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’.

Picnic in Paghman

Today Samiullah brought me and his cousins to Paghman, an area just west of Kabul. It is the favorite Friday-picnic spot for Kabulis, so we shared the mountain site with about ten thousand fellow citizens.

As we headed west through Kabul we passed through the Kota-e Sangi commercial district, which is dominated by Hazaras. This photo is for Ananya, who questions the mainstreaming of microfinance. Indeed it has become quite institutionalized here!

Beyond Kota-e Sangi, at the edge of KhushhalKhan Mena (an upscale neighborhood), is the first refugee camp I have seen since being back in Kabul. These folks have been urban refugees going on five years now–which, contrary to the American sense, means they have fled into the city as a safe haven.

Paghman is famous as a place where the Afghans gave the Soviets a very hard time. The scenery is very reminiscent of alpine valleys on the east side of the Sierra such as Big Pine creek; but among the trees nearly all the buildings are ruins. They make great picnic spots. This boy asked for money; he carries a steel pot with coals and incense in it (span-dudi). Sami gave him some in exchange for lighting a cigarette; I gave him some for taking this photo. Remarkably handsome fellow, but his circumstances aren’t too good.

Heading back from Paghman…

Do you remember those little orange UNICEF boxes we used to bring around during Halloween in the 1970s? Well, the UN Children’s Education Fund is still around, making perhaps the best investment in humanity there is. This is a regional school for Paghman. As I understand it, donations are down, including formal U.S. funding commitments to the UN. In the long run, the Afghan state should provide all the primary education in the country (as neighboring Pakistan is failing to do). But for now, the only low-cost alternative here–as in underfunded California–is parochial schools. In local parlance that translates to madrasa-e dini.

Little orange boxes, anyone?

Construction in Kart-e Sakhi

Karte Sakhi is adjacent to Kabul University. As with Deh Mazang, and most of Kabul, it is a vast (re)construction site. The houses look neoclassical–not in the European sense, but as if ancient Mediterraneans were building their houses with materials available today. I like the new warm color palette, compared to the popular 1970s Kabul-green. I’m not sure about the reflective surfacing, but maybe I am too old-school. This is the latest.

And the quality of construction is often very good. I saw this house several days ago and noticed the bituminous layer they were putting in before finishing the foundation walls.

The crew asked me to take pictures of them, I could not say no.

This gentleman asked a coworker to hand him one of the trowels, so he could be shown with the tools of his trade.

In 2006 I see a new trend: light steel beams replacing heavy wood beams for primary spans. For Afghanistan this is good news: the whole area east of Kabul was being deforested for reconstruction back in 2003. If nothing else, at least locals can now use that wood as heating fuel in cold winters, although that issue also needs to be addressed. As does tie-in reinforcing for this structure. Step by step…

Down the same street are two houses, one older and one rebuilt, which have toilet-rooms backed up to the street. Note the removable panels with IAM stamped on them, where farmers used to shovel out the humanure. With urban expansion, farmers do not come around so frequently, so sewage overflows into the street drain. This is a problem which individual families cannot solve, nor even whole neighborhoods.

Sunlight

Here I am in the lovely, garden-like campus of Kabul University. Within the trees is the Faculty of Agriculture, and the field in the foreground will be used as a demonstration/laboratory field once the irrigation system is restored. In the background is Deh Naw (new village), on the south flank of Kuh-e Ali Abad.

The house on the left is the same one pictured on the Week 1 page; in the background are houses marching up the slopes of Kuh-e Asmayi. At night they look very much like houses in the Mission/Diamond Heights area of San Francisco viewed from Potrero Hill. I run the risk of romanticizing and aestheticizing these hillside settlements, because I do think they are at least as attractive as Italian hill-towns. So as a countermeasure, I should point out that clay-brick construction perched on bare mountainsides in a major seismic zone is a recipe for major human disaster. Just ask the Iranians and Pakistanis. Somehow these buildings need to be stabilized. Hopefully with the help of Abohassan Asteneh-Asl and the Middle East Earthquake Hazard Reduction initiative (MEHR), something can be done.

