Browsing articles by " LouBu"

Entering the FOB

Mar 18, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, military  //  6 Comments

If you search for Jalal­abad on googlemaps only one road shows up, Hwy A01, the Asian High­way, a.k.a. Kabul-Jalalabad-Torkham High­way.  That road is the main drag of Jalal­abad City, sport­ing twoish lanes of traf­fic flow­ing each direc­tion, packed with tuk­tuks, motor­bikes, don­keys, track­tors and toy­ota corol­las, all jam­ming for space.

The main US army base in our region is FOB Fenty, located on the east­ern edge of Jalal­abad City. It’s a well-established base that’s been around for many years.  It’s main gate directly opens onto the High­way.  Part of the secu­rity pro­to­col for han­dling entrances and exits to the base requires clear­ing the road in both direc­tions for about 100 feet to pre­vent any oppor­tunis­tic assaults. This tends to make for inter­est­ing traf­fic jams:

Jbad Traffic Jam
The main gate to the base is a 20 foot wide steel door with a large guard post on one side. Parked behind the steel door is an MRAP to fur­ther block the door should any one attempt to smash through it.

If any vehi­cle, includ­ing MRAPs, ANA pick up trucks, sup­ply con­voys, or per­sonal cars pull up to the gate to enter the base, pro­to­col requires that the area around the gate must be secure before it can be opened. This entails a dozen fully armed sol­diers dis­pers­ing into the road and stop­ping traf­fic 100 feet back from the gate going both direc­tions. Only once all the traf­fic on the main road in Jalal­abad has been ground to a halt, can the secu­rity MRAP be backed up to allow the gate to open, and the vehi­cle to enter. Once the vehi­cle is safety in, the gate is closed,  the MRAP has been dri­ven back into place, then traf­fic can start flow­ing again.

Imag­ine if a high­way you drove between home and work was inter­mit­tently blocked in both direc­tions by guys curs­ing at you in a for­eign lan­guage, “stop,  stay the fuck back” while point­ing rifles in your face and occa­sion­ally fir­ing warn­ing shots.

How is this set up sup­posed to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people?

The secu­rity pro­ce­dures make sense as the base is often a tar­get of attacks, but after years of this may­hem maybe the army should think about mov­ing this heav­ily traf­ficked, highly secure entry­way onto a side street, per­haps off the major high­way run­ning through town.


Etymological Weaponry

Mar 10, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   military, photos, terms  //  1 Comment

Two rep­re­sen­ta­tive sym­bols of Afghanistan, grenades and pome­gran­ates, come from the same ety­mo­log­i­cal root. We dis­cov­ered yes­ter­day that the word “grenade” is taken from the French “pome-grenate.” French sol­diers gave the hand­held explo­sives their name because they looked like the seeded fruits, both in their round shape topped with a crown, and in their inner work­ings con­sist­ing of lots of small seeds, prepped for acti­va­tion.  We keep a stock of both at the Taj.


Mean­while, “RPG” is usu­ally miss-translated as “rocket pro­pelled grenade.” Its a mem­o­rable term that fits the let­ters and sounds like it could be right, but isn’t. Here the Sovi­ets can claim ori­gin as the let­ters actu­ally orig­i­nate from ручной противотанковый гранатомёт, mean­ing “hand-held, anti-tank, grenade launcher.” It’s not quite as catchy in Eng­lish because “HHATGL” doesn’t have the same ring as “RPG”, so we’ve adopted the acronym while mak­ing up a handy sub­sti­tute for the let­ters. Plus, “rocket pro­pelled” sounds bad ass.

Of Lions and Horses in the Panshir

Feb 23, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, long, photos, videos  //  4 Comments

Last Fri­day morn­ing we headed off at first light from the muddy streets of Kabul. We wound our way north, past Bagram, where ISAF is head­quar­tered, and took a sharp turn east in the vil­lage of Jebal Seraj. We’d decided to take a day long pil­grim­age, of sorts, to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Masoud. His grave lies deep his home­land of the Pan­shir Val­ley which he so famously defended against the long and ardu­ous Soviet attack.

View From a Tank
Masoud is arguably Afghanistan’s biggest hero. Through­out Afghanistan his pic­ture is dis­played in car win­dows, posted on build­ings, or memo­ri­al­ized in woven blan­kets. The day he was assas­si­nated, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2001, by sus­pected Al Qaeda agents pos­ing as jour­nal­ists, is a national hol­i­day. He earned his title “The Lion of the Pan­shir” defend­ing his home turf from the Sovi­ets dur­ing the attacks of the 1980s. Lions are intrin­si­cally part of Pan­shir cul­ture. The word itself means “Five Lions” and we saw elec­tion posters for a can­di­date whose sym­bol was four of the majes­tic beasts. (Each can­di­date is “ran­domly assigned” a visual sym­bol so illit­er­ate peo­ple can rec­og­nize their can­di­date on the bal­lot. It’s well known that with the right funds and con­nec­tions it is pos­si­ble to influ­ence on this “ran­dom assign­ment.” One polit­i­cal party paid for all of its can­di­dates in dif­fer­ent races to have apples for icons, to present uni­for­mity to its illit­er­ate supporters.)

Dur­ing the Soviet inva­sion of the 1980’s the Lion of the Pan­shir and his mujahideen fight­ers would descend from the val­ley, attack the Soviet sup­ply chains head­ing across the Salang pass to Kabul, and retreat with their stolen booty. The Sovi­ets tried to dis­lodge him from the val­ley in ten sep­a­rate offen­sive attacks. All of them failed.

When the com­mu­nists fell from power Masoud served in the mujahideen gov­ern­ment as Min­is­ter of Defense for the few years before the Tal­iban took power. He then retreated back to his val­ley, from where he con­tin­ued fight­ing the Tal­iban, (until the bomb hid­den in the dis­guised jour­nal­ists’ cam­era made him a mar­tyr.) When he died he was the leader of the North­ern Alliance, or the United Islamic Front-an unprece­dented multi-ethnic group of lead­ers who fought against the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and, once the US began car­pet bomb­ing post Sep­tem­ber 11, took con­trol of Afghanistan.

The Chief of Martyrdom's Hill
In 2002 Mosoud was post humously nom­i­nated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (How­ever, the prize can only be awarded to a liv­ing per­son.) He was buried 30 km from the entrance to the val­ley, near the vil­lage that was his home. Orig­i­nally it was a plain, sim­ple grave on a large prom­e­nade over­look­ing the val­ley, but recently a mas­sive mar­ble struc­ture has been erected over the grave, with plans already in con­struc­tion to add a large mosque and build­ing com­plex to the site.

Masoud Monilith
This was our ini­tial des­ti­na­tion as we made our way up the val­ley, dri­ving along­side the Pan­shir river, stop­ping to climb around in the rusted shells of dis­carded tanks and heli­copters, until we reached the hill­side crested with the mar­ble mono­lith. We paid our respects to the great hero, along side with a steady stream of oth­ers, local and vis­i­tors, who often stopped to pray at the holy grave site.

Taliban Seal
The path approach­ing the site was lined with a vari­ety of Soviet armored vehi­cles, some spray painted with the Taliban’s sym­bol (were they cap­tured as Pan­shiri loot dur­ing a bat­tle 15 years ago?). A few bees had taken up res­i­dence behind the screen of one of the instru­ment pan­els, cre­at­ing a clus­ter of per­fectly geo­met­ri­cal cells, whose inhab­i­tants and mak­ers were now frozen to death by the chilly win­ter. Beyond the high prom­e­nade, fields spread out across the val­ley, sewn with snow.

Fields of snow
As