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.

Day 2 – The First Friday, 21 May 2010

Friday is our off-day. It was a slow day and I didn’t sleep. (See entry 5.) Here’s what’s happening.

1. VISIT TO ISAF MILITARY BASE: There is a large flea market held on Fridays in the parking lot of an international military base. Two colleagues and I went there today. The main products for sale were Afghan hats, furry boots, lapiz, knives, rugs, scarves, and counterfeit DVDs, watches and sunglasses. I bought Rosetta Stone for $10. I am sure it will be as good as the real thing. One of the complaints by the Americans here is that the rules seem to change from week to week. Last week, if you showed a NATO country passport, you could visit the flea market. This week, you had to have an escort if you didn’t work on the base. You were required to wear a badge to walk on the premises to the market but then remove the badge in the market. A military contractor who arrived from Orlando a few days ago volunteered to escort us. I chatted with him a little bit. He indicated that he had been going through some personal things back home and decided to come to Afghanistan to put some distance between him and his old life. A rather extreme approach. He was thinking about signing up for another year. I have met a number of people who left here and swore they would never return but have returned.

2. MORE ON RULES: Only certain restaurants are allowed for dining. There is a particular place where the staff here loves the cappuccino and croissants but that restaurant has been removed from the approved list. You are allowed to do point-to-point shopping. So, my colleagues go to the restaurant with their own takeout cups and get the cappuccino and croissants to go since they are “buying coffee and bread” and not dining at the restaurant. When there’s a will … I am learning that there are creature comforts here. Two colleagues went to the Kabul Health Club today for a manicure and pedicure.

3. WEATHER: I was cold the first night in my basement room and slept under two blankets. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone says it has been unusually cool until now. So far, it’s mid-50s F at night. The weather is starting to heat up and will be hot soon. It was pretty hot at the market. (BTW, Dubai was 96F when I landed at 7:20 PM.) The sun rises here at 4:30 AM.

4. KABUL: I have seen some interesting fortifications and mosques from a distance in Kabul but I can’t say I have seen anything beautiful. The mountains surrounding the city are brown and barren looking. The city itself is quite poor. Roads are dirt and there are open sewers, septic tanks and drainage channels. More detail to come.

5. BLEEPIN’ TELEMARKETERS: I went to bed at 12:30 and forgot to turn off my US phone. It rang at 2:30 AM and it was Kitchen Magic. I couldn’t fall back asleep and was up the rest of the night.

6. CAMARADERIE: I’ve mentioned in emails about previous assignments that often I operate as a “lone wolf” consultant. I come in and meet with people, go off for a few days and then write a paper, make a presentation, do a training session — whatever. While I work by myself for the most part, being part of a team and living on the compound makes the experience much more social and also allows me to learn from people who have been here longer than I have. Besides me, our project team is headed by a Lebanese Christian who went to Syracuse and became a US citizen, a Kazakh who lives in Vancouver, a Kyrgyz who lives in Stockholm and a guy from Fort Lee, NJ who lives with his Kazakh wife in Florida. Quite the international crew. The cooks put out the food around 6:30 in the dining room. Dinner is rice, a meat dish and a vegetable dish or a salad. (The food has been pretty good so far.) Everyone strolls in between 6:30 and 7:00 to eat. Some people stay and kibitz, others eat and run. But everyone is friendly and talks about work, Afghanistan, other countries, etc. Kind of like summer camp for adults.

Tomorrow is my first work day.

Day 1 in Kabul, 20 May 2010

NOTE: These blog posts have been edited/redacted from the original emails. My purpose in the blog is to inform and entertain not hurt anyone’s feelings or make public statements.

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1. GREETINGS FROM KABUL. Some of you may not know that I am in Kabul, Afghanistan. I arrived on Thursday, May 20th. If I didn’t tell you, sorry. Two things happened. First, the process came together very rapidly at the end. Second, I have become your classic middle-aged ethnic man who is emotional about everything. Thus, I avoided most potential emotional situations.

2. WHY AM I IN KABUL? AKA IS HE INSANE? I am in Kabul to do economic development work for the US Agency for International Development. It is a six-week junket to help build Afghanistan’s export promotion capability. The idea is that if people have decent jobs and a future, then maybe they will be less likely to strap a bomb to themselves or sell opium. I came here for the following reasons: a.) to do a mitzvah (a good deed), b.) have a unique experience and c.) money. I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t the biggest part of it. Am I insane? Perhaps. This is definitely the craziest thing I’ve done since jumping from one terrace to another terrace while eight stories up at a hotel many years ago. (They were only 2-3 feet apart. Sorry, Mom and Dad.) Generally, we are not targets and only 9 Westerners have been kidnapped in Kabul since 2001. They provide a lot of security. Everyone here says it’s not as bad as the media makes it out to be. Is this thinking a coping mechanism? A delusion? I’ll let you know in 6 weeks.

