Kabul, 7th April 2013
There’s a computer game called Halflife 2 which I played once, where you land in some familiar yet dystopian city. It is eerily deserted, and you make your way past blank faced buildings with reflective windows, high walls, razor wire and so on. Periodically you hear the crackle of a walkie talkie, and sometimes pass groups of masked armed men patrolling. The overwhelming mood is one of, if not exactly fear, then a definite tension. Convoys of vehicles roar past, harsh commands through a megaphone, sirens. Welcome to Kabul. And yet the difference here is that this is a normal central Asian city too. Street vendors: boys pushing ice cream carts that play happy birthday. Old men on bicycles. School kids running and laughing, the little girls all in white headscarves. A group of young guys in a pimped out car with bling paint job who wheel spin out of a junction and slow down to check out a couple of girls walking. A soldier carrying naan bread under one arm and a rifle in the other hand. Shoeshine men, boys selling maps, a fruit stall. It’s all so normal. But it’s not really. There’s a tension in the air, a raised heartbeat. In a restaurant you suddenly look up and realise all the other diners have left. A man walks in with a machine gun and takes a seat in the corner. Was that click the sound of him cocking his gun? Or is he eating pistachios? Is that guy outside on the phone who keeps glancing inside planning a kidnapping, or is he just checking to see if his food has arrived? You never know. It’s all about the perception of risk.
And it’s a subjective judgement. The only sensible response to the question ‘is it safe?’ is, it depends who you ask. The aid workers and diplomats are part of a system that offers security as standard, but it’s a self perpetuating industry: private security contractors have a vested interest in painting a worst case scenario, partly because if things go wrong they go very wrong, but mostly, I suspect, because their livelihood depends on it. And so you end up with a two tier system. Yes, foreigners are more of a target, less of a threat. But does that justify discrimination that would be illegal in those foreigners’ own countries? An Afghan national married to a foreigner, who has a degree from Oxford and a PhD from an Ivy League US university, who lived in London for ten years, who runs a company here supplying NATO with equipment – this person is denied entry to a restaurant on a night out with his western colleagues because he is an Afghan. So-called humanitarian organisations fire western staff for breaching security regulations. What heinous breach? They had begun a relationship with a local. It’s the very organisations that have the most impeccable liberal politically correct credentials that are perpetuating this prejudice. It is hypocritical, to put it mildly. And it is justified in the name of that all encompassing reason that lacks any reason at all: security. And the contractors hang out in their compounds, following the advice of their security staff, only go to ‘safe’ restaurants – which inevitably have a No Afghans policy – happily negotiate for salaries of thousands of dollars a month, justifying it with market economics arguments, and when it comes to the crunch they are going to cut and run, and go and do it all somewhere else. ‘See you next year in Damascus. I’m going for a consultant job, and won’t take less than a hundred grand. Say, do you remember our driver in Kabul? What was his name… Abdullah? Ahmed? Wasn’t he just the sweetest guy. I wonder where he is now.’
The irony, of course, being that you could be blown up by a British suicide bomber on the London Underground. In fact one of the victims of the 7/7 Tube bombings was an Afghan.
Breakfast in Kabul. I sit cross legged on the bed wrapped in my patoo blanket, eating naan bread and Iranian Pegah cream cheese. Dates – special hajj issue. Black tea. They say here that black tea is for winter as it warms the body. Green tea in summer. Another local custom: walking with Mansoor my foot accidentally touched his, causing him to stumble. He immediately extended a hand for me to shake, explaining that it signified no hard feelings. There is a courtesy here, in everyday life, amongst ordinary people, that seems to be almost entirely absent in the west these days. Everybody is greeted, no matter how menial their occupation. The caretaker at an office – each visitor shakes his hand. And of course only here would the car park attendant carry an AK, and wear fatigues and a pakol hat. I imagine him walking through Liverpool Street station – minus the AK of course. He wouldn’t get five yards without someone going into hysterics.
The local cats are a tough bunch. Their feline pastime is to knock each other off the wall and into the razor wire. No wonder they look a fairly moth eaten bunch. There’s a lot of yowling.
Local quirks: why are there sandals in the bathroom? Every bathroom? Am I supposed to put them on? What about the ones in the kitchen? How would it go if a visitor to a British home came into the kitchen wearing your shoes? It’s all a bit of an etiquette minefield, really. And how on earth do you tear a naan bread the size of a tea tray using only your right hand? And why does my left eye keep flickering? What was that scream? Kids playing? Or someone being arrested? Is that screeching car a kidnapping? or some local lads impressing the girls (not). What about that bloody great bang? A truck dumping bricks? Or something else?
I hear shouted conversations in Farsi from the police station next door, and mentally translate: ‘Oi, Mahmoud – how many westerners have you pointed your gun and shouted “dreesh!” (Halt!) at today?’
Mahmoud looks a bit shame faced. ‘Only one.’
‘Bah – pathetic. I got at least three. Last one looked like he soiled himself.’
‘Yeah, but mine was a journalist. Headlines tomorrow: “The mood in Kabul is becoming increasingly tense. Police are on edge and expecting an imminent attack.”
Both cops giggle and resume their patrolling up and down.