Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Picnic in a War Zone - Fresh Fish in Kabul

In Afghanistan, most meals would include meat, usually lamb.  Since I don't eat meat, I thought a fresh fish picnic sounded good.  Of course, this is not a country known for its coastline.  However, where there are mountains, there are rivers, streams and lakes.  So the Kabul fish market is my first stop.  The way the fishmonger had weaved these two fish together caught my eye.  So I bought a couple "off the wall" (literally) fish and said let's clean em and cook em...
After I saw how this guy cleaned em so efficiently right there on the sidewalk, I said, I want you to cook them as well.  Now that grease looked like something that I wouldn't want to use in an automobile, much less in a wok, but at least they haven't outlawed trans fats here:

We were now more or less ready to go. I had him put various salts and spices on it, wrap it in paper and sold!  I bought some bread and some limes and it was off to the top of the nearby hill..  It was unlike anyplace I had ever been in Kabul.  There was a big tomb which of course was inaccesible due to all the barbed wire, but otherwise it seemed like a dusty park on a mountaintop.

There were kids playing Cricket and some kids and adults riding horses.  Of course there were ome kids begging but they were pretty mellow compared to kids in town.

Side story about baksheesh - When I was traveling in the third world in the 70's, I had very little money and encountered hundreds of people who had much less and asked for a gift (baksheesh). At first, I would say yes to all.  That wasn't sustainable as we now say.  But even as I became more hardened, there was usually one person each day who would get to me.  One of the greatest gifts I ever exchanged was with a woman in Kandahar.  I was getting in the back of a truck to go up to Kabul and she was holding her baby with her hand out.  I can't remember what people look like who I had dinner with last night, but I remember her as if she were standing in front of me right now.  In all the years since then, whenever I have faced a tough challenge or was feeling sorry for myself, I would think of her and the fact that she would trade all of her assets just for my problems.  I gave her 10 Afghanis and she gave me a lifetime of contentment.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kabul Zoo and Picnic

This is Afghanistan's only pig - Safe from butchering but not exactly living High on the Hog.

I get to be a tourist today.  Let’s go to the zoo.  In terms of bad luck, if you are an animal, ending up in the Kabul Zoo is right down there with ending up on the dinner plate or as road kill. There were many stories about the zoo during the civil war, but even in good times, it is tricky to feed animals when you can’t feed all the people.  The zoo was quite infamous during the Taliban regime.  This article describes the problem. . 
The zoo was also a victim of the civil war, when people took the animals for food.  So I guess the worst fate you could imagine would be both ending up as an animal at the Kabul zoo and then ending up on a dinner plate too!

 While driving that day in Kabul, I noticed the car next to me has a W sticker in the front window that looked like  Husky W.  As the car went by I noticed a University of Washington sticker in the back window.  Weird.  I seriously never saw any other stickers in any language.  I never could see the people except enough to say that the driver looked Afghani. 
I already talked about eating on the street but I couldn’t resist.  I know I will be leaving soon, so Fariq, Hussein and I decide to have a picnic.  We buy some fish on the street and get it cooked and go to the top of a hill looking over Kabul.  Some begging kids, some horseback riders, some kite flyers, a cricket game and a graveyard; great place for a picnic.  I love Kabul,  I will post one more post to show the picnic preparation and implementation.

A Great Day in Kabul

Evidently Information and Culture are targets
Mr. Atefi

I have been traveling in Kabul without the benefit of the security team that theoretically keeps you safer but basically keeps you in a cage. I have felt very comfortable in a Toyota Tercel with the windows down. I am lucky to have some Afghanis to hang out with, including my former student (at the UW Law school) Hussein Ali Atefi.

