July 6 through 9, 2007

My mission in Istanbul was to get images of urban development as examples for Afghan planners and architects. I mentioned on the July 7 post how it was strange to arrive in Istanbul ‘from the east’; another reason for this is that I was looking for images of Istanbul for Afghans, not for Americans. Having an Afghan audience changed my perspective, as tourist, in unexpected ways. Most of my focus was on mosques and neighborhoods which are not ‘perfect’, but very livable.
Mehmet Pasha dome
Dome of the Mehmet Pasha mosque, by Sinan, circa 1571-1580.

Approaching Istanbul from the East

My hotel is in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, just west of the Topkapi and the Blue Mosque («ami Masjid Sultan Ahmet), is lovely. When I arrived last evening, men and women were sitting out on stoops or in small public parks, very reminiscent of Brooklyn. But the houses are very small-footprint wooden houses, as in Newport, Rhode Island. The street pattern is very tight and irregular, like Venice or Deh Mazang in Kabul.

This morning I walked out to photograph examples of beautiful urbanism that has emerged from informal settlement. I found some workmen digging up a broken pipe under a sidewalk. I stopped to take a close look, to see if there was any example of infrastructure photograph for my students. They only spoke Turkish, but I was listening for cognates from Dari. One man asked me a short question which included mamlakat, so I figured he was asking me what my work was. I replied in Farsi that I was teaching planning at Kabul University. Another man then said something which I didnít understand, and so another repeated slowly, Turk, Afghan, bradarlari. ĎTurks and Afghans are brothers.í Another took my hand and kissed me on both cheeks. Unlike most Turks, they said goodbye as to a fellow Muslim: khoda hafiz.

This happened so quickly I did not have time to explain that I was not Afghan and not Muslim. Actually, given that I speak no Turkish, I donít think I could have explained my situation. In fact, I do regard Turks as brothers in the sense of adamiyat; and even as blood kin because of my Greek ancestry. I know most Greeks would be uncomfortable with that, and Iím not sure how the Turks would feel about it either. But these were workers welcoming the first Afghan they had seen in person, and expressing their compassion for a brother from a country which has suffered. My role, then, was to respond graciously as a representative of Afghanistan. As a teacher in two universities in Kabul, taking photos of Istanbul to show my students, that is in fact my position. For the moment, I am a visitor from the east.

Sultanahmet neighborhood

Sultanahmet neighborhood

Sultanahmet neighborhood

Sultanahmet neighborhood

Sultanahmet neighborhood



Sultanahmet neighborhood
Pictures from Sultanahmet neighborhood showing the irregular streets, small buildings, and wonderful character of the neighborhood.

Five cities, four weeks

During the spring of 2007 I taught at both Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic. Both at these universities and in the municipality, students and planners alike are trying to envision the future path of urban development for Kabul and all of Afghanistan’s cities. During my inter-semester break I am visiting several cities to gather images and examples of various paths of urban development. These pages are addressed to Afghan planners and designers.

Istanbul | Sarajevo | Napoli | Venezia | London

How should Kabul develop now? How should it be built into a symbol of Afghan national pride? What will be the shape of sophisticated Afghan culture and the Afghan expression of modernity?

A critical issue for Afghans is to envision Kabul’s future development. More than half the built-up area of Kabul has been created since 1978, and most of it is informal: dense, small lots, irregular street patterns, almost no infrastructure. The Ministry of Urban Development wants to retain most of this informal development and upgrade it over time. But for many Afghans, this informal development is a reminder of Kabul’s “de-modernization” by thirty years of warfare. It represents a loss of urban culture, a ‘ruralization’ of the capital. The images of modernity for many Afghans are south Asian cities: particularly urban India as shown in films, music videos, and television series. And the ideal is Dubai: most expatriate Afghans fly through Dubai on their way into and out of Afghanistan, and many poorer Afghans are guest-workers in Dubai. So both upper- and working-class Afghans have first-hand experience of this hyper-new city; and recent construction in Kabul seems to be influenced by Dubai-as-visual-ideal.

There are several problems with using Dubai as a development model for Kabul. First of all, Dubai has an enormous amount of available wealth. Some of that comes from stable government, which is why Dubai is the regional trade and transit center. For Afghans the linkage of stable government and economic development is a valuable model. However Afghans seem to be following a very different path of contentious democratic politics as part of their national development, so the benevolent dictatorship model of the Dubai Emirate does not apply. Also, much of Dubai’s wealth comes from oil, and Afghans probably will never have that kind of windfall of wealth. Furthermore, the Emirate of Dubai is guiding new development out into desert land which it converts directly into urban land.

