Monday, April 30, 2007

A Son Goes to War

My 22 year old son, joined the Army Reserve two years ago. He had hoped to finish college, spending a weekend a month in uniform, but would have no problem if called up in a national emergency. That was when Americans thought Iraq and Afghanistan would settle down within months, not years. Last year, rumors of deployment spread through his Asheville-based engineering unit, until it became certain that in April they would go to Afghanistan for up to a year and a half.

It is rare for an American these days to grasp the reality of a child preparing for war. My son, who wants to be a librarian, completed an eight week army training course last summer. As a combat engineer he learned about de-mining operations, shooting an M-16, surviving gas attacks and hand-to-hand combat. He was actually awarded a couple of medals and got a promotion. Over the next months, my wife and I became used to the shocked looks from friends when we answered “What’s you son up to?” with “Well…. he’s going to Afghanistan for a year to dig up land mines.”

In the three months leading to his actual departure, he spent increasing amounts of time with military duties and training. There were endless shots, mounds of paper work (including his will), and day-long trips to military bases to collect gas masks, desert uniforms, radios, etc.

Then one sunny February day we drove up to Asheville for a farewell party at the armory. It wasn’t the final departure. His unit was going to Ft. Bragg for two months of intense training (mostly in urban combat). We could visit occasional weekends, talk on the phone, and send care packages, kind of like summer camp ten years earlier. There was always the feeling that at the last minute peace would be declared and the troops would return to their families.

But in April, the big departure day came, when the soldiers would fly from Ft. Bragg to Kabul. Families were allowed to spend the last two days on base, mingling with the troops, helping with last-minute packing, buying batteries for CD players and Moon Pies for the long trip. It was a picnic atmosphere. We met our son’s buddies, and everyone pledged they would get home safe and sound. It was more like a departure for a field trip to the beach. But as the minutes ticked by, wives cuddled closer to their battle-dressed husbands. Eyes filled with tears and lips tightened and trembled while oblivious knots of kids played tag and munched candy bars.

A loud sergeant shouted it was time to go, and the crowd separated like oil and water as soldiers flowed into a mass of desert camo, M16s slung over their shoulders. Emotional shock waves rippled through the families. This was the real good-bye. My son gave his new wife a last hug. The knots of kids clung to their daddys and cried: “Daddy, I’m going too.” “Daddy don’t go.” “No daddy, stay here.”

A line of 400 soldiers snaked out the terminal door, across the tarmac, and into a lone white airliner. Many families left, knowing the actual departure would be too much, but we stayed. Too quickly the last soldier entered the plane, and then they were gone. No music, no flag waving, but everyone waved slowly, in a silent collective prayer, hoping the last glimpse of home would be of loved ones wishing farewell. The giant airliner rushed up the runway, thundered over our heads, and banked gracefully east. Its pure, white-winged body against the blue Carolina sky reminded me of an angel.

The 3 hour ride home was a numb blur. After an hour we said they must be over New York. An hour later, we agreed they were crossing into Canada. Time has been measured like that ever since. We changed a kitchen clock to Afghanistan time, and taped a blue star in the front window to remember the other time and the other place, and count every day as a victory.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Day 5 in Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I just spent my fifth day in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sights and events are becoming more familiar. I finally met some other Americans and found a grocery with familiar products, so I am now more assured that I wasn’t plucked up by an alien space ship and dropped into a strange parallel universe.

The first views of Kabul as you approach by airplane are incredibly forbidding mountain ranges, wave after wave of 12,000 ft.+ snow-covered peaks and barren desert valleys. The plane, (a sketchy c. 1970 Boeing 727) weaves through a last few peaks and quickly drops onto a runway marked by wrecked skeletons of bombed out planes and a few mine removal teams. A short walk down the outside roll-up staircase, takes you into the terminal. Kabul has a population of about 1.5 million. The airport has one baggage claim carousel. That’s a small airport.

You exit through the waiting room with beautifully detailed wood paneled walls and ceiling that if restored could be one of the most stunning airport lobbies in the world. A crowd of people 5-6 deep hangs outside the gates. No parking garages. No drive up. No snack bar. You carry your bags 50 yards to the gate, hoping your driver will spot you.

A dozen guards anxiously grip their AK47 automatic rifles. This will become a familiar sight. The AK47 is the Afghanistan billy club, and quickly becomes a comforting object, though always still slightly shocking. Many Afghans have body guards who carry AKs so you see them a lot. Ariana TV, where I work, has several armed guards who come and go.

My favorite is General Nabi (Afghan Army retired), who watches after the CEO, an Afghan-American, visiting this week. The General is ultimate cool. A relaxed, stocky 30-something guy with a blood-orange goatee and mop top of curly hair, he sports a custom bullet-proof vest with 20 pockets holding who knows what. A cell phone headset hangs from one ear. With a 9mm pistol strapped to his right leg, he carries his AK with the aplomb of a Hilton Head Island tennis player toting their racket.

He has the friendliest, impish smile, a Bill Clinton handshake, and always stumbles through a few kind English words. In 2001 General Nabi led a battalion of Northern Alliance troops into Mazar-i-Sharif, where they smashed the Taliban. If I’m ever faced with a violent event, I want to be around General Nabi.

On the subject of violence. Kabul seems to be surprisingly a very calm, very friendly place. Foreigners are vulnerable, because they are visible, which is the reason for the guards, who are superb deterrents. But on the other hand the person on the street is happy to have foreigners here (especially Americans, it seems). All guests are honored, and they go out of their way to smile, show me something, include me, and offer assistance.

There has never been a violent event in the company in the four years of its existence. Though there was one murder three days ago, it was a huge exception; the first in a year or so, and a very shoddy deed by a mad man. A native pointed out that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are at least 40 murders a night, in Washington, D.C. 3-4 murders a night. The one a year in Kabul makes international headlines for days. Go figure.

Though not reported in the news in the US, the Afghans hate the criminals, they love the coalition forces for freeing them from the Russians and then the Taliban, and are constantly cooperating with the police, informing on gang activity, threats, etc. and with very few exceptions, it’s working. Kabul appears safe, if not safer than any city in the world of its size, because of the peaceful attitudes of its citizens.

