Sunday, April 3, 2011

Murad Khane

Well - it was the big day - the opening of the entire project.

Shoshana got up early in order to head down early.

The rest of us at the fort began to gather up - each dressed in elements of Turquoise Mountain that we had purchased at the sale the day before - some in ties or jackets from Zarif - a local designer who employs 50 local tailors - and some in necklaces or cufflinks from the Turquoise Mountain jewelry makers.

All dressed up we loaded in to vans and made our way through the busy streets of Kabul.

We got to Murad Khane and were dropped off on the bazaar street which is full of people selling everything from vegetables to naan to old tires and popcorn. We hear the mullah and smell the acrid air as we make our way into the walls of the Murad Khane project.

Even more than the day before they have put finishing touches on the many buildings. They have festively hung bolts of fabric in the double column surai and posted pictures of the project in process on banners and photo montages on the walls in the hallway.

They had broken us up in to groups and Judy, Stocky and I were on with the deputy engineer and Shegufah from business development whom I had met on my last trip here - she is one hell of a negotiator for carpets on Chicken Street.

We then waited for Sir John and Lady Anne to join us. They did and were exactly what you would think - Lady Anne was a bubbly woman in her 60's who got involved with TM because "she had known Rory since he was "a little bit of a thing". Sir John was a slightly quieter man with a sever look but a warm demeanor under his straw fedora.

We walked through and marveled at the improvements that had been made since even the 2 days before. All of the schools with their work shops open and kids inside working on calligraphy or pottery, wood working and carving and the making of jewelry. All of this being done in a beautifully the restored buildings.

Windows of carved wood panels that could be opened in 3 sections - walls intricately carved from a plaster made from clay and mud that were painted in multiple hues - colors that came from clay that made distinctive greens and tans.

We walked through to the school and met a few of the children who were between their classes (there is school here 6 days a week).

We then made our way to the medical building. The building itself had been an empty lot the last time I was here. the medical facilities had been limited to a small room with 2 doctors. There were now multiple treatment rooms to deal with the most common medical problems that plague the area - malnutrition, stomach issues, and family planning - along with treatment for infections and other common issues.

The facility is beautiful and clean - and will service up to 2,500 families. The whole building was built in 10 months. The person who oversaw the architecture and implementation of this project - Heddy - this is also the woman who took on the logistics of all of the event planning for the weekend. Simply amazing.

When walking through with the managing physician - you really get a sense of pride from him about how he feels about the project and the facility.

After seeing this we all gathered in the great serai for speeches by Shoshana, Rory, the Engineer, and Mr. Hallily - the person who will now take over the day to day operations of the institute.

Some speeches are given in English - others in Dari and then translated to English. This gives the whole opening and the entire project a real sense of global effort and united community effort.

The engineer poignantly - puts his hands together and talks about the joining together of people is what made this work - from the 400 workers to "the support that came from above".

We all then gather for lunch in the double column serai - all 70 of us sit on the floor eating afghan food and drinking coke. Over lunch I ask about what locals think of the project - some are happy - especially those who have gotten work from it - others are suspicious and don't trust it - many believing that the british are there to reclaim treasure that they buried there under the peacock house.

Apparently this belief is fairly wide spread. There is obviously still much work to be done with the local community which I think will be helped by the tangible use of the medical facility and the day to day management of all TMF being put into local hands.

After lunch we ask to return to the student sale - the students have set up in one of their newer buildings - what will serve as their gathering place for lunches and graduations - they have set up tables of student work from each of the schools.

All of the students are excited to show us their wares - working to explain what stones are in their jewelry - or what the meaning is of the calligraphy they have done. The interpretation and explanation is half the fun.

As I pour over one of the tables - looking at each piece - one student says smiling- haven't you bought anything yet? We banter back and fourth - me learning that he is a 3rd year who is excited to graduate and start his own business soon.

It seems like the institute is working.

Since TM has started - a jewelry maker has opened up a workshop around the corner and is taking on much of the work that TM has been asked to do - including an order for 1,200 pairs of earrings for Kate Spade (available in June).

The shop owner is very proud - and his father is there to act as chaperone - which is what allows both men and women to work in the same shop - albeit in separate rooms.

The next business development piece we go to check out is located in another part of town. It is the woodworking production facility - a 3 building factory that produces all of their comissioned pieces - they are currently working on office furniture for 150 offices at the US Embassy as well as items for the gift shop at the British Museum.

We all ride with Zia back to the fort - Rory - riding in the "way back" of the 4 Runner talks about the uptick in businesses in Kabul and we laugh as we pint to the large scale video screen in one of the traffic circles in town. It is advertising a local version of red bull called big bull.
It is terribly out of place - but I suppose is a sign of progress of some sort - or at least of westernization.

Shoshana has been hordeing bottles of champagne for weeks to raise a glass back at the fort.

There is much to celebrate an much to be proud of. I am extremely happy I made the trip and have been able to be a part of this.

Setting Sale

The sale went on as it was hoped to. The timing was noon to 4 and although most people did not show up in the early hours - after 2:00 most were ready to leave their houses and come and check out the wares.

