Friday, December 30, 2005

Overlooking the Overseer

The post is a bit disjointed--I apologize.

For those that won’t make it all the way through this post (I can’t even bother to edit/reread it): Happy New Year.

Despite a general slowness about the air here, it’s been hectic. All the expats, except myself and two others in my house remain. The other house is in similar straits. They aren’t necessarily dire, though a few other expats, and I have myself, complained about the loneliness and boredom. On the plus side, I’ve gotten to know my two other housemates much better. The two here are white south-africans (formerly of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe) who do security work for us. Quite interesting fellows, lotsa stories, only a few of which I’ve heard. Some I probably don’t want to hear. The politics and somewhat expected differences on colonialism and such would probably come to a head. Though we all know each other well enough to know our varying perspectives and politics and such have been discussed. It’s been those types of conversations that are most memorable, where differences are respected and discussed maturely, and we all enjoy having dinner with each other anyway. Given their involvement in colonialist structures and there interactions with me, I’ve bit my tongue a few times, well rather, decided not to probe them on their thoughts and sentiments too deeply.

But, they have definitely got me thinking about the “uncle-tom imperialism” topic again. One other recent development has pushed that issue to a head. I’ve had a fair amount of more responsibility here as I’m covering some critical & daily work for one of the expats on break. This has led me to dealing with a lot more locals and at a different level. The age issue is there to amplify everything too. Though I’m probably not that younger than many of the people working for me, and I’ve had people older than I reporting to me before, I feel like I’m treated as the boss in the overlord sense of the term.

On the flip side, I’m definitely treated differently by the local workers because of my ethnicity (though given how many afghanis don’t have a particular liking for the Pakistani government, I’m not sure it’s a good thing) and ability to speak in urdu with them. I find myself feeling like that buddy boss that one feels comfortable enough to go ask favors and pull string for oneself; a confidant type of role. I’m told things that probably wouldn’t be told to the white expats.

That is definitely a very difficult situation. The annoying part is that when I’m in one situation I wish I were in the other. And this I find true whichever of the two situations I find myself in. It’s not an issue of where my loyalties lay, as that is not a question, but I don’t want to exploit a trust, and I’ve been trying to encourage the locals to talk to the white expats/bosses. Whatever gets the job done most effectively and quickly is an easily stated common and shared goal.

I can put some blinders on and just say that’s all that there is to the matter, the common goal. But theory has ruined me. The power dynamics and structures, institutional and interpersonal greatly affect the path to the goal and the goal itself. The most cynical side of me says it’s a brilliant move by the western world to send the second gen back as “expats” to get the work done; probably quite effective, especially if blinders are put on. A more gracious, and serious, side of me thinks that using the second gen effectively to do such development work can make use of many tools that whites never could. (Sidenote: I think returning first gen immigrants are in a much different situation. Without thinking about it too much, despite whatever naturalization or citizenship they may currently possess, they aren’t the same as someone born in a donor/western country.)

Though I’m guessing that due to the current travails and dominance of liberalism in western/donor nations, and yes the world, it would be difficult to implement a positive/affirmative race/ethnicity based recruiting policy. Though for other sectors, such as for the FBI, CIA, Military and State Dept. the second generation muslims are currently heavily recruited. And logistically, it’s simply impossible for the amount of work that needs to be done here in Afghanistan.

This isn’t simply a white/non-white dynamic. I don’t think I’d be viewed much different than the whites were I in Africa or Guatemala. And, I would assume it is dramatically different for those first/second-generation immigrants returning to their “homelands.” I am fairly certain I would feel different about this were I working in Pakistan (even though this definitely brings up nationality/identity issues, especially in a post-colonial and neo-colonial context.)

I’d love to hear what other non-white minorities of western countries doing development & aid work think and feel about this issue. Especially those with much more experience in this field than I. Maybe another post or some comments? But of course, there is no race/ethnicity policy on commenting on my blog, all please chime in.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Peeling Off The Watchwords

Just moments ago I promised a friend that I was trying to avoid meaningless posts. And I should really be ashamed, as Vasco and Elizabeth have put up a string of good posts, and subsequent discussions, on what’s going on here in Afghanistan with respect to development and aid. (And Ms. Daisy had a great post/discussion about Zionism/Israel/Palestine a few days back (I hope it’s ok to mention that here, as she did mention it in the comments). The National Lawyers Guild (of which she and I are/were members...i don’t get my dues reminders in Kabubble) has put a resolution condemning Zionism/Israel up for vote among the membership.) Topical, interesting, insightful posts.

But I was talking about promises. I had promised another friend that I was going to post a quote from an email she (KW, she even asked for a "shout out", so here it is) sent me recently. As is obvious on this blog, I’ve been doing a lot of posturing, if not straight out poseur-ing, lately. I’ve even been doing it on other blogs too. It’s wonderful to have friends willing to call you out on a moments notice and rein one back in. It’s invaluable, even, for people such as myself. So the priceless quote:

“Also, what is up with all this hipster street cred on your blog? Methinks you need to own up to the fact that you are friends with two extremely non-hipster, straight arrow, might-as-well-be republican (but we're not, I swear) white people whose idea of fun is an evening at the shakespeare theater, and whose last live concert was the fake Abba band at wolf trap. We deserve a shout out too.”