The Russians, the Afghan civil war and the Taliban were horribly, viciously cruel to the people here, and the Americans and coalition allies have provided them with peace and safety unknown for a generation. The Russians, warlords and Taliban destroyed the country’s infrastructure for thirty years; water, electricity, roads, libraries, schools, hospitals, theaters, nearly everything of value. They murdered one or more members of nearly every single Afghan family. The scars run very, very, very deep here. They are on every street corner.

The Afghans lived through a debasing horror most Americans simply cannot grasp. And so the Afghans are deeply and humbly and optimistically grateful. Don’t be swayed by the scare stories in the media. The last thing the mass media wants to report is a nice quiet night in Kabul, which the vast, vast majority are.

The real story here is how the poor cope with their destroyed society and work with almost nothing to re-build lives, to recover from three lost decades and a million and a half loved ones. It will take much, much more than the occasional murder to slow them down. And if the US really wants to bring peace, freedom and justice to these countries, it cannot bolt and run at the first gunshot on the other side of town. I will not allow myself to feel that fear. If I did, I would be too deeply ashamed. The people I have met here have endured so much. The least I can do is stay and help. They have shown so much hope, faith, respect, warmth, welcome and joy to me.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Streets of Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Exiting the Airport brings you into a wide boulevard. And scenes of vast destruction. The scars of 30 years of war and tyrants are everywhere. Piles of barely identifiable rubble are interspersed with buildings pockmarked with hundreds of bullet and shrapnel hits. Some 4-5 story buildings are partially collapsed on one end, with fronts and backs blown out. 1,000 lb. chunks of concrete dangle over the sidewalk, attached only by a piece of re-bar—and there’s no yellow caution ribbon (imagine that).

Other buildings are completely collapsed, the floors pancaked on top of one another. Some larger buildings are not terribly damaged, but all the windows are blown out and a fence surrounds them. You wonder if they are due for rebuilding or demolition.

The streets. The thing about the streets and sidewalks here are that they look like they were once comfortable and elegant. Most are wide and were once well paved. There are sensible traffic circles and definitely identifiable districts of nice-looking4-5 story buildings 50-100 years old. Now, though, most of the grand boulevards are an obstacle course of potholes. Many are 1-2 feet wide and 3-6 inches deep. If you drive through them at more than 5 mph, you’ll tear off a wheel and give every passenger a concussion.

So driving here is like a bumper car ride slalom course, with a little grand prix video game mixed in. Drivers swerve at top speed left and right to avoid the pot holes. The main boulevard into downtown from where I work is maybe 6 lanes wide. There are no lane markings, and the goal of drivers in both directions is avoiding potholes. We’ll frequently swerve 2 lanes into opposing traffic to avoid a series of nasty potholes on our side. I now know the definition of a “hair-raising ride”. I sit in the backseat, the only one wearing a seatbelt, screaming “how could you do that?” Amazingly, I have not seen a single accident. We kissed bumpers with another car once in traffic, but given the condition of most Kabuli cars, if nothing falls off in a crash, then no harm done. Think bumper cars at an amusement park—or NASCAR unplugged.

I haven’t seen a single road sign, in Kabul, not one traffic light, one street light (operating), nor one stripe on a road. I was told they were all destroyed in the wars to confuse invaders. Besides the wide boulevard, the city is a warren of small roads and neighborhoods that look nearly the same. A river and a few canals slash through the city, adding unexpected barricades and detours. I don’t know how anyone finds their way around. If I drove a car here, I’d be lost for years.

There are many traffic circles, and some even have policemen sitting inside little sheds in the middle. They don’t appear to be too interested in directing traffic. A few times when traffic became a hopeless snarl they would wade out into the sea of cars with a little paddle like sign that said stop. It had a small effect on the half dozen cars in his immediate vicinity, but mostly no one else knew he was there. At one circle, a traffic cop shouted directions over a loudspeaker from his car. Innovative and unique, but doubtful anyone paid much attention.

In my neighborhood where there was a lot of fighting during the Afghan Civil war in the 1990s, so the sidewalks are torn up into large concrete chunks, and most people walk in the streets. On the side streets, speed is kept down by significant speed bumps at each intersection. They must have been built as a defensive measure to discourage drive by shootings. They’d never get past the intersection without coming to a full halt. The speed bumps are just piles of rubble, and in some places they have worn away to reveal a 3-4 deep by 12’ wide trench, a concave speed bump that is just as effective in slowing or stopping cars.

Despite all the craziness, I never see road rage. Horns honk constantly, but they are politely melodic horns that play a little ditty, not loud and pushy like American cars’ horns.

People constantly cut each other off, but it’s all part of the game, like a chess game. Stoic drivers all, they know that the aim is to get in front of the person who is in front of you. And after a week of hundreds of what Americans would call close calls, no car I’ve been in has been hit, or hit another (well, one little tap at a stop), and I’ve never even seen a wreck—though I hear there are terrible ones all the time.

On some street corners, there are piles of trash 4-5 feet high in a 20’ circle. Sometimes a herd of goats browses on top looking for something to eat. Every couple of days a dump truck is there and a handful of guys shovel the trash for a couple of hours. This is the trash disposal system for this neighborhood. I’m told that after the US led invasion trash littered the streets everywhere for months. This is a huge improvement.

There is remarkably little trash blowing in the streets or piled other than these apparently designated spots. I’ve seen worse on I-77. Among the great needs here are dumpsters to contain the trash and a fleet of trucks to empty them. The health risks are huge, especially considering the dry dusty winds that pick up all sorts of junk and blow it everywhere. The US should melt down all its SUVs and send the steel to Afghanistan where they could mold it into dumpsters. That would be one of the most effective things we could do to “fight terrorism.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

America 's Debt to Afghanistan

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Just when I thought it can’t get any wilder, today I took a trip into one of the poorest sections of Kabul, a neighborhood of families from the Northern Afghanistan Panjir Valley. I was invited by my assistant, Ayoob, to attend a lunch celebrating a cousin’s engagement. He thought I would be interested in the local ceremony. Since it was Friday, the Muslim day off, the office was closed and of course I wanted to see more of the city and its people. We took off on one of the hair-raising car rides across town. I shot some video from the front passenger seat that captured the ride pretty well.

