Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wonking out

Campaign season officially opened a few days ago, but the initial trickle of small candidate posters exploded into a forest of billboards just last night. Demazang Circle near my office had only one campaign advertisement yesterday; this morning there were five.

The art of political messaging is still pretty simple here - the pattern across the posters and billboards I've seen is candidate photo + name + party affiliation (99% say "independent") + ballot order + ballot symbol. Some include a slogan, but many do not. The name of the game seems to be simple recognition, which is logical enough given that there are over 600 candidates running for 33 open and 9 women's seats in Kabul province.

As the title indicates, this post exists solely to indulge my own interest in the technicalities of the election process. If voting systems bore you, please feel free to skim the photos and move along... but actually, the Afghan electoral system's quirks make for more compelling reading than you might otherwise guess.

As mentioned above, there are over 600 total candidates running for 42 seats across the whole of Kabul province (estimated population 4 million). Unlike U.S. House districts, though, the province is not subdivided into single-member districts - all 42 will be elected at-large from the province. What's more, each voter can choose only one candidate on his or her ballot. As a resident of Kabul, therefore, I get a say in only one of the 42 people who will represent me - and with hundreds of choices, the probability that the person I select will lose is quite high. The system is called the single, non-transferable vote (SNTV), and while it's simple enough to use, it's incredibly strategically complicated for both candidates and voters to navigate.

First, from a voter perspective, it's very important to choose my candidate carefully. If I vote for someone who's already very popular, I waste my voice on a shoo-in; but if I choose a nobody running in 643rd place, I waste my ballot on a hopeless cause. The trick is to vote for my preferred candidate from among the middle of the pack, hoping to nudge someone from 43rd place into 39th - even if this person is perhaps only my 3rd choice - these are the seats are decided by a tiny number of votes. The fun part is that there's no polling information, so even guessing which candidates are safe and which are competitive is a game of information-gathering.

Adding to the fun, the Afghan Constitution sets aside a fixed number of seats for women, but does not hold a separate election for these seats. When the votes are counted, the top 9 women will receive seats, even if the 9th is actually in 253rd place. Perversely, this reduces the incentive to vote for a female candidate, because the electoral bar is so much more easily cleared.

From a candidate perspective, if I want to form a political party around my shared views with others in the race, it's incredibly difficult to do so. If some few of us were to band together on a common platform and pool our efforts to gain votes over the other several hundred, we'd need first to guess at how many supporters would back our group, then nominate exactly the right number of candidates to take advantage of that voting pool - too many, and our votes get divided too thin and we win no seats. Too few, and all our candidates win, but we'll have sacrificed additional seats we could have gotten. Then we have to work to divide our supporters' votes evenly among the candidates (in Taiwan, back when SNTV was in use there, political parties would print ads telling supporters which candidate to vote for based on their birthday - their politicians split the vote into calendar-segments).

In reality, what happens is that political parties don't really form, and the provinces break into small parochial constituencies rather than uniting behind more national platforms. Single, non-transferable voting systems are rare enough, and watching elections play out here, it's easy to see why.

Coming soon: a related post on adapting campaigning and balloting for a country with a low literacy rate, translating campaign billboards, and other elections fun.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Photos for the day

The schoolgirls walking home at the end of the day always clump together in gaggles of black-and-white, while the boys usually scatter. I was especially surprised to catch two classmates (siblings?) mingling on the walk home.

Adventures in Bamiyan

With any luck, I'll be traveling this weekend to Bamiyan province, home of Afghanistan's only female governor, two empty niches where gigantic Buddha statues stood until Taliban forces destroyed them, and a series of deep turquoise lakes called Band-e-Amir. While mine will be a short tourist's visit, however, my friend Afreen has been in Bamiyan for two weeks touring schools and development projects in villages far outside the provincial capital. Reading her account of local hospitality has made me sad that I won't be staying longer myself - I don't imagine I'll be on the receiving end of a sheep here in Kabul.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Photos for the day

Many of the trucks found hauling goods about Kabul are intricately decorated - these are just two samples of the many detailed paint jobs I've seen. I have no idea why anyone goes to this level of effort (the work appears to be hand-done), nor how it's become so widely popular.

Afghan Model

This morning, a colleague from the logistics section wandered in to my office carrying two scrapbooks. He addressed Wakeel, who then translated as he placed one of the albums in my hands: "these are photographs of his son, in traditional Afghan clothes."

