Archive for the ‘Spoken + Written’ Category

Cold calling

March 19, 2009

Some of my team have gone on a little trip, to a place outside our usual area of operations. They are travelling incognito. It’s made me paranoid about answering my phone.

A place, incidentally, considered too dangerous for me to go to but ‘alright’ for them. Without going into the inequalities of this, I offer up a small example of why working in Afghanistan is such a joy.

Before leaving, they replaced the SIM cards in their phones. Being caught with the telephone numbers of foreigners can be bad for your health, so they put in new cards. Still, they have to stay in touch and let me know they are still alive, so I worry my number will be on their phone somewhere.

Were they to be stopped on the road by someone who perhaps doesn’t see foreign NGOs as paragons of virtue come to rescue this poor country, it would not be unheard of for said person to have a look-see through their phone and dial a few numbers to find out who they are.

Names don’t show up on my phone so I never know who is calling. So, I get a call from a number I don’t recognise and imagine my colleagues being held up in a spot of trouble with some naughty man dialling my number for a quick chat in Pashto, thereby pretty quickly informing the naughty man that I ain’t from around here. Which would, as I said, be rather bad for the health of my colleagues.

I haven’t been answering my phone this week. Oh what a lovely place to work, and what wonderful work it is when you don’t want to talk for fear you’ll get someone killed. Makes you feel all warm inside.


Hamdillah, they’re back safely.

My heart will seize up

March 17, 2009

Maybe my musical tastes are changing. Celion Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ would usually have me tearing out my hair and doing serious damage to whatever medium I was being grievously assaulted through.

During the last hour of the working day, we sometimes listen to music in my office. Invariably, the theme tune to the film Titanic – a super popular hit in Afghanistan – will be played. When it is, I have to cower behind my computer screen. Not in a rage as I’d expect, but in an effort not to be seen giggling to myself.

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

The paraphernalia of writing

December 3, 2008

I sit on the floor, ushered to the privileged position in the corner furthest away from the door, my companion and translator besides me, our hosts opposite. A young boy brings in tea and a dish of small sweets while I lay out my tools: pen and paper. Sometimes several sheaves of paper, as I search for a particular document and scatter others about me.

I’m no longer as self-conscious as I was about the act of transcribing someone else’s words, more amused by it these days. Scribbling along trying to keep up, while thinking of the next pertinent (or impertinent) question to ask and grabbing sips of tea. People have thanked me for taking such copious notes, page after page of them, taking it as a sign of my seriousness it seems.

To a degree the notepad forms a barrier between speaker and listener, either physically as clasped to the chest or more intriguingly and insidiously, as a marker of power and prestige. Between literate and non-literate, giver of words and taker of them, etching them into a permanent existence where who knows what new life and meaning they might take on, outside the original orator’s control.

I ask people about their harvest. What crops they grow on how much land. How much food they have, how long it will last them, how much debt do they owe and how many animals do they own. About the changes in their lives and the problems they face.

I sit there and write it all down. Having words translated gives one time to look as well as write, to at least make eye-contact and smile and frown as one can. It gives one time to try and see oneself from the other side of the paper. This unknown outsider, who has given the briefest of introductions and explanations and expects to be told all that he wishes to know. And he will be, for the power lies not just in the pen he holds but in so much else, and the force of hospitality is strong.

So I sit there and question and listen and write, and wonder and worry about the power of the pen and how I am seen, which at least makes me laugh.

Tower of babble

October 13, 2008

Starting any new job there’s always fun to be had getting to grips with one’s predecessors filling system, especially if they didn’t have one and many of the documents you dig up are in a language you don’t speak.

Coming across one such document with an interesting title, I decided to try my luck with an online translator, just to get the gist of it. A part of the results I particularly enjoyed:

the communities are currently wait and want the cake and butter being paid to build or rehabilitate structures that will high impact on irrigated areas and even on their food security.


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.

Afghan TV, part four

May 29, 2008


Rubbish and annoying in any country. But they do point to the aspirations and economy of the land.

Banks, mobile phones and gas bottles the main things, with catchy jingles galore.

But there a few other common tropes: I’ve noticed a few more for beauty products recently, and for private hospitals, which list all the equipment they have – ‘with microscopes, ultra sound, x-ray machine, clean needles, bedpans’ etc – while showing some poor sod being cut up for the cameras.

Public service announcements: young girls playing in a playground (there being lots of those here) notice an object that looks like a kettle. Just as they are about to touch it to see, an old man appears out of thin air and admonishes them for playing with something that might explode.

Shouting ‘thank you uncle!’ they skip off and tell the nearest friendly policeman.

Friendly policeman feature quite a lot actually. There was one showing friendly policemen doing various different jobs while telling us that this is someone’s brother, this is someone’s uncle, someone’s father and so on, thus suggesting that they may be policeman but it still wouldn’t be very nice to blow them up in a roadside bomb now would it?

And why don’t you join the police and have has much fun as they obviously are?

Some folks might not feel that kind-hearted having seen another common type though: friendlyish policeman destroying fields of poppies with scythes. (There’s a strange irony there: how poverty can force young men to grow poppies, or to join the police and cut them down.)

A tour of Afghan TV, part one
A tour of Afghan TV, part two
A tour of Afghan TV, part three

Enough of this blather. I could go on but I’m boring myself now.

Afghan TV, part three

May 21, 2008

24 – a ‘real time’ action-packed television series from Fox Network about American counter-terrorism high-jinx.

Guess many of you will know about this one. The American TV show that’s said to have inured the US public to the use of torture to defeat the bad guys, who usually happen to be Muslim.

Now dubbed into Dari and brought to a new audience of Afghan terrorists television viewers.

It seems to have been fairly popular, and the government hasn’t tried to ban it, which is nice. Not sure about it’s ‘educational’ value but hey ho, it’s entertainment.

A tour of Afghan TV, part one

A tour of Afghan TV, part two

Afghan TV, part two

May 12, 2008

In part two of Rud’s tour of Afghan TV, I give you Hop (should it not have an exclamation mark?): usually described as Afghanistan’s version of MTV.

Music videos of singers from several of the ‘stans and Iranian exiles.

Quite hard to describe music videos, but here’s a sample.

That f*****g Dubai song. Some women from Uzbekistan singing about how much she wants to go to Dubai. With the infuriatingly catchy chorus; Dubai, Dubai. Dubai Dubai. Dubai, Dubai. Ad infinitum.

More recently. The crazy frog song. The ‘music’ of which is on a par with the standard of music of most other things.

Various themes on the above. Music videos either involving a car or a beautiful mountain valley. Or of a live show, in which case, if actually Afghan, young man trying to dance without really moving.

To be fair, some of the more ‘traditional’ Afghan music is good, or I enjoy it anyway, or, rather, it doesn’t force me to flee the room when it comes on.

Young hip male presenters. They’re actually quite good, with none of the over-inflated hyper sleek egos of MTV presenters. Pity about the things they present.

Best of all: Me explaining what ‘hop’ means.

By jumping around the room on one leg.

(The other explanation of hop, as in hip hop, being beyond me. Lesson on the history of black American music anyone?)

Part one of a tour of Afghan TV is here.