Saturday, March 24, 2007

I'm out...

...will be some updates to flickr on the last of the Kabul photos, and others.

Thanks again everyone.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Exit Rituals

Nearly there. A day and "a wakey," as some (yes, expats, and yes, the military background type) say around here.

There have been the usual rituals. Luckily, I've managed to wiggle out of most of the 'farewell dinner/events', except for one (my coworkers). And well, another, with the national staff on the project that has taken most of my time will be a simple kebab lunch. As many of my memorable days with them here (days stuck out at the power plant because of some issue) have included newspaper wrapped kebabs, I like that it's how i'll be exiting.

The other ritual today was a burning. Got to watch a year and a half go up in flames. OK, I'll stop with the melodramatic metaphors. So cleaned up my room/office and got rid of a lot of documents.

Other than that, it's been busy at work. Handing out "certificates" making it "official" that I've done my job and transitioned the work to the GoA. And to be fair, they are ready to do the work. Whether "ready" is enough to do the work is another question.

As for the blog, I'll soon stop posting here. I may continue a blog on Afghanistan, or push others to resurrect a group Afghanistan related blog, and ride their coattails (ahem, you all reading right now know who I'm talking about).

There may be a posting or two more, but as I travel home, and get home in a month, it'll be even less frequent posts.

Thank you all for reading. I hope this blog provided something of value to those who kept checking in. I wish you all the best.

Moreover, lets all wish this land and it's wonderful people all the best.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

(Make/A) Sense of Things, Part I

It’s been all about dispositions and moods and sentiments and atmospheres and getting a feel for things. That applies to more than just the weather, which has been completely up and down and all wonderful, but unsettled and unsettling. But finally the consensus (a really just a dire hope) is that winter has finally broken.

Though we all know what’s coming, and this past week, it really seems like it’s already come (see Pumukl’s round up, and Hamesha’ last post), my coworker, who has been in and out of the country since the fall of 2002, was finally saying that the mood has really shifted. It’s odd and disappointing to see how much he talks about how hopeful the mood was when he first came, and he was even still hopeful last year, even after the May riots, as he hoped that would be a wake up call. So far, it seems like it wasn’t.

As I’ve said before, the donor side talk/rhetoric seems to have been improving and seeming more realistic. But the reality of this place is catching up to them. And the mood of the common Afghans (from my very limited/skewed sampling) is shifting markedly more than it did in the past year, and in a different way. It’s like a worsening is a foregone conclusion and now people are just waiting for things to get worse before they can get better. It seems like the only question really is how worse that worse is. Our two cooks, who are brothers, were telling me, in a markedly melancholic and longing manner, about how peaceful their home village is in the summer, and wishing I could come see it.

What was obvious about the discussion, though me coming to see their village was a sincere desire on their part, is that it was really about the escapism to their old life there.

I’m surely conflating and projecting a lot of my own mood and feelings about leaving here on all that’s going on around me and the conversations I have. But there is a different sense of things going on here. I remember the conversations after the May riots, and the cooks and many others bemoaned the event and the reaction on the part of Afghans, calling them delinquents and looters and people just capitalizing on the event for their own ends and venting. But the riots in Jalalabad got no such treatment.

The only thing the younger cook/brother talked about was what happened. And the bombs dropped on the houses. And the people simply being exasperated by the whole situation. Hamesha had it right when he referenced a “Sophie’s Choice”. Much as when the Taliban first took Kabul, that was the situation I gather many Afghans felt themselves in. Though the choice may not be the same, nor the result, as I don’t think the Taliban will come any where close to capturing Kabul. It seems like the situation is the same, if not the sense of things on the part of many more Afghans I’ve talked to. The sense of hope and even fear seems to be gone. Just exasperation.

And with work, it’s been that way for me to. (How is that for a completely trivializing segue??...and by that, I mean trivializing the situation of my Afghan coworkers, in case anyone was confused.) But more things are being knocked out, and the new music I’ve gotten my hands on recently has helped.

(Make/A) Sense of Things, Part II

So back to the most reliably consistent (speaking of quantity, definitely not quality here, folks) topic of this blog: what I’ve been listening to.

