KABUL SCENE MAGAZINE

April 2004/Afghan New Year

 

 

 

Articles which appear in the magazine

 

 

AFGHANISTAN MARCHES ON

Said Tayeb Jawad

 

EXCLUSIVE - AN AFGHAN TALE

Christina Lamb

 

EXCLUSIVE - KABUL'S NAW ROZ HOPES
Lyse Doucet

 

AFGHANISTAN 2004 - THE YEAR AHEAD

Ahmed Rashid

 

EXCLUSIVE - A PLACE FOR TOURISM IN AFGHANISTAN'S RECOVERY?

Paul Clammer

 

EXCLUSIVE - ELECTION YEAR IS HERE

Grant Kippen

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF PRESIDENT KARZAI’S CLOSING SPEECH TO THE CONSTITIONAL LOYA JIRGA, JANUARY 4 2004

 

EXCLUSIVE - KABUL: CITY OF THE ABSURD

Paul Vickers

 

EXCLUSIVE - NOT THE HOTEL CALIFORNIA

Nadene Ghouri

 

AFGHAN TEENAGER FACES DILEMMA AFTER HER RISE TO CINEMA STARDOM

Sardar Ahmad

 

EXCLUSIVE - A SPANNER IN THE WORKS

Belinda Bowling

 

EXCLUSIVE - BOOK REVIEW: THE CROSSLINES ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO AFGHANISTAN

Vanni Cappelli

 

EXCLUSIVE - THE MOBILE MINI CIRCUS FOR CHILDREN

Vanni Cappelli

 

 

 

 

KABUL SCENE MAGAZINE           April 2004/Afghan New Year 1383

 

Maybe you remember The Survival Guide to Kabul, published as a pamphlet in September 2002 and sold by the street children, who kept all the profits from the 3000 printed. That famous pamphlet was published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide. Worldwide reviews then followed. The guide was described as a “must read”, “best buy” and “a good stocking filler”. Online updates and more content have always been added on the website: www.kabulguide.net. Indeed the site has probably become the main up to date portal for people coming to visit or work in Afghanistan.

This Kabul Scene Magazine is a one off publication (though it could continue with support and become an eagerly awaited publication) to help the street children earn some more money again (the mini guide was also reviewed as a book which “puts something back into the city it describes”) and to get some latest news about Kabul out onto the streets.

Kabul Scene is inspired by a successful publication in Cape TownCape Scene (www.capescene.co.za)– run by friends of mine Kim and Grant Sykes. They have kindly allowed me to use their name and idea, though I did explain that pirating is the height of central Asian flattery (just as the Kabul Mini Guide was pirated!).

This magazine has a number of exclusive articles never published before from high profile writers. I should like to say a big thank you to all our contributors and advertisers for this first issue of this magazine. Perhaps with your support and interest it could become a regular publication rivaling Time Out!

Let me take this chance to wish you a safe, enjoyable and challenging time in Kabul and Afghanistan. I have had the privilege to work here on and off over the last two years. Kabul has a strange attraction which is hard to fight off.

Dominic Medley - The Survival Guide to Kabul

www.kabulguide.net/info@kabulguide.net

 

This magazine has been paid for and printed by the advertisers. Copies of the magazine are given to the street children who sold the original Survival Guide to Kabul. The children do not pay for the magazine and whatever you give them is for them and their families.

 

Afghanistan Marches On

By Said Tayeb Jawad

The writer is Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States

 

In January, President Hamid Karzai signed Afghanistan's new constitution into law. This marked another milestone on the path towards peace and stability in Afghanistan, as envisaged by the Bonn Agreement.

 

The first cornerstone was laid by the president two years ago, when he addressed participants at the Bonn conference by satellite phone from a cold hut in the mountains of the southern province of Uruzgan while fighting the Taliban. He asked the participants not to refer to him as a Pashtun leader, but as an Afghan; a citizen of Afghanistan. This statement deeply moved Afghans. Even as many worried that Afghanistan's recent history of war and violence would hobble the country's march towards the future, President Karzai placed his faith in national unity. A few weeks later, Kabul fell and he entered the city. He then built further on the foundation he had laid, and made his second-most important statement. President Karzai could have entered the capital as a warrior victor, escorted by tribal leaders or a few thousand armed men. But he chose to enter Kabul alone, as a civilian, as an unarmed man of peace. He knew that factionalism and a show of force would only beget violence and nurture tyranny. The people of Afghanistan embraced both statements as a clear break with the past, and this is how Afghanistan has chosen to chart its future.

 

President Karzai, with help from the international community, has turned this war-torn country into a centre for international cooperation. Afghanistan is emerging as a model for state-building, with its new constitution providing the best possible blend of respect for Islamic and traditional values of Afghan society and adherence to international norms of human rights. The constitution provides for equal rights and full participation of women in rebuilding a modern nation-state.

 

The constitution achieves the objective of building a strong central executive branch to keep the country together and rebuild national institutions destroyed by three decades of war and violence, with full consideration of the wishes of the provinces to exercise more authority in managing local affairs.

 

For instance, while the constitution is based on a unitary system with a strong presidency, it also provides for provincial and district-level councils to empower the people to participate in the local administration. For the first time, the constitution pays due respect to the cultural and linguistic diversity of a fragile society and makes official all major languages in areas where these are spoken by a majority. The new constitution further reveals that the values and tradition of Islam and democracy are compatible and mutually reinforcing. Afghanistan's successful advance on the path to democracy and state-building will inevitably impact the expectations and the aspirations of people in other arenas of the global war against terrorism and tyranny. A democratic Afghanistan is providing the future blueprint for democracy in similar societies.

 

The constitution proved that the relatively little investment that the U.S. and the international community have made to rebuild national institutions already has yielded impressive results.

 

But there is more to do. The next challenge for President Karzai is to implement the new constitution.

 

This is crucial to successfully holding elections. Afghanistan has many challenges. We must achieve complete victory over terrorism by building our security institutions and preventing cross-border terrorist infiltration. We must demobilize, disarm and reintegrate fighters. We must prevent extremists and warlords from hijacking the democratic process. Corruption must be eliminated, as well as narcotics production and trade. All these challenges can only be properly addressed with a mandate from the people, and to seek this mandate requires the implementation of the constitution.

 

Once a newly elected government is in place, it can work on the broader goals of the constitution: to build national institutions, strengthen the rule of law, reduce investment risks, encourage the growth of the private sector and enhance the people's participation in government. But for this next step, we will need fresh support from the U.S. and the international community. Afghanistan will meet donors in March, in Germany, to present its case and to ask for new pledges in the amount of $28 billion over a seven-year period. We have accomplished much in the two years since the fall of the Taliban. We just need a little more understanding from the world community to accomplish all our goals.

 

President Karzai's leadership in leading our people towards tolerance and peace shows this is within the reach of the Afghan nation.
 

Reprinted with the author’s permission from The Far Eastern Economic Review, February 26 2004.

 

EXCLUSIVE – AN AFGHAN TALE

By Christina Lamb

 

THE other day I was sorting out some old photographs, a typical displacement activity for a writer finding excuses not to write, and I came across a shoebox marked Kabul 1989.