We ended up at a dead end street that climbed one of the several mountains that thrust maybe 1,500 feet up from the valley that comprises greater Kabul and divide the city into 2-3 sections. The paved road became gravel, then two hard mud ruts as we drove up several hundred feet then stopped in front of a tiny shack of a store. A half-dozen kids watched, fascinated with us while Ayoob spoke with a group of young men.

The store, which had a few packs of cookies, the ubiquitous 2 litre Pepsi and other colorful soft drink bottles, some neatly displayed plates of lentils, rice and greens, and a few household items like bleach, soap and tissues. The owner was proud to have me take pictures. The homes were cockeyed mud shacks of among the worst you could imagine. A spigot ran with water and kids played in it. The sum total of visible recreation. No soccer fields, no basketball hoops, swings.

It was on the edge of a sprawling cemetery with headstones of all shapes, from finely carved to a raw piece of field stone. There were thousands. Hardly a tree, or patch of green; just piles of dry dusty rocks with dusty paths threading between them. Green flags flew above some of the graves. Poorer ones had just a slash of green paint, which I learned are memorials to fallen soldiers of the wars- martyr’s graves which you see everywhere.

Ayoob said we had to walk from there to his cousins’ house. We struck off through the cemetery. A group of kids tagged, along, mostly boys, but some jaunty girls too, wanting nothing more than to stare, be smiled at and have their picture taken. They were quiet and polite. We climbed up a path into a group of houses that blended together in a multi-story jumble. Quite steep and rutted and impassable except by foot. Knots of tough-looking characters hid from the bright sun on the corners and in doorways; not menacing, just curious.

This was becoming the classic third-world back alley slum, I’d see in news stories about the poor and starving of Africa and India, and I was a bit concerned how far in we would hike and how bad it would get. A small stream of raw sewage ran down a narrow trench in the middle of the path, fed by pipes from each house. It was lined with old plastic bags and it was as difficult to maneuver, like an uphill mountain path, though houses clung to both sides.

Even tinier alleys zipped off and around the “sewer” path. At times we had to jump from rock to rock to avoid the sewer. The smell was pure outhouse. Yes, it had become a model of the kind of 3rd world poverty you see in documentaries made only by people braver than me—or so I thought. But here I was right in the middle, surrounded by gaggles of kids and stared at by strange, shadowy figures in doorways. I trusted that Ayoob, our driver and another of his friends weren’t leading me into some sort of ambush. My video camera rolled continually.

Finally after a couple of breaks to catch our breaths from the up hill climb, Ayoob motioned me into a patio-like area saying it was his cousin’s house. The house was mud and straw, brown—we had stepped though a time warp of 2,000 years. But it was swept clean and we walked through a dark doorway. Entering a side room was a pleasant shock. A stunning, spotless red Persian carpet was on the floor. The walls were a soft, freshly painted ochre, and comfortable red cushions hugged the wall. The ceiling had visible round wooden beams, again a soft ochre color. It was actually a design that you might pay thousands of dollars to create in the West.

Coming in from the hot sun, the thick stone/mud walls made it cool. We were much higher than the Kabul dust bowl, so the air was lovely. A large window looked down over the cemetery and beyond. Ayoob pointed to an Afghan flag about 2 km distant. It was home of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president. After the walk, it was one of the most inviting rooms I’d ever seen, and an absolute contrast to the outside in its ordered serenity. At one end was a cabinet with glass and china dishes, a few photos and a teapot.

One gentleman already seated on the floor. He was a relative, but also introduced by Ayoob as a former teacher and Dean of the Faculty at Kabul University. Ayoob warned me that professors and teachers are among the poorest Afghans, but this was still a surprise.

We had a long talk, which I video taped, about his experiences during the Taliban reign of terror, when he ran a secret school. The school room where he taught a handful of neighborhood girls from the neighborhood to read and do math was behind a hidden door in this house. The Taliban had come regularly and tried to arrest him, but could never find any evidence that he actually had a school.

He told me this slum was populated by people from the Panshir Valley up north. They are a very proud, independent people. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s, most of the families living here (maybe 500-600) had been living temporarily in Kabul, working, attending the University, or just visiting on business. The Soviets closed all the roads into the Panshir, stranding these people in Kabul. They had no permanent homes, so they built shacks in this difficult to reach area of the city. They were against the law to build, but basically out of reach of the Soviets. Their lives became a sad, concentration camp of an existence with no water, sewerage or electricity.

Today, it continues to be a terrible slum. There are no medical facilities or stores. Water and everything else has to be carried up the steep, rocky paths. There is very little fuel to cook with. There are no schools or transportation. Many of the people are hungry. Most workers sell things on the street making a few cents a day for the barest amount of food and clothing. One blessing is municipal electricity, but it fluctuates and is only on for a few hours a day at best.

The people from the Panjir Valley are the people of the mujahadeen; the Northern Alliance which helped the US defeat the Taliban. They were also the people armed by the US to defeat the Soviets who overthrew Afghanistan’s open and flourishing society in the early 1970s. Later they fought the fanatic warlords in Afghanistan’s civil war. They fought the Taliban for years before 9/11, with no help from the US or Europe. They were the forgotten people who harried the Soviets, and were a great influence on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

In that alone the U.S. and the world owes them a great debt.

The Panshiri then fought the fanatic followers of Gulbadin Hekmatyr, the bloody Afghan despot who made his home in Kabul and caused so much unrest and destruction in the civil war that followed the Soviet departure. With the end of the cold war, sadly, the U.S. neglected their mujahadeen friends, dropped their support, drastically weakened the Panshir and they were pused into the northern Panshir valley. This opened the door to the Taliban who put a yoke of nightmarish proportions on the Afghans. But the Panshir still kept their freedom up north and against all odds fought the Taliban as the Northern Alliance.

For years, the US provided only meager military support to the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, were locked safely away in a place few people knew how to find on a map, and the struggle against them by the Northern Alliance meant little or nothing to the US. Consistent with its historically inane foreign policy, the U.S. actually thought the bloody, draconian Talibs were good for Afghanistan. Until 9/11.

