Monday, January 29, 2007


Shia flags and pillars erected in memory of Hussein ibn Ali

Gate commemorating Hussein in the Hazara neighborhood of Kart-e-Seh

Cars driving through Kabul were decorated in honor of Ashura. The flag on the minivan says "Ya Hussein," or "Oh! Hussein" in Arabic, and Farsi.

This gate was set up in front of a Shia mosque, being built by Iran, in Kart-e-Seh

Partially built mosque decorated for Ashura

Today is the 10th of Maharam, or Ashura (literally 10 in Arabic), a day of mourning for Shia Muslims. Shias believe that Hussein ibn Ali, the rightful successor of the prophet Mohammed (in their opinion), was martyred on this day in the 600s AC. Many Shia communities observe the day by dressing in black and retelling stories of Hussain's tragic and untimely death and how he was cheated from his rightful place as the leader of the Muslim community, or umma. Ashura is probably most famous for the images of Shia men, marching in streets beating their chests with their hands, chains and sometimes blades in mourning for Hussein.

When the Prophet Mohammed died, he did not leave a clear successor. At that time, it was common for leaders to be selected by the community - they did not inherit positions. However, some people claimed that the Prophet had in fact named Ali (Hussein's father and husband to the Prophet's wife) as his successor, while others said that the Prophet's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was the one the Prophet intended to lead the Muslim people. In the end, Abu Bakr led both the Sunni and Shia communities. The name Shia, comes from Shia Ali, or the party of Ali (Hussein's father), and the split between Sunnis and Shias date back to this time.

Ashura tends to aggravate differences and tensions between Shia and Sunni communities. Extremist Sunnis believe celebrating Ashura is sacrilegious and have been known to attack Shias during their mourning processions. Saddam Hussein actually banned Ashura in Iraq for many years to avoid conflict.

In Afghanistan, the Hazara community is Shia, and they mourn the death of Hussein openly, despite their minority status. I live in a Hazara neighborhood, but I didn't get to see the procession because we were under 'lock down' today - just in case there was any trouble between the Sunni and Shia communities. The pictures above were taken two days before Ashura, and most of them are in my neighborhood in the south west part of the city, near the Parliament building.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Decisions Made

Well, I've been mulling over the topic of my last email pretty single-mindedly since I wrote it, and I've come to a decision. It's funny, as with most major decisions in my life - it wasn't really conscious. I thought about it, talked about it and wrote about and then, on minute I just knew what I was going to do, even though the moment before I still wasn't sure. Does your mind work that way too?

So, if I'm offered the job I'm staying. I decided that it's too great of an opportunity to pass up and most of my reasons for wanting to leave are things that I have at least some control of. I think I'll go home in April, at the end of this consultancy contract, and then when I come back I'll be in the mindset of staying for a year. I think a big part of my problem was the uncertainty, and feeling like I had a lot of loose ends at home to tie up. I didn't spend the kind of quality time with my friends and family, and just doing the things that I like to do before coming here because I thought I would only be here for three months - a mere 90 days.

When I go home I'm going to go for lots of long walks, get ragingly drunk several times a week, stay up all night gossiping with my friends; I'll hit the Little Gem, Clark's, the Steak n Egg, The Raven and the Big Hunt. I'm going to see lots of movies and spent a small fortune at the bookstore and I think I'll invest in a mat and some yoga dvds - I've never tried it before, maybe I'll like it...

And when I get back to Kabul I'm going to start taking Dari classes, work less at night and try and meet more people. I think the combination of all of these things will help me to maintain a better outlook and perspective on why I'm here. I'm also going to try and take short trips traveling around the region (the winter makes it difficult) but I'd love to spend some time in Lahore, Islamabad, Pashawar, Karachi, Delhi, Almaty, Bishkek... there's so much to see from here and Kabul's a nice central location to work from - okay, maybe not, but it'll do.

The hardest part is putting off my return to Palestine. But, there aren't many jobs there at the moment, and the skills I learn here will only make me more marketable in the future - I'm just postponing that part of my life for a while, hopefully. The second hardest part is accepting that I will probably miss Millerstock this year - sorry guys...

