Friday, September 25, 2009

Murad Khane

We decided to take it a little bit easy today and ease into our Friday.  Most have the day off from the building project of Murad Khane.  Early this morning there was even a bit of a chill in the air which is nice after the midday sun of yesterday's walk around the district.

I had breakfast with Noah, Shoshana, and Judy and then did some yoga in the courtyard.   It is strange to move from war zone observer to spa like vacation in the space of a day.  

I sit here now writing and looking out the window as they prepare for the music festival taking place in the courtyard later today.  It seems event preparation is the same the world over.   Rushing around, last minute changes to the set up, continued updates to the guest list.

There was an option to go and play ultimate frisbee today at a soccer field at one of the local schools.  One of the few remaining fields that exists in the country.  A number of expats who work here with USAID, various research projects, etc go every week.  It is a way to blow off steam and reduce the intensity of their day to day life.  I asked Noah when it started - he told me that when he first came in 2004 it was happening and it has continued despite the fact that no one from that original crew is left.  They have also moved locations 3 times.  It is obvious this activity is important to them and gives the group a sense of normalcy.

We decided to opt out of this.  Not just because of my obvious lack of hand-eye coordination - but also because each day here feels like three.  The days have been so full - with new experiences - eye opening, sad, inspiring, and unique that I decided it was time to take a step back before proceeding further. 

I knew that later this afternoon there would be the music festival and then a trip to the Ambassador of India's House for a night of music followed by dinner.  (I even got an invite with my name on it!)

We met the Ambassador, his wife, and two daughters when Shoshana was giving them a tour of Murad Khane - the historic part of town that Turquoise Mountain is preserving and rebuilding. It was once a thriving and wealthy trade district - that was the site of much of the civil war.  It is now in deep disrepair. 

The work being done there is unbelievable for so many reasons - for the size of the project - over 8 buildings and worksites - the amount of work that has been done - and also the amount that still needs to be accomplished.  

In this part of town - there is open sewage throughout - the smell permeates the air.  This problem has been mitigated by covering some of the sewage canals with paving stones - but this is true only on some streets where TM has made some inroads.  They have cleaned many of the streets - streets that were once piled high with trash.  Trash that would go above your waist - trash so high you would have to crawl over it on your belly to get through covered alleyways.

In this area of town they have preservation projects - they are taking what remains of existing buildings and rebuilding them with historic accuracy - incorporating the woodworking crafts and other details.  Many of these will be turned into workshops and stores for all of the Turquoise Mountain disciplines.  Others they are building from the ground up - with a respect for what has been done before.  In all cases the issue of sustainability is key.  This permeates all discussions from how the buildings will be built to what kind of maintenance is realistic for the water treatment.

We walked through the area with Shoshana early in the day.  She said hello to many shop keepers and others on the street "Asalamu alaykum!" and asked after their families and how their holiday was.
One, who Shoshana later referred to as the deputy Mayor, invited us to tea at his house.  We accepted the invitation and were led down an alleyway into his house.  We removed our shoes and climbed the stairs to the second floor.  As is traditional in Afghan houses - there were pillows all along the wall.  We each took a seat as his daughter excitedly brought in dishes of sugared nuts, almond cookies, and a crispy sweet bread made by his wife.  ("EID leftovers but still delicious" Shoshana said to us in English.)  

We talked about politics - our host preferring McCain to Obama - (his white hair shows his experience - Obama does not have enough white hair yet.  All of this communicated in a combination of Dhari and hand signals ).  

At another point he mentioned Michael Jackson.  ("Michael Jackson #1" he said - breaking his Dhari and hand signals for the first time buy it was very clear what he was talking about so I could fully understand on my own).

He then grabbed his big toe and nodded his head.  Shoshana looked confused.  I guessed that he was referring to Michael's signature stand on his toes dance move.

We left soon after and went to meet the Ambassador and his family.  

We walked with the family through the multiple sites - the women's building - new construction that would one day house a health clinic for women's services along with other facilities including a Hamam (currently they are only allowed to use the existing one on Wednesdays).

We walked through the newer buildings and met with one of the architects who is refurbishing a 144 room building (120 of these rooms have been done).  