The sad part is, that had I been invited, I would have been right there at the fake Abba show, the ubiquitous* third wheel.

*Odd side-note: As I was making sure that ‘ubiquitous’ was in fact the right word choice, I mistakenly highlighted the “e” from the preceding word. The MS word dictionary returned the word “the dansant” (a diacritic over the ‘e’), defined as a tea dance. What a great fucking word! It’ll soon be overused. And Chris, as I heard you got the blog address and may now be reading this, I’m officially changing the name of “Le Ballet de Guy” (a diacritic over the ‘u’). “Le Dansant de Guy” from now on. Don’t fret, your coupon, if you ever find it, will be redeemable against it.

**AND Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year, Happy Holidays....everyone.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

My Own Personal NGO

I have a new, umm, crusade. The motivation for it came in a glaringly clear moment of insight into this country. The moment is really nothing to shocking, and really reflects much more on me than this country, especially in saying that most and normal people here are in the end, like most and normal people everywhere else. It’s pretentious, pedantic and highbrow fucks like me that really are the outliers. And, yes, thankfully.

I was chatting with my driver, apologizing for keeping him up a bit late the other night. We came up to the gate of our house, which is fairly high, solid steel, quite thick, and at 11pm is of course closed. The booth right inside the wall and gate is occupied, I believe, 24/7. So I was saying to the driver, out of guilt, that we’re probably waking up the gatekeeper, though I don’t know if that is a bad thing. In the least we woke up the house as the driver gave to love taps to the car horn.

Nonetheless, my driver reassured me that it was OK, and that we weren’t waking up the gatekeeper. He was clear about this, and I insisted on asking why. My driver informed me that minutes before, he was in the booth with the gatekeeper watching TV and that the gatekeeper was surely still awake as the show was not over. Curious to find out not only what TV they generally watched—I assuming all bollywood all the time, I wanted to find out what show kept the masses enthralled at this late of an hour. Curiosity hasn’t quite killed me yet, but more often than not it’s lead to some serious disappointments.

The show was “AfghaniStar.” Hearing that name gave me a good chuckle. Honestly, I absolutely love the name. I should have left it there, enjoyed that new little bit of trivia, and gone to bed. But I had to find out what the show actually was. The suspicions were up. I had to confirm that yes, the new imperialism, as we all know, is western entertainment. Simon Cowell has done what Alexander the Great couldn’t. Simon Cowell has done what Bush, with the most frightful military in man’s history, could never do. It seems Cowell has won the hearts and minds of the Afghani people, well at least some, and that pool being limited to those w/ TVs (which is probably a fair amount here). I’m guessing it’s not Cowell running the show here, though it would be spectacular if instead there was some Taliban like mullah on the show spitting out vile curses at the moral corruption of the afghani youth contestants. Humiliating the the contestants ability to sing and dance all the while. I imagine him sitting cross-legged, Holy Qu’ran in lap, rocking back and forth, never raising his gaze upon the lascivious women and men being paraded on stage, nodding his head while stroking his beard the whole time.

So the new crusade, my own personal j***d (umm...I wont use the word, eventually wanting to get back to the US and trying to not to get kicked out of the country too.) It really is about developing a civil society here, civil in every sense of the word. I’ll come up with a proposal, do some demographic studies, implementation assessments, impact studies, come up with a statement of work, and of course, terms of reference. I’ll establish an impact evaluation method and propose actual metrics to be measured and studied.

All this will be done for a program to bring a cultural element of critical cynical hipster to hip to be a hipster cadre in this society. “AfghaniStar,” I mean it is brilliant, the name that is, but really, now, this can’t be taken sitting down. If we’re going to have the best/worst of pop culture here, there must be the accompanying best/worst aficionados of mass culture—those, well us, snub-nosed, elitist mass culture critics. We avant-garde, we only who can truly appreciate the brilliance of “AfghaniStar” for what it truly is. This, obviously, with out ever watching a single episode.

So those of you in the NGO world, any ideas who I should hit up? Hell, I’ll start my own. I can probably get the French Gov’t to sponsor this. All my D.C. friends, a fund-raiser on 14th street or at Wonderland would be perfect.

But, to be utterly honest, I should confess that finding out “AfghaniStar” exists wasn’t the only motivation for this new found endeavor. This was also partly motivated because my “I’m so hip, I’m above the fray” attitude went somewhat unnoticed when a friend was saying they were going for an ‘emo’ look. I, of course, trying to employ a nonchalant condescending attitude, failed miserably. I desperately reverted to straight insults instead. Lucky for them, I didn’t drop band names on them, and insist that ‘emo’ died when SDRE (Sunny Day Real Estate, for broke up the first time.

Oh, you people.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A RiPOSTe to Rob...sorry, i couldn't help myself.

So I’ve been getting out a bit more recently, moving between offices a lot more, meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Met a few more expats that aren’t coworkers, and that are within my generation to boot. Even did a bit of sightseeing, a thanks is due to my Chief for arranging it (we had some visitors in town and he had me hook up w/ them). I haven’t been posting. Apologies to the loyal readers, I haven’t been keeping my end of the bargain for work-hours distractions. But I have more photos to share, recompense I hope. Other than that, which has been a nice change of pace, work chugs along, my routine largely unchanged.

