Archive for February, 2009

Up the Khyber

February 28, 2009

I haven’t actually been to the Khyber Pass, and doubt I ever will, but have recently made it as far east as I’m ever likely to in Afghanistan. On the road out of Kabul to Jalalabad, twisting down through a narrow gorge before reaching the warm green plains of Nangharha, it was impossible not to reflect on the chaotic retreat of the British along roughly the same route in 1842. Having royally ballsed things up in Kabul, they had little choice but to make a run for it, getting snipped at and slaughtered along the way. Of the 15,000 odd who scarped, only Flashman and one other chap made it through to Jalalabad alive (of the British. We don’t count the natives and camp followers who made up the majority of the expedition).


These days the gravest danger is from overtaking overloaded trucks from Pakistan on the hairpin bends. Unless that is one wants to get all allegorically-analytical and start making historical parallels with some fine figurative illustrations and quotes from Kipling to brighten up one’s policy prescriptions. (My, aren’t I feeling alliterative today.) I do wish I had a better idea of what’s going on in this country and that I was more studious about it, but to be honest most of the articles and analysis about security and politics that I glance at these days leave me cold. As so often, Steve Bell sums it up as well as I could wish:

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

There’s rather a fine audio slideshow from the BBC that gives a nice little potted history of the British in Afghanistan, with images from an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Audio slideshow: From the Afghan archives

I was hoping to be clever enough to embed that here but obviously not.

I’m tired, and part of my work is making me more cynical about aid and development than ever before. But it was uplifting to get out of Kabul for a while and see some new places. Especially when those places seem so remarkably green and fertile. It’s a blessed change from the chronic scrubland and food insecurity of central Afghanistan that I’m used to.

Going back to Kabul I flew rather than go by road. A 20 minute hop over the mountains, factor in the time getting into and waiting at the large US military base / airport at Jalalabad and it would have been quicker to go by car. But it did mean I got to see a couple of pilot-less drones take off and swing round towards the Khyber, on their way to drop some bombs on Pakistan. It was fun waving them off on their way, though I soon got bored of trying to think of an historical analogy for their mission.

Food and flattery

February 26, 2009

A while back I was asked by Michael Kleinman to contribute a Kabul restaurant review to his Humanitarian Relief blog series of ‘Where to eat in the worst places in the world’. An honour I was glad to accept, and promised something promptly.

Being slightly less than prompt (it was the damned proposal I tell you), he gave me a subtle reminder in the form of gross flattery. That made my day that did. I love the ‘slightly mysterious.’ So the proposal was put to one side and the review was written. It’s here.

Praising the Humanitarian Relief site now runs the risk of seeming like mutual back slapping. But damn the risk: I eat out at fancy French restaurants in one of the worst places in the world. I’m hardcore; I can deal with it.

It’s great. If you have any interest in humanitarian affairs and aid work or want news and analysis on the situation in the worlds slightly less popular tourist locations then read it regularly.

While I’m at it there’s a few other blogs I’ve come across recently and have been meaning to add to the sidebar so may as well mention now: Wronging Rights is an enjoyable acerbic take on human rights; Transitionland gives a great perspective on refugee resettlement in the US and much else beside; and the Thirsty Palmetto is an aid worker in a place I kicked around in for a little while (and, I’ve just looked it up, a type of palm tree. So now I know) whose writing I’m liking.

I’m now waiting for the job offers as a food critic to start arriving. I will accept any that will pay me to eat somewhere other than Afghanistan.

When I was in…

February 12, 2009

Put a group of aid workers in the same room and I guarantee at some point the conversation will run along the lines of: ‘when I was in DRC blah blah blah’ ‘when I was in Goma blaaahhhh’ ‘well when I was in Darfur blah!’ ‘I remember when I was in Sri Lanka and…’ Blah.

Sharing diverse experiences is of course a good thing, especially when it involves experiences of great danger and bravery, killer insects and tropical diseases, the best bars and drunken debauchery, and how fucked up such and such a thing/place is.

Sharing serious experiences is of course a good thing, especially when comparing the education policies in Haiti with those in Somalia. And when the ‘when I was in’ story is used to put oneself above one’s national counterparts who haven’t had the privilege of travelling to such exotic places.