In contrast to Dubai, Kabul’s main challenge is to convert existing informal developments and adjacent agricultural land into an Afghan version of modernity. There seem to be three options:
A. Demolish the informal settlements and rebuild as a modern city, with wide streets in a regular grid pattern.
B. Upgrade the informal settlements over time into a modern city.
C. Avoid the problem altogether by building new urban development in the desert areas just outside of the existing city.

OPTION A: The staff in Kabul Municipality want to pursue the first option in a sophisticated way: take a 400-hectare area of informal development and demolish-rebuild in 40-hectare increments. Residents of the informal housing can be temporarily re-housed on-site until new, modern, higher-density housing is built. This scheme could work if there were a strong government in place with a commitment to urban housing, as there was under Daoud and Dr. Najib. But there does not seem to be a feasible market-based method of implementing this plan. Most Kabulis prefer single-family houses with gardens, so they would not choose to buy apartments. The microrayan apartments are desirable mostly because they have piped water, steam heat, and flush toilets, not because they are apartments. Urban infrastructure is extremely desirable for Afghans, but it can be developed for many urban building types.

OPTION C: Many Afghan planners want to develop new satellite cities (shahraks) in open areas adjacent to Kabul. In particular, the Ministry of Urban Development and President Karzai want to develop the arid plain north of Kabul into what is now officially called New Kabul. If this scheme works, it will be good for the future growth of the city. I expect that it will eventually work, if because Kabul is likely to grow tremendously over the next forty years; it will need all that new land as well as the existing city to fit perhaps ten million residents in another generation.

OPTION B? What about the existing city? Most of Kabul is informal development with no infrastructure. Is it such a messy problem that it cannot be ‘fixed’? Building new satellite cities is fine, and it is easier. But I am interested in what will happen to the huge areas of existing informal development. Can they be upgraded (behsazi) as the Ministry staff (and most Western aid-workers) recommend, and yield a capital that Afghans can be proud of?

It is likely that all three options will be pursued in Kabul, in various combinations. But I think that Afghans are the most uncomfortable with the future results of upgrading. Partly because of lack of examples. What do upgraded cities look like? This is why I am posting pictures of cities in the midst of upgrading: Istanbul, Sarajevo, Napoli, Venezia, and London. All of these cities are modern, and very different, and in the process of upgrading their infrastructure. They are also very attractive cities, defined by patterns of ‘informal’ (pre-modern) settlement and development. Hopefully these images and commentary will be useful to Afghans in developing a vision for the future development of the existing city of Kabul.

Paying respects for the dead

24 June 2007 / 3 Saratan 1386

On June 17, a bomb placed in a police academy bus exploded while the bus was parked in a busy area just outside of the public gate of the Police Commandery. Thirty-five people were killed including twenty-four police officers and eleven bystanders. The next day (Aug 18) as I was going under sedation for my second surgery, I was reflecting on life, death, and what it means to be engaged in work here in Afghanistan as a foreigner. I decided that, once I had recovered enough strength, I would go pay my respects to the officers who were killed. As it happens, one of my students from Kabul Polytechnic is the son of a police officer, a 30-year veteran who works in the Commandery. So I arranged with Faisal to meet there at 2:00 today. I went to Flower-Market Street, bought 35 roses, and showed up without a plan. Faisal showed me the place where the explosion had happened: it was the middle of a very busy, very dusty parking lot. We had to keep stepping aside as buses moved in and out. Somehow it did not feel like the right place to remember the dead. So we called his father and went into the Commandery to meet him.

The officers inside were extremely appreciative. They articulated my intention better than I had: ‘So many people have been killed. We just forget them and move on. We should remember them and the sacrifices they have made.’ I was thinking of what Giorgio Agamben describes as homo sacer: humans who are reduced to a state where their death has no consequences. That is what the Global War on Terror is doing to so many Afghans: a dozen killed here and there, by accident. Not even a reprimand for the Western soldiers who kill them. Executions with no accountability; terrorists slaughtering police and civilians alike in public places. I feel it is time to undo that state of exception. If an Afghan gets killed, especially while they are trying to help their country, others should care. Especially foreigners. University professors are held in high regard in Afghanistan, so I think the officers appreciated the double symbolism of having an ustad who is also American come to remember their fallen comrades.

Faisal’s father obtained a list of nineteen of the officers who were killed. We went to a garden, just inside the commandery wall, where some of the body-parts had landed after the explosion. As Faisal read out each name, I laid a flower in the grass. As I laid the nineteenth rose I asked, “which way is the qibla (the direction to the Kaaba in Mecca)?” The officers pointed, and I laid that rose facing Mecca, just as the faces of the dead are laid to face Mecca. I had extra roses left, so I gave them to the officers, who each laid them in the grass as well.

