My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In Pursuit of Truth, Kebabs and Illicit Russian Vodka

Atif is a barrel of a man with crystal blue eyes and arms like tree trunks. He is an ex-soldier now working in the one Afghan industry that appears to be booming: security. He manages and trains over a hundred guards that are rented out by different NGOs, embassies and private individuals. Guards are a standard commodity for any foreign program or party in Kabul. Plates, drinks, AK-47s, the checklist goes...

On May 29, Atif heard about the standoff between an angry crowd and a crashed American convoy in North Kabul. He went to the scene. The crowd's anger rose and soon they were picking up stones and throwing them at the American soldiers. The victims of the crash, at least seven Afghan civilians, lay dead in 12 smashed vehicles. The soldiers were sweating under a glaring Afghan sun. Then the tension hit breaking point.

The US military insists that the soldiers of the convoy fired warning shots over the angry crowd's heads. Atif knows otherwise. And he has a five inch gash in his right hip from the bullet of a 50-calibre Humvee machine gun to prove it. He said the troops panicked and fired directly into the crowd. The people standing to his right and left were shot and killed. Atif hobbled to a hospital where he found dozens of the injured. Already spilling blood from a wound he could put three of his fingers in, he donated more to those worse off than him.

After meeting Atif, I hitched a ride home with three venture capitalists. Venturing far, indeed. They cranked the stereo to Kanye West's "Diamonds are Forever" as we raced through the deserted streets of a Kabul night. We turned it down respectfully for each police checkpoint.

The next day I joined my friends Qais and Anna for kebabs down the road. As we sat and ate, under a ceiling made entirely of UNDP food aid bags, Qais told us about the time he spent in Taliban jails. His crime? A passion for Bollywood films. He would rent the films - at least two a night and three on Fridays - from a man disguised as a vagabond, carrying a large rubbish bag full of the illicit entertainment smuggled in from Pakistan. He was caught three times, and each time spent three weeks in jail, living off of bread and water and moving large stones from one room to another and back again.

Today the kebab shop is festooned with posters of the hottest Indian stars and a television in the corner plays the voluptuous videos of the latest soundtracks. However, at any hint of cleavage, a black square appears on the screen to filter out any possibility of imported immorality.

Two days later I was in the back of a car on the Jalalabad road, navigating through the rocket-pocked buildings of eastern Kabul. This part of the city was the most destroyed and is still struggling to rebuild. But our destination was another planet altogether. The driver pulled up at an unmarked, tall iron gate, and a guard ran a mirror under the car to check for bombs. He waved us through with the butt of his rifle, and we rolled into the parking lot of Blue Store, a small Wal-Mart of imported goods for soldiers and ex-pats. Next to the cars was a field of shipping containers piled three-high.

I walked into the store on a mission to pick up some Russian vodka for some Afghan friends. Imported alcohol makes up a large part of Blue's merchandise, and until the government banned it, Afghans once made up its biggest patronage. You can still pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the shadows of the black market bazaars, but it's easier and cheaper to send a foreigner into the Blue's cool, linoleum-tiled bizarreness. I walked past an American soldier grunting his way into a new pair of boots, found the liquor section and picked up some vodka and a bottle of French wine. The radio was playing sappy love songs from the early '90s when I checked out and walked back into Afghanistan.

That night two Afghan friends and I cloistered ourselves away in an office with a radio, three glasses and a book of Hafez. As we listened to Sufi khawali music we talked about Afghanistan.

"For 25 years we've been without a government," one of them told me. "Can you imagine that? That means no education, no police, no healthcare. The only thing that kept us together was being Afghan. Go ask a Tajik here if he wants to join Tajikistan! He'll tell you you're dreaming."

I asked them if there was genuine support for Hamid Karzai amongst the Afghans. One answered me with an old proverb.

"It is better to be a brave man than a wise man in Afghanistan. I like Karzai, but I don't respect him."

"The only thing I like about Karzai is his dress," the other told me. "He wears the chapan robe from the North, and the karakul hat of the South. Take off his dress and he is nothing." The emperor's clothes indeed.

They told me about who they considered to be the true Afghan leaders. People like Daud Khan, who met his death with an AK-47 in his hands, holed up with 17 members of his family in his home, firing into the division of Soviet soldiers trying to arrest him. The entire family was killed.

