Friday, 27 July 2007

Kites, fighting partridges and graves

The enforced inactivity following the former king’s death has given us the opportunity to do some sightseeing around Kabul (and more shopping – the world’s stock markets may be reeling, but Afghan retail is booming).
On Wed. we headed to Asheqan Arefan district, in search of Noor Agha, the most famous kitemaker in Afghanistan. We didn’t find the cemetery where he lives, but his personally signed kites are readily available in the bazaar, for the princely sum of 150 Afghanis ($3).

I was feeling extravagant and bought five. I didn’t realise that the 6000m of string encrusted with powdered glass, essential for cutting rivals’ strings in kite fights, would cost as much as the kites put together. I’m sure I could’ve managed with a mere 500m. Needless to say, there’s not been a breath of wind since, and when I inquired about shipping costs, TNT quoted me a figure of $350 (including a 15kg metal case) to get them back to UK in one piece. I think I’ll resort to the ‘message in a bottle’ technique and see where the airstream takes them.

Yesterday arvo, we investigated another Afghan obsession – partridge fighting. The Ka Faroshi bird market consists of a warren of sewerage strewn narrow lanes, past huge woks frying offal and tomatoes over wood fires – hmm, tasty. A bewildering variety of birds are for sale – most are tiny, scrawny creatures which huddle pitifully on their perches. Prize partridges are kept in larger wicker cages, or in their masters’ pockets, to be unleased on unsuspecting sparrows or passers-by. Coupled with the national sport of buzkashi (a cross between polo and rugby, with a dead goat as a ‘ball’), you begin to get a sense of what Friday Grandstand / Sportscene programmes are like.
We rounded off the outing with a more tranquil assignment – a visit to the mausoleum of Timur Shah. TS moved the capital from Kandahar to Kabul in 1776, a prescient move without which we wouldn’t be here.
The recent spate of kidnappings in the south and east has prompted the Min. of Interior to ban foreigners leaving K without an armed escort.
That scuppered today’s planned trip to the Panjshir (Five Lions) Valley, which is to the north of K and safe… we’ve got one Friday left, but somehow I doubt the restrictions will be lifted by then.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Three days of mourning

And then the former king died, and the President announced three days of mourning... so much for our plan to go to the Ministry today in the hope of collecting permission for two of our Afghan colleagues to go to Jam to collect our ceramics for study! Saturday, at the earliest, which means they probably won't get a seat on the 10 seater flight on Sunday. We're starting to run out of time...
This season seems to have been blighted from the outset, but we're not alone in experiencing postponements and frustrations - I can think of several dig directors with larger teams who have had to deal with much greater 'inconveniences' (eg. various Gulf Wars, September 11th, etc.). And we'd a fairly relaxing day of data entry / standardisation, pot drawing and a tasty lunch at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, courtesy of Rory.
Tomorrow, we have to vacate DAFA as Prof. Tarzi's team flies in... one advantage of the moves is that I've found my sunnies again!

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Salang side-trip

One of the pluses of spending more time in K than we anticipated was the opportunity to drive up to the Salang Tunnel, 122km to the north. The tunnel was generously built by the Soviets in 1964, and then used less altruistically by the Red Army in 1979 when they invaded Afghanistan.
The debris of that war still litters the valleys on both sides of the tunnel – a huge abandoned army base at Qalah-e Surkh, the overturned, stripped carapaces of tanks, hillsides littered with mines, graveyards of prisoners and mujahideen.
Half way up, on a hairpin bend is a shrine to a different form of martyrdom – that of a bus-conductor who threw himself under the wheels of his bus as it slid towards a precipice due to dodgy brakes. I suspect that few of us in the West would be so self-less.

Our first stop was for mulberries, down by a gushing stream; on the other side of the tunnel, we ate deep-fried trout for brunch, and then stuffed ourselves with peaches near Doshi, a village on the edge of the muggy plain leading north to Mazar-e Sharif and central Asia.
Back on the K side of the Salang, we made a detour to visit the Kushan site of Begram, famous for the ivories which the French excavated 60 years ago. There’s little to see there these days, and you have to stick to the worn tracks, due to the mines, which still do not deter looters. (Photos of Naqshband and DCT, and U-shaped valley courtesy of Fiona Kidd).

