Kabul – It’s the Small Things

9th April 2013

It’s the small things. That old saw about whether it’s safe depending on who you ask. I don’t want to sit indoors trapped by my own paranoia. I need to buy things for breakfast. I remember a time when I was so highly strung, so neurasthenic, that a trip across the road to Tescos in London would take me 20 minutes of psyching myself up. And countless cigarettes. Well, it was good traning for Kabul.

I unlock the gate and step into a muddy lane. It rained most of yesterday and there are puddles everywhere. I nearly make a spectacular entrance to the neighbourhood by falling flat on my face, and giggle inwardly as I recall the Monty Python scene with the two ancient Britons looking for a nice heap of dung to smear on themselves. I am grinning at the thought, and this is fortunate, since an old man standing opposite sees me smiling and smiles back. I give him a nod. The next minute the grin is wiped off my face – a gate opens and four armed men come out, AKs in their hands. Clad in various items of random battledress, they are clearing the road for a Land Cruiser which is emerging from the gate. There’s a momentary confusion – as a foreigner what is my status? Should I be ‘dreeshed’ (halted)? I assist them by convincingly playing the part of bumbling idiot and splat messily through puddles roughly where the pavement would be, if there was one. I make the end of the road and the first police checkpoint. They stare at me levelly. I cross, and find a shop which looks shut. Operation naan bread is not going well. I try to call Mansoor to get directions to the bakery and find that my credit has disappeared overnight, yet again. Two text messages, and about 20 minutes of Facebook, has cost me 150 Afs, or $3. But wait – a man is coming out of the shop. I greet him and enter. They couldn’t be more helpful. ‘Ah, sorry, we only have sliced white bread. Go straight down the road and there’s more traditional bread.’ Super, excellent, thanks very much.

Out in the street again, dodging puddles. Four small children appear, carrying shopping bags. They are tiny – the oldest can’t be more than seven. They wouldn’t be allowed out on their own in the UK. They halt at the busy road and stand watching as traffic roars by. The oldest girl eventually marches out into the traffic, and ushers the others across. I find the bakery, naan breads on display in the window. But there doesn’t seem to be a door. How do you get in a shop with no door? Answer: play the bumbling idiot. If you stand outside looking helpless long enough, someone will open a window. “Salaam,” I say. “Yak naan please.” He grabs one, and wraps it in a piece of A4 paper upon which is a pie chart labelled Drugs Tested. I notice that the small segment, less than a quarter, is marked Private Sector. The remainder is marked Public Sector. What does it all mean? “How much?” I ask. “Dub,” he replies. Sounds a bit like the Hindi “Das” – ten. I offer a ten, thank him, and he climbs back up into the shop.

So this is going swimmingly so far. I can haz naan. But what to put on it? I retrace my steps towards the house, to another small shop. The shopkeeper, an elderly man with a white beard and colourful fez hat, doesn’t look up. I salaam him. He greets me in return, and says the Farsi equivalent of “what can I do for you?”
“Um, do you have Pegah? The cheese?”
“Chiz?” I recall that chiz means “thing” in Hindi. Did I just ask him for a “thing?”
“Pagah. Iran. With my naan.”
He shuffles over to the back of the store and emerges holding a litre of UHT milk labelled Pegah.
“Nahi – not this one. Maybe smaller. For khana – eating.”
He smiles in understanding and fetches a small box, also labelled Pegah. Helpfully it is accompanied by a picture of someone smearing it on bread, whatever it is. The line of curling Farsi script is not intelligible to me. I turn it over and see it says Cream. Cream on bread? Those crazy Iranians. Whatever next. I consider my potential breakfast and decide that since he’s such a helpful guy, it’s worth persisting. I spot a pack of Laughing Cow. “Aha!” I cry. “Like that one, but Pegah.” Mercifully I decide against doing an impression of a laughing cow. He beams, and fetches out a small tub of Pegah cream cheese. “Yes!”
OK, now how do I pay? He announces a figure in Farsi which sounds nothing like any Hindi. Um… calculator. iPhone to the rescue. I find the right app and he quickly cottons on, leaning over the counter to tap out 25 on the screen with a gnarled finger. “Accha,” I say. Twenty-five. Oh, and can I have yak Roshan recharge card? Panj sau? I tap out 500. He fetches one. So we are at 525 Afs. And then I find I have only dollars. Mental arithmetic not being my strong point, I tap the XE app and get a live update on the latest stock market conversion rates. $11, and 20 Afs change. Meanwhile he’s chatting away to me in Farsi, both of us being highly deferential to the other. “Me angrez hoon,” I say. “Farsi nahi hai – nist.” (I hope the word was ‘nist’ for ‘not have’.)
“Angrez.” He smiles. Then he fetches me a bag and carefully puts all my items in it, including the naan. “Tashakor,” I say, thus exhausting my Farsi vocabulary completely – hello, halt and thank you being the full extent of it. He beams. “Tashakor.” Then he reaches over the counter and shakes my hand. It’s the small things. Out in the street a burqa squats in the mud and mutters beseechingly as I go past. I go a few steps past and then recall my 20 Afs change. So I turn around, and under the eyes of two cops, one with a vest full of grenades, I place the grubby note into the hand kept hidden under the folds of blue material. “There you go, lady.” She murmurs thanks. It’s the small things.

