Many happy returns

Kabul – 14th April 2013

As birthdays go, it was memorable. My old mantra, “fear of a dull life”, has proved unfounded. We headed out to the old Royal Palace, now a bombed out ruin. Most guidebooks warn against walking round the area, as it was heavily mined. But in the foreground hundreds of youngsters were playing football on small muddy pitches. The weather took a turn for the worse – a chill wind and specks of rain. With the low cloud over the dull green flanks of the mountains, it looked like Scotland. The kids were clad in a bizarre assortment of clothing: Man U football shirts, salwar kameez, faux leather jackets, shoes without socks, no shoes… As soon as I got out of the car a small girl in green hijab latched on to me, tapping my elbow repeatedly and asking for one dollar, or failing that, a pen. Marching quickly away I almost crossed a line of rocks on the road surface, with a soldier on the other side. A visiting dignitary had been in the area and the road closed – though whether NGO, diplomat or local politician we could not establish. This sort of nonsense happens frequently and only serves to illustrate the divide between the powerful (or the foreign), and the ordinary Afghans. Ultimately it only causes resentment.

In fact this form of legitimised apartheid becomes self-perpetuating. There’s an old proverb, which could be British, Pakistani, or from anywhere, really: “Never trust an Afghan”. This seems to be the unspoken policy of many of the NGOs. Afghans who use a company vehicle have to provide receipts for the journey, in case they are using it for private business. Their foreign bosses do not. Afghans are given a separate table at lunch in the workplace. The official explanation is that of not wanting to cause cultural offence. In fact it does exactly that, by underlining difference. Afghan employees have their research checked and double checked, even though they are the people with first hand experience (and often qualifications from western universities which exceed those of their bosses). But do those Afghans get to double-check the pronouncements of their employers in their reports? Of course not. What is the consequence of this system of double-standards? Resentment. The undermining of confidence and the progressive demoralisation of the local staff – who are the very people, it could be argued, who have the most at stake in creating a stable future for the country.

Ah yes, stability. It’s the one thing that everyone takes for granted elsewhere. Indeed many bridle at it: suspicion at the ever-extending tentacles of governmental control into every corner of the citizen’s life. But you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it. New Zealand, Norway, the UK… all the places I have lived that are secure, stable nations, are a stark counterpoint to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s stability that people want more than anything; a rule of law that extends to all. Otherwise out there is anarchy. The aid world tries to implement policies, democratisation, overhauling the legal system, training the police, but ultimately in this country stability comes down to how many armed guards you have. And how loyal they are to you. After the 8pm curfew the streets empty. By 10pm if you are about, you are aware of increased tension. Midnight? It’s even more stressful. The later the hour, the less legitimate the few people one encounters. This may be a universal phenomenon – a woman should be able to walk the streets of a city like London at any hour in safety, and yet many feel they cannot. Here? Forget it. Even in a taxi you are not safe. Not really. There is a slow and continual pitch of tension to life here, which rises and falls with the situation, but doesn’t really abate until you are outside the country. The locals feel it too. It’s a condition of perpetual stress, of living with massive uncertainty, and people show signs of it – too long living on adrenaline and your nerve starts to creak at the edges.

We drive through a weird half-built city populated mainly by Oriental-looking locals. Rain spatters on the windscreen and the wind shakes the car. Four lads on a Pamir motorbike go jolting along the muddy track ahead of us. A minibus encounters a huge ditch across the road, tries to edge over it and crashes into it nose-first, sticking fast. This suburb is the pet project of the president’s half-brother, or something. We pass a man and child living in a shack made of UN food bags. A crowd is off to the right, and we see a man leading a large mastiff in a state of exhaustion. It is a dogfight. Bets can be as high as one lakh – a hundred thousand dollars. We decide not to stop. People swagger around in T-shirts or thin jackets – it is 12 degrees C and raining. The road leads upward and becomes increasingly tricky; we slip and slide on the muddy track. Eventually we stop and walk.
“Are there any mines here?”
“Yeah yeah yeah whatever.”

One of our number takes off running across the hillside, leaping down the slope like a mountain goat. A word is written in stones on the hillside: it says “Ya Ali” – a Shia slogan. Our friend is running up the opposite slope, a small figure against a vast green hillside, getting slower as it steepens, running the tension out. Behind us Kabul lies in its valley, ringed by snow-covered mountains, razor wire and sandbags, the hollow shell of destroyed tanks off to one side. He goes slower and slower, and then finally stops, and crouches down exhausted.

Back in the car, sheltering from the wind-whipped hillside, we lurch down the track again. I have earache from the cold outside and can barely stay awake. Round-faced locals gaze in curiosity as we pass. The driver’s phone rings: it is a female American voice. She is saying: “Can you check through pages one to twelve of the contract and get your people to make any amendments? It’d be great if you could mail me it back within the hour.” The driver, steering around potholes the size of canyons, past an army post where soldiers huddle inside and a solitary dog stands outside the wire barking relentlessly, quite reasonably says, “how can you expect me to do this at such short notice? I am not in the office, anyway – I’m driving.” Oh, OK. Get back to me when you can. And I want to say to the voice on the phone, “and you should see the road he’s driving down. You should see this place. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been”.

We head to Anaar Cafe, which has just opened. It has a nice USP (unique selling point), in that people can bring their own music, or request songs from the collection. There are guitars, dambura, drums, which the customers can use. Most importantly, it provides a breathing space – a sanctuary with the illusion of normality, where young people can get together to socialise. Pictures of musicians line the walls and shisha pipes waft the aroma of apple tobacco around, sweetening the air. Two musicians are playing local songs – one on the robaab, a kind of lute, and the other on drums. Most of the songs seem to be the kind where a beautiful maiden bids farewell to her lover on the eve of battle, and have lyrics like: “fight with honour and I will welcome you back with love; dishonour yourself by being a coward and I will not see you again.” Then a familiar tune – familiar from the countless ice cream trolleys that are wheeled around the city: it is happy birthday, but in a decidedly Afghan style, all quartertones and wavering notes. A waiter approaches bearing an enormous cake with candles on top. My friends all sing happy birthday to me. The room suddenly feels uncomfortably warm. Everybody claps and they offer me the knife to cut the cake. A small girl, about 6 years old, who has been shyly peering at us, stares wide-eyed at the cake. We beckon her over, and after I have blown out the candles, they are relit so she can blow them all out too. She takes a theatrically enormous deep breath, and does so. Her name is Boraan, which means ‘rain’. Her family keep an eye on her from their table nearby. She is very shy of us men, and will not speak, but Kayo befriends her. We offer her some cake which she gratefully accepts and then scampers away. It is a huge cake, so after we have all had some, it is offered around to the other customers.

We head out to dinner at a barbeque restaurant. Usual stables: pulao, naan, kabob. I have a biryani of some sort. We are all exhausted, after the mountainside, and struggling to stay awake. After a while we leave, and, as part of our effort not to walk too much at night, flag down a car. It is not a legitimate laxi, but most private cars offer a taxi service. One of our number chats to the driver before getting in, to establish his legitimacy, sympathies and so on. He seems like a nice young guy and we all pile in. We are in a strange part of town, and pass the usual ominous security walls. Then we come to a roundabout with the usual heavy police presence. What normally happens is that someone switches on the interior light, the cops peer in, see a foreigner and wave us through. This time it’s different. The guy in charge, clean shaven and with a smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach his eyes, addresses me in Farsi. “Farsi nist,” I reply. “English.”
“Passport,” he snaps. I show it to him – the front cover with the coat of arms, and he leans in and takes it. He questions Mansoor sitting in the front seat, then turns his attention to Kayo. “Afghan?” he enquires? No, daughter of Hindustan. “Passport. You speak Urdu?” “Nahi – Hindi,” Kayo replies, while looking for her passport. She asks me for my torch to see inside the bag. The one thing I am not going to do is start rummaging inside my bag at this point. She finds it and hands it over.

He takes the two passports and walks off a few metres away. Torches are shone through the windows and we squint at them. More cops come. They stand in a huddle, leafing through each page of my passport repeatedly. One of the cops has buttoned his waistcoat over his machine gun, with it pointing directly downwards. I hope he doesn’t trip, stumble and shoot himself in the testicles. My grin widens slightly. I am very calm, but the potential for this all to go seriously wrong is quite high. Mansoor discretely makes a phone call to the people we have just left, explaining that we’ve been stopped and it’s looking a bit iffy. The cops are making a great show of examining the passports – they have turned their backs to us and the minutes are ticking by agonisingly slowly. The taxi driver gets out and goes over to join them. He is questioned and keeps his cool. There’s a bit of a morality issue: a girl they took to be Afghan in a car with a group of men. There’s a general suspicion: are we carrying drugs? Anything which they can shake us down for? The irony is that the cops are all stoned – I can tell by their eyes. And I am wearing a local pakol hat and two weeks of beard. So we’ve got a Brit and an Indian disguised as Afghans in a private car driving around at night. I’m guessing the guy in charge is a corporal – he’s not very bright, and has that sadistic look. But he’s OK. When he sticks his head back inside the car I say to him: “Afghan hat, but English man.” I remove my hat – it’s an old disarming gesture, from the time that people doffed their caps to show they had no weapon hidden underneath. He seems satisfied, and wanders off again. Then he returns with Kayo’s passport and hands it back. Where is mine? Still being examined. I suspect he’s torn between being lauded by his superiors for discovering some undercover spy ring (who knows how cops think?) and between fearing serious repercussions from assorted embassies and his own foreign minister. Do we even know these guys are cops? Uniforms are easy to come by. The driver gets back in. More torches are shone. He comes back and after a slight delay of holding it just out of reach, like one might tantalise a dog with a biscuit, hands my passport back to me. “Thank you,” I say. He gestures impatiently and we slowly drive away. I carefully check every page of my passport, but it all seems to be intact. We are all subdued, aware of the knife edge we walk every day, the surface of normality that barely carries our weight. I take my passport, hold it up to the light, and recite in sonorous tones:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State
Requests and Requires in the name of Her Majesty
all those to whom it may concern
to allow the bearer to pass freely
without let or hindrance and to offer the bearer
such assistance and protection
as may be necessary.”

And I add: “Or else the Queen (god bless her) will get very bloody cross with you.”

More checkpoints. Not again, I think. I’m getting too old. Nerve is creaking a little these days. Last police post before the road. I switch on the light and he waves us through. We make the gate, which fortunately decides to open. In through a dark courtyard, somewhere in Afghanistan. In through the door, which I lock firmly to keep the lunacy outside at bay. We roll cigarettes, smoke furiously, and get the giggles. It’s a release of tension and there’s a slight hysteria to it. I laugh so hard I can’t breathe, and it starts to hurt. Just when it starts to subside, Kayo says: “Please. Not one more kebab.” It sets us off again. “And no more rice with bloody sultanas,” I say. “Bolani nist (not have).” Just when we regain our breath, gasping and wiping our eyes, a thought strikes me, and I can barely get the words out. “Carrot jam.” It finishes us off – we howl with laughter, lying on the mattresses. It’s ridiculous, silly things, but we need a laugh. Memorable birthdays: turning 40 in Afghanistan, slightly mashed, and just made it through another tricky situation. Another day, another story. Welcome to the club, Kayonaaz.