Saturday, October 25, 2003

# Posted 2:48 PM by Patrick Belton  

FROM OUR KABUL CORRESPONDENT: Our valiant correspondent in Afghanistan, treating his duties as OxBlog bureau chief with due seriousness, pens us this update:
It's Friday which, depending on how the moon looks to the relevant authorities, may be the last day before Ramazan begins in Kabul. We're hoping for another day's respite; tomorrow P. and I [note: this is not me - even if I have seemed oddly absent from Oxford lately - ed.] are heading up to check out one of the dams built under our project, and apparently there's a riverside hostel nearby that catches and grills fresh fish from the Panjshir river. It'd be a shame if it didn't start serving until after sundown. Plus, we've decided to honor the fast, judging that to be easier and more respectful than smuggling food into the office restroom (or tantalizing our observant co-worker and housemate Z. with large meals during daylight hours).

Kabul's smoggy skies clear up remarkably on days when car traffic is down. The mountains that frame the city were sharply visible as we drove around today even the more remote ranges, which are usually just distant smudges above the horizon. I spent this evening reading on the balcony of our guesthouse, glancing up at the old hilltop fort that dominates the view from Taimany Street. There were dozens of kite-flying kids silhouetted on the high ridge. The sparrows were going crazy in the trees next door. Something rambunctious was also going on in the larger NGO guesthouse on the other side, but I couldn't tell what - as with most expat haunts, the walls have been heightened with three yards of UNHCR plastic sheeting to prevent anyone seeing in or out. (A more relaxed version of the massive concrete and razor wire barriers that fill half the street around the US Embassy and ISAF headquarters).

Along with logistics assistant Aziz Ahmad, I've spent the last five days riding around the bazaars of Kabul in search of people who can ship, buy, or build us the necessary road construction equipment within three weeks. It's been an education, and a great way to look over a bit more of the city than I could have seen from the expat compounds. Kabul has one of the traits I love most in cities - dozens of ways to get from point A to point B. Getting around may be a life-endangering, drawn-out process, but I doubt I'd ever find it boring. If the multitude of Toyota Corollas ahead is moving too slowly, our resourceful drivers are ever-ready to wheel off the main roads into a maze of rutted, unpaved alleyways. I've gone down to the metalworkers' street across from Kabul Zoo three times now, and each time it's been through a different quarter of the city.

It's fascinating to watch the small specific bazaars roll by roads entirely occupied by plumbing fixture shops, film developers, tinsmiths, carpenters. Scavenged car parts are a roaring business; individual roadside vendors specialize in headlamps, or fenders, rearview mirrors, car doors (with intact windows at a premium). And then you turn off the main road, and are in another, private world of gated compounds ringed by eroding mud-brick walls. Women walk between houses with their burqas rolled back from their faces and children in hand.

Even the routine trip between office and guesthouse can turn abruptly exciting. On Tuesday, we hit traffic so bad that our driver proposed we loop all the way around the center of town and take the road up by the airport. P. said he'd heard of carjackings along that road, but Basyir assured us we'd be fine. We soon found ourselves driving along the edge of a field corn, I think, but it was too dark to tell - on a broad, rutted track covered in dust four inches deep. There were no lights except our headlights, and through the thick storm of dust thrown up by us and other occasional vehicles, we could barely see two yards in any direction. It felt a bit like driving on the moon. Occasionally a lightless shack would appear and vanish along the roadside; three times, we had to abruptly slow down to avoid hitting large rocks that had been considerately placed in the middle of the road. Fortunately, the bandits had taken the night off - either that, or they were still stuck in traffic back in Shahre Now - and we abruptly found ourselves back in the middle of the city, none the worse for wear.

There's a good fifth of Kabul tantalizingly out of reach, built on stone platforms along the steep hillsides with no room left for motor roads. One of the steepest mountains has a thousand-year-old boundary wall built right down its side, defying erosion and gravity. It's strange to turn from that ancient line of stone to the far newer yet half-demolished neighborhoods below it - the pockmarked walls, the gutted, windowless buildings topped with twisted rebar wreckage. In many Kabul neighborhoods, the average shop is a first-floor storefront below two or three stories of war-scarred, uninhabitable ruin. Yet as I mentioned last time, construction is booming. Not everywhere; and the imbalances between different neighborhoods and populations in this city is something I'll write more about later. But the city is coming back. An Indian supplier of construction equipment ruefully complained that he was already being undercut by a half-dozen Afghan merchants who hadn't had a cement mixer to their names two years ago.

Car sales are also booming, and not just to the rich. Traffic in Kabul is as congested as any city I've been in the roundabouts in particular invite a complete standstill, as cars attempt to drive both ways around them and intrepid cyclists, hand-carts, and pedestrians sift into the momentary gaps between vehicles. Beggars chase cars, tapping on the door until the driver or taxi passenger hands over a few Afghanis; and by the way, the "facelessness of the poor" is unnervingly literal in the land of the burqa. Meanwhile, battered German buses roll along with people hanging off the roof and out the windows. Apparently on the theory that what's cool for an SUV is cool for a bus, many buses have the slightly alarming slogan "OFF-ROAD EXPRESS" painted on the side.

For my part, I'll be on the road tomorrow. Next dispatch I'll presumably have some impressions from outside Kabul; and I'll also spin a couple yarns from the surreptitious-verging-on-surreal Thursday night Kabul party scene. Till then!

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