Archive for April, 2008

A tour of Afghan TV

April 30, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about what’s on TV for a while now. The Government’s attempt to ban the hugely popular Indian soap operas gives me another reason to do so. But I’ve been putting it off for a reason: they are simply too terrible to describe.

I watch more TV than I’d like but not through choice. I live in the office with many of my colleagues and watching TV while eating supper is an evening ritual.

So, to share my pain with others, here is the first in an occasional series of Rud’s synopsis of Afghan TV, starting with those soap operas:

‘Kasultii’ something or other. The day to day dramas of a rich north Indian family. And boy, is it dramatic. To emphasise just how extraordinarily dramatic it is, when something happens it is followed by a close up of each of the twenty characters present in turn, looking shocked/horrified/dead etc, accompanied by a dum dum dum and jerky zooming in just to let you know something dramatic has happened.

Annoying changes in camera angles for no apparent reason, often as if shoot by someone on a rocking-horse, are common place.

Featuring: a whole host of ham actors, the relations between whom are beyond me. My personal favourite is the evil daughter-in-law with the even eviler squeaky voice and sour-puss grimace. Somebody once described her to me as ‘shaitan’, the devil. That’s how kinivingly evil she is. Occasionally, when she is being evil, an ethereal voice seems to say ‘knickers.’ I know not why, but it usually makes people laugh. (Please note though, that for the rest of the time laughter, or any other distraction for that matter, during the show will be severely frowned upon.)

I also like the man with the tipexd on white streaks in his hair. And the cheap and garish sets and costume in general.

‘Tulsi’ is the other most popular one. I may have got some of the details between them mixed up as they tend to blur into each other in my mind. This has a similar set-up, focusing on family relations and strife, but manages to be marginally less aggravating.

Both are dubbed. Badly dubbed at that, with the most wonderfully, exaggeratedly stilted voices giving the already wooden performances an extra twist.

And both include women in saris which don’t always cover every inch of their skin, and Hindu idols. These are pixellated out. But still, according to someone in government, these make the programmes contrary to Islam and the Afghan Constitution. Thus the call to ban them.

Some people are also saying that trying to ban them is an attempt to mollify the Taliban. Personally, I reckon most Talibs watch these as much as everyone else and I used to think that if there is one thing that could unite this country, it would be Tulsi and Kusultii.

I was asking people about all this the other night, and given how religiously my male colleagues watch them was expecting a more heated response against the ban then I got.

I was also surprised that they seemed less concerned about the idols or the exposed flesh (actually no, not surprised about that bit but anyway), then the relationships between the characters.

I had always assumed that it was the family centred nature of these soaps – relations between in-laws and between siblings, between the family and its patriarch and matriarch – that chimed with and appealed to people in Afghanistan.

But I was told the other night that this aspect of the soaps was a bad influence on people, especially children. Because, I am guessing, it shows children not always doing what their parents tell them to, and women being assertive and independent, like that evil shaiten.

A month ago I would have argued that these soaps should be banned as crimes against common taste and decency. Now the Government’s trying to ban them, I almost feel compelled to watch them as a way of protest. Not that I have much choice, they are on while I’m eating my naan and chai whether I like it or not.

(I’ve just been looking for YouTube videos of the soaps, of which there seem to be plenty, though not the Afghan versions, but putting them up here is beyond me right now. If you’re interested though, they’re there somewhere, so go knock yourself out.)

Reading Kipling in Kabul

April 25, 2008

It was World Book Day this week, not something marked with much occasion in Afghanistan.

Wherever I am, for me reading is one of the great pleasures of life. More than that, it is an essential part of my life. I’ll read a train timetable if there is nothing else to hand, and living here a book is a refuge more secure than any guarded compound.

For all the small international fame of The Book Seller of Kabul, with a literacy rate of 28% of all adults, books do not feature much in the cultural life of Afghanistan. Though as the anthropologist Louis Dupree pointed out, that is not the same as saying literature, particularly poetry, is not important here. Afghanistan has a rich heritage of oral poetry and there is a hackneyed saying that in the past, you couldn’t stretch your legs in Herat without accidentally kicking a poet in the bum.

From the minority of people who can read, fewer still will be able to read in English, French or Russian, and few foreign language books are available even in Kabul. I don’t know how much fiction has been written and published in Pashto or Dari but I’d guess very little, and I’d guess very few books have ever been translated into these languages.

I read something a while back about ‘the book seller of Kabul,’ Sultan Khan, setting up a mobile library and driving it around the north for a while. A fantastic thing to do and he seemed positive about his reception.

But even amongst the small literate section of the population, it strikes me that reading is not usually done for pleasure. I have one Afghan friend who does so. Having read and enjoyed a Dari translation of Les Miserables, he asked me to bring him back an English copy when I went on leave. But he is a rare exception as far as I know.

The Koran is usually the only book to be seen on a shelf. My colleagues will read for work if they have to, but it seems books are more associated with school and a dry kind of learning than with enjoyment. Maybe it is different between men and women, I do not know.

