Archive for the ‘Society + Culture’ Category

The politics of lunch

July 14, 2009

A chap got fired from IRD for complaining about the separation of Afghans’ and expats’ eating arrangements. Culinary apartheid.

In many INGOs I know the expats eat separately from the national staff in Kabul. In my last outfit, we ate together, apart from some expats who preferred to go to a café for lunch or bring in their own from home.

My current gig operates a two-tier system. The expats tend to eat separately, outside the office at home, and pay more for the privilege of marginally better fare.

The food in the office is certainly a sore point, not for who eats it but the quality. Far as I’m concerned it’s not bad – have certainly eaten far worse – but it’s still not good enough for some and is probably the most hotly debated topic at work. The cook nearly caused a mutiny at one stage.

As I’m one of the few who has my team with me in Kabul, I tend to eat with them in the office. But once a week I enjoy leaving them to it and hanging out with my foreign colleagues.

Afghan staff are not invited. Which obviously isn’t fair or nice. But it is nice to have the opportunity to discuss some issues we wouldn’t otherwise, over a cup of expensive coffee.

It would be a different story if we ate separately within the same office, but going home makes the division feel somehow less acute. I’m conscious of the inequity and not always easy with it, but I wouldn’t change it.

What I cannot accept is not being allowed to attend the 14th July celebrations at the embassy with my foreign colleagues simply because of my nationality. Bloody French connards.


Afghanistan, coming to a stage near you

April 22, 2009

If you live in London, where there’s a series of plays on about Afghanistan over the last 150 years.

It looks interesting. (One day I’ll learn how to embed videos here. Once I’ve learnt all about remote satellite imagining, Digital Elevation Models and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission – my pet project of the moment.)

The thing that caught my eye was the play about aid workers (a thing that caught my eye last year as well with the wonderfully titled play ‘Think Global, Fuck Local’) and this from the Guardian:

[Playwright Richard Bean’s] Afghanistan play, On the Side of the Angels, part of the Great Game season examining the country’s history from 1842 to the present, looks set to be similarly uncompromising in its challenge to conventional liberal values. The play examines the role of western NGOs in Afghanistan. It is, he says, “about the cultural imperialism debate. What are we doing there? Are we interested in democracy or should aid workers simply be trying to raise living standards? Most people in the west would like to see NGOs building girls’ schools and encouraging women’s rights, whereas these are exactly the projects to attract the ire of the Taliban and local warlords.”

The central problem of the short play concerns a dispute between rival Afghan families. A solution is brokered by a western NGO worker – but at the price of a 10-year-old girl being married off to a 50-year-old man. Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle, says: “It takes, shall we say, a fairly acerbic view of NGOs and their policies.”

Now I’m all up for acerbic views of NGOs and welcome anything that takes the gloss off aid work to engage in serious debate, and hope this play actually does so. But a western NGO worker actually out in a village negotiating a solution? Nah, that’s just silly. They’d be sat behind a desk demanding photos of the wedding from an Afghan to send to their donor.

Alas, I won’t be able to go along and make snide remarks about how ‘I lived in Afghanistan for two years, actually, and you know, well err, really, I don’t think your portrayal of the country really does justice to the complexities of the situation, you know?’

And finally: Gender in Afghanistan

July 13, 2008

Gender in Afghanistan? Pah! We don’t ‘do’ gender. It’s the Ministry of Women’s Affairs here – it’s women’s affair so us men don’t need to worry about it.

I’m exhausted. And not feeling too kindly towards Afghanistan right now. And trying to decide whether to come back here for another year or not.

Right now, I’d rather not, but there are some good job opportunities (I wrote something about the job market in Afghanistan the other day, but decided not to press ‘publish’ in case I do decide to return).

There’s a whole lot I’ve been bitching about with friends recently that I could write about (the National Solidarity Programme – Afghanistan’s flagship development programme – being left to rot for one). But there’s one thing that makes me really angry, and which I shouldn’t probably write about right now either, but hey ho.

I was walking down the road last week with a friend – a female expat. A young man passed us, going the other way. A few paces on, my friend says, with telling resignation rather than surprise, ‘he touched me.’ I stopped and turned around. He was staring back at us. At her. I wanted to shout out to all the men in the street looking on ‘would you do that to an Afghan woman? What if it was your sister? Have you no shame?!’ I wanted to hit him. I didn’t, and we walked on.

A young female Afghan was stopped at a police checkpoint in a remote province while on work. She’d forgotten her ID, and was escorted back to the office to verify who she was. The story that was told afterwards was that she’d been caught having sex. No basis for that, no evidence, no asking her side of the story. That was it. Condemned be men who, last I time was there, made laborious jokes about visiting prostitutes in Tajikistan.

The woman who was reprimanded by her male boss, professionally and morally, for showing one inch of flesh above her wrist. While otherwise fully covered up, in 40 degrees C.

