“Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?”

July 24, 2008

So asks Thomas Schweich, for years the lead US official on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, and answers not so favorably for either the US or the Afghan governments. As close to the horse’s mouth as you would get it on CN policy. A definite must-read for those interested in the subject, and a piece that is sure to raise eyebrows -or hell- both in DC and Kabul.

Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?
(New York Times Magazine)

poppy

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This is Farshid

January 22, 2008

When I sat to write this last night, just home from a quick trip to the bazaar, I was not ‎planning to put it on Safrang. Its form and content are out of step with Safrang –self-serious, ‎presumptuous political bliggity bloggery, pseudo-intellectual scholarship, and polemical pamphleteering. I wanted to put it ‎on my other blog –more heart and hedonism stuff. Now that I am done with it, I think I ‎will put it here, a belated second episode in the series: ‎
From Afghanistan with Love.

————————————

Farshid

Meet Farshid. ‎

Farshid is nine years old. Maybe ten, or even eight –hard to tell anyone’s age here. He is ‎in the second grade. Of course schools in Kabul are out in the winter, so Farshid spends ‎most of his time outdoors, working. ‎

Farshid is cold –Very cold. Right now, he is standing near a fish-seller’s stall –keeping ‎warm in the heat of the gas stove. The water in the stream in front of the shop is frozen ‎solid. Last night they announced the highest and lowest temperatures for Kabul on the ‎TV. The lowest would be -10 ºC tonight. Weathermen being liars everywhere, I feel it is well ‎past that already.‎

Farshid’s voice shakes when he answers me. His little body, wrapped in old and torn ‎layers scavenged from Lilami shakes alongside. I get the impression that speaking is a ‎labor –it is too cold, and any amount of energy and warm breathe is precious. The boy ‎next to him in earmuffs and a hoodie does most of the talking. ‎

This boy tells me: “Farshid has been told to come home tonight with a hundred ‎Afghanis” –two dollars. How much has Farshid worked so far? “30 Afghanis.” It is ‎‎6:00pm now –already dark. And did I say it was cold? ‎

How did Farshid earn this money, and how is he planning to make another 70? Farshid ‎produces a dirty rag from his right pocket, and the boy next to him supplies the words: ‎‎“Motar Safi Mikona.” The word choice is important –he did not say “washing” cars, or ‎‎“Motar Mishoya” –but only cleaning them. It is cold, and soon as the water touches the ‎body of the car, it freezes. Farshid’s clients do not like frozen water on their windshields. ‎It creates distortions and aberrations in the glass and one cannot see the road ahead ‎clearly. Farshid, of course, would be glad to wash the cars should his clients please –for ‎him, it is part of the job. No matter what little games the water and the cold will play with ‎his tiny, chapped hands. ‎

What does Farshid want to become when he finishes school bakhair? I regret having ‎asked the question the moment it leaves my lips. This is a cruel question. There is no ‎finishing school, and there is no bakhair. The dignified, no-nonsense look in Farshid’s ‎eyes answers me, and it is telling me: “You may delude yourself pal, but I am not going ‎to. I am more worried about finishing the day’s work and going home –bakhair.” ‎

I think to myself: come on, it isn’t my fault I asked a senseless question. This little boy is ‎making me uncomfortable. I regret having come to this fish stall today. I like my ‎secluded life and do not even have to be in these situations. My appetite is gone. I hate ‎the cold. I am ashamed of my coat. I am ashamed of my car. I am ashamed of my fancy ‎camera –and the fact that I have brought it out with me. What was I thinking? I am ‎uncomfortable and ashamed and cannot bear the silence that somehow has developed and ‎become unbearably awkward and inconvenient for me over the past five minutes I have ‎been listening to Farshid’s story. I am speaking just to kill time, to engage him, to fill the ‎air -until my fish is done and I get the hell out of here. ‎

Again, just to kill time, I ask Farshid another senseless question. (And what, beg tell, ‎would be a more sensible question? Does he like the snow? His thoughts on the recent Serena bombing? Does he prefer Arsenal or ‎Man United? Grape soda or plain old Coke? Those marks around his eyes –what ‎precisely are those? Is global warming on his list of concerns for the world? Or, as many ‎Khareji in Kabul would itch to ask (just before engaging in their self-soothing “random ‎act of kindness” stuff procured via two crisp dollar bills) –does Farshid like kite-flying, ‎kite-running –the whole kite enterprise? His views on the progress of the mission in ‎Afghanistan? What about his opinions on the foreign troops’ presence in his country? Did ‎Farshid eat today?) ‎

Instead, my question is: where does he live? It’s a common enough question in a society ‎where identity is closely interwoven with geography. The boy standing next to Farshid ‎seems to have fallen comfortably into his spokesperson’s role, because he again ‎volunteers the answer. He is himself mildly intrigued at the interest this naïve stranger ‎has taken in Farshid, but then so many naïve and disgustingly sympathetic Afghans and ‎Kharejis do the same, so, no big deal. He answers: “Darul Aman.” “Which part?” I ‎press on. I know the area well -its a good 15 minutes drive from here. I work near it, and I have gone there several times to ‎photograph the ruins of the palace nearby.‎
‎ ‎
This time Farshid takes a jab, just so briefly: “Qasr.”
He lives in the palace! ‎

But for the circumstances I would have been amused by the absurdity. Farshid and his ‎family –his mother, his brother Jamshid, and I don’t know how many other people- live ‎in that dilapidated structure facing the ruins of the grand old palace. The one with red and ‎blue curtains for windowpanes and with a façade pockmarked with bullet holes. I would ‎love to ask more senseless questions. My voyeurism is not quenched yet –this poverty, ‎this misery is so obscene I cannot peel my eyes away. It is so pungent, so delicious, so ‎real life, so real time. I am already thinking out a blog post in my head. And I feel my ‎heart tightening, giving me that familiar old urge to cry, and at the same time, that other familiar old urge ‎to harden and to resist the first urge. ‎
What do they burn for heating fuel? I did not take a shower today because it was too cold, ‎when did Farshid wash last? He did not mention his father, what about him? And please ‎oh please: let it be Chelsea FC. ‎

But my fish is done. The man spices it generously, wraps it in an Urdu language ‎newspaper, counts the money with his oily hands, and apologizes for having taken too long. He ‎sees me lingering, glances at Farshid, coughs into his fist, and says: “yea farshid’s mum ‎hussaid he cant cumhome ‘nless he earns hisself a hundredAfghanis tonight.” ‎
Meanwhile, Farshid continues to shiver, and is silently taking all of this in –being ‎reminded of his duty, his looming deadline. The man goes on: “boy gohome boy you ‎won’tmake it to midnight in thiscold boy justgohome boy youwill freezetodeath boy did I ‎giveyourchange sir?”‎
‎ ‎
Farshid starts crossing the road reluctantly and I drive away with the uncomfortable ‎feeling that the man’s grave and hurried premonition might come true one of these dreary ‎cold nights. And no, you did not give me my change. I was waiting for it to give some money to Farshid to go home for the night. I look around, but Farshid is gone, and across the street in front of the shops with their iron shutters closed for the night and their lights out, children of Farshid’s age and height are playing with marbles. Gods of winter and cold and snow, show some mercy on the street children ‎of Kabul.‎


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…)