Category Archives: Thoughts from Kabul, Afghanistan

These blog posts are observations from my 44-day consulting assignment related to export promotion in Kabul, Afghanistan from May to July 2010.

Days 27-28 – Much Ado About Nothing, 17 June 2010

Howdy. Two weeks to go. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The emails will probably be coming less frequently. I am in report writing phase which means that I will be in front of the PC instead of out and about. Not to mention stressed to meet deadlines.

1. THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME. I’ve encountered an Afghan gentleman here in his 70s with perfect English. When we asked him how his English was so good, he responded, “University of Michigan, Class of ’58.” He has a house in Mission Viejo, California. Yet he spends his time here. I can’t even contemplate it. But it’s home to him. I remember traveling to Belfast to check out a business opportunity. (Glad, I didn’t do it. The company went belly-up less than a year later.) I met an energetic, young man in his mid-20s. He told me he had a great job in the US with one of the automotive manufacturers. He was working in a much less responsible, lower paying job in Belfast. When I asked him why he returned to Belfast, he looked up with an expression that was 25% a look of resignation and 75% a wink and a smile, and he said, “Home is home.”

2. THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION. (SWW: Mr. Mojo Risin’). One of the interesting customs here is that everyone closes their office door but anyone who wants to enter knocks on the door and walks right in. They don’t wait for a response. What’s the point of knocking? I guess you have three seconds to stop whatever you were doing. A warning shot. I have had many meetings where I arrive at an office and an assistant knocks on the door of my appointment and escorts me right in to whatever previous meeting may be happening. There could be four people talking. I sit there for awhile. When they finish, we start. Eventually, someone will walk in on me and wait until I am finished. Kind of like being at the deli counter.

4. CASTLING. Apparently, there’s this show on ABC called Castle. It’s about a murder mystery writer (man) who tags along with an attractive female homicide detective. I never heard of it. I have no idea what’s on TV these days. Anyway, this show is somewhere between Remington Steele (better than) and Moonlighting (worse than). They show it on Star TV here and I find myself looking forward to it. I am worried if I stay here much longer that my brain will turn to mush and I will start watching Glee, The Hills, Ugly Betty and all this other stuff that I’ve never watched. By the way, speaking of castling, a few of the guys play chess. I am not very good but I played once. I left my bishop exposed and one of the guys kept calling me Kasparov because he couldn’t see the trap I had laid for him. What he didn’t realize was that I had no idea my bishop was exposed, there was no trap, and I was simply an idiot.

5. US EMBASSY. I visited the US Embassy here today. The entry to the Embassy was a maze of concrete barriers, checkpoints, blast walls and armed guards. It was OK once you were on the Embassy grounds. But entering the compound is really depressing.

– It will probably get worse here before it gets better. Violence is escalating in some parts of the country. I still feel quite safe here.
– I must say Afghan apples are good. The cherries too.
– The marketing concept I prepared for the fruit and vegetable company that my clients asked me to prepare even though it wasn’t really in my scope of work was very well-received. Even if our project is not supposed to help individual companies, I am glad I did it. With the morass of politics and bureaucracy here, I can leave knowing that I helped a real business that is hiring people to work real jobs.
– Debbie is a working gal. Over a week at the job.
– Kids are starting flag rugby season and school is almost over.
– It’s not unique to Afghanistan but they use tissues at mealtime here instead of paper napkins. My kingdom for a Marcal 2-ply dinner napkin!


Days 25-26: Errata, 15 June 2010

Not much to report.


* You may have read that 90 girls in Afghan schools were hospitalized because extremists poisoned them with gasoline. The girls were ages 9-14. I get that people have different beliefs that I may not understand nor have the cultural capacity to understand. But if your tactics are poisoning children, then you are the lowest pieces of excrement.
* I brought my 3 worst suits here thinking that I would just leave them here. The combination of aged materials and rough conditions has caused me to tear one jacket from one suit and the pants from a different suit. So, now I am sporting the suit jacket with the khaki pants and mismatched suits. It’s a good look for me. I am now a fashion trendsetter.
* Lots of report writing ahead.