The first few were postcard-like prints, each featuring several different outfits and printed with "Maseeh Ur Rahman Popalzai," the name of our young model. Later photographs show him posed in a rose garden; petting a goat; holding a shovel over his shoulder in front of a display of summer wheat; and endless close-ups of a serious face with an even more serious handlebar mustache.

He is wearing clothes from all over Afghanistan, and as I thumb through the pages, my colleague provides narration: "Herat... Kandahar... Kabul." Wakeel explains that Maseeh Rahman competed on a television show called Afghan Model - then corrects himself - he won Afghan Model. The second scrapbook, it turns out, is a collection of congratulations. I am asked to contribute, so I pen a brief note and sign my name. After prompting me to add "USA" next to my entry, the man asks me if I have a photograph of myself. Surely enough, it appears that most of these fan messages are accompanied by passport-sized images.

We made a deal - I'll bring a photo tomorrow for the fan book, and I get copies of a couple of the postcard photos in exchange. Handlebar mustaches are far from dreamy in my book, but I can't pass up this kind of brush with fame...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A photo for the day

I think I like posting pictures individually - it's much simpler to pick one for the day than to prepare a full album (also, it means more new things for the handful of people I know are checking in regularly). Thoughts?

This one amuses me doubly - first, it was taken on a paved (!) street in a quiet neighborhood of wealthy residences and NGO offices in Karte Se - not where I usually see goatherders. Secondly, there really is a Kabul Fried Chicken, which has seen fit to appropriate the image of Colonel Sanders on its storefront (I've yet to get a photo of that; apologies). Strangely, the name isn't actually translated into Dari underneath - just transliterated. "Kabul Fraid Chikn" - Happy Saturday!

"Something that we've lost"

"I was standing on a busy interjunction in New Delhi with the traffic and the din and the scooters and the bikes and the elephants and the cows, and I remember thinking: These people have got something that we’ve lost. Our traffic rules and sanitation and systems make life easier and more convenient, ensure longer lifespans and perhaps a fairer society. But these things come at a cost, and the cost is what I felt there. There’s a velocity and density of life there that you don’t get in the West, and that I found oxygenating."
          --David Mitchell

First, I love this quote. There is a certain heightening of the senses sparked by the seemingly patternless hubbub found in poor, distant cities. Without familiar rules and structures, life flows along according to some complex, unwritten code entirely alien to foreign spectators; and so we stand mutely appreciative of the colors and the sounds and feel all the more alive for the experience. I certainly fell under that spell on my first visit to old-city Fes.

And yet, with "velocity and density..." Mitchell also turns this exotic, romanticised image into a critique of modern conveniences that are only tangential to the chaos he finds so beautiful. Traffic rules eliminate some of the din and the bustle, but they aren't the reason our roads back home don't have elephants or cows. The character of a new place comes from much deeper factors than the presence or absence of sanitation systems, after all. For all that I loved the Coca-Cola donkey, I was more than happy to return to the world of air conditioning when I got back to the States. The moments of wonder I find here are not at things lost in the course of Western progress - they are from a cultural history we simply never had.

While I'm still finding plenty to love about Kabul, I'm less charmed by its quirks than I was by Fes. Part of this is the lack of novelty (the traffic in Kabul was "predictably anarchic," according to my initial impressions), and part of it is that the unfamiliarities of life here come with a vague foreboding that you are in a place where the knowledge you haven't got, if you had it, could save you. Though after a month of watching and listening and settling in, I don't feel this threat as explicitly, it made the introduction less magical.

A friend once noted, "whether one is a returning child of the motherland or a nascent orientophile, there is little that sums up the difference in residential comforts, east by west, as the utter utterness of the power going out... in this regard, the municipal electric grid is indistinguishable from rain, or wind, or any force of nature whose fundamental uncertainty is irreconcilable except by améliean finger-crossing." Despite the beauty of traditional Persian calligraphy, despite the warm hospitality extended to me, despite the small joy of watching the schoolgirls clump around the ice-cream men each afternoon in their black uniforms and white scarves, ordinary life here requires much greater effort than at home. The power is more consistent than I'd have predicted, but taking a morning shower involves a trip out into the garden to plug in the water pump so as to build up adequate pressure, then another trip ten minutes later to unplug it before the overflow floods the roses. Laundry is a two-buckets-in-the-bathtub affair, and while by now I'm fairly adept at this, whatever I came here seeking is not going to be found in my Friday washing routine.

