Archive for September, 2008


September 29, 2008

Trying to give directions to my driver, and apologising for my lack of Dari, he consoled me that in two months I’d be speaking fluently. I was told the same when I first arrived in Afghanistan more than a year ago. Obviously it has yet to come to pass. I appreciate the optimism of the thought while being ashamed of my failure to learn.

Frida, who is now the Zen Peacekeeper, has some good advice on learning a new lingo that I should study carefully.

But my ability to delude myself into thinking I will actually learn is fading, which is as lame as it sounds. Although in my defence, with my new employer I would be ideally learning two different languages right now – Dari and French (Pashto simply not being an option) – and I’m slightly overwhelmed by the thought.

There are no sub-compartments within the part of my brain labelled ‘foreign languages.’ When I first started learning Dari, my mind would search for a given word and find a Spanish one. More recently, dredging up a French phrase and it came out in Dari. My synapses need disciplining (not me).

One language I can speak well is a bastardised version of English: a slowed down, enunciated, simplified English, with a note of my listener’s accent creeping in. It’s a form of parroting I find hard to stop myself doing and don’t always notice, a subtler version of the British trait of shouting very loudly to make oneself understood perhaps, and I fear it’s deeply patronizing. It’s not meant to be, and I do think it helps people understand what I’m on about. It certainly seems so when I forget who I’m talking to and start rabbiting off ten to the dozen with all the strange phrases of one’s native language – before catching their look of bewilderment.

But clearly it’s a sorry substitute to actually making the effort to speaking their language, even if that means driving around lost occasionally. This Eid holiday, I plan to sit down with my grammary in the garden. Just haven’t decided which language to study.

Where I’m at

September 23, 2008

In Kabul, with a new job, settling down at work, meeting some new folk, eating well, washing behind my ears… so far so good.

The job is monitoring and evaluation for an NGO. Which involves monitoring the progress or lack thereof of projects, and carrying out more thorough evaluations of them at various stages. With occasional travel to different parts of the country. What it says on the tin really. Managing a small team whom I’m still getting to know but seem like a good crew, slowly learning the ropes of a new organisation, and getting on well with my expatriate colleagues.  So, like I said, so far so good. Am enjoying the work and have decided to just embrace the expatriate bubble and be damned.

All of which means I’m keeping pretty busy and have had less time for this blogging malarkey though will try and keep at it. But that’ll be all for tonight.

Lions and fish in the Panjshir

September 17, 2008

Last week, on the 9th September, was Ahmad Shah Massoud Day – a national holiday to mark his death in 2001, blown up by the Taliban. Hailed as the Lion of the Panjshir – his birthplace and scene of fierce resistance against first the Russians then Taliban – he’s something of a hero in Afghanistan, or certain parts of it at least. A handsome chap, pictures of him can be seen in shops and cars around Kabul.

I went on an outing to Panjshir recently, a fertile valley flanked by steep mountains that lies a short way to the north of Kabul. It seemed wonderfully prosperous compared to many other places, calm and functioning. We paid the obligatory visit to his tomb and the large complex that’s being built around it like the good tourists we are.

What we found much more fun were the wrecks of Russian military vehicles neatly parked up nearby. Parts of the country are littered with these; hulking scraps of iron all that’s been left of the T 62s destroyed then stripped of all possible materiel. Tank tracks are used for small bridges, their wheels as animal troughs. On one road in the north, there seemed to be the remains of a tank at every bend in the road, under every overhanging cliff; any possible site for an ambush by the mujahideen. Monuments and playgrounds for children, they are part of the landscape.

They are also part of the ‘list of essential things to photograph for foreigners in Afghanistan,’ along with a child flying a kite and an old man with an ‘Old Testament Face.’ Your stay here will not be complete without a snap of you perched atop a tank, preferably wearing a shalwa qamis for added value.

And so we climbed onto the tank and the armoured personnel carrier and posed for the camera. There was something rather silly and distasteful about doing so: a boyish enjoyment of weapons and big machines amongst people who have never been on the receiving end of them, never really experienced the violence and occupation they represent, and yet as ‘humanitarians,’ should know better. So we mocked ourselves as we swung on the gun’s barrel. And to be fair, I would have been almost as interested in poking around an old tractor, trying to figure out how it worked, but it just ain’t the same.

Driving back to Kabul we stopped at the bottom of the valley in a narrow defile and climbed down to the river. I went for a swim. It was bloody marvellous. Over the summer I went for a swim in the river Avon in Bristol, which was bloody cold, and made the Panjshir delightfully warm by comparison. Fast flowing in the middle, I struggled to make progress against it, baggy shalwa trousers (kept on to protect the modesty of the few curious onlookers) billowing in the current.

Inspired, I’ve just forked out 60 dollars to use the UN swimming pool back in Kabul for a month. Doing lengths with all the elegance of an asthmatic fish out of water has made me realise how truly, shamefully unfit I am, and how badly I need to get my moneys worth.


A meme with a view

September 8, 2008

I’ve been meme’d. It’s my first time, so I’m rather pleased.

From Peter at Road to the Horizon (who also kindly explains what a meme is):

“On your blog, publish a picture of what you see through the window when you wake up. Forward the meme to five of your favorite blogs.”

From my room in the guest house I’ve just moved into in Kabul. It’s looking south towards T.V. Hill, through the usual dusty haze of summer. (Coincidently, if I’m not mistaken Peter’s got a good story about setting up a communications array on that hill in early 2002.) I’m liking the tree right outside my window.

The room behind the camera is nice enough, though pretty bare with just a mattress on the floor and my unpacked bags, so that’s all going to need some work. And the house itself is OK, a small old building with a decent little garden and a happily lived in feel to it downstairs, a bit like a student flat. Not wonderful but I’ve seen much worse, and the chap I’m sharing with seems like a decent cove.

I haven’t had time to explore the area directly around it yet but it’s in a neighbourhood I know well and like – a quite, middle-class sort of place, within walking distance of a little market and some good cafés.

Just out of the frame of the picture is a small gremlin, down by the base of the tree. It’s been following me around since I got on the plane, though of course I knew it was about before then but just managed to ignore it. Every now and then it pops into view with a quizzical expression on, and asks me what the bejaysus do I think I’m doing coming back here, and why, and surely it’s not worth it, and why don’t I just go home?

I’m trusting that after a day or two it’ll settle down and stop pestering me. I’ll be too busy to be staring out the window, and anyway at the moment I’m pretty excited about the work ahead.

Instead of passing this meme on to others as I’m supposed to, I’m just going to leave an open initiation to anybody who wants to to pick it up. What you looking at?