I write from the garden at the guesthouse. The sun is shining, and the cherry trees are in bloom. There are kites in the sky again above the barbed wire that crowns our walls, and tangled in the trees. A cockerel is crowing somewhere. Someone is listening to Lionel Ritchie. I’m fairly sure I know who, but I won’t denounce him / her in such a public forum.
The ice-cream sellers are back, and with them the Titanic theme tune, calling me homeward with its one, jarring false note. Otherwise it’s mercifully quiet. With the arrival of the spring we’ve re-opened the provincial bases, and the team have gone back to the field to start the projects up again. Fond as I am of them, it’s nice to have a bit of space.
In the past week, I have acquired a departure date, a plane ticket, and a healthy dose of The Fear. I fly back to Paris in a couple of days. Before then I expect to cry publicly on multiple occasions. The pre-departure to-do list I made myself now seems laughably ambitious, including as it does such tasks as, “re-do entire website” and “finish all books begun”. At the same time, I am overwhelmed by the tiniest things. Yesterday, rifling through the communal wardrobe where our clean clothes go, I was overcome by the thought of how on earth I would get all my socks home. But since most of them are more hole than sock, I think I can quite safely sacrifice them.
I will leave both lighter – thanks, PARASITE! – and heavier, with books, scarves, and things I know now that I didn’t before.
We had some incredibly good news this week. Not Afghan incredible, i.e. mediocre with a side of disappointing: actually, incredibly good. The past few weeks have been something of a rollercoaster of emotion – not that we have those in Northern Ireland – and it’s not a bad time to be leaving, much as I am sad to go.
The things I will miss most include the following:
– The people. Notably those in the admin office, my new home, which is full of laughter and cake and crumbs between the keys. And a particular Afghan colleague, who is something of a force of nature, and really deserves her own entry.
– The oddness that occurs on an almost daily basis. In mid-March we celebrated Nawroz, the Afghan New Year. We went out dancing in an attempt to “make an effort” and “meet new people”. This never, ever works, as we soon realize that the new people are no better than the old ones – and the old ones come with the advantage that you don’t have to explain your jokes.
The bag search on the way in to the party was unusually vigorous. I’d done a training session on report-writing earlier that week, with a game requiring trainees to match up linking words and write sentences using them. (Oh yes, I know how to have fun.) I had failed to remove the strips of paper I’d prepared from my handbag. As the guard rummaged through it, some of them escaped and scattered to the floor like confetti at the wedding of, um, Merriam and Webster. Furthermore! In addition! Nonetheless! This being so!
We spent the evening dancing in a circle, fending off chunky contractors, and had possibly the best night I’ve had since I got here. Largely because they played ‘You Can Call Me Al’ AND ‘Brimful of Asha’. The two were sandwiched together by three and a half hours of electro that I didn’t understand. But it was worth it just for that.
– Tea on tap.
– My work.
– People-watching at the cafés and restaurants frequented by expats, which lend themselves very nicely to staring / anthropological study. You can get a fairly accurate idea of who someone works for according to how well-equipped they are, electronically. Wheezy PC: poor NGO, dependent on donors. Mac: NGO with core funds. iPad: consultant of some kind; possibly something to do with transparency or civil society. A person without a computer, reading a book or perhaps talking to another human being, will be regarded with suspicion and not a little scorn.
– The drive to work, especially these days. There’s still snow on the mountains outside the city, but the sky is blue, and the colours pop in the sunshine. Little girls on their way to school in black dresses and white headscarves. The fluorescent orange of the construction workers’ Royal Mail jackets. The pastel pinks and purples of the poppy palaces. The white and yellow taxis; the telltale turquoise of UN Land Cruisers with their great big feck-off aerials. I find the city beautiful. At the moment I’m reading An Unexpected Light by Jason Elliot, given to me for Christmas by my bearded brother. It’s dense but very informative and beautifully written. He describes Kabul as “a mountain-ringed history book written in the faces of its people.” It’s a lot of other things besides, but this is a pretty neat way of putting it.
There are things I will miss less:
– The veil, which I am forever losing, or strangling myself with.
– The face people make upon learning my name. “Rashid ? But . . . that’s a man’s name in Afghanistan.” Yep, it’s a man’s name pretty much everywhere. And incidentally, it is not mine. But do feel free to continue calling me Rashid, please.
– The cats, who have somehow worked out how to open the fridge, and are now frequently to be found with their fat, fluffy faces lodged in open tuna cans in the early hours of the morning.
– The bukhari / burkhali, my mortal enemy. (I like to channel my anger towards inanimate objects rather than human beings who might fight back, causing me to lose – or worse, win – an argument.) Lately it doesn’t sound so much like a dying whale as an anguished Chewbacca, howling as he watches Han Solo be encased in carbonite. With the milder weather, it has become redundant – which is fortunate, since it continues to outwit me at every turn.
You have to turn it on and wait for some of the kerosene (yes) to seep into a little chamber before chucking a match in and ducking for cover. What I usually do is start the fuel running, do a three-minute menial task, and come back to light it. On one recent occasion, I turned it on, went away for half an hour, and came back to find five inches of fuel pooled in the bottom of the burkhali.
Since I had already bothered the guard with the exact same brand of idiocy mere days earlier, I felt I should really manage this one myself. So I rolled up my sleeves, took a box of tissues, and soaked up the excess fuel. Where to store them, I wondered ? Aha, this empty jam jar will do ! Having stuffed the jar, screwed on the lid and marveled at my own cleverness for a few moments, I realized my folly. Sure, I had beaten the burkhali. But I had also unwittingly created a kind of Molotov cocktail that now had to be disposed of.
– Weekends spent in lockdown. It will be nice to be able to go running again (I say that now). I have almost lost the use of my legs through sheer inactivity. Also, one of my colleagues has been feeding me with a kind of high-energy cereal bar which I suspect is reconstituted Plumpy Nut, a peanut-based paste which is normally distributed by the WFP to severely malnourished children.
– Doing the morning press review on the days when there’s little to report besides bombings and beheadings. It would seem that what is commonly referred to as the annual “fighting season” – when the milder weather is accompanied by intensified violence – has begun. The term is a bit reductionist for my liking, but there have been a lot of incidents lately. As ever, the casualties have largely been civilian, and the incidents seemingly senseless.
The security situation is increasingly tense, and in a way I’m glad that I don’t have to decide whether to stay or not. Recently, much of my time has been spent organising a promotional event for one of our programmes which, thanks to the impromptu arrival of John “damn his eyes” Kerry, never took place. I mean sure, he was here to ease tensions in the Afghan-American relationship, which was very noble of him. But the timing of his visit was really very thoughtless. Security restrictions were so tight that we, the hosts, could not make it to the venue, and so there was no choice but to postpone.
Having spent weeks picking out photos, folding brochures, PowerPointing, and going in circles with a printer who shafted us royally while serving us saffron-infused tea in china cups, showing us photos of his grandchildren in London and sharing his many and varied dental woes, we were left a) crestfallen, and b) with enough chicken biryani for 80 people.
There are many things that will be easier to think and write about when I get home. But for now I have smaller and more immediate concerns to contend with, notably my rucksack, which I’m sure has shrunk since I bought it, and is now giving me the evil eye from across the room as if it knows it will defeat me. I may have to watch The Notebook while packing – or something similarly emotionally manipulative – to make sure I get my first wee cry out of the way in private.
Thanks for reading, far-flung friends. Until next time.