Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bye for now

Well, it had to happen. I can't keep posting old material from previous years and as I am now back here in the West, I cant keep commenting on the chaos of a country I no longer live in, and I have nothing much to say about Australia, so it's goodbye from Sparrow Press. I may revive this if I go overseas to another posting, but that is not happening for a while.
Thanks folks.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A day in the village

Today we sat a lot. Not a whole lot of action; we are waiting for UNICEF to get their act together and give us the materials for the construction of the shallow wells. So Imam Baksh, the mullah and several others sat with Engineer, Ali Jan and me. After a while, the mullah turns to me. You speak Farsi, he says.
‘What’s his country’, he asks Engineer, but I give the answer first. I’m not sure why there is this habit of speaking about people, rather than to them, but it is quite common. People quite routinely might look at Ali Jan, or at me, and then say to Engineer – who’s he? Who’s the foreigner?
‘Us-taraliya’, I answer, making the sound intelligible
‘Us-taraliya’, the mullah muses. ‘There’s water all around it, isn’t there?’
I nod.
‘And most people are Christians?’
‘About 50%’, I said. This number is way out – but what else to say?
‘And the others’, he prompts, ‘what are they?’
‘Some Muslims. Some people who don’t have confidence in God.’
‘The ones who don’t put their confidence in God – what are they? Are they fire-worshippers? Are they Buddhists?’
Fire-worshippers? Where did that come from – then I remember, Saidabad is in Balkh province, which is the historical centre of Zoroastrianism, but there has been no active community of believers here for centuries. I am saved from trying to explain Australia’s rash of indigenous, pantheistic, atheistic and New Age beliefs by Mother-of-Matan, bringing chai.

Monday, February 06, 2006

More history to mull over

From summer in 2001, shortly before the attacks of September 11

A short break in Peshawar.
It is certainly time I had a break. Its Thursday; I came out from Mazar yesterday. As I was waiting at the airport, some young Talibs came up.
’Do you speak Pashto?’ – they asked, in Pashto.
‘Why not?’ – in Pashto.
Me, in Farsi: ‘Because I speak Farsi. I haven’t learnt much Pashto yet. Maybe next year.’
‘Your beard should be longer.’
‘It’s not the rule in my country.’
‘It should be longer. Longer is better.’

I turned away.

I arrived in Peshawar about 1.30ish and walked down to the Guesthouse. Peshawar felt hot and slimy. Within minutes of leaving the Red Cross’s soothing, air-conditioned van I was struggling with my bags and Sabina’s box of books that I had agreed to bring out, I was limp with sweat and I had already called the guard at the American club a shithead.

Made it to the Guesthouse without further social infringements and found Julie to be out. Nonplussed, I ate lunch, read the paper, sat under the fan. 2.30pm Julie showed up and we were able to share a sweaty hug and then heaps of mail. Some new people coming on the team – Bern and his wife Verity, who is one of 17 children. They themselves have three already, 2 ½, 1 ½ and 6 months. ‘How many children will you have?’, Julie asked. ‘We’ll let God decide that’, Verity smiled contently.

Julie and I went out to the Pearl Continental that night for dinner. It being five star, we thought we might get the chance of a beer. Sure enough, we asked at the Taipan restaurant, where we planned on eating, if there was alcohol. Yes, came the speedy reply. Reassured, we sat down and I asked for the wine menu.
‘You must go up to the bar for alcohol.’
‘Oh. Right. Can’t get it here?’
‘No, in the bar.’
‘Can we get it there and bring it down?’
‘No, but you can take your dinner up. Or we can bring it up. Or you can have a drink then come down. Actually it would be better if you ate up there, as we are full tonight.’
‘Well, we’ll go up and see.’

We went up to the fifth floor and found the bar, which looked nice enough and had a few bottles of whiskey on the shelves. ‘What have you got’, I asked, leaning happily on the rail.
‘Great, what else?’
‘Nothing else sir, just there is whiskey.’
‘What, nothing else? What’s in all the cupboards?’
‘Nothing sir, just you have whiskey.’

A pause.
‘How much is a glass?’ Could I go a glass of whiskey? How keen was I?
‘Not by glass. Just you buy the bottle.’
‘What, the whole bottle?’

Another pause.
‘How much is a bottle?’, I asked, speculative and increasingly incredulous.
‘500 rupees.’
‘Ahhh. Thankyou, you have been most kind.’

We went downstairs. A little ludicrous, in retrospect, but it certainly was suprising, not just once either, but a whole string of suprises closely knitted together and it took some unravelling. We sat down again in the Taipan restaurant, much to the discouragement of the waiters and had some very nice chicken and beef dishes, washed down with a cleansing lemon juice. Meanwhile, at the packed tables next to us, a tour group of Japanese drank themselves silly on non-alcoholic beer.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Where to go now?

