Friday, December 12, 2008

it feels like kabul

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kabul. Please remain seated with your seatbelts on until the airplane comes to a complete stop and the pilot switches off the light. On behalf of Safi Airways I thank you for flying with us’ was a female voice only in English with an Eastern European accent. This was the first time I flew to Kabul at night, the airport used to lack the proper lighting and navigation systems to land aircrafts. The landing was certainly a positive change. The flight was relatively smooth and nice; I didn’t even realise we are about to land. I usually get blocked ears and headache as the aircraft loses attitude but with a couple of tips from Dubai airport medics, whom I befriended, I didn’t feel the attitude. My condition of nasal congestion disrupts blood and oxygen circulation under rapidly changing air pressure. The remedy for which is chewing gum and blowing the nose while it is held tight by two fingers. That is not it; I didn’t realise landing until the final jolt and the deployment of ground breaks. It was pitch dark from the window, even after landing I could not see the airport terminals, while the plane was circling above Kabul mountain peaks I saw nothing. A sleeping giant consisting of four million human microcosms, Asmayee, Zanburak Shah, BalaiSar and other mountain peaks stretches high –just beneath the plane- as though even strangers from the sky are not welcomed. The blanket of dust is suffocating the city like a thick piece of blanket on a child bounded by the nail like mountains, to prevent it to sneak out from under it. I occasionally saw some light. As the plane approaches the runway it comes out from the east. I saw the hydroelectric damn, very illuminated while surrounded by darkness. On Kabul – jalalabad road, there are NATO, UN and other foreign offices. Even for a new comer this is clear, the compounds are as light as the power damn. They are well generator-ed. It scared me a bit, for a moment I realised what it felt like to be taken to a concentration camp. The compounds have big searchlights and high watchtowers, so light and so high that you can tell from the plane. I don’t know why the realisation was connected with concentration camps, as an Afghan I have a rich repertoire of camps; it is not a strange idea to Afghanistan. Perhaps because in my head I associate concentration camps with the west and the compounds on the ground are owned by the westerners too. it feels like a cramp on the leg, except it is on both. I didn’t feel it but I realised what it feels for those who went to concentration camps. It feels hopeless, it is more like a leg cramp but there is no recovery. Hope materialised to me, it is not object like but it certainly is portable. Certainly, it can’t be taken to a concentration camp. Every human has a compact portable hope which is attached to our souls and even if we abandon it; it comes back to us, it is a bit like a boomerang. Hope came to visit those in the concentration camps but it couldn’t get in whenever it touch the barbwires or stepped on a boobytrapped hope turns grey, it hates grey.
The airplane door reclined open. A couple of airport crew brought a few projectors on wheels so the passengers see their steps and the luggage could be unloaded. In the light I saw a few buses and a dozen jeeps. A few heavily armed foreigners were holding a name and the person next to him was holding an American flag. I wandered why the flag was needed, I guess to show passengers they arrived to an American administered territory or perhaps a bit of their taste for patriotism. Some westerners were snatched by the bodyguards and loaded into the jeeps without processing their passports; the rest proceeded to buses for the terminal. As we are to leave a body guard jumped into the bus obstructing the closing door and shouting ‘Mike, Mike, whchya doin’ hir? Come with me’. A bald lad pushed his way out of the crowd and left the bus. At the terminal we all queued up, some western travellers were escorted out by their colleague. Occasionally some people were leaving the queue as their mates found them; they were stamped entrance at the stall in front of the queue. It usually takes around half an hour to be processed but it is too long for Afghanistan to wait. The bald guy, mike, arrived with his friends and walked straight to the head of the queue. ‘hey Mr. Copernicus, why don’t you navigate your way back to the end of the line where you belong.’ I shouted. He didn’t move, I thought he didn’t hear me. ‘excuse me, excuse me’ he didn’t look back, the guy standing next to him in the front of the queue looked back and I asked him to tap on his shoulder. ‘don’t touch me’ he yelled. he pointed Mike to look at me. ‘we are queuing here’ I said. He didn’t respond and turned back his face. ‘You wouldn’t do this in your own country, would you?’ he said but he moved forward and left passport control area. After he left I got in to a conversation with a cop. he asked me why I was upset about it. I tried to explain it is unfair if everybody waits and a few people get special treatment. He said 300 Afs would get me out of the queue. ‘it is for the officer in the booth’ he exclaimed. ‘I’d rather keep my 300 in my pocket and myself in the queue’ I said. ‘You are stingy’ he said. I reserved the explanation that it is a matter of principle not money.