Of course, now I have to write that job proposal and see what the DC office has to say about it... now that I've decided I want to stay I'll be disappointed if it doesn't work out!

I do have to admit that a (small) part of my decision to stay came from hearing so many people tell me to come home...I'm just stubborn like that, I guess.

Finally, I wanted to thank you all for the comments I recieved from both friends and strangers about my last post. Your support and interest mean a lot to me - keep reading and I'll try to put up more pics soon!

Saturday, January 13, 2007


So, I’ve been told that I’m beginning to exhibit signs of the dreaded “burnout”. No one can define burnout per se, but is an expression bandied around in the development community to describe people who have been in the field too long. Classic symptoms are irritability, inability to concentrate, insensitivity and inability to stop working. I’ve definitely been irritable and working too hard, I hope that I’m not being insensitive. Generally speaking, field workers in Afghanistan should go on R&R every 3 months – otherwise you start risking burnout. UN employees get R&R every 6 weeks. I’ve been here for close to four months, and won’t get a break for another month. This happened for a variety of reasons: lack of money, job insecurity and everyone else’s vacation schedules.

The problem is that a lot of the techniques expats use to relieve stress aren’t available here. I can’t just go for a long walk for myself, hang out with friends, hit my favorite bookstore or coffee shop… I spend a lot of time alone, which I enjoy, but my options for company are extremely limited. It’s funny – in DC I was quite the social butterfly, but lately I’ve been turning down my limited social events to stay in and watch movies on my laptop or work. I have books that I’d like to read, but they just sit on my shelf and stare at me reproachfully.

I almost canceled my plans with Dave today, but having recognized the burnout signs, I forced myself to go out and hang out with him. I had a great time with him and it helped a lot to just talk to someone about life without focusing too much on work. I need to find a stress reliever that is available here, or I’m never going to make until April. I could get a gym membership (yuck) or I can try harder to meet people. Problem is a lot of the expats around my age are into the party scene and I don’t want to get drawn into it. Aside from being culturally inappropriate it would be easy to let alcohol become my stress reliever, which is even less healthy than being burnt out. So, if you have any suggestions, fill me in…

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Visiting Barchi

Kids skating on the ice outside N's house

The little guy on the left is N's oldest son, Mohsen

N and his youngest child, Mahdi

The whole family

Me (blinking) and N's family

This morning I had the opportunity to visit an Afghan family in their home. N, one of our drivers, invited me to meet his wife and children who recently arrived from Ghazni. It was a wonderful morning. N lives in the Hazara neighborhood called Barchi, not far from our office. There are three main ethnic groups in Afghanistan – Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras. Hazaras are decendents of Ghengis Khan’s armies, and their features are more east Asian than other Afghans. Because of their ethnicity, and their history, they are often persecuted by other Afghans – both the Taleban and the Mujahaddin targeted them during the 80s and 90s.

We drove down narrow, muddy lanes to get to N’s house, which is set back behind a big lot. On the way N insisted on apologizing for the “poor facilities” at his home. I reassured him not to worry about it, and told him that I was honored to be invited. When we arrived there were some children outside the gate of his house running and sliding on a big patch of ice. When we entered the gate we were greeted by N’s wife, his sister-in-law and several children. I was ushered inside, and after removing my shoes was led to the “guest” room. The room was very clean with lots of carpets and burgundy cushions lining the perimeter. I was offered a seat next to the wood stove and N’s sister-in-law brought in tea, cookies and nuts.

The children filed into the room, sitting quietly at first and peeking at me from behind N and the woodstove. Eventually they decided I wasn’t going to sprout a second head and they started angling over towards the cookies. N’s youngest child is almost a year old, and he sat in N’s lap most of the time I was there, drooling and giggling and trying to walk. Some of the female children came in a little later, but they hung back even more than the other kids – except one girl named Hadiya (which means gift) who sat right next to me but wouldn’t look at me. She was probably about 3 years old.

N lives with his wife and two children, his brother’s wife and five children and his mother. His brother works in Iran and sends money home, but N is responsible for the entire group.

