Eating in the Cemetery on New Year’s Day: Day 4 in the War Zone by Steve Clemens. March 21, 2011
Afghan New Year coincides with the first day of Spring and has incorporated the Zoroastrian tradition of the new birth of Spring making the start of a new year as part of it. It seems to make a lot of sense to me instead of doing it in mid-winter. Who really wants to start a new year when you really are waiting for the next 2 ½ months to be behind you?
Basir, Zahra, Asif, and several other local Kabul friends whose names I couldn’t remember or spell join us by 9 AM to accompany us for the New Year’s celebration ritual at the base of a nearby mountain. The stream of people, many dressed in holiday outfits, is a joyous sight. The parade of families and individuals all headed in the same direction merges into a sea of people. Basir does his best to guide us and try to keep us together as a group. It is a challenge given the size of the crown as well as the number of police/military/security personnel. Jake is stopped and they check his camera and backpack. We are jostled and struggle to keep sight of one another. I’m not concerned as much for my safety as much as getting separated from each other, particularly those who can speak Dari.
We get to a gated, secured area close to the mosque, the center of the ritual. The heavily armed guards are pushing, shoving, grabbing we westerners, sometimes including our Afghan friends, sometimes ignoring them. Several of us are pushed or pulled through the gate and then pointed in the direction of a stairway to an elevated viewing area where we see some photographers, high-ranking military officers, and others which overlooks the courtyard of the mosque where the long green pole lies awaiting the ceremony. We are able to look down on the huge crown gathered in the cemetery; another large crowd is looking down from the homes which rise up the mountainside. People seem joyful, ready to see the green flag unfurl when the pole is raised - good luck for the year if it flies in the wind; prospects for a poor or troubling year if it remains limp on the pole.
After a few speeches, the pole is raised and after some hesitation the flag flutters in the breeze. People cheer wildly, hoping for an end to the three decades of strife, fear, privation, and violence. During the Taliban era, this ceremony was forbidden as well as music and other celebrations. After the flagpole and flag are securely tethered in the upright position, a number of young men, most in their 20s and 30s climb over a fence in order to try to grab the pole and kiss it as a sign of dedication or to get more luck? It is confusing but fascinating to watch as more than 100 men try to grab and kiss this pole while the guards for the mosque, all in outfits with green predominate try to keep them away.
As a group of of westerners, the International Peace delegation stands out, especially the two blond-haired Aussies, Simon and Donna. A number of Afghans want to have their picture taken standing next to us and the local TV station from Kabul interviews Paki and Linda but we have no idea if the footage was ever shown since we don’t have access to a TV. We are told by our Kabul friends that the media is closely controlled by the Karzai government or the US occupation forces which has bought up virtually all the radio stations. (On a ride across Kabul one evening, the taxi driver from Afghan Logistics playing one of the radio stations which obviously caters to the US or other English-speaking troops.)
I’m glad I brought along sunblock because the sun is bright and at 5,000 + feet, the UV exposure was projected to be a very high 7 or 8 for all the days I was scheduled to be in Afghanistan. There was a tent set up for the dignitaries nearby on our elevated viewing area which was the roof of a building which was part of the mosque complex. Today was one of the few days I saw a significant number of women out on the streets, enjoying the holiday. Most other days you find that men and boys outnumber the females visible in public by about 3 to 1 or greater.
We need to head back to the office space where we have most of our educational/listening gatherings because another is scheduled for mid-afternoon but Basir asks some of us if we’d like to get something to eat first. There are dozens of tents or tarp-draped areas in the middle of the cemetery grounds selling soups, kebabs, ice cream, and other foods and treats. Since an number in our delegation are vegetarians or vegans, Basir asks if the place selling chickpeas is OK with us and we agree. It takes a while to find all the delegates but we don’t mind waiting under the tarpaulin canopy because we are out of the sun. We could get it “spicy” or regular but when they brought it to us, it wasn’t clear to me which was which. Mine was spicy enough but others added the spices from a container on the table. Most also had ice cream for dessert but I passed. Ceylon, one of the delegates from Memphis who is game to eat virtually anything, is still hungry so he goes next door and brings back a sandwich which he thought had meat in it but after tasting a small bit of it, I thought it was made with mostly spiced vegetables and grain. It was very tasty but I’m not interested in risking getting sick while staying at a place that only has one toilet for the 8 or 9 of us sleeping at the office. At least the toilet is one you can sit on rather than the traditional squat-style that I tried to use at the internet café the day before but reeked so badly I decided I could wait until I had access to a toilet. I hadn’t realized our lunch “café” was just part of the cemetery until I tripped on an upturned rock which served as a “headstone” as I was leave the “restaurant”. As we began our walk back to the office, it became very clear that the sea of people who had gathered for the New Year celebration hid most of the grave markers during the celebration. Now that it was over (although many families stayed around to picnic together), it was much more evident.