The English Ambassador showed up with his wife, some friends and of course his own security detail. Never one to let adversity get her down - Judy sold something to every person in that party - save the security detail.

After the sale was over many went to Babur's Garden anxious to get out. I decided to stay at the fort, relax - and get a few photos of the fort at sunset.

The courtyard turned over from being ready for the sale to preparing for a bonfire in the evening.

We ate Indian food and talked around the bonfire in the chill night air.

The following day was the opening at Murad Khane.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chock Full

Well - I have finally awoken this morning after yesterday's long but chock full day.

The day started slowly at the fort.

We gathered in the kitchen and then out in the courtyard to hear the security briefing from Shoshana. It seems that things are a bit tighter this time than they were last. There is a more formalized sign out system than there was on my last trip and we were all issued cell phones to communicate with the fort about our movements.

After the briefing - Judy decided it was time to wash the dog - Palawan. It became an all hands on deck effort to get this to happen. Palawan resisted as Stocky held him and Judy did the majority of the scrubbing. I had the much easier job of pouring the water over the dog to help with the rinsing. 3 others helped with the gathering of the water and additional shampoo supplies needed.

The Afghans at the fort looked on in disbelief - they do not have alot of use for dogs and considered this a sort of silly effort on our end. Like trying to keep a rat clean.

The juxtaposition of the dog washing and the security briefing, one couple's 2 year old son - climbing a tree while security walked the perimeter with guns and military choppers flew overhead was striking.

Its all so normal until one of those other elements catches your eye.

We left the fort to go for brunch at the Kabul health club - Shoshana's gym. Its new since I was here last as are many things in Kabul - you can definitely see some progress - in the opening of new businesses.

The health club - like many other westernized places - has a beautiful courtyard - that you get to after the armed security pat down. Once the guard says yes the guy behind the slide peep hole door lets you in.

After our buffet lunch Stocky, Judy and I made our way to Murad Khane - the part of town that the Turquoise Mountain group has been re-doing. When I was here last it was in full process - wood being carved - decisions being made about the facades of the 64 buildings being redone - 19 of which have been fully built or refurbished.

I walked into the double column Surai - which was in process last time - they had asked for mine and Judy's opinion about the woodwork above the archways they were constructing. Walking in - it was all done - there was grass in the courtyard that had been all wood and scaffolding - the gardner was planting the roses in preparation for Sunday.

It took my breath away and tears welled in the corners of my eyes. I could not believe all that had been accomplished.

She showed us the other buildings - the great Surai - the school that was built - and the medical building.

This was a pre-tour before the groups all show up on Sunday. I was glad to get the time there alone with the clarks to really get a full sense of what had been accomplished.

We did not get to see all of the buildings - but will see the rest on Sunday.

There were many arrivals that took place today and we all soon made our way to the British Cemetary for the memorial service for Anna. It was a really beautiful ceremony - each of the parents read bible verses - and the family all had a beautiful calm light about them - which was only highlighted by the sun that set over the graveyard - the flowering trees - and the mountain neighborhood in the background that was filled with playing children - jumping from roof top to roof top - flying kites and yelling with joy.

The Father's verse was from Ecclesiastes - "A time to destroy, a time to rebuild" and it all seemed so appropriate to his daughter's work and to everything happening in Kabul.

Rory closed out the ceremony and recited a TS Elliot poem that talked about endings as beginnings - and history as "time filled with meaning - a series of creative moments which add something new to the world and determine the world's course."

This seemed appropriate for Anna - and for the completion and handing over of the Turquoise Mountain project. There is some question as to the meaning this project will be given and how it will fit into history and how the Afghans will use it now that it is their time.

We all went to dinner at Sufi last night - there were 40 of us eating and the room was buoyant as past TM architects and workers came together with board members and other guests.

I had dinner with Will - who I had met and had walked the city wall with on my last trip. Will has worked here since 2004 and has now archived the whole project and is going to be done at the end of April. His pregnant wife is back in England and he is trying to figure out what is next for him as he knows this experience cannot be recreated anywhere else.

As we are talking Rory comes and asks will about the attack on the UN as Rory has been asked to comment on it for the press.

For those paying attention at home - the attack that took place yesterday was in Masar-i- Sharif - a small town about 9 hours from Kabul. The attack was a response to a Rev. Jones in Florida and his burning of the Koran after "putting it on trial."

There are not words for the ridiculousness of this action and how it has now caused strife and deaths 11,000 miles from the swampland of Florida.

We are all safe here at the fort but it has put an understandable damper on the day's activities.

We are in a bit of a lockdown scenario as Shoshana and team did not wish to risk any unecessary movements.

This will also limit those who were planning to come to the Qala today - as many dignitaries are also in lockdown.

However - we continued to work on the set up of the sale and I moved woodworking, tables and other materials to set up for this event. As with events anywhere - there are a number of opinions and more chiefs than there are indians and today I gladly played the part of stage hand.

Remains to be seen how successful the sale will be.