The prodigious dust in the air makes for some pretty intense sunset colors!

A day in the life of Kabul. So much construction is going on in this block debris and materials cover what few sidewalks there were. Also, the Municipality has not delivered garbage bins to this part of the city, so you can see the designated trash-dumping area at left.

Images and text (c) 2006 Pietro Calogero.

Reconstruction

The neighbors of our guesthouse are rebuilding the lot-line wall to make it higher. When A4T rented this guesthouse, it was the only inhabitable building on the block. Still, about one third of the lots are just ruins; but construction proceeds apace on both sides of us here.

I took this photo in 2003 on Dar ul-Aman Avenue.The housing shortage at that time was exemplified by the reoccupation of the ground floor and far bays of an obviously unstable structure. Note the children sitting in the opening just to the left of the cart on the sidewalk. This building had been damaged in the factional fighting in 1992-1994, and had been left as a ruin as much of southern Kabul was for a decade. But note that the Avenue had just been repaved, and those are concrete blocks on the left, and new bricks on the right ready for use in rebuilding.

This is a building just one block up on the same avenue. Note that the last two bays have been restored, and the building behind is completely new. The shops in the middle of the photo are gate-fabricators, and you can see their products leaned up on the left. Still, no-one has hired the heavy equipment necessary to clear away the collapsed concrete slab on the left end of the older building.

The ubiquitous green bicycles of Kabul are made in China, out of iron. Often a passenger sits on the back rack, but I have seen this before: transporting nine tires at once. Tires are repeatedly repaired and when they are irreparable, they are used as fuel to fire bricks in the Bagrame area just east of Kabul. You have probably seen photos of that production process.

Two major means of moving material around Kabul are the flatbed cart and the wheelbarrow. The alternate design of the cart is to have no push-bar and hitch it to a donkey.

Sometime in mid-May of this year Kabul Municipality finally received some 1-yard trash boxes that are designed to work with a trash truck (which also arrived!). Solid waste was a serious problem in 2003 and continues to be so to this day. I will try to find out how the whole system is working out.

Images and text (c) 2006 Pietro Calogero.

People

Here are Engineer Dehyar and Sabri, whom I worked with in 2003. At that time one of my tasks was to go through the International Building Code and identify passages for translation from English. The two sections that seemed useful were 1) the approach to exiting design, and 2) post-construction testing of concrete structures (a lot of buildings were going up at the time with no oversight at all!). We also discussed land use regulation, although I warned the team away from adopting American-style zoning. When I visited this last week, they had just completed a zoning plan for Kabul. I look forward to seeing the result!

On the day that I visited, Eng. Dehyar and Sabri were working on accessibility design standards for public and commercial buildings. In a city with so many disabled people, I really hope this policy gets implemented.

Khwaja Muhammad Nader was one of the bad-guy leads in the movie “Osama.” He is a total sweetheart!

And just an odd note: this is an image from the Roshan Mobile-phone company website (see here). Separated at birth? At least you can see why so many Afghans think I am Afghan. It isn’t just the beard! One explanation is that Alexander’s army left a lot of Greek descendants in what are now northern and eastern Afghanistan.

It is hard for tourists to resist photographing women in burqas. As I mentioned in week one, their meaning is very ambiguous now. And elimination of burqas (and chaduri for that matter) might mean very little in terms of gendered power-relations. For the outsider, even though these women were just conversing as they walked with their children, I feel a strong sense of uncertainty being near people whom I cannot see. Venice must have felt like this before Napoleon banned the capes and masks that were worn by men and women alike until 1798. Members of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan found burqas to be very useful in the 1990s, an perhaps still are using them now.

Images and text (c) 2006 Pietro Calogero.

Kabul old and new

I arrived in Kabul on Weds, May 31, two days after the worst rioting in the city in several years. News of the riot began to emerge several hours after I had begun my journey, so it was disconcerting to be in transit, glimpsing news in airports to find out how bad the situation was. By logging into wifi hotspots I could access BBC news, and saw that the situation stabilized quickly so I continued on to Kabul. This is the first time I have been back since October 2003.

