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Great Odds, Odd Goods

Author Ann Marlowe (How To Stop Time) will be blogging from Afghanistan every week through mid-October.

Monday, September 20

Took a plunge in the enticing swimming pool just outside my window, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants, but I only lasted two laps. As I explained to the small group of hotel staff gathered to watch that rarity, a woman swimming in Afghanistan, the water was very cold. One of the men, probably my age, had been surprised that I could swim.

I’ve met a woman named Lisa who works for the U.N. in Kabul; she’s a friend of a friend and I’d guess about 30. Her life seems pretty great to me — how many 30-year-olds have maids, drivers and so on and at the same time do work they love? But after two years she’s finding that the social life in Kabul gets old fast.

"It’s like college," she says. "Everyone knows everyone." To me, the lopsided gender ratio makes Kabul seem like paradise — one fellow at my guesthouse and one of Lisa’s housemates already asked me to dinner, and I’ve got to be at least 10 years older than they are. But as another guest, Sophie, an Australian photographer, said, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." The other guests included two Brits from a security firm working to prepare for the presidential elections, the owner of an Indian restaurant here, his girlfriend or wife, who does research on gender and decision-making here, and someone at the Asia Foundation, also working on the elections.

The conversation was great, and in a couple of hours I felt that I’d learned more about the situation here, and about the reporting of the situation here, than in months of reading the Afghan listserv on Yahoo. One of the security men complained about a certain BBC reporter fabricating news, including rocket attacks in Kabul that were actually sonic booms, and splicing footage of a peaceful and a violent demonstration in front of the American Embassy together to give the impression that the two events had been one. The conversation turned to the elections, and the consensus was that the major corruption, vote buying and violence would occur when the parliamentary elections are held later in the year, not now. For most Afghans, the choice of a president is abstract and remote from their economic interests. But the local elections are another matter; especially in the poppy-growing areas, drug dealers may influence the vote. However, I couldn’t disregard something that Dr. Fayez had said, that he was trying to keep foreigners off the Kabul University campus around the elections, "because a foreigner being killed would be a major setback for the university." I’d promised to give the place a wide berth.

I initiated a conversation about prostitution; I’d heard there are Chinese prostitutes working in Kabul. The restaurant owner said that some of his Afghan waiters had spoken about visiting them. I wanted to follow up on this, but the restaurant owner has closed his restaurant until after the elections because his partner had been injured in a bomb attack.

Sunday, September 19

An unexpectedly great first day in Afghanistan. I’d been a little worried about planning a five-week trip; by the end of three weeks in the fall of 2002, I was dying to leave. But in retrospect half of that was due to the cold. I couldn’t get used to being in 40-degree temperatures indoors. The other half was the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. The electricity didn’t work well either in Kabul or Mazar-I-Sharif (and hardly at all in Maimana), there was only one public Internet connection in Kabul and none in Mazar, and my Farsi sucked. I didn’t have a mobile phone, because they cost $300 and didn’t work that well.

Now the weather is great — toward 80 in the day, maybe 60 at night — my $50 Kabul guesthouse room comes with its very own cable Internet link, and I seem to be getting by in Farsi. Well, there was that embarrassing moment when I got back to my room after walking home from a friend’s house with her security guard, only to realize that the reason he didn’t understand my directions to "Shar’a Muslim" is that shar’a means street in Arabic, not Farsi. Chalk that one up to learning two languages at once in middle age. Oh, and I forgot to mention that for $59 I got an Afghan SIM for my American mobile phone, and I can even do text messaging. All this, and my guesthouse makes great coffee.

On a more general level, I was thrilled at the signs of economic improvement all around me, from the massive number of cars on the street to the dozens of cell-phone and computer stores. And although I find the Western preoccupation with Afghan women’s dress suspicious, I couldn’t help noticing that there were many more women with uncovered faces both on the street and in the passing cars. The fashion also has changed, or maybe money has allowed more choices; a lot of women wear salwar kameez with relatively short tunics, like Indian women. I wonder if the popularity of Bollywood films in nearly the whole Islamic world, and especially here, has something to do with this. In general, women’s dresses are lighter-colored and their hijabs thinner and looser. The grimness of "Islamic dress" à la the Arab countries has lifted, and Afghan women, while indisputably following Muslim rules of modesty, look freer and gayer.

After I got through with the SIM, I went to see one of my favorite people from my second trip, Dr. Sherif Fayez, the American-educated minister of higher education. He’s brilliant and personable, and I’d learned a lot from our talk about the state of universities in Afghanistan. At the time, the situation had been grim; his annual budget in 2002 was just $400,000 for 20,000 students. He was personally beleaguered. Riots had broken out at Kabul University, allegedly over dormitory conditions, and a handful of students had been shot dead by the police, who handled the demonstrations poorly.

The relatively short trip took nearly an hour. Kabul’s traffic can be horrendous, a sign of increasing prosperity. Also, my taxi driver was dreadful. In my experience Afghans are not talented drivers (oddly, Yemenis are), and this guy went 20 miles an hour even when the traffic thinned out. Once inside the Ministry compound, I could see major construction going on. Dr. Fayez mentioned that his budget is now $7 million for 40,000 students, almost 1 percent of the country’s budget, and an $8 million USAID-funded dorm for 1,500 girls is opening September 28. It’s the first in Kabul, and aims to bring girls from the provinces to the capital. Five hundred of them will have scholarships as well. The construction I’d seen on the grounds was a junior college and business school; the Koreans were going to start work on an IT center in November.

Dr. Fayez had to leave for a dinner, so I left the details of these projects for another meeting. I wanted to ask him about my plan to go to Herat to find out more about the recent political violence there, which had culminated in Karzai’s dismissal of the longtime "Amir of Herat," Ismail Khan. Dr. Fayez, I knew from my first meeting, was both an outspoken modernizer and an old friend and supporter of his fellow Herati. He insisted that Khan is not the fundamentalist depicted in many news stories, but a traditionalist with a sense of humor, and I respected Dr. Fayez’s progressive credentials enough to withhold judgment.

I wanted to take him up on his earlier offer to introduce me to Khan. "When do you want to go? Just tell me a day in advance, and I will arrange for you to meet Khan in his house," he said. I suggested that I fly to Herat on Saturday and see Khan on Sunday, and he promised to set the plans in motion.


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