorms this week, and some of the ungraded roads have turned into swamps. Meanwhile, many drains are being rebuilt. I asked them if this was a Municipality project, but they said they were hired by the homeowner, just to rebuild the drain in front of his house.

Drainage trench Trenchers

Excellent street-drain construction. The workers explained that they were hired by the homeowner, not the city.

Today we (the 5th-year class and I) went to the top of Kuh-e Asmayi, which is situated in the middle of Kabul much as Twin Peaks is located in San Francisco. For this we had to rent a minivan, a.k.a. “Tunis.” Samir went to the bus stop and negotiated with a driver, who was a little alarmed when he came down to the University gate and saw that there were eleven of us. Grudgingly he agreed to go, and we piled in. Farah, the only female student, got the passenger seat, to her relief. I guess that normally the teacher gets the comfy chair, so I had to be explicit in saying that she got to sit there. Then it became a disadvantage for her because I turned the van into a mobile classroom when we got stuck in traffic.
Many of the students started grumbling about the gridlock, and asked if we had similar traffic in California. I said yes, then asked what potential solutions there were to this problem. Responses were diverse and became increasingly systematic, until Mujib said, “We should design a set of proposals, publicize them, have a public discussion, and then decide and act.” Without prompting, several others chimed in and said “We should study alternatives and choose the best.” So I then described the steps in the Rational Planning Model, described its role in planning, and then pointed out that Mujib had gone a step further by proposing public debate to decide which policy to pursue.
Then several students raised the concern that a large part of the Afghan public is uneducated; most have had only a few years of school and can’t read. The students expressed reservations about having an uninformed public as the arbiter of policy. They thought that in the US, where the population is educated, there would be no problem having the public decide. I pointed out that in the US, people may be literate, but that does not mean that everyone is a competent traffic engineer (I did not explain that in my opinion most Afghans have a world-renowned PhD in the School of Life). I said that the tension between experts and the public on policy development continues is an important ongoing issue among planners today. ‘Twas a good entree into planning theory! By then we had arrived at the high saddle on the mountain, and got out to look at the city.

Kuh-e Asmayi

P.A. speakers-on-sticks are the new minarets for neighborhood mosques.

Kuh-e Asmayi

Hillside neighborhood overlooking Shahr-e Naw, part of the ‘formal’ city.

We got a great view to the north. However, we had to hike almost twenty minutes to the top of the ridge so that we could see over the other side to the south. We got to about 40 meters from the ridgetop when we were stopped by a guard who said there are military installations to the north and south, so we did not have permission to go any further without a letter from the Ministry of Interior.

Vista with water-tanks
Walking back to the ‘tunis’ (minivan) we saw water-tanks which supply the houses below. Private water-trucks make regular runs up here.

5th-year Arch students
Looking west toward Kuh-e Ali Abad.

Library

Orientation at AREU library regarding online catalog.

Lunchtime

Lunch with the students after the field trip.

Deh Mazang

Wednesday, 18 April 2007 / seshanbeh, 29 hamal 1386

Foreground: Kart-e sakhi; background: Tapa-e salaam

The drainage ditch in the foreground is a pretty funky brew.

Today was very good. Before going over to the University I took a hike through Deh Mazang, a major and historic hillside settlement on the south side of Kuh-e Asmayi. When I post a map I will hyperlink this so you can see some reference points. But for now, just enjoy the images.

Dignified boys Coordinated construction

For those who have seen Fes, this is ‘the real thing’. This area has probably been inhabited for several hundred years, but most of the present housing is new. So the urban fabric here represents current processes of site selection, negotiation with neighbors, construction, and maintenance. And, frankly, I felt like I was being pretty intrusive walking here. Probably the near-exact social equivalent would be to walk into a suburban cul-de-sac in the United States and start taking photos. I refer to Americans specifically, because we are more private about our residential space than most Westerners. Here, the pattern fits what Ira Lapidus and Janet Abu-Lughod have described: ostensibly ‘public’ circulation routes become successively more private as one walks further into a neighborhood. A lot of people were watching me and calling out to their neighbors to check if anyone knew who I was.

Mosque, satellite dish, burqa

As with the Byzantines, the full ‘habit’ in Afghanistan began as an upper-class fashion.

The kids, bless them, asked me directly. And they liked having their photos taken.

Hey kids, why aren't you in school?