Days 23-24: Rocky Mountain High and Funky Chicken, 12 June 2010

1. CHICKEN STREET. I visited Chicken Street. Chicken Street is the only street in Kabul where we are allowed to walk semi-freely. It is closed to auto traffic so the chances of a car bomb are low and there are more policemen and soldiers than other streets. We went on Friday, which is the Muslim Sabbath, and it was a bit of a disappointment. There were very few people about. Instead of being like a bazaar or souk, it was a bunch of stores along one street. Not to mention that the security wasn’t all that impenetrable. What I found interesting was that there was some bargaining but not a great deal. I went into a scarf store. First of all, there was a little kid hanging out inside asking me to come visit his store across the street. I assume he was related to the owner of this store. Otherwise, he’d have gotten his as- beat. Anyhow, I asked how much for the scarves and the price was $10 apiece. I said 2 for $15 and you have a deal. The shop owner said No. I walked out the door expecting the fellow to chase me down the street like at the Khan-el-Khalili in Cairo. Nope. Didn’t even shout. I bought a few knick-knacks while I was there. Nothing special.

2. BEGGARS: There were beggars on Chicken Street. I was in East Timor last year and was amazed by the lack of beggars in Dili, the capital city, despite the abject poverty. It’s not the case here. There are plenty of beggars in Kabul — male, female, young, old, infirm, healthy.

3. RUSSIAN SHOP. We have Kyrgyz and Kazakh guys on our project. They are great guys. They frequent the “Russian Shop.” The proprietors speak Russian and peddle some paraphernalia from the Soviet occupation days. Although truth be told, they sell a lot more US and NATO t-shirt kind of stuff now. I decided to go the Russian shop. I bought a couple of T-shirts for the kids. I really didn’t bargain hard. I thought the prices were OK. So, the proprietor gave me one of those Pashtu Osama style hats. So, now I am stylin’ and profilin’. When I grow the beard back this winter, I will be sure to attract lots of FBI attention.

4. CEMETERY. I noticed a cemetery on the way up the mountain. I asked the driver if Afghans buried their dead in boxes or directly in the ground. He said both. What I found interesting was that very few graves were marked with an inscribed headstone. Most graves were marked by a plain thin stone. Something like a piece of flag stone with a triangular shape. The density of the graves was not the Prague cemetery but it was pretty close. Very dense. Picture a small plot of arid land, hundreds of pointy stones planted in dirt with a mountain of poor houses directly behind it, separated by a dirt road and a ring of garbage.

5. FOOD POISONING PLUS BROKEN BATHROOM=BAD COMBO. (NOTE: NOT GRAPHIC BUT YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ.) I have been shocked that since I arrived I haven’t had a cold, Osama’s revenge, jet lag, nothing. Well, our cooks made a British dinner the other night — roast, Yorkshire pudding, veggies, etc. Four of us got sick. Afterwards, several folks said it looked really bad and they didn’t eat it. Thanks for the warning, buddy. I just assume British food looks bad. (JT: You are the exception.) Compounding the issue, our bathrooms in the basement stopped working on Thursday night in time for the weekend. So, I have been hiking up to the bathroom on the roof deck. All the other bathrooms in the house are private. So, it’s not a lot of fun knocking on someone’s door at midnight and saying, “Hey, mind if I lighten my load.” Finish. And then say, “If I were you, I’d try not to go in there for the next 5-10 minutes.” There is a small public facility on the roof deck. Kabul is a mile-high city. Almost 6000 feet altitude. So, running up four flights of stairs to the roof, high altitude and a case of the trots = not a lot of fun. When I fantasized about joining the mile-high club, this wasn’t it. Maybe all the up and down the stairs to the bathroom in the altitude will improve my wind. (-;

6. JAMES BOND I’M NOT. There was a movie, I think it was a Bond movie, where someone opens a bottle of expensive wine with a long probe or needle. The sommelier just jabbed the needle in the wine bottle and pulled out the cork. I wanted to open a bottle of wine and there was no corkscrew about so I decided I would use this method. My implement: the punch on my pocket knife. I wasn’t so successful and pushed the cork halfway into the wine. So I decided to push the cork into the wine. Too bad I never took physics. Well, a geyser erupted and my pale yellow walls painted only four weeks ago were splattered permanently with red wine in a pattern Kandinsky would be proud of.