Here are the names of the officers killed:

Muhammad Qasem, walad-e Alim Khan
Ghulam Ehsy, walad-e Ghulam Dastagir
Harun, walad-e Imam Beg
Akhtar Muhammad, walad-e Kalam al-Din
Karimullah,walad-e Abad al-Salam
Hazrat Muhammad, walad-e M. Yunus Somanyar
Habibullah,walad-e Abad al-Hamil
Muman Ghulam Gul
Pacha, ajir academy
Kaka Qayum, walad-e Abad al-Ahad
Abad Aljalil, walad-e Habib jan
Saida jan
Musafar Safari, walad-e Mulla Faisal
Muhammad Ashaq
Khwaja Akbar
Muhammad Gul
Hashem Muhammad Sharif
Amir Muhammad, walad-e M. Ali Samunuwal

Five more were not named.

Twenty-four more officers were injured.

We went back inside the building and Fasial’s father asked if I wanted a Pepsi. I said green tea would be better; it was more healthy. A guard who was standing within earshot just handed me his glass of fresh tea. We went back to his office, where the mood lightened quickly. There are a bunch of sockets around the room, with wires hanging out of them. The thick wire is an ethernet cable, and apparently a network with internet is being set up by ISAF. Another wire is for closed-circuit television. Faisal chuckled as he translated: “the officers are wondering if the TV circuit is for them, or for ISAF to watch them.” I said “Mmm, I think it is for ISAF.”

Invisible cities: the Twilight Zone version

21 June 2007 / 31 Jauza 1386

A foray into the unknown

[Caution: there is some whining involved in this essay, which may be irritating. But this farce of errors is also informative.]

Yesterday I received a text message from Marianne O’Grady:

We r here @ park palace. lv 4 ghazni 2mro.

Marianne had been kind enough to buy and bring two urban planning books for me to Kabul, and it looked like yesterday evening would be my only chance to pick them up from her. I was two days post-op, and getting cabin-fever from lying on my back reading books and watching DVDs, so I thought a small foray would do me good.

Unfortunately I could not contact Marianne. The number her SMS came in on was not her phone number, and I could not send an SMS back; Roshan had failed to fix this problem on my phone for a month running. But I thought I knew which was the Park Palace Hotel, in Chahr-Ra-e Deh Afghanan. As it turns out, the Park Hotel and the Park Plaza hotel are both at Deh Afghanan, but the Park Palace was apparently somewhere in Shahr-e Naw. The taxi driver to took me to Chahr-Ra-e Ansari said that the upper levels of Kabul City Center were the Park Palace. However the concierge there ssniffily pointed out that it was the Hotel Safi, and the Park Palace was in the building next door. But the building next door was the Park Residence, and the guard made it clear this was not the Park Palace. He said it was on the other side of the intersection. So I went there, and found the Sultan Palace hotel, and the folks at the front had never heard of the Park Palace. So I went to a travel agency across the street, and they were also at a loss; but they speculated that it was on the road adjacent to the park itself, just north of the Park Residence hotel.

Meanwhile I was desperately trying to get my SMS to work, by calling Roshan customer service. every other call would fail, as usual; and when the call got through to ringing the help desk, every third call would simply hang up at that point. Through various calls I learned that the instructions on the Roshan website were wrong: you had to add the international calling-code prefix in front of the SMS service number, which meant:
0093 0799 900 100
Instead of:
0799 900 100
Hoewver the longer number did not work, and then after another call I realized that when I had added the international calling code, I had forgotten to drop the zero before the local number. So I changed it to:
0093 799 900 100
and it still did not work. I still could not contact Marianne, and two hours later, she had not called (so I did not have her phone number), and I was feeling faint. I had not meant to be out and walking and in a very high-stress situation only two days post-op. But I had been waiting more than a month for these books, and this looked like my only chance to get them.

The suggestion that the Park Palace was adjacent to Sahr-e Naw Park was also wrong. But a building manager there knew where it was, a half-kilometer west of Chahr-Ra-e Ansari, beyond a UN compound. I trudged out there, found his directions to be exact, and came to a gate with three guards and no sign whatsoever. I asked them where the Park Palace hotel was, and they said, ‘here.’

Overlapping but mutually invisible geographies

All of my search for the Park Palace Hotel had been through Afghans, in Farsi. That was my primary mistake. What I should have done at Kabul City Center is gone down into the cafe where the foreigners have espresso and ask, in a loud, flat, American accent: Does anyone know where the Park Palace Hotel is? There are many sites, like Guesthouse #26, Anar Restaruant, and the Gandmak Lodge, where Afghans almost never go. Most of these places have no signs on the outside, and they are a bit out of the way. But since the expat community socializes mostly with itself, you get to learn this geography informally, by word-of-mouth or dropping off friends after dinnner-parties. If you are not in that circuit, the geography is almost completely invisible.