Other parts of Kabul ‘look’ modern, but to understand modernity is to see this place as the future, in many respects. Walkways, concrete drainage channels, piped water, and electricity are all being installed here. Mobile-phone reception is far better than anyplace in Berkeley. But one major concern I have is seismic threat. This is why I would like to help extend the Middle-east Earthquake Hazard Reduction initiative (MEHR) to Kabul.

Remarkable urban landscape

In the background is the Lion’s Gate. Through that is the historic core of Kabul.

Infrastructure is in... Electric meters

After my walk I attended a Spanish conversation class at the University. A friend of mine from 2003 is now a leading student in that department, so I tagged along to see how other programs in the University are running. The teacher, who is Argentine, was great! Unfortunately it was totally disorienting for me, because I only know English and some French; Italian words bubble up when I hear Spanish, and Farsi is grammatically similar to all of these, sitting somewhere between Spanish and English. Anyway, José teaches more than just words: he taught palabras de amor, which was cause for tremendous tension and nervous laughter as students were supposed to practice romantic dialogue.

José makes em think on their feet...

At noon, I arrived back at the Engineering Faculty to find Fahim Hakim, the professor of design, discussing a new walkway with the students. Since the University seems to have no immediate plan to improve the area around the Engineering building, the students bought a truckload of pavers and were preparing to design-build a walkway. For want of formal action, planning becomes anarchic–which is not to say chaotic, but rather that it is the product of peer-to-peer negotiation. It is about as far from top-down imposition as possible.

 

Then, after a spirited negotiation with some fifth-year class members, I persuaded them to set aside Thursday mornings for field trips. If all goes well, we are going to tromp all over this city in the next few months.

the Burj at AKTC Chopper over bike shop

Left: I stayed in that corner-tower on my first night back in Kabul. Pretty snappy!

Right: next week is a national holiday, so lots of helicopters doing low flights.

Ruins against sky

Reminds me of Pueblo ruins against the New Mexico sky.

Turbaned cyclist

The Paghman Mountains, to the west, make for dramatic sunsets.

Chahra-e Deh Mazang

Deh Mazang intersection is pretty lively. However, many major buildings along the street are only partly repaired, whereas one block off the main street on either side is much more new construction. Perhaps high-value property is the hardest to act upon.

Coming Back to Kabul

Sunday, 15 April 2007 / yakshanbeh, 26 hamal 1386 (Hijra Solar)

Introduction: A Semi-Blog

Many of my friends in California have asked me to keep in touch and to write about my experience of being in Kabul. Rather than set up an email list, I will post reflections on this website. Partly this is so you can check back in whenever you like. But posting on an openly available page is also a statement about how knowledge is produced and shared. Many of the Afghans I will be working with and studying will also be able to read this site. Since we all make sense of the world by retelling our experiences as a set of stories, imagining our audience is an act of placing ourselves in the world; declaring how we exist.

Tapa-e salaam

Kuh-e Asmayi (TV Mountain) in the background.

So here I am in Kabul; a city which evokes great speculation and imaginative projection among Westerners. Of late, a city of rather critical geopolitical importance: an epicenter in a struggle with military, economic, and ideological consequences. What do we call this strugggle? In academia we use the term “Clash of Civilizations” as a straw-man, to dismiss dangerously simplistic conservative interpretations of this conflict. But I also argue against a better-informed theory, of modern versus anti-modern. The Taliban, for instance, have origins in neoliberalism, an ideology of political economy that only gained traction in the 1970s and became dominant in the UK and US with the elections of Thatcher (1979) and Reagan (1980). So even Tariq Ali’s sarcastic leftist rebuttal, the “Clash of Fundamentalisms” does not explain what is a very real conflict. As Ali himself explains, there are religious and political-economic fundamentalists on both sides driving this conflict-without-a-proper-name.
Even the idea of “sides” is a problem because the US was deeply involved in the creation of its current opponents in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We also played a major role in producing long-term political, economic, and ideological regimes that are now funding, arming, and indoctrinating opponents of the US all across the world.

Arnold is popular here

Part of a former industrial complex is now being rented by a gym.

