Friday, June 10, 2011

What's It Like In Kabul?

In the last ten years, we’ve heard a lot about Afghanistan, and if you are anything like me, you’ve built up quite a mental image of the place. I want to describe Kabul for you and see if it is as different from your image as it was from mine. (I’ve also taken about a billion pictures, which are all on Facebook and show the city better than I could!)

First of all, Kabul is hot. Really hot. I know that I’ve lost some of my tolerance for heat since moving to Oregon, but that loss is only augmented by the lack of air conditioning. During the middle of the day, not much gets done. People sit around their fans and try to absorb every ounce of air possible. The liveliest times of day are from about five o’clock, when a breeze usually starts and the air begins to cool, to sundown, which comes as early as 7:30. Most social life ends around 8 pm, since it’s still rather dangerous to be out after dark.

Kabul sits in the middle of a valley and is completely surrounded by mountains. The air is dry and dusty, devoid of all humidity. The streets are mostly unpaved, but the cars fly up and down them as if they were driving on asphalt, so the air is always full of dust. When we are walking or driving, we pull our scarves over our mouths and noses (yet another use for the chadar!) to protect our lungs.

The buildings are unlike anything I’d imagined. Many are built into the hillside, clay buildings that remind me of the dwellings in Mesa Verde. The main streets look like any other city, characterized by tiny stores and restaurants that are packed into every square inch of roadside space. Even the most well-kept are a little bit dirty, but in a normal sort of way that doesn’t look out of place. The stores aren’t the typical Main Street stores at home; they are butcher shops with cuts of meat hanging from the ceiling, bread stores with giant loaves of naan, clothing stores with traditional garments hanging next to prom dresses (for guests to wear to wedding) and blue jeans. Street vendors are everywhere, selling everything from food (lamb kebabs and pulao are two of the city’s specialties) to scarves to bottles of shampoo and conditioner with labels in both English and Dari. I’m tempted to buy more conditioner that I don’t need just because I love the look of the label written in the gorgeous Arabic script.

There are fruit stands every six inches, it seems, and fifty percent of them are selling watermelon, stacked ten melons high and thirty wide. (Funny story- the word in Dari for “watermelon” is one letter away from the word for “fart.” Yesterday, I tried to say “thank you for the watermelon,” but I messed up. Guess what I actually said?) Other vendors peddle ice cream trucks that play Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday, or carry giant inflatable toys and swimming pools on a contraption that rests on their shoulders and looks heavy but probably isn’t.

In driving through Kabul, it’s easy to remember that Afghanistan is a Third World country. I see it in the uneven and bumpy sidewalks that are littered with trash, running parallel to the open sewers that give the city its, um, distinctive smell. I see it in the military convoys that drive past and the roundabouts that have men with machine guns and helmets. I see it in the streets full of beggars, mostly women in burqas and children with dirt streaked faces, and in those who might have begged for money but instead are trying to support themselves by cleaning car windows at intersections or by selling tiny purses for “one dollar, ma’am. Just one dollar.” I feel it when I pass a uniformed policeman and experience the tiniest sensation of fear, of wariness, of uneasiness, that I’ve never felt before, and I feel it whenever I hear about bombings in Herat or a general killed in a northern province. These moments remind me how far I am from home.

But in driving through Kabul and meeting its people, it’s easy to see that Afghanistan won’t be a Third World country forever. I see this in the young mothers with market booths to support themselves and the schoolchildren walking down the street who wave to us and call to us in English, thrilled to see foreigners with whom they can show off their command of the language. I hear it in the university students who study law or political science or economics and tell me that they want to leave to get a Master’s degree that isn’t offered here, but that they want to come back because this is their country and they want to make it better. I see it in the growing number of businesses, the newly arrived Dumpsters on the streets, the military checkpoints that my friends tell me were manned last year but are no longer necessary.

These moments prove to me that Afghanistan may be far from home, different and strange, a far cry from the Afghanistan I’ve always pictured but that it is a wonderful place nonetheless. These moments prove to me that Afghanistan is coming back. These moments remind me why I am here and why I am so happy that I came.

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