Today, because I would be addressing the judges in the anti-corruption courts, I had to start out at the base of a USAID contractor. It was the full meal deal in terms of security. [I have a theory; Every third guy in Kabul seems to have a gun, but I am betting that most of them haven’s been fired in a long time and may not include ammunition.] These guys’ guns looked polished and freshly fired. We were transported to the court in a fully armored vehicle with bullet proof windows (although I got burned on a waterproof watch once… they may have been just bullet resistant.) I was disappointed that we didn’t seem to have a cellphone jamming antenna like most of the SUV’s with tinted windows seem to have (jamming prevents IED’s from being set off, theoretically). There was a serious coordinated suicide bombing this morning here in Kabul, a couple miles away so these wound tight security guys are wound even tighter.

Joe with Chief Judge of Anti-corruption Court for Afghanistan

The judges were really nice and a great audience. I spoke about evidentiary tools for proving guilt in financial crimes, but also wanted to remind them how important their job is in the emerging Afghanistan. Corruption is endemic and the flood of money into this poor country faster than it can be put to good use is creating an entire corrupt sub-economy. Because we are filling a coffee cup with a fire hose, it is no surprise that we are teaching people to live off the amounts we spill.

The judges were wonderfully receptive and welcoming. We talked about power and corruption and temptation and rationalization. Their job is one of the toughest in the country. While I was there, one of the judges in the same court but in Mazar I Sharif was arrested and charged with corruption. He claims that he was set up by someone senior in the government. Who knows?

Hammer and 3 Burkas

After my talk, I was anxious to get back in a regular car with Afghanis and windows which roll down. We called my guy and my hosts called their security contingent. My guy was there in a couple minutes and the fancy guys were stuck in traffic.

I went to Chicken street to do a little shopping and mostly to hang out in a place I hadn’t been for 36 years. It was the neighborhood where a lot of people on the hippie trail hung out in the 70’s. There was a bombing which killed a foreign girl there a few years back but it has been safe since and some things haven’t changed.

Later in the evening, I had dinner with an old friend and client. He is over here doing deals and about to take the chance of his lifetime starting a new company in an industry that is vital for Afghanistan and one which he knows well. How cool to be in the same city with him at this unusual time after all these years.

There are so many  faces in Afghanistan that there isn't one look.  That helped me be unobtrusive.  With my beard and hat I didn't look quiote right and didn't look quite wrong, so unless someone talked to me, I did not attract much attention.  One of my favorite things was that in north (Mazar) I never saw another Westerner.

Kids are kids everywhere and I remember being amazed years ago seeing kids rolling a wheel (bike tire or equivalent) in the street.  It reminded me of photos I had seen of America in the last century.  It is common in Africa and as the following video shows, it is till the norm in Afghanistan.  The kid in the video came so close to being one of the hundreds hit by cars each day that my heart almost stopped while watching it....

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Eating Wrong in Afghanistan - 3 stories from the old days

I am using my current trip to Afghanistan to tell some stories from my first time here in the 70's.  One of the coolest things is that I traveled by myself and my parents and girlfriend (now my perfect wife) had only a vague idea of where I was going.  I also didn't carry a camera because taking pictures was too... I don't know, but I am sure I had some 70's hippie theory.  I wish I had photos, so for this entry I am using some taken by others. The stories are mine and the photos are accurate.

I recall getting sick here in Afghanistan years ago.  It is always a little more intimidating when you are traveling by yourself since you have to solve your own problems.  I am traveling alone now too but lots of people know where I am.  On my first trip, I was truly on my own.  I remember feeling the need to use the toilet (a hole in the ground which sometimes had the luxury of an adjacent water bucket) and going in there to find no solid result.  I would go back to hang with my fellow travelers and immediately feel the same urge again. Very irritating.  I got my Afghan friend Jahlil to get me some opium which, instead of smoking, I rolled up and ate.  I slept for two days and woke up completely stopped up. That was in Herat.
I remember in Kandahar eating food cooked by the street vendors who would put plates of hot food out on a blanket.  I clearly remember having to wave off the flies to see what it was and then digging in.  I couldn’t do that now.
One friend did get quite sick. He was a Brit named Nigel who wore yellow tinted granny glasses.  He hadn’t been feeling very well and we were all sitting around talking and he took off his glasses.  We all looked at each other thinking, “who is going to tell Nigel that the whites of his eyes are the color of his glasses”; almost as if the sun had burned the color of the glasses right through to his eyes.  We got him to the Kabul hospital and he had hepatitis.  Unfortunately there was some hassle with the UK who wouldn’t let him come back until he got healthy and the Afghans who wanted him gone since he was also dead broke.  Don’t really remember how that one turned out but I am sure he was ok.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