The majority of my coworkers are heading home for the holidays, so there is an excitement about the air, somewhat bittersweet, as I will be here for the holiday season (Christmas not being an issue, but New Years w/ dear old friends is always nice) and just not going home to see everyone. Though I miss family and friends dearly, I’m not really homesick. I’ve never been one to get really homesick, brief spurts at most. One of the few benefits of melancholic misanthropy is that one’s mood doesn’t change much no matter where one is.

Besides Kabul tourism, I’ve found a new pastime, a painful one, more painful than Kabul tourism at least. As many of you all know, I’m a poser music dork, and definite music hoarder. Though I left my collection at home, with no reasonable way to bring 500+ cds w/ me, I did bring my external drive. So as difficult as it is, twice I have deleted most of the music off the laptop HD and put on new music from the external. I then force myself to go through the music—album by album, full song by full song. I’ve reacquainted myself with a few old favorites: Gallon Drunk, James, Op Ivy, Mano Negra (oh how I used to love Mano). And I’ve found that I really enjoy some music that I’ve overlooked, i.e. Led Zeppelin and Elton John. Though, of course, I still listen to way too much Talking Heads and Police (why I never burnt and didn’t bring that boxed set, I will never know...i may have to ask someone to send it to me).

****Also after a 4-year gap, the new Chocolate Genius album was dropped a few weeks ago. Of course, I recommend it to everyone. If you don’t like it, you should learn to. You will learn to. Of course, I haven’t found a track on the album as good as “My Mom”, the album is stellar nonetheless. The RnB is all over the place again, but much more up-tempo this time. Most surprisingly, its not an hour of scratchy whispered drunken baritone ramblings about a miserable, woe ridden drug riddled life.

But the pictures, I promised might go over two posts cause there are quite a few. A
flickr account may be impending.

This is the King's Tomb in Kabul. A Khan is buried here.

His father off on the peak of an adjoining hill a few hundred yards away. I get the names mixed up. I will learn them before I leave.

The hill is a kite-flying hotspot. Kite sellers line the large plaza in front of the tomb.

A hillside chocked full of mud brick houses and an old wall running up the crest of it. Generally when you get out of the city’s center and off some of the main roads where a lot of reconstruction has and is happening, you really start to get a picture of how badly this city was ravished by the fight for control of it.

There are more photos in the post below.

Recompense Redoubled, or Pictures Part Two

Dar-ul-Aman Palace. Shot to hell.

Fenced off by the Canadian ISAF, a good thing, as it looks like parts could fall at any moment.

Though I don’t think it should be restored now, one day, hopefully the state here will allow for the money to be spent on it. It’d make a nice museum.
On the way back to our house, our tire blew out. A bit of a scary moment, here especially—the sound of it that is. The shooters in the tail car quickly poured out of their vehicle, and we changed the tire and went home.

My daily scenery here.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Everyone's already thought of everything...

This post is a response to the first two comments, Shannon's and Andrew's, on the prior post. My reply became too long to post as a comment.

I’m not sure I made one critical point too clear on the bribe thing in the last post. What the PD meant was that his clients were only those who couldn't afford to pay a bribe, i.e. hire a "bag man", as they are known here, to pay off the judge. Though he condemns the practice, I’m sure, he didn't seem that contemptuous of the judges. I wanted to probe him on this, so I asked, after he stated his definition of a client, how the judges acted when they didn't get a bribe. He said that in those circumstances the judges often followed the law well. I took this as there not really being any retribution by the judge’s to those who couldn't pay a bribe, guilty or innocent.

But don’t forget, the judges are happy to supplement their low monthly incomes w/ bribes, from the guilty or innocent...well at that point, all are still innocent. The PD seemed to be accepting of the situation here, and he didn’t rail against the lack of ethics on the judge’s behalf. To me it seemed like he was pushing to help get more often than not completely innocent people released through capacity building, and training of aggressive, skillful and knowledgeable PDs. (He’s said that during his short time here he’s seen more innocent people charged than in his entire career as a PD in the U.S.) Overall, he seemed fairly pleased on the progress and situation here, given the context of poverty, lack of institutions, and years of war.

Shannon, he definitely shared your view that it wont be a quick path to functioning and reliable PD system. After all, ours in America, though better than most nations, is still far from where it should be.

Andrew, I agree w/ the first half of your first point, but can't agree with what I understood to be the sentiments and underpinnings of the latter half. Maybe I’m misreading your comment. I’ve been accused such before, and may be prone to that on this blog. I don't believe it's a matter of mental and moral preparation of civil society. That philosophy sends shrills up my back. It seems patronizing and reeks of patriarchy. For one, that sentiment is way too individualistic. I think Afghanistan is probably one of the best instances of where structural and institutional changes are vital, and moreover simple building of such is a place to start.

I don't believe that development work should ever be aimed at the mental or moral "development" of people. That is just way too complex and contentious. Hopefully our days of missionary zeal are done with.

Surely, you're right that we need to provide the resources fiscal, physical and mental. And surely you’re right that the ideology of the people is critical, after all, I believe only “good” ideology will make a functioning civil society stick. But the past 20 years, and history of this region can’t be ignored, and the present ideologies are likely formed out of much of the horrendous past 20 years many of these people have lived through. The acts of corruption remain wrong, and often inexcusable, especially the high level corruption.