Cunning plan No. 7a part II

The past week has been quite productive, even though we’re still in K and unlikely to get to Ghur now. We’ve been volunteering our services / skills in the museum – Jane, our conservator, has been cleaning Timurid (15th century) gravestones and a Buddhist figurine head, Piet’s started drawing the former (see above left), ably assisted by Naqshband and the rest of us have made an inventory of over 1000 bags of pottery from the British / Australian excavations at Kandahar in the late 70s (we’re probably only about half way through).
The pottery turned up in the basement of the former British Embassy in 2004 – we’re assessing how much of it has survived 30 years of conflict and neglect, so that future researchers will at least be able to find what remains easily. It’s tedious, dusty work (above right), as some of the bags have disintegrated, but the Kandahar team deserve commendation for double-labelling their bags and Alison periodically gets excited by an unusual form or extravagant glaze… each to their own!
Iain’s doing what he can with museum staff requiring First Aid, and will train some of them in basic procedures – it’s sobering to hear some of their stories from the war years.
We’ve finalised the bi-lingual educational booklets, and the British Council has offered to pay for 2000 copies, on top of the 500 we were going to print anyway. This support is a great fillip, and we may translate the booklets into Pashto, as well as Dari, so as to reach the maximum Afghan audience.
On Wednesday, Alison and I had a tour of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation with its founder / CEO Rory Stewart, who walked through Afghanistan in 2001/2 and was one of the first people to publicise the extent of the looting at Jam. TMF’s work, revitalising traditional craft industries and renovating Murad Khane, a largely 19th century district of Kabul, is inspirational.

Thursday saw us unexpectedly ushered in to a meeting with the Min. of Culture, to discuss our work at Jam (or rather lack of work there). We think that we now know why we’ve been blocked even going there to collect the remaining sherds for study… well, not so much why, but who has blocked us. I expect that if we can arrange a meeting with those involved this week, it will result in a “frank exchange of views”, to use diplomatic parlance! What else the forthcoming week holds is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, 14 July 2007


The Koh-i Paghman to the NW of Kabul top 4,700m - unsurprisingly, snow still nestles in gullies. A couple of thousand metres lower, these nomads graze their flocks on the stubble and thistles - only the hardy survive in Afghanistan.

Terraced hillslope suburb

The road to Istalif passes through a gorge, whose hillslopes are lined with terraced brick and stone houses. This is near where a US military vehicle careered out of control last year, mowing down several pedestrians; to compound the tragedy, the troops then shot dead several bystanders, because they felt 'threatened'. And we wonder why many Afghans are unconvinced about the benefits of Western forces here.

Istalif pot mecca

The main reason for driving 2 hrs north of Kabul to Istalif, other than to escape the compound / city smog, is to buy pots, if you like glazed wares with garish colours. Some people suspect that a fair amount of the 'ye olde Bamiyan sgraffitto' wares which crop up on the antiquities market come from these sort of workshops... I do hope so!

Dusty days

The summer sun has baked the countryside dry - irrigated gardens and fields provide the only respite from the arid fawns. The wheat harvest is under way and the roadside stalls bulge with melons and grapes, mangos and bananas (brought up from Pakistan, I think).

Moghul gardens coffin

This is the end of a beautifully carved stone coffin, near Istalif

Kabul street scene

The bustling centre of Kabul abounds with 'barrow boys' hawking everything from lemons to socks and sunnies.

FYI, I'm struggling with the internet connection here, which is why these images aren't all in one posting and in a more logical order...


Naqshband and Fifi contemplating glazes - does this tea taste leady to you?

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

35 min of fame

G’day from K – I say that through clenched teeth, as I was hoping we’d be safely ensconced in our 'luxury' compound, which Afghanaid have found for us in Chaggers by this evening... ah well, such are the vagaries of working out in this part of the world. Plans, schedules, agreements - don’t mean nuffink if they aren’t aligned with the will of Allah.

That said, there has been some movement today - unfortunately it centred on my guts rather than gaining approval for our fieldwork. My long-suffering digestive system generally struggles on valiantly for the first week or so when I go on a dig, before admitting defeat in the face of an onslaught of the heat, new bugs and (ironically in this case) a meal in a 5 star (but tastefully decorated / themed) hotel, courtesy of the Aussies. Consequently, I'm slightly apprehensive about forthcoming invites - to ‘swim in swimming pools of champagne’ in the French embassy on Bastille Day, and Piet is confident he can sneak us into the monthly Dutch party, but they will add another couple of notches to our tally of diplomatic outings (we are doing some work, amidst all the socialising, honest!).

