Friday, March 27, 2009

Kabul at Night

The last time I was here, I didn’t venture out after dark, so I’d never really seen Kabul’s nightlife. But last night we were invited to dinner and a fire pit party at the U.S. Embassy compound, and Razia Jan and I were excited for a night out. Given that Friday is the weekend, Thursday night is a big night for weddings, and the Kabul Dubai Wedding Hall was lit up like a Las Vegas hotel. In Afghanistan men and women are separated during the wedding celebration—this way the women can wear slinky dresses and gyrate on the dance floor to their heart’s content. Live music is played on the groom’s side, and the sound eventually makes its way to the women.

“They pay $10-15,000 for these weddings,” Razia Jan says, “and then they are in debt the rest of their lives.”

When we arrive at the ISAF entrance of the U.S. Embassy compound, we walk down an eerie, dark alley past large, beautifully painted murals. Several of the pictures depict images of peace—two hands clasped, a dove, calm seas—but they are interrupted by a gruesomely graphic image of a man being hanged; he is nearly decapitated, and his body is limp and lifeless. “It was pretty disturbing,” I tell some USAID staff over a dinner of salad and pizza on a heavily fortified deck attached to an apartment. “Welcome to Kabul,” someone says. Yeah, if that’s the worst thing I see here, I guess I’m doing pretty well.

I can’t go into the details of our conversation because most of it was off-the-record, but it was fascinating to learn the degree to which our government officials here live like they’re—these are their words—in a minimum security prison. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good life, a very American life in the center of Kabul—but the enormous security concerns mean there are a lot of rules that must be followed, and tracking devices in phones and cars let officials know where their staff is at all times.

One younger government worker told me she bribed her driver last month in order to see some of the city. “I asked him to turn off the tracker, gave him $50, and told him to drive me around Kabul.” She asked him not to stop until he thought he’d gone $50 dollar’s worth. But the driver didn’t know where to take her for such a sight-seeing expedition. “I don’t care,” she said. “Show me where you live, show me where you shop, show me anything.”

I can understand her desire—the sights, sounds and smells here overload the senses in a way that makes you feel more alive and energized than ever. Here are some of the things that have caught my attention on the street: a military policeman holding a gun in one hand and a brass teapot in the other; entire animal carcasses hanging on metal hooks in the hot sun; a boy with his pants around his ankles going number two on the side of the road; bright orange shredded carrots piled three feet high; a woman in a burqa balancing 15 pieces of naan on her head as she navigates a steep, rocky hill; kids washing their faces in filthy puddles; a man with only eyes and legs visible from the trash bag he uses to keep dry as he rides his bike in the rain; two men pushing a wobbly cart of fresh coconuts; families living in bombed out, mostly collapsed buildings with no doors or windows; billboards for armored cars boasting “We’re just a phone call away.”

It’s only 10pm when we leave the U.S. Embassy, but already the streets are deserted. There are more Afghan policemen on the road than cars, and they’re spread throughout the city manning checkpoints and stopping anyone who passes.

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