Monday, May 31, 2010

History and Perspective

So it's a quiet day at the office - nothing new to report. However, three different people have now shared an article at Foreign Policy on Afghanistan in the 1950s that I have to admit is fascinating to see through the lens of Kabul today. Check out the photo below - I can't imagine that being the same city I now wander... click it for more, similarly incredible, images of Kabul past.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

1,001 cups of tea: or, meet the AIHRC

Arranging an internship through personal channels has its benefits and its drawbacks - though one of the Commissioners extended his welcome for me to spend the summer with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in early March, relevant details never quite made it to the human resources staff. As a result, I arrived yesterday morning with no appointment, the name of a woman I'd gleaned from a single, near-accidental email, and absolutely no idea what the day might hold.

I'd caught her by surprise, too - my "I've arrived in the country; when can I start work?" message having arrived on her day off. I'd introduced myself to the guard as Kathryn, which only furthered confusion as somehow HR had me scrawled on a dry-erase board as Katy (complete with " - ???", exactly like two of the other four interns listed there). I sat for half an hour while she sorted out other priorities, then for another after she retrieved a copy of my CV and set out to consult with colleagues as to what to do with me.

Finally, an official pronouncement came - I'd spend a week with Monitoring and Investigations, primarily crafting a grant proposal for monitoring activities associated with refugee return. After that, maybe a week with the security team? It seems my summer will be made up as it goes along, one week at a time. For the moment, this means the love-seat and coffee table in the M&I office have become my temporary desk, and that a smiling man named Safi will be my supervisor for the week. So far, so good.

The oddities of crafting a work plan for a program I know nothing about, on the other hand, are many. The project consists mostly of asking Safi endless questions, leading him to call assorted offices and request piles of documents. In between answers, I sip tea and read from The History of the Peloponnesian War. In two days in the office, I've read about 60 pages and consumed approximately 17 cups of tea. We're two drafts in, and I've at least begun to understand where the project seems to be going. Not at all bad for the second day...

(as promised, the rose garden back at the guest house, from which I'll be composing most of these updates...)

A Moroccan interlude

...courtesy of Foreign Policy - apparently the PJD is trying to score political points dissing Elton John? Morocco can't feel the love tonight - Passport blog

To his credit, my Moroccan teacher did use "mithli" when telling dirty jokes in class...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Welcome to wherever you are

Arriving in Kabul yesterday afternoon, Afreen and I met Attaullah, the friend of a friend who took us from the airport to our guesthouse. That evening, we got cell phones and SIM cards, but soon succumbed to exhaustion, partly fueled by three room changes in a matter of hours (one was not actually a double, in the second the A/C unit blew the fuse even if all the lights were off, but the third finally worked out beautifully).

baby on bike
(image courtesy of Afreen; click to see her full collection)

This morning, however, we set out with a driver to see some of the city I'll be calling home for the next couple of months. Fawad took us down Flower Street (as implied, it's lined with florists and strangely-adorned Corollas), then to the neighborhood of Murad Kahne to see the restorations done by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. We wandered out to Kabul University, walked its campus with more trees than buildings, and even found the policy research center.

Afreen with camera
(Afreen and her camera, immediately popular in the market)

Traffic was predictably anarchic, but while the city displays poverty and division (concrete walls and barbed wire surround not only the government ministries and UN properties, but also private residences of any level of luxury), the violence I'd read so much about feels remote amid the chaos of ordinary life nonetheless.

traditional rug with tanks
(for sale at the Serena hotel)

Stopping in to ogle the Serena hotel over lunch, the usual surrealities found in walled-off luxury struck me walking across a marble lobby full of men wearing Kevlar. The gift shop offerings of traditional rugs interspersed with weavings of tanks and grenades provided comic relief from the fantasy world, and we soon wandered back out for another brief errand before collapsing back into the walled guesthouse garden to review Dari phrasebooks in preparation for the first day of work.

guesthouse view
(A view from our room; photos of the rose garden to follow)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In memoriam E.J.S.

I grew up with three sets of de facto grandparents: my dad's parents; my mom's mother, father, and later stepmother; and Jack and Julie. Family friends, they had no grandchildren and so made a habit of adopting and spoiling a mishmash of neighbor children and colleagues' kids. My sister Pam and I had the good fortune of falling into this family during our prime spoiling years - Julie cooked generous italian dinners, while we taught her to rollerblade. Jack spun endless yarns, shaping my lifelong love of a story well-told, and I'd like to believe we gave him valuable raw material in our silly younger years.

I remember long nights of conversation and card games, though after moving away from home I saw them less and less. Returning from Morocco, however, one of my first acts of culinary diplomacy was a full feast of couscous and pastilla aimed squarely at winning Julie's gourmet seal of approval.

Calling home in March, I found out that Jack was in poor health, though diagnostic tests had not yet returned. Dad asked if I wanted to try and stop home before leaving for the summer, though by the time I finished the academic year and made the trip, Jack was disoriented, hospice visits had begun, and Julie had banned visitors from disturbing the quiet. It was with great sadness but no surprise, then, when Pam called on Monday with news of his death.

Still, Jack was very much an adventurer and a master storyteller, and I'd have hoped to return to Missouri with tales to make him proud. I suppose I still do hope for this, and so in some sense this summer's posts remain dedicated to him.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What do I hear when I say I hear the call of the road?

The most recent stamp on my passport is July 13, 2007 - returning from Fez via Paris, processed at Washington Dulles just before George arrived to pick me up. George himself had arrived the previous day from a year in Masan, South Korea, and so we spent the weekend catching up with one another and our host David before going our respective ways once again.

At the time, I expected to return to Morocco that fall. I had accepted a teaching contract with Amideast, to begin after Eid, and was home only to check in, recharge, and repack for another year in a place I loved. Instead, an unexpected call from New York took me to the UN, and then a welcome letter from Cambridge invited me to the Kennedy School, and suddenly three years had passed in which I traveled little but hardly noticed, given the pace of a full and happy quotidian existence.

Nonetheless, I'm hardly one to sit still, and so the summer break brought the promise of another escape to somewhere new. When the opportunity to participate in the Afghan parliamentary campaign season arose, I broke the news to my parents that I planned to take an internship in Kabul and then shared the cost of Rosetta Stone farsi with a friend, herself Bamiyan-bound. In all truth, the details remain undefined - I will be with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, but I have no plan of work; I have a room in a guesthouse for the first week, but no summer-long housing. I will be depending on an abundant hospitality already outpouring in full force for some weeks now in the form of emailed introductions to what seems like half the international community in Kabul.

And so a new adventure begins once over, and I find myself wondering in a quiet moment after the initial rush of boarding a transcontinental flight whence this impulse always to pick up and depart.