I believe it's possible to embrace the traffic and the din without mourning the ease and convenience of home. At least, I'm trying to strike that balance here: there is much to love about life in Afghanistan, from the dry walnut bars Wakeel just brought in to go with our morning tea to the proliferation of glittery headscarves I see on the street and the implicit hope I find in outlandish fashions here. I don't intend to celebrate the poverty or the inconveniences, however, as my wildest hopes entail retaining the unique and the beautiful of this place even as traffic rules and washing machines invade. Whatever their cost, it's certainly not too high.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A photo for the day

In honor of watermelon season, which is in full swing here. Watermelon juice might just be my new favorite beverage...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Inside baseball

(postscript 6/24, 8:30am - the powers that be are obviously in agreement - that was a fast response.)

So the Rolling Stone article on General McChrystal is the talk of the expat community here - and the wonks in D.C. as well. Yes, an aide calls Vice President Biden "Bite me". Yes, McChrystal ignores Ambassador Holbrooke's emails.

The inner circle is "shocked and dismayed" at the portrayal, while some say these comments "put the whole war in jeopardy." Possible "fire McChrystal" scenarios are floating about, while the finger-pointing game has already expanded to include "it would be a travesty if we fired McChrystal and kept Eikenberry." (Small Wars Journal does its usual fantastically thorough round-up of the press and punditry.)

Around the office? Well, McChrystal is respected, so there's some concern as to what this means. I think Foreign Policy has summed that angle up with its usual skill.

And still, understanding how critical it is that the military commanders actually respects the civilian leadership, and knowing that unity of effort is foundational to successful implementation, I feel like all this outcry is even more counterproductive than the initial scandalous remarks (even acknowledging that they're clearly in violation of the Uniform Code). Long speculation and "fate in limbo" headlines compound the damage exponentially. Quite frankly, I can envision resolutions that end in McChrystal's resignations and others that return him to Kabul, but all I'm really hoping for is that the decision comes quickly. This is the kind of inside baseball that destroys real efforts in the service of personal grudges.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Essence of Confusion

(apologies to Graham Allison)

After (nearly) four weeks in Kabul, I've now gotten into enough conversations about current events to make some tentative generalizations. This is anecdote, not data; if nothing else, the sample is limited to Anglophones with the patience to explain very simple things to the American girl who obviously doesn't get it.

The most common reaction to news about American military strategy is bafflement. They dump more funds than can be spent effectively into unstable districts but provide minimal development assistance to peaceful areas that remain loyal to the central administration even despite their own complaints with its governance. ("Bamiyan will start an 'insurgency' just to get aid," one person remarked offhand.) They take advice from former and current warlords. They offer huge contracts for logistics and transport and then express surprise that the companies who take them pass a protection cut along to enemy forces. Trying to make sense of this, the main question I get is, are they stupid, or is there some secret plan - and, really, what's the secret plan?

Cut to Professor Allison: in The Esence of Decision, he proposes three models of analysis and applies each to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first depicts the state as a unitary, rational actor - it evaluates courses of action and selects the value-maximizing option. The second considers a government instead as a bureaurcracy, dependent on defined organizational roles and responding to new situations using existing patterns of action. The third considers leaders as political beings and evaluates actions as opportunities for exchange between these many players, with external decisions reflecting internal competition and bargaining.

So when I open the New York Times Sunday Magazine and read "I asked Jones one morning how he could square his fondness for Shirzai with his new task of establishing good government. 'I guess I hadn't thought about it that much,' Jones said, transparent to a fault. 'The people probably did view him as the thug. But what else could we have done?'" I see the organizational model at work - the same article notes that Shirzai "may have been loathed by the people but could be counted on to deliver American war materiel to anywhere in the region for only $5,000 a truckload." It isn't a case of the American military deliberately promoting Shirzai as a model leader, it's a case of using the guy who has the power to wield it on your behalf. It's probably similar institutionalizing of the simplest method that leads to articles like Dexter Filkins's latest, revealing that a portion U.S. transportation logistics dollars are almost certainly being passed along to the Taliban as protection money.