 

Inside were pictures from my first visit to the city, a trip I made when Najibullah was still in power. Among them were some taken at a café of Kabul University with a group of girls from the Literature faculty dressed in tight T-shirts, jeans, stilettos and lots of make-up.

 

For all the recent changes in Kabul - Lalita’s Thai restaurant, the beauty school, the marble and mirrored bar at the Mustafa and the reopening of the weather station (surely the most bizarre of Mullah Omar’s bans) - it is hard to believe that this was really the same city less than 15 years ago.

 

Of course Kabul in June 1989 - just four months after the last Russian soldier crossed back over the Oxus River - was hardly a city of joy. Apart from the airport where rockets had damaged the terminal, the capital was still pretty much untouched by the years of war. But there was a sense of foreboding as everyone waited for the expected mujaheddin attack and at night the streets were deserted because of curfew.

 

I stayed at the Kabul hotel, a forbidding place where the American ambassador had been murdered in his room. Meals mostly consisted of boiled eggs, and articles for my newspaper had to be transmitted by the hotel’s one-armed telex operator. He was also the hotel taxi driver, his only hand clad in a black leather glove swinging back and forth alarmingly between wheel and the gear-stick.

 

Yet in the photograph it is a summer day and we are all laughing and smiling. Looking at it, I wonder what happened to those female students. They weren’t much younger than me – I was 23 at the time - and I remember we were all full of the confidence of youth and hopes for our future.

 

But while I was pretty much able to follow my dreams for the ensuing years, for them a nightmare was soon to begin. Maybe, as they were from middle-class families, they left the country. If they stayed, they would have endured years of fighting with parts of the university becoming a battleground, followed by a Taliban regime that banned women from working or studying and turned libraries into graveyards.

 

I like to think that perhaps their love of literature actually helped the girls endure. Coming back to Afghanistan in November 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, I was astonished at all the many brave Afghan women who ran underground reading groups and schools during those dark years of the Taliban. For those of us used to taking libraries, schools and bookstores for granted, it is hard to imagine having to risk your life to enjoy the written word.

Perhaps the most courageous were in the ancient Persian city of Herat with its tradition of women in the arts going back to the Timurid Queen Gowhar Shad, patron of poets, architects and painters.

 

Almost within spitting distance of Gul crossroads where the Taliban hanged bodies, a group of women writers from Herat’s Literary Circle set up the Golden Needle Sewing School, dressmaking being one of the only activities women were still allowed to do. Three times a week they would arrive in their burqas, clutching bags full of material and scissors. Underneath would be books and pens and, once inside, rather than making garments, they would discuss Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and other banned writers. “We were poor in everything else”, they told me, “why should we be poor in culture too?”

 

In fact women using literature to help survive repression, even at great danger to themselves, seems to be common in conflicts. In her recently published book ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor tells how she gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to discuss works by forbidden Western authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen.

 

"There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom," she writes.

A similar process was underway in Kosovo where Paula Huntley, an English teacher from America, found herself running a reading club for a group of Kosovar Albanian Muslims discussing books such as ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. Her journal, now published as ‘The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo’, shows how through the discussion of books they were able to form bonds and heal wounds of war.

 

But stories don’t always have happy endings. Last November I went back to Herat to find out how the Sewing Circles girls were faring. I was excited to see that the dilapidated building of the Literary Circle was undergoing a makeover. Rebuilding was also going on at the library, where the Taliban had taken all books with pictures and foreign words and burnt them.

 

It looked like the Afghanistan that Messrs Bush and Blair would have us believe is their legacy. I found Leila, one of the women, studying at the Literature Faculty of Herat University, a place that had seen no female students for seven years. She was wearing tight jeans, high strappy shoes and lipstick. Yet the classes were all women only and the moment we stepped outside she pulled on the shapeless burqa that two years ago she had told me she detested.

 

I found Leila and her friends strangely subdued. I asked if they had written any more stories. “Just one about a crazy man who never stops fighting”, said Leila. “We thought freedom would be better than this”.

 

Christina Lamb is the author of The Sewing Circles of Herat: My Afghan Years (Harper Collins, London and New York). She was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year in the British Press and Granada TV Awards for her reports from the war in Afghanistan.

 

 

EXCLUSIVE - KABUL'S NAW ROZ HOPES
By Lyse Doucet


Twenty four Naw Roz celebrations have come and gone since Afghans were plunged into the long war provoked by
Moscow's invasion. Every since I first went to live in Kabul in the winter of 1988, months before the last Soviet soldier pulled out, I remember Naw Roz as a moment when Afghan friends drew breath and dared to hope next year would be better than the last. Often, it was worse. For some Afghans in a city which has often borne the brunt of war, the New Year festival was sacrosanct. During Taliban rule, the special occasion with pagan roots was marked behind closed doors.

Many Afghans remember their last quarter century not in the passage of individual years, but blocks: the time of Soviet occupation and communist rule; the Mujahadeen victory and brutal infighting; the extreme restrictions of the Taliban: and now the time of promises, many still unfilled, of President Karzai's government. Afghans describe those years in different ways. For many, they all brought suffering of a kind. Afghans, says the Afghan film maker Siddiq Barmak, have had to suffer a special kind of pain. He calls it pure pain.

And yet, it never seems to extinguish a capacity for humour and hope. And this year, Naw Roz greetings from
Kabul seem infused with more hope and joy than many I've received in the past.

In 1989, Naw Roz came just a month after the last Russian soldier had left. There were New Year parties for privileged PDPA members living in Microrayon and boisterous soirees in the Kabul Hotel. Sweets were bought and exchanged on the streets. For a few days, dusk was no longer punctuated by a lone Afghan soldier playing a haunting tune on his flute just beneath the graceful domed
palace of Bagh-i-Bala, not far from my window. Kabul had not collapsed as many outside had speculated and many inside had feared. But it was still a place of uncertainty. Afghans kept asking me what would be their city's fate, hoping a foreigner might know more about what lay behind a flurry of rumours. But when spring gave way to summer, Kabul was the target of incessant rocket attacks from mujahadeen fighters on the fringes of the city. Dozens of rockets fell every day. Any Naw Roz hopes were dashed.

In 1992, Naw Roz was also marked in a swirl of speculation. Some Afghan friends started to flee
Kabul, knowing the days of President Najibullah's rule were counted. Mujahadeen leaders were wrangling over a UN peace plan in Peshawar and commanders were consolidating their positions on the ground. About a month after Naw Roz, the forces of Ahmad Shah Massood and Abdul Rashid Dostum moved into Kabul. The prized capital was finally theirs, or at least theirs to fight over. An Afghan friend who'd long had secret contacts with the the Shia parties had been so hopeful when the New Year began. Weeks later, he met me inside one of Bagh-i-Bala's mirror studded rooms, bearing samples of plates he planned to order for the restaurant he managed. His gleaming stack of crockery seemed to confirm his faith in peace. But he was dead within the year. A rocket hit his office at the Intercontinental Hotel.

