Friday, June 09, 2006


Notice: to read the full story have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!

Justin and I had reached Kabul in an Afghan Police jeep. My North American friend was anxious enough to hitch hike for the first time as to vaguely reckon the danger of cruising through Taliban positive areas. Once in the Afghan capital we had split, and I had ended up in the Leiva’s house, an Argentinean family who has carried on social aid work in Afghanistan for over 9 years.

“Afghanistan was safer during the Taliban time” – had said Fabian. I had –and everybody would have- requested an explanation: “The Taliban were so brutal in their interpretation of Islamic law, that few people were willing to risk their arms or heads and commit a crime. Before people could understand that the Taliban really meant what they preached the prisons were full of inmates waiting for amputations. In that time, travelling in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand, Oruzgan and Qandahar was perfectly safe. A lot of people were indeed happy: in contrast with the prevailing anarchy the Taliban, who were originally a group of Theology students from Qandahar, proposed a return to the Qoran, as the source of both moral and politic systems. In the beginning they even avoided corruption…”
-But… what happened next?

“They were not ready to govern a country, so they sought support in Al Qaeda. It was the moment of the “Black Turbans”, merciless mercenaries from all over the Islamic world from Chechnya to Morocco. It was normal to see a Taliban in each corner, but if he was a black turban, it was mandatory to run away” Betty silences Fabian with a mate and goes on. “Once black turban grabbed me from the hair and lifted me in the air for not wearing a burka. As we Latin blend in with the local stock someone had to point that I was a foreigner…”

-So he apologized…
Apologize? –Betty laughs- No, he dropped me by the ground, did a deep throat sound and spit over me with accuracy. Besides, it was a dark age. The country stayed cut off from the rest of the world. Commerce was virtually non existent and everything on the shelves had been smuggled in. While renting a house coasted U$S25, a Toblerone set you back U$S50. I once received a Toblerone for my birthday. And I don’t like chocolate! I would have preferred the money. Also, the Taliban condemned technology: TVs, taper recorders and computers were confiscated and crashed by tanks. Radio Kabul was renamed Radio Sharia and only broadcasted the Holy Qoran. Even universities were shut!

As Betty spoke, I couldn’t avoid remembering Foucault’s “knowledge is power”. It evidently didn’t integrate the Taliban’s ethics. As the Church in the Middle Ages, the Taliban had decided to thrust against just everything that didn’t fit in the Qoranic verses. As they thought the entire new generation that hadn’t received any religious education during the Russian occupation was lost, they sent children to madrasas (Islamic schools). The most sophisticated thing they learnt there was how to wash their feet according to the way prescribed by Mohammed. Islam and the art of feet washing. Tempting title for an essay.

To compensate further, they denied girls the access to education, and women couldn’t work in anything but the health sector. This comeback of pastoralism was soon causing troubles to the regime itself: when in 1998 a multinational gas company called Bridas initiated talks with the Taliban over the construction of a gas duct, all contracts should be translated to Dari, since no one among the Taliban spoke decent English. Moreover, a graduated from Engineering without working experience was all they had to revise the technical aspects of the master plan. Until what extent, in a country where a particular exegesis of religion has encouraged ignorance, is cultural relativism an excuse to step aside? Fabian thinks that the Afghans suffer their own culture.

The transition to (or the sudden encounter with) knowledge can be somehow funny. Someone has still to explain some Afghans that Alexander the Great –who marched through their country- was not Muslim, and certainly did not introduce Islam in the region. When the movie “Alexander the Great” hit the cinemas, many complained and argued that the movie was a defamatory distortion of reality plotted no doubt by the CIA. In another occasion, a man got angry when Fabian, pointing a plated full moon, exclaimed: “And just think that there was once someone up there!” That was not possible! Not because of technical difficulties, but because the moon is, in the collective imagination, a woman, which a man cannot touch. Let alone the possibility of landing. I personally witness a third example, when a woman who was watching a TV displayed in a shop covered her face and ran away when the news presenters claimed the screen’s 28 inches.

Exploring Kabul is impossible to find a building that doesn’t resemble a piece of gruyere cheese. Bullet pockets ornate each house. The ruined theatre, built by the Russian, represents efficiently the anger of the tribal, provincial Taliban towards the more urban minded Russian. Those who have been here during the occupation time remember women in short skirts strolling around Kabul. This explains why the Taliban aimed to shell the city rather than conquer it.

In the present date, the centre of the city, Wazir Akbar Khan, where embassies and the UN compound are, is slowly recovering from 30 years of civil war. There is even an all-glass shopping mall (which mirrors the surrounding chaos tenfold). Taxis and 4WDs of UN and other foreign agencies share the roads. A lot of the last ones, since foreign aid workers deployed in Kabul are normally forbidden to walk the streets. Symmetrically, if an Afghan befriends –or works for- a foreigner, he will be nicked “kafir” (disloyal) by friends and family. Thus, foreigners in Kabul carry on an entropic life, a forced seclusion that dangerously reminds the situation of the foreign elite living in China by the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
During my stay in Kabul I had the chance to attend one of these all foreigner events, a BBQ celebrating the new born baby of a North American couple. Between sausages and salads someone introduced me to Georg, a 56 years old German who has an executive position in an NGO called Shelter Now. To my random question of “When did you first arrive to Afghanistan?” the answer caught me unaware: “For the first time? In 1965, in a double Decker we had bought among 20” Not far from there another man whose beard was white washed by the calendar, joined the conversation: “Really? I arrived in ’67 in a VW van. We were in our way to India, but we couldn’t drive the VW further than Lahore, in the Pakistani–Indian border… some papers were missing.”

They were old timers, hippies from the Old Guard. I should take my hat off, look to the ground and listen. On their way to India, both travellers had got acquainted with the already tough Afghan reality, and had decided to settle there to work to the refugees. In Georg’s case, dedicating his life to the Afghan people almost resulted in loosing his life, paradoxically, in hands of those he pretended to help. Two months before S-11, Georg and other 5 member of Shelter Now team were imprisoned by the Taliban under charges of Christian proselytism. As he strolled around the prison premises the guards nicked him “George Bush”, which is, let’s say, a nickname you don’t want to have in Kabul on September 2001. He miraculously saved his life.

In my last afternoon in Kabul I met, while walking up Chicken Street, two French travellers who had also arrived overland. Gerome and Adrien told me of another kind of parties, organized by the French ex-pat community, in which bowls of condoms shared the table with wine and good food. Self affirmation of Western society in minority conditions or flat and plain Dionysian celebration, who doesn’t feel a bit French in a suburb of the heart? Next morning I left Kabul bound for Jalalabad and the Pakistani border.

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