Monday, April 23, 2007

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)

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