I wasn't in
Kabul for Naw Roz in 1996, the year Kabul fell to the Taliban although hundreds of Taliban leaders were gathering in Kandahar by then, deepening fears in the capital that their ten month siege was set to worsen.

And in 2002, the first Naw Roz after the Taliban's defeat, I was hoping to return on the special Italian flight to bring home the former Afghan King. But Zahir Shah's flight was stopped at the eleventh hour, ostensibly for security reasons. He ended his exile a few weeks later. And when Afghans from around the world made the same sentimental journey home, for the first time in years, to attend the emergency Loya Jirga, it seemed to be the real Naw Roz -- the bittersweet start of something new.

At this time of year, Afghans I meet in
London always yearn to be home and for many of them, that’s Kabul. I always say to foreigners going to the Afghan capital for the first time that no one ever goes there once. There is something about the city and its people that draws everyone back. We all have our reasons.

If I was in
Kabul for this Naw Roz, I might marvel again at the profusion of billboards promising that Afghanistan is now connected to the world. And I would remember the Afghans I met in December, when I wandered across the street from the newly refurbished Loya Jirga Site, and found them living in wretched conditions in a garbage infested courtyard.

I'm sure some Afghan friends will stroll through the parks which have now returned to life, although I hear some government ministers are grabbing land inside them, robbing Afghans of precious public space.

Will the keepers of the street, the traffic police with white gloves, still be on duty valiantly trying to disentangle the traffic now snarling the roads? And who will take Naw Roz photographs? Have digital cameras replaced those ancient cameras on the pavement that produce extraordinary black and white images?

Everyone can again savour a city without curfew. Until it was lifted in the last few years, most Afghans had never known a
Kabul without one.

Its always hard to be certain in
Kabul that Naw Roz hopes will be realised. But on my last visit, I saw an extraordinary sight -- a multi storey building in Shahre Naw that seemed to be built entirely of glass. I thought either this Afghan investor is completely mad or its proof indeed that much better days lie ahead. Naw Roz Mubarek.

Lyse Doucet is a BBC News Correspondent and presenter on BBC World.

 

 

 

AFGHANISTAN 2004 - THE YEAR AHEAD

Ahmed Rashid

 

The lack of security and the failure of the international community to disburse adequate funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan will continue to dominate the concerns of the government of President Hamid Karzai in 2004.

 

In the early spring of 2004 a bruising battle will ensue over the issue of early Presidential elections. The US administration, which has delivered an additional US 1.2 billion dollars this year bringing its total to US 2 billion for 2003-2004 and intends to set up 6 more Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the Pashtun belt along the border with Pakistan to improve security, will insist that Presidential elections must be held by September at the latest. 

 

On the other hand the UN, many European and NATO states, Western and Afghan Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and many Afghans including at least half the Afghan cabinet say elections should be postponed for at least one year. However with the backing of a reluctant Karzai, Washington’s agenda which is all to do with having a success story to show to American voters in November 2004 for the US Presidential elections, is likely to win out.

 

The key issue for the credibility of any such Presidential elections which are likely to be held in September 2004, will be how much participation there will be in the strife torn Pashtun belt. An equally difficult task will be the deepening and broadening of the disarming and demobilization of 100,000 militiamen, which has only just begun. Unless the government and the international community push ahead with this, the power of the warlords and gunmen will remain unchecked.

 

The December Loya Jirga which will ratify a Presidential style Constitution has already done much to change the ethnic imbalances that existed in the country after the war against the Taliban. The LJ has seen the return of the Pashtuns, as monarchists, democrats and fundamentalist Pashtuns rally around a Presidential system and a powerful central government, which they equate with a resurgence of Pashtun political power. The Tajik Panjsheris have lost considerable clout. Unable to dominate the LJ, they are divided amongst themselves and do not have the degree of popularity that existed for them after September 11.

 

Karzai will face the tough decision of either including Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim as Vice President on his ticket for the presidential elections or dumping him in favour of a more popular non-Pashtun and creating several Vice-Presidents to maintain ethnic harmony.

 

The December LJ has demonstrated that the non-Taliban fundamentalists led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf are still powerful due to the intimidation they exercise and they will continue to push on Islamic issues by using the highly conservative Afghan judiciary to support their pro-sharia demands. This will prove to be a major hindrance for progressive Afghans to push ahead with democratic and human rights reforms and create embarrassing moments for the government also.

 

At the December LJ, a powerful block of non-Pashtuns in northern and north-eastern Afghanistan have become untied around their common demands for more provincial autonomy and greater checks on Presidential powers. The common ground found by Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens and Hazaras has surprised both the government and the Americans and this block will continue to push for greater recognition of their demands, albeit in a peaceful manner.

 

Although the government would like to see a Tokyo Two conference in the spring of 2004, in a pledging conference, which Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani says must raise his new estimate of US 30 billion dollars over the next 15 years for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, any such high level conference is unlikely to take place. There is a deep reluctance by Western donors, especially the Europeans to put down more money for Afghanistan. The Europeans remain upset with the Americans for determining the agenda in Afghanistan without including them in decision making.

                       

The lack of funding for reconstruction and the continued emphasis on Iraq by the international community will remain a major problem for the government. However with GDP growth at 29 percent for 2002-3 and estimated at 20 percent for 2003-4 according to the IMF, the Kabul government is likely to push for more foreign and Afghan ex-patriot investment in order to make up the shortfalls in international aid. Ghani and Trade Minister Kazemi are determined to make Afghanistan a centre point for transit trade between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia and they have notched up considerable successes so far.

 

Pakistan will face renewed US and international pressure to curtail its open support for the Taliban resurgence. US plans for early elections in Afghanistan are premised on the fact that US pressure will force the Pakistani military and the ISI to start reigning in the Taliban by the spring, who are mostly operating from Pakistani soil. Pakistan, already under international pressure became of its alleged nuclear technology sales to Iran and North Korea will now face concerted US demands that it can only remain a respected part of the global alliance against terrorism, if it arrests not just Al’Qaeda elements but also the key Taliban leaders who are organizing the resistance against Karzai and mostly live in the Quetta region.

 

If Pakistan carries out such measures in good faith, its relations can improve with the Karzai administration with the added incentives of playing a more prominent role in trade and reconstruction contracts. However if Pakistan drags its feet on the much needed policy turnaround, Afghan anger and suspicion at Pakistan which is already at an all time high, will only be reinforced, allowing India to make further headway in Afghanistan and ensuring that Pakistan-US relations remain on a roller coaster.

 

The refusal of NATO which now controls the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, to provide more troops so that security can be enhanced in other Afghan cities will be a major negative factor for the Afghan government. The PRTs planned by the Americans will barely be sufficient to provide the necessary security needed by the UN and NGOs to start serious development work in the Pashtun belt, which remains the most deprived part of the country.

 

Afghanistan is slowly on the road to stability. The two essential processes of nation building and state building are taking place although the pace is slowed down by the lack of international commitment on building security and providing adequate funding.

 

This was published in the Daily Times on January 1 2004 and reprinted with the permission of Ahmed Rashid (www.ahmedrashid.com).

