I didn’t set out on that day planning to almost kill my friends and colleagues, but that’s what very nearly happened.
It started as just another day of conducting research. In fact, like many of these days, I was completely worn out from several days in a row of driving, talking and doing stuff, and then returning to our office and then writing like mad until we collapsed of exhaustion, only to get up and do it again.
This day took a bit longer than usual to get everyone moving, but moving we eventually did, driving out into new territory (The city has expanded so rapidly in recent years that no one had any idea what was beyond the ethnic horizon, who were the people who have settled there, and so forth; thus we engaged in fieldwork to confirm or deny the patterns in ethnic geography of north Kabul and document the rate of geographic expansion with our unique methodology).
We stopped at a car dealership along the way, and chatted up the owner and salespeople to learn more about economic issues. Seems that the market for cars is saturated, and there are more cars than buyers. This reflects that economic conditions are getting worse in Kabul and Afghanistan and people are concerned about 2014 and what will happen afterwards. The business is consignment based, with a full car lot. We had chai and sweets, and then bid farewell.
My butt was completely dragging still as we drove out into uncharted territory. We stopped to talk to a construction crew for awhile, who turned out to be from north of Kabul, and invited us to a grape festival, which we graciously accepted for later in the year. We poked around with the car in some haphazardly laid out city streets in new development areas. At one point, we crossed a bridge across a ravine, with the bridge being made entirely of compressed discarded and crushed plastic bottles.
Most of the development was speculative in nature, to my eye, and building/buying appeared to be slowing down appreciably. Since we see something bizarre every time we go out, we of course ran into a man who was both a Prison Warden and a Real Estate agent. He split his time between the prison and selling houses to make ends meet. We got in the car and started to head back to Kabul. On the way, we noticed that it was past lunch and we were all famished. We stopped at a place across from the car lot where we stopped earlier.
Turns out it was a Panjsheri restaurant, and the first thing we noticed was the fact that the owner was incredibly attractive and had eyes that were silver in color. Panjsheris are considered to be the most beautiful of the Afghan people, and this guy was noteworthy. Lunch was tailing off by the time we got there, but we washed up in the sink just outside of the restaurant and entered, and we were greeted like long lost friends. The famous Afghan hospitality went into high gear.
We reclined on the cushions along the walls, and watched the traffic pass by on the road outside, which was fascinating, since this was a second floor restaurant with large picture windows facing the street. Summertime in Kabul is gorgeous, and it is thoroughly enjoyable to find a restaurant where you can lounge about and watch the sights. Soon, our food arrived, and we ate until sated. We had kabob and Qabili pilau, which was delicious. In fact, in our hunger, we had a bit too much, and we all inadvertently dozed off. As we awakened, we realize what we had done. The Panjsheri’s looked at us proudly and approvingly, as most westerners act extremely, even stupidly security conscious around them, which must be insulting to their honor and hospitality. Since we were guests in their restaurant, these men would undoubtedly die than alow someone to hurt us while under their roof. It is important to mention that Panjsher has never been conquered by Taliban, Soviets, British and Mongol invasions and they take great pride in being certified badasses.
We laughed about it, as so-called Afghan “experts” in the West had cautioned against letting their guard down around Afghans in what passes as “training” prior to deployment to Afganistan. Our “peers” roll out in multiple large armored vehicle convoys, looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men in their body armor, and are escorted with soldiers with guns, and go out with the intent of interacting with Afghans, all the while throwing out signals that impugn their honor. And we just decided to have a bite to eat, and fell asleep on the floor with the rest of the post-lunch crowd, making small talk as we would in any other place in America.
Afterwards, we had a good conversation with the owner and the other patrons and a man who was a spitting image of Bruce Lee invited us to visit his family home in Paghman. We took pictures and promised to deliver copies later (which we did, the next time we visited).
As we left, we felt refreshed enough to try to find a passage over the mountains north of Kabul that we’d always heard about. The streets in the Khair Khana neighborhood are extremely treacherous, as they are very sketchy and obey no map ever written.
New home development has advanced there at a very rapid pace, which complicates the matters of good maps. Ironically, Khair Khana overlooks the Kabul International Airport and the large ISAF base there, yet none of the residents ever recall seeing a member of ISAF in their neighborhood. To make things worse, the people there, (mainly Panjsheri, with a small Hazara contingent) are very insular, and I’d never had good luck penetrating their society. In fact, I went there extremely reluctantly, as last time I went thinking I could pass as a native, dressed in garb and being ready to “relate to Afghans”. How stupid was I. Last time I was there, I was reported by the locals to the police, who detained me, seized my vehicle and turned me over to the National Directorate of Security or NDS, which is Afghanistan’s version of the secret police. I then got the honor of spending some time in an NDS prison and got to conduct an experiential ethnography on NDS interrogation techniques. I survived that, and it was an extremely interesting and unique experience, but I had no desire to replicate it. (To be Continued)