"For years education in Afghanistan has been simple," one told me. "One Kalashnikov plus two Kalashnikovs equals three Kalashnikovs."

But in the Sufi tradition, after a while our conversation mellowed into themes of love and beauty. I was told about the fahl, or blessing, of Hafez. Legend has it that when you hold a book of Hafez in your hands and think long and hard about a matter of great importance to you in that moment, then open to a random page, the words will read as if they were written for you.

I was solemnly handed the book.

When I found my page, the poem was read aloud, in smooth, rhythmic, classical Persian. It was about courageous love. After it was finished, we let the words hang in the air, sat back in our chairs, took a sip of vodka and stared silently into the night.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Herat: from Sharia to Shakespeare

"These beautiful buildings may be destroyed by rain or by sun,
but I have built a palace of poetry which will never be damaged."
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh

If you stand in one of the towers of Herat's thousand-year-old citadel you have a commanding view over the city that once, in terms of culture and the arts, knew no equal. The mud and straw houses still stretch to the city's limits; small lines of light and shadow etched into the sand. The bazaar below still teems with people buying spices, vegetables and carpets, and occasionally slipping from the blazing summer sun to drink chai under the shade of a pine tree.

The scene can't be much different than if Tamerlane were standing beside you, looking out over his glorious capital, 700 years ago.

The citadel has seen the rise and fall of a thousand years' worth of Central Asian empires. Yet, even a building as old as this still has its firsts. Last Saturday, 250 people gathered within its walls to watch something that until very recently would have been unthinkable - a performance of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost," translated into Dari.

Amidst the jaw-dropping set of the citadel's towering ramparts, a troupe of talented Afghans put on the show, suitably filled with witty Dari couplets, humour and heartache. And for a city still emerging from the Taliban's war on the arts, the result was a production as political as it was cultural.

In the five years the Taliban ruled Herat, they whitewashed paintings, banned music and dancing and outlawed the celebration of the Persian new year, Nawroz. Herat could only stand and watch as its vibrant artistic legacy was veiled and locked away. The citadel's massive walls were used instead to launch mortars on the city.

Beginning with the Soviet invasion and ending with the fall of the Taliban, in the past 25 years, Herat has been rocked by war that has destroyed more of the city than even Genghis Khan and his hordes were capable. As a result, the citadel - itself an old caravan serai once on the Silk Road - has gone largely unexcavated. Modern warfare has added its own artifacts. Today, broken pieces of glazed pottery from the city's glory days catch the midday sun alongside bullet shells of all sizes.

From the citadel tower you can also see the Masjid Jomeh, or Friday Mosque, which holds within its towering azure-tiled walls some of the only squre meters of this country that haven't been bombed to pieces in the past 25 years of fighting. The place resonates with peace. There men of all ages read scriptures from the Koran, while pacing the cool marbled floor underneath lofty arches. It doesn't take more than a breath in this place to be knocked flat by its depth of history.

And yet, as the sun cast the citadel's walls in gold and the actors and actresses belted their lines from a stage of carpets, all was not well in our fair scene. The surprise of a bold performance by women and liberal view as to what is accepted in Islam divided the opinions of the crowd. Upon seeing the actresses remove their veils and the actors dance a scene without shirts, the Minister of Education stood up and left. An NGO worker named Mohammed said that the minister was a close friend of the former Herat governor Ismael Khan, a conservative warlord who still wields great power in the city.

Mohammed is worried about the survival of the arts in Afghanistan.

"It is not enough to have magnificent buildings, or a great previous leader," he said. "We have to do new things. Education is the key, you have to educate people to be ready for these things."

Due to careful advertising in girls' schools and newly-formed women's unions, of the 250 in the audience, approximately 40 percent were women. One, dressed in a sky-blue burqa, told the organizer of the performance that she was overjoyed by the theatre.

"This is the first time a woman has been on stage in Herat," she said in fluent English. "Now more will follow, because it won't be taboo anymore."