The cases of sexual harassment battered away as unimportant, a misunderstanding, brought on because the woman was being friendly, thus asking for it. Like rape victims blamed for wearing too short skirts.

The woman who, out walking, complained to her male companion that a group of men were staring at her. And was told ‘well you shouldn’t be looking at them should you.’

The intelligent, kind man who, in a speech on International Women’s Day, said that even in the Koran, even in the Koran it says that if we are to hit a woman, we should do so only with a handkerchief. Someone I spoke to admitted the growing degree of racism she felt towards Afghan men: she didn’t trust any she knew not to beat their wives. I’m hugely glad to think there are men I know who wouldn’t, but I understood her point.

I could go on. And on. Stories of men who expect their wives and daughters to be paragons of virtue. Who stare unabashedly at un-burquad women. And, when asked, blame the woman for her immodesty.

The way women are objectified. Or perhaps, as someone argued, the way everybody is objectified; the lack of respect for people, for humanity in general. 30 years of war has no doubt caused grievous psych-social blah blah blah.

And the way many in the West used the suddenly found subjugation of women to legitimise military intervention. Lifting the veil with a bomb or two.

I’m exhausted and barely able to think straight and counting down the days till I depart. And my god the hypocrisy fucks me off. The insecurity, the lack of freedom I can cope with. It’s the gender relations that make me think this is not a country I could ever feel at home in.

I’ve been told, by a person better able to see than I, that attitudes are changing for the better. Perhaps it is the change that makes things so painful. At least in Saudi Arabia you know where you stand, right? A lot of that change – or rather the bit of it that I see – is to do with more foreign women about the place in international organisations. Many Afghan men don’t seem to be able to get passed the whole ‘well they smile and laugh and are friendly, and come from the West so are probably prostitutes, or at least it’s all right for me to touch them cause they do that kind of thing over there’ kinda thinking. Professional boundaries are fraught.

Why don’t I get this angry over the pay gap or abortion rights in Europe? Am I being hypocritical as well?

I wrote the above at two in the morning last night when I couldn’t sleep. Probably not a great idea but anyway. I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t like passing judgment on an entire section of society. An entire country. But all those stories are true, from different sources. They are everyday occurrences. And it really does make me angry, the hypocrisy of it above all. So publish and be damned.

Think Global, Fuck Local

July 6, 2008

Is the title of a short play showing in London next week.

“Kabul’s like f**king Ibiza now. Heaving with pretty Sloaney girls. Quite good clubs. Plenty of drugs. I’m too old for all that now.”

Humanitarians. By day saving the world. At night they drink, party – move on. And then, some time, they have to go home. Out of Joint takes a look behind the public face of UN and NGO workers.

It’s at the Royal Court Theatre, if any one’s interested and in town. And there’s a piece about it over at OneWorld UK.

“I find their world hugely fascinating,” Feehily [the writer] told OneWorld UK. […]

[Aid workers] “are the real celebrities”, she says, taking a poke at the celebrity culture that dominates so much of the media. “There are a lot of interesting people out there doing incredible work who go unacknowledged.

“I find the whole sector pretty cool. And at the end of the day, it’s a force for good: so what, if they kick up their heels and have a bit of fun?”

The sex lives of aid workers: what a topic for an ethnographic study. Or a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. Maybe a black comedy would be better.

It’s good to know the sector is ‘pretty cool.’ Perhaps I could even be a celebrity?

And it’s a good title that’s for sure. Less certain about the premise, but not having seen it I can’t say.

There is an aura of sanctity around aid work (someone else’s expression but I don’t know whose). Anything that helps to dispel it is surely a good thing. But I find it odd that of all the many many issues about the sector (cool as it may be), the only ones that get an airing are about sex and fast cars: loose living young expats driving round in large white Land Cruisers, terrorizing the local population.

OK, not ‘odd’ at all, but frustrating that of all the ‘fascinating’ aspects of this ‘world’ (like the tropical diseases you can pick up, or different people’s motivations for working in the sector or, I don’t know, maybe the ‘local’ people you get to meet?), the focus of attention is so limited.

The best, and certainly the funniest, portrayal of aid workers I’ve come across is the blog Hope4Dave: it’s fantastic, go check it out. If you’ve ever bought anything through Oxfam Unwrapped you might like this as well: Uncovered and wrapped. Much more accurate.

Then there’s Inepd, the ‘International Network for Enabling Poverty Development.’ Also hilarious, least I reckon it is (an in-joke though?), and slightly scarily true.

In line with this posts’ title and what is clearly the most interesting part of aid work, we also have Humanitarian Dating from Dave (this used to be a spoof I think – sexualrelief web, another in-joke – but seems to have become all serious) and the Humanitarian Couple of the Year Award from Inepd.

It is a fascinating world. I’d love to stay and write about it some more, but I’ve got a party to go. Some Sloane’s leaving do.

No Survivors cartoon

The Perry Bible Fellowship: No Survivors cartoon

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.)

‘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.’

