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)

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