 

In 2002 Ahmed Rashid established the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. The fund gives out grants and awards to media groups in Afghanistan. For further information contact Waheed Warasta in Kabul: warasta@hotmail.com; 070 27 9840; www.internews.org.

 

 

 

EXCLUSIVE - A PLACE FOR TOURISM IN AFGHANISTAN'S RECOVERY?

Paul Clammer

 

 

The 1970s marked the heyday of tourism in Afghanistan. Over 90,000 tourists a year visited Afghanistan, one of the country's biggest foreign currency earners. The country was a popular destination in its own right, but also as a stop-off on the overland route to Kathmandu, when Chicken Street was a famous way station on the 'Hippy Trail'. With the country's reconstruction slowly under way, is it too soon to talk about tourists returning to Afghanistan?

 

At first glance, many people working in Afghanistan might think the idea of promoting tourism here is eccentric at best. Visiting the Afghan Tourist Organisation in Kabul seems to back that up - there is more eagerness on offer than actual services, but also recognition that recent events have put Afghanistan back on the international map.

 

Bamiyan was once the jewel in Afghanistan's tourist crown. Despite the destruction of the giant Buddhas, the Bamiyan valley remains one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and it will be interesting to see how a recovery of tourism might take place here.

 

On the bluff near the Governor's office in Bamiyan sits the ATO's sole hotel in Afghanistan. Over tea, the manager, Abdul Khalil talked about his 33 years working at the hotel.

 

'We would have 150 or 200 hundred people a night staying here. People came from all over the world to visit Bamiyan,' he said, recalling the mid-1970s.

 

Old photos show groups of happy tourists relaxing on deck chairs outside luxury yurts. Abdul Khalil isn't harking back to a golden age however. He is determined that tourists will return to Bamiyan. At the end of the compound, labourers were working hard to finish six new yurts for visitors. A high wall currently surrounds the compound, but that too will change. "It must be knocked down," said Abdul Khalil, "because it blocks the view of the valley. No good for tourists."

 

Tourism in Bamiyan - and indeed the rest of the country - cannot proceed in a vacuum. It must follow other solutions to the area's problems. Upgrading the road to Kabul should improve access and bring further economic benefits. Phone links between Bamiyan and the capital are scant at best. UNESCO have surveyed the Buddhist remains along the valley, and there is talk of a visitor's centre to display and preserve the rubble of the destroyed statues. For that to happen there needs to be a solution to the dozens of families still living in the old monk's caves that dot the cliff-wall.

 

Four hours west of Bamiyan are the lakes of Band-e Amir, possibly Afghanistan's most outstanding natural sights. The deep lapis lazuli blue of the waters are a shocking contrast to the plain colours of the surrounding mountains.

 

Visiting the lakes is already popular with Afghans. It is not uncommon to see middle-class Afghan families at the lakes, as well as NGO workers with time off from Bamiyan and Kabul. This domestic tourism is in tandem with more traditional reasons to visit the lakes, as people still travel to Band-e Amir to take the waters for their reported curative properties.

 

The majority of visitors content themselves with visiting Band-e Haibat (the suitably named 'Lake of Awe'), the most accessible of lakes. Next to the mosque overlooking the water, there is a small restaurant serving local fish and offering beds for the night.

 

Visitor numbers to Band-e Amir can only increase, but there is little infrastructure in place to cope with tourists. On a recent visit it was possible to see empty drinks cans floating on the lake. What measures can be put in place to deal with garbage disposal and sanitation? There are two boats with outboard motors on the lake, raising potential pollution concerns of the pristine waters, and also erosive action on the natural dam walls of the lake. It is essential that factors like this be addressed to safeguard the status of the lake, while making it possible to attract visitors there to benefit the local region as a whole.

 

As a country whose recent history has meant that it has sat outside the development of mass tourism, Afghanistan finds itself in a rare position to learn from the experiences of other countries. A sustainable and sensitive approach can be applied, involving local communities that can benefit directly from outside visitors. Nepal is regarded as a tourism success story, with thousands of visitors every year trekking in the Himalayas, but that success has not come without problems. Everest Base Camp is covered with the detritus of mountaineering expeditions, and porters are subject to harsh working conditions. This problem is not unique.

 

With a little foresight, Afghanistan can avoid such a fate, as it develops its own outdoor activities to attract foreign visitors. It is already possible to arrange trekking trips in around the Wakhan Corridor on the Pakistani and Tajik sides of the border. There is no reason why Badakhshan province couldn't ultimately benefit from adventurous trekkers. In September 2003 a British NGO operated a successful trekking tour through the Panjshir valley to the Anjuman Pass. While this was primarily a fund-raising activity, it could act as a possible model for future tour groups.

 

Encouraging tourism is clearly not a panacea for Afghanistan's problems, but a return of tourists would certainly reflect an improvement in the country's stability, further aiding recovery. While western governments continue to advise against their citizens travelling to Afghanistan, both individuals and tour operators will be reluctant to visit the country. Stability is paramount for tourism in Afghanistan. Given the right conditions however, Afghanistan has the potential to benefit considerably from tourism- not just economically but also culturally, through helping to reconnect the Afghan people with the outside world after decades of isolation.

 

Cambodia and Lebanon are examples of countries that have been wrecked by civil war, but are now popular with foreign tourists. In a corner of the ATO office in Herat hangs a framed poster of Afghanistan's Year of Tourism from 1967. The slogan reads "Tourism- Passport to Peace". Ironic or prophetic?

 

Paul Clammer has written the Afghanistan chapter for Lonely Planet's forthcoming guidebook to Central Asia. He also runs the Afghanistan travel website www.kabulcaravan.com. A longer version of this article will appear on www.developmentgateway.org

 

 

 

EXCLUSIVE – ELECTION YEAR IS HERE

By Grant Kippen

 

With the recent signing of the new constitution by President Karzai, Afghanistan is now one step closer to meeting the timelines that were set out under Bonn - the final commitment being to hold "free and fair" elections by June.  Perhaps one of the most significant aspects to the new constitution, an done that will certainly have an enormous impact on the future of democracy in the country, is the fact that 25% of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga are now reserved exclusively for women.  Even before the first vote is cats this is a significant accomplishment and one that clearly puts Afghanistan at the vanguard of countries that formally recognizes the role of women in domestic politics.

 

However the role of women in the politics of Afghanistan is but one of the many developments that is currently shaping developments in the lead up to the Presidential, parliamentary and local elections, and these include:

 

Political party law - this law was formally decreed in September 2003 and set out the conditions that political parties were required to meet in order to achieve formal legal recognition.  Recently, the Ministry of Justice registered the first five political parties and is in the process of reviewing close to twenty more applications. Estimates are that by the time the elections take place some fifty-plus political parties could be registered.

 

Elections law - at present, a law is being drafted that will provide the framework for the holding of elections.  A decree was recently signed that set out the requirements political parties must meet in order to accredit observers to the voter registration process.  Additional decrees will likely be signed in the coming weeks that will deal with such issues as campaign financing, regulations governing the role of media in the election and the role of domestic election and international election monitors.