7. MUGGED IN LONDON. There’s a new Yahoo spam thing where the spammers get ahold of your Yahoo address book and send spam to all the email addresses. The email says that you have been mugged in London and you have no cash or credit cards and are in tears. It comes from your email address as opposed to Nigeria or one of the other scam locations. When Yahoo discovers the problem, they lock down your account for 24 hours. Thus, you can’t send out a general note telling everyone to disregard the spam. So, I received all kinds of emails from people including a few offers to help. When I responded, I wrote, “Ironically, I survived Kabul, Afghanistan only to be mugged in London!”

8. WORLD CUP. World Cup is a really big deal on the project. Even the Americans are international types, so they all know and love soccer. No one gives a rat’s rear about the NBA finals except the other guy from Jersey. One of our colleagues is taking her R&R in South Africa to go to the World Cup matches. Tonight is US v. UK. There are six folks from the UK on our project plus a few from the Commonwealth. Trouble’s abrewin’. USA! USA! (Most of our security guys are British and they are heavily armed. So, I will be sure to be a gracious winner if the US comes out on top.)

– The Thursday night BBQ was outstanding. One of our colleagues, for his birthday, made fantastic tandoori chicken on the grill and there was a garbage can full of Tuborg beer. Although the most interesting beverage was pomegranate wine. There were some guys from an agricultural support project. They took some of their farmers’ pomegranates and fermented their own wine. Like that old SNL sketch, you could use the wine as a pancake syrup or a disinfectant. Only bad part of the BBQ: I met some really nice guys from the US, big fans of music like Booker T. and the MGs but they were from Dallas and they were … you guessed it … Cowboys fans. Everyone has their faults.
– Bathroom update: The plumber just finished. Wahoo!
– Apologies. I forgot to take the camera. And my camera phone is horrendous.
– Thanks for the emails. Much appreciated. I haven’t responded to all of them yet but they were thoroughly enjoyed.

Days 14-18: Slow Going, 6 June 2010

Not the most enlightening email. We had three straight days of lockdown. Then we work on compound on Saturdays in order to give the Afghan staff the day off. So, it was four straight days in the house.

1. BOREDOM. The jirga lockdown caused me to finally hit major boredom. The four straight days in the house did me in. I didn’t think I could ever be bored of ping-pong. Andrey, the best ping-pong player here, and I split our first eight games. Now he usually beats me. Part of it is that he’s better than me. Part of it is that after 6-10 games of ping pong per day for ten consecutive days, I can’t even concentrate.

2. AFGHAN MOURNING. An Afghan officemate’s 24 year old younger brother died yesterday.  The Afghan mourning period is forty days. Day 1 is the burial. To prepare for the burial, family members wash the body. If one tear falls on the body, the washing must be restarted. Day 2 is the condolence. Day 3 is the hitam. It is an important day. I think it’s kind of like a somber wake. The whole mourning cycle is one year.

4. FLIES II. The flies in my room were driving me nuts. One of my housemates has an electronic fly swatter/zapper. It’s shaped like a tennis racquet. You swat the fly with the racquet, press the button and ZAP! Over the years, I have stopped killing most bugs. Mosquitos and bees of course. Generally, if the bug is not bothering me, I just toss it outside. But I had enough of these flies. I was like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. I grabbed this zapper and closed the door behind me. Just like Bronson dressing up like an old lady and riding the subway, I opened a banana and waited for these flies and said “Hey, you punk.” Two hours later there were fly carcasses strewn about and my bloodlust sated.

– Afghanistan is landlocked. During the old Silk Road days, the Khyber Pass came through Afghanistan and it was a major overland trading route. Unfortunately, it has now seaport and international trade in the modern era is difficult. Any way I had my first fish meal yesterday. Fish is my favorite. It was such a treat.
– Finally watched the Batman movie with Heath Ledger. He was good in it.
– Ping-pong update: Split with Andrey tonight.
– Kids finishing school. Doing Lake Association track and awaiting the start of flag rugby. Visiting with their cousins from out of town.
– More in a couple of days.