When it decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001, the US suddenly remembered its friends from 20 years earlier who helped with the Soviet collapse. If you remember, the first month of the war went very slow for the US. Critics called it a quagmire comparable to Viet Nam. No cities were conquered. The US was losing troops. Though the U.S. dropped millions of bombs on the already shattered Afghan infrastructure, they weren’t making much headway on the ground.

TheTalibs, knowing the culture and land, ran circles around the US. The Northern Alliance, still stung by the U.S.’s short memory during the Afghan civil war and subsequent Taliban takeover were a bit reticent. But when they decided to cooperate, the Taliban was beaten in a matter of weeks.

It should not be lost on any American that Afghanistan has been a comparatively peaceful place for years now. (Although due to neglecting rebuilding infrastructure, the Taliban are becoming more popular and brazen in 2007.)

It is of the utmost sadness that this community in Kabul is so destitute. I met two Northern Alliance, Mujahadeen officers. They told me they loved America, but they are poor, they had both lost their feet in a mine explosion during the Soviet war. They want to be remembered by Americans. Their children do not have a school there. There is no access for emergency vehicles. Water has to be carried from the village well, up hundreds of feet to the houses, most is carried by the young. There is no medical care. They have been shut out of Afghan government in favor of warlords who support the Taliban, even after the coalition victory.

Despite this, they were overjoyed that an American would trek up to visit their desperate village. They wanted to send a message to America through my video camera, asking them not to be forgotten. They feel a strong, soulful bond with Americans in their love of freedom and their willingness to fight for it.

They are grateful that America helped them defeat the Taliban, and want America to stay and help secure the freedom of their country. There are many enemies of Afghanistan. The Afghans have gone to great lengths to tell me that the violence this spring is not being done by native Afghans. They are orchestrated by criminal gangs of Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Arabs and others who want an unstable Afghanistan with no law and order, and jump on every opportunity to encourage the naïve and ignorant. The press here goes to great lengths to prove that the violence and destruction has no benefit or logic for Afghans. It is all from outsiders. I don’t know if that message is getting across to America.

The Afghans are willing to fight these forces, but they are certain it will not be against Americans. They only ask that Americans help their children and their war-injured, and help bring their people, who fought together with and did so much for America, to return just a little of the favor they so desperately need. I hope this message gets across to America.

They graciously invited me to share their meal and celebration, were proud to be photographed and interviewed. I thanked them for sharing the meal and the joy of their children’s engagement and walked back down the steep paths, in a daze, a parade of children following, still wanting their pictures taken. We passed a dozen children carrying water up the hill, in cast-off yellow jugs of brake fluid, side stepping the open sewers, climbing up the scattered rock steps.

And beautiful children they all were, indeed. If any one in America wants to help Afghanistan, to thank these people for saving the children of America, this is a place to start.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Life in a Kabuli guesthouse

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I thought it might be interesting to describe a day in the life here. It’s a very different life, and being the only, well not just American, but westerner I see or even speak with all day gives everything an interesting slant.

Sun rises just after 4:00 am in Kabul. For the first week I was up even earlier. A mosque around the corner and the mullah begins calling over a tinny loudspeaker around 3:30 AM. I quickly learned that using earplugs I might get another hour or so of sleep. I live in what is known in Afghanistan as a guest house. There are scores of them in Kabul, and have a long history of being a major lodging for travelers. There are only 2-3 full-service hotels in Kabul at the moment (very pricey and not worth it), and the guest houses fill the gap.

Guest houses are 2-3 story buildings in a compound with high walls topped by concertina wire. They have 5-10 comfortably sized guest rooms. Mine is about 12x14 ft. There is a wardrobe and a closet. The walls are nearly 2 ft thick masonry and stucco on both sides, but there are 2 large windows. Opening the garish red velveteen curtains provides views of the 8 ft. high walls with concertina wire crowns. But the sun shines in when I pull open the curtains-- if they don’t fall down from the tugging-- and you can see a slice of blue sky a few taller green trees and birds flitting from them. It’s like a prison, actually. You begin to appreciate the smallest things.

The bed has been very lumpy, but they put on a new three inch thick foam mattress, so it’s much improved, despite being three inches too short to fully stretch out. There’s no TV, but I do have a reading light, and I bought a tiny Chinese-made shortwave radio (a “Singbox”) that picks up the few local stations. In the right weather I can pick up the BBC. Hearing clear English is a comfort. There is a desk where I keep a 2 litre bottle of purified water and a power strip to recharge all my battery operated things: camera, computer, cell phone, video camera batteries, etc. A thin red carpet that keeps down the echos bouncing off the concrete walls. Stains cover the walls and furniture. It looks like a cheap city flop house room. Adequate, but nothing comfortable about it. Nothing at all.

The bathrooms are down the hall in one “bathroom” suite. There are 4 private bathrooms for 5-6 men. It’s an all male guest house. Each bathroom has a western sink and toilet, but the shower juts out of the wall into the middle of the room and splashes on the floor, so the whole room is the shower stall. Well, floor to ceiling is all tiled, so what the heck, but the water does splash everywhere including the toilet seat, your shaving kit on the little shelf, your dry towel hanging on the door, and your night clothes hanging on the wall. There’s plenty of hot water before 6:30 am, which is the one comfort, not the least because the dry dusty Kabul air cakes in your sinus, and the steam gives them a good cleaning. The five minutes after a shower is the best breathing of the day.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Life in a Kabuli guesthouse pt. 2

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

The guest house where I live in Kabul has a common room and a large screen TV with about 250 channels featuring one of the best selections anywhere of Indian movies and music videos. Afghans are mad for them. India now is the world’s largest producer of movies, but they are almost never seen in the US. After about 3 minutes of watching one, you might understand why. There is a broad cultural divide going on here. Sometimes I watch them during breakfast. They’re great wake-me-ups.