There is a whole industry of books that explain how the US is experiencing blowback from having supported too many dictatorships and theocracies. This includes some pretty conservative authors who dislike how the US has compromised its own long-term security for the sake of short-term political expediency. Much as it tempts me to blame the leader as we endure the worst US president since Andrew Johnson (or maybe ever), I am mindful of how much collective responsibility Americans have for this mess. We exert an extraordinary amount of influence on worldwide political economy and cultural production. We could throw the bums out if they are bad; so says our ur-text, the Declaration of Independence. But will the next one be better? or just a reflection of his or her support staff, background knowledge and understanding?
Americans represent almost forty people when we vote for the world leadership. That would drop to twenty if all eligible Americans voted; an improvement, but it underscores the inequity of the global political economy. We have a rare enfranchisement, a privilege for which we will be judged in the future by how well we choose, and how well we back our leaders with the numerous decisions of an informed body-politic.
Which brings me back to Kabul. Americans don’t know squat about Afghanistan. We don’t know squat about most of the world, and the rule-by-fear policy of Bush aggravates this horribly. It even restricts the ability of Americans to conduct basic social research abroad. Fine, most of us are too busy trying to make ends meet; indeed we are too busy to even question why it is so much harder to make ends meet than it was forty years ago (and I think that is a related issue). And yes, when I started compiling a map of historic Central Asia I admit I enjoyed being seen as eccentric and obscure. But the US has occupied Afghanistan for five years now and–not to put too sharp a point on it–we know about as much about Afghanistan as we did about Viet Nam in, say, 1967.

The stereotypical street...

Mom bringing home bread.

For me this is a rare opportunity to promote some understanding of Afghanistan. But I am mindful of the unfortunate fact that this opportunity was created by a conflict which we cannot really name, cannot quite identify, I suspect because its geography spans across the world in a general sense, and our hearts and minds in the most intimate sense. So in addition to my academic work, I am going to try to post an essay each week on my own experience in Kabul. I hope you enjoy them. Most will be much more impressionistic than this introductory manifesto.

Now, about that audience: if any of you have questions you would like answered, please email me! It may prod me to write on a particular topic for a whole essay, or I may build a customized FAQ about Afghanistan. I will not use your name, even if I use your question; because Protection of Human Subjects Protocol prohibits me from revealing the identity of all but elected officials in anything other than ‘nominal’ behavior (more on this later). Hopefully that also makes this a safe space in which to do a little work dissolving socially-constructed boundaries and assumptions about difference.

Jemal Mena

The sunlight was fabulous again this evening, so I went out to take pictures of my neighbors. Here is Mohammed Nader again. Now I need to find a local photo-finishing service that will do a good job at hardcopies; I owe him a print. I dearly hope that at some point I can get a photo of him smiling, as he usually is.

His neighbor asked for a print too. It is my honor to be able to get such portraits. Note that I am withholding names in most of these portraits; Senator Roshanak and Mumammad are public figures, but most folks I photograph are not.

Muhammad suggested that I take a picture of the guys across the street getting water. I turned around, and there they are filling pink squirt-guns at the tap! The tap is broken open; so whenever the Municipality turns the water on for this area, water just flows nonstop into the street. A chronic problem in infrastructure anywhere is maintenance, which requires local commitment at least to notification if not self-repair.

The shopkeeper who sells me phone cards is from Kapisa province, but he has brought his whole family to Kabul because of continued fighting there. Now he rents in Chehel Sotun, and bicycles up via Jad-e Darul Aman to Deh Mazang every morning. I will try to put together a map of Kabul neighborhoods so y’all can get a sense of the local urban geography.

This is the morning commute the shopkeeper is referring to, from the south edge of the city. The ratio of bicyclists and pedestrians to cars puts America to shame. Of course helmets would improve the safety in Kabul, as would the use of seat-belts. I think a lot about different choices of risk-reduction these days.

Bicyclists and drivers here often use bells and horns to notify each other as they negotiate the slow, dense traffic in the center-city. It is very effective and generally civil. There are a few young ‘hotdog’ drivers in big SUVs, but they are generally frowned upon. U.S. armored vehicles are known not only for aggressive driving behavior, but for colliding with other cars and not stopping (I have a firsthand account of this as well as stories). The behavior of U.S. military drivers is the main direct encounter with Americans for most Kabulis. We leave a bad impression, pun intended.

The violent reaction to the accident of 29 May needs to be understood in this context. Yes, a big part of the problem is massive discontent at unemployment; but since the present government is regarded as an American project, economic stagnation and an offensive foreign military presence are seen as linked. Furthermore, this city works on rumor, which insurgents can use. For example, it is rumored here that the U.S. driver who killed seven people was drunk. Whether this is fact or not is secondary: public intoxication is extremely offensive to Muslim sensibilities. I have not heard U.S. authorities try to contest this rumor, which they should if it is false. But they may not be aware of the general word on the street. Their own security restrictions keep the diplomatic team locked up in the downtown fortress labeled ‘U.S. Embassy’.