But it’s not moral or mental “development” that will bring this nation to “democracy and civility”. And I don’t believe that most of the difficulties in development work here are rooted in “people...acting only on unmediated desire, violence, and instinct...” These people, though they surely exist here as they do in our blissful developed nations, won’t stop a functioning civil society from forming, if the basics of civil society are developed well here.

If the structure of society, from infrastructure to education, are developed here, better civil and individual ideologies, ones that support functioning civil society will come. Potable water, literacy and a warm place to sleep, not the locals’ mental or moral preparedness for democracy and civility, are the primary barriers to civil society here. You cant hope to “raise” or wait for the latter. The former is all I believe you should strive to do, the rest is in the Afghani’s hands.

As much of a poststructuralist I may personally be, structuralism is a lot easier to act on. The “Poststructural Structuralism Manifesto” is coming soon**. But, join the movement now! For only 4.99 receive your personal membership card and a subscription to our nontemporal annual non-union union printed 100% organic digital ‘zine.

**Dammit...i googled the term. And of course it’s already taken...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Moments of Clarity...Through Fogs of Diesel Fumes

They keep on happening, moments of clarity, and they are truly appreciated here. One of the pristine moments happens daily. Right around 2 pm, as the post-lunch coma clears, and I’m done spending an hour of the workday reading the web and IMing. The sun directly above this elevated city seems to clear the fog, and somehow the diesel fumes aren’t as suffocating. The day is warmer at this hour, balmy this time of year. So I go make a cup of tea and pace around our office courtyard with a warm cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other. A moment—as I start to wake up and try to wrap my head around this mess.

Most of the time, despite life not being terribly hectic here, my head feels like it’s spinning. Partly this is due to the newness of this all—a new job, a new career field, a new technology, a new industry, a new, new, new. I remember reading, on another aid worker’s blog from here, that Kabul and Afghanistan is ripe with contradictions. Not to say that the U.S. and developed world isn’t, we just hide our social and cultural contradictions so well. We mask them with a barrage of free press and ready information. We bury them with layers upon layers of transparency to the point where everything becomes opaque. Here contradictions are as clear as the midday sun from the surrounding peaks. Here it’s hard to be oblivious to the contradictions. This is especially true, I believe, while trying to do development work. The pace of the development and the state of things on the ground simply serve to add to the difficulty of navigating the contradictions.

Contradictions abound at every level from the trivial to the indefensible. After dinner today, while sitting on the couch in our well-heated TV room, I remarked to two of my colleagues that we were sitting there watching highlights of a South African table soccer tournament. We’re not oblivious, but we are completely removed from the world around us. Though that is quite saddening on its own, how removed we are at times, the pitiful part was that we left the channel on for a few minutes after we all acknowledged having reached a new level in idiot box watching. That was a new low in my life.

The indefensible level of the contradictions come mainly in the form of corruption and complications in doing work at the higher levels here; always inexcusable, but especially so in the context here. And it’s not just the Afghanis that are doing the fleecing here. The Americans, of course, operate at the opaque levels. I have no personal experience, but I do get to hear stories of ministers and companies and warlords and drug kingpins all playing the corruption scheme here.

I got a bit of insight into the newly re-fledgling justice system here. I met w/ a friend of a friend who is working here. (Got to go out to a nice French restaurant and have duck breast...Ok, nice by my readjusted standards.) He’s here working on developing the public defender system. Amazing work done by him and moreover the locals that actually are serving as the PDs. Much of the fatalism of Islamic culture flies in the face of the American ideals underpinning the PD system, i.e. everything is in God’s hands and if you’re innocent and executed by a toppled wall of bricks (that no longer happens here, officially as far as I know, w/ the Taliban removed from power), eh, you have paradise awaiting you. So don’t worry so much about this finite and temporal life we live. The moment of clarity on this front came during the conversation that night. My dinner companion said that his definition of a client here was someone who couldn’t afford to pay a bribe, no condescension in his voice. A few moments later, in somewhat of an adulatory tone, he said that the judges were really good about following the letter of the law and procedure, and that with that, they have a very high success rate, relatively speaking I believe. Moments of inspiration and hope abound here, side-by-side an acceptance of the situation and daunting circumstances. A contradiction in itself, yet contradictions and clarity seem to be twinned here.

There is a great article from WaPo, published two Sundays ago. The accompanying online chat (linked in the sidebar on the article’s webpage) briefly mentions the company and project I’m working on, complaining that an 8A company is ill equipped to do the work here. But as the article points out, a very large US company seems to be failing in simply putting up schools and clinics, not even staffing or running them. I’m not in the right position to decide the quality of work of the company I’m working for, my junior status and bias and all. But I do know that everything here seems difficult, slow and riddled with contradictions. My insight is nothing new or revelatory here. I know the same is true if you’re building a clinic or roads or an oil refinery in many parts of the world, let alone in the donor nations.

Here it seems, that no matter how or how much you grease the tracks, it doesn’t make a lick of difference. They were destroyed over the past 20 years, the tracks. They are all torn up, at best. Often, they aren’t even on the ground anymore.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Big Chicken

That was the rough translation of the word ‘turkey’ in dari, at least as we non-speakers in the house figured. Part of the word sounded roughly like “murgh”, and that’s the word for ‘chicken’ in urdu, so it all sounded believable to me. My mom was surprised to hear that we had turkey for dinner. She had never seen a turkey when she was growing up in this part of the world. When I was telling my mom the dari word, she said the word for ‘peacock,’ that sounded much more like the word in dari, she suspects that is what we had for Thanksgiving.