But I'm not talking to experts in American politics, or political scientists with coursework in game theory or Graham Allison. The simplest model, rational actor analysis, treats the United States as a single player led by the will of President Obama - and this assessment yields utter bewilderment. Why would President Obama have met with Shirzai on a visit to Afghanistan back when he was still a Senator? For that matter, why is Shirzai the governor of Nangarhar, seeing that he was so unpopular he had to be removed from Kandahar? The New York Times didn't even mention Shirzai in its initial account of the visit, as it simply wasn't a critical element of the story among an American audience. Here, on the other hand, it led to rampant rumors that Shirzai was invited to the inauguration. As far as public diplomacy goes, it doesn't even matter that this is patently false - it's widely believed, and the perception is damaging. If the United States is working with these kinds of people, dark ulterior interests must be at work. No one can possibly claim ignorance of his reputation, and the "I hadn't thought about it much" defense seems dangerously implausible coming from the representative of a superpower.

What's more, it stems from the fact that the U.S. does have a working relationship with the man Sarah Chayes described as a "source of insecurity" in 2003. I count among my friends an Army officer who has worked in Nangarhar: he, too, found Shirzai to be a valuable political partner despite his past and his personal shortcomings. I also count among my new friends a colleague who tells stories of Shirzai's violent dog-fights and tyrannical leadership.

This is a difficult balance - while it's possible that working with Shirzai (who is really a sample case for many similar choices the U.S. makes regularly here) is absolutely critical for success, and that those who despise him are not so passionately opposed as to expand the insurgency, that's simply not an equation I can calculate. I'm not certain if anyone can.

As another example, when Andrew Exum writes, "For a variety of reasons - some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn't exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn't exist in 2007 - the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort," I hear a political model at work, assessing just what agenda the President and Congress can successfully balance for both the good of the country and the goodwill of the population. It's my own government, after all, and I've spent long enough following the twists and turns of politics to know just how complex the process is. What comes across here is that we don't care about the Afghan people, and given that their desires really don't play a direct role in the policy evaluation process, that's a hard claim to rebut. Of course we care; but that's not why we're here, and empathetic concern alone isn't going to keep a large American aid presence.

There's still some chance all this will succeed, and that by pursuing the American national security interest we'll manage to offer Afghans the leadership and development they fervently hope for. But in the meantime we certainly can't teach all of Afghanistan Graham Allison, and so these choices, and analyses, look pretty damning to their eyes.

(postscript: On an analytical level, nothing expressed here is novel, let alone revolutionary, but I do think it's important to keep in mind. Furthermore, there's a clear lack of implied action stemming from these observations - an obvious flaw from my policy-wonk perspective. We'll see if I can come up with anything in the weeks to come.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Back to the daily grind

After a quiet Sunday evening checking in with family, I put in some quality time with Photoshop and have added new photos chronicling the daily commute. I don't have Afreen's DSLR or editing abilities, but the updates include schoolgirls, goats, billboard posters of Karzai and Masoud, mountains, mosques, a body-builder gym ad, and possibly the coolest safety goggles reminder ever. Enjoy!

click for the full album

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kabul Dreams

Last night, I attended an album release party for Kabul Dreams, an indie trio who bill themselves as "Afghanistan's only rock band." Stopping by after dinner with a friend, I missed the main set but caught an encore performed for the BBC film crew who had come to document the big event. The songs were fine, but the novelty of being a groupie won out over any cynicism about the artistry of our performers. Here's to Kabul Dreams soon billing itself the first, rather than the only, Afghan rock band.

The story of three kids from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds joining to record music in English has already proven irresistible to the foreign press - these guys have been covered on CNN, the Guardian, the Boston Globe's Big Picture, and of course my favorite folks at Foreign Policy.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Meet and greet

I ate at a colleague's home Wednesday evening. The meal itself was generous and excellently prepared - rice, stewed okra with tomato, spinach, roast chicken, meat dumplings called mantu, mixed raw vegetable plates, yogurt, and fresh watermelon for dessert. This was all prepared by Mariam, a university student and the youngest child in the family, and two friends who were curious to meet the American girls.

Our fellow guests, however, were what made dinner an experience worth sharing. First, the head of the household: his father was elected to the first Afghan parliament in 1964, under Mohammed Zahir Shah. This made the family political targets after the Soviet invasion, so at 14, he was married off to an 11-year-old neighbor and sent from Daikundi province to Pakistan. They later settled in Iran, where they raised 6 children (another 7 died in infancy). A widower, he now lives with four of his children here in Kabul.