Go get some Anousheh Kahlili [myspace page here]. Came across her randomly as I was looking for shows that I can go see at the Black Cat and 9:30 when I get home. Going to shows being high on the list of things I’ve missed over the past year and a half. Adding to that list though, I’ll miss her show, as it’s celebrating Nau-Roz, the Persian New Year (also celebrated here in Afghanistan).

So it was the name that struck me (Persian/muslim/asian not being too common on the BC roster), and I dug her up and the headliner of that show. Her stuff is all piano singer/songwriter. And though the lyrics are a bit much, almost pedantic and overly verbose with adjectives and adverbs, when she does hit an image, it hits well. And though her songs on her first album just leave me wishing she’ll sing more choruses and stick to some more traditional song structures, as it’s really about her voice and choice of words that shine. Her voice is wonderful, as she’s got range and dexterity, and most over, great phrasing. Though her lyrics are a bit overwhelming, if not simply a bit much, she’s a master at delivering and phrasing them. Though they’re still just a bit too expository and encumbering, for me at least. More imagery, at least stronger imagery and less exposition would seal the deal for me on her.

Her first album, “Let the Ground Know Who’s Standing on Him”, which came out in ’04 wavers a bit in consistency, but her voice carries the whole thing, again, it’s striking, robust and beautiful. It’s been on heavy morning rotation. Especially as she’s a masterful and delicate piano player, and I believe I read she’s been classically trained, which seems to be the case. Nonetheless, her piano playing matches her singing on many fronts. She has two new tracks from a forthcoming album, available here for free.

Side-note: I also just found out that she’s Deep Dish’s vocalist on their last album. Which was great, but I just never picked up, and never dug out the vocalist, assuming she was just a generic House/Electronica singer with a heavily pitch-shifted and processed voice (which she was on that stuff, I believe, maybe just slightly processed and reverbed). She was the lead on their main single “Say Hello” which actually turns out to be a “hook” (though she doesn’t really use it as one) on one of her earlier works, “Ten Lives”.

So go get her last album, and definitely her new/free stuff, as the new album seems to show progression (though one track has a distinctly Fiona feel to it). So she’ll be another Norah (Anousheh even has recently done a Millenium Stage Show, which may mean much given the 365 performances there per year, but it’s where I first heard Norah), especially if the song lyrics get a bit less cumbersome, or at least one song gets a chorus, except I don’t think she’ll ever put out ‘Sunday-brunch’/’do-a-crossword’ music. She’s got too much to say and when she gets better at imagery she’ll be a force. And go see her show at the Cat on March 20th.

And of course, there’s the new Modest Mouse. New tracks have been “leaked” and can be found on the obvious sites, such as HypeMachine. Then there is the new El-P. And Adult Swim put up a new Def Jux sampler for free, and watch the new El-P video, it’s brilliant. Then there is the new Ted Leo. And finally, there is my regret that I’m not going to be home on March 20th to get the new drops, and will end up buying them in iTunes, and then again when I get home.

Make sense of that.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Going The Distance, Part I

Since it’s a Friday, and we’re on lockdown again, I figured it’d be a good time to finally get around to an update on the blog.

So there has been a decent amount happening in this place. Kabul, as usual (well except for today), remains largely outside the fray. Most of the military activity has been in the usual trouble spots, and of course attacks have been increasing in Pakistan as well as that string of attacks in southwest Iran. So the instability seems to be increasing. Maybe it’s just a random confluence, or maybe it’s several factors and movements coalescing, specifically the Iranian influence expansion efforts, the Balochi independence movement, the Taliban resurgence, the Kashmiri fighters, Musharaf’s military efforts along the Af-Pak border and his efforts in Balochistan, and Al-Qaeda’s purported strengthening of camps and manpower in Waziristan.

So yeah, it’s a lot to keep up with, perhaps too much. My take is generally that any one of the factors is too small to seriously set things off, thus my dismissal of the Taliban resurgence as the major worry. What I do fear is the confluence and these factors/movements taking advantage of any one of them making a strong and hard push for their cause. And they all seem to be tied and talking and fluid in their associations and support.