Our Chief of Party (“Chief” from now own…and he deserves much thanks for arranging a great dinner, though of course our cooks deserve the most) and some of my housemates had difficulty in trying to explain what a turkey was to our cooks. The cooks, coyly, asking why we wanted to eat a Turkmen, and who was going to go to the border. Oddly, they didn’t ask how to cook a human. So two housemates went out shopping for turkeys, and they said they found them. All I saw was meat on a platter. Peacock, turkey, rooster or a big chicken…the meat on the platter was good.

Besides the lack of football, it was nearly picture perfect…all the fixins, ‘cept cranberry sauce.

Our cooks are wonderful, as I’ve said before. The pumpkin pie was amazing, that’s what being trained in a French bakery will do. I ate well.

I met the rest of the team. Once sedated, and satiated, we had some great conversations about our work and our takes on the state of affairs here…all the usual ex-pat/development topics: aid, corruption, colonialism, cultural communication, literacy, human nature, blah blah blah.

The next day I went to the Friday market at the Kabul Compound, watched U.S. soldiers get over charged, got overcharged myself, and walked away with a bunch of DVDs. Two out of 5 work, I felt like I made out pretty well. Much of the streets I get to see when driving around Kabul look like the same.

All fortified walls and razor wire, a booth out front and men with AKs.

Well, work goes on. The days are getting short. The snowcaps on the mountains are getting long. The next post will return to our regular scheduled profound-itry.

A happy belated thanksgiving to everyone. I hope you all had a good time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Less navel-gazing…well as best as I can stop, at least…

So someone asked for a real post, well rather they asked for a more “concrete” post, about what I’m doing and such. And another friend asked for me to do a “food blog/post.” I checked out a few, and they write about the actual cooking of food or recipes. We eat well. I do no cooking. We get a mix of what I’ll associate as south asian food and American food. Tonight, we had pot roast again. But the salad was lettuce and apples, with mayo. And the bread we get is bad white bread, know in urdu as “dhuble roti” or “dhuble toast,” or really good traditional afghani bread. So until I start getting in the kitchen and learn a few afghani dishes, there won’t be a food post, except for maybe on thanksgiving.

For the job stuff, it’s probably not that interesting for most…but, and perhaps sadly, I actually find it quite interesting. It’s more accurate to say that my day-to-day job is really not that exciting, but when is such ever? I am writing a report on the northern cities of Afghanistan, from an office in Kabul. I’m writing this report having never seen or been to more than what could be seen in an hour in Afghanistan. Despite my actually being here, I feel like I’m working ON Afghanistan rather than IN Afghanistan. Well, disregarding the fact that I hear Dari all day, and get to see the hills surrounding Kabul. So basically, I’m doing typical consultant work. I have years of experience at that kind of BSing.

In summary, I’m working under a US AID contract for infrastructure development in Afghanistan, energy development in particular. Stop reading here, I beg you.

But if you insist…my current project is a report the energy infrastructure of parts of the north of Afghanistan. Maybe one day I’ll actually see the area. Elizabeth, another aid worker here is actually up there and doing work IN that part of the country, and she has a picture up, so that satisfies the “new pictures” promise in my last post…I hope. So I’ve been doing a mix of number crunching, report writing and a lot of discussing.

As I said before, this is a new world for me, “world” being used in the figurative sense here. I am learning a ton about energy technology, and infrastructure development…it has been a head first dive. The forecasting part is quite interesting and quite surreal. I’ve worked on projects and toyed with numbers that directly affect people, but it’s always been in telecom, so it didn’t strike me as critical. It may have been, especially for the military projects, but it was always developing and deploying the latest and greatest. It was never in developing something I’ve always taken for granted, something I have always considered intrinsic, electricity. But all I’m really doing in this stuff is writing long reports in MS Word, far from actually building the infrastructure. We have other guys to do that…real engineers.

So, it’s a lot of modeling and forecasting and number crunching and planning and report writing and data collection and more report writing, some institutional development thrown in for flavor. Though I’ve only been at it for little over a week, that’s what I gather I’ll be doing for the next X months.

Here too, I promise, there wont be many, if any, more posts like this one. Hopefully the “so what are you doing?” questions will be less frequent, not that I’m complaining. And well, here’s a picture at the end of this post to boot. Another view off my roof deck.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Tech Lust and Uncle Tom Imperialism

So I got my work laptop a few days ago. I still haven’t really switched over to it yet. 25 gigs of mp3s on my Mac keep from doing so. Once I switch my music over to my work laptop I’ll have my home laptop and my office laptop, located approximately a minute walk from each other. The utility of portability will be lost on me. Though, it’ll be good to separate my work life from my personal life as much as possible. Especially since every other circumstance I find myself in conspires against this (I had a meeting after tonight’s dinner with my house/workmate to discuss my current project). The point being, with two laptops at my disposal, both being quite nice, tech lust isn’t a state I should find myself in.

But on a smoke break, as I was walking around my office courtyard today I was peering through the office windows. I noticed that a lot of workmates, the locals on my team, have nicer laptops than me. Smaller, lighter, faster, newer…prettier, oh they are pretty, pretty little things. Half of them have flat screens, and nice big black Dell towers. Now I’m glad that our team is outfitted nicely, hell, I’ve been given a very nice laptop myself. But I was still lusting. And since there aren’t any…uhm, well, since there is little else occupying my lustful and leering gaze these days, computers get my full devotion.