Days 12-13 – Jirga Lockdown and Working Blue, 4 June 2010

It’s Friday. The jirga ends today but we are still locked down. Security is awaiting for information that will let us travel. Friday is everyone’s normal shopping and restaurant day. But as they say, discretion is the better part of valor.

1. SUICIDE BOMBERS. I had a conversation with an Afghan about poverty. He mentioned that a relative or a friend was involved in a suicide bombing years ago. The bomber didn’t believe in or support the Taliban. He was desperately poor and the Taliban offered him a great deal of money to do a suicide bombing. It was the only way he could envision taking care of his family. I guess this is why we need to attack poverty.

2. FLIP FLOPS. I use a shared bathroom. I am pretty much the only who uses it but there is often water on the floor and I can’t always trace its origins. So I went to the Finest Supermarket to purchase a pair of flip-flops/sandals. (For you New Yorkers, I was hoping it was an old school Finast but it’s not.) There are various sandals and flip-flops there but nothing in an 11 1/2 or 12. A young clerk came over to help me and said, “This is impossible, sir. You have very big foot.” I bought a size 10.

3. BBQ PARTY. We had a nice TAIT (Thank Allah It’s Thursday) BBQ on the roof last night. The treat was hamburgers and buns. But even better were some outstanding lamb chops. Never mind I that I supposedly gave up lamb. (AJC: You and your family’s influence.) It was also the first time I had lettuce since arriving here. They do a chopped vegetable salad here similar to an Israeli or Lebanese salad. There was good camaraderie and I had my first three beer evening in Kabul. I loaded up some party music on the iPod and one of my colleagues had one of those speaker systems where you can drop your iPod directly into a slot and it plays. All in all, it was a nice time. Back in the gym today.

4. BANNED WEBSITES. As you might expect, any sort of objectionable Internet content is banned in Afghanistan. I was on the Sports Illustrated website. I clicked on the swimsuit issue link. Banned. Hmm… sexual image. OK, I get it. There was a link to a site offering free downloads of Kid Rock music. Banned. The site was sponsored by Jim Beam. OK, I get it. Rock music and alcohol. Then I clicked on a link about former Giant WR Amani Toomer’s father operating the scoreboard in Oakland. Banned. I don’t get it. Football? No, you can click on Scoreboards? Amani Toomer? Diva wide receivers? Technical glitch? Who knows?

5. MANGOES. Mangoes are very popular here. They are imported from India. They don’t slice them here like we do. They knead them until they are very soft, cut off the end, squeeze the mango, and suck out the contents. If you have ever watched an Afghan man work over a mango, it’s like he’s squeezing … well … a part of the female anatomy. The kneading process often takes them quite awhile. Either there’s a lot of satisfaction or pent-up frustration in mango eating.

6. BRINGING A RATED-R PEACE TO AFGHANISTAN. I will preface these remarks by saying that I fully understand that I sound like a sexist. (Debbie might say if I sound like a sexist, then …) Thinking about the extreme poverty, the mangoes and the banned websites, I was chatting with some of my colleagues about the situation here. Over a few drinks, we surmised that maybe what would help here is a little more skin. Life is difficult. Food is hard to come by. Alcohol is banned. There are very few pleasures in life. If I were a Taliban, I’d be angry too. Maybe a few more scantilly clad ladies would make life tolerable. Most men are not angry when enjoying the visage of a woman. Do you really want to go to the Promised Land and meet 72 virgins when there are attractive ladies in the here and now? If every woman was in a burqa, I’d be ready to do something crazy too. When I was getting my medical exam for my trip, my doctor suggested that the US Government buy a couple million iPods, PSPs, etc. and deliver them to the Taliban and the young people. His feeling was that these people need fun in their lives. Diversions. If we take those iPods and load them up with a bunch of FHM and SI swimsuit issues, between the video games and the ladies, these guys would be a lot more chilled out. (-;

– So far, my stay has been OK. I am flattered that several of my colleagues who I socialize with have asked me to request a long-term assignment here. When I tell them that I have no interest in a long-term assignment here, they look at me like I am crazy. Good money, limited home responsibilities, no expenses, all the basics of life (food, laundry, housing, etc.) are taken care of, etc. I’m glad they’re happy but it’s not for me.
– We don’t have screens on the windows and the flies are about to drive me insane. They don’t bite but they are buzzing around everywhere. They are the little fast ones too. Not the big, slow ones.
– Weather is beautiful if a bit dusty. Warm but not hot in the day. Cool and breezy at night.
– 8 1/2 hour time difference is great for watching American sports. I woke up at 7:30 AM and watched the second half of Game 1 of the Celtics-Lakers series.