As I walked into the parking area I have already observed some positive changes. Things seem to be in a better order and a few new buildings have been built too. The security is tighter; roads to the airport are blocked by huge concrete barriers. Dust is the same, under the street light it looks like dense fog. The aviation industry is one of the two sectors which have witnessed a post Taliban boom – the second one is telecommunication. Khybar, Ariana, Safi, Pamir, Kam plus another one are the newly emerged airways, in addition there are half a dozen foreign airways which fly to Kabul. Afghan airways have new aircrafts and better trained crew. On the plane I was sitting next to a pilot who was coming back from a training in the UAE. He has been a pilot for over fifteen years, he goes by the nickname ‘Chatakball’ meaning quick-wing. He does not hesitate to introduce himself by his nickname. I functioned as his interpreter when he was conversing aviation with the eastern European crew of the plane. When he was introducing himself to the crew as Chatakball he asked me to interpret his name too. I offered to give him in writing the English translation of his nickname. Many nicknames in Afghanistan turn into first names; quite often Afghans choose their own last names. Chatakball is a very funny man; I said ‘pilots and flight stewards are believed to be repetitive and not that funny; how do you put up with this profession?’ Never let it be said that aviation folks lack a sense of humour! Chatakball is convinced that he is in one of the funnies professions. after every flight, Chatakball fills out a form called a gripe sheet, which conveys to the mechanics problems encountered with the aircraft during the flight that need repair or correction. The mechanics read and correct the problem, and then respond in writing on the lower half of the form what remedial action was taken, and the pilot reviews the gripe sheets before the next flight. Chatakball recited some actual logged maintenance complaints and problems as submitted and the solution recorded by maintenance engineers. Problem; Something loose in cockpit. Solution: Something tightened in cockpit. Problem: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear. Solution: Evidence removed. Problem: landing gear grease volume unbelievably high. Solution: landing gear grease volume set to more believable level. Problem: Number 3 engine missing. Solution: Engine found on right wing after brief search. Problem: Aircraft handles funny. Solution: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious. Problem: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement. Solution: Almost replaced left inside main tire.
From ‘grease my palm’ to ‘oil-fill my bellybutton’: corruption has penetrated the political, economic, judicial and social systems so thoroughly that it has ceased to be a deviation from the norm and become the norm itself. Corruption had existed ever since Taliban regime was toppled but it has reached a historically record breaking level. Ordinary Afghans are well aware of this, the majority of the country is sorry, not because it existed but they are not in a position to benefit from bribery. Corruption has become so endemic that it is perceived as normal. Nothing is possible at the same time everything is possible. When a job comes to a standstill it doesn’t mean there is a problem with the job, it is time to grease up some bellybuttons. If one is prepared to pay as much as needed then anything could be done. Shortcuts are introduced if one is willing to compromise. I could have thought of any word as synonyms for bribery but not compromise. A friend who has just set up a real estate agency had to participate in a week long training at the ministry of finance to learn the basics of the trade. At the end the attendants were given a log book to register their deals on which they have to pay a 1 percent tax. After thorough training the tax lawyer brought another book. It is called the shortcut book, trades registered in this book wouldn’t be taxed. The lawyer said, thorough training on the shortcut will be held in his private centre for which he left some business cards. Farsi and Pashto languages are rich with euphemisms for bribe. My favourite and all time fresh is ‘Shirini’, the sweetener. It is generally used when you got something done. In other words shirini is post bribery bribe. It might sound confusing but for ordinary Afghans it makes perfect sense. I went to register to vote the other day. The guard at the gate didn’t let me in. Apparently, I was late. After brief conversation he told me to go in and check for myself; not very surprisingly the registration centre was open. I came to inform the policemen at the gate. They laughed and said; of course, they were aware. If they let everybody in the place would get over crowded and a sabotager might slip in. as I was leaving the registration centre with my voter card a policeman called me asking for ‘the sweetener’, I wondered what for. He said for your card. Don’t be surprised. At least I had something done, these days ordinary citizens pay bribes as much to be left alone as to get something done. They call it ‘Kharcha’, ‘paeesi chai’, ‘jawani’ and many more which are basically *bribe of survival*. Exactly this has changed everything; everyone attempts to be in a position to take a bribe as oppose to a sucker. Bribe takers are at the highest rank of the society where everybody inspires to be. Bribery in security forces and especially in police has reached a new