From Mazar to Kabul

Up early to depart and off to the Mazar airport.  Plane delayed, no make that canceled.  At least we were in a comfortable waiting area. See photo.

Also when Pamir Air cancels, they may be saving your life as their safety record is wanting.  In May they crashed on a run from the North into Kabul killing all 44.
Flights are full.  Bus is an option, but Hussein says that even he will only go by bus in traditional Afghan clothes, so I need to go shopping.  Driving is another option as very few problems have been reported recently but Taliban’s progress in the neighboring province makes me nervous.

Fortunately Kam airways comes through and I am on the 1:30 flight. There last serious crash was 5 years ago which they say with pride.  Of course it was the deadliest in Afghan aviation history, killing all 104 passengers.  These guys are cutthroat competitors; when you Google “Pamir Airways Crash” there is a paid ad for Kam Air.
This time we leave the waiting area and get frisked 4 times and all bags searched two times thoroughly.  I gave salmon pills to the first guy and a JOE bracelet (which I told him everyone in America is wearing) to the other guy.  We eventually finished the ¼ mile gauntlet and got to the terminal. 

They directed us into an old hangar; pretty sweet. 

Explosion and helocpters. This guy didn't flinch!
 All of a sudden there was a bunch of helocopters buzzing the field and a teeth shaking explosion.  I got up and went out to see.  Weird, because I was the only one to move.  Not sure if that meant I was the only guy curious about this everyday event or I was the only guy dumb enough to walk TOWARD an explosion.  Anyway, nothing more came of it except lots of military guys on the runways.

I got back to Kabul exhausted but upgraded.  The Gandamack was full so I am at the Serena which is very nice.  I used to be teased about being able to put a nice spin on anything (“Brotherton, you could shine shit” was a phrase I heard more than once.)  But these guys are the pros.  The Serena actually promotes the fact that it has not been bombed since the suicide bombers in 2008 killed only 4 people.   
Side story – Why travel?  I encourage all my kids to travel as much as they can to as many interesting places as possible.  One of the reasons is that when you are home or on a subway or on a beach reading, the book will come alive when it refers to a place you have been.  The book I am reading keeps referring to the Serena Hotel Bombing, which is not really the best illustration of the point, but reading that inside the Serena 24 months after the event is kind of cool.
Why go to Afghanistan now?  Tia asked this question for which I had no good answer, except that the opportunity arose now and I am old enough to know that an opportunity deferred may be an opportunity missed. (Or as Rhoady used to say to Riley, “At our age, a penny saved is a penny wasted.”)

Megan asked why go to someplace that most of the people who are there would give anything to get out of?  That was tougher because it sounded just like the kind of thing I would say.  The interesting thing is that life is pretty much going on as usual.  The Afghans are known for their resiliency and it shows.
One weird aspect of staying at the Serena (in addition to very tight security) is the characters you see here.  A war zone where money is (over)flowing attracts some interesting characters.  They are mercenaries and look the role.  I sense that the people of Kabul who used to love Americans (because they thought we were all people with long hair who smiled all the time) feel differently now.  It is partly because of the war machine that is here but I think the mercenaries do not represent us well.  I noticed a friendlier attitude in Mazar than here.

I saw a lot of Kabul today including Babur’s Gardens.  It is a great place of relative tranquility in this crazy city.  The guy wouldn’t let me pay the Afghan rate of 50 cents.  My silly beard hat and scarf had him going until he got right in my face and asked something.  I counted to ten in Farsi which didn’t impress him at all.  The honky rate is $5. 

