- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

KABUL, Afghanistan.

Cocks crow, dogs bark, planes drone overhead. It’s morning in Kabul, a Friday, when muezzins on loudspeakers call the Muslim faithful to prayer even more insistently than usual. Friday is the Sabbath, a day of rest, when roads in the capital are freer of madcap traffic than normal — although what can be considered normal in a place often described — somewhat short of the mark - as a war zone?

It’s war with a different face. The celebration this spring of Mujahideen Day — the day in 1992 when Afghanistan triumphed over Soviet occupiers — was curtailed for fear of violence and assassination attempts meant to destabilize the already weak government of President Hamid Karzai. Instead, the observance took place behind presidential walls. Money that would have gone for a parade was to go to victims of recent floods and earthquakes. But no one can be sure.

No one is sure of much of anything here these days. The city’s earthen and cement walls bleed a permanent gray-brown streaky residue resembling tears — a reminder of the city’s warring past. This, of course, is an outsider’s view.

Afghans aren’t often sentimental. Patriotic, conniving, warm, manipulative, generous, wary, yes. Outsiders adopting these qualities easily adjust to the genial chaos: open sewers, potholed streets and the lack of reliable social services. Three million or more people cope in a city meant for less than a third of that number.

Other cities on the planet cope under such conditions, but how many carry on so defiantly amid mud and dirt and the decay left after 30 years of unrest and emigration?

Rusty shipping containers, rough-hewn poles and plastic tarps are transformed ingeniously into places of business. Each morning on my way to work — in a locked van, with driver, escort and two-way radio contact in code — I would marvel at the outward normalcy of things. Turbaned men keep company together in front of shops, children play, merchants hawk wares. A tailor and pharmacy exist on nearly every block. An ice-cream vendor nonchalantly wheels his cart among goats, sport utility vehicles and the occasional convoy of tanks.

“It’s much better here now than it was two or so years ago,” says a carpet merchant in the city’s famed Chicken Street bazaar area, where customers are few, apart from employees of nongovernmental organizations. He means the threats and violence are fewer; prosperity — always relative — better. He thinks upcoming elections already are decided, with Mr. Karzai in charge. “It will take another election, another decade, for any real change.” The merchant is relaxed and convivial and can boast of having had to close shop only one day during the Taliban era.

The real is surreal enough, but suicide bombers and explosive devices certainly are not the daily routine. A Polish tourist office that proposed a novel — and pricey — two-week May tour to Afghanistan “for those seeking bruises and adventure” reportedly sold out. That surely is a fascination with the dark side, given that Poles are included in the NATO force and thus Poland’s citizens as well as its soldiers are considered ripe targets for kidnappers.

Kidnapping is a growth industry; everyone seems to know someone held for ransom, with $1 million not an unusual sum. Doubtless most such incidents go unreported, rescuers’ methods being on “deep background.” It’s odd, then, to see the money changers in downtown streets carrying around piles of bills and to hear they never are victims of robbers. What’s local stays local in their case, apparently. This isn’t a country that condoned begging in its better years, yet the beggars and homeless are everywhere. So goes a society in transition.

Few people seem to expect much to change with the increase in American troops and civilians. Young people, some of them future leaders, say corruption is so rampant, it is useless to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The idea that Mr. Karzai will appoint Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad — the former U.S. representative to the United Nations — as an Afghan government chief executive doesn’t please a faction already soured by American influence in the country. Others see Mr. Khalilzad as a traitor for deserting his native land when it needed him the most.

Any optimism is tempered by history. But there are symbols of hope. There is a master plan to expand Kabul beyond its present overcrowded borders with the creation of Deh Sabz, or Green City, which, on paper anyway, is a maze of landscaped boulevards, mixed-income housing and commercial thoroughfares. This is a fine show of spirit in a region where greenery was cut down by invaders wanting to improve their sightlines in battle and by locals needing firewood to survive.

Replanting of saplings goes on apace, sometimes under government direction. Though toilet paper comes from China, canned goods from Pakistan, and foreign money makes the economy run, Afghanistan has raw materials the world should embrace, plus some of the finest hormone-free meat and organic produce anywhere.

A new international airport has opened with great fanfare at a cost of $30 million donated by 14 countries. The mores of a starkly conservative society are loosening in many ways. Afghan women occasionally don bluejeans without comment or rude stares. Dining spots are plentiful, and supermarkets of varying quality are common.

Progress is a glass half empty, half full, and no one knows when some incident will tip the vessel the wrong way. Nonetheless, like bamboo, Afghans don’t break; they bend.

Ann Geracimos is a staff writer for The Washington Times who taught for one semester as an associate professor of journalism and English at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul earlier this year.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide