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.