just past midnight on a Thursday evening, and the party is going strong.
A generator pumps artificial light into the green-walled restaurant, where
about 50 people sit smoking and chatting animatedly. Beer cans litter the
tables, along with leftover Bratwurst and pistachio shells. And despite
the fact that many of the patrons–UN workers, employees of non-governmental
organizations–have a strict curfew, no one seems headed for the door. Indeed,
the two suicide bombings earlier this week seem far behind now. What’s
on everyone’s mind is not death, but who will be the first to turn on the
karaoke machine. Finally, an outgoing German gets the crowd going with
a rousing rendition of “New York, New York,” altering the words to fit
our environs: “If I can make it there/ I’ll make it anywhere/It’s up to
you, Kabul, Kabul!”
Life Eight months ago, when I told my
friends and family back in Washington, DC that I was moving to Afghanistan
to start a new career, none of us imagined this would become a regular
scene from my life. Indeed, my friends’ initial reaction was to question
my sanity. And who could blame them? So much of what the word “Kabul” evokes
The nightly news delivers images
of haggard children and bombed-out buildings, a land recently characterized
by grotesque public executions and mistreatment of women. Everyone envisioned
my new life as one of restriction–sleeping in bunkers, cowering from military
operations, and being constantly surrounded by men with guns.
So why did I decide to come here?
Quite frankly, I was sick of everything. Sick of the security threats,
the delays on the Metro, and the frantic pace of my job as a proposal writer
for government contracts.
Riding the train across the Potomac
each morning, I’d watch the sun rise over the smokestacks down the river
and dream of a different life, one with a slower pace, where people savored
Maybe, I mused, I’d move to Mexico,
Romania or India. I have to admit, Afghanistan wasn’t really on my
radar screen, until an actual, well-paid job opportunity in Kabul presented
itself to me. It was a perfect mesh with my skills, and I felt the fates
had aligned in my favor. Therefore, in early January I crossed the world
to reach the snow-capped country that would become my new home.
But What’s It Really Like?
The periodic emails I get from home
usually feature some question or statement to the effect of, “Tell me everything
about what it’s like to live there!” My compatriots seem to have
the impression that I’m either hunkered down in a cave listening to bombs
fall every night, or gallivanting Lawrence of Arabia-style over the Hindu
Kush on a camel.
The truth is, there are many days
I forget I’m in Kabul at all. While office environments vary across
the country–ranging from high-tech to primitive–chances are most expats
end up working in very much the same context as at home in the West. Every
morning, I ride into the office, grab a cup of coffee and sort through
my emails, read the newspaper online, then get busy on my laptop with the
numerous reports, papers and other documents I’m in charge of editing and
the “in-between times” that I realize I’m in a different world entirely.
Lunch is traditional Afghan fare eaten off carpets on the floor; driving
to meetings means sitting in terrible traffic jams while beggars tap at
the car windows or try to sell local papers for a dollar. And everywhere
I’m surrounded by the sounds unique to this world–the lilting cadence of
the Dari language, horses clopping along the roads, and the interesting
tunes of Kabul’s bus horns.
The Kabul of my daily life is like
any world capital, thriving with activity. On the main streets, taxi cabs
hustle for customers while vendors sell the latest electronic gadgets.
Young women in stylish scarves and platform shoes walk to their jobs beneath
signs advertising mobile phones.
Even in the areas most distressed
from 20 years of war–those Soviet-style high rises whose upper floor beams
wave like exposed steel tentacles–the hubbub of the market goes on.
Living in Kabul today is what I imagine it must have been like living in
Prague after the fall of communism, except with more dust and a few million
That said, there are disadvantages
to life here, especially if you’re female. With the exception of one treeless
square, there are no parks for women, and the few theatres around town
are also male-only.
Men feel free to fall all over themselves
when staring at you in the street, and the bold ones may even shout their
advances: I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told “I love you!”
by a complete stranger. Likewise, conservative dress, complete with head
scarf, is still the fashion of the day—no Afghan woman would dare wear
short sleeves outside the home, even in the hottest months.
The home is actually one of the
best advantages of Afghan expatriate life. Because employment must
be secured before moving to Kabul, most companies and agencies readily
provide housing to their employees. While the U.S. Embassy staff—confined
to a barbed-wire compound and sleeping, literally, in metal containers—have
the worst arrangements, the majority of Westerners live in large, spacious
homes with several other coworkers. My own house features four bedrooms
with en-suite baths, our own cook, large living areas and a walled garden
spacious enough for weekend soccer matches. It’s a good thing I didn’t
have to seek out accommodation myself, too, as Kabul rents have skyrocketed
since the post-9/11 influx of Westerners, and rival some of the most expensive
The major differences between life
in Afghanistan and the West are related to its being a developing country.
On a practical level, this means the basic infrastructures we are used
to is simply non-existent. Electricity is sporadic and dependent on generators,
water shortages are common, and the pot-hole filled roads leave much to
be desired. There is also little access to reliable health care. The latter
point should not be taken lightly. With poor sanitation and heavy pollution,
Kabul’s denizens suffer numerous respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments.
If you’re coming here for the long haul, bring a mobile pharmacy with you.
But its status as a developing country also means that there’s always something
interesting going on. Kabul is filled with the carcasses of airplanes,
tanks and what were likely once palatial homes and gardens. In the nearby
hillsides, one can sit in the shell of a looted hotel and sip tea while
being watched over by a man with a Kalashnikov, or climb to the top of
an ancient fort surrounded by a “garden” of military debris.
The markets are overflowing with
1980s carpets emblazoned with guns and flowers. Sure, life may be taxing,
but boring? Never!