On the other hand, the geography of the rest of Kabul is opaque to foreigners, as I have mentioned before. You need to understand a fair bit of Dari or Pashto and have a good idea where the major landmarks and intersections are. If I am trying to take a 10-Afghani ‘tunis’ from Kota-e Sangi to the Polytechnic, I need to know that “Kart-e Parwan, Sara’-e Shomali!” means the minivan can drop me off near the gate of the Polytechnic. Since there are no street names, and foreigners have their own landmarks to go by, I have heard of party invitations being emailed out that do not show a single locally-familiar landmark. A local taxi-driver could not follow those directions even if you translated them into perfect Farsi.

It is like recently-discovered dark matter and dark energy: whole civilizations could be passing through our bodies right now, but since these forms of matter and energy do not interact with our own, we can be co-located but totally unaware of the existence of the other. I had spent all my time and energy in Kabul learning one geography, so I had not developed the contacts and tools to learn the other. It was uncanny.

At last I found Marianne and she delivered the books: Great Streets and The Boulevard Book, by Allan Jacobs and Jacobs, MacDonald, and Rofe respectively. I think these will be enormously useful here, so I am so thankful she brought them! But by the time I arrived at the hotel, two hours later, I was totally spent and Marianne was very displeased that I was not more gracious about the favor she had done me by hauling these books literally halfway across the planet. Since I was about to pass out by then, I just paid her and headed off as quietly as I could, to get back to my antibiotics and ibuprofen. On the way, I found a Roshan shop and dared them to get my phone to send SMS messages. The fellow behind the counter looked at the number I had put in, and said: “all of the numbers here in Kabul switched to ten digits two years ago, but not the Roshan SMS service number. You had:
0093 799 900 100
in your phone. I took out the extra nine in the prefix, so it is now:
0093 79 900 100.”

Now it works; I can send SMS. Perhaps if I had gone to the central Roshan outlet in the first place and paid $49 for a new SIM card rather than buy it off a local for $21, this problem would have been resolved at the outset. But one month ago I actually did go to the central Roshan office, both to fix whatever problem was preventing me from sending SMS messages and to change over the SIM-card registration from the fellow from whom I had bought the card. Maybe if I had called the Farsi-language customer help, and understood Farsi with absolute fluency rather than my ugly-but-utilitarian pidgin, someone could have explained this all to me. The problem is being in between. If I had played strictly by expat rules and only spoken English, maybe all these frustrations would not have occurred. Perhaps it is time to learn that game too, and pretend that I understand no Farsi at, all like 90% of the foreigners here. It is a whole parallel universe, right here.

History not quite repeating itself

17 June 2007 / 27 Jauza 1386

I have not blogged in two weeks because I have been working on my dissertation prospectus and a draft of one of the chapters. That is good, and it helps me process information; but so do these pages. The paradox is that the more that is happening, the harder it is to find the time to create web pages. So I will try a little catch-up now.

Yesterday there was a bombing in Campani, which is outside of Kabul city in the western part of Kabul Province. Today there was a suicide bombing on a police bus just in front of the Police Headquarters. 35 people killed, 30 of them on the bus itself. Horrific. As I was taking a taxi to the Municipality Planning Office we got stuck in traffic and I saw ambulances rushing past, apparently toward the scene of the crime. It made me wonder what London was like in the 1970s, during the ‘troubles.’ Or is this more like Saigon in 1970? History never quite repeats itself…

In any case I had a great meeting with several engineers in the planning office. I actually got to have an in-depth conversation about the planning standards that have been in effect in Kabul for the last twenty-five years. The engineers would like new standards, but for me the problem is much more complicated. In fact, the Soviet-era standards they are using seem very reasonable: parcels are 12 x 25 m; neighborhood streets are 10-16 m wide; arterials are 40 m wide; and urban highways are 60 m wide. I would advocate narrower arterials (about 25-30 m wide) since 21-meter-wide San Francisco streets are capable of carrying tremendous amounts of traffic. But for the most part, the grid-plan approach looks very suitable for new urban development

But development standards are not the central issue. Such standards are fine for new cities built on open ground, or for city-extensions built on partially-open ground. But in Kabul the engineers in the Municipality want to demolish existing informal areas and rebuild them according to these development standards. This desire is articulated in almost exactly the same terms that were used by American urban-renewal advocates in the 1940s and 1950s. The Urban Renewal movement destroyed dozens of urban cores in the United States; a loss which was best articulated by Gans (1962) regarding Boston’s West End, and Mumford (1958) and Jacobs (1961) regarding parts of New York City. Americans over 50 vividly remember and regret this movement. When foreign planners and foreign-trained Afghan planners hear that engineers in the Municipality want to demolish informal settlements and replace them with modern urban areas, they roll their eyes and say ‘Oh no, don’t repeat that mistake.’