height. I have always lived nearby Qargha damn in the western outskirts of the city. I often go there alone or with friends at night. I just returned from the damn; these are eid days and one would expect a buzz but the damn and surrounding areas are quiet, sort of scary. I used to hang out by the water, watching fish and the stars. Tonight was beautiful with the stars, the moon and patchy clouds, however, I didn’t feel comfortable. There are plenty of new guest houses, restaurants and recreational centres. At the quietness of night I only saw the reflection of my headlights on the windows. Next to the road leading to Qargha damn is a new refugee camp, I paused to count the number of tents but my guess is around 300. They are displaced from Helmand in the last few months due to intense fighting. Security has been tightened around the camp as Helmandis can’t be trusted. They look much like Taliban. It is simple; if they look like Taliban then they are Taliban. A few weeks ago French reporter who came to make a story about the camp was kidnapped but found inside a well nearby. Police check points are all around the camp, as a result more police on the way to the damn. On my way back the sentry at the third checkpoint said
- Haji, happy eid. I see you are having fun while I keep a look for you on the Taliban. Do you have a cigarette?
- I don’t smoke, mate.
- Then give me the cash and I will get it myself. I will freeze to night if I don’t smoke.
I don’t carry my wallet around in Kabul. if something happen it would only get me into further trouble. Fumbling through my pockets I found some money.
- Take this but this shouldn’t come under any bribe name.
I was wrong. At the next stop the police asked me for money and I said I don’t have any, showed them my pockets inside out. I heard him talking with the police in the previous checkpoint on the radio. He said ‘you had some for the other guy’. He wouldn’t let me pass unless I get him some cigarettes. I had to call somebody and get him bring some cigarettes. While waiting for the cigarettes to come I had a chat with the policeman.
- The other checkpoint keeps an eye on the Helmandis, what do you do?
- I keep the dogs away.
For a moment I thought he was joking or Dog was a police name for Taliban. Then he pointed to a pack of dogs by the road. There were some thirty dogs mooching on what is left over from Eid. According to the policeman the dogs in the winter get unruly and aggressive. they often chase and often attack cyclists at night. I have noticed dog gangs have grown significantly in size, not as much in the centre but outside city centre they run in packs. My parents had to set my dog free after I left Kabul. The dogs on the street were spending most of the night barking behind our door. Dawod likes to drive at night, it is easy to get around a safe medium from dogs. I have not noticed dogs around during the day, I have heard they disperse in the nearby mountains but I plan to chase them one night. Story circulates that there are dog walkers; homeless who sleep with dogs using them to keep warm in the winter. Dogs also offer them protection during the day when they retreat to the mountains and at night when they are stroll the empty dark streets.
I told Ali an old family friend about my misfortunes with police on the way to Qargha dam. Contrary to expectations he did not slam the police and tried to explain to me why it is a natural thing to do. Ali too goes by a nickname - ‘NaswarPak’ sniff gulper. Ali the sniff gulper is a platoon commander at the 129 Thunder regiment. His platoon provides protection for army installations, forward bases and garrisons, moreover he is to keep the troops in the base and detain fugitives. Ali lets the troop escape the base for days in return for some bribe. he call the bribe sniff. Whenever a troop is leaving he demands some sniff; no doubt Ali is a sniff lover but that is not what he means. The thing I found shocking is how Afghans create their own morality and justification for what they do. What is going on today is open thievery yet there is strong moral position to justify it. since my arrival I have been fascinated with social morality. As human beings we morally oppose suffering of any sort, be it to another fellow human or animal or whatever feels pain; that is why no reason could justify people like Hitler, Stalin, Osama and others of the same calibre. The other day I met four old mates and told them my fascination with the morality in Kabul. The conversation led to a discussion about Hitler and interestingly nobody opposed him morally instead I was bewildered how they were amazed with Hitler’s determination and rightfully enmity to Jews. There was little information about Germany, war or Hitler; the arguments are crowded with a lot of misinformation. Exactly this point is problematic when you are trying to be pragmatic and talk about daily life. Coca cola is perceived to be good for stomach-ache or Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by Americans or to have normal sexual relation a man needs four women; the last point is in Quran and scientifically proven. You can’t have a conversation about it; it is either this way or any other view point is simply misguided. Often the underlying reason for such statements of fact lies somewhere else. When someone comes out to argue one man can only be sexually satisfied by four women, quite often the arguer is not a horny person. He believes so because his grandfather had four wives or Jews are monogamist or his wife has period today.