Their aims, or rather ends, don’t particularly align, but their tactics perhaps do. In my, largely uninformed, opinion, it seems like all of these movements will benefit from greater instability in the region. The smaller movements, such as the Balochis, the Waziri Pashtoons, and the Kashmiris needing instability to break up the larger powers control of their regions, and Iran needing to break up the larger powers so they can exert their influence (they running into a paradox w/ Balochistan and their own internal insurgent and separatists). Then there all the talks of the West's, NATO's and the Donor Community's commitment to this place and talks about seeing this trough to the end this time. With Bush's commitment of more troops here, and the Canadians and the Brits wondering what to do with that and how to follow suit, at least the rhetoric sounds good.

So, basically, this area is confounding and perplexing as it’s always seems to be. Thus, to me, it’s as troublesome as it’s always been too. It seems like it’s all about who has the endurance to go the distance. And at the elevations in this part of the world, endurance is everything.

But more personally, our lockdown is because of the recent local politics in Kabul and Afghanistan. That recent legislation that garnered quite a bit of press, the one giving amnesty to former fighters/warlords/mujahideen from war crimes committed in the most recent fighting, is still a hot issue here, as Karzai said he wont support it. So some of the supporters are gathering for a rally/demonstration. Some 30,000-50,000 of them, according to various claims and estimates. (Post-event update: reduce the estimates by a factor of 10. Supposedly the rally speaches largely consisted of positive talk about how far along Afghanistan has come.)

They’re gathering in the Olympic stadium. There are supposedly riot police spread throughout the city. As I’m under lockdown, I have to just go by what I’ve heard. The city is eerily quiet for a Friday though. Usually after Friday Prayer, there are horns buzzing and cars screeching through the city. Not today. So far, I’ve only heard one car tap it’s horn a few times. That is surely a record for a Friday while I’ve been here.

But it’s warm (comparatively to the past few days…we had more snow) and sunny outside, another beautiful day in Kabul. (I’ll put up a few new pictures on the flickr page.) So, I’ll hopefully enjoy a quiet Friday in Kabul.

Going The Distance, Part II

Also I’m coming close to the end of my time here. Been quite busy at work, partly the reason for lack of posting. The other contributing factor is that simply, and sadly, I’m less concerned with the larger picture here, and more concerned with getting my work straightened out and wrapped up.

I’m less vested. That can be expected, partly as I’m trying to distance myself from this place and avoid thinking about actually leaving. Subconsciously, I think that it’ll be easier to leave all the wonderful folks I’ve met and become dear friends with that way. But, since I haven’t finalized my departure, it hasn’t really set in yet. I kind of don’t want it to set in, that realization that I’m leaving and moving on. I’d rather avoid that moment, and just find myself all of the sudden not here.

I’m ready to leave, at least for now and for a while. (At lunch today we were trying to figure out a term for “post-burnout”…) As for the work close-down things, that’s all old-hat now, as we’ve been through it a few time. But this time, there is a slightly different twist. I know I’m leaving. One of the cooks, all of whom I’ve become good friends with (we’re all around the same age and speak a common language comfortably), asked me if/when I was leaving. His older brother later asked me the same thing. Though we talked about it a bit, and that it was certain, I told them I didn’t really want to talk about it. As I’m often their venting point, I feel like I’m abandoning them. More than that, we all know that it’s likely a permanent goodbye, unlike the friends back home or in the West, who I’ll always have at least a chance to visit again.

But as I told them, I still don’t haven’t booked a ticket out of this place. And I’ll need that to go the distance.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gaining Traction

That perspective, that things are gaining traction, came up briefly in the dinner conversation tonight. Ironically, the conversation took place at a restaurant that may be losing traction after being here since 2002…had a chance to talk to the guy who runs the restaurant after dinner and he was bemoaning that, but noted that his restaurant on the ISAF base was doing well, quite well. And that, in itself, may be a good indicator of what one recent thrust has been, towards more militarization…”more”, of course, being relative to the past 2-3 years (absent the escalating previous year) of relative calm.