Four years ago “they” included “me.” I felt strongly that the Municipality was mistaken for wanting to destroy several thousand hectares of informal settlements. Now I don’t see this issue in the stark right/wrong way, for reasons which I will argue below.

Urban Renewal as Modernization

Let’s start back in the United States. The New Deal was the great developmental phase which turned the U.S. into a modern country. This era of massive investment in education, fundamental research, and physical infrastructure continued through Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. It included rural electrification, road paving and construction, dams, and a huge public-building program. Environmentalists may wince at the consequences of this program on the natural environment, but the social result was a massive increase in broad-based wealth, public health, and the ‘realization of the American dream’ in terms of life-choices and opportunities. Robert Reich calls the era from 1947 to 1973 the “Great Compression,” when the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. was greatly reduced. To this day, the period from 1932 to 1973 in the U.S. remains the standard against which people across the world measure “development.”

For other countries visualizing their own development, which parts of the American developmental process are required? Which parts can be omitted or avoided? How can some processes be improved or adapted to very different sociocultural contexts? In effect, how much of this history must be repeated in order to have some form of desirable development? A strong emphasis at Berkeley is to identify the parts which should NOT be repeated, such as the pollution and the wasteful consumption. Furthermore, we believe development should be culturally appropriate, and we also believe the globalized economy of the Third Millennium is quite different from the industrial economy of 50 years ago.

Et cetera. I agree with all that. But development does mean paving roads (so that airborne dust does not cause endemic asthma and pneumonia); generating reliable electricity (so that refrigerated foods and medicines do not spoil); and spending money on school buildings, school supplies, and schoolteacher salaries. Development processes may always be unique, but there is still something which we call the “developmental state phase” which seems necessary to get literacy rates above 40%, and life-expectancies above 50 years. These are two of the core measures of the Human Development Index advocated my Mahbub ul-Haq (1995) and Amartya Sen (1999), and used by the UN since 1990.

What does the developmental state look like? This question can be allegorical; but in Kabul it is often asked quite literally. For Afghans, a common answer is that ‘It has paved streets, not clouds of dust.’ A more detailed answer is that it has a full suite of urban services provided to all city residents: including sewerage and trash collection, and clinics, schools, playgrounds and mosques all within walking distance of housing. Sound familiar? Yes: it is very similar to the “urban village” ideal of the New Urbanists. It is an ideal of walkable cities, with a mixture of single-family housing, apartments, businesses, and retail areas all within walking distance, and yet with room for cars on the major traffic arterials. That is what the engineers in the Municipality are proposing: to replace the irregular, sewage-choked paths and mud-brick housing of the informal neighborhoods with a modern city, whose specs are very similar to what we are using in the U.S. right now. Better yet, they want to implement these modernized districts in small phases (40-60 hectares), destroying only several score of houses and resettling those residents in each phase. Americans may scoff cynically at this, but several phases of urban expansion in the 1970s in Kabul were remarkably successful in providing housing that was affordable to Afghans at the time. I’m not talking about the pitiful 1% of low-income housing that Americans produced from 1938 to 2005; more like 25% of the planned area of Kabul.

If the USSR were still backing the Afghan state, these modernization plans would make sense. But what about now? Americans howl at the Keso vs. City of New London controversy, and citizens’ movements across the U.S. are trying to pass legislation to prevent local and state governments from being able to expropriate land ‘for the public good,’ because most Americans do not believe the U.S. government can engage in any destructive-creative act “for the public good.” In that sense Afghanistan is a radically exotic country: here there is extraordinary respect for the idea that the government can and should act for the public good. If anything, that is what Afghans have been waiting for during these last 5 years: a government which actively develops the economy. As Tariq Ali (2006) pointed out, that is why the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Ahmedinejad in Iran all have popular support: provision of public services like schools, clinics, and street-cleaning.

Our Western desire–my desire–to ‘save the informal settlements’ is very out-of-tune with many Afghans. They aspire to a clean new city, a modernity that they can be proud of. But my concern is relevant in one fundamental sense: the present Afghan government cannot afford to do even sequential replacement of informal settlements. In part this is because the promised billions in American “aid” is being paid mostly to American consultants. Sadly, I am part of this process with my World Bank contract. So there is some real ethical murkiness in my argument (and that of almost all foreign urban planners in Kabul) that Afghans should consider retaining and upgrading their informal settlements.

