What’s It Like Living in Kabul?

November 22, 2013

city290What’s it like living in Kabul I am asked? I have no idea really. The people in the old city live with no electricity or running water, walk miles to get to the markets and freeze in the depths of winter in their mud brick houses.  Oh, you mean what’s it like for me to live here? Well, I’m not really living here. Just passing through. It’s the story of Afghanistan you know. Everyone just passes through. The Americans are the latest to come and go. The Taliban had a brief flirtation, the Soviets before them. The British and Russians. Genghis Khan. Persians. Aryans. Alexander the Great and a whole host beside, not counting the merchants who walked east and west along the silk road that cuts from east to west a stone’s throw north of here. Seeing evidence of the Soviet occupation gives the experience a Far Away Tree feel to the place, for I have been here before, even though this is my first visit.  I used to stand in front of a map in a dark vault and help a team leader, not my own, struggle with tracing Soviet units across a map she didn’t understand, even though I seem to recall she had a PhD on the country. I felt sorry for her, for when she briefed the generals each week no one was terribly interested, and uninterested red tabs do a staff course somewhere on how to look so bored junior staff are reduced from extraordinary competence to soiled underwear. Afghanistan? Who the hell is ever going to go there? In those days we flew Mirages. Their range was so miserable they took three or four days to hop up to our base at Butterworth.  What the heck would we do with them in Kabul. Australians in a shooting war in Afghanistan? Are you insane?  Thank you Anne. And she would struggle to drag her maps out of the briefing room, carefully prepared when she entered, crunched and scrunched as she backed out of the profiling downlights. I once found her throwing the maps down in the vault and crying. I left here there. What did I know about Afghanistan? It was a place even more mysterious than crying women. And a darn sight easier to comprehend I dare say. But secretly, I confess, very exotic.

I digress, because talking about Afghanistan and crying women is easier than trying to explain how I feel about living here, even on a temporary basis.  All the thrill of a place like this is a given. Never knowing if that old Corolla rolling along on your front bumper is going to vanish in a flash of flame and shrapnel and take you with it has an appeal I can’t explain. It just is. It makes me alert and alive and deeply grateful for what I have, who I am and how I am wired. Walking through a crowd, not knowing who is friend or enemy has the same appeal. I am sure it will get me in trouble one day but it’s just the way it is. Hard to explain, so I don’t try. And don’t ask me to.

But there is another side to the coin. I am energized by the optimism in this town and by the people who live here. I value their enterprising ways, their focus on improving their lot, their hospitality and their friendship. And yet. And yet. And yet there is a virus in the air that is draining. A bug that infects me, that comes all the way down those generations from Alexander the Great that says there is a fatal cough in this place. The dry, dust induced hacking tuberculocic (new word – you like?)  cough of the guards that floats up on the cool midnight air from the pavement below, a cough that has a death knell portent, a warning that all will wither and die despite all the best efforts. That all we are doing is whitewashing a sepulcher. It’s a transcendent piece of deadly DNA that lives is the ground here like a tetanus spore that survives inert without oxygen, remaining forever lethal, and waiting for the right conditions to activate. I fight each day to prevent its enervating effect.

It’s a feeling not helped by being locked down in a house, rather than a compound. A compound might at least give me a false sense of freedom. A house is a tease. I am out in the burbs in a house among houses surrounded by locals going about their business. I watch the kids go to school from my window, the carefully covered women walking quickly up and down the street with their shopping. Interesting that no girl here wanders. She is always on a mission, moving quickly from point A to point B. I watch tradesmen, scrap merchants, cheese sellers, bakers and numerous men on bicycles riding to and from work. But despite what I see there is a caution in everything we do. Care in every conversation. Defensive thinking even for a shopping run. You see everything is tainted by what has happened before. My boss has been dragged from his vehicle and badly beaten so he is very jumpy about my sense of adventure – he has learned to quiz me when I reach for my boots. A former colleague of his looked in the eyes of a suicide bomber before she was motioned by the walking bomb to hide. She lay down and he self destructed over her (she still works in this town). Last week a suicide bomber set off his car at a point where we were only 24 hours earlier. So I should not be surprised there is a repression of thought here that makes me want to leap about and shout every so often. But I make the distinction between repression and objective risk management. This is risk management taken to an extreme, screwing everything down and removing any risk. There needs to be a bit of balance away from this locked down approach or we will all go crazy. Crazy or dead? I prefer alive. Sane alive.

I can’t influence any of that balance just yet. In this short term and inaugural visit no one wants to have the body of a visitor on their hands. I respect that. So I hit the gym upstairs for an hour. That helps. In my minds eye I am on the snow and ice already. Focus. Focus. Focus. I am climbing up the spurs of Mt Cook on the east ridge or fastening ice screws and getting up that ice wall. I mentally review the sections of Ama Dablam I will climb next year and the speed on the bike picks up just a little. There is a puddle of sweat on the floor when I am done, and that’s just the warm up. But the muscle fatigue feels good and I am prepped for a day at the desk.