I guess I have a kind of writer's block. Now I am back in the West, there isn't much I can say about Afghanistan. I’m not going back there any time soon, nor anywhere for that matter. I’m now on my fourth course of antibiotics in 6 weeks, probably breeding some super-bug, and not getting better real quick.

There seem to be a few readers who haven’t yet found my depressing brand of cynicism too awful, so to try to keep this superannuated blog alive a while longer, I will post a few journal excerpts.

This is from our second year in Afghanistan:

Sunday, 1 April.
April Fools day. Somewhere along the line, the Afghans in our office have got the hang of the fact that on April Fools Day, you play jokes on each other. However, what they haven’t worked out is the comical nature of the jokes. Safi came up at one point and looked sideways at me, muttering something. Then he came back, and cleared his throat portentously, and said, ‘Philip-jan, I have a message for you. Bruce-jan called from Peshawar. He won’t be back in tomorrow, but he will be delayed a few more days’.
Okay, I said, thanks Safi.
Then Safi’s face broke into a wide grin, then he burst out laughing, he bent forward and hugged me, saying, ‘I have tricked you! It is April Fool Day, no? And I played a trick on you!’
‘Ahh’, I said, ‘right, yes you did trick me. That’s very good Safi.’
Engineer’s joke wasn’t much better. He told me that he had heard on the radio that in the IAM office in Kabul, the gas had exploded and injured four people. Hadn’t I heard?
No, I said.
He repeated the story as we drove, then smiled tolerantly, and looking sideways at me, reminded me that it was April 1. I nodded, trying to look amused and ‘ohh, silly me’.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Unload your attitude here Posted by Picasa

Reflection, revision

We originally left for Afghanistan in September, 1999. On the same flight were friends of ours, also sent overseas with TEAR, but they were heading to a different Asian country. They had a few kids; we didn’t.

Comparing their time in Asia is interesting for me, because of the many similarities in our positions. ‘Bob’ is about my age, similarly a generalist manager/ leader, slightly unorthodox faith, professional, from Perth etc etc.

But when I look at the time we spent overseas, many differences emerge. If is hard for me not to feel depressed, cynical, sometimes quite upset about how different our journeys were. It seems to me that their journey was pretty much a text book overseas posting. Four and a half uninterrupted years, where Bob’s work grew in complexity and responsibility till towards the end he was leading major organisational change for the NGO he was with . Sure, there were difficulties they had, and the country there were in was no picnic – it is currently in civil war, but in terms of what they achieved, and the outcomes, it looks good, on paper and in practice. The good work Bob did lead to him continuing to be employed by that NGO on their return to Perth, where he kept working on the change process for most of this year.

In contrast, I look at our four or so years in Afghanistan – punctured by the evacuation of Sept 11, our work fel into chaos and we pursued other work back here. The return to Afghanistan in November 2003 was really hard for me and tough on our marriage, and I hated the work, feeling like I was back were I had been two years previously: the job was the same, the people were the same, the organisation was the same, nothing had changed except me. The growth and change I had envisioned kind of got sidelined and abstracted by the Taliban, by the evacuation, by the general difficulties of Afghanistan, and eventually I left to work with the UN, where sure, I did some good – but nothing unique, nothing that no one else couldn’t have done. The NGO I had been with ended up viewing me as a troublemaker and an apostate, and the idea that they employ me to continue working with them is laughable.

In short, a mess of a time. I can’t really look at my time in Afghanistan and say ‘ I did this….’ or feel that I made a unique contribution. At least, not yet – but as I said, I am quite cynical and sad about it all presently. Maybe that will change and I will be able to revise my view of our time there.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Tired and sick.

So, we are back in WA for a month now. Since we arrived on Dec 2, we have both been repeatedly sick. The kids are fine, though dislocated. But we are tired, and sick. Fatigued and exhausted. Continual throat, chest and sinus infections. Weird minor skin irritations. The usual VBE (Violent Bowel Emissions). Coughs and colds and asthma. And really, really tired. PAS, I guess, Post Afghanistan Syndrome. So sorry for not having been in touch with many people. We have not really been up to much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Kabul scenes Posted by Picasa

Silent nights

We are back in Perth, for three weeks now. Apologies to all my three readers for the lack of correspondence, we have been really really tired, fatigued, sick, busy. I have had recurrent chest infections, sinus problems and general fatigue and Julie similar. Plus we have had to move house back into our old place in East Vic Park. And there was this little event you seem to celebrate here in a quiet, demure fashion. Called Consumermass, I think.
Anyway, we are back. And somehow coping with it. Driving through Kabul on the day of our departure at 6.ooam in the dawn light, we passed a accident scene: an crashed motorcycle, several men standing around, one lying on the ground, blood pooled around his head. Silent, motionless, dead. Not a good last sight to have on leaving the country where we have spent so long, but probably symbollically appropriate.