Indian music videos have two basic plots:

#1 -- White-looking Indian boy chases whiter looking Indian girl through a slightly interesting locale, which after a minute becomes pretty tiresome. It could be a zoo, a playground, a marina, a beach, a hilltop, a valley, a river bank, a boat, a garden or farm. Dancing into and out of, and always on top of a conveniently parked stylish car, at least a dozen times as part of the chase, is a critical piece of action. The girl and boy sing lines alternatively to each other while they shimmy across the setting like a pair of courting peacocks. The boy is consumed with looks of hopeless desperation, crawling on his knees, pulling his hair, beating his breast, collapsing in misery. The girl is a minkish vamp gyrating her ample hips like an out-of balance washing machine. She sports a long diaphanous scarf constantly blown by an off-screen wind machine. Sometimes their lips barely brush against each other, but just in time, she runs away to another part of the locale, only to lie seductively on a park bench, bale of hay, boat, car hood, etc. etc., until the boy catches her and moans his desolate lyrics. Oh, it also rains at least 3-4 times during a video, or they run through a fountain, or some other water attraction. Water is the magical element in the courtship of Indian videos. In a country with 115 degree summers, could you expect anything else?

#2 -- White-looking Indian boy chases whiter looking Indian girl through a an immediately tiresome interesting locale, with all the same action as #1, except this time they have 30 friends all fiercely gyrating in the background of every single scene. The Indians obviously like it, because probably 80% their movies include the exact same scenes too. Indian cinema is culture divide I can’t seem to cross, but I acknowledge their popularity with everyone in the guest house.

I am also the only westerner in the guest house and it’s a struggle to understand the pidgin English. There is a Chinese-Malaysian, a full-Malaysian, a couple Pakistani, and several recently repatriated Afghans. The population changes regularly due to people traveling around the country on Afghan Wireless business. This and 14 other guest houses are owned by Afghan Wireless to house their foreign experts. The residents are computer specialists, electrical engineers, customer service specialists, heating and cooling installers. They are all very friendly and gracious, helpful, well-educated, like to discuss politics, and always greet me by name, though I really can’t remember nor pronounce any of theirs. But my smile-filled southern Hey, good mornin'! works well enough.

Unassuming and forgiving, they mostly admire America and Americans, though mostly all they know about them is what they see in the movies an TV. However they're happy to point out how wrong-headed our current government can be. Their idea of average Americans are Tom Cruise and Paris Hilton and they're amazed that a real live American would actually be living with them. (to be continued)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Breakfast in Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Breakfast is in the guest house’s common room. It’s cooked to order, but I have to go outside the main house to the neighboring building where the kitchen and housekeepers’ rooms are. You can order anything you want, eggs any way (cooked in a half-inch of oil), or stale cornflakes, toast, etc. The cooks are very familiar with Western breakfasts. The Asians like ramen noodle soup for breakfast along with maybe a couple fried eggs and toast or a sautéed slice of corned beef from a tin can. I started with fried eggs, a little wedge of foil-wrapped processed French cheese, a glass of OJ from Turkey and a big piece of Afghan Bread. The bread, served at every meal is like a puffy chewy pizza crust baked on a brick hearth-- tasty and satisfying and made all day long at little bakeries tucked into store fronts everywhere in the city.

The Afghan diet is not big on fiber. After the first week I went to the international grocery and bought a box of Kellogs all bran cereal (made in Manchester, England) to get some fiber. Now I have a bowl of cereal with full cream milk, a hard-boiled egg, or two, and jello-like Pakistani strawberry jam.

I could order pancakes, but the crusted syrup bottle on the table looks like it’s been there for six months. The true Afghan-style breakfast is a small frying pan of potatoes, tomatoes and barely cooked eggs. It’s eaten right from the frying pan and often shared by 2-3 people, each chowing down with a large spoon or moping up with a piece of bread, until it’s wiped clean. I have a fresh orange every morning; they’re imported from Pakistan and are generally juicy and delicious. They are in season now, along with water melon, so they are always available. I’ll have 2-3 a day, as I strive for my 9 portions of fruit and fiber. I have a big bag of bubble gum I brought, which I chew to ward off homesickness once in a while. Does bubble gum count as fiber?

After ordering breakfast, I go to the common room to watch the BBC morning news, or the Indian music videos. The BBC covers pretty much the same murder and other penny dreadful stories as US news. There’s always an in-depth report about Michael Jackson, but it’s nice to see a westerner at least once a day. As the only American I sometimes feel a little sheepish when the US gets accused of something especially stupid, and you certainly get a larger picture of the animosity felt toward the US around the world when watching the BBC.

But the rule appears to be that the more educated any population is, the more they appreciate the US. My housemates may be critical, but not hateful, and are disgusted by flag burnings and rioters that burn aid organizations, etc. The sad fact is that most Americans (or westerners) in the Middle East are trying to honestly help the situation, at great personal risk and sacrifice, and the idiots who want to hurt them are a disgrace to their educated compatriots. So there is an encouraging solidarity in the guest house. Education really is the key to solving the world’s problems.

Breakfast is filling and I get up to brush my teeth, a dreaded, major undertaking. The water is unfit for drinking, so I have to tote my 1.5 liter bottle of Nestle water along with my toothbush, paste and towel into the bath. The shower has given all surfaces a good wet down, so I juggle the water bottle the toothbrush, the two pieces of its case and the tube of Crest from home (ah memories), and the caps from the toothpaste and water bottle. There is a little shelf above the sink where everything is precariously laid out. I’d have to sterilize the toothbrush if it falls, likewise the Crest or anything else. I long for just turning on the tap having a good brush, and gargling all the water I want… don’t ever take water for granted.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Getting ready for work

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Getting ready to go to work each morning, I have to pack up two valises of stuff, for my still camera, computer, cell phone, ID card, flash memory stick, glasses, notebooks, 3-4 sets of keys etc. I’ve set my pickup time by the Ariana TV driver for 7:30 AM, and he’s always on time. One of the guest house staff comes to my room and cheerfully calls “Meester Bob, car come.”

Out front, there is a small plywood shed, a guard house, that is home to 3-4 uniformed policemen who have been subcontracted from the Kabul Police to watch our guest house. They sleep and cook their meals in the shed. Each guard totes an AK-47. They are friendly, young and unassuming, jumping up and giving me a cheery hello as I walk out the gate to meet the car. If I ever take a walk down the street, one hurries up to follow me, AK at the ready. It’s kind of funny and seems more like a scene from a movie I once saw than my real life at the moment. I don’t feel any fear, but it’s not the kind of street you might like to stroll with its broken sidewalks, potholed streets and 8 ft. high protective walls.

