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.