Day 11 – JIRGA! JIRGA!, 1 June 2010

Jirga lockdown begins tomorrow. The Afghan staff is psyched. 4-day weekend. So, I will take a break from emails for a few days unless anything really interesting happens.

1. REAL WORK. I will create a marketing campaign for a fruit and vegetable processing company here on behalf of the Export Promotion Agency. If I help this company directly, I am in trouble. Our project works with the Afghan Government and trade associations. A different project works with the companies. I can tell you from experience that working with the businesses is always better than working with the Governments. So, in order to do this more interesting work, not to mention useful, I will be instructing the Export Agency on how to conduct a marketing campaign and use the fruit and vegetable company as a “practical case study.”
2. QUALITY BULLSH–. A project team member just returned from holiday. We hadn’t met previously. Anyhow, after two weeks away, he was asked to jump ‘back in the game’ immediately and talk with visitors from DC. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll give them quality bullsh–. ”

3. ROSETTA STONE SHAME. I asked our IT guy, a local, if there was a spare computer that I could test my pirated Rosetta Stone software. He said No because the computers are all supplied by the US Govt and he added that he purchased a genuine copy of Rosetta Stone for $465 on whatever salary he makes. Fine example I am. I guess I can do a better job protecting US intellectual property.

5. YOU MAKE ME WANNA SHOUT. Security uses a lot of military jargon — ALPHA, TANGO, CHARLIE, etc. I live in Alpha House. Being an Animal House fan, I am disappointed I don’t live in Delta House. SSS, there is a Delta House. During the peace jirga, we should have a jirga party … “JIRGA! JIRGA!” (Apologies to the non-Animal House fans.)

– One custom I love here: When you meet someone and shake his hand, they put their hand over their hearts in a “Pledge of Allegiance” style maneuver to signify their sincerity.
– LG reports snow in Utah. There is no snow even at the tip-top of the mountains in Kabul. The topography here is pretty awful. I am getting used to the over the mountain treks and it is rumored the road will be paved next year.

P.S. I asked a colleague about the matchmaking process. Is it arranged or not? He didn’t get what I meant but he sent me a description of Afghan weddings that I have attached. It’s a little hard to read but interesting.

Day 10 – Not GW’s Birthday, Memorial Day, 31 May 2010

Happy Memorial Day. I think about our soldiers every day here. All the guys who protect me are ex-US or British soldiers.

1. DEMONSTRATIONS. I was supposed to take a car to the Export Promotion Agency this morning but I was asked to wait because there was a demonstration. Apparently, there was a local TV program last night that reported NGOs and security companies are trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. This morning there was a demonstration in front of Parliament. The aftermath of the demonstration was the worst traffic I’ve experienced in Kabul.

2. KREMROL. At the office, they usually bring in bulani for breakfast. It’s kind of like of a scallion pancake in a Chinese restaurant. Today, they brought in kremrol, a local breakfast pastry. It was a round pastry with sweet white stuff inside … a creme roll.

– If you want Heineken here, you can get it. Home delivery. $50 per case. Ouch.
– Two of the better books I’ve read in the past 5 years, Three Cups of Tea (indirectly) and The Kite Runner (directly), both relate to Afghanistan.
– Despite my distaste for CNN’s politics (We’re right of MSNBC and left of Fox, therefore we must be unbiased.) and shoving climate change down my throat, the blog, Afghanistan Crossroads is great if you are interested in Afghanistan.
– If you’re keeping score, the leader of the Kandahar Taliban was killed by US forces today.
– I took a different route today to the Export Promotion Agency and saw girls’ schools. I was told the young girls go to school now and young women are allowed to attend Kabul University. Take that Taliban.
– I retract my insults to the Taliban. The peace jirga begins tomorrow and I should have an open mind and heart.