Timeline: July 3rd, 2003 signified the first day of my official “move” to Afghanistan. Had not been in Kabul since the prior summer. Below is an email to a friend in the US who was interested in making a documentary about my trials and tribulations with the startup.
Kabul, Afghanistan | July 3, 2003
3 days of consistent sleeplessness have deprived me of the ability to document the kaleidoscope of goodwill, good food, and good service I've been so lucky to have and to witness. I have completely glossed over stories of the thousand and one nights in Delhi and now that I've reached Kabul, it seems like an ancient memory.
I think I am on a mad good luck streak. Jenny -- I warn you that you might end up making a really dull documentary. Things are just tame and well. There are still plenty of cute observations littered throughout the day, but they are hardly dangerous or controversial or shocking. There is something really auspicious about being Persian in this part of the world -- I get sugar sweet treatment from the Indians and even from the Afghans,maybe because nobody really knows how to place me. While pink white English aid workers were being frisked and poked at the Delhi airport, I was waved through at three different checkpoints even though I had 100 kgs of cargo, four huge handbags, and even a pair of shearing scissors I had forgotten to pack (those finally did get confiscated, but not without a good laugh). I also had my first Ariana Afghan Airlines adventure. Though equipped with $500 in cash to pay my overcharge fees, a few sweet words about my "mission" and my general look of naivety permitted the clean shaven manager to give me a HUGE discount. That was a sweet break after 3 weeks of rapacious spending.
In the waiting area, a very Western dressed Tajik boy was chatting me up. He seemed like a slightly guido-y dumb one and was wearing a bright white disco shirt. Opinionated and quick to take offense at everything, he reminded me of my own earlier resolution to not talk about anything remotely resembling politics on this trip, including never referencing Afghan ethnicities. I am to think, "Afghanistan is one people"….NOT. He was helpful with my four carry-ons, and we sat next to each other on the flight. Midway, I realized that God, this must be some experience for him -- he was flying back to the motherland that he had left at the age of four, dislocated from it forever, and was now returning to a basket case of a country that had taken the place of that old memory. 5 minutes before landing, I was handing him tissues as he cried inconsolably. I almost started crying just witnessing it because it reminded me too well of that obscenely deep well of emotion that shot out when I first went to Iran in ‘93. Few cries feel the way that particular kind does.
Anyway, his father had returned to get into the construction business and was a close friend of Ahmad Shah Masoud. We bid farewell and I braced myself for the scene at the airport.
The arrival terminal tipped me off to the new Kabul. 3 planes were on the ground at once -- a huge increase compared to the grim summer of 2002. The passport line had a brand new separator to create lanes and lines. There were streams of classic brawny bearded Pashtun dudes and black chadored Hazara women, a boatload of Nepalese businessmen, some slightly squeamish Koreans (probably missionaries), the occasional whitey, and me. The conveyor belt was so busted that there were entire pieces of it missing, which made the baggage receiving procedure interesting. Jenny -- you would have been so proud of my calm. Somewhere along the way, I had decided that I was not going to lose my bags, so even though I witnessed the MOST CHAOTIC bag grabbing spectacle of my life, I was chilled out and skillfully recruiting little guys to help me. It "worked" like this -- the bags came from a hole that used to be the beginning of the conveyer belt. A dense cluster of male bodies, passengers and airport employees, stood around it, above it, and below it. A nasty soldier guy spends his whole day just walking up and down a twenty foot length violently pushing everybody to the side to create a space. In that temporarily open space, porters (like 30 different ones barely identifiable as such because they don’t have name tags or uniforms) run out with one bag at a time yelling "is this yours? is this yours?" But somehow it all worked... I had decided to bring my entire seasons’ worth of fabric by passenger cargo, so I was particularly keen on getting everything.
Was picked up in Kabul by the old gang from last summer’s guesthouse -- such fun. There was a miserable traffic jam back from the airport, but people on the streets seemed just a little happier -- just a little more switched on than in 2002. The fog of Taliban-inflicted hopelessless was gradually lifting. Got to the new guesthouse and that was when I was floored. It was very nicely done compared to the dump I stayed in last year. Not only do I love this neighborhood (Ghale Fathollah -- an older part of Kabul with older homes, not the 1960’s/70’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of last summer), but the house and everything in it was either new or recently redone and I was the ONLY guest! And since they treat me like family anyway, I might was well be staying with friends. Except that I have 6 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms completely to myself. My own room is sweet and clean and even has a walk in closet. Soooo fabulous. Right now, I am sitting in the manager Wakil’s large wood-panelled office using a satellite Internet connection with a color copier and every possible imaginable comfort I could ask for. It might not sound like a big deal to you, but I am comparing it to last year’s wretched state of accommodations and telecommunications and I feel so grateful. I am just sleep deprived and tripping out. And guess what else? It is their tailoring project that is creating the most revenues for them -- to date, they have made 20,000 jumpsuits for the Afghan national army and got an order from an American clothing company for 40,000 of something else. I will get more info tomorrow. This means that they are going to behave much more professionally than last year and I can ride the wave instead of suffering the way I did last year. I bet that virtually NONE of the other NGO's in town have gotten somewhere so fast with commercializing their tailoring workshops into full blown contracting operations. Amazing that I just picked these guys out of the sky. And since they remade themselves from a non-profit to a newly named entity, their new tag line is "A Global Catalyst for Sustainable Economic and Community Development", meaning they do not intend to be non-profit money suckers and they respect the forces of the market. How did I get so lucky???
Within the first 2 hours of getting here, I also found a potential future employee (a smart go getter girl whose Panshiri ex-cop Dad lets her do whatever) and found out that Nasrullah will have no problems with two technical licensing issues I have been stressing out over for 6 months!!! Apparently, it is totally useless dealing with these people by email. But things work in person. Wakil also mentioned that I can get also my export license for free without ever leaving the couch. Just got back from dinner at the girl's house and hung out with the family -- met another sweet man, a schoolteacher, with the most outrageously adorable loudmouth, strong-personalitied 5 year old daughter. She was trying to tell to me a story of ethnic strife in classroom today in the form of two 5 year old girls pulling each others hair and calling each other names specific to their tribal affiliations. Anyway the man said he had 5 more at home and I asked if I could have all of his female children when they came of age.
I just called up my mother and excitedly told her that there were no American (missionaries) here (like last year) and that I was just at the guesthouse with a bunch of Afghan (men). She didn't seem to understand my cause for celebration and got a little concerned. I guess it doesn't sound good....but it is.