On Sunday arvo, as I was waiting for a meeting with the dep minister that didn’t happen (more important visitors turned up and apparently he didn’t realise we were waiting outside), I was informed that it’d be better to postpone Monday’s teev recording – this after I was asked to give the presentation on Thurs arvo and told to invite an audience of 60-100 from embassies and NGOs, etc. and to provide the equipment with which to project my presentation AND the refreshments (the provision of refreshments by the presenter seems to be a national obsession). I was livid – there’s only a certain amount of being jacked around that a boy can take, and I feel that I’ve had more than my fair share over the last week, nevermind the past couple of months.

Half an hour later, the organiser (I use the term loosely) was all smiles again, as it transpired that we could record the programme on Monday at 5pm after all. We piled along to the teev centre at 4:30pm in Fath-e M's minibus, wedged in between the projector screen which Fiona had the presence of mind to say we should also borrow, even if it didn’t collapse properly. The thought that the teev centre wouldn’t have a screen on which to project our images hadn’t even crossed my mind... but it should’ve.

The live audience gradually swelled to 25, although half of them were either team members or teev employees waiting to lock up and go home. A hum of anticipation echoed throughout the auditorium... or maybe it was skepticism that the show would ever start. We did our best to balance the projector on a water bottle and rotate the screen until the image was least warped - it was probably just as well the audience weren't crammed in, back in row 47!

The projector and compoota were happily working together, but a Dari title apparently HAD to be added to the first slide... I was somewhat reticent about doing this, since my last attempt to install the Dari font resulted in the death of my compoota (I’m having another go at revitalising it this evening, as I type). About an hour later, after pasting in every Dari letter from the symbols box in Word, we were finally ready to go... apart from the fact that the projector and compoota had fallen out and were no longer communicating with each other! Arrgggghhh! My mood deteriorated even further when we were told by the organisers that this was my fault and that I should buy a new compoota – yeah, right mate, when I receive my appearance fee! If you don’t like our compoota, why don’t YOU provide one?

Eventually, out of sheer exasperation, or fear of missing our dinner out with the Aussies due to start at 7pm, Jane phoned her computer whizz brother in Dublin and he somehow achieved a reconciliation (even though what he suggested was precisely what I’d been doing for 10 min previously). I finally started the presentation at 6:45, each sentence being translated into Dari by our capable, but somewhat nervous new friend Abdullah (perhaps I shouldn't've mentioned that he’d be talking to a potential audience of 25 million when I sent him the transcript of my presentation!).

I appreciate that different cultures have a less regimented attitude towards being part of an audience, but I was pretty p'ed off when the ‘organisers’ of the show chatted audibly throughout much of my talk, and twice hassled Alison, who was working the Next Slide button, about how much longer was left. If you ask for 30 min, with 15 min of questions afterwards, I don’t think the talk running over by 5 min is a big deal. That’s the whole point of pre-recording – you can EDIT it!

Anyway, I gather that a snippet from the presentation featured on Afers news last night, and the whole thing will be broadcast soon. So point your satellite dishes towards Central Asia and programme the dvd recorder... somehow, I don’t think I’ll get a copy of the show on vid. I don't think I particularly want one either!

Sunday, 8 July 2007

stuck in traffic

A lot can happen in a week in Kabul, and equally, very little. Having hit the ground running, we've stalled, in the face of bureaucracy, obstructionism, power-games, miscommunication (to put it politely) and security issues - I'll expand on some of those over a beer next time I catch up with you!

The upshot of it all is that we're still waiting for final approval to go to Ghur (getting there safely being one of the main sticking points) and the seminar series in the uni has had to be postponed, because of a month of exams which start in a couple of days - it seems that nobody thought about the exams when we agreed dates in May. Needless to say, I'm not best pleased.

On the positive side, the presentation I gave at the embassy seemed to go well, and we'd numerous useful and interesting chats afterwards. We've been round to DAFA, the French archaeological institute, scoffed all their croissants and drooled over their set-up, library and fieldwork results. Fiona has been through the figurine catalogue in the museum and we're finalising the insertion of the Dari into the educational booklets prior to printing, although font issues resulted in my killing my compoota in the process. Thank goodness for portable HDs and the availability of software, which have partly salvaged the situation.

I'm also due to record a presentation on Jam for Afghanistan TV's Toward Open University series - apparently they reach an audience of 25 million, when the schedule doesn't clash with Grey's Anatomy.