My driver, Jawid, runs around the car to open the door, offers a slight bow and places his right hand over his heart as a gesture of honor. We shake hands, which is an important greeting, and which they appreciate from “a boss.” It’s something natural for an egalitarian American, but it is very special in Afghanistan to have a boss shake your hand. For security purposes, we always take a different route to the office, which is less than five minutes away. It’s safe to avoid a regular schedule on a regular route. It might give casual observers bad ideas. The driver is well-trained and seems knowledgable about defensive driving. After navigating the streets of Kabul, I’m sure he could be a NASCAR wonder boy.

Kidnappings are the big fear and an age-old Afghan occupation. Most are well planned by gangs seeking money. All kidnappings of foreigners, so far, happen at night when the streets are quiet. The victim has been chosen because of their regular schedule, route, lack of guard and familiarity in the community. The kidnappers drive in several vehicles that force the victim’s car to the side of the road using emergency lights and armed imposters dressed in police uniforms—which can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks. Unfortunately, sometimes the drivers are in on the deal. I have been instructed not to be in any car after dark, and never take a taxi day or night.

We zip through the side streets from the guest house to Ariana TV. The station is on about an acre of ground, surrounded, like the guest house by 8 ft. walls crowned in concertina wire. 2-3 unarmed guards are out front and they frisk and use a metal detector on all people coming in (except me, the “American boss” to whom they give a snappy salute, which I return with a firm handshake). My second floor office, is more than twice the size of any one else’s, but I share it with my assistant, Ayoob. It’s used for frequent meetings on comfortable sofas and chairs that are almost never empty of visitors pitching something.

One wall has large windows with a view over a wasted area of the city. There were huge battles in this area during the 1990s civil war, and every building has had major damage, or is a pile of rubble. Makeshift workshops and stores made from shipping containers or chunks of lumber line the street. Walls are pock marks from hundreds of bullets and grenade explosions. But there is lots of reconstruction going on too, and I’m sure in a few years, all signs of war damage will be gone in the neighborhood. As I watch the traffic zoom by on Darulaman street, I note how easy it would be for a van to pull up, open its side door, and fire a rocket propelled grenade at my nice wide window. The first day I turned the desk around to face the window, wondering if I would have enough time to duck if one day an RPG round ripped through the sixty yards between me and the street. (to be continued)

At the office

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

The office view continues over the ruins to a dry mountain ridge that soars up 1,000 ft. The light changes as the clouds move quickly overhead, and the view becomes alternately clear then obscured as various minor dust storms blow through during the day. It’s like watching a giant computer animation.

Dust storms are an amazing phenomenon you don’t see in the US. Suddenly the wind begins to rush up 30-40 mph, like a huge thunderstorm, but with no rain. Sand and dust are carried with it, choking the air and dropping visibility sometimes to only a few feet. I feel sorry for the walkers and bicyclists I see on the street, but it justifies the scarves nearly everyone wears around their necks. When the dust blows, they can quickly cover their faces and get at least some protection. Within a half hour, it’s clear and normal again as if nothing happened. A big one happens once a week, smaller ones maybe 10-20 mph happen almost every day. It rained the first four days I was here, every day. It hasn’t rained since. It’s dry, but not an oven, and temps now range from 55 at night to mid-80s during the day. Very pleasant actually. The bad part is you can only go out in the courtyards. Because of the new security alerts, a leisurely walk through the neighborhood in Kabul is taboo. To every Westerner I’ve met, that is the most difficult thing about being here. The city is so interesting, but you can’t really get out and enjoy it.

The courtyards are nice break. At ArianaTV, they are developing walkways with rose gardens, and paying a lot of attention to little details. They’re trying to get a nice fountain working. An artist is painting famous Afghan sites in niches along the interior wall. There is a little gazebo with a set of table and chairs where you can take a break or eat something. When there’s a slight breeze, it is very pleasant. But you never escape the pent-up feeling.

There is a full-time cook and servant staff of 5 people at Ariana TV. They will bring you anything you want if they have it. I can order a mid-morning snack which might be a boiled egg, some Afghan bread and a cup of green tea. They feed 70 employees (all Afghans) lunch by bringing trays of food to everyone’s office. It is generally the same stewed hunk of meat about the size of a small lemon swimming in a glass bowl of a spicy, oily reddish sauce. It is not highly flavored, and to avoid a ¼ cup of oil, (they call it gravy) I sieve out the meat with a fork and put it on my plate of Afghan rice. The rice is a tasty, loose basmati rice, sometimes dressed up with raisins, carrot shreds and maybe a few nuts. Someone told me the rice is slightly sautéed in lamb fat, which gives it a nice flavor, but it’s not very healthy or light on the Western stomach.

The kitchen crew comes by 2-3 times a day with tea or coffee, sometimes with a bit of bread and cream cheese. I have a giant 10 gallon bottle of purified water that I drink from all day, and which everyone thinks is some crazy American thing. There’s a bet going to see if I’ll finish it within a month (I surely will). For most 3-4 cups a day of tea is their major liquid intake. Tea is also offered when guests arrive, but not automatically, I need to ask for it.

The cooking staff and housekeepers (all men) are gracious, respectful and appreciative of the slightest kindness. This really is the Afghan way. No one grumbles about being a cook or a guard or a cleaner or store clerk, or any job that in the West people might find demeaning. Everyone is proud of their work and always looking to do it a little bit better. To refuse their desire to give good service is an insult, like refusing the tea they brought, or wanting to carry your own bag, if they offer. I have learned that because I am the boss, I must always walk through the door first. If I offer a staffer to go first, I embarrass them. Very different for an American.

Along the same line, I was in a little store the other day buying some intriguing looking home-baked goods including a local style baklava. The clerk filled a bag with much more than I wanted and the cost was about 25 cents. I tried to give him another quarter, as a tip, and he gave it right back, with a slightly insulted look. It was his job, he was proud if it, he decided the prices for a fair transaction, and I shouldn’t mess with that. How different from the U.S. where tip jars demand attention in so many shops. (to be continued)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Office; Kabul version

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

The office day is always an intense swirl of one interruption after another. People here just walk into an office and expect to be seen immediately with their issue. They’ll walk right up in the middle of a meeting with a piece of paper put it in front of you and ask you a detailed question. Or they’ll come in sit in a chair and say they want a meeting.

