From Afghanistan With Love #1: Baba-i Za’faran

September 24, 2007

Babay Za’faran

Originally uploaded by From Afghanistan With Loveّ

This man used to be a big-time Opium poppy growing farmer in Pushtoon-Zarghoon district of Herat. Then he shifted to growing saffron, and has since devoted himself to helping other farmers do the same.
For his services, he has been officially dubbed “Baba-i Za’faran” or “Father of Saffron” by the Ministery of Agriculture – he even showed me the certificate.
Besides showing Afghans’ obsession with bestowing the honorific “Daddy of this or that” on old (or dead) men, in this case, the deserved title is a fitting tribute to a wise old man.

From Afghanistan With Love

September 24, 2007

Since Afghanistanica has taken to shamelessly stealing my blog posts, and since it has become blindingly clear that I cannot continue to rant as prolifically as I used to (in one notable instance replying a comment with a 30-chapter treatise), I have decided to steal one of Afghanistanica’s ingenious techniques for getting out of serious and effort-demanding blogging: Random Photo commentary (the other is the TOOCQ method which I shall appropriate in due time.)

Here on Safrang, the rules applying to the “From Afghanistan with Love” series are that the photos will come from my flickr photo stream and will all be taken by me, and save for the instances when I decide to post bad-hair day photos or of colleagues behaving badly, the photos will all have some sort of relevance to the “situation” in Afghanistan (I love how certain words in the English language quickly adapt to become shorthands and codes and save you paragraphs of description.)

We will begin the series with a photo of Baba-i Za’faran, with the attendant commentary appearing below the image.

A Woman Among Warlords

September 8, 2007

It is not everyday that I get emails addressed “Dear Editor,” imploring me to use my large readership to spread the word about a new film. So when I got an email from WMM about Eva Mulvad’s film “The Enemies of Happiness,” and thought about the possible royalties that could flow from rendering similar services for studios and publishing houses, I decided to do this post.

Hear ye! Hear all ye left-leaning American voters with loose purse strings and heart strings:
The National Broadcast Premiere of “A Woman Among Warlords” based on “Enemies of Happiness: The True Story of A Young Woman Fighting for Changes in Afghanistan” will be aired on PBS at 9PM on September 11th.
For more information, visit WMM website.

On a housekeeping matter, this first ad will be done on a pro bono basis, because I recall having praised Ms. Joya as “a fearless voice” earlier on this blog. Potential advertisers may contact the sales and advertisement division of Safrang. Also, a review of the film is forthcoming on Afghanistanica.

While it has become fashionable among respectable and otherwise self-restrained bloggers -Farsi and English alike- who do not usually make it their business to approve or disapprove of other people’s behavior to write admonishingly of Malalai Joya, I am not hesitant to put myself down as one of her admirers. Mind you, I take this stance without necessarily approving of her methods, or those of her handlers. All the same, as I have said before, what she is doing now -regardless of her methods, and perhaps because of them- is “cathartic for our national soul.” I thought so before the French Elle Magazine got ahold of Ms. Joya, and before she was airbrushed and pampered and made presentable into the rather good-looking and chic freedom fighter that she is now, and I still think so.

joya farah

Airport Security*

September 8, 2007

No, I did not get to see the citadel of Herat from up-close. And no, I did not visit the famous candy shops. That, plus the fact that I did not get to roll at the “Rolling Saint” just about leave enough reasons for me to visit this great city again.

The only thing that came close to dampening my spirits about the whole experience was the treatment at both airports, in Herat and in Kabul. Somehow on this day ISAF soldiers from the Italian contingent in Herat had decided it was time to pay a visit to the airport and review routine security procedures with their Afghan counterparts. This mostly involved tall and rugged-looking Sicilians (don’t know for certain, but almost all rough and tough Italians on screen are from there) in shades and dour faces -because remember, the great Pavrotti passed away on Thursday- standing around with hands on their hips at the airport, while the Afghan police and security folks took the inanity of their useless security procedures to new heights.

