Kabul street scenes

Driving to and from work each day in Kabul there’s always plenty to see.

Last summer, I was always greatly amused by the men in orange boiler suits, sweeping up the dust from the sides of main roads. In a city pervaded by dust and pollution, it seemed a wonderfully optimistic but ultimately futile endeavour. There’s perhaps an analogy there.

They’ve gone, to be replaced by traffic policeman standing at some junctions in their white shirts and peaked caps. Trying to direct the chaos that is driving in Kabul seems equally optimistic. They wave their hands about as if swatting away a swarm of mosquitoes, largely ignored by drivers but remaining remarkable expressionless. There is now one working traffic light in the centre of Kabul.

Potholes are the most effective means of directing traffic, usually into each other. In some strategic locations, where vehicles are slowed to a crawl, there are blue-burquaed begging bollards: women sitting in the middle of the road, arms outstretched.

Early in the mornings there are the crowds of men on street corners, waiting for the faint possibility of being picked up for a day’s labour to earn a pittance. One job they might be hired for, if lucky, is to dredge the sewage out of the gutters.

Some side streets become communal rubbish tips. The men in orange boiler suits periodically come round and have a go at clearing them up. Dishevelled young boys and girls and old men do a much better job, trawling through the trash for anything that could be recycled.

Anything worthwhile will be taken away, on wooden handcarts if the person owns one. These handcarts clog the streets, along with the stalls selling fruit and vegetables and men with trolleys filled with ice cream. These usually have some jingle hissing forth, often, incongruously, a Christmas carol. They fight for space with the buses, the Land Cruisers of foreigners’ and Afghan nouveau (narco?) riche, the overcrowded mini-vans stopping every twenty yards to squeeze another passenger inside, the pedestrians crossing over with blithe disregard for their own safety, the flocks off sheep and goats being herded down one of the few larger roads or roundabouts the wrong way.

Like the pedestrians, these animals seem sublimely unawares of saving their own skin: unaware of the skin and entrails of their brethren that they pass outside butchers, carcasses hanging up in the dust and diesel, disembodied heads staring up at you from the pavement, offal slipping into the gutters, to be dredged up a few weeks later by the men in orange.

It all makes for a heady mix. It’s often pandemonium, with two cars and goat being all it takes to cause a major jam. I’m amazed never to have seen a serious accident or a child run over. It’s the sort of experience that can have me gripping the edges of the seat with torment, but there’s a strange poetry to the motion of it all and I’ve learnt to laugh instead of cry, sharing incredulous, despairing but amused looks with my driver.

There’s one scene that is uplifting rather than just plain crazy, and that’s the gaggles of young girls going off to school, even if they do do it in shifts and scare the bejaysus out of me when they cross the road without looking. In their uniforms of black shalwa qamis and white headscarves and uniformly pretty, they would make for a more positive analogy than those road sweepers.

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One Response to “Kabul street scenes”

  1. f Says:

    you havent posted in days and im getting withdrawal symptoms!

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