We walked around for another 2 hours - the dust is so thick that you can practically feel it coating your lungs.   

Following our tour we all sat for lunch in the peacock house.  It was quite a spread.  Lamb kebob sandwiches with Naan.  Rice with raisins and carrots.  Fresh fruit (which I have been warned not to eat as my short stay will not give me enough time to get used to it).

We sat and I listened as Noah and the Ambassador discussed the election.  It was posited that the corruption and violence here, versus an election in India, was minimal at best.  And therefore the election would be dubbed a success - a peaceful discourse about a shift in power.

There was much discussion of where corruption truly exists in Afghanistan - in the government or in the foreign contracts.  Contractors take a large fee and then hire  subcontractor to do the work.  With all of the deals and subcontracts $150 million for a roads project quickly turns into $60 million actually being spent on roads.  

It was interesting to hear the different perspectives and to get a sense of what everyone thought of the possible success or failure of democracy in this country. 

It seems on one hand democracy has been successful with another election with minimal violence (with admittedly a still undetermined outcome.)  

On the other hand the government does not operate as a democracy in that it does not represent or support the needs of its people (trash removal, clean roads, clean water! - these are all being done by private groups - only recently have they begun to support and subsidize working electricity for the city).  

Individuals at lower levels in the government also regularly accept bribes (I am short one bottle of Makers Mark to prove it).  This behavior combined with the lack of services and support reduces people's faith in the government and makes me question if a centralized government (vs. individual community leaders and yes, warlords) can ever be successful. 

These questions continued to swirl as we went to a barbecue with a group of expat researchers and others.  I speak to one who is researching livelihood and food throughout Afghanistan.  His research (supported by research with the same families done 5 years ago) tries to assess how people  make a living and feed themselves in the face of trauma.

They have come up with some interesting findings.  

The Afghan communities support each other.  If one family is down they are often able to get food, credit, and other needs fulfilled by other members of the community.   Much of the research is re-informing how aid is being supplied to this country. 

After taking all of this in I am sure you can see why I needed a day off.  (After slogging through my rants and ramblings - you might need a day off).

After this morning at the fort Shoshana, Judy and I went to coffee and discussed different options for Turquoise Mountain for fundraising, events and development.  It was great to brainstorm ideas and bring some of my knowledge to the discussion.  We are going to meet again next week when the rest of the staff is back.

The music festival is beginning outside my window.  The courtyard is filled with rugs and cushions and now sitar music accompanying a male voice.  People have begun to file in slowly.

I am going to join them.


  1. I've been checking and reading your blog every day and love hearing your thoughts. I think that just opening your mind to all that is new and sad and hopeful...that alone requires much of your energy. You're wise to conserve it when you can (ducking out of ultimate frisbee, for example).

    The spread looked beautiful! The pictures make your experience a little more real for me. Keep at it!

  2. I, too, am starting my day with your voice. Thank you for the photos - I am hoping for one where your beard makes an appearance. I'm wondering what was wrapped in newspaper in the feast photo.

    It seems that you are finding what we Americans have lost long ago, and what you and I have discussed many a time - how a community can give everyone the means to flourish, if only to work together for a common good. Even if the commonality that day is simply survival.

  3. i am always struck by the power of community and what it means to surviving and thriving. Connection and culture that does not fit well with the US mindset or way of "supporting" "imposing" democracy. The conditions of open sewage, extreme poverty remind me of our trip to dominican republic and then stories of Hati - It is interesting what we chose to support or countries we move into without considering the culture and deep roots of anothers way of life.

    We were with liam and gabe tonight and checked out the pictures - the vote was that the beard favors bernie and the sun glass pose favors david - maybe you all were triplets after all.

    Isn't it great that even as you view the torn lives and country people still celebrate, find remnants of a life to stitch together and build to a future assumed to be better tho indescribable. Raw life exposes the essence of it and can be rich in its own way. Antje used to say in concentration camps they could strip everything but the spirit and music.

    Your writing style puts me in mind of the school experience in DC and your ability to paint a picture that has texture and vibrancy that others can share.

    News today says north is in more turmoil as the militants attempt to demolish the silk road and the supply route that was set to all love talooolah