“Right now?”
”Well, I’m busy with another meeting right now. Can you make an appointment for later in the week?”
“No understand.”
“OK, Can you come back in 15 minutes?”

Leave, come back? That’s an interesting concept, and they walk out quizzically. Frequently a porter will poke his head in, look around and leave. I don’t know what he’s looking for, maybe empty tea glasses to take away. Maybe looking for someone that someone else told him to find. If I ask why he keeps coming in, nobody knows or seems to mind at all.

Individual space and property here are fluid concepts. People walk in the middle of the roads, bikes ride on crowded sidewalks pushing people aside. Drivers drive on both sides of the road in any direction they feel. Someone will pick up your glass and drink from it. People frequently share meals from the same plate or pan—three or four at a time. It’s like working with five year olds who wander everywhere and are into anything without the slightest concern. They’re not being inconsiderate, it’s just a different culture. In a way, more friendly, relaxed and open.

I finally put a sign on the door of my office that said in English and Dari, “Do not enter without speaking to the secretary first.” Everyone thought it was a quaint Western custom, and vowed to try and be more Western too. It helped, and whenever there are important meetings I ask the secretary to be especially vigilant. I am trying to institute a policy of setting meeting times for people who want to talk to me, and as usual the staff picks up on it right away. Every time I leave the office, least one person will come up and ask for a meeting. Some day, I note, I’ll get the receptionist an appointment book and show her how to set appointments. For now, everyone has an urgent problem that must take precedence over everyone else’s.

It’s like driving in Kabul. Everyone must squeeze in front of everyone else. It’s not rude, it’s just the way it is. If you see an opening, you go for it and no one feels bad that they didn’t get there first.

After lunch, the day seems to fly by. I used to work until 6:30-7:00 PM (after getting there at 7:30 am) 6 days a week. It became too much, so now the schedule is arrive at the office by 7:30 AM. I’ve moved to a much nicer guest house, right down the street from the TV station. Now I walk to work. A guard walks with me, curious why the American would deign to walk in the dirty street, when a chauffeur could be there in a minute. He’s unarmed, but has a walkie-talkie to call for help if there’s trouble along our 30 yard walk. Armed guards at the corner watch out for me, and snap to attention when I come into view.

These guards always want me to get them a TV for their guard hut. They are a little miffed that they work at a TV station, but have no TV. They are very nice, and I intend to get them one, but it’s hard to get out to the bazaar. Recently one asked me again for a TV. In a playful mood, I pointed to his AK-47 rifle and said let me shoot it a little bit, and I’ll get you a TV. He handed me the rifle, no problem.

I said no no, just kidding but he insisted I try it. Shoot it into a wall; it won’t hurt anybody. Great, I imagined the bullets ricocheting off, hitting somebody and causing an international incident. Finally the guard gave up, shrugging his shoulders, like, ok whatever. Ayoob, my assistant, was with me and kindly offered to take me out in the country where we could shoot as much as I wanted. I said yeah, maybe one day-- but avoided the subject after that. (to be continued)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Koochis and their camels

I am getting to know the neighborhood where I’m living better, mainly because we take a different route to the station everyday (security precaution). There is a lot of war damage, and the more I see of Kabul, the more I see the devastation of war. In the late 80s, the warlords would just bomb neighborhood after neighborhood until they were piles of rubble. I imagine the streets were impassable. Thousands and thousands were killed. And it was all Afghan on Afghan. And what a sin, because the untouched areas are very interesting. Trees grow well here.

The streets are connected in many places by little traffic circles. There are broad sidewalks and little pocket parks. Some of the few surviving blocks of buildings are hundreds of years old and lean into each other like European medieval villages that tourists love. Sadly, there is so much devastation in some places that it’s hard to imagine why people stayed at all. Bombing someone back to the stone age? Kabul’s been there, done that. I sometimes think about organizing an “end of the world tour;” See what the end of WWIII will look like—visit Kabul!

Yesterday I saw a colorfully dressed extended family heading out of town with 4 camels packed high with wrapped packages. Of course they were walking in the middle of a traffic-choked street, and of course people drove their cars right on the camels’ heels, honking their horns. The little kids in the family caravan whizzed between car and camel. An old man dressed in a flowing robe and turban paid no attention to the ruckus, but waved a stick which the camels followed religiously.

I didn’t have my camera. Time travel? This is not culture shock, this is culture electrocution. Just rub your eyes and say—what a cool dream. The drivers told me these were Koochi people. They ride into Kabul to trade, then head back a couple hundred miles and a thousand years to their nomadic desert homeland. So within this broken down city, there are amazing snippets of an amazing world. I wanted to follow the Koochis and their camels.

Friday, April 20, 2007

After work in Kabul

The days can be pretty exhausting with the constant demanding interruptions, language differences and convoluted translations, the lack of basic equipment and supplies, failed internet connections, lousy cell phone connections, and dust storms. By 5:30 pm I’m ready to get back to my room ASAP shove in my earplugs, turn off the cell phone, and hope for a short nap before dinner.

Dinner is always Afghan cuisine. It’s good, but not as interesting and clever as Thai or Indian. Everything is stewed together to a single soft consistency, and the same cumin, pepper etc. spices are are always used. You could say the same about American food. Maybe it all tastes like catsup, mustard and barbeque sauce. Afghan vegetables are cooked until they are nearly mush, but they do have a salad of finely chopped tomatoes, onion, green pepper, parsley and sometimes cilantro and maybe cabbage that is a refreshingly cool and crunchy relief.

Initially I didn’t want to eat anything raw, because of cleanliness issues but I haven’t had any problem. The cooks appear to scrupulously wash everything in a bleach solution. This is usual even in their homes. They understand safe food preparation. So everyone here eats the salad, and I don’t mind. I’ll have an apple, but I’ll peel it before eating. They have a rough, woody texture, but are tasty and refreshingly fresh. Mangoes are now in season and delicious. I try to have one for breakfast each morning now.