So for more than a fleeting moment, I was wondering what they, the locals, my coworkers, were doing with nicer equipment than me. I was green, lusting. I was given my laptop in a hurry because one was not ready for me when I got here. It was someone else’s, cleaned up and given to me. My first suspicion was that the new one I was supposed to get was taken by the local IT staff, and I was given one of their older ones (some of the personal photos of an IT staff member and Grand Theft Auto 3 files in the recycle bin helped this suspicion). Now, this type of switch is not an unprecedented occurrence. IT departments the world over are often the best equipped departments in a company. The executives may come in a strong second. Every IT department at the companies I’ve worked for had the latest and greatest. Often enough, when the opportunity availed itself, I did the same myself. It’s how I got some of my best toys.

So then came the imperialism part. I, knowing all this, having done this myself, I was still a bit perturbed at the situation. Who were they, with the money “we” were pouring in, to take funds earmarked for us selfless and devoted development workers and get themselves damn nice laptops. We who are here to help them—their audacity…their ingratitude.

My prejudices against south-asian culture, holding it full of deception, scheming, corruption, and self-serving cheats came blazing through. Sadly, these views come largely inculcated by my parents, relatives and others sharing my background. Though, the biases and prejudices are not wholly unwarranted, as we all know, corruption is endemic in Pakistan and the sub-continent. I’ve been witness and victim of such acts, as many people who find themselves in this part of the world have been.

So here I was, coming to do development work, eyeing the locals with suspicion. Here I was, a second-generation American, brown skin and all, speaking Urdu with the locals, all chummy with them. Here I was, green-eyed, distrustful, disdainfully eyeing my coworkers. The self-righteousness was reproachable.

Here works in the Uncle Tom tip. Yes, this comes with another assumption on my part. After all just in the last post I was saying that I still feel quite a distance from the Afghanis. To many of them I am an American—simply, straight forward, no two ways about it. In too many ways they are correct. (The issue of American identity…a Pandora’s box not for this post…or even this blog perhaps) Bluntly speaking, they are correct. American as I am, I still felt like an Uncle Tom.

I condemning people I share a bond with for doing something I have done myself. I condemning because I am coming from a position of beneficence, a position of privilege, a redoubled privilege. I saw myself as not being the white man bestowing his cultured and civilized gifts upon the Himalayan barbarians. But, rather I the brown man, the prodigal son returned, helping his lost cousins find their way. I, Uncle Tom—imperialist extraordinaire.

Well…the next post will have pictures, I swear. I swear I have too much free time here. I’ll try to get out, post something interesting…

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Proximity in Bombing

Today marks my first week here. For reasons discussed plenty before, I still don’t really have a sense that I’m here in Kabul. I have seen very little of Kabul. Though last night, I did get to hear Kabul for the first time. Not chicken busses, screeching tires and lorries and taxis blaring horns for every conceivable sentiment. Those are the sounds of many places in this and other parts of the world. I heard something that I more closely associated, especially before coming here, with Kabul. I heard gunfire. My first reaction was the usual one, thinking it was simply an engine or diesel generator backfiring, or a tire blowing out on one of the many potholes on the local roads. After hearing the second shot, I suspected it was a handgun or other small firearm.

The subsequent few shots only served to change my suspicion into an assumption. Welcome to Kabul the gunmen seemed to be saying. I had spent that day listening to Califone (even bought another album of theirs off itunes...itunes will be a worthy diversion of my former commuting budget). The band seemed to suit my mood, the bluesy, sparse, post-apocalyptic americana. Single notes struck on the steel strings, drenched in reverb and timbre. Random dusty noises, a stripped down cacophony, and the singer with his raspy words sung in a whispered warble, how ‘trill’ would sound coming from a deep and barreled chest. I spent the day imagining myself stuck in the dusty old west. Only this country is still a land of guns, more or less lawless, gangs and warlords running rampant. Well, not as rampant as a few years ago, when the analogy was often thrown about. It’s a cliché now, call it the old west, call it the medieval days, but it still seems accurate. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent the day listening to Califone, my mind imagining that world.

This brings me to something else I wanted to write about, concerning the violence of the past few days, both here in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The bombing on the other side of the city, as is often the case in our simulacra of lives, seems a bit removed coming through CNN. Though we were told the night of the explosion that the incident had occurred and that we were on “White City” status, movements being restricted and such. We were told at dinner and the table merely acknowledged the fact, and kept on eating. I wasn’t struck by the incident either, well either literally, thank god, or figuratively. I wasn’t really fazed, and I don’t think it was because of the dismissive attitude by my housemates. The violence here seemed as far away as it did for me when I was in the states. Ahh thank you Baudrillard.

But the bombing in Pakistan, I found that disconcerting. It was only a little over a month ago that I was sitting in the KFC in Lahore. My cousin took me there with his med school buddies. They had just completed one of their more difficult comprehensive exams, and it was still the first days of Ramazan, so KFC was running their all you can eat iftar. We tried to go to Pizza Hut buffet, but that having a 1-hour wait and the fast breaking in much less than that, we opted for KFC, somewhat disappointed. The place, of course, was filled with locals—natives, westernized Pakistanis, a family celebrating their little girl’s birthday, and quite a few who looked like they had just stepped off the bus from the Punjabi villages. I was likely the most American of the patrons there, and you couldn’t pick me from a native just looking at us. Proximity seems to be the key, the freshness of that memory. I could imagine easily what the crowd looked like in the KFC in Karachi, no different than ours that night in Lahore.