We have dinner at Istanbul Restaurant, in the Macroyan district – an old Soviet-era housing project. It’s a large room with a huge plasma TV at one end showing Turkish television. I stare at it mesmerised. A football match: Galatasaray versus Mersin. The news: a man in a grey suit announcing something interminably into a microphone. An interview with a Turkish rapper who has the most extraordinarily long neck, and wears a silly baseball cap. Meanwhile, on the ticker at the base of the screen, a series of Turkish words unspools: I make out NATO, the number 10, the word Israel, the word Afghanistan. What is going on in the world outside? I have no idea. Only what is happening here matters. I check the BBC website. A youth leader has received ‘words of advice’ after posting idiotic comments of a homophobic and generally stupid nature. She has ‘learned her lesson’. Obesity may be genetic. People should exercise more and watch what they eat. A football coach has denied being racist. I want to scream at the BBC: For fuck’s sake! Wake up! This is not news! Meanwhile in Afghanistan ten children were killed in a NATO airstrike at the weekend. They were the children of a suspected Taliban leader and were at home. A car bomb killed several locals and a 25-year-old US diplomat. She was delivering books to schools in the rural areas. Imagine if a dissident group in Northern Ireland had planted a bomb trying to target a policeman and it had instead been set off by a minibus carrying ten children, all of whom died. Imagine the outrage, the consequences. And here? It happens again and again. Sure, the Taliban use human shields. But imagine the deep, slow-burning hatred that this causes. And here I am, ostensibly a representative of the NATO nations, walking alone and unguarded round a Kabul neighbourhood. And a man smiles at me, and another shakes my hand in his shop. I don’t know what to say – we don’t have the words. Only the basic human connection.

The Istanbul Restaurant is closing down for the night. Kabul goes to bed early – the unofficial curfew is 8pm. The guard comes in carrying not one, but two machine guns. Perhaps it is ‘buy one get one free’. We head out into the night, across a dual carriageway. The US embassy change guard twice a day and shut the entire road, causing gridlock; earlier it was a huge traffic jam but now it is deserted. There isn’t much of a sewage system in Kabul, but they have dug tunnels for one under some main roads. Unfortunately they haven’t put any manhole covers in place, so every few yards there is a gaping hole along the road which would drop you directly, as it were, in the shit. A pair of headlights approaches and a car pulls up in front of us. Of course it is a red Corolla, the favoured make in all the security alerts, and also the most common car in Kabul. The driver is all stubble and leather jacket. We agree a price and screech away down the road. He reaches up to turn on the interior light, so that the cops at the checkpoints can see inside the car. Sirens go off behind us and flashing lights. We lurch towards the hard shoulder and a huge SUV zooms past – I make out a face staring at us in a not very friendly way. We drive down the main drag, past Finest supermarket, past computer shops that have Macbook Pros on display in the window. Another checkpoint. The front passenger rolls down his window and greetings are murmured. The cop peers into the back and sees me. He wears a scarf over his face and only a pair of Oriental eyes are visible, hard as stones. We wait, and then he lifts an arm in half salute and waves us on. Frankly the whole experience is nerve-wracking, to say the least. Coming from the outside, there are a thousand and one things you could freak out at every day. But that’s not sustainable – you have to keep fear in proportion. And the inhabitants of Kabul have to live with this every day.

I recieve an email from home saying it is my niece’s birthday. She is eight today. They are having chocolate cake with strawberries. She’s mad about Barbie, so I had sent her a special Barbie in India from Goa. Barbie in India is ethnically diverse – she at least has the merit of looking Indian. Black hair, bindi, and wearing a beautiful maroon and gold wedding sari. You get free mehendi stencils with this one – part of the whole marriage ceremony for Hindus and Muslims alike. Given my phone credit problems Mansoor offers me his phone to call home, so sitting in the Istanbul Restaurant in Kabul I ring the family in Suffolk. The line is pretty good – a slight delay. I talk quickly to Mum, and then she hands he over to my niece. She confirms that she has received Barbie in India successfully. She likes it. They had chocolate cake and strawberries. Aunty Barbara gave her a mermaid whose hair changes colour. Where are you? “I’m in Afghanistan, sweetheart. With my friend Mansoor who you met last year.” Oh, OK. Here’s grandpa again. Bye. It’s only been three months but I can hear how much more grown up she sounds, in her voice and vocabulary. On my backpack is a small pink Barbie badge. When I was sitting up on a hill overlooking the Panjshir Valley, with blown up Russian artillery littering the foreground, I took a photograph. You can’t see it, but just out of shot is my backpack with that badge hanging off the zipper. Barbie in Afghanistan. It’s the small things.

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