I've not been able to take any photos around town yet, partly because I've been rushed off my feet and not had the chance to read the manual for my new camera. Photography is possible, apart from the fact that you obviously don't want to snap military installations - guard posts are strategically positioned outside quite a few buildings in virtually every street. Plus you don't want to insult people by treating them like curiosities in a zoo. But check out Travis Beard's blog / Aina Photography for some proper photos...

Kabul is kind of growing on me - it has "character"! The city bustles, when not snarled up in grid-lock, and has a fairly relaxed feel to it - I certainly don't feel in any more danger here than say in Belfast in the 80s. Unsurprisingly, there is less war damage and dereliction than in 2003, although much 'tidying up' still needs to be done, and the guys levelling collapsed concrete blocks of shops with a sledgehammer have their work cut out. Many parts of the city are a dump (literally and metaphorically), with open sewers, potholed roads / dirt lanes and ramshackle stalls and homes. On the other hand, offensively ostenatious, glass-fronted malls and OTT pseudo-palaces have also sprung up since I first came here - I'm not sure whether that's progress or not, given the dubious source of some of the money.

Tenacious beggars ambush you when you step out of the vehicle - some are more needy than others, I suspect, although I was accused of being callous yesterday 'cos I said that the women who can dissolve into 'woe is me' tears (and out again at the drop of a hat) give me the shits. I also took offense at the kids who resorted to some very ungrammatical abusive language when they didn't get what they wanted. Several Afghans we've talked to have asked us not to give money to beggars (esp. kids) in general, because of the dependency culture that engenders and the risks of petty theft. Needless to say, we don't always follow that understandable principle - I tend to give small change to old people and amputees, Alison favours the mothers and Iain the street urchins.

Alison feels that there are fewer women on the streets than before, although those that you do see about are by no means all burqa'ed. The uni has numerous confident, even sassy, female students wandering around with headscarves slipping scandalously low, although the mere fact that they have such educational possibilities means that they are the exception rather than the rule. It will be interesting to see how they are in the seminars.

My favourite mis-spelt sign thus far is "Kichken", presumably a hybrid between kitchen and chicken, while Leslee loves the "Clean and Tasty" Afghan chicken.

Anyway, today's a new day - we're checking out flight possibilities to Ghur and I'd better write my tv lecture. All is not lost, although the past few days have been somewhat exasperating, to say the least.

Take care


Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Hitting the ground running

It’s nearing midnight on Monday evening, and I’ve just finished the powerpoint presentation I’m giving at the British Embassy tomorrow evening. I’ve had about 5 hours of sleep since Friday night, so this will be relatively brief, and probably not very coherent.
The mozzies are out in force, wafting in the window at our ‘not quite as luxurious as the website suggested’ accommo in Kabul, but a haven of tranquility from the bustle and dirt of city nonetheless. One of the virtues of Kabul is that it’s a few degrees cooler and a lot less humid than Dubai. I can’t think of many others – the open sewers are certainly as rancid as I remember!
I dozed through most of the Ariana Afghan Airlines flight from Dubai, when not being prodded by my neighbour, who didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space, as defined by the arm-rest between our seats. Kabul airport is getting a face-lift and is more chaotic than in 2005, although the two are probably unrelated. About 2 hours after landing, we finally emerged into the summer glare, to be greeting by Haji Naqshband, our ‘white beard’ (and so much more) from 2003 and 2005, and Fath-e Mohammad, our chilled-out driver. We then sped along part of the new ring-road on the way into town until a windshield blew off FM’s mate’s beat-up taxi, requiring us to reverse into on-coming traffic to retrieve it. It was the obvious thing to do, and none of the other drivers took exception – Kabul is that kind of place.
As in much of the Middle East, it’s pointless trying to organize much until you hit the ground. The upside is that if you know someone as well-connected as Ana of SPACH, a lot can be arranged quickly – we had afternoon meetings with the Head of the Department of Historic Monuments and the Chancellor of Kabul Uni, and tomorrow we’re seeing the directors of the National Afghan Institute of Archaeology and Kabul Museum. Wednesday is currently looking suspiciously free, but I’m sure that won’t last long!
I’ll try to give you more of a sense of the colour of Kabul in the coming days, when things calm down a bit and I catch up with some zzzzs. The internet seems to be functioning here, although the power flickers on and off – must unplug my compoota before a surge blows the motherboard!