If education is needed, Afghans have been robbed of it by ceaseless war and draconian leadership. Now in this precarious peace may be the chance to rebuild the traditions of arts and literature. A major development goal in Afghanistan is to improve the country's appalling literacy rates. As the figures stand now, 80 percent of women and 50 percent of men cannot read or write.

But sitting with the actors in a city park at midnight, drinking chai and smoking a hookah, I realized that statistics don't account for everything. As we sat, the actors told jokes and stories, laughing at life, the hardships they had lived through and the current situation of their country. Then two of them brushed off their hands for a bout of shaer jangi, or 'poetry war.' One would recite a perfectly metered couplet, leaving the other to return one starting with the letter that the previous ended on. It was sheer magic. We shared the cool night air with Hafez, Rumi and Ferdowsi. There was no end to the number of verses in these actor's heads. With an oral history such as this, what does literacy mean, anyway? Many people their age in the West are reading college textbooks, and aren't half as literate. I was left wondering what this country would be like if only an export of poetry could account for a GDP.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Dust of Kabul on my Feet

A French soldier walks past an Afghan woman in burqa on the streets of Kabul. (Marai Shah, AFP)

It is not widely encouraged for a foreigner to walk through Kabul alone. Make it a daytime habit and you risk becoming a target of the insurgency. Go at night, and you take your life in your hands.

As a result, most foreigners zip through the capital in hired cars, with Afghan drivers. Some even consider the local taxis suspect. At night, a car speeding through the city with foreigners in it need only stop for a second at the roundabout checkpoints, where armed policemen nervously keep guard. The driver rolls down his window long enough to say "khareji," the Dari word for 'foreigner,' and then speeds off again. The image of the policemen gripping their guns in the deserted streets is, strangely, one of acute loneliness.

But come sunrise, the roads of Kabul are alive and well, bursting with mango and watermelon carts, gear-grinding buses, UN Land Rovers, and tan, tinted-window Afghan National Army pickups. The air is thick with the smells of diesel, grilling kebabs, and raw sewage. Skinny cats scamper through the alleyways. One lies dead and decomposing in a corner. Hole in the wall bakeries churn out hot, meter-long naan (flatbreads) that are carried away by the dozen. Children, now - after the Taliban - girls as well as boys, march to school in smart uniforms in the mornings. Metal shops bang away, turning scrap metal into wheelbarrows and chairs.

In a way, it is just like any other South Asian city; with a distinctive rhythm of vibrant chaos. But walking in Kabul as a foreigner feels different. There is something unsettling in the air. Your eyes will meet as many blank stares as the Afghan greeting of touching your hand to your heart.

There are whispers of it in the rubbish heap in the corner, where two brothers of about four and five dig through the waste to salvage what is left. One finds a discarded can of Pepsi, and raises it to his lips to drain the last remains. Another finds an unopened pack of gum and tries to sell it to me for a dollar. I took their picture instead. It's more than money that this place needs.

A policeman getting a shave at a street-side barber calls me over to chat. I ask him how his work is, and he says it is good. I ask him about last week's riots in Kabul. After a U.S. military vehicle's brakes failed and it crashed into a traffic jam killing several, a building tension in the residents of Kabul hit boiling point. Over a thousand took to the streets, burning, looting and shooting, shouting "Death to America," and "Death to Karzai." The policeman told me that the violence happened because people are angry that they have no jobs. The situation is improving, but when people are without work it is difficult to see the silver lining.

A young law professor from Herat that I had talked to earlier explained how joblessness added fuel to the Taliban insurgence in the south. Without opportunities for education and employment, many align with the Taliban who promise to protect their opium fields from the government's eradication program.

"The Taliban's religion is poverty," he told me.

Ironically, Kabul is awash with money. The only rub is the color of the fingers that handle it.

Tucked away in a little corner of the Shahr e Nau district of the capital is a thriving gathering place for ex-pats. The French-owned L'Atmosphere has no sign announcing its existence, only a dozen odd SUVs parked out front, and two Kalashnikov-wielding guards at the gate. On a Thursday night, the start of the Islamic weekend, a couple hundred foreigners gather here amongst the candle-lit garden tables to swim in the pool, smoke, and knock back imported booze. Meals go for around US$10 a plate - roughly half a month's earnings for the average Afghan, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

It is an unlikely mix of people. Aid workers, businessmen, soldiers and journalists mingle and drink to unwind from the stress of living in a war zone. Each one has a story of why they are here. For some it is simply the money. Private sector consultation is a huge industry in Afghanistan at the moment, and there seems to be no shortage of salary benefits. For others, it is a love affair with the country that they find difficult to describe, and an urge to see it emerge into a successful, safe nation. There is the expected mix of cynicism and idealism, often sadly proportional to the time spent here.