Frankly, the hardest part is being away from Debbie and the kids for six weeks. With all the travel I’ve done over the years, I’ve never been away more than 3 1/2 weeks. They treated me wonderfully my last few days at home.

3. AM I SCARED? A little. If I were really scared, I wouldn’t have come. There’s obviously a little fear. The news of the bombing in the past few days wasn’t too appealing. I had a few teary-eyed moments before I left thinking about the possibility I could never see my kids again. But I spoke to about 10 people who are here or had been here and all of them said they generally felt safe and would consider going back to Afghanistan. My real fears:

a.) My work is related to my specialty but is not “in my wheelhouse” and I did not have the opportunity to prepare as I would have liked. I want to make certain that while I am here that I am effective.
b.) I will be incredibly bored of the routine and confinement over six weeks.
c.) That I will begin to look like a mullah because I forgot my ear and nose hair trimmer. Nail clippers and a razor aren’t the same. Aging sucks.

4. THE JOURNEY. I left Newark Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Debbie and the kids drove me to the airport after Jesse’s performance of Pirates The Musical earlier that day. I am pretty sure I saw Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame at the airport. I didn’t tell him that I took my first blind date to see Fame but it was sold out and we saw the Cheech and Chong movie “Up in Smoke.” Anyway, I flew from Newark to Dulles to Dubai. On the plane, I sat next to a big, beefy fellow with a blond crew cut in his mid-20s. Sure enough, he was headed to Afghanistan as a private security guard at the US Embassy. The flight was 13 hours and he didn’t eat once. This guy was 6-5″ and 260-275. Man, when he feels like eating, stand back.

I overnighted in Dubai but didn’t go out and paint the town red. I arrived late and I was tired. Dubai truly is a crossroads of East and West. You see the all the peoples of Asia and a lot of Westerners too. I had two glasses of red wine and a Romeo y Julieta petit corona at the hotel (RLK and DSS: Thinking of you.) before I departed. I woke up this morning (Thu) and headed to Kabul. Many of the people on my flight to Dubai were also on the flight to Kabul. There were plenty of ex-military types with crew cuts as well as grizzled foreign aid types from the UK and US. There were many more Westerners than locals on the plane. There were a surprising number of single females. A Western female, no matter how young or old, big or small, pretty or not, is popular in these parts. Lots of guys and no fraternization with the locals.

5. A SIDE NOTE: WE’RE ALL PREJUDICED. I travel all over the world and try to help people of all colors and creeds develop their economies. But as I was sitting in the airplane while the others were boarding, I was watching people who originate from one corner of Southeast Asia to the furthest corner of Southwest Asia file into the plane and thought, “I hope one of those really smelly types doesn’t sit next to me.”

6. ARRIVAL. I’ve arrived in worse airports than Kabul but not many. Customs and all that stuff was OK. I was met by one of our security officers. Nice fellow. Ex-UK military. He escorted me to an armored SUV. When we arrived at the car, he said, “I don’t expect any incidents. We haven’t had any incidents. But if we do have an incident, keep your head down below the window and don’t exit the car unless I tell you to.” We drove through the streets of Kabul which reminded me of the poor neighborhoods in Cairo in the 1990s. Lots of dust and dirt.

7. THE COMPOUND. After our trek through town, we stopped at the compound where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks. It is behind concrete walls and has armed guards. We are staying in a 14 room villa. My project colleagues live in the other rooms. I have a basement room which is very similar to the room I had in Reitman basement at Brandeis U from 1980-1982 except I don’t have a roommate who studies organic chemistry and reads Hustler magazine. (DEW: Huge fan in the room. Awesome white noise.) The folks in the compound are very friendly. I had dinner with them and we had a little get-together in someone’s room after dinner. They serve breakfast and dinner at the compound. The food was pretty good. A spicy tomato soup and a chicken curry with rice. The villa has a rooftop deck, small exercise room, TV room and a ping-pong table.

8. UNDER HOUSE ARREST. Except for the ankle bracelet, I feel like one of those prisoners who is under house arrest and is allowed to go to work and come straight home. I am allowed to go to other compounds and specific stores and restaurants cleared by security. I am under no circumstances supposed to walk anywhere. I am to be driven. There is no riding in any vehicles other than our secured vehicles. The social life is visits at the compounds and the occasional dinner out at a cleared restaurant.

9. SIGNING OFF. It’s gettting late. Tomorrow is Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. It is our only official off-day but I need to study up for work and meet a few people. I also want to get to the gym early.

10. EMAIL LIST. If I missed someone, sorry. Just send me his/her name. If you don’t want to receive these emails, again sorry.