Right now Kabul is a shocking juxtaposition of old an new. In the picture above, the house on the left was blasted apart during the factional fighting between mujahid forces in 1992-1994. The blue and white curtain serves as a screen for squatters who are living in the shell of the house. The house on the right, just next door, is brand new and palatial, perhaps 400 sq.m. (4000 sq feet). This neighborhood is the transition area between Deh Mazang and Karte-4, which was a wealthy area in the 1970s, and the families who fled retained title to their land. As they return from the United States, Germany, etc., house-by-house the neighborhood is re-gentrifying. Unless the squatters in the forground remain as house-staff, they are likely to be displaced when the ruined house is rebuilt.

Commercial reconstruction is also proceeding. In this case shopowners have restored individual bays in a large commercial building whose upper storeys remain wrecked and unstablized.

But just down the street, this is a sample of new architecture. As urban design, it looks good: low-rise, high-density, residential over commercial. The balconies provide a nice layering of facade texture, and offset the loss of transparency of mirrored windows. Reflective glass is a good energy-efficiency strategy here, and maintains traditional Afghan domestic modesty while providing a lot of daylighting and eyes on the street.

It is interesting to see what is left as this neighborhood is being rebuilt. In this area there are new lampposts, but this old one was left as a piece of highly expressive sculpture. Again, this damage dates from more than twelve years ago. Perhaps the most psychologically damaging experience for Kabulis was to live among the wreckage of that horrible moment for another ten years. Neither mujahidin nor Taliban did any reconstruction in this area, so it remained an inhabited ruin where wood and metal hardware were stripped from abandoned buildings, leaving very barren shells.

But there is a lot of hope in Afghanistan now, even with the rise of insurgent attacks across the country this spring. On June 1 I met Roshanak Wardak, a member of the upper house of Parliament (Meshrano Jirga). She is an OBGYN in Wardak province, and apperently the local leaders decided they wanted her to represent them. So various candidates financed from Kabul held all sorts of events and essentially sought to buy votes, while locals put together informal gatherings for her. On the day that I met her she had just come from a meeting with President Karzai in which he asked the MPs why they had rejected the latest budget (fiscal year 1385, solar hijra calendar). She identified a variety of items in detail, and the Ministry of Finance will re-evaluate. It seems that the government (President and Ministers) are having difficulty adjusting to having a powerful Parliament which they must answer to.

That evening, Dr. Wardak returned to her province to deliver more babies. Apparently, expectant mothers are now trying to time their births for when she is back in her hospital!

I wanted to show this photo, but not first, because it does represent some of life in Kabul but it runs the risk of reinforcing a stereotype. They boy on the left pushing a wheelbarrow: yes, child labor is widespread. This is a serious problem because it deprives children of time for education–both class time and homework. Like housing, this is a complex issue that needs to be approached in an integrated manner. The woman on the right: yes, women do wear burqas in Kabul now, although much less than in 2003 from what I can see. And as a more or less voluntary choice, wearing a burqa now can mean many things, including a woman who just does not want to be stared at by men.

I took this photo from one of the new pedestrian overpasses in the city center, initially to show the contrast between the old neighborhood of Deh Afghanan on the left and the new commercial building on the right. But the foreground view of men in the street is almost a Breugel-like illustration of a day in the life of Kabul. On the left, yes, a man with one leg; but in the middle, a man on a mobile phone; and on the right, three young men who look like they are just leaving school or work. On the far side of the street you get some sense of the intense sidewalk-commercial activity that occurs in commercial areas.

Images and text (c) 2006 Pietro Calogero. This page updated: 10 June 2006

Colonizing Luna, Part 7: Remote Operations

REMOTELY-OPERATED MACHINERY

Originally written: 8 August 2005. Previous | Overview | Next

Beyond the earth’s atmosphere, most exterior operations will be done using mechanical remotes. Machines can operate outside without worrying about radiation shielding, pressurized suits, or extreme variations in temperature. The main problem is how to control and guide them for non-routine operations. The simplest solution is to have a nearby human operator. Good remote-guidance and stereo-video interfaces will need to be developed, but only once: the same interface could be used for a variety of remotely-controlled machines working outside of satellites, vehicles, and on the Lunar surface. When signal-delay is not a problem, such as for simpler tasks that can be partially-automated (like digging), Earth-based operators can be used at lower cost.

