This is Kabul!

This is Kabul!

Halima Kazem

Institute for Afghan Studies

May 2015

I am having the experience of my life here in Kabul. Landing in Kabul Valley, in the middle of the beautiful Hindu Kush Mountains was a surreal feeling. It still hasn't hit me that I am in Afghanistan, a place that existed only in my dreams. I thought I would feel homesick but the moment I landed in Kabul Airport I felt the majestic mountains embrace me like a long lost mother and the battered but resilient ground support me like a brave! father. Although I miss my family and friends, the Afghans here do not let you get lonely. They tell me that I am not just their friend but their sister, daughter or aunt. The Afghans here are amazingly resilient and gracious people. Everywhere I go, people are so happy to see me and thank me for coming back to help them. These people have nothing, but want to offer me the world. I have never encountered such hospitality and warmth. This is Kabul!

Kabul is buzzing with excitement. Traffic is comparable to New York. Every morning on my way to Shar-i-now, I get stuck in a sea of late model Toyota Corolla Taxis. A typical taxi ride in Kabul is between 20,000 Afghanis, about 50 US cents. Driving is crazier than New York. If the driver gets tired of waiting he can cross on to the other side and drive down what would typically be the wrong side of the street. There are not traffic laws in Kabul. Intersections are another amazing sight. There are no traffic lights, but there is a traffic officer who holds a stop sign the size of the palm of my hand. No one listens to him and he is practically useless. What's more, some! times he stops cars in the middle of the intersection to chat with acquaintances in the car. This is Kabul!

Most women still wear the chadari, but as every day goes by I see more and more women with out it. Having been here for two weeks I can see why many women still cover their faces. I have wanted to many times myself, less for security issues and more for privacy. The men in Afghanistan have been so deprived of seeing and interacting with women that when I walk outside with just my head scarf their piercing dark eyes bear into my face like hawks ready for attack. They study my every move for as long as they can, whether I am just driving by in a taxi, crossing the street or sitting in a restaurant. But they never whistle or say anything except for Salaam. When I say Salaam back the stone like stares melt into soft shy smiles, like a neglected child just being recognized. I have come to realize that the men of Afghanistan have suffered as well.

Communications is still pretty difficult here. Unless you can afford a $350 cell phone it is almost impossible to get any work done. Even with a cell phone I find myself physically going to an office to set up an interview. Don't even think about regular internet access, I got lucky because I work in a government office. Otherwise you have to dial into Pakistan via a satellite phone that costs $2 a minute. Then if you are lucky you can get a connection that takes 5 minutes to load a simple, graphic-free page. Frustration is useless in Kabul, there is no place to rush to and most of your time is spent sipping tea and listening to people's war stories. This is Kabul!

At the same time economic conditions are bad. Women in chadaris and children beg on the street. If you give money to one, you get hounded by dozens more. The extreme poverty causes many of the beggars to get aggressive. Many of the women pull at our clothing and scarves and the children hold on to car windows, even when the car is in motion. I am deeply disturbed by the culture of beggars that has developed here. I hope this changes soon.

Before I leave I must tell you one more story. It is about Haseeb, the driver of the delegation that I was on for the first two weeks of my trip. 25 year old Haseeb has a wife and 5 children. He does not know how to read or write but has survived ten years as a mujahadeen fighter. He still has bullet wounds that have not healed. Haseeb is a soft spoken, humble man with a chiseled brown face. His black eyes are usually blood shot, caused by a mix of the dust in Kabul and by the worries of feeding his large family. Haseeb quickly became a part of our delegation. He watched over the women like a protective big brother and joked with the men like a best friend. For two weeks Haseeb drove us around the pot holes and through the bumpy streets of Kabul. We sang Afghan songs with him and taught him some English words. At first he would not sit with us at restaurants because he said he was poor and did not belong at our table. We told him we would not eat a bite if he did not share it with us, we told him we were all Afghans. Haseeb never lost his modesty but we noticed him a little bit happier every day he was with us. The day before the delegation was over we all hopped into Haseeb's caravan as we normally did. Haseeb was in his normal position, at the wheel, but instead of a twinkle in his eyes he had tears. He was wiping his tears with his checkered Northern Alliance scarf. We initially thought something tragic must have happened in Haseeb's home, but it turned out that he was sad because it was our last day together. I just kept staring at this tall burly warrior crying like a child who had lost his parents. It broke my heart to see him shiver with sadness. This was a man who had battled life's worst foes and had survived. I soon realized that Haseeb was not just crying for us, he was crying for all of the dead bodies he had seen in his life, the pain and the poverty he had lived through and the abandonment he had felt before meeting our group. Our laughter and singing was much needed medicine for him. For the first time in his life he had hope. This is Kabul!


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