Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We got up early this morning to leave Dubai.  The wake up call came at 3:45 and we were out the door by 10 after 4.

Our 6:30 flight took off easily.  The plane was filled with mostly male passengers.   A combination of middle easterners dressed in traditional clothing - combined with contract workers for the US government (read:  Black Rock) - with a business man or two thrown in.  Judy and I were the only tourists.

The flight over was peaceful and calm.  The sun rose as we flew over the mountains and into Afghanistan.

After landing, buses took us on the short ride from the plane to the new airport terminal. 

We filled out our foreigner's registration card application and proceeded to the carousel to get our luggage.  

All without a hitch. 

Judy and I proceeded to put our bags on the belt for scanning in order to gain final entry into the country.   Carry-ons, our checked luggage and the chocolate, other treats and booze we had bought from Duty Free, for Shoshana and Noah and the staff from Turquoise Mountain, all went on the belt.  

When I got through the to the other side of the belt the customs agent who was on the other side grabbed the Duty Free bags looked at me and said "Problem".

I knew that alcohol service and consumption was looked down upon in Afghanistan and not allowed in Islamic countries -  therefore alcohol was not readily available.   Which is of course why we were bringing this stuff in the first place - plus I thought, as long as it said Duty Free - everything was ok.  Isn't Duty Free the international get out of jail free card?

I looked at him directly, heart beating, and said "what is the problem?"

Judy said to me under her breath - "shoot, we should have put the bottles in the bags.  Let me go find Shana - she should be able to help."  She proceeded to grab her bags and walk to the other side of the wall.

I looked at the agent again and said - "I do not understand - what is problem?"

He grabbed the Makers Mark bottle out of the bag - looked back at his cronies and nodded his head.  He handed me the bag with the rest of the bottles and said "Its ok".

I thought about protesting further and then thought better of it - this was not JFK after all.  I grabbed to rest of the loot and left.

When I got to the other side of the wall I greeted Shoshana who was speaking in Dhari to another agent.  She welcomed me and apologized for the trouble.  When I told her what had happened - she laughed saying that she had brought whiskey in many times but it was never taken because her's was cheap.   The guards were obviously after "the good stuff".  

The irony is - Judy and I had initially grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam but were encouraged by a puffy whisky connoisseur at the duty free to get the Makers Mark saying "It's worth it - you won't regret it."

Shana and Zia - the driver for the foundation - walked us to the car.  

Driving through the hectic and busy streets was overwhelming.  It was the end of Ramadan so there were a number of people flying kites, many pedestrians and a glut of cars that moved quickly with no discernable lanes.  Cars drove very fast and very close to each other. 

As we drove Shana pointed out things of interest - the large wedding palaces with light up palm trees in front, the new construction of housing going up in various places along the main road, the new trees that had been planted along the road through private funding.  We zipped down the road until we turned off into the area of town where the Fort is. 

We then bumped along a pavement free, trash strewn road.   There were people all along it - women in burqas, children playing, men with wheel barrows, and the occasional car dodging as we weaved down our course.

We pulled up to the walled entrance to the fort.  An armed guard was outside of the gate.  The doors were opened by another armed guard and Shana joked how they never checked the car for bombs if she was in it - despite her encouraging them to do so.  

"They know how to use their guns now though.  We found the only 6 men between 18 and 24 in Afghanistan who did not know how to use guns and promptly hired them as guards".  I laughed at the casual nature of her statement as much as I was laughing at what she said.

We entered the fort itself and it was like being in an Italian villa.  Mountains all around, beautiful fruit trees including pomegranates and pears.  A beautiful center courtyard with a lawn that was being freshly cut. 

I was brought to my room - actually Rory's room - a beautiful space with overlapping red rugs on the floor and embroidered red curtains hanging at the windows  There was a private bath and an additional seating area.

Shana then gave us a tour of the institute which consists of 4 schools - woodworking, calligraphy, gems, and ceramics.  

Not many students were there because the holiday, Eid, was still lingering.  Officially a 3 day holiday - but people want it to be 5 days - so they take 5 days.

The students who were there showed us beautiful work.  Geometric wood carving - Jolley style - put together into large screens through a complex system of notches - no glue used at all.  Intricate carvings made into doors - screens - pillars for bed posts.

We met the master calligrapher who showed us beautiful mandalas, and detailed writing of poems by Rumi embellished with pictures and designs.  All pieces done in the 4 main styles of calligraphy.

The gem makers showed us the gem cutting they do and then the jewels that they create with them.  One of the things Afghanistan is rich in is gems - but because they no longer have facilities to refine and cut these gems - all of the stones, not to mention the profits go to neighboring countries like Pakistan.  

In the making of the jewelry - Shana explained that one of the biggest challenges was getting them to create their own new designs - now that they had the skills to copy those of the traditional jewelry makers - they needed to bring their own vision to the pieces.  Individualization of design - in all areas - is one of the hardest things to cultivate. 

At each stop - in the compound of the fort - Shoshana would speak to people, some in English some in Dhari, about the business of the day.  New supplies to be ordered, someone's travel schedule, new projects being discussed, security concerns due to a rally happening in town. 

She had it all under control.

Judy and I were a little worn out due to the early morning travel.  I laid down for a nap and when I woke up went to the main table off the courtyard.

The table seems to be the centerpiece of social interaction at Qala-e-Norborja (the fort of nine towers - although only one tower is left).  The table is an ever-changing mix of people from all over the world.  

At one point I found myself in conversation with 2 German engineers who were creating a plan to resolve the open sewage problem in Murad Khane, the part of town in the historic district that Turquoise Mountain is revitalizing.

The engineer has put in similar systems all over the world from India to his home town in Germany.

We soon left to meet Shoshana's husband Noah for dinner.  Zia drove us to an expat place called L'Internationale, a French restaurant in the western part of Kabul.

Getting into the restaurant was harder than getting into Bungalow 8 back in the day. 

There are 2 guards at the small main door that has no sign.  They speak through a small gated window and the door opens.  We are led into a room where the man pats me down and asks if we have any weapons.  "Not today" Shana jokingly responds.

The man then screams "shark" and another small gated window on the next door opens.  Another armed guard greets us and we are led through that room to another door with a small gated window.  "Shark" is screamed one more time and the door opens.

We are led to a beautiful candle lit courtyard with trees and various seating areas with couches and overstuffed chairs.

The juxtaposition of everything is far too much to take.   The armed guards leading us to a courtyard where we sit for dinner - the excess of Dubai and the mud brick buildings of Kabul.

Over our French dinner we discuss Noah's work on judicial policy in the provinces and his side project creating a report on the election, its process and results.  There is another woman there who works with Noah and talks about her husband's work creating wind turbines for renewable energy creation in Kabul.

At the end of dinner I am completely wiped out, overwhelmed and find myself in a dream-like daze.  The intensity of the day, the city, and taking everything in has been exhausting.  

We make our way back to the fort.  I head directly to my room and I fall into a deep sleep.  It is only 9:00 PM.


  1. what is their opinion on the election? what is the feeling of bringing more u.s. troops over?

    how was the food? like le singe vert?(before the boycott)

    sweet dreams sweet stephen. safe travels

    did you mention gems?

  2. Of Course you would bring the good stuff...wouldn't expect anything less...hope you had a spare bottle or Makers Mark!

    If you see any spare emeralds strewn about - please feel free to bring back to NYC. I know a jeweler! ;-0

  3. Best wishes for a wonderful experience! We miss you, but are so excited for you. My breath catches every time I think of you there. Have a fantastic time!