Standard operator interface:

On the remote itself, this includes stereo video cameras and mechanical arms and hands, probably proportioned close to those of the human operator. Therefore the operator can wear stereo-video goggles, and ‘mirroring’ armatures on their arms and hands. Or perhaps a simpler interface can just use video-screens, keyboards and joysticks.

Crab:

This is a small, very maneuverable remote with fine manipulator hands. It can be used for repair and general-purpose external work.

Since they are small enough to go through airlocks, crabs can be adjusted frequently and used for moving small items into and out of habitable environments. One problem is power-supply on a small machine. Depending on context this could be photovoltaic panels or fuel cells, but for local work it could also be plugged into an electric power cable — essentially an extension cord.

Crabs can also be used for public-relations by NASA. Several units can be donated to the United Nations to be used for demining in post-war zones.

Roller Slab:

This is a large, slab-shaped trusswork with wheels at the four corners, and rolling-pin shaped flywheels encaged within. The flywheels will be iron disks fitted onto an axle and locked together. Altogether, roller-slabs would mass many tons, most of it being the flywheels.

The Slab is ‘recharged’ by hooking up to an electric supply and spinning up the flywheels; I suppose it could also operate on an electric power cable, but the amount of current might be a problem. For simplicity, each wheel should be driven by a separate electric motor and the motors draw current from flywheel-driven generators.

I think this should be the basic platform on which both diggers and ore trucks are built. Ore trucks would include tilting hoppers, as dump trucks do. Diggers would include equipment which is also powered by the flywheels. The digging equipment could be designed as a modular attachment that can be added to any standard Slab.

Colonizing Luna, Part 6: Manufacturing & Mass-Driver

MANUFACTURING

Originally written: August 3, 2005. Previous | Overview | Next

Bulk manufacturing on Luna will need to be done by automated or remote-controlled machines. Humans-in-spacesuits is too costly, as are pressurized, breathable environments. To control for temperature and dust, factories probably should also be enclosed, so again, the geodesic dome design is easiest for maximum area covered using minimal materials. Also, in some cases it may be best to pressurize the factory with an inert gas such as nitrogen or argon; that way ambient gas temperature can also be maintained, and equipment will not have to be engineered for hard vacuum.

Another big issue is getting product back to earth. The launcher mechanism will be described in the next section. But whatever is launched will need to land intact on Earth. I recommend atmospheric-entry gliders, similar to the X-38 or Shuttle Orbiter design. For efficiency, these should be remote-operated, so it is probably easier to have them land on skids in the ocean.

ELECTROMAGNETIC MASS DRIVER:

Originally written: 3 August 2005. Previous | Overview | Next

This idea was already developed and tested by the Space Studies Institute in the mid-1970s. See the Wikipedia summary.

This is a large mag-lev track, with a huge mesh cradle mounted on the track. The loading/unloading point on the track is nearest to the Luna base.

The cradle accelerates its payload to Lunar escape velocity and releases the payload in a tangential trajectory. The trajectory will be bent somewhat by Lunar gravity in a spiral form as the payload moves up and out of the Lunar gravity-well. So the launch-point and speed need to be calibrated so that minimal energy is needed to manage the path of the payload once it is launched.

The mag-lev track will probably be the main consumer of electricity, hence the need to store electricity in compusators.

Catcher function:

This is essentially the reverse of the launcher function. The cradle accelerates to match the decaying-orbit velocity of the descending payload, which makes a low-energy landing on the cradle. Then the cradle can use the electromagnets to decelerate to a stop.

The launcher performs several functions:

a. Send drop-gliders back to Earth to deliver manufactured product.
b. Send manned vehicles back to Earth.
c. Launch very large interplanetary probes.
d. Receive supplies and, if safe, receive manned vehicles.