KFC as a symbol of the west, sure, but owned by a franchisor looking to cash in on the native population’s desire to eat “west” or entertain their occidental cousins, and the family celebrating their child’s birthday at an “American” restaurant, a special night out for their young daughter. All these patrons served, of course, by your typical service sector employees, low income, and in Pakistan, often ‘villagers’ with low to no education, who somehow managed to get to the city. I interacted with these people that night in Lahore. I was one of the cast members that night. I was proximate to these people. I am proximate, perhaps not physically, but on a certain tangent, to the victims of the KFC bombing in Karachi.

I am physically proximate to the ISAF soldiers that were killed in the bombing in Kabul. But on the human relation line, on the associational and emotional level, I am as far from them as I was when I was in the States. I may very well feel the same way if some Afghanis were to die in a bombing tomorrow. I felt the same way after 9/11, Madrid and London (barring the fact that I was deeply worried about my sister, nieces and her husband who live in London…but I still felt no closeness to the people, the victims or the incident).

My interactions here with the locals will hopefully let me feel some link, some association and proximity to them. I’ve probably had more interaction with our house staff than most of my housemates, my urdu coming in handy. But I still am far from feeling like a Kabuli, and even a proximity to the people of this city. That night in KFC, I wasn’t far from being a Lahori. That is as close as I’ve ever been to these types of incidents. I deeply hope that when I leave here, I leave with a sense of proximity to the people of Kabul.

I’m still listening to Califone as I write this. I’m going to pick something else to listen to. Archer Prewitt would be good.

There are no pictures here at the bottom tonight.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Existing and Time

I’ve lost track of time, it’s less significant here. It takes me a moment to figure out how many days I’ve been here and it’s been less than a week. I’m not sure, but I think that’s a good thing. Coming out, I’m sure this will have seemed to have passed like the blink of an eye. It’s just that when in the midst of it all, usually the two end points seem so far away. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this time. And if this state continues course, it won’t be. On the flip side, I hope that doesn’t mean that I wont appreciate my time here, lose temporal sense and simply be moving between physical spaces when I return or move on.

When I was last in Pakistan, for a month, and a similar state struck and I had even less, well nothing, to do with my days, something about Urdu (a language of the sub-continent) struck me. The word for tomorrow and yesterday is the same—“ kaahl.” The same is true for ‘the day after’ or ‘the day before’—“persohwn.” It doesn’t lead to confusion, as the conjugation of the verb clarifies future or past tense, but still…I think it says something deeply about the culture. That there is no separate words for “the day after/before” in English, I not sure what to think. I am no Chomsky, so I don’t really know what this all means. But that hasn’t stopped me from making some overarching and convenient judgment about the culture and Urdu speaking people: they live for the day…the future, and past, are in God’s hands…a certain fatalism, where the past is on the same plane as the future...etc., etc...

Now I have no clue if Dari, Pushto, Punjabi, or the some countless other languages spoken in the region and sub-continent are similar. It’s likely that they aren’t. But, it seems, and this is a cursory and perhaps pernicious judgment, that the same is true here in Kabul.

But, what I think has really happened is that my life has already become routine. And that’s a good thing. No more romanticizing this whole endeavor. And the confinement of this life, expected as it was, helped in making routine come a lot quicker. I’ll have to figure out if I’m allowed to go out on my own a bit, or what the procedures are. I’ll get better pictures too.

I did promise to cut down on crap like the above, and so to counter the self-righteous crap in the last post (yes Katie, though you wouldn’t say, it was a bit over done), on to the perks. So I come back to my room in the evening to find my daily laundry done, neatly folded on my now made bed. At my desk I find my ashtray cleaned and the trash can emptied. I’ll walk downstairs to a well-cooked meal, having no dishes to do, merely placing my empty plate in the window between the kitchen and dining room. The cooks are quite good, as I mentioned before. Last night we had what can only be described as desi-mex. It was nachos, made out of the egg wrappers used for samosas, quite good. The salsa, though I didn’t mind, was more towards the desi-side than mex-side. Housemates complained…well rather noted that fact.

I don't have to worry about day-to-day things in life, the necessities, some may say. And so I’ve managed to re-enter the working world with out having to cut my umbilical cord. I’m happy. Twenty-eight years now, and all I’ve had to do, absent a few short stretches, is to plug it into different wombs. I dearly love everyone that works in this house. Not as much as I love my mom, but… this point, I think I've resigned myself to every post being like this...Enjoy!...

So again, the pictures:

A daylight shot of the glitter house. Yes, the roof is a mosaic consisting mirrors...the whole "glitter" thing.

The street outside our house.

The outside of my office (the door in the back) with the glitter house in the background.

A bird struck our office window today. Seems like even they need modernizing…I know, I know, I’m sorry. And the bird was OK.

My desk and and my officemate, Dan.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

For pictures...skip to the bottom...