There are several news items that also point to desperation. And I remember that being a common feeling among the expats last may, but this current desperation seems different. Back then, it was rooted in exhaustion and/or exasperation. A lot of it was negative and reeked of some neo-colonial patronizing attitude towards the protesters. But this time around, it seems a bit more sincere. At least I hope it is. The desperation is more of the desperate ‘what can we do now?’ attitude. And that may lead to some more positive policy changes, if, and hopefully, the attitude reaches the inner sanctums of the high-up’s expat compounds.

In the conversation, while a friend talked about the Taliban’s gaining traction, and rightly so, I talked about the changes that seem to be happening in the Afghan Gov’t’s attitude. He has a lot better tap on to common Afghan sentiment, I would expect, given who he works for. My links to common Afghan sentiment come from a very particularized, if not filtered perspective, I believe, or the news articles everyone reads. In many ways, the conversation could be simply characterized as a ‘fight or flight’ conversation, work contracts notwithstanding. Both attitudes seemed to be valid with equal amounts of evidence or justifications.

So you have many trends and movements gaining traction right now, during the typical winter lull. Everyone expects an interesting (perhaps not the best word choice there…a bit callous) spring. And though geographically, these movements are largely in opposite directions, one trying to move out from Kabul, and the others making tracks to Kabul, they both are largely for the same ends, a more complete control of this country. And with that race, with one finish line, either one or the other wins, or they crash into each other before getting to the end. I hope that the increased talks and trends toward militarizing this place don’t make the crash more likely, but have the intended effects.

The other item that is gaining traction, apparently and hopefully, is the talks of a more rational approach to the opium crop in Afghanistan. There was this BBC article on doctors in Great Britain calling for Afghan opium to be used for morphine. Then there was this article about Canada trying to stop an Agent Orange type plan.

Also, there is this article, from last December, that I seemed to have missed. This article, originally in the St. Louis Dispatch, talks about one Congressman’s efforts to change US policy in Afghanistan, and calls to make it similar to the opium production in Turkey and India (so that may be why they (India) aren’t pushing for it in Afghanistan, India isn’t a trafficking route, and they don’t want to cut their own legalized oligopoly position). But the quote from the US State Dept. personnel seems to indicate that any traction this idea may be gaining will end up leading it to a brick wall. I would believe that countries as big as India and Turkey have illegal opium production, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem there.

So despite the warming trend, weather wise, all the snow melting, the ground softening and the roads turning to mud—things are gaining traction here. The question on the forefront though, is which roads give better traction.

**P.S. Safrang(i.e. Hamesha) has a post about the drug stuff and the new US Ambassador to Afghanistan, who happens to be coming from Colombia, yes, the nation of "Plan Columbia".

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Name of the Game

Inconsistency, it is. I’ve proven my fealty to that, blog wise at least (blah blah blah…apologize…blah blah blah…empty promise for the opposite…blah blah blah…blah blah blah).

I call it adapting, though.

Adaptability may be one of the most strident qualities of the Afghans, as is fairly obvious and well noted, and I still remain constantly astounded by stories I hear. Though, the consequences of adaptability lie on both sides of any normative analysis or coarse assessments of what’s the situation and prescription here. Lack of fealty is probably one of the most malleable consequences in terms of being cast both as a positive and negative.

Simply, it may break down to a chicken/egg thing, both the cause and consequence of nothing in this place seeming to have any permanency. It’s not so much that there is an absence, but transience everywhere (and there probably is a link to the fatalism ascribed to regional cultures and Islam with this). It’s not that everything flitters around here, it’s that the ground, literally is constantly on the move. It’s a bad thing to hold on to, and even hope for, something solid. Yet, I’m convinced (partly out of a need to rationalize my own perspective, attitude and actions) adaptability is stridently good. But the consequences do make for damn difficult circumstances and contexts to work in. And contexts are only useful with content, and content needs objectivity, transient or not…just not as long as it’s not transcendental.

Now that I’ve once again shaken off everyone, let me get to some useful content. As has been noted and blogged about on other blogs linked here (see Hamesha’s and the newly linked Roland’s blog), the big news items are the recent attempted attack in Kabul, and the Afghans that thwarted it’s effectiveness, the Anne Applebaum article on the opium issue here, and the recent talks about more US troops here.