Discussing reading one day, a literate Afghan said ‘we don’t know how to read books. We haven’t been taught at school or university. We do not have a culture of reading.’ Her comments were more in relation to critical reading, of challenging the written word, but I suspect they hold true in general.

Films and TV, meanwhile, are hugely popular. Remarkable little attention has been paid to popular culture in Afghanistan. The impression given is that there is no such thing. When the international gaze of media and academics does turn from conflict or drugs to ‘culture,’ it is usually more in terms of ‘tradition,’ of pushtunwali, say, though more recently also of the Taliban’s use of new media. Then there is the recent focus on attempts by the government to ban the broadcasting of Indian soap operas, but more of that another time.

At the moment I’m reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The only other work of his I’ve read is the poem ‘If-‘, a framed copy of which used to hang in the toilet of a friend’s family’s house. I used to curse it for trite rubbish every time I went to have a piss.

I picked up a copy of Kim because of its connection with the Great Game (a term bestowed by Kipling) and Afghanistan. To my surprise I’m enjoying it: imperialist, but a fine story.

And better than reading a te-rain timetable, of which there are non in Afghanistan anyway.


Provincial Reconstruction Teams: a rant with a boring title

April 22, 2008

A dawn chorus of gunfire followed by five or six helicopters buzzing low overhead this morning in Kabul. No news yet as to what it was about.

A few weeks ago I had the honour of attending the PRT conference at ISAF headquarters. PRTs being Provincial Reconstruction Teams: the controversial military units operating under ISAF (International Security Assistance Force, itself under NATO) to provide security, with the added bonus of a small civilian component thrown in to do the ‘reconstruction’ bit.

The conference was a talking shop for PRTs from across Afghanistan aimed to improve their work and, rather sweetly, provide a ‘brief respite from tactical operations’. Non-ISAF folk were allowed in for one day of it, so I popped along to see what was going on.

Sitting in a sweat-stained gym cum conference hall surrounded by lots of burly soldiers for several hours was indeed an honour.

Nothing personal against soldiers, it’s just that I don’t feel all that comfortable in such a militarised environment, least of all in Afghanistan.

More discomforting was the discussions that took place. Introduction and updates were given about various initiatives such as NSP (too many acronyms in this post: the National Solidarity Programme, a government-run, country-wide community development and governance programme) and various coordination mechanisms.

These were all well and good unto themselves and some, hearing from the UN about preparations for the future parliamentary elections for example, were fascinating.

But here’s the rub. PRTs have been used in Afghanistan since 2001, as well as in Iraq. Seven years down the line and still much of the discussion is on how to improve coordination, including civil-military coordination. For sure, coordination mechanisms will be continually evolving but still it was worrying.

There was a brief talk by someone from the UN about humanitarian responses, to the winter cold and food shortages for example, with an almost angry plea for military actors not to use the word ‘humanitarian’ to describe what they do.

The key principles of humanitarianism include neutrality – not taking part in hostilities or taking sides in a conflict – and independence – serving no other agenda, political, religious, or military, than the needs of the people affected by war or natural disaster.

Such principles, the very concept of humanitarianism, are thus impossible to uphold by military forces. A man with a gun giving out food to starving orphans is, almost by definition, not being humanitarian. Call it disaster relief or some such if you will, but please avoid the ‘H’ word.

At least that is the widely held view of most people within the aid world (and one of the reasons why PRTs have been so controversial). Yet some of the military folks at the conference were not so chuffed with this proscription on their use of the word.

Seven years (in Afghanistan alone, not counting Kosovo or other times) down the line and we still haven’t dealt with this? Still there is a fundamental lack of understanding within the military about the fairly simple concept of humanitarian principles? Maybe the divide in approaches and mindsets is too great a gulf to cross.

There was a short but detailed presentation on ‘tribal relations’ in the south, highlighting the complexity of the networks and issues. Fantastic, but have the people fighting or ‘reconstructing’ these areas not had a much longer briefing on all this already?

The same for the presentation on NSP: all good stuff, but dear gods please don’t tell me that these intelligent, highly-trained officers have not come across this, the largest single development initiative in the country, before.

Maybe some, particularly in the less secure provinces, have more pressing things to concern themselves with than NSP. Maybe with personnel being rotated every six or twelve months, there is not time to get to grips with ‘tribal relations’ in the south.

Maybe I should just shut up and try and think of a better title.

The week that was

April 19, 2008

I’ve been catching up on the news while I was away.

When you hear a continuous stream of it day after day it all starts to merge together; reading a week’s events all at once after a break has a different feel.

So, this was the week that was in Afghanistan:

The continued violent erosion of life.

The Supreme Court has confirmed the death sentences of some 100 prisoners.

Twice the number of recorded NGO security incidents over the first quarter of 2008 than the same period last year, and a substantial increase in civilian deaths.

The hugely popular Indian soap operas are banned from the airwaves (a ban so far defied by most television stations. I’ve been meaning to write about these for ages now, perhaps I should hurry up while it’s still relevant.)