Among them, quietly getting drunk on French wine, sits a man of Afghan origin, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) translator and consultant. He tells me that Afghanistan needs the West, but also needs to know that the West is here for the good of the Afghans, and that they are committed to the long term.

"The way to get Afghans on your side is to be true to them," he said. "It's so easy. But Afghanistan has always been left. Used and then left."

I asked him what would happen if the Afghans began to feel that the U.S. intervention was another attempt to use Afghanistan. His answer envisioned catastrophe.

"You can bring all the B52s you want," he said. "It doesn't matter. You will not crush these men and women. No one ever has."

I remembered walking through Chicken Street in downtown Kabul that afternoon, and seeing Soviet army belts for sale in the antique shops. Is it equally possible that the shops of a future Afghanistan could be selling U.S. military paraphernalia?

Eleven years ago on the streets of this city, I remember seeing bullet shells in the dust at my feet. Like any boy would, I started a collection until my bag couldn't hold them all. Now there are none to be found in the dust of Kabul. But look up to the mud and straw walls of the city and you will see that the bullet holes are less easily cleared away.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Afghanistan, at last...

Kabul. (Photo by Angelo Fratini)

"The great thing about travel is that it takes you to places in yourself where you've never been." Pico Iyer

The passport control officer at Dubai International Airport said it all. On my way to board my flight to Afghanistan, I handed him my documents. He was more interested in my guitar. He pointed at it.

"You take that to Kabul?" he asked. I nodded. "You should take gun," he said, and smiled winningly.

The flight was packed full of proud, bearded Pashtuns, and a handful of foreigners. We asked each other the usual polite question for air travel: "So, why are you going to Kabul?" only we genuinely meant it. We exchanged our reasons, then grinned boyishly for the sheer excitement.

It was a rickety old plane that carried us up and over Iran and into Afghanistan. We broke through the fluffy clouds above Dubai, the plane shook, and the sunlight was glaring. Three hours later we were descending on the rugged, windswept mountains of Afghanistan, which folded dramatically into green valleys and craggy passes. I saw thick black smoke rising from an unidentifiable object in the distance.

Kabul International Airport was much tidier than I remembered it; 11 years ago it was strewn with rusting Soviet tanks and airplane carcasses. Now a dozen or more helicopters stood in their place, poised for flight like perched insects. I stepped off the plane and walked towards the terminal. The walls bore large poster images of Hamid Karzai and Ahmed Shah Masud, the charismatic Tajik military genius, who was killed by suicide bombers posing as cameramen two days before the September 11 attacks. Karzai's poster welcomed us to Afghanistan. Beside him, Masud was pictured with crossed arms and furrowed brow. His inscription called for national unity.

The terminal was bustling with security men, both Afghan and foreign. I got my bag, then stepped up to a phone booth to dial the number I had for the FCCS office. The man told me the license plate of a car that would pick me up, and I walked outside into the sun.

The scene outside the airport was intriguing. Teams of muscular Land Cruisers with tinted windows and no pates rolled by, next to UN Land Rovers, and Red Cross vans. There were plenty of guns around, and I was quickly ushered away from the doors of the airport to behind a barbed wire barricade.

The car came, and ferried me through the busy streets to the Foundation for Culture and Civic Society compound, at the foot of the mountain pictured above. I was shown to my beautiful 'penthouse' room on the roof, and promptly fell comatose for the next few hours. I awoke in the cool yawning of the day, had green tea with the Hazara cook and met my colleagues, a friendly group who banter together in Dari and then shake uncontrollably with laughter. We dined on Kabuli palau and mutton curry for dinner, before reclining on cushions on the floor to smoke and watch the latest installment of an Indian soap opera. It struck me then, for the first time all day, that I was in Kabul. I had made it.