The incense from this little  guy was an extra quarter. He would swing that incense burner at me, although as best I could tell it was only burning charcoal.  Still to smell like smoke is a bargain for 25 cents.

The gardens were great and I especially enjoyed hanging there and I enjoyed Babur's tomb and being with my friend Hussein and my new brother Quaderi.  He even called his son to tell him he has a new Uncle Joe.
Touring around the City, we saw cool things on all sides.  I love meat scenes in the third world; reminds me to keep up the vegetarianism.

I also saw my second Great Wall. The first one is of course in China but this one has its own great story.

Legend has it that a 6th century Afghan king was so worried about the security of his city, Kabul, that he forced all his male subjects to build a wall on the hilltops surrounding the town. Those that were too lazy, tired or sick to work would be buried in the wall's foundations. The peasants eventually revolted, killing the king and burying his remains along with the commoners he persecuted.

I saw a car wearing a Burka:

and alot of damage from the Civil War:

I had a great afghan meal tonight at place called Sufi with an old friend from Seattle who has been here most of the last ten years.  Tomorrow, Sunday, I know will be interesting.   I will be addressing the judges of the anti-corruption courts. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mazar i Sharif

I had to pick up Mr. Atefi which proved a little more challenging in the dark.  He lives near the airport and we found him and headed for the security gauntlet that is part of flying in Afghanistan.  We were now bound for Mazar I Sharif.  The flight was great on a Pamir Air Boeing 737 and the plane conveniently dropped us off right at baggage claim, which was basically outside next to the plane.  There is a long walk through and past several security stations and checkpoints to where we found our car.  We went to the unnamed Guesthouse which is trying hard.  It has a doorman both outside and inside the door, both armed.  There I met Patty who is teaching ESL to the Law Faculty who managed my schedule for Mazar.

Joe & the Dean of the Sharia Faculty
I first addressed the Sharia law faculty which went well.  After giving my prepared remarks about the importance of the law to facilitate orderly development and investment in Afghanistan, I presented three analogies between my prison teaching and what I thought Afghanistan needs.  Finally we extended the time and I spoke (and listened) about Law and Religion.  It was very enlightening and led to some lively questions and, as is typical on discussions of religion, few answers.  Later that day I addressed the Law and Political Science faculty, including a professor who had been among the top legal scholars in Afghanistan who Maureen and I were pleased to welcome for dinner at our home in Seattle two years ago (pictured below). 

They were so kind to host me for a dinner of some traditional Northern Afghani dishes at a restaurant near the University.  I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner, which I made it through, notwithstanding the fact that I had slept only about 8 of the preceding 48 hours.  Back home I slept like a baby, even on a thin mattress with a plywood boxsprings.

Side note - One of my favorite things about the "memory lane" aspect of being  back in Afghanistan is that, it was apparently here that I learned to put my hand on your heart as a sign of friendship.  I have done it for 35 years but I didn't remember where I had picked up the habit.

Thursday was the festival of Ashura which is a remembrance of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10th of Muharram in the year 61 AH.  It meant things were shut down but the shrine was very active.  I walked through crowds with Hussein who warned me about pickpockets who come out whenever there are more people than space.  I was more concerned about someone realizing that even Christians think I am an infidel.  It was interesting and not too nerve-wracking.  I didn’t feed the birds but enjoyed everyone who did. 

I love the irony of the hands shaking in peace with the guys with guns right below.  
I get nervous about a leader who puts his super-sized photo everywhere.  I recall seeing photos like the one of Karzai below, but they were of the Shah in Iran in 1975.  He didn't last much longer.

