Archive for January, 2008

Child brides in Afghanistan

January 28, 2008

I came across this photo a little late, but since it is Ghor related I thought I’d mention it. It’s by an American photographer, Stephanie Sinclair, and won UNICEF’s Photo of the Year 2007 competition. It shows a forty year old Afghan man sat next to his eleven year old fiancé


From the official caption:

He’s forty, she’s eleven. And they are a couple – the Afghan man Mohammed F.* and the child Ghulam H.*. “We needed the money”, Ghulam’s parents said. Faiz claims he is going to send her to school. But the women of Damarda village in Afghanistan’s Ghor province know better: “Our men don’t want educated women.” They predict that Ghulam will be married within a few weeks after her engagement in 2006, so as to bear children for Faiz.

A colleague in a district of Ghor married a thirteen year old girl when he was in his mid-thirties. Now she’s eighteen, has a two year old kid and also works for our organisation. She’s had some schooling – probably as much as is available in that area, which ain’t much – and is functionally literate. He looks a lot more friendly than the guy in the photo above but that’s by the by.

Talking about it with his male colleagues one evening, they were firmly of the impression that such practices were khub nest – not good, though I expect they would never say as much in front of him.

Searching quickly through various articles and blogs discussing this photo there is understandable disgust and sorrow, at times though this is directed at Afghanistan’s ‘barbaric traditions’. I’d just say the clue is in the caption: money, or a lack of it. Extreme poverty forces people to sell whatever they have, even a child. That is in no way trying to justify it, just to suggest that it’s not a ‘cultural’ thing. It’s not uncommon to sell off a young daughter in Afghanistan but that doesn’t mean all Afghans agree with the practice.

The Kabul social scene

January 26, 2008

When I first arrived in Kabul I was struck by how much of the talk around town – the expat enclave of town that is – focused on where to eat, drink, shop and party. In those first weeks I was briefed less on the political situation, security or cultural awareness than on the best shops and which one always sold out of date food; the different places to go for brunch, lunch or an evening drink and the relative merits of their coffee or wine list; and which embassy or international organisations threw the best parties. There is even a magazine celebrating this ‘Afghan Scene,’ the Time Out and Hello! of Kabul with restaurant reviews, pictures from the latest parties and short feature stories on some other part of Afghanistan. My geography of the city grew up around visits to its culinary waypoints. The various Lebanese restaurants, the Korean place, the Chinese, the Thai, the German bar, the American ones: the international community seemed mapped and emplaced within Kabul through entertainment.

Afghan Scene

It was an enjoyable, welcoming introduction that made this strange, daunting city feel a drop more normal. Except it isn’t at all normal. Outside most of these places stand armed guards. Visitors are greeted by signs saying that no Afghans will be allowed in or politely requesting for weapons to be left at the door. From the tales I have heard a similar scene existed in several Asian countries after the 2004 tsunami and subsequent influx of relief workers, so maybe in certain situations the emergency sex, shopping, eating and partying of Kabul is normal, but I have experienced nothing like this in Khartoum or Kampala and for me it has all been new and very, very strange.

L’Atmosphere is the hip flagship of the Kabul social scene. There’s no neon sign outside for security reasons but the large number of imposing vehicles parked up opposite gives the game away. In summer Kabul’s beautiful people lounge haughtily around the swimming pool or relax in comfy chairs chatting with friends or their computers. In winter it moves inside, where people try to grab a table near the large open fire or else prop up the bar. The first time I went there I sat with my back to the wall, fresh fruit juice and book in front of me and, from under the shelter of a tree, watched and tried to make sense of it all.

To go from the poverty of Kabul, the plague of problems that beset the country, the news of more bombings and so on, to walk from there into the sunny, sheltered courtyard of L’atmo can be an awkwardly uncomfortable experience. It illustrates why many Afghans are not best pleased to have all these foreigners hanging around spending relatively vast sums of money on cars, drinking and debauchery. But while I felt uneasy with it at first I quickly got used to it, to enjoy the comfort and ‘luxury’ and to justify it to myself. If I have not immersed myself in the Kabul social scene and still find it slightly uncomfortable it is only because I’m an unsociable old git at times.