 

Voter registration - officially launched on December 1, 2003 the goal is to register an estimated 10.5 million voters. To date, around2.0 million voters have received their identification cards but starting sometime in March approximately 4,200-4,400 voter registration sites will have been established thereby providing every citizen of voting age the opportunity to register.

 

Candidates for the Presidential election - at this point in time four individuals have announced their intentions to campaign for the Presidency - Sayed Ishaq Gailani, Dr. Massouda Jalal, President Hamid Karzai and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq.  Several other candidates are currently testing the waters in order to determine potential support.  Already the subject of much speculation is the naming of potential candidates for the positions of 1st and 2nd Vice President on the different Presidential campaign "tickets".  Given the multi-ethnic and linguistic composition of the country as well as the new formal role of women in politics, these "ticket" combinations offer some interesting possibilities.

 

Another important development that has not received much attention but will be an important stakeholder in the voter registration process and elections is the role of domestic election monitoring groups.  Often known as election monitoring organizations (EMOs), such groups typically have their roots in civil society.  Currently, a number of afghan civil society groups are collaborating to create an indigenous EMO and are optimistic about the positive role they can play on monitoring these two important process.

 

What these events and developments point to is an increasing interest and engagement by many different political stakeholders throughout the country.  As we get closer to the election date, voters in Afghanistan will be presented, for the first time in several decades, with a rich assortment of choices of candidates and platforms, which is something that all Afghans can be enormously proud of.

 

Grant Kippen is Country Director in Afghanistan for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (www.ndi.org).

 

 

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF PRESIDENT KARZAI’S CLOSING SPEECH TO THE CONSTITIONAL LOYA JIRGA, JANUARY 4 2004

 

Today, praise be to God, we witness the achievement of a tremendous success by the Afghan nation, made possible through your hands, the true representatives of the nation. I never doubted this success, because I believed in our nation, and I believed in the friendship of the international community, who are with us in building the Afghanistan of today, and tomorrow.

 

Of course the constitution is a document that can be amended. The constitution shall be respected. Its implementation is essential, and requires strong determination by the nation. But the constitution is not the Quran. If five or ten years down the line we find that stability improves, proper political parties emerge, and we judge that a parliamentary system can function better, then a Loya Jirga can at a time of our choosing be convened to adopt a different system of government.

 

My vision for the future of Afghanistan is of a country with big political parties, where anyone aspiring to become the president will depend on all the people of Afghanistan, and strive to build an inclusive political party as a platform. A platform in which any individual, from whichever corner of the country he may happen to originate, can ascend to the top of the ladder. My vision is that in Afghanistan anyone aspiring to achieve the post of president will depend on his own persuasion, capacity and competence, and the backing of a national and inclusive political party, not on an ethnic group, a region, or affiliation with a minority or a majority.

 

I want an Afghanistan where a poor boy from Yakawlang may rise to claim the chair of the president. I want an Afghanistan where a poor Baluchi from Nimroz may achieve the president’s post. To speak more frankly, I do not want that the president will necessarily be expected to be a Pashtun, the vice-president a Tajik, with Hazara, Uzbek and so on following the line. No, this is not the Afghanistan I aspire to build. And if you do, I disagree with you.

 

This country has seen cruelty and injustice. Our past history is witness to injustice done to certain qawms (ethnic groups). Our recent history has seen a lot of injustice too. Foreigners have subjected our land to injustice. Invaders, with filthy collaborating hands from inside, have subjected this land to injustice. We have seen much, and we have grown more hard-bitten.

 

Take this sincere promise from me that, for as long as I am here as the President, and until there are elections that bring a new president, I will be obedient to the law, and obedient to the national desires. I will not bend or swerve, and if I did, you will, I expect, show me the door.

 

If today you have laid the foundation for this Afghanistan, then you deserve my congratulations.

 

 

EXCLUSIVE - KABUL: CITY OF THE ABSURD

By Paul Vickers

 

What does Britain’s Foreign Office have to say about Afghanistan? “We strongly advise against all non-essential travel”: well that pretty much summarises the matronly advice on their web site.

 

A quick glance at the ‘online advisories’ issued by the US State Department shows that Washington is just as strict as London when it comes to all things  Afghan. Their equivalent world-watcher warns of “suicide operations, bombings, assaults or kidnapping”, even in the capital.

 

Of course, it’s all good advice and one really ought to take heed of it.

 

But what’s this? An e-mail arrives from a good friend who has lived and worked in Kabul for many months, surviving every one of the threats the desk jockeys in Georgetown and Whitehall have jogged his shoulder about.

 

He reports that Wais Faisi, the legendary custodian of the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul is thinking of opening a nightclub”. A nightclub?  I’m still working out just how amazed I ought to be.

 

Those who frittered their lives away at university might recall that, partly as a reaction to the horrors of the First World War, the French invented the theatre of the absurd.

 

In it, the likes of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett imagined a universe where humanity is permanently out of key; a lunatic world where nothing is quite what it seems.

 

Those who prefer travel to reading books (and who doesn’t?) will tell you that the Afghans have created the 21st century equivalent. It’s called Kabul and I love it.

 

Let’s start with the smallest of small absurdities. Pop over to the excellent Shah M Bookshop at the Intercontinental Hotel to buy one of their maps of the city and you’ll find that they’re all in Polish.

 

No matter. They still sell like hot cakes. They’re “Printed in Denmark by Geokart of Poland” and imported from there into the heartland of Afghanistan. They sell for a dollar, but “Price $14.95” is printed on each one.

 

Nip down to the shops close to the Salang Wat and you’ll find a guy who would like nothing more than to show you his stuffed cheetah. He’ll even let you stroke it; a filthy pleasure that I managed myself on my last visit.

 

And what about the banner above the entrance to the Chelsea supermarket near the Shahre Naw Park, urging customers to “be happy all the time”? How Beckett would have loved that.

 

He would have enjoyed the advert that’s splashed across the Kabul International Hotel, dominating the whole street, too. It features a huge pack of cigarettes floating as if by magic above a gorgeous tropical beach. “Enjoy the taste of America”, it says, above all the dust and violence that is Kabul’s traffic nightmare.

 

This is what happens, of course, when people try and get on with life, make an honest buck and do the best for themselves and their kids in a country that has been pulverised by three different kinds of war: war of occupation, civil war and the war against terror. If you can tune in, it’s a sort of ‘East meets West’ thing – a ‘culture shock’.

 

But absurdity like this is also a kind of ‘work in progress’ sign: a notice that says things are getting back to normal, however slowly. Just live with it and smile. Won’t be long now.

 

So when another Russian pushes to the front of the line at the Supreme PX  and buys a box of frozen pork chops, you’ll know that it’s just the way that things work here for the time being.

 

Same goes when you next walk past the “Alcohol Strictly Prohibited” sign at the airport customs area with a litre of Irish whiskey in your hand luggage.

 

After all, you’ve seen it in other countries like Bosnia, or Rwanda. I remember a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates melting in a shop window in Haiti, while a riot raged outside. I remember the chocolates, but I still have no idea what started the riot. I don’t think any of the locals did either.

 

But there’s another level of absurdity in Kabul and it’s purely Afghan.

