Saturday, June 26, 2010

"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.

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