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The Light at the End of the (Salang) Tunnel

I’m looking forward to leaving Afghanistan.   I have about four weeks left; it's that odd period when change feels so close and yet seems so far away.  And in truth, I’m not leaving Afghanistan just yet so even the leave itself is another marker.  I’m just using five weeks of my vacation to accomplish other career-related objectives, after which I will remain for about two months in Kabul.  Four weeks does mark my leaving the North, though.

Living in the North has been a pleasant time.  There’s a small group of cool, friendly, and serious-minded people here.  Given that we have two proper restaurants in town, that means that activities are communal and include everyone at once.  Partying here consists of going out to eat, or somebody cooking dinner, and then going to someone’s compound to have a few more rounds.  It’s actually quite pleasant if one has already gotten the experience of Kabul and, like me, milked it for all it’s worth.

There are people who would love the simplicity and tranquility of all of this.  I am not one of those people.  I can love the people I’m hanging out with but I feel like I'm wasting my time if I’m not constantly meeting new people.  Small towns have always been difficult for me in this way.  As a hypersocial person who seeks and enjoys attention, I can’t help feeling the need for an ever bigger sandbox to play in.

I wonder what my successor will think of this place, having not experienced Kabul (she’s coming straight to Mazar) and having previously worked in much more cosmopolitan places such as the Occupied Territories.  It’s extremely odd to have your first job in Afghanistan be with nice, professional people, supervising a functional office, and for your role to be one of the few in the country that are clearly defined and hence, easy to explain.  Everyone I know has had to experience a lot of highly educational confusion and uncertainty as they became familiar with the nature and rhythm of the chaos.  Recently I gave some advice to a friend of a friend, who came to Kabul to work forhelp a local who, because of the culture gap so typical of this country, didn’t understand why she would want to go out on her own.  Bars, restaurants, and socializing are the most important parts of the Kabul experience—a lesson that I, even without having any such restrictions, took fully a year to realize.

My assertion that the most important goal while living in Kabul is networking and socializing never fails to raise eyebrows.  “Time should not be spent frivolously,” they might say, and “you didn’t come here to have fun.”  To which I stick out my tongue.  I most certainly did come here to have fun,  (I have an expansive notion of the concept, and spending time out with friends both helps people understand how their bullshit fits into the greater scheme of things and usefully demonstrates that their work is bullshit in the first place.  Partying also has the benefit of being a positive example of how life can be consistently fun and need not be spent behind closed doors with only family or those bound by duty rather than love.

My efforts now are focused on keeping up my morale, both on the job and off, until I go.  My ears are worn out from the banality of most of the conversations I hear.  Often I have pointed out that knowing the language deadens one’s enthusiasm for this country.  You get to hear impassioned and repetitive discussions on whether the best peaches are from Khenjan or Doushi, you get to hear people relentlessly contradict themselves, and you spend your time keeping your mouth shut, knowing that, through a long chain of consequence and certain existential realities, nothing is going to really get better here until they let their wife sit at the dinner table with the guests.

The election didn’t make me feel better, either.  Indeed, in numerous speeches, posters, and billboards, Karzai rubbed in his disdain for his subjects and contempt for the process of state building.  If Karzai had shown that he cared enough to hack the election properly or expanded the state’s power enough to do so, I might have been impressed.  Instead it seems that a great deal, if not most, of the election fraud was committed by “well-meaning,” would-be cronies hoping for a pat on the back from the re-elected president.  The civic machinery for even the most menial enterprise, let alone running an election, was not in place and that is no surprise, but the state hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for building it.

The gap between the skills necessary to run the most basic institutions and those which exist is enormous.  Concurrent with that is the very limited perspective of the people, which is natural considering the lack of resources and opportunities.  It’s why people aren’t curious and why discussion doesn't move above the level of  peach quality.  Whilst en route to my friend’s house with a bowl of mast-o-mouseer (shallots and yogurt), I was engaged in a conversation with my driver about what a shallot is and how, yes, there are fruits and vegetables that he had not heard of.  The supreme irony of this is that the shallot is a very Afghan vegetable that the quirks of Afghan history have caused to be forgotten.  Ultimately, this is a long-term social learning process that can’t be answered effectively by a well-implemented local NGO project or a massive nationwide USAID endeavor.  The best use of all the aid money poured into Afghanistan has been the creation of a small cadre of people who can fill basic positions within most organizations.  This doesn’t yet extend much beyond administration manager, logistician, accountant, and so on, but maybe this generation’s children will gain the perspicuity to start asking the bigger questions and hence develop the critical thinking skills necessary to make a real difference. 

This probably all sounds extremely cynical but I think it’s simply realistic and sober.  I’m far from depressed about my time here and there are still a few more adventures and pontifications to write about.  The most important gains, or so I like to think, have been the immense experience and empowerment I’ve gained personally.  That includes all the great people I’ve met.  Wells dug or surveys completed just don’t matter as much.  It’s this deepened sense of what’s possible, impossible, and the art of the possible that I hope to use to improve the world I live in.

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Reader Comments (1)

I think the banality in conversation exists in any culture. In the US, I often hear arguments of which is better, episode five or episode six... ...it's episode six! People get into these conversations because those are easier to handle.

September 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason Grigsby

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