After dinner, there’s really nothing to do. You can’t go out anywhere, not even for a short walk. There is a small compound but I've memorized every tree, brush and rock. There is a company gym nearby that we're encouraged to use, but I wouldn't know how to get there, and no one at the guest house has a car (though instant access to drivers was part of the initial deal).

A few times, I’ve watched part of a movie or documentary on a satellite channel in the common room, but the commercial and promo breaks are so frequent, long and repetitive they chase me away. The ads from India for toothpaste, cooking sauces, and other mass market consumer items are so cloying, they’ll drive the termites back into the wood.

So I’ll go into my room do some emailing, maybe prepare a work checklist for the next day, make a call or two to the US, then go bed. Ear plugs are required because the grinding of the building’s diesel electricity generator sends subtle vibrations and hums throughout. Noise from the street, includes frequent blood-curdling dog and cat fights,beeping horns, and the low rumble from dozens of electric generators-- every house has one. So sleep is tough-- not to mention the bed, which I'll get to later.

The neighborhood mullah calls everyone to prayer at 11p and again about 3:45am on a tinny loudspeaker a couple doors down. Backyard roosters start screeching just before dawn at 4:15. After the first week I was generally able to sleep through the night. I’m always tired at the end of the day; the culture stress is both physically and mentally exhausting. And just about every westerner I’ve met suffers from the same feelings.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Driving through Kabul at night

Kabul at night. It was the first time I had been out driving at night, during the “danger hours,” when westerners were sternly warned to stay off the streets. I had gone out to a nice dinner with 3 colleagues from the station at B's wood-fired pizza, which was a very good, if deserted western-style restaurant. Two weeks earlier, an Italian woman had been dragged from her car and kidnapped, and I might have known better. But I didn't want to look like a fraidy cat American to these Afghans.

Just ten PM, and the usually packed city was deathly quiet – no lights, shops closed, sidewalks deserted. Dark buildings leaned over the street, making uneven cut outs in the blanket of stars above. Our tiny beat-up Mazda, cruised down the streets, jerking to avoid deep potholes in the street, like an tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.

As we entered a roundabout lit by two acid-yellow lights, one of Kabul’s mini wind storms blew a cloud of dust and paper across the street. Dim figures emerged, just silhouettes at first. It was 4 or 5 guys, in police uniforms, AK-47 automatic rifles in hand, waving at us to stop. That doesn’t mean much, because police uniforms can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks.

I looked over my shoulder from the front passenger seat at my friends in the rear, but they looked as scared as I felt. An armed guard, with his own AK-47, was usually back there. On this trip, out to a late dinner, we had decided it wasn’t necessary—and there wouldn’t have been room anyway. As the driver eased to a stop, rolled down his window, and snapped on the interior light, I instinctively laid my hands flat and open on my lap. Great, this was the exact opposite of what I had been told not to do ever since setting foot in Afghanista-- riding in a car, without a guard, late at night.

A policeman, or the guy dressed like one, stuck his head through the window. After a long stare at the four of us, he asked for the driver’s permit. I was the only westerner. He motioned at me to open the glove box. Thankfully, nothing was inside—like a gun. He stepped off and waved us on. The driver floored it and the police disappeared in a swirl of yellow dust and crumpled papers. I swore to myself that I’d never do that again. But I did. (to be continued)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A day with the ladies from the BBC

It was another Friday in Kabul. Friday is the day of rest, the holy day where men go the mosque and office workers. It is also the only day off. Surprisingly, many of the street bazaars and vendors are open and crowded. For me, it is a day to do something besides go to work and sleep in the guest house. This one I spent with two very interesting young ladies from the BBC who have lead an amazingly unique life these past two months. Here’s the story.

A few weeks ago a young western-looking lady, but dressed in a long dress and long head-covered shawl breezed into my office. She thrust out her hand and in a refined London accent and said “I’m Julia Paul from the BBC heah to conduct the journalism class for your reportahs.” I had expected her, of course, not knowing exactly when, this being Kabul, but hadn’t actually understood why the BBC would be educating cub reporters in Kabul.

The BBC is the public broadcasting of Britain, and somewhat similar to PBS,, except it is well-funded through an annual tax on every TV set in the UK. It doesn’t burden its audience with beg-a-thons, nor is it threatened elected politicos in congress who threaten to cancel funding when it disagrees with their political line. It’s programming, too, runs circles around anything PBS produces in the US.
The BBC raises many millions of dollars, and so it is the premier quality TV and radio news network in the world. The BBC is dedicated to getting its message around the globe, and not just those with satellite dishes.
It’s radio world service has thousands of transmitters around the world, so anyone with a $2 pocket radio can hear it . People in cars can listen. Remote villages in Africa listen on the hour to the BBC news, which is translated into 37 languages. Even in Kabul, there are 24/7 BBC broadcasts in English and the local languages on FM radio. There is also 24/7 French radio, 24/7 German radio, and sometimes Belgian, but not a minute of American sourced news or commentary.

In this country where there are 20,000 US soldiers and thousands more US foreign service and US aid workers, there is no US radio. The venerable Voice of America shut down a while back, a victim of federal budget cuts—after all, the cold war was over, and never mind the war on terror. .(Note: Since my trip, the US Voice of America has initiated Afghan language radio and TV broadcasts which are high quality and avidly listened to.)

Oh, and there are no commercials on the BBC world service, so you actually don’t get tired of listening to it. And there are no giant ad agencies dictating programming content decisions to them either.

So, the only major English language news here is delivered by the BBC (although another big irony, German radio, Deutsche Welle broadcasts regular programs in English). Unless you count Fox Satellite TV News, which is considered to be a jingoistic propaganda machine on the level of Radio Moscow in the 1970s, with laughable view points and reportage that is ignored by every thoughtful person outside the US.

The BBC has a good TV satellite channel that features 30 minute breaking news programs and more in-depth discussion and documentary programs. But I spend most of my time listening to the BBC World Service radio, which comes in loud and clear on the $6 Chinese-made 11 band “Sing Box” radio that sits on my desk (well, being Chinese, only two bands actually work). After a day of trying to figure out the broken English and hand signals of my Afghan friends, it's a huge mental break to listen to normal English for a while. (to be continued)