But it is also important that informal settlers have invested billions of dollars in the construction of the 60-70% of Kabul which is ‘out-of-plan,’ and the human investment of time and effort cannot even be calculated. All of this investment will be lost if the informal settlements are destroyed. Even the threat of destruction makes hundreds of thousands of Kabulis reluctant to invest further in the human and capital development of Kabul. The threat impairs the economic and social-network development of this city. Kabulis are keeping their options open. “Maybe next year, back to Iran or over to Dubai for work. Maybe India. Not worth putting down roots here yet.” How do you quantify the cost of a reluctance to commit to a place?

Urban Renewal as Remodernization

Stephen Graham (2003) and Derek Gregory (2004) talk about the “de-modernization” of cities in the global South that have been pawns in the conflicts of the global North. Kabul is a quintessential example of this: a city which had clean, tree-lined streets, electric buses, and a feeling of modernity in the 1970s. Yes, some savvy old-timers point out that this feeling was often illusory or only relevant to Kabul. But for so many Kabulis who fled in their youth and are returning or resuming work in their middle age, the loss of that modernity is cathected by association with a loss of a happy youth. Restoring Kabul represents nothing less than restoring their lost youth; the emotional power of this impulse cannot be overstated. Keeping the informal districts which have developed since the late 1970s means retaining a constant, continuous reminder of the loss of public rule-enforcement, the lose of government in the social sense, the loss of control to years of fear, chaos, and warfare. After deliberate reflection, most Afghans will tell me there is no going back. They know this intellectually, just as Americans know intellectually that Columbus did not discover America. Intellectual awareness does not override the power of normative myths. Americans still refer to those who deny scientific inquiry as ‘flat-earthers.’ Afghans still want their orderly city back.

Ways Forward

The major terrorist attack against the police in Kabul today will be a boon for the Industry of Fear. The insurgents just handed foreign ‘security consultants’ (a.k.a. mercenaries) another raft of $2,000/day contracts. Ten days of work by one mercenary equals the cost of equipping a twenty-station computer lab in the Polytechnic, which I don’t expect they will get. I keep asking; I keep getting flat refusals. My surgeon just told me this evening that the 400-bed army hospital got internet. Last month. That probably costs about $200 per month, or $2,000/month for a direct satellite connection. Mercenaries here earn that in one day, and as far as I have observed their main role is to offend Afghans and make this place more dangerous for the foreigners they protect. After all, that is good for business.

The perverse logic of money-flow here just about guarantees that “aid” will not go to modernizing this city in any substantial way. The main source of available cash seems to be drug traffickers. I think they are the major underwriters of construction financing here. But they are only likely to lend to revenue-generating properties, not houses. So yes, there is substantial large-scale commercial construction, but I think that sector is only indirectly linked to the housing sector, and even more weakly linked to the provision of public facilities. In other words, I don’t see any potential resources for the type of modernization which the Municipality aspires to. Notice how different that is from saying their ideas are ‘wrong-headed.’ If anything is wrong here, it is the promise of nation-building which the international community gave to Afghans. We foreigners should have been more honest in the first place.

From this angle, the thought of incremental upgrading seems like prescribing ibuprofen to someone with a major brain tumor. It is almost embarrassing. But it does seem like the only feasible way forward with the lack of resources being made available. Can the old planning standards be used as a metric for upgrading? Making sure that houses are within 500 meters of parks, kindergartens, schools, and mosques? Selectively widening streets to admit at least one car, for emergency access? Will commitment to intermediate measures reduce the chances of greater improvements later? Can we foresee those trade-offs now so that Afghan planners can make informed decisions about what they are willing to sacrifice in exchange for some acceptable process of urban modernization? I think the urban planning studio this fall will answer some of these questions.

Shelter from the storm

3 June 2007 / 13 Jauza 1386

I have been learning the transit system around Kabul. Taxis from the University to downtown, for a foreigner, can cost 120 AFS ($2.40). But if you catch a shared taxi or a minivan (Tunis), it costs only 10 AFS; bigger buses cost 5 AFS; and the National Bus Service costs 2 AFS (1 cent). Of course you need to know destinations in the city in Farsi, and exactly where they are in relation to where you want to go. So it took a while for me to learn the routes in a city with only about ten named streets and no address system.