A cousin visiting from Daikundi is running for the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the Afghan parliament, and the only one directly elected). She's already served four years on the provincial council, having first been elected at 22. She has received death threats but still campaigns as one of six women competing for one reserved seat ("we are friends and competitors," she says of the other female candidates) because she is determined to improve opportunities for women.

The newly-married sister-in-law, still settling in with her new family after only a month in the household, smiles shyly and tries out a bit of English she has learned. She agreed before the wedding that she would not work or study, but hopes that her husband will change his mind. She's been thinking about the psychology program at Kabul University, where she passed the entrance exam last year, but not with a high enough score for the psychology department.

And Mariam, the youngest daughter and our evening's chef, who is engaged to an Afghan-American in the U.S. Army. She'll be moving to the States sometime next year to join him, and she seems far more excited than nervous about this prospect. For the moment, though, she's enjoying her political science studies and her friends - the three girls pull off their scarves in the kitchen and ask their guests questions about how women dress in the States and what Lea's Chilean fiancé looks like (which leads to a computer slide show). The 16-year-old tells me I wear my scarf too conservatively and asks if I'm Muslim. I try and explain that when I wear it draped loosely as she does, it falls off. She laughs at me, but I've seen the little schoolgirls wearing scarves that are sewn so they will stay put and I know that learning to keep a flimsy bit of fabric artfully draped so as to reveal just enough hair to be stylish but not so much as to be scandalous is decidedly a learned skill, and one I'm unlikely to master in my short time here.

Re-scarving and returning to the living room to eat, we find the others - a television sports producer, a teacher who plays on the national indoor soccer team, an uncle transfixed by the Spain-Switzerland game on the television. They have stories as well, but the clock soon reaches 10 and we leave reluctantly to catch some sleep before the next day's work. After two weeks enmeshed in the internationals' bubble, this brief escape into an Afghan home has been a welcome escape from routine.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Images not my own

Foreign Policy continues to offer a surprising range of coverage on Afghanistan beyond the twists and turns of political intrigue and military policy. Today they've posted photographs taken by students in Kabul as part of an exchange project with a Philadelphia high school.

Give them a look

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the footsteps of [insert name here]

In his introduction to the latest edition of Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, Rory Stewart writes of walking through Herat and then sitting to describe the city on paper: the image of the European-uniformed traffic officers seemed the perfect vignette, if somehow too familiar. He recalled cracking open Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and finding a description of exactly these traffic police, and yet the language felt unfamiliar. Opening Byron's text, he found that someone else had indeed already put in print exactly what he had hoped to say.

Kabul feels this way some days - each of us who comes here indulges a sense of novelty, of seeking the exotic and pioneering the unfamiliar in a place that even today feels very far from home. And yet, even preparatory reading for such a journey reveals this adventurer's path to be quite well-trodden indeed. There is nothing new under the sun for the would-be wanderer: wherever you go, some young Brit probably got there more than a century before, caught some exotic disease doing so, and got a Geographic Society medal for his efforts. What fun is it to repeat the trek with modern vaccines and easy air travel? As Rory found, they probably documented it more eloquently, to boot.

The colonialists of the Great Game weren't even the first to beat me here, despite the unusual flair with which they did so. Last summer, I visited an exhibition of Afghan National Museum pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first room displayed relics from Ay Khanum - a Greek city built by Alexander the Great on the Oxus River. The Oxus is now the Amu Darya, but somehow the idea of a pagan temple in Afghanistan seems even more incredible thing from contemporary Kabul than when I marveled at its ruins in New York. Other exhibits offered scraps of Silk Road riches - Venetian glass, Indian furnishings, Egyptian idols. I write as one seeing something new and yet undiscovered, and still try to remember that all I see is familiar to many others. I have much to see for myself, but what I write here is but a pale imitation of the many who have already told this tale.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Excellent Educational Center

...or, on my budding second career in public speaking...

On my very first day at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, I met Reza. He stopped into Safi's office specifically to say hello, requested my email, and immediately sent me a welcome detailing his own contact information in case I needed anything. He proceeded to introduce me to many others over the days that followed - always as the intern from Harward. I love Reza, so when he told me his cousin runs an English school, and that he'd like for Lea and me to visit sometime, I happily agreed.

