22 Absurd Things in a Kabulian's Life

by - 2:53 AM


They call us ‘Kabulians’ – the Afghans and foreigners alike who somehow make this wonderful and wretched city their home. As a 3-month old Kabulian, I sink sleeplessly into my tooshak (floor bed) on tonight’s stifling summer night and dream up a rather ridiculous litany of Kabul’s every day quirks. Some of these things actually pose a great danger, others are simply sad realities, and then a few more are downright laughable. I’ve been here for almost a hundred days and I have grown to embrace every shred, shard and sliver, taking (and tolerating) all of it piece by piece, day by day. Here’s what has come to mind so far, but I’m sure in the coming months more will be scrawled onto this inexhaustible list:

1.  There are only a few ‘parks’ or gardens in Kabul city – unfortunately, most of them are a 24/7 haven for languishing heroin addicts. Well, there is one rather beautiful park (by Kabul standards) in Shar-e-Naw (the city center) full of tall trees – but sadly, there’s an unspoken rule that it is only for men and boys. Women and girls are nowhere to be seen – at any park. 

The Shar-e-Naw park in Kabul city center - it's quite pleasant, but unfortunately only for males.
2.    Women generally don’t laugh much in public on the streets or in local restaurants because it is largely frowned upon. 
3.    Playing music is viewed as a sin by the general public and especially the religious teachers. 
4.    The local mosques usually blast their inescapable weekly preaching on loudspeakers to whole neighborhoods on juma – the Friday prayer day for Muslims, which is for virtually every single person in Afghanistan. Because nobody is allowed to be anything else unless they are of another race, such as the minority Sikhs (who were recently attacked in an ISIS suicide blast) or the only openly professing Christian in the country: our First Lady, who is a Lebanese Christian. She is the rarest exception, and a key reason why the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups are vehemently against this allegedly American-instated government.

The beautiful Karte Sakhi mosque in Kabul. 
5.    It’s not uncommon to see scrawny donkeys pulling old-fashioned wooden carts along Kabul’s city roads. 

Afghan men and women herd a flock of hundreds of goats through the streets of downtown Kabul, past concrete blast walls protecting the Ministry of Finance. [Photo by Elliot Woods]
6.   The cars and taxis are mostly all beat-up, patched-up Toyota Corollas from the 1990s or 2000s complete with peeling paint, glass-cracked windscreens, shattered rear lights and scraped bumpers. 
7.    The one-way roads are usually frequented as two-way… (Does that make sense?) I mean, there are cars and trucks literally going in opposite directions on the same road, but somehow they expertly manage to avoid each other by swerving inches away from the vehicles coming head on from the opposite direction. (I feel like I’m failing at describing this phenomenon. But I face it every day on my way to work. Does it make sense?) 

Typical Kabul traffic craze at a roundabout in town. [Photo by Mohammad Ismail, Reuters]
8.    The few restaurants that can be visited by foreigners are hidden by at least two to three layers of ‘blast walls’ – thick and high concrete walls that protect the inner building in case of a bomb attack (and there have been many in the recent years). From the road view, some of these restaurants or hotels look like nothing more than a high wall with barbed wire. 

This is how mad life is in Kabul. Just to go to a restaurant is that much of a hassle and a deterrent. [Photo by Bryan Denton.]
9.   The electricity and water goes off for a few hours a day in summer and winter. I usually store bottles of water just in case. I’ve mastered the ability to wash my long hair with just a one-liter bottle of water. (In Rwanda, I once managed with a 500ml bottle!)
10. You have to top up your phone credit by buying local scratch cards with a code you dial to add the credit to your phone number. 
11.  The only river in Kabul – the Paghman Darya (‘river’ in Dari) – supposedly flows with fresh melting snow from the Paghman mountains. But it is unfortunately streaming with sewage and rubbish by the time it trickles into town. It’s awfully sad. My home is in close proximity to it and every day I have to deal with the awful, inescapable stench. In the heat of summer, the smell is torture. 
This is truly what the Paghman or Kabul River looks like in some stretches, strewn with rubbish and sewage. Even the poor scrawny goats and sheep, herded by local city shepherds have no better place to graze than to chew on bits of smelly junk for their food. [Photo by Ilya Varlamov.]
12.  Most public schools begin at 9AM and finish at 12PM (no kidding) – because there are insufficient and inadequate teachers, and often low student attendance rates in rural areas (especially for girls). 
13. People mostly rely on the television, radio or in recent years, Facebook, for their ‘news’. I’ve never seen newspapers being sold in local shops or roadside stalls. 
14.  Most Kabulians (Afghans and foreigners alike) subscribe to Facebook groups with names like “Kabul Security NOW” or “Kabul Security Updates” to keep up to date on the latest bombings, attacks or road blocks in Kabul. I am a member of one of the more reliable groups. Unfortunately, some of them lack a system of screening members and so degenerate into useless social media forums full of inaccurate and irritating updates. (I had to exit one of them.) 
15. A few of the only ‘supermarkets’ in town are usually guarded by a guy wielding an AK-47. Before they let you in, another guy on the inside slides open a small rectangular security peephole (like the ones you see in the movies) to first determine that you’re not a threat before opening the heavy iron door.
16. The New Kabul Bank trialed an online banking system in recent years to catch up with the rest of the world, however they had to shut it down and revert to the old system of manual banking or phone-message banking (I’m not fully sure how that works) because so many Afghans were making mistakes through the online system (such as sending money to the wrong account number, that sort of annoying mistake). 
17. Unfortunately for me, over the last few months, the international banking system at New Kabul Bank has been halted due to some ‘technical issues’ (that’s what they always say) – so nobody can send money out of Kabul except by Western Union. The only exception is if you want to send it to China. (Go figure.) 
18. Most marriages, even for modern Kabulians, are arranged by the families. 
19. Kabul streets that have been blasted by a suicide bomb on one day are usually very quickly restored by the next – shattered windows are fixed, storefronts repainted, roads patched up – so that things are back to business in that very week as if nothing happened. 

20.   I was told there is only one public swimming pool for women in Kabul. I am yet to find it. (Yes there are swimming pools here, but they are usually only for men and boys.)
21. Lying is almost like a way of life. Naturally, you get used to the discipline of mental vigilance as you almost always cannot trust anyone properly (or with confidence) like you can in other places. Just about anyone could betray you to the Taliban. 
22.The skies and city streets are permanently watched and monitored by hovering US airships stationed over different parts of Kabul. From my place, I can see two of them – one floating over the mountain on my right and the other over the mountain to my left. 

The US airship that perpetually floats over the mountain hill neighbourhoods to the right of my home view. [Photo by Janielle Beh.]
To be continued... 

[Cover Photo: Eid Muhammad, 70, lives in a house with a view overlooking the hills of Kabul. He and millions of other Afghans occupy land and housing without possessing formal deeds to them. Photo by Paula Bronstein.]

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Welcome to my wayfaring world of stories. I’m a traveling musician and music educator from Melbourne living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Join me on my quest to embrace people of peace in tough places, inspire creative education where none exists, spark conversations that challenge the status quo, and collaborate with like-minded young people to catalyze a movement of peacemaking through acts of compassion and creativity among the young and free. As a nomad at heart, my ‘home’ is wherever I journey with people on the ground and discover life on the frontiers.