A government committee drafts a bill that would ban men having long, ‘girlish’ hair, wearing fashionable jeans and t-shirts, unrelated men and women talking together on the streets, women from wearing make-up, ban playing billiards and other ‘Taliban-esque’ decrees.

Pakistan kicks out more Afghan refugees, bulldozing the Jalozai refugee camp.

School buildings across Afghanistan continue to be attacked.

NATO forces accidentally airdrop rocket propelled grenades and food supplies to the Taliban. Oops.

And listen to this excellent radio programme about Badakshan from the BBC.

I don’t have time to put links in for all of the above, but most of these stories can be found here or elsewhere.

I’m sure there has been some good news as well; it must just have passed me by. The press releases from UN, NATO, governments and NGOs are too boringly self-congratulatory and, one suspects, mendacious to want to read.

Indian interlude

April 17, 2008

I’ve just got back from a week’s R and R in north India. Too short a time but a wonderful escape all the same. I took my camera but not a single photo, and felt freer for avoiding the viewfinder. But that does now mean I have no pretty pics to show, and am struggling to think how to describe it without clichés.

Delhi – wow. That’s quite a city: not exactly relaxing, but certainly exhilarating. So much energy Kabul felt like a ghost town when I returned. Sultry night air, assaulted by the smells and sounds… clichés be damned.

Terrifying at times, buzzing round in auto-rickshaws, being nuzzled by the blunt, battered bows’ of buses squeezing in from all sides. But the joy of just being able to walk as far as the sun would allow, getting lost, being swamped by the place, imbibing something of the wonder of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, one of my favourite books.

I normally dislike being a ‘tourist,’ or being the type of tourist I dislike, making little effort to understand where they are. This time round I did pretty much that. ‘Cultural awareness’ is in my job description. On this holiday, I went without. Shamefully, I didn’t learn a single word of Hindi. Give too hoots I did not.

I escaped the heat of the plains for a few days and went on a spiritual retreat to the foothills of the Himalayas with a bottle of whisky. To a delightful old town, a once favoured holiday spot of the British Raj, and now of Delhi’s middle-classes. Such greenliness! My eyes and soul fell on the sight of trees like a shrivelled camel stumbling to an oasis.

Back in Delhi I planned to spend my last day in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Enjoying a care-free disorganisation I left it too late to go by train, my plan went awry and I never made it. I may come to regret that but in a way I was happy not to go. Seeing the world’s greatest monument to love, single and alone…? It would be like a teetotaller going to the Guinness museum in Dublin.

Instead I spent the day idling around bookshops and coffee shops, being a very lazy tourist and loving it.

Taj Mahal, pic from wikitravel

A picture I did not take, of what I did not see.

‘If your sister…’

April 7, 2008

‘If you are sitting in a restaurant, and a strange man comes up to you and asks if he can dance with your sister, what would you say?’

We are sitting on the floor of a spartan room, whiling away the hours of a Friday afternoon. My companion has beaten me at chess so many times and so soundly that neither of us wants to carry on playing. Instead, as the light fades and we wait for the power to trickle on, the conversation has turned to social relationships as experienced in the West.

‘If he was not a bad man,’ I reply, ‘I would say yes.’

My companion, an Afghan man in his 40s, short, neatly trimmed black beard on an open, engaging face, was trained as an Engineer by the Soviets, spending several years in Ukraine and elsewhere. When we first met several months ago, he told me with pride how he worked in a factory in the USSR building Mig fighter planes. I didn’t have the nerve to ask if those might have been the same planes that were used to occupy his homeland.

Today, he was telling me about his experiences with Ukrainian friends in Kiev’s nightclubs, and asking me what I thought of their behaviour. There, he told me, women would dance with unrelated men.

I tried modifying my initial response. ‘But I would not decide if my sister could dance with the man or not. It would be for my sister to decide if she wanted to.’

We had been through various permutations of the same question already. Starting with whether or not my supposed sister would be allowed to frequent such a place, and running through various scenarios: If the man was my friend? If he had been drinking? If he was black?

I felt my companion to be an anthropologist, posing various hypothetical questions to draw out the details of my kinship system, probing to understand my society’s concepts of marriage, taboos and incest restrictions.

‘If a man wanted to dance with my sister,’ I continued, ‘he would ask her, not me. It would be for my sister to decide.’ I didn’t get as far as the possibility of my sister asking a strange man to dance.

‘That is very good, I think’ he concluded with a thoughtful frown. ‘But it could not happen like this in Afghanistan.’

Oh, look over there…

April 5, 2008

While I continue to fail to write anything here, why not go check out Exploring the Heart of Asia; three great Afghan blogs rolled into one.

By the by, my recent silence is not at all ominous as one kind soul feared. I’ve just been a bit tied up and in something of a blogging rut. But I’ll now stop looking for ways of distracting attention away from here and soon get back to the witty, incisive and illuminating posts you’ve come to love and respect. Right?