After the tea, the women delivered Bolangi, a kind of potato pancake stuffed with vegetables, chicken and French fries. And so, the game began. I ate a much as I could, keeping in mind that the women and children would not eat until I was finished. Then N insisted that I eat more, so I took a few more bites. Meanwhile, N’s neice, Fatima joined us. She is about 17 and in 11th grade. She arrived from Ghazni yesterday, and as a guest was allowed to eat with N and I, unlike the other women. I use the word allowed in a cultural sense – not that N would not let them eat with us, just that it would be considered impolite.

Fatima had lots of questions for me about America, my life and my family. She also wanted to know how old I was. I told her to guess, and she said 18 or 19. Which means that she probably thought I was about 21 or 22 but didn’t want to offend me by guessing too high. Her eyes got really big when I told her that I am 27. Afghans age much faster than westerner’s are used to because of the harsh conditions they live in, and because of the dryness of the climate. Admittedly, I do look younger than my age, but most Americans would guess my age around 25. Most 25 year-old Afghans look about 35 or even 40 to Western eyes. After more polite conversation I convinced N to let me take a picture of his whole, beautiful family. N’s wife, Nafisa, tried to insist that I stay for lunch, but I demurred (I had just eaten lunch by my standards).

N makes a good salary by Afghan standards, but his income is supporting 11 people. Their home is very basic and without electricity, water or heat other than bukharis (woodstoves). The leftovers from the food they served me will probably be shared among all the children and the women. But, not eating would have mortally offended N and his family. He views having me as a guest in his home to be a big honor, and I’m sure it will be talked about for many days to come. I am the one who was honored, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have a little peek into Afghan life, even if all the kids were wearing their very best Eid clothes and had been scrubbed within an inch of their lives. These are the sorts of things that make working abroad worthwhile for me, and unfortunately because of the security situation in Afghanistan they are few and far between.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Overcoming Stereotypes

This week has been full of interesting cultural experiences. Yesterday, I visited a friend at his security contractor camp. Talk about culture shock. He works for a US Security contractor and that protect diplomats from attacks. In Kabul there is a decent sized expat community, but it isn’t all that big. Even so, it is unusual to find security contractors and aid workers hanging out for a variety of reasons ranging from politics, moral beliefs, prejudice and even security from the NGO perspective (military targets are preferred by the Taleban, so we try to keep our distance). Dave and I met online and have had many interesting discussions about Afghanistan, the military, Palestine-Israel and US politics. So, when he invited me to visit his camp (he’s not allowed to go out) I decided to take him up on his offer. I wasn’t sure what to expect – what does a security contractor camp look like? Well, it looks a lot like the military base, Camp Eggars. Lots of security, and lots of men with guns. To be honest, you can find men with guns in most places in Kabul, but this was one of the most “secured” places that I’ve visited – only beat by Camp Eggars and the US Embassy.

Dave and I had a nice time hanging out in their common room, eating German chocolate-covered gingerbread cookies and talking about the state of the world. It was refreshing to hang out and converse with someone who I don’t work and/or live with. It was also funny to see how carefully diplomatic we were in choosing our words, especially when we disagreed on a point. We both know that idealistic, treehugging, snail sister NGO types and neanderthal, gun-totting, womanizing security types aren’t supposed to get along, much less agree on many topics.

My visit was cut short due to changes in visiting hours, but we’re hoping to get together again soon and continue our discussions. I think it is good for me to expand my horizons a little and try to look at the situation here from a perspective other than the NGO world view. It is a mistake to surround yourself with people who agree with you on most issues – it is hard to learn that way.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Traffic Jam

Some kids in the back of truck, stuck in traffic

I stared at this view for about 20 minutes while waiting for traffic to start moving again

New Mosque, courtesy of Iran

Cinema in Karte-Say that was bombed, probably by the mujahaddin

Detour through a slightly flooded side street

These are some pictures that I took on Monday, the last day of Eid, and first day of the new year, during the hour long car ride back to my house. It normally takes 15 -20 minutes, but everyone was out and about - including important people which resulted in lots of blocked roads and backed up traffic.