Afghanistan, how art thou

Dusty Herat
Dust. It’s everywhere. On your body, in your eyes, your hands never feel clean and clean clothes never stay like that for more than an hour. At night, visibility sometimes is less than 50 meters. And during the day, the city vanishes under a cloud of beige.

No wonder that car-wash-shops are always crowded with cars even lining the side of the roads waiting for their turn. However: don’t expect some nice and shining automated car-wash-booths. Here vehicles are being hand-cleaned under plain sky by three to five men, all of different age groups from school kid to senior citizen. They are eager to please and spray and polish your car for fifteen and more minutes. And they – or at least the owners of the shops – must be earning quite a good living by offering this actually very useless luxury-service for 120 Afghani per car (50 Afghani = 1 US-$; in comparison: for a loaf of bread you pay about 4 Afghani, the traditional male clothing, hand-tailored and including the fabric needed is 420).
Clean cars in Herat
But then again this is the time for the little luxuries for those who can afford it. And while the income-gap widens, more and more people are willing to pay for exactly these kinds of services, pleasing so quickly and so easily.

These days Afghanistan is certainly not the No. 1 country on the vacation-list of even the toughest backpackers. Nevertheless, when I got the chance to come to Herat in western Afghanistan for a story, naturally I took it. And already in the first few days I’ve had one conviction reaffirmed: as always, clichés and stereotypes are just that and reflect only a tiny aspect of reality – if at all. So let me tell you about the Afghanistan I experience. My accounts certainly are not valid for the country as a whole. The single regions are supposed to be very different in how they feel or what kind of mentality their people share. This springs from the kind of clan-society which has governed this part of the world for many, many centuries. Thus my accounts are just a traveller’s tales, anecdotes or insights I hope to gain. And hopefully they will interest you.

Afghan traffic
But first of all, here is some kind of overview. On my first evening in this country four days ago I was told over dinner, “Things are hardly ever the way they seem – always be prepared to be surprised”. So I was the next day, when I was driven around a town which was buzzing with life and energy. The streets were full of cars, motorbikes, mopeds (often carrying three and more people), bicycles, bike-taxis and vendors handling their huge wooden pushing carts. All at the same time at the same place. You definitely need a special gene to be a driver in this town, as traffic is a lot worse than that of France and Italy combined. Every time I’m in a car I suffer several heart attacks because of traffic accidents which miraculously enough do not happen – most of the times.

According to Toni Mehrahin, a Canadian working for an NGO who’s been here for several months now, you hardly recognize some areas if you don’t pass them regularly. After a break of four weeks this autumn she came back to Herat and all of a sudden, most inner city streets were paved. Shops are opened or closed down so quickly, it’s hard to really keep track. Even a pet shop sporting water tanks and little colourful fishes opened just a few days ago. Several independent media have sprung up in the last few months after Ismael Khan had been summoned to the cabinet in Kabul. If I remember it correctly, there are three TV stations and four radio stations, one of those an all women’s radio station. The theatre is running again (though not yet the cinema), and acting is taught to young people – women included.

While many women still wear the burqua, they don’t hurry or hide in their houses, as was seen so often in the media a while back. Often enough you see them strolling around the stores and markets. Bartering with the vendors or chatting while checking out some produce. However and more importantly: the number of women rises constantly who reject wearing the burqua, using instead either a tschador or simply a headscarf to cover themselves according to their belief.

Another aspect which literally cannot be overlooked in this buzzing beehive is construction work. New and enormously large houses are constructed throughout the town. Some are extremely hideous (at least in my eyes), sporting a modernized and varied version of all the Arabian-Nights-Kitsch you can think of. Bluish or greenish windows appear as mirrored walls reflecting the sun and sky. Columns decorate patios. All the ceilings I have seen so far displayed stucko (and even stucko-stars). What a contrast to the traditional brick or adobe houses found in their direct neighbourhood. A construction site where work unfortunately stopped some months ago is the new University Campus. I was told that this was a prestige object by Ismael Khan, but in contrast to the media springing up since he left, other projects of his just died down. One of them is the University, another upping the number of the city’s trees.
Khan as a person is highly controversial. During his reign as Governor of the province of Herat in the recent years, he was seen as Taliban light. Music was still considered evil and independent journalists just as well. Women were repressed – which is why here, compared to e.g. the country’s capital Kabul, still quite a few women wear their burqua. Then again, Khan is said to have invested millions in the city.
Of all the customs-money he earned (no one I spoke to could tell me an exact number, but it’s supposed to be A LOT), many projects – like the University – were started. These days however all the customs-money is being transferred to Kabul by order of the Afghan Government. As a result, most projects stopped midway. So now people start to see, that Khan did have a positive side as well.

In contrast to the many tales I was told before I came to Herat, the city I’ve experienced so far is rather peaceful and certainly does not burst with arms (at least not visibly in the streets). I was told that quite an intensive disarmament has been going on. And so far the only people walking around with guns that I have seen were security staff, guarding certain buildings like NGO-quarters, consulates, the UN-quarter, and the like. However, as this country is still recovering from more than 20 years of war, not all is good and shiny, and the new powers that be are still looking to find a balance to live in. So from time to time, mostly during the night, you might hear a canon going off. As far as I was told, these bursts of violence hardly ever harm a person. You rather listen to splinters of the army opposing splinters of the new police – or the other way around. I don’t know if the comparison to gang-struggles fits, but I got that impression.

Another sign of the recent wars is a red flag you might see here and there, mainly on the edge of the city. It says that mine searching is going on. Behind the grounds on which the new educational TV-Station is located, these flags enjoy daily outings. From some of its windows, you can observe people crawling forward very slowly under the still rather potent sun. Luckily, this far I did not hear one of mines going off. And I hope I won’t till I leave in about a week. So just remember: as long as you stick to paved roads you’re (supposed to be) fine.

I’ll finish this first account by giving you all a tip concerning food. Yes: cook it, boil it, peel it or forget it is the way to live by. But when I first arrived in the area, my host forced me to peel off the outer shell of an onion and eat it – raw. I felt a little sick at first for maybe two hours or so. But (knock on wood) so far I’ve not been sick. And believe me: the number of tales of people stuck to the toilet during their first days in Afghanistan about equals the number of “be careful”s that I’ve gotten before leaving for the country.

3 thoughts on “Afghanistan, how art thou

  1. Very Interesting.

    “These days however all the customs-money is being transferred to Kabul by order of the Afghan Government.”

    In a country which is so ethnically diverse the tension between federalism and centralism is going to be important. The modernisation process is going to be fraught with difficulty in this sense. This surely is the most important lesson to be learnt from recent experience in Iraq and the Balkans.

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