Smiles, stares and the streets of Kabul.

Kabul. I start writing this with the lights out. There is another of Kabul's periodic power cuts. Choppers above shake the glass in the window frames with a low bass thump thump thump. This is not a city at war in the sense of shelling and battle lines, nor is there (at least presently) a constant supply of suicide bombers. On arrival here I was forced into quarantine due to a lack of house keys. The outside world became more intense in my imagination as I was unable to challenge the media mythologies I arrived with. Finally I have been let out. So here  is a story of the people I have met and places I have been so far, walking, in the streets of Kabul.

Mud, brick and concrete. Collections of buildings viewed from hillside.

The dusty mud streets in most areas of town are arranged with a rag-tag collection of low rise buildings. Some are protected by groups of armed guards others are empty plots, holes in the ground, dusty arcades or decaying mud structures. High walls, barbed wire and metal gates are the norm. No one here has ground floor windows unless they are selling something. One could say this city has an inbuilt defensiveness in it's architecture. From the gory modern nouveau Arabia-Indo-Asian mansions of warlords and well-to-dos to the well maintained mud-brick homes on lower mountainside slopes, enclosure here, is king. The history of fortification is long and on smaller hills within the city mud walled medieval castles are perched on high promitories. At the top of one of these hillforts I walk with a new found friend, Eagle -a translator who has worked for most of the international forces. The boys playing football in the dust stop to swarm round us. This Eagle tells me, is probably the first time these boys have ever met a real live westerner. There is laughter and talk about football. "So which team do you support?" "We are a team," they reply. Surrounding their play area are hillocks and trenches -former hiding holes of the Taliban who once holed their artillery up here. No wonder the ANA guard was edgy about my small camera. Eagle explains how he hates his neighbour and his neighbour hates him. He has had a taste of high salaries -the British paid him $3000+ a  month- before the Americans knocked his worth down to the two hundreds. Now, as troops depart he has been laid off and has had to get a job in a bank. All he wants to do is leave the country he was born to and talks in heavily disparaging terms about. As I make my leave the conversation turns more philosophical: "If only everyone, everywhere could live as one." he says.

The architecture of defence. Barbed wire, metal gates, high walls and a dog cage.
In the centre of town there are buildings -banks, hotels and small malls- such as you would find in any other big city, including an Afgan fried chicken (a thousand culinary miles away from the cxxp found back home). There are no Maccy D's or Starbucks; imagine! an untouched corner! If they ever do get here they would be very popular...with pallid people wearing cumbersome vests.

For this very reason what is here, away from the municipal and westernised, is a culture many of us have a deep nostalgia for. Here you will find bakers selling fresh warm naan bread; baked in a oven-hole in the ground. Walking past one such shop I'm invited in. The smiles inside are wide and the eyes as bright and soft and warm as their bread. They are Uzbeks and as my eyes adjust to the darkness I see the inner chasm of their shop has no ceiling, just a big open space with a mezzanine bed from which numerous welcoming eyes peer. I see an instant photo but decide forming a friendship is more important. I ask the young man who asked me in his name. He smiles "Israel!" everyone laughs, including me, and he makes a cutting motion with his hand across his neck. It is a lighthearted joke, yet with all humour perhaps, revealing.

Here you will find a make do and mend culture. Cobblers fix shoes on streets. Small stalls fix bicycle punctures or change chain-wheels right on the roadside. There are rows upon rows of welders and blacksmiths and tailors. There are hardware stores where you can buy hand-fulls of loose nails and screws. There is a butchers with a live sheep outside, framed by the remnants of his former flock, swinging above his head. There is a shop that only sells one kind of soup, but it is the only kind of soup you would wish for -filled with meat and veg and egg and spice. Fish are arranged in geometric patterns on the fishmongers wall -a work of art in of itself. Likewise the fruit and vegetable cubby hole shops are colourfully arranged with a pride and a  flair,  for enticement. This is local, small scale heaven -the type supermarkets smash. At the only piano and guitar shop in town I ask the genial, sparkling, white haired owner -piano tuner to embassies and kings- Ahmad Shah Ayoub, how many pianos he has sold lately?

 In the past tens years, he says, "Three."

Walking the streets I am aware of two types of reaction to my Anglo looks -smiles, and stares. Smiles are easily returned and stares easily melted, with a smile and a salaam. Most people will beam back, some don't, but then how many smiles do you get in a city? There are certainly more smiles for strangers here than one would find in Chicago,  Cincinnati or Southwark. But then I do stick out. There are many handshakes and "Hello Mr, how are you's?" Members of the Afghan armed forces are alert    -no slouching here-  yet when I consciously nod or make eye contact with them their eyes invairabily give a quick smile back. Living here is a practice in offering friendliness...consistently, and my Afghan colleagues in the office demonstrate how to do this with perfection. One bad experience with a westerner could have unforeseen ramifications, so manners come to the fore. Whilst walking to work one day a man dashes from a car across the street towards me, when he realises how this could be interpreted (Bomber or kidnapper) he shouts: "Sorry, Sorry, Sorry!" as he passes.  I laugh and he laughs. What a laugh, this city!
Boy with Birds on one of the better streets.

Out on the street the ever present world-wide story of have and have nots continues. Many of the burqa bearing women I see are alone, begging; the bright blue of their cloak soiled with dirt. I wonder if they are unmarried, widowed or unwanted? Probably not, says an Afghan friend with the everyday big city attitude:"They are professionals, they don't have jobs." I make no comment. In amongst the unruly traffic of a dual carriage-way a man kneels on crutches, his hand raised to the skies, waiting for money to fall like rain. A male amputee with no legs pulls himself along in a cart, his only hand, stuck in a flip-flop pushes the ground. One cold evening as I enter an expat restaurant a young girl asks for money, two hours later she is still there... and the dollar bill I give her slips seamlessly from my hand to her pocket, and out again for more. Scenes like this reveal everyday negativity back home for what it is, an indulgence.

Which brings me, rather neatly, to the swankiest hotel in Kabul where after walking through the blast walls, armed guards and security checks, the lounge atrium and gardens, one is greeted with sparkling silver dishes containing meats, smoked salmon, salads, fishes, intricate sweets and ice creams. What a difference a few greenback dollars makes. Not one Afghan face is present here but this is the palatial place their President is known to stay at. As we walk in an English friend tells me the hotel has been attacked several times  -the last not so very long ago. "Oh really?" I say nonchalantly, "How many people died?" "Around twenty," comes the reply..."What gets me is that they got to the gym and no one rang ahead,"says another. So this is casual Kabul talk, I guess. It would hardly be your average hotel phone call would it? "Reception here, there's a suicide bomber heading your way, do get out of the steam room!"
A world apart.
Another conversation with someone I just met in a small ex-pat bar
went something like this:

A man hands me his card. It reads: 'Lieutenant Colonel xxxxx Military Attache Assistant, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the Islamic Rebublic of Afghanistan.'

HIM: (Russian accent): If you have any problems with the Russian Embassy, just contact me.
ME: (Inner Geordie voice): I'll bear that in mind, bonny lad.
HIM:  What do you do?
ME: I work for a Peacemaking NGO.
HIM: You think this country is ever going to have peace?
ME: Let's not even go there.
HIM: (Laughter) In my country we say this is a conversation that needs two bottles of vodka.
ME:  At least, and good vodka! (more laughter)

So there, time to sign off, with a smile, as I stare into this city...


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