This involved the following in the case of the poor chap immediately in front of me: opening a giant suitcase, spreading the contents out on a table, thumbing through each piece of wardrobe, unzipping the side-pocket of the suitcase, taking out a little bag, opening it, taking out a small notebook, and shaking the notebook – probably expecting a little sachet of heroin to fall out. Of course none did – that stuff usually goes untouched and undetected, and through much more previliged channels. Once we were through with this, the bags would be put through the electronic screening machine. And in the intervening 10 minutes, the rest of us -including the bored Italians- stared at the whole spectacle thinking “Come on! That is a bit excessive even for bearded people named Muhammad Ali at JFK.”

I will spare you similar details about Kabul airport, but suffice to say that I got further affirmation of the mentality that seems to prevail among all civil servants, government employees, and officers of the law here: “Just because you can make life harder for others -especially if they are Afghan- you should. Treat them as first-rate suspects and frustrate the hell out of them. Make them hate you. Because, by the authority vested in your uniform by the law and the government, you can do it.”

Moral of the story: do not under any circumstances get separated from your minister or ambassador or assorted other government dignitary or Khareji while travelling by air in Afghanistan, or there will be a sudden and steep drop in the quality of service and a disappointing loss of preferential treatment.

(*This post will leave no doubts that I’ve got “blogger’s mood swing,” but whatever…)

Last day in Herat

September 5, 2007

Last day in Herat. After a long day’s work, went to the shrine of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Was taken by the meditative peace of the place and the confluence of giant white turbans. Remembered verses from Khwaja’s “Munajat Naama.” Held up my hands, touched the discolored marbles, then put both my hands to my face.
In and out. It was getting dark.
Entered the Friday mosque and saw the rows already formed. Shoes in hand, ran across the tiles and took my place in the last row. Prayed in my own heretical and syncretic way – with hands now open on my sides, now over-lapped.
In and out. Late for a dinner.
Have an ealy flight tomorrow. But have not yet examined the citadel up close. Having read Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game,” cannot leave Herat without visiting the citadel. So got to get up very early. Hence the shorthands.

So many jeans!

September 4, 2007

I have an urgent proposal for the Afghan government: in the interest of national security, make it mandatory for all its senior employees to take crash-courses in the art of public speaking, with an emphasis on brevity. This morning…

But alas! I am not allowed to dwell on the negatives…

So we are back to gloating over Herat. It is so easy to take electricity for granted here, but thinking back to Kabul, the fact that Herat has regular power supply with no, none, zero blackouts in my three days here -thanks to separate deals with both Turkmenistan and Iran- seems such a blessing. Remote villages located at distances of as great as 40 kilometers from the city have electricity on a regular, round-the-clock basis, even if they don’t have paved roads all the time.

Both today and yesterday afternoon a group of us visited the shops in Bazaar-e-Malik (roughly “The King’s Bazaar”.) This is like Herat’s equivalent of the Chicken and the Flower streets -put together; except that here you can find the real stuff, at prices a lot better, and with the green tea and sweet “Halva” flowing non-stop to, literally, sweeten the deals. And of course the streets are a lot wider, which, only if you have ever been to the Flower street, you could appreciate. The main trade of the Bazaar-e-Malik in Herat is in carpets, waistcoats, shoes, and Burqas. Upon seeing a couple of the latter as we were driving past them yesterday, a Khareji among us wondered aloud: “So how come so few people actually wear jeans if there are so many shops selling them?”

(to be continued… )

A Strategic Change of Direction for Safrang?

September 3, 2007

This announcement will come as no surprise to those who have been reading these notes for a while. The past couple of posts must have seemed, well, a bit different.

Yes, drastic changes are afoot, and against all expectations -including those of my own- I will be blogging less of the negatives and more of the positives. I know -shocking. This rarely sounds like “the belly of the beast.”

The hard and unavoidable fact is that this blog is well-known all over the world for its bitter sarcasm (and for the self-deprecating humor and the humility of its author.)
Enough of sarcasm and bitterness. Enough of negativity. No more!

Back in the US, I would hear of all that was ‘wrong’ with Afghanistan and write about it. Here, the ‘wrong’ assaults your senses. Invades your world. Shrinks your horizon. And gets you down – down, down, down with itself into the abyss. And as someone very dear to me once said, “if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss will look back at you.” And so here you have to look for what is remaining that is good and right – and grab onto it for dear life. To remain floating and sane. That, henceforth, will be the stuff of “Safrang” and commentary on this blog.

(But that may as well be Herat, which utterly confuses and makes a ‘pessoptimist’ of everyone!)