Today I took the bus to Deh Mazang intersection, and I was going to walk the 3/4 km to the Aga Khan office. It started to rain just as I got off the bus, and then it started to hail. At first I was marveling at the puffs of dust as the hailstones hit the ground ahead of me, and then I realized the storm was intensifying. By that point I was walking next to a construction-supply area, and men were starting to scurry for the inside or underside of their trucks. Two guys motioned me to hop in their cab, which I thankfully did.

Soon the hail started coming down in golf-ball sized clots of slush, making a deafening thunder on the roof of the cab. We laughed and pressed our hands against the windshield, in the hopes of preventing the extension of an existing crack in the glass. The hail lasted for a full twenty minutes, and shifted to a downpour for another ten before is was sensible to venture outside.

My shelterers were Hafizullah and Aminullah, if I remember correctly (I will check later). They had been eating watermelon, so Aminullah had a big knife for cutting it. I found that distracting, and it added to the interest of the conversation. The following is a testament to my bad but functional Dari.

Shoma Musulman as’?

Ne, Isawi astum.

Ah. Az koja ‘s?

Shahre San Faransisco. Aale ustad dar Pohantun-e Kabul astum.

Amerikaie? Amerika kharob as.

Pause. I looked at the knife Aminullah was cleaning with his scarf.

Mardom-e Amerika khub as, ammo Bush kharob as. Daulat kharob as.

Bale, bara bisyar mardom-e Amerikoie Bush mishkel as.

Mmm. Aolad astin?

Bale, yak dokhtar wa yak pesar astum.

Khub as. Man arusi as, ammo aolad neistum. Hafizullah char bacha as.

Mubarak! Chandta bache mikhoayi?

Shash, haft. Inja farq as… Shoma tarbuz bukho!


The watermelon was excellent.

Portraits, and thoughts on oppression

25 May 2007 / 4 Jauza 1386
Note: I have interspersed portrait-photos of Afghans I have taken. In conformance with the principles of the Committee to Protect Human Subjects–to which I am bound as an American university researcher–I must say nothing about who they are personally. However I do not intend to imply that these are “pictures of the oppressed.” Rather, this essay is about all of us as human beings. I thought it would be appropriate to see some human beings as you read this.

This morning I was re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I realized that I am forming a very different opinion about how to deal with systems of oppression, based upon what I am experiencing in Kabul. I think planning and development work should focus much more on the oppressors as the agents of resistance to oppression.

From a Leftist perspective this seems logically contradictory, and threatens to draw energy and focus away from the oppressed. But the apparent contradiction rests on the assumption that there is no difference between structure (systems) and agency (individual choice and responsibility). It assumes that oppressors are always fully conscious of their actions and fully conscious of the consequences of those actions. Rarely if ever is this even possible.

An example will help: suppose a man buys a dress shirt at a brand-name store in San Francisco rather than commissioning a skilled local tailor to make it. Is that man deliberately, maliciously supporting brutal working conditions for women in Ciudad Juarez where they make that shirt? No. There is a whole system of production which is designed to sell him a fine-quality shirt at a price low enough for him to buy it, and high enough to ensure company profit. Does that system deliberately hide the conditions of the woman in Ciudad Juarez who made that shirt? Not exactly. At the point of sale the idea is to sell the shirt. Company resources are devoted to ‘the retail experience.’ And the man is looking for a shirt, not a briefing on the political economy of Maqiladoras.

Many other examples can be cited from daily life: the man leaves the store, goes and buys a cup of coffee, gets in his car and drives off. The consequences of each of these actions may be far-removed, and it is difficult to gauge how individual, iterative acts of consumption contribute to either collective or very individual disasters far away in space and time. Chains of production, trade, and consumption today are so complex and dispersed that the process of oppression–and understanding of the nature of responsibility–can be very hard to pin down in practice. I will call this system oppression through distance, in which case the most identifiable processes which support this form of oppression are what Ananya Roy calls the management of distance. Think of anti-immigration movements; re-segregation; the promotion of social phobias. The promotion of fear of travel to “dangerous” areas.

For the current design of our economic system this abstraction by distance may be necessary because too few humans would stomach the consequences of their actions if they could observe them directly. I think few people would be sufficiently cruel to knowingly humiliate and deprive others as we currently do through more indirect action. But it may be worth looking at more direct, intimate processes of oppression from the oppressor’s side to improve the material and emotional conditions under which both oppressors and oppressed live right now.

A manager verbally abuses an employee in front of his co-workers because a job they are both working on goes badly. A white woman in Berkeley, California visibly clutches her purse more tightly when she sees a black man. An elderly Muslim man gets singled out and interrogated at length because he fits a certain ‘profile.’ Both fear and shame play major roles in each of these events. Friere points out that this dehumanizes the oppressor and the oppressed.

Over the last few centuries Christians and Marxists have engaged myriad conditions of oppression, and usually focused on helping the oppressed. The impulse makes sense: it is easier to feel compassion for the oppressed. But as a policy thinker working in Kabul right now, I must say that it is pretty apparent from here that those who oppress usually have more power to transform existing conditions. Besides which, the oppressor is you and me, demonstrated by the fact that I can create this page and you can read it–even, perhaps especially, if you are an Afghan.

There is a recursive problem here. Since oppressors are often motivated by fear and shame, perhaps exactly the same motives deter us from looking at ourselves. Far better to focus on charity for the needy. We know it helps, but it leaves existing conditions of oppression intact. Perhaps the man with the new shirt and the cup of coffee is driving to a community center where he volunteers in a literacy program, giving something far more valuable than money: his own skilled time. Does that change the conditions of inequality and oppression? Probably not, or only extremely slowly.

But a different line of questions may get at how to actually change conditions of oppression. Is that man working against his own dehumanization? Is he asserting his humanity? Perhaps he is driving to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and he is a sponsor who has to ask his client some very hard questions which he himself struggles with every day. Perhaps, in another place, the man is an American military commander who decides to go ahead with an investigation of troops under his own command, knowing that this will cost him his career. He asserts his honor; he asserts his fearlessness; he asserts his humanity.

Both systems and individuals can create oppression or dismantle it. The logic, ethics, and spatio-temporality of systems and individuals are very different, but neither can be ignored when challenging oppression. For those who have the power to oppress, and the capacity to transform systems that cause oppression, the fulcrum-questions may be fairly simple:

What quality of life do we want to enjoy?

If we really want to enjoy our lives, don’t we want to prevail over our own fear and shame? Don’t we want our humanity? That is what we have the power to claim.

ChahrRah-ye Deh Afghanan

21 May 2007 / 31 Saur 1386

The intersection at Deh Afghanan is one of the striking landmarks in the city. I photographed it from a pedestrian bridge last year. On this day I wanted to get up close to the intersection between the new, glass-clad commercial building, the older one-storey shop-fronts, and the clay-brick housing stepping up the hill.

Two modernities Scarf-seller

I call the photo on the left “Two modernities.” Obviously the glass building on the right is modern, but what is less obvious is that the clay-brick houses are too, and in fact they are a better reflection of the uncertainty, ephemerality, and deprivation that come with modernity for those we don’t want to see.

Bulani-seller 4

The boy in the left photo is selling bulani, which is fried dough with either potatoes or green onions in it.

Kabul Polytechnic: First Visit

19 May 2007 / 29 Saur 1386

Debra Frey of GIAI is a friend of Ustad Homa, one of the Architecture professors at Kabul Polytechnic University. When Debra relayed to Homa that the Kansas State team and was considering revising the curriculum at Kabul University, she asked if anyone was willing to come help the Architecture Department at Kabul Polytechnic revise their curriculum as well. I said I was willing, and pleased to have an invitation to the Polytechnic because I did not quite know how to approach this other university.
KPU Cafeteria


Kabul University had been established by Nadir Shah in 1932, and in the 1960s it began to receive assistance from various American universities. Therefore in the 1970s, when the Soviets began to play a much larger role in Afghanistan, they helped build Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU), which operates more on the Soviet model.

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The mural on the gymnasium at the end of the (currently dry) axial fountain at KPU. The book in the middle has a Pashto phrase written across it which translates roughly as ‘knowledge is light.’


There are several paths from the main axis northward to the main classroom buildings. One path is covered by trees, which shades the walk. It is lovely.

Main classroom building, KPU main classroom building facade, KPU

The main classroom building, as you can see, is high modernist style. This is the west elevation; therefore it has both vertical and horizontal sunshades forming a decorative grille pattern. On the left side you can see that the north elevation is all glass.

KPU corridor KPU corridor

The corridors face an interior courtyard, and all but the west-facing corridors are flooded with daylight. The effect is fantastic, but appallingly cold in winter.

2 brise-soleils

The west-facing corridors are shaded by brise-soleils, which reflect indirect light. If Wurster Hall had been build like this, I would not have been such an opponent of Modernist architecture. Here I can see the intentions realized.

top of stairwell Stairwell
Stairwell stairwell

The stairwells are fabulous. I have no idea about the seismic strength of this glass-and-concrete wonder, but even with years of neglected maintenance it is a delightful place to be. Needless to say, Ustad Homa and her boss, Abdul Haq Wardak, talked me into giving weekly lectures here on urban policy as a volunteer. Rather than the 12 students I have at Kabul University, here I lecture to about fifty.

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.

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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.