Sex with burquas on

February 6, 2008


For the past week I’ve been in Badakshan, the province in the north east that seems to be sticking a finger up at China (the finger being the Wakhan, its borders drawn to ensure a buffer zone between imperial Russia and Britain). I can’t be bothered to think of suitable superlatives and haven’t taken many photos so suffice to say it’s very pretty here. Ah go on then, one quick sentence: spectacular, snow-covered mountains rising steeply up above a river of icy steel, with women in white and blue burquas and yellow and pink wellies skittering along its frozen edges like spinning tops.

The river is the Kokcha. It’s interesting to be in a new place although I feel slightly guilty for temporarily deserting the Hari Rud. I keep comparing Badakshan to Ghor, and Badakshan usually comes out better, though not always. I’ve been told that the women here are as beautiful as the landscape but unlike in Chagcharan, in Faizabad town the burqua is de rigueur.

There are three women in the office where I’m at, which is also our home. They take their burquas off when they arrive – revealing one to be beautiful indeed – and put them on again when they go. Asides from their modest presence during the day, this place is overtly masculine.

Sitting on the porch one day after work, one young man brought out the packaging of a mobile phone to show us the pretty woman on it. I’m not sure why, the ribaldry mostly in cackling Dari, but the joke climaxed with another man making the universal sign of wanking and calling another a ‘handman.’ It’s the first time I’ve encountered such an open sexual reference among Afghans.

Some of those who aren’t married (and some who are) say they have girlfriends, and I don’t think sex before marriage is uncommon, though it would seem like quite an achievement when un-related women are usually only seen in the confines of work, on cardboard boxes or under burquas.

The first time I entered an Afghan family’s house, the only female presence I saw was a fleeing hem line as I went through the front door. After that, whenever I got up to leave a room, someone would open the door ajar first and peer out to check that the coast was clear. It hasn’t been like that in every house, and it seems that in the houses of Shia Hazaras there is a much less strict segregation. But on that, as with so much, I am unsure. I just can’t imagine what it must be like to live constantly in such a suffocating, cloistered all-male environment. Maybe like growing up in fancy boys’ boarding school in England.

I can’t think what mentality such an environment must foster. God knows what it was like under the Taliban, but even now when I leave Afghanistan it is a relief to see a woman’s ankle (and that’s not me being lecherous – I cite this post to back me up). I suspect it doesn’t encourage a healthy attitude among men to women and sexual relations, but then nor does the soft porn of much advertising, television and fashion in the west, and I can’t see far enough into the lives of young Afghan men and women outside of work to judge.

I am tempted to start rambling on about Foucault’s History of Sexuality but it’s too darn cold to keep typing. Oh, and I do actually have some work to do. It’s about veterinary health care at the moment. Today I learnt what a burdizzo is used for. Go look it up.

The Kabul social scene, 167 years ago

February 3, 2008

I’m reading Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game at the moment. Having recently written about today’s Kabul social scene, I thought I’d quote this passage, about the social scene in 1841.

Ever since their arrival in Kabul two years earlier, the British had been making themselves thoroughly at home there. Kabul’s exotic location and invigorating climate had attracted the wives, and even the children, of British and Indian troops up from the hot and dusty plains of Hindustan. Every kind of entertainment was laid on, from cricket to concerts, steeplechasing to skating, with some of the Afghan upper classes joining in the fun. Much of what went on, particularly the womanising and drinking, was to cause great offence to the Muslim authorities and the devout majority. At the same time punitive action, often very severe, was taken against those tribes refusing to submit to [the Afghan puppet ruler] Shujah’s (but effectively Macnaghten’s) rule, while others were bribed into submission with lavish helpings of gold, or ‘subsidies’ as they were officially termed.

Macnaghten, the British leader in Afghanistan, said at the time that ‘the present tranquillity of this country is to my mind perfectly miraculous’, though many of his staff were less sanguine.

There were plenty of reasons for this antagonism towards the British and Shah Shujah. For one thing the presence of so many troops had hit the pockets of ordinary Afghans. Because of the increased demand for foodstuffs and other essentials, prices in the bazaar had soared, while taxes had risen sharply to pay for Shujah’s new administration, not to mention his lavish personal lifestyle. Moreover, the British showed no signs of leaving, despite earlier assurances. It looked more and more as though the occupation would be permanent, as indeed some of the British were beginning to think it would have to be if Shujah was to survive. Then there was the growing anger, especially in Kabul, over the pursuit and seduction of local women by the troops, particularly the officers. (pp 237-8)

I’m not sure I’d describe Kabul’s climate as ‘invigorating’ but I’d say the historical parallels are pretty strong, from pissing off the locals to the paying of ‘subsidies,’ the occupiers’ ruler’s blind belief that all was well and the apparent permanency of the occupation. That time round it ended in the retreat of British forces and their final decimation at the village of Gandamack, which happens to be the name of a rather nice bar in Kabul today.

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.