Oh, so I know I exaggerate a little and it’s perfectly harmless and just part of normal conversation and we all do it, but ye gods it can get tedious.

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Khartoum…?

[When I was in Afghanistan, I wrote this fantastic blog that was really interesting and that wasn’t at all a series of ‘when I was in’ stories written in the present tense. Damn.]

Taking the mick out of Mullahs

February 8, 2009

Once there was a Mullah, who lived in a village in the mountains. One day there was a flood that swept the Mullah into the river. The villages saw this and ran to the edge of the river to try and help. “Give us your hand!” they shouted, as the Mullah was swept down the river. But the Mullah did not do anything. “Give us your hand!” the villages shouted, but the still the Mullah did not try to save himself. One man thought for a few seconds then cried out to the other villages still waiting downstream, “do not say ‘give‘; say ‘take our hand’!”

The Mullah took, and was saved.

Mullahs seem to have a hard time of it in Afghanistan, being the butt of many a joke, often along the lines of the one above. I’m not sure to what degree they really reflect a perception of them as greedy or what have you, but guess there must be a kernel of truth to it to sustain the jokes. I’d like to know more, and feel the need for a book on the anthropology of humour and a long car drive to discuss it with my colleagues.

A while back I arrived at a field office late in the evening and settled down for the usual round of food, tea and TV. Unusually, the television was turned off and one of our company was persuaded to stand up and recite some versus of the Koran. Several others followed, reciting poetry or singing songs, often to great amusement. It was an odd mix of religion and comedy; humorous morality tales was what I guessed at the time from the snatches I could understand or that were translated for me. The one I remember was of a mullah who told his son to catch a chicken, wring its neck, and stash it in a bag while he distracted the village with his Friday sermon, but who made the mistake of mixing versus of the Koran with instructions to his son shouted out through the window of the mosque.

The connection didn’t quite click then, but I was reminded of it the other day when I was told that joke about the Mullah, and got talking about the tales of Mullah Nasruddin.

Under various guises, Mullah Nasruddin is part of the literary history of several countries in the region. A slightly foolish character but sharp tongued and with a wise wit, there’s a whole series of short stories about him. Of the ones I’ve read, my favourite is this:

As Nasruddin emerged from the mosque after prayers, a beggar sitting on the street solicited alms. The following conversation followed:
Are you extravagant? asked Nasruddin.
Yes Nasruddin, replied the beggar.
Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking? asked Nasruddin.
Yes, replied the beggar.
I suppose you like to go to the baths every day? asked Nasruddin.
Yes, replied the beggar.
…And maybe amuse yourself, even, by drinking with friends? asked Nasruddin.
Yes I like all those things replied the beggar.
Tut, Tut, said Nasruddin, and gave him a gold piece.
A few yards farther on, another beggar who had overheard the conversation begged for alms also.
Are you extravagant? asked Nasruddin.
No, Nasruddin replied second beggar.
Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking? asked Nasruddin.
No, replied second beggar.
I suppose you like to go to the baths every day? asked Nasruddin.
No, replied second beggar.
…And maybe amuse yourself, even, by drinking with friends? asked Nasruddin.
No, I want to only live meagerly and to pray, replied second beggar.
Whereupon the Nasruddin gave him a small copper coin.
But why, wailed second beggar, do you give me, an economical and pious man, a penny, when you give that extravagant fellow a sovereign?
Ah my friend, replied Nasruddin, his needs are greater than yours.

These stories aren’t really about taking the piss out of Mullah Nasruddin, though I wonder if they’ve influenced the contemporary Mullah jokes. Taking the mick out of any authority figure is a good thing in my book, and I find these jokes all the better for running so contrary to the usual ideas about Islam as portrayed in the west. Say ‘Mullah’ in Europe or the US and I bet most people would say ‘Omar’. Better to think of Nasruddin instead. nasreddin

Electro tiff

February 1, 2009

I’m getting rather sick of sitting in front of this computer. 10 to 12 hours a day at work then taking it home so it can entertain me with music or a film… We get on OK, but I think we’ve just seen too much of each other recently. I don’t want to see a different computer or anything like that (although maybe a typewriter?). We just need a break, some time apart, you know?

Just to explain why I’m not writing much at the moment.