 

Where else would you find a market to compare with the Titanic Market, spread out across the bed of the Kabul River?

 

It’s a thriving centre of commerce – as long as it doesn’t rain. A sudden downpour in the mountains surrounding the city and the market, its stalls, produce and customers are all swept away.

 

Where else would you find motorists willing to avoid road humps (or ‘sleeping policemen’ as we Brits call them) by driving around them and into a minefield? The humps are there to slow drivers down and stop the awful tide of death that is Afghan motoring. The minefields, on the other hand, are there to kill. Nobody notices the irony.

 

One morning in the city we heard an ancient, ex-Soviet helicopter struggle into the sky like a big, fat bee. It was one of those choppers that you’d be happy to photograph, but would never, ever want to hitch a ride in.

 

It circled for hours trying to gain height and then someone kicked thousands of leaflets out of the door. They fell across most of Kabul. Children ran among the cars scooping them up, risking life, limb, everything, with smiles on their faces.

 

Eventually the pages fluttered down to earth near us and we asked what they said. “Say No To Drugs”, apparently, was the timely message. God knows how many people were run over across town trying to grab armfuls of these things. Why would people want to collect so many?

 

The next day – the very next day – I got my answer as I watched a kid launch a kite made expertly out of these leaflets into a beautiful, bright, blue Kabuli sky.

 

Paul Vickers is a BBC journalist and keen Afghanophile. His website www.afghanhound.me.uk will be launched shortly.

 

 

EXCLUSIVE – NOT THE HOTEL CALIFORNIA

By Nadene Ghouri

 

Less than a year ago I was a BBC correspondent. Now I own a little hotel in Kabul. And I’m not even sure how it happened. I do remember a long lunch with some Afghan friends, one of whom was Rahim, Kabul’s only interior designer and owner of Nomad carpet gallery. His spontaneity is infectious.

 

“Let’s design a guest house”, he said.  Fours hours later we’d found a house and signed on the dotted line. We’ll be open in six weeks we said. That was six months ago.

 

The early days were the simplest. The negotiations with our Taliban supporting landlord.

 

He watched in horror as Rahim took a blow torch to the window frames and ripped out his best Pakistani marble tiles. “Mr Rahim you crazy man!” became his favourite anguished cry as the designer from hell (as we named him later) brought his perfectionist touch to every last tiny detail. “Why you like these old things you crazy man? I bring good things from Pakistan? Why you destroy my house Mr Rahim you crazy man?”

 

Taking me aside he confided: “In Europe you sick of new things. In Afghanistan we sick of oooold things”. 

 

He couldn’t grasp why we had chosen to lovingly create a house filled with Afghan crafts and design, from the team of Hazara stonemasons who hand-built all of our bathrooms to the designer rugs adorning our walls.

 

He wasn’t alone. The artistic stonemasons aside, not a single one of our workers could understand what we were doing or why. “No it’s impossible” was their standard cry when we asked for the simplest things to be done differently.  Four poster beds in the bedrooms made from reclaimed wooden pillars? “No way”, said our carpenter who hated any wood other than chipboard.  Beaten copper bowls inside of ceramic basins? “They’ll leak”, said the plumber. Mahogany stained doors instead of standard Afghan white gloss. “Terrible” said the painter. Nothing is impossible we said and we were right, but only after a battle of wills bigger than the Hindu Kush

 

There were the tiny things. Like the decorators who painted the outside front of the house but not around the back thinking we might not notice, or the plumber who only realised what an overflow pipe was for after three successive floods, the last one bringing down the upstairs ceilings.

 

If you have ever doubted that plumbers are the same the World over, you’d know it after seeing the lovely Fawad stroking his little goatee beard and saying: “It’s a ten minute job but it’ll cost you”.   After three months of watching him say: “It’s a ten minute job missus”, then taking ten days to change a washer, I flipped and threw him out the house. He left but only after waving a screwdriver in my face. A vicious fist fight (and I would have decked him one, believe you me) was only averted by the decorating team holding us apart with their paintbrushes

 

During the major construction all the workers lived on site in what became a little microcosm of ethnic division. I’d arrive early mornings to check on them before going to work at the BBC, to find bloodied noses and black eyes. The day the stonemasons told me the Pashtun painters had threatened them all night long with a piece of live electric cable was not a happy one.

 

Every day was like a mini-soap opera. For weeks our new plumbing failed us. When we tested the flush the water came back up. One by one we brought back all the plumbers (we’d gone through 5 of them by then). One by one they blamed each other. Till we got to the truth.  The workers had used our bathrooms, but instead of using paper they’d been wiping with soil and pebbles in the traditional Afghan way. Environmentally friendly in a communal hole in the ground, but not down the best Iranian sanitary-ware hard-earned dollars can buy.  We gave all of them a ration of toilet paper. For days it kept them amused. “Nadene, paper, bottom”, they’d guffaw waving the pink sheets at me in greeting.

 

Amusing enough, until I discovered that after having built them a lovely new toilet of their own in the guard house, the novelty value of western bathrooms had worn off and they’d taken to shitting in my rosebushes instead. It was only after we caught the electrician with his pants down did the smell give it away. 

 

Afghan Garden opened in early March. Sitting around the candlelit fireplace, chatting to the guests makes the whole thing worthwhile.  I firmly believe Afghanistan needs investment and capitalism, not more aid.  I came home to my Father’s country and put my money where my mouth was. I saw Fawad the plumber yesterday driving a shiny new car, no doubt on the way to rip off his latest customer.  I think I paid for it. I think he’d agree with me. 

 

 

Afghan teenager faces dilemma after her rise to cinema stardom

By Sardar Ahmad

 

   Former beggar Marina Golbahari found sudden stardom for her role in the movie "Osama" but the 13-year-old might not escape the rigorous life of a young veiled and secluded Afghan woman for a career in the movies.

   "If it was up to me I would chose the cinema," Marina told AFP last week while shooting her third film in Kabul. "Osama" won a Golden Globe award and

Marina was judged best actress at an Indian film festival.

   "But my father, my mother and my family will decide about my future, I can't do that myself," the young actress said.

   Afghan director Sidiq Barmak spotted her when she was begging in the streets of Kabul and what followed was a meeting which remains unforgettable for both.

   Barmak said he was out searching for street boys to take supporting roles in the movie when he spotted the dark-eyed child.

   "I had someone before me that I was looking for," he said.

   Marina was out on a cold winter day reciting her usual litany for passers-by: "One Afghani in the name of God, I am poor, give me one Afghani to buy nan (bread)."

   She repeated the same before Barmak.

  "When I looked at her, her eyes told me a story of pain and suffering. I told myself that she is the person I was looking for," Barmak told AFP.

   "Her eyes told me the story I wanted to tell the world in the movie -- tears, fear and pain. She could play these things better than anyone else because she had physically experienced all these things."

   Marina's first response to the offer of movie work was: "I'm not an infidel."

   She had seen television only once in her life at a restaurant and she was suspicious about the cinema.

   "But once he explained to me the sort of film he was making, I agreed," she recalled.

