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

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