Morning, mid-day and afternoon coffee, and a few cigarettes interspersed between. On the other side of the world the working day has caught up with me. Today was the first real day on the job here. I woke up, shaved, took shower, grabbed my coffee, had some toast, checked my morning email, and then went to the office. Going to the office consisted of walking down stairs, out the main gate of the glitter house, walking 10 feet through the gate next door, and going to my desk in the back building. Going home is going to consist of the reverse. This is much nicer than the Metro and 66, though I don’t get to do my daily Su-Do-Ku.

It seems that my work here will consist of a mix of indirect applications of my engineering and law degrees. Though I’m aware it’s way to early to tell exactly. Yesterday I went to my first staff meeting, yes a Saturday…the first day of the 6-day workweek I am contracted to, and walked out a bit dazed. The daze was not a result of the meeting being at 8 am. Rather, there is a whole lot going on here, and hearing all of it in a little over an hour left my head whirring. When I realized we’re only working on energy development, the concept of “rebuilding a nation,” especially after over 20 years of war, started to dawn on me.

Granted, there are many veterans of the international development world for whom this is all old hat, a fact that is quite humbling…and somewhat saddening. Nonetheless, I find being here exciting on several levels. Though, the alternate being churning out patent applications probably helps to bolster that feeling. I’m sure the newness of all this adds to this feeling, and that with time the air of excitement and hope will simply become the dusty air of Kabul. But until that time comes, I’m going to relish this naiveté. I’ll enjoy the fact that I feel like I’m part of something significant, something bigger, and hopefully something lasting.

I think that motivation and the realistic sense of one's place in all this, is the only thing that helps with putting up with many of the difficulties of working here. For sure, there are plenty of rewards, but those I think soon become less significant as time away from home, family and friends extends. Last night we were taken out to dinner, the whole team, as a thank you from my boss for a job well done. I kinda felt bad tagging along as I’ve only been here for a few days, but I wasn’t about to refuse the invite. At the dinner I got to talk to my boss a lot. Sevearl times he reiterated the above point.

No, no, not the point that I was tagging along unjustifiably. Rather his point that the motivation for doing this was to do something, and if it can be bigger than yourself and your immediate needs, all the better. He reiterated the point that his contribution here will be forgotten, and it wasn’t with regret that he said that. As I took it, his was saying that legacy was not the point, but rather impact was. Those few that know what he is doing here will eventually forget, but hopefully what he’s done will last. In the end, even if it all falls apart—entropy…everything always falls apart--at least he’s done something beyond himself. Hopefully, as I get further along with this whole thing, as I get used to dusty, dry skin, cold wind and cabin fever, I’ll remember his point and be happy to have been a part of this too.

Ok, so I’ll try not to make future posts quite like this one…and did anyone actually make it this far? No, no, not you my lawyer friends, first/last line readers, skimming till you’re dizzy while still sitting still. Actually, I'll be embarassed if anyone actually read this...

Well here’s probably what you came looking for…pictures.

The glitter house, my home for the next _ months, at night.

Our front gate night guard, at the main entrance of the house.
A blurry picture of the house. I'll post a daytime picture soon, it'll clarify the name of the house.
The foyer and stairway up to my 3rd floor room.
Here is another view out of my room, the Old Kabul Fort, I believe, which dates back to the Mughal days, and which the Brits…well, we all know what happened to the Brits last time they were here. Hopefully they’ll leave Kabul Fort alone this time.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Clicking My Heels

Economy seating and airport lounges...the typical complaints. In Frankfurt, I had to have just one last taste...though it had surely been more than 5 months since I had McD's, it was a matter of principle. Except for the bad euro-club pop music being piped in, it was perfect. The remains are shown below.

I stayed in a really nice hotel in Dubai, 4 level atrium to welcome the guests, 40 foot palm trees...indoors of course, ingratiating employees everywhere...quite fancy by my standards.

"Really nice" in Dubai means low end. Oil wealth changes standards I guess. So it will be polar opposites in 24 hours.

Countless hours of travel and I arrived. As others have noted, the wrecked and burnt out airplane welcomes you to Kabul. The steep descent into the airport is not welcoming. There were some people, Omar and others, to greet us (unknown to me till I got of the flight, two others working for AEAI came with me). They had me stand to the side while everything was taken care of. Not waiting in lines is always nice.

We got our luggage and were shuffled to the guest houses. I met with Jack, my boss, and my co-workers and housemates. I was given a brief introduction to what I will be doing (don't worry, excruciating and mundane details are sure to follow in future posts). Settled into my room, took a short nap, had dinner, we watched Lord of the Rings 2, and then I went to go battle jet-lag. Looks like it'll be a non-stop party, tonight I think we watch Lord of the Rings 3.

I'm living in the appropriately named "glitter house." Four levels of marble floors. My room is on the upper (3rd) floor, a large roof deck surrounds it, providing great views of the city. The view off the deck that greeted me last night, a simple reminder that this aint Kansas.

The same reminder was there in the morning. I gather this will be a constant reminder of where I am. I'm guessing it wont be the only one.

I changed the comments setting to allow anonymous posting. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


...wont answer how often I will update this site.

I'm off to Kabul today.

Thank you all who came out on Saturday (and especially Jad and Ashley for hosting), and everyone else who I've seen or talked to recently. I apologize to those who I couldn't see or talk to before heading out. I'll miss you all.