   Marina's family of nine suffered badly under the harsh fundamentalist Taliban regime and the decades of civil war in Afghanistan, and despite her youth Marina understood Barmak's storyline -- about a girl whose widowed mother and grandmother face misery after the Taliban prohibit women from working.

   The girl in Barmak's film dresses as boy and gets a job at a milk shop in Kabul, where the Taliban's feared religious police patrol, lashing men for cutting their beards and women for not wearing the all-enveloping burqa.

   She changes her name to "Osama" to scare off boys who are teasing her.

   Her gender is exposed when she is forced to attend a religious school by Taliban police and she ends up in prison. In a Taliban-style judgment she is forcibly wedded to a man six times her age.

   The movie, Afghanistan's first feature film since the Taliban regime was forced from power in late 2001 by a US-led military campaign, ends with a scene showing her husband taking a shower, a common Afghan practice of after sex.

   Despite the fame the movie has brought her, life has not changed drastically.

   Marina will turn 14 in few months and still lives in the single mud-brick room, doing all the daily work expected of a young Afghan girl, including patching the roof when it rains.

   She is set to move to a new house which Barmak has bought her, with her father, illiterate mother, six sisters and two brothers. The new house is also made up of mud-brick in the same impoverished neighbourhood, but is more spacious.

   But Marina does not care about money or a good house. She said she got what she had been dreaming of, a gold necklace that glitters around her neck.

 

Sardar Ahmad is an AFP reporter in Kabul and this article is reprinted with his permission.

 

 

A SPANNER IN THE WORKS

By Belinda Bowling

 

Having failed miserably in my quest to convince a skipper to smuggle me into Turkmenistan, I was loitering around Baku’s port wondering whether there was an alternative means of entry into the country to which I had been refused a visa, when I fell in love.  Just like that.

 

Weighing not more than 200 grams, she couldn’t have been more than two weeks old.  Alone and vulnerable, she sat mewing in the middle of a pier, dwarfed by the enormous oil tankers astride her.  I tried.  I really did.  But I simply couldn’t leave her there. Regal (although not quite of Romanov lineage), courageous and a survivor, I named the kitten Anastasia.

 

Six months earlier I had traded my blossoming legal career and the beachfront home/ convertible BMW/ 1.8 child neatly caged future towards which I seemed to be hurtling for a grubby backpack and the glittering allure of adventure.  Central Asia, far off the backpacker beaten track, had beckoned. But how on earth would I continue my travels in far flung corners of the world with a defenceless tiny kitten to look after?  Take her with me, I suppose.

 

So, safely shielded from the vodka-sodden anthropological horrors of Azerbaijan in the papoose I had fashioned from a fluffy Russian hat and a beach sarong, Spanner (as she had become affectionately known) accompanied me on my wild and wicked adventures in the eastern Caucusus, the most remote region of what is quite possibly the least-known country in the world.

 

We traversed raging rivers and snow-covered mountains on horseback, negotiated rocky mountain tracks on an ancient Russian motorbike, dodged rogue bandits’ bullets, shared meals of salty fetid cheese and hard stale bread with passing shepherds and the kind villagers who took us in from time-to-time, and basked in the silence and aesthetic wonder of nature in all her naked glory.  We had an absolute ball.

 

We returned to Baku some two weeks later.  Love affair in full bloom, I needed to work out a way to transport unnoticed an unvaccinated Azeri kitten across the four border posts that lay between us and Albania, our next destination.

 

I truly believe that nothing in life is impossible to achieve if one wants it badly enough.  Nonetheless, I soon realized that the successful execution of this illegal transboundary exercise would be a challenge, to say the least. In this particular instance, however, my resources were not put to the test.

 

Some two months earlier, I had spent a month traveling through Afghanistan, and had fallen in love with the battered and bruised but ever-magical country and its enigmatic people, who had shown me such kindness, hospitality and generosity.  On a whim, I had applied for a job before leaving the country that had touched my very soul.  When I returned to Baku, I discovered to my surprise that I had got it. So, hidden beneath layers of clothing, Spanner flew with me to Kabul, her new home.

 

It was some weeks after our arrival that I had no option but to come to terms with the harsh reality that Spanner was not the sweet angelic little girl I had thought she was. Spanner was a boy. 

 

The biological evidence was incontrovertible.  (I rather suspect that an Afghan gender fairy paid her a midnight visit to increase her chances of survival in Kabul, a city that is intriguingly awash with testosterone-laden mercenaries, spies and wearers of dogtags unable to name the capitals of most European cities.)

 

But even boys get lonely.  Spanner and I – swashbuckling adventurers extraordinaire – had, until our arrival in Kabul, been inseparable.  Circumstances had, however, changed.  One of us had to earn the Whiskas, with the result that Spanner was left on his own for extended periods of time. So I set about finding a suitable bride and long-term companion for my brave little Russian prince.

 

Screwdriver, a rather petite (some might say scrawny) ginger tabby, seemed the perfect match.  Although not quite the Afghan beauty I had had in mind, I promised her that if she survived the physical injuries she had sustained before her rescue from a Kabul gutter, I would keep her.  Indeed the courageous little bundle of matted fur did survive.  I remained true to my word and gave her a home.

 

Notwithstanding their relatively young ages, indications are that Spanner and Screwdriver intend to start a family.  In the absence of a vet to perform the necessary medical procedures to prevent it, who am I to stand in the way?

 

Spanner, Screwdriver and I, soon to be joined by a litter of Afghan-Azeri kittens, are now happily settled into our new home, replete with a plethora of warm woolen carpets, irresistible swaths of shimmering red, orange and pink silk and organza, antique wood scratching post accoutrements and a number of rather inviting blossoming saplings.

 

Notwithstanding that we are awoken from time-to-time to the chowkidor’s dawn cries of “Screw… Screw… kojast?”, we are the picture of domestic bliss.

 

Born in Azerbaijan and raised in Afghanistan, spunky Spanner – now a UN fat cat – and his adopted family of wandering vagabonds will in time retire to a farm in South Africa; an equally tortured, misunderstood, magnetic and magical country with which they, like me, will no doubt fall passionately in love.  And in which they will, I hope, live happily ever after.

 

 

EXCLUSIVE - BOOK REVIEW: The Crosslines Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan

Second Edition -- Fully Revised by Edward Girardet and Jonathan Walter

Crosslines Publications, 2004.   544pp.

 

Reviewed by Vanni Cappelli

 

     By far the most difficult aspect of engaging with Afghanistan is the country's daunting complexity. Not only is there the richly interwoven fabric of its history, ethnicities, and culture to deal with, but the particular manner in which this fabric has been cruelly torn by a quarter century of relentless war and international intervention must be fathomed by journalists, aid workers, diplomats, and military personnel if their work here is to be at all effective.

     Many international professionals try to evade this indispensable labour of understanding by taking an icily technocratic approach. Like the fabled nurse who was heard to declare, “I don't want to know anything about Afghanistan, I'm just here to do my job!” they believe that they can perform their abstractly acquired skills in this land with total disregard for the environment in which they must interact. Centuries of failure by foreigners in the heart of Central Asia testify to the fatal laziness and myopia of such an attitude.