More later.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beat it.

I am sorry to say I am too tired to post tonight. It was a great day and I apologize for not posting tonight but I am beat. Wanted to assure all that I am safe and I promise to post tomorrow.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Finally Here

Well - I am finally here in Kabul.

The 15 hours from NY to Dubai were uneventful and even quite enjoyable. I was in a window seat with 2 empty seats next to me and although I tried to watch movies and read I really ended up sleeping most of the time - which I guess I needed.

Once we arrived in Dubai - it was immediately familiar in its otherworldly strangeness - the sprawl leading out to the endless desert. Flying over at daytime you really got a much better sense of Dubai's vastness in the middle of nowhere.

Stocky and I took a cab to the terminal where we were to make our connection to our flight to Kabul.

Here we met up with another family that was on their way to Turquoise Mountain - there was a husband and wife, Ashley and Mary, with one of their 7 kids, Kathleen who is in her early 20's. One of their other daughters was already at the fort in Kabul.

The family was coming to Kabul for the opening and part of the weekend ceremony was going to be a memorial for their oldest daughter, Anna, who died while here in Kabul while she was working on the TM project. By all reports she had never been happier - working on the project and being a part of the rebuild of Afghanistan. As a part of this she also got to enjoy one of her other favorite things - horseback riding - and this is how she died.

There will be a ceremony on Friday to honor her and a tree planting on Sunday.

Despite their reason for traveling and their schedule (all had just been in Jordan and had spent the last 10 hours in the Dubai airport) - the family was charming and talkative - excited for their trip back to Kabul.

We all eventually made our way onto the plane and sat there in the heat of the runway for about :45 minutes. Eventually they let us know that the AC was broken and that we would be returning to the terminal.

Everything eventually got sorted and we boarded another plane bound for Kabul.

Flying in the views were obstructed by large rain clouds - every once in a while you would see the tip of a still snow covered mountain peek through. Made me wonder if everyone was clear on where the clouds ended and the mountains started. Though not usually a nervous flyer - I also could not help but flash on the recent air traffic issues in the US.

We eventually touched down and got our bags making our way to the desk where we were to get our foreigner's registration cards and through customs.

Stocky and I bought 2 bottles of booze in Dubai - and this time - unlike last - they did not try to confiscate them.

Shoshana was not there to greet us - as she was in the middle of preparations for the weekend - and we were to make our way to parking lot C - which was harder than you might think and we all schlepped our bags through the mud covered streets looking for someone with a Turquoise Mountain sign. We thought we were on the right path until a group of armed guards yelled at us to turn around - we of course listened.

Katherine had luckily made contact with our driver and he emerged from parking lot B to meet us.

I am sorry to say there are no pictures to document this.

Judy was there to greet us when we got to lot C - though not with open arms as local custom does not allow for a woman to greet a man in this way.

The ride to the fort was as adventuresome as ever - the traffic moves along the dust covered streets of Kabul like a school of fish swimming upstream - narrowly missing each other but traveling dangerously close. Unlike the fish - it seems the car impact would not be as soft.

You could see at twilight the new trees that had been planted along many of the streets - and what looked to be additional shops - I will be intrigued to see what it looks like in the light of day.

When they bomb checked the vehicles and let us into the fort - it felt like a strange and surprising homecoming - odd to think that coming to Kabul would ever feel like home - but with the Clarks here and the group happily gathered in the kitchen over the warm pasta and tales of our adventures getting here it really did feel that way.

After eating I took a hammam tonight - hot water in a hot room was just what was needed after a day of flying and slugging through mud. Judy came in to take a picture of me there (not so hot in that room) so I will spare all of you from it.

By 8:30 I was beat and ready for bed. The four of us - Shoshana, Judy, Stocky and I - all sat in Shoshana's room where we will all be camped out for the weekend - Sho and I in the outer room - and Stocky and Judy in the other room. It felt like being kids again. Even down to dozing off before the lights were turned off.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Returning to Kabul

So as I make my way this week going back to Afghanistan I have posted the photos from my last trip. It took me a while (a year and a half) to figure out how to post these but as the new trip approaches I figured it out - thank god for you tube.

The first few photos are of Dubai and then go on to photos of Kabul and Istalif. The song is "Good Arms vs. Bad" by Frightened Rabbit.

I guess it will serve as my long promised final blog posting from my last trip and the kick off to my journey back.

I am finally packed and ready to go (I think) but nerves and Diet Coke have me unable to sleep.

I realize I am a little less prepared this time. Last time I had done reading and studied up. This time with work and and my life being in a very different place than it was a year and a half ago - I find myself a little less sure - but excited as well.

The few conversations I have had with Shoshana about the events of the weekend have brought on that excitement. Helping to prepare for and participate in an event in Afghanistan will definitely be different than what it is in NY or LA. I am intrigued to see the project completed and to be there as the institute and the running of Turquoise Mountain gets handed over to the Afghans.

I fly in the morning through Dubai and then onto Kabul.

Will post more then. Thanks all for your support.