The attack, and the Afghans involved in the stopping of it, I hope will affect the discussion of more troops here, in that, at least in Kabul, it indicates that the US/foreign presence here isn’t largely, or rather wholly, unwelcome. That it occurred when the US Sec. of Defense Gates was here, I, cynically, take as a good thing (though this article, on a military-centric website, makes no mention of the Afghans that apparently did the brunt of the work in thwarting the attack).

On the Applebaum article, I’m glad to see that the idea has gotten some press. It’s an old topic here, especially the talk about Turkey’s privileged status and why the western gov’ts (and I think as much fault goes to the EU as the US here) won’t seem to even discuss the idea of Afghanistan being granted similar status (I would love to hear that I am wrong on this though). My first guess would be the self-interest both the US and EU have in not taking such a program away from Turkey, though I am guessing they really don’t need it that much more…unless the regions that produce opium there are Kurdish…then the complexity and reluctance on both seem understandable, though not necessarily justifiable.

Also, Senlis, a French NGO has been pushing the idea for a while, and even has a full report on mainstreaming and legalizing opium production here. I haven’t read the report in full yet. Also, I would think that both Pakistan and India would come behind such an effort, as especially India has a well-established pharmaceutical industry. It seems like such a program would be workable and a win-win for several of the actors in this region.

Though, at least on the US policy/rhetoric front, all that would require some adaptability…

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Resolution 1:

Done. Despite this whole Hong Kong internet thing crimpin my downloading style.

Get the new Talib & Madlib collaboration...for free...from here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Too Much To Be Resolved

First and foremost: Eid Mubarak, Happy New Year and a belated Merry Xmas.

Second, the words of Creeley:

New Year’s Resolution

What one might say
wanting to do it,
hoping to solve it,
make resolution—

You break it to bits,
swallow the pieces,
finally quit quitting,
accept it, forget it.

But what world is this
has such parts,
or makes even thinkable
paradoxic new starts—

Turn of the year
weighs in the cold
all that’s proposed
simply to change it.

Still, try again
to be common, human,
learn from all
how to be one included.

So the above sentiments may not be the most positive to begin the year on, but they likely are the most pragmatic (and hold on to that little sentiment at the end). I’ll get a jump start on the quitting quitting and won’t even think about my smoking habit. Though, I’ll come away with one resolution: to finish all the books I started to read this past year, especially Negri’s “Multitude” and “Empire” (though I blame my failing there on the lot that wouldn’t join me in a reading/discussion group for those books).

As expected, the past week has been blissfully, yet excruciatingly slow. It’s been a good and cold Eid. For New Year’s Eve, we got out of the house for dinner, enjoyed our pizza and all (likely) fell asleep before the witching hour. At least I was asleep at midnight, and to be frank, in many ways it’s nice to have an altered significance for these holidays.

New Year’s Day was spent quite pleasantly at Kabul Coffee House. I got to read a document with some pleasant aspirations regarding Afghanistan’s internationalization efforts, followed by a good dose of Negri. Both elicited equal amounts of cynicism towards the texts.

KCH has got its espresso machine working again, and it was good espresso, so sentiments aside, I had a good time.

There is a really interesting article on a journalist's travels on Afghanistan's Ring Road (again from the LATimes which seems to have been providing the best coverage on Afghanistan of late). Perhaps if things calm down, I’ll be able to take the road to a few of the places that my job deals with, but as of now, I’ll still have to experience much of this country vicariously too.

Most of the other coverage on Afghanistan I’ve come across recently has just been a regurgitation of what’s been said for the past 6 months. The foreboding headlines seem less prescient now, but as has been the case for too long, the spring season will be the best judge of the state of this country.

As of now, due to the winter holidays, Eid and general seasonal slow down, things seem to be moving at a snail’s pace here. There is a weird absence of both optimism and pessimism. Maybe it’s a good normalization, maybe feelings are too hard when your toes are numb all day long. Though my coworkers and I read the headlines and remain thankful that the predictions that this place was heading the way of Iraq have turned out to be far from coming true. And we optimistically don’t see this place heading to that same end. No time soon at least.

And finally, go check Safrang/Hamesha’s blog, he’s put up a good post about the cross border relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Wishing everyone a good year, paradoxes and all.