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.


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.


Orientation at AREU library regarding online catalog.


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, Josť 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.

Josť 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’.

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.


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.


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.


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.