Medieval Times
March 6, 2007

 
What do I see to and from work? Endless walls and little shacks lining the streets, selling everything from fruits and veggies to cheap imported clothes to recycled bike parts. Piles of garbage, and children and dogs going through it all. Little mud brick homes, maybe two rooms each, thrown together, stretching up into the mountains. Crowds of local people trying to catch a bus or cross the street. Dust. Mud. Holes in the road. Bombed out buildings (a massive and once-grand theater complex, a movie cinema, former office buildings). Gyms with poorly drawn photos of Arnold outside. Small hand painted signs telling you where the entrance to some government office or major donor project is. Men with guns. Traffic cops. Children playing soccer in the dust. Women in burka. Women in simple head covers instead of burka. Men, men, men, and more men.

I'm seeing such a tiny part of Afghanistan. 80% of its citizens live in rural areas (and it's them that my ministry is focused on). And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - no running water, no electricity, and homes I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. The focus of the government ministry where I work is entirely on those 80%.

I'm beginning to see why Afghanistan is so often described as "medieval", and that's even without my having been outside the city yet. Just think of everything from medieval times: the way things were sold on the street, the way women had to dress and the way they were treated, the way religion dominated people's lives and was used to keep them down, the living conditions, particularly regarding sewage, access to water, raw meat freshly slaughtered and hanging on the street for sale, animal skins newly-removed and laying in a heap on the sidewalk, including the head, live animals still used as transport, dogs and children eating from open, large mounds of trash, etc., and you wouldn't be far off regarding what Kabul looks like. But it's a city of contrasts -- there are new SUVs, Internet cafes, restaurants, hotels, computer stores, pharmacies -- even a dry cleaner or two. It's like "Blade Runner" in the daytime, in some ways. "Mad Max" in others. "Water World" without the water.

(after describing Kabul as medieval to some friends, one wrote and said "When you were describing Afghanistan as 'medieval', I suddenly started thinking of you walking the city in your Madrigal Dinner garb ..." Hmmmmmm... now i see myself doing this as well, singing "Landlord fill the flowing bowl until it doth run ooooooooooooover.").

The lack of mosques remains startling to me. A somewhat local co-worker (he was born here, left, and came back after 18 years away) told me that most mosques are in small buildings -- just large rooms, no towers or domes, and no sound system for the call to prayer. And that there are not more mosques due to lack of money and how often the country has been at war. And, finally, that Afghanistan is Islamic more in culture than in religious practice. Hence why I haven't heard the call to prayer as much as in Jordan or Egypt.

For so many of the streets you drive down in Kabul, you see nothing but walls on either side of the street. All international agencies and government offices, and most NGOs, work behind thickly-walled compounds. It's not only because of terrorism fears; crime is a major problem here as well. If it's a major street, the outside of these walls will be lined with every kind of street vendor imaginable. The vegetables look gorgeous right now -- which I guess means that Afghanistan is in for a bumper crop of poppies, or that transport from Pakistan is really good right now.

The heart of downtown Kabul is bouncing back from the Taliban in a major way. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants popping up -- most of them off-limits to me. Including the famous Flower Street later. I've been driven down it, and Chicken Street, which is also off-limits to me, and they look like there is much to browse and buy. I also want to go to the bazaar near the oh-so-swanky Serena Hotel, but I'm also not allowed. The bazaar is a huge outdoor market and is, apparently, the place to get a burka/burqa/burqqa/whatever. I'm going to probably wait until April though, when I have a bank account, a pay check, and more experience under my belt -- and am about to head home to Germany for my two weeks of R & R.

I have seen more "funded by Germany" signs, or signs featuring a painted German flag to denote German funding, than the USA or any other country so far. I also see signs noting projects funding by Japan, Italy and France.

Here's hoping I can use my work computer in my guest house and, at last, work online from there!

((if you want to help regarding the stray dog and cat situation in Afghanistan, please make a donation to the Mayhew Animal Home and Humane Education Centre, and tell them you want your gift to go to their efforts in Afghanistan. They are working to help spay and neuter dogs and cats there, to train Afghans regarding veterinary medicine, and to change Afghans' cultural practices regarding dogs, which have no basis in the Koran. I have spoken numerous times with a representative of this organization; they ARE making a difference, and your support will help them do even more!))

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