By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Jim Kunder, beaming, is never far from the president’s side as an engineer gives Karzai a tour of the site. The president takes a few hurried questions from the eagerly huddled press, most of them in Dari, all of them apparently innocuous. We’re herded back onto the bus, herded off again, and a grinning Karzai answers another minute’s worth of questions (“I was very happy to see the road. I was very satisfied . . . ”) before hustling back into his helicopter and flying off.
In the president’s absence, Kunder and the engineers stage an impromptu press conference. Kunder sunnily explains that though only about 7 percent of the road has been paved, most of its length has been graded and de-mined. Thanks to the heightened police presence, there haven’t been any recent security incidents. (Road construction was halted for weeks earlier this year after a mine-clearance crew was attacked: One man was killed and eight injured. Since the Karzai photo op, 12 more people, including road crew workers, police and soldiers, have been killed on the road.)
After four or five questions, Roy Glover interrupts, his voice amiable but urgent: “The security detail has to leave now, so if we don’t leave, we don’t have security. I recommend we leave now.” And we do.
It must be the shiniest room in Afghanistan — a beauty school concealed behind the well-guarded gates of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, like a scale model of a Western salon, complete with lighted mirrors, swiveling chairs, shampoo sinks, gleaming countertops, shelves lined with sleek, multicolored plastic bottles of hair spray, gel and something called Vavoom Beam Shine Gloss. The school — Beauty Without Borders, it seems to be called — is the result of a collaboration between an aged American expat and a stylist from New York. Vogueprovided start-up money; a handful of big cosmetics companies were happy to pitch in.
This afternoon, the opening ceremony takes place in the garden outside the ministry. Rows of white folding chairs stretch between the rosebushes. Bottles of Pepsi and plastic cups rest on a table set for the reception, but the wind keeps nearly blowing off the paper tablecloth. A couple of camera crews linger, a handful of print journalists, and no less than six men with Kalashnikovs. The first class of students is here, well-coiffed women wearing gold bracelets and glossy violet lipstick, glowing with pride beneath silk headscarves. A relative of the king who spent the bad years in California and is rumored to have his eye on the presidency shakes hands all around and grins from ear to ear. Habiba Sorabi, the new minister of women’s affairs (who has been decidedly less confrontational than Sima Samar), attentively smiles and nods. The American organizers ask the students to each plant a geranium in honor of the school’s corporate sponsors. Minister Sorabi kneels in the flower bed and plants one too. The organizers present her with a gift bag brimming with products donated by MAC, Paul Mitchell and Revlon.
“We’d just like to thank you,” says the stylist from New York, a thin and chipper blond woman of about 50, “for giving us this opportunity to come here, because it helps us a lot in our lives.”
The morning begins with a drive. I am alone in a car with one of CARE’s drivers. Two Afghan women employed by the NGO follow in another car behind us. They’re showing me another project, a job training and food distribution program for impoverished widows raising children on their own. We drive out to the west of the city, past the bomb-ravaged traffic circle — 360 degrees of dramatically collapsed concrete buildings, some of them still functioning as government offices despite the wreckage — that marks the end of the relatively intact city center and the beginning of the miles of outlying ruins. The old city wall climbs a hill to the left like a chain of broken teeth. We pass the zoo, through block after block of crumbling ruins, past bombed-out mansions and the shattered remains of a high school that once catered to Kabul’s elite. Just before the old Soviet Embassy compound — a half dozen boxlike apartment buildings, deprived by artillery fire of windows and outer walls — we turn down a mud-brick alley, an open sewage channel running through the center of the dirt road. Behind a door in a high wall, we find a bright garden of flowers and vegetables, and just off that, a small unlit room in which about 30 women squat in a circle, taking turns stirring a beige, viscous substance with a huge wooden spoon. This is their vocational training — learning to make candy to sell in the bazaars.
I ask them how their lives have changed since the Taliban left. An older woman, her face a map of creases, smiles a toothless smile. “Everything’s better,” she says. The others chime in and nod in agreement: There’s more work, their children can go to school.
“We’re happy not to wear the burka,” one woman adds, and they all laugh. But stacked in the back of the room are dozens of burkas, like blue ghosts, folded and inert but still somehow eerily alive.
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