We take our meals together and work together. I work where I live. A home office of sorts. But when the day is done I take dinner and gravitate back to my room with a sense of futility and emptiness. There has to be more to being here than just this? I remind myself that the boss is looking out for my best interests and I bite my tongue. I get to my room and wonder where the day has gone.

Afghanistan warps time. In 329BC Alexander the Great asked his batman to double check the clocks. He was sure he had not been here very long at all but he felt like he had stayed longer than intended and his India invasion plans were in jeopardy. In 1219 Genghis Khan wrote in his diary that he felt he had slept a long sleep and his stay in Herat was a dream of centuries yet he only stayed long enough to see how high he could stack the bodies. Very high indeed it turns out. Russian soldiers wrote home and said their year in country felt like a decade. Oh, it was in the end.  I can relate to them all.  Time staggers to a crawl. It’s only a week since I visited the lake but I have to stop and calculate when exactly we did that trip. I have the impression it could be six or even twelve months ago. Even the microwave seems to take longer to count down the reheated lunch and the kettle most definitely takes forever to come to the boil. The nights spent lying awake are long periods of waiting. For what. The dawn? Inspiration? Sleep? All of the above and of course it’s those long drawn out periods when I feel like I am standing still and watching my life pass me by.   I lose track of the days. Is it Tuesday or Wednesday? Or even Monday. For some reason I can’t get the Friday holy day to anchor me like I could in Saudi Arabia.

Friday feels more slippery here, perhaps because there is a distinctly unholy feel to it. Our office stops and observes the break, allowing the staff their one day a week off. The mullahs call for prayers, their encouragement sounding out faintly from the mosques. But the sound of construction all around continues. Even as I write this a jack hammer chisels away, hammers hammer, cars toot, children shout and the scrap metal merchant shouts and shouts and shouts as he drags his little cart up the street. He’s a young chap and seems pleased with himself today – he has scored a bicycle which he has upended into his little cart along with a steel bench seat covered in dust.

That dust covers everything. It is the finest sort and it is all pervasive, hanging in the warm autumn air like a brown cloud, obscuring the mighty range of mountains over my shoulder and covering absolutely everything. There has been no rain for two weeks but water only turns this stuff to a slippery slurry. No wonder the guards cough so. It’s in their lungs, on our meal table, washed across my desk. I leave the window open permanently but along with fresh cool air I get this brown ash, the ground bones of a million million people that have walked though this land, some of whom are buried on the hill overlooking us and who are visited by the cautiously living on this unholy day. It covers my papers and maps, and I blow it off my laptop and out of my books. I look around after a regular clean up and wonder at the futility of it.

And that brings me back to living here. It’s a strange mix of being never so alive churned through with a dose of solitary confinement. Yes, I do have an insight into that existence. In fact the latter is, in some ways, more bearable for your mind is fixed on the most productive exercise imaginable – keeping your equilibrium. Time does warp there too but I had a very clear and singular sense of purpose. Here, its hard to know what my equilibrium is. I’m flying blind with no artificial horizon on my console.  It’s a feeling fuelled by the real possibility that all the work here might be to no productive end and that the silk road will only ever be what it has been for the last thirty years, a fantasy. My rational being tells me the reverse will be true. My instinct attempts to swamp me and suggest a more dire outcome.

This unholy day draws to a close. A car swishes past and leaves the suburb silent. An English style siren wafts down the lanes and alley ways from a very far place. It is a haunting sound noticeable because it doesn’t sound like one of those abrupt US style bursts of fire truck siren sound that everyone seems to use around here. The breeze has dropped and power is back on so the generators are finally still.  I lie and look at the ceiling (I have decided the décor is a mix of 1970s Russia and Sicilian mafia garish) and think that the experience should ideally be shared with someone. I grin to myself as I think the stack of foam pillows beside me is a poor substitute for a fellow traveller. And they would not appreciate being a shrapnel shield. Not that this is why I would like a fellow traveller – by which I mean someone who is that in every sense of that phrase. But that’s where I stop and I quickly push that line of thinking to one side – it can be too corrosive to go there. A jet powers out of the distant airport and its power rumbles off the mountains towards us. If the usual midnight routine is maintained the sound of landing and taxying C-130s should start about now. Voices call to each other down the neighbouring lane. Then silence. So quiet I can hear the blood pounding in my head.

The office I share has loads of maps. And maps delight me. One wall is given over to a detailed topographic map of the country with all our operations marked up on it. I look at it each day and think of Anne and how much those generals might care now for something this detailed. They would surely pay her more attention. I wonder where she is now and if she has ever visited this place. I have vague memories of her love of snow capped mountains too. How the wheel turns. It always does in Afghanistan, and everything remains the same.

Diary 22 November 2013


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