The reason for the persistent corruption is not that Afghans are genetically programmed to pay bribes or they are morally twisted, but that the state sees them as its vassals rather than its masters. The job of Afghan law enforcers is to protect the interests of the state, personified by their particular boss, against the people. in the face of persistent corruption Afghans turn to God for assistance; Taliban are now playing the representatives of God. Story has it Little Ahmad wanted 1000Afs badly and prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write God a letter requesting the 1000Afs. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to God, Afghanistan, they decided to send it to President Karzai. President Karzai didn’t know what to do with it and forward it to President Bush. Bush as God’s rep on earth was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed his secretary to send Ahmad a 100 Afs note. Bush thought this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy in a place where they never have money. Ahmad was delighted with the 100AFs and sat down to write a thank you note to God, which read: Dear God, Thank you very much for sending the money, however, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it through Bush and Karzai offices and, as usual, those crooks deducted 900Afs. Thanks, Ahmad.
Electricity: the power situation is dire. It has been almost a week since I have been here but there is no electricity, it comes and goes for less than a minute and it is very weak; it can’t be used to switch on the television. While in London one would hardly consider lack of electricity as something which would affect your life like security does. The security is not deteriorating but electricity is equally important. There is a growing kidnapping industry which targeting Afghan. On average more than three Afghans are kidnapped every week. Hundreds of businessmen have been kidnapped; a number of them have been killed. Taliban threat is serious. I am going to Islamabad via ground and I have to think real hard not to get caught. Burglary is on the rise, throughout my neighbourhood one end of streets are blockaded in order to direct the traffic into the main road. Burglars general avoid main road and their favour route of escape is through back streets.
One can’t make a lot of adjustment to adapt to insecurities while some serious changes need to be made into lifestyle in order to accommodate to the darkness and cold. I have to cut on the number of hour I work, read, play and stay awake in general. I spend at least three hours every night chilling in my bed, wondering off into the world of my imagination. I can’t stay out of my bed after 9pm; it is cold and dark and it is too early too sleep. My watchful eye sometimes follows the gigantic beam from NATO searchlight in the newly built garrison close to my place. Nato searchlights provide lighting for the main street, but I would rather stay at home when it is late, the dog pack from the neighbourhood doesn’t like me much. Houses on the hillside closer to the garrison enjoy 24/7 power. I suppose the base want to grease their bellybuttons to create a friendly human shield. The government has announced that the city should expect a minimum of three months blackout. The hydroelectric damns are out of water and talks to import power from central Asia collapsed. Somebody didn’t make enough money and called the deal off. Cable Poles were installed all the way to Kabul and cable work had started. Some poles have already been sawed off. I suppose I should work on chilling out. It is something I don’t mind to do. Thinking is fun, although I won’t get to enjoy, enjoying is physical. Thinking brings a feeling of satisfaction sometimes accompanied by a settled thrill. I am happy in general. Life is engaging nevertheless there is not much for interaction. The outside has little effect on our happiness, the secret lies in our perception and making use of it. some don’t need much to make use of it.
Kabul: west Kabul; lack of electricity mean no water for these houses. Hundreds have been forced to leave due to severe water shortage. A phenomena not new but has never forced them out.
Kabul (1): a westerner followed by his Afghan escort is cutting in front of the line to leave passport control.
Kabul (2): security has been tightened around the airport. Concrete barriers have replaced the stop sign.
Kabul (3): Eid requires every Muslim family to sacrifice a sheep. Not good for the sheep, good for me. I got to organise quite a few barbecues.
Kabul (4): signs of 90s civil war are still visible in central Kabul.
Kabul (5): these kids work on eid days in order to make 120Afs or no food for their family.

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