There are daily reminders of how lucky we are on our worst day:

Back to Kabul

As we approach Kabul by air, it seems to be protected by the mountains around it.  Customs was easy.  I was pleased to have been advised to find the table (unmarked) in the baggage area and to have two identical passport photos with me.  I was issued a foreigner’s registration card in addition to the visa already in my passport.  It is apparently a big hassle if you fail to complete this step.  Leaving customs was similar to many third world countries although less frenetic than some.  I was to meet someone who said he would put JOE on a sign although he would not be allowed to leave the parking area so I would need to walk there outside of the secured airport area.  In fact, Mr. Quaderi was there in the airport and found me.  As we walked to the parking area, he introduced me to a woman from Uganda who works in logistics at the UN office where Mr. Q has his day job.  It was great to tell her of our visits and our interest in her country, especially that my wife had just visited two weeks ago.

Driving into Kabul it became clear that things have changed.  Near the airport, many people had guns, some had uniforms and some were “undercover” (or as undercover as you can be with an ak-47).   The streets were clogged with traffic and the driving was comparable to other places in Asia.  I was to be deposited at the Gandamack, a classic guesthouse favored by ex-pats and journalists from around the world.  They must not get much walk-in business because there was no signage, only a guard and a door in the wall.  After some discussion, our car was allowed in to an area with another armed guard and people to inspect it.  Ultimately I took my bag and walked in.  The place is rustic but nice enough and more interesting than many.  As a Flashman fan it was great to see that Harry is revered here.  (If you haven’t read the Flashman books, I recommend them.)  The owner has collected some interesting armaments that are on display throughout.

As I settled into to room #9, there was a knock and my friend (and a student of mine last year at the UW law school), Hussein Ali Atefi was there.  It was great to see him on his home turf.  He agreed to accompany me in the morning to Mazar i Sharif but went home to sleep as he was ill.  Before he left, Mark Hough with whom I served on the UW Law School Foundation, knocked.  It was also great to see him and he indicated that he would be in the Flashman Bar and I was invited to join him and his guest.  Mark is working with US AID there.  Suzanne Griffin who was a fellow Villa parent 35 years ago also arrived and joined us.  She has been working here for a number of years.  Her husband Mike (who was also a friend from the old days and who is now sadly, deceased) was in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps when I was last here.  Suzanne is raising money to build a school in his honor.  I headed for bed as I needed to depart for the airport at 5 for a 7am flight to Mazar I Sharif.
4:30am came too soon but the water was hot for a shower.  I was out the door on schedule, bags in hand.  It was pitch black which is the only excuse I have for walking off two foot drop thinking it was flat.  Dirty and bruised I got up and determined that I was still good to go, albeit with a very tender knee.  There was no one at the desk which is my excuse for the e-mail which came a day or two later saying you haven’t paid your bill.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flying Safi Air

Only in Dubai... Maybachs at Duty Free!
‘You’re in luck, Mr. Brotherton’, the Safi Airways (The International Airlines of Afghanistan) agent declared on check-in.  ‘Today we are using our really big aircraft.  Usually the plane is much smaller.’  Why I didn’t feel as lucky as he encouraged me to, I don’t know.  Another on-time departure, leaving the gate 45 minutes late, to wait on the tarmac for 45 more.  Leaving Dubai during the day was a treat in that it afforded me the opportunity to see this amazing place from the air.  It is literally a city crawling out into the sea, a la Amsterdam or Venice, without the old world charm but with better weather.  I look forward to returning to swim in the gulf and marvel at the architecture.

I am really amazed at the terrain from Dubai heading north.  This is a part of the world I have never been.  The massive unoccupied desert all the way to the sea puzzles me.  Why no resorts?   Having flown over endless foreboding Alaskan mountains dozens of times, I can reluctantly admit that I always reflect on what it would be like to end up down there (i.e., “in case of a mountain landing,…”).  I think I would prefer the getting dumped in the Brooks Range to the Hindu Kush. These mountains that seem to be sand dunes, devoid of any vegetation go on forever. I am pleased to have just gotten a ticket to fly to Mazar I Sharif tomorrow..  I last traveled that route by road but that is no longer practical.  I will learn my lesson and study the map before getting on the plane.