We went Friday afternoon. As we sat in the director's office, he explained that there would be a speech competition that afternoon, and that Lea and I would be introduced as guests of honor and invited to speak for 5 minutes apiece, with time for questions to follow. Then we walked across the street to another classroom building. The room had nearly 200 people, but seats were reserved in the front row for our little troupe.

The competition began with the elementary students, 8 and 10-year-olds who spoke on the question: "is it difficult to govern an uneducated country?" One said yes; without money, there is no education, and without education, we learn only from our fathers and grandfathers and never change. The winner called leadership without education "a bird without wings."

The intermediate class tackled the prompt "our culture must survive." All contrasted Islamic culture with competing forces - one of the three didn't even mention a distinct Afghan culture within the religious tradition. Another called Afghan culture "the best culture" and called for national unity in respecting diverse traditions in order to protect them from outside influences.

Finally, the most advanced students grappled with "do humans deserve to be called supreme creatures?" One girl humbly declared that we were so only because God had given us this title. The boy who followed commmented that "man is a great yet careless creature," while the winning girl discussed the social sciences and our tendency to study our own flaws rather than celebrate the essential goodness of humanity. She declined to pass a verdict: "as we are the jury, we are uncertain of our choice."

Lea and I were introduced, and she then spoke about how many opportunities her own education had given her, while Reza translated for the many parents in the room. I then stepped forward and asked how many of the students had traveled to other countries, and a few hands went up. I asked how many had been to Europe, the Middle East, or the Americas, and a very few hands stayed up. I told them that I hadn't traveled very far when I was young, but that I had read a great deal about other places and studied languages - and that eventually these studies allowed me to see the countries I had learned about through books. I finished with a silly line about how pleasing it was to see their dedication and progress, and we opened the floor.

One speech contestant asked if the students' English was actually any good, and what we liked about Afghanistan so far. A younger girl wanted to know what we thought of the weather - and the government (we evaded the latter question). Lea asked one mother about her thoughts on education and she spelled out her hopes for her children in some detail.

We beamed at the over-generous applause and sat back down as the director announced class awards and handed out end-of-term certificates. Only then did I realize that we'd been the graduation speakers, essentially. I felt ashamed - some foreign dignitaries. I hadn't even practiced remarks properly! In any case, the welcome was warm, and I've now been invited home for dinner by Reza's father, who has also promised to find me a nice Afghan boy to marry... a productive Friday indeed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The daily grind - a Kabul commute

(new photos added 6pm, 6/10/10)

I've spent some part of the last week snapping photos out the car window on the way to and from the office. Most of them are blurred by the motion, or marred by traffic driving through the shot, but the handful I've collected here offer some view of the Kabul I see day-to-day. Enjoy!

click for the full album

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Joking around

My colleagues love to tease and are quick to laugh. Sometimes I don't really get what's so funny, and at other times I join in the fun. Some jokes I've been told over the last few days:

On marriage:
A wealthy Pakistani man returns after a time in America. Stopping in to make a small purchase, he tells the shopkeeper that he's looking for a wife, and where should he begin the search? The shopkeeper returns home and tells his young daughter that a rich man - with a green card - is looking for a wife, and would she maybe want to marry him and go to the US? The daughter agrees, and so wedding planning begins.

After the party, the newlyweds return to the groom's hotel, where he first peels off a toupee, then pulls out his false teeth... and then leans down to unscrew his artificial leg. The bride runs screaming back to her father's house, where she storms in to yell at him: "You didn't tell me he was falling apart!"

On Afghans and Arabs:
Two Afghan men traveled to Jordan. Arriving in the airport, they became separated briefly. One of them stumbled across two Jordanian men arguing - their voices raised, gesturing wildly. The Afghan watched, baffled, for a moment, but soon wandered on and found his friend again. He told him: "Jordanians are strange! You'd never believe what I saw - these two meen were fighting, and even then all they do is yell from the Qur'an!"

(this because most Afghans would encounter Arabic primarily, or exclusively, via readings of the Qur'an, but wouldn't necessarily understand enough to recognize non-religious conversations or arguments from these formal readings.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Updates from the AIHRC

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was founded eight years ago yesterday - June 6, 2002. Staff here commemorated the day with tea, cake, and a brief speech from Dr. Sima Samar, the chair of the commission. She noted that 8 years old is equivalent to a third-grade student, with much already learned and yet much more to do, and then spoke directly to a number of different programs within the Commission.