     Though nothing can substitute for an intensive course of reading and a sincere curiosity to test this knowledge in the field, learning has to begin somewhere, and one would be hard-pressed to name an authoritative, up-to-date, one volume "Afghan encyclopaedia" that doubles as a handy manual. Long-time Afghan hands Edward Girardet and Jonathan Walter have provided an impressive substitute with the second edition of their "Crosslines Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan".

     A stunningly expanded revision of their well-regarded, Taliban-era first edition, this carefully prepared book goes far in helping to gird both veteran and newcomer for the challenge of the present Afghan historical moment.

     Well-structured into broad sections entitled "Overviews", "Info briefs", "Travel", "Essential A-Z", "Contacts", etc., the volume places a cornucopia of Afghan facts and realities at the fingertips of readers while providing ample references that enable one to test any shortcomings in the text.

     Perceptive introductory essays by such authorities as Girardet, Ahmed Rashid, Walter, Charles Norchi, Peter Marsden and Ali Wardak flow well into the practical core of the book. This consists of a wide spectrum of hard facts and useful advice about the infinite, colourful, and shattered Afghan mosaic that the wayfarer must confront upon coming here.

     Historical data, ethnic characterizations and statistics, regional guides, detailed travel information, security tips, advice on accommodations and food, health warnings, Dari and Pashto phrasebooks, communications aids, good maps, political summaries -- all this is only the beginning of what this book has to offer. Extensive, up-to-date information is provided on NGO's, diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies, and media organizations. Long bibliographies and the addresses of relevant websites enable the readers to further expand their horizons -- and check on inevitable changes.

     Occasional factual errors and questionable interpretations by the individual contributors pale in comparison to the wide perspective that this guide provides. Afghanistan is one great adventure -- the greatest adventure of our time -- and one can use this indispensable volume as a starting point for one's own unique experiences, efforts, and conclusions.

 

 

THE MOBILE MINI CIRCUS FOR CHILDREN

Putting Laughter, Learning, and Creativity Back Into Afghan Children's Lives                                                                  

Vanni Cappelli

 

     On a bright Kabul autumn morning a play is being performed for a large crowd of rapt and delighted children in an outdoor setting in the south of the city, loomed over by the war-devastated ruins of the once grand royal Chilsitoon palace, high up on a nearby hill. A dirty man is engaged in a struggle with a huge, equally dirty felt hand which is, well, manhandling him. The boys and girls laugh with wild abandon at the antics of the two, which culminate in the man clutching his stomach and moaning about severe intestinal pain. For all of the levity of these proceedings intended to capture the children's imaginations, the subject of the play is no laughing matter, as they will soon learn.

     Suddenly another man, well-groomed and well spoken, comes forward to explain the vital importance of personal hygiene to the kids with the aid of a series of pictures painted on cloth. The procedures for washing and the price that is to be paid for not doing so are calmly explained to the now hushed audience, which has the painful fate of the dirty man vividly in their minds. Finally, a spanking white hand holding flowers emerges, accompanied by the now clean man wearing a white T-shirt, in the bloom of health and happiness. A group of people close with a tuneful song extolling the benefits of washing, framed by the bouncing hand and the equally bouncing children.

     The Mobile Mini Circus For Children has imparted another valuable life lesson to the children of Afghanistan in a way that they are not likely to forget, as it has been conveyed with laughter, imagination, and love.

     Active since the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban and the renewed international engagement in Afghanistan, MMCC strives to entertain and educate traumatized children through performances, workshops and training, providing vital psycho-social support to the ultimate building blocks of the country's future -- its kids.

     Explaining the troupe's self-help philosophy, founder David Mason emphasizes a truth which should be taken to heart by all those dealing with Afghanistan's limited physical and ample human resources.

     "We don't 'do' anything for them", he says. "They do it all. We simply help them to do it by themselves."

     A self-described "child protection project" consisting of Mason and eight Afghan artists recruited from the country's different ethnicities, MMCC integrates health and peace education, landmine awareness, and creative self-help into their adult performances, workshops, and children's performances. Always mindful of the vast potential of this great nation, the players seek to awaken the Afghan spirit rather than imposing anything from outside.

"We don't bring anything culturally", Mason affirms. "We discover and develop things from here. We do things on a level approachable for everyone in Afghanistan."

     Although it’s delightful adult performances are MMCC's staple and the aspect of their activity that they can be called upon to perform at any time, its true engagement with the hearts, minds, and futures of

Afghanistan’s kids lies in the workshops and children's performances with which it taps into the vital energy that is the nation's best hope.

     Spread out over a five day period which culminates in the kids actually practicing what they have learned, the workshops--child performance program is at once focusing, fruitful, and fun. The eight Afghan artists each take a group of 10-40 children and instruct them in singing, painting, acting, dancing, acrobatics, papier mache, sewing costumes for puppets and acting with puppets. But the emphasis is always on acquiring skills -- the ultimate creativity is left to the kids themselves.

     "For the puppet show we don't tell them what the story should be", Mason explains. "We let them make it up themselves. The same is true for acting. We show them how to make an angry face, employ facial muscles, etc. We don't dictate the narrative. We just show them how to tell it."

     In a refreshing contrast to the focus of so many NGO's on Kabul, MMCC's mandate is to all of Afghanistan. The children of Ghazni, Gardez, Mazar-i-Sharif, Pul-i-Khomri, Salang, the Panjshir, and Shebargan have all benefited from its peripatetic teaching, a gift which Mason eagerly wishes to extend to ever more remote corners of the country, when the necessary funding materializes.

     "We have rented buses until now when we have gone out to the provinces", he explains. "But our great dream is to have a bus to call our own, a permanent means to reach Afghan children whenever the opportunity arises -- a real mobile circus."

     That Afghan children have their own stories to tell and that bringing out even the most painful stories can be both therapeutic and liberating is illustrated by the anecdote Mason tells of a child he encountered just north of Kabul, who teachers had told him always fought with other kids and cried.

     "For three hours we managed to focus him on painting", he relates.  Instead of fighting, he was sighing. I asked him what he was painting. On the sheet of paper before him were coffins and dead bodies. He had seen it all, even losing family members. In painting there is an element of therapy, as in the puppet show and other activities. They can say things through art that they couldn't say in the real world. I later heard from the teachers that he was much better behaved after that."

     MMCC's potent value to the Afghan reconstruction effort has been highly praised by the gamut of international NGO's active in Afghanistan, as well as by native aid organizations. Its role in the necessary reciprocal interaction of the two worlds is perhaps best highlighted by the statement of Olivier Tor of the Swiss NGO Terres des Hommes, which works closely with the ASCHIANA Children's Centre in Kabul: "MMCC's dynamism and creativity have undeniably greatly motivated the staff of ASCHIANA and the children."

     Perhaps the ultimate testimony to MMCC's continuing mission to the children of Afghanistan and the place it has won in the hearts of adults and children alike is the comment made by an elderly gentleman after David Mason asked him whether a visiting troupe of French clowns had performed better than MMCC.

     "Yes", the man replied. "But you are ours."

 

        Mobile Mini Circus For Children: www.afghanmmcc.org