While walking back from the new year’s celebration ritual, about a 20 minute walk, you before aware of how dirty and destroyed much of the public infrastructure is in this part of Kabul. We learn later that the area near where we are staying housed much of the Soviet-dominated offices and housing during their occupation in the 1980s but destroyed in the ensuing battles among various warlords and the Taliban during the early 1990s, much of it not rebuilt. We walk past a few fortified compounds and occasionally see new vehicles sporting UN signage or logos from other international NGOs. I’m sure some of these compounds host this other face of the on-going occupation of this ancient city.
After our discussion about safety/security concerns some of us had the previous afternoon, a number of the delegates staying at the Mustafa Hotel chose to move several blocks away to a guest house where Martin and Donna had been staying. (They had arrived several days before the rest of us, Martin having previously worked for the International Red Cross in Afghanistan and fluent in Dari was much abler in getting around without being escorted by other Afghans and had a lot of experience in this war zone.) While slightly more expensive than the other hotel if we put 2 to a room, and with breakfast and dinner provided as well as 24 hour internet access, it was a stark contrast to our “office” space but provided a greater appearance of security. I, personally, prefer our more rustic setting in keeping with the economic realities most Afghans face but do envy their ready internet access to stay in touch with family and friends on a more regular basis. Much of the “work” of our delegation is to hear the stories and see the reality of our new Afghan friends and then “report” that back to our home networks to increase our awareness and renew our collective commitment to work for a just peace.
In one of our smaller group discussions, Kathy notes our delegation is experiencing a “tale of two cities”. Some of us in the second-story office that has only two office type chairs plus about a dozen folding chairs with mats on the carpeted floor where most of us sit. As in Afghan homes, we take off our shoes before entering the office space and must put on slippers to enter the kitchen or bathroom or risk getting your socks wet. There is no shower curtain – and the shower doesn’t work anyway. You fill a small bucket while standing in the shower basin and pour water over your head and body as you soap up.
Although we’ve purchased toilet paper, we have a discussion amongst those sleeping at the office about the advisability of using it. Those with a lot more international experience than me (virtually all of those staying in our office space) point out that any toilet paper with fecal matter can serve as a ready source for cholera if not disposed correctly. Many toilets in developing countries are not designed to have toilet paper flushed with the bowel movements but rather be placed in a waste basket by the toilet. In many cultures, Afghan included, a washing pitcher with a pour spout is provided to be used to wash one’s (left) hand afterward. As best we can discover, all of our trash is placed out on the street curb by (or in) a trash container but we’ve seen much of that blown about our area of the city and some poor people are routinely picking through the trash to find anything of value. So, we decide to try to forgo use of toilet paper when possible and flushing down just small amounts when necessary.
We also have no vacuum cleaner and must sweep the carpet with a broom or pick up crumbs by hand so we encourage each other to use plates when eating our daily staple of fresh bread from the bread bakery two doors down from our office. We also discourage “double-dipping” when we have a common bowl of soup or cream into which to dip the bread. Instead, the preferred technique is to break off small pieces of bread, then dip it and put the whole piece in your mouth instead of putting the read you just bit back into the common bowl. Having lived in intentional community, I was aware of this but some of us didn’t have this at the top of our consciousness and needed to be gently reminded. It is all part of building community together this week.
Although it makes logical sense for our delegation to be split into 2 or 3 different lodging places so we don’t provide too great a target for those who may wish us harm, it does feel like we are too separated, especially since the balance of the group is a 20 minute ride away and we only have on van (and driver, Mohamed –who doesn’t speak English) at our disposal. A cab ride is the equivalent of $5. in the daytime and $7. at night but any ride seems to be very anxiety-producing for me because of the nature of kamikaze-style driving here. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times in my week in Afghanistan that we were inches away from hitting another car, bike, pedestrian, or dog in the vehicle I was in – yet I only witnessed one accident and saw the evidence of two others in my week there.
This tale of two cities, one where some of the delegates live have people hired to pick up after you, make the beds, make and serve the food, a pool table, a work-out facility. It is not a five-star hotel by any means but compared to the common Afghan whose life expectancy is only 44 years, one of the three worst in the world, it certainly seems luxurious. Those corrupt politicians and warlords living off the bounty skimmed off the “reconstruction” or “security contracts” or living in “poppy palaces” funded by the production of poppies and the refinement into heroin and opium would find the relative comforts of the guest house insulting. Those of us eating the leftover lentil soup and bread from last night’s supper for our breakfast are still living in luxury for the millions of Afghans waking up to dire poverty. As Kathy Kelly so often reminds us, “What you see depends on where you stand.”