I was proud because the election-monitoring team, formed that very day, received a brief mention. As hoped, I will be spending my summer receiving data from AIHRC field offices on political rights and violations complaints, then helping to write reports and regular press releases. Coming soon - a primer on the electoral system and possibly some of the candidates involved in September's elections, which will choose the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the legislature - the upper house, or Meshrano Jirga, is an appointed body).

It was also an opportunity to meet Dr. Samar. She was reportedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year (nominations and deliberations are not made public for 50 years), and some commentators mentioned her as a superior candidate to President Obama. She served as the first Minister of Women's Affairs and founded a women's rights organization called Shuhada (where Afreen is working for the summer). More recently, she was also appointed the UN special reporter on Darfur and named one of Forbes's 100 Most Powerful Women.

The days remain quiet as work plans remain in the formative stage, but as voter registration begins on June 12, it's certain to get busier quite soon.

Friday, June 4, 2010

and it's a strange condition...

So day three of the peace jirga is underway with no further incident, and after 60 hours mostly confined to the guesthouse, I'm very much ready to return to the office tomorrow. Today, the Japanese restaurant down the block reopened, providing a pleasant (if minor) change in scenery in which to sit and feel confined.

bento boxes in Kabul?

This restaurant, like every place that caters to the international set, is completely unmarked outside. A friend of a friend told us to look for the orange door just across the street from our guesthouse, and surely enough there was a rose-garden cafe and local handicrafts shop tucked behind it. Staff in the guesthouse pointed us to the coffeeshop just a few steps further down the street. Another expat's dining guide provides plenty of recommendations and helpful directions to each.

Thankfully, there's also a private taxi service (or three) that serve the foreigners as well - the dispatcher answers in English, and the drivers know all the usual hangouts, including many private houses, by name. (This is exceedingly helpful in a city where building numbers are rare and not all streets are named). For $4, they'll drop you off at the unmarked door of your choice, in their equally unmarked Corollas.

Then it's a matter of knocking and stepping into a small alcove to be searched. Afreen draws curious looks from the guards who check her backpack - Afghans aren't allowed in many of these places, so she looks suspicious until beginning to speak. Bags approved, the armed guards open a second door into a world completely removed from any exterior reality. The Taverna du Liban has a four-foot tall brass teapot decorating one corner and serves hookah; the Gandamack Lodge contains a reasonable approximation of a British pub, with the exception of the official government permit requesting that they not serve alcohol to "Afghan citizens or muslims" and a very American "Mad River Glen: ski it if you can" sticker over the bar.

This second, secretive Kabul provides escape from the chaos and possible threats found in the first. Still, its isolation from the greater city is total, and it would be quite easy to live here and never interact with a local except to order dinner. At the end of a day in my office, where I am the only foreigner in the building and one of a mere handful in the organization, it is strange to return to a world my colleagues simply don't know. I eat cafeteria Afghan lunches and participate in spirited half-translated discussions on politics, world affairs, and comparative sociology, only to vanish back into home comforts and English in these separate evening spaces. My desire to escape the speakeasy-bubble is kept in check by uncertainty, however - in an unfamiliar place, who am I to break with habit and test the risks? It's a deeply restrictive little world, and yet it is comfortably so.

at least it's lovely

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Safe, sound, and stir-crazy already

So a peace jirga began this morning, and as a result, pretty much everything in Kabul is closed down, including my office and any restaurant catering to the expat crowd. I'd planned to post later today to break the lock-down boredom, but given that news reports are now talking of rockets, suicide bombers, and the evacuation of some delegates, I'm just posting briefly to note that our guesthouse is far enough away that I'm also following this online, having not heard any of the explosions, and everything remains calm. I'm going to be pretty supremely bored by the time everything is back to normal on Saturday, so do email links, stories, and other distractions...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

AIHRC in the news

In January, a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old girl ran away from their much older, abusive husbands. Authorities in Herat, rather than taking them to women's shelters or prosecuting the illegal marriages, returned them home to be beaten. The local leadership beat them - 40 lashes apiece - and filmed the process.

The video made it to the AIHRC, which pushed national authorities to respond. When they did nothing, the Commission released the video. A New York Times article on the case made the front page yesterday.

It's a sad recognition of just how far there is to go, but I'm encouraged that there is a watchdog making these things public - and I'm glad to work with them for even this short time. It should be an interesting summer...