For me, coming back to Kabul after a month in Ghor say is a rare time to relax with a shisha and a beer, eat good food and catch up with friends at the Lebanese place. For those stuck in Kabul, well, there is sod all else to do in the evenings and an urge to escape. The foreigners who work here are mostly in the thirties or forties. They work hard during the day, live in fairly trying circumstances with few of the basic things and freedoms they grew up with and search for the few pleasures open to them, trying to stay healthy or at least sane. For women in particular, to be able to go to L’atmo or elsewhere and takes one’s headscarf off and relax is hugely important.

Still, the fact remains that this scene is totally divorced – aside from the occasionally whispered about liaison – from the lives of Afghans. Such a state of affairs is not healthy for either side, and cannot be productive for the country as a whole. There are so many foreign workers we are able to be insular in our socialising, while the social and religious strictures on Afghans makes it hard for them to join ‘our gang.’ Then there’s the language barrier, disparity in disposable income and a paranoid security environment. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ division is not always there and never clear cut, but the sign on the way into L’atmo saying ‘foreign passport holders only’ goes a long way to maintaining the gap.

The attack on the Serena has changed a lot, for now at least. I haven’t been there since, but I know L’atmo will be a lot quieter on a Thursday night than usual (and see this). Unless someone throws a hand grenade over the wall, things will slowly get back to ‘normal’ and in a couple of weeks it will be buzzing again. But there’s a growing fear that the party may soon be over.

Samad and son

January 24, 2008

Samad and son

I met these two in a tiny, remote village in Ghor last autumn. When we arrived there a crowd of men and boys gathered around our car to shake our hands and speak to my colleagues. These two were the last to stroll towards us, the man, Abdul Samad, holding his son’s hand.

There was clearly something odd about the young boy. I wondered if it was Down’s Syndrome but didn’t know and guessed he was just a bit simple in the head. As they came up Abdul Samad whispered in his ear and nudged him forward. He walked up to each visitor in turn and shyly kissed our hands.

Throughout that morning as the other kids messed around this young boy stuck close to his dad. Largely on the edge of proceedings, I sat on the grass and watched them. I was struck by the immense pride Abdul Samad had for his boy. Every father I have spoken to here has been hugely proud of their children, but the openness and clarity of this old man’s affection cut me to the quick.

I would not have been too surprised if in an extremely rural village such as this, a child with any kind of mental disability were treated as something of a pariah, bullied or just looked down on with pity by others and a source of shame for their family. Instead I wondered if he were seen as blessed by Allah, God-given. Or, if Abdul Samad was just a good man who loved his son.

An afternoon stroll to the greengrocers

January 22, 2008

Turn left out the gate. I start gingerly picking my way over the frozen slush along the narrow lane. Work seems to have stopped for winter on the house they’re building over the road. The thin mortar is already cracking, the wooden scaffolding all that seems to be holding it up. It will be a rather grand three storey place when it’s finished, more ornate than structurally sound.

A group of young boys messing around on the corner, giggling in my direction and probably wondering what would happen if they throw a snow ball at me. I grin at them to scare them off.

Across one road and straight on. Other people too huddled up in scarves and hats; too busy minding their footing on the ice to notice me. A glimpse of brilliant white mountains against the bright blue sky caught as my lane crosses another, this time deserted street. I’d felt slightly apprehensive before leaving on this short walk. Once out, I feel free.

Then on, and on to a larger paved road, relatively empty at this time on this day. Follow the road round to the right, crossing over to the sunny southern side of the street where the going is drier. In the freezing clean air there is no noticeable stench from the large open drains either side of the road. A yellow taxi beeps for custom. A man’s head follows me past from his shop doorway. Stop in the mud of the junction waiting for a gap in the traffic.

Across, and past the few shops on the corner, swaddled with sheets of plastic and rugs against the cold. Squeeze by the bent tree and the sit up and beg bicycle that’s always leant against it, next to the large crack in the pavement.

To the man sitting cross-legged, raised up in his little cupboard of a shop, surrounded by the fruit and vegetables that always seem ready to crash down on him were he ever to pull out the wrong courgette or aubergine from the steep piles above him. He knows me by now, and tolerates my pointing and confusion with numbers with a soft smile.

I retrace my steps past the tree and the bike and the crack in the pavement to the corner. More traffic than before. As I wait I exchange hellos and how are you-s with the young policeman standing there. Plain dark green uniform that can’t be keeping out the cold, gun slung across his back, flat peaked cap pulled low, scarf wrapped around his head muffling the question he asks me. I didn’t understand it anyway so smile and shrug and watch for a gap in the cars.

I’ve been away and lost the knack of crossing busy roads by blithely walking over them. The policeman sees me hesitate. Faintly beckoning with a frozen arm he steps out a short way himself, allowing me to use his slipstream to launch myself across. I don’t turn and thank him, just laugh out loud as I walk home.

Crystal balls and hand grenades

January 21, 2008

A report by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, ANSO, claims the best case scenario for 2008 is ‘more of the same’ according to a recent Reuters’ article.

ANSO are the kind folks who email those of us who work for NGOs in Afghanistan with news about the explosion heard down the road or further a field, providing security updates and trying to keep us on our toes.

2007 was the year, they claim, that the Taliban ‘seriously rejoined the fight’ and they predict further Taliban offences for 2008. ‘In simple terms, the consensus among informed individuals at the end of 2007 seems to be that Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one’. How’s that for something to look forward to in the new year?

Back again

January 20, 2008

After a glorious month away I’m back in Kabul.Towards the end of my holiday, sick with being asked about Afghanistan, I was wishing I’d followed Mr Wood’s advice and pretended to be an insurance salesman from Barnsley. Conversations veered from those down the pub along the lines of ‘Alright Harry, how’s Afghanistan?’ ‘Oh, you know, so-so. Pint of Guinness please Fred.’ to in-depth interrogations on the socio-political situation that highlighted how little I understand. There was the inevitable degree of reverse culture shock and readjustment (Look! Water from a tap! And I can drink it!) but also a useful time for reflecting on my life in Afghanistan, what I’m doing, where I’m going, where I want to be. (Mind you, am still not sure about any of these.) Then, of course, there were the mince pies, the port and stilton, friends and family… Glorious. Was sorry to leave.

And strangely glad to arrive back in Kabul and the blizzard that hit half an hour after we landed and the heater at home that the guard had lit to warm my room before I got back.

On the way out of Kabul in December, an afternoon in Dubai with a friend hanging out at a fancy shopping centre had acted as a useful decompression chamber: marvelling at the lavish opulence, eating good food, walking around feeling safe and relaxed, women with pretty legs. It worked the same way in reverse: exhausted after a sleepless night, waiting in the chaos of Terminal 2 at four in the morning for an onward plane that was delayed for five hours among confused crowds of aid workers, diplomats and mercenaries all pushing the handful of Afghans to the side.

A couple of days before I got back the Taliban had attacked Kabul’s flashest hotel, killing six people. It’s the first attack of its kind directly targeting the international community and more have been promised. I suspect this has rather upset the international community as most, including myself, are now on lockdown and so aren’t allowed out of our houses except to go to work. Fear is an effective weapon, and the restaurant trade will be suffering.

In the rest of the country meanwhile, extreme cold and snow is reported to have killed some 200 people and tens of thousands of animals. It’s down to minus 20 Celsius in Kabul and will be worse elsewhere in the country. It’s said to be the worst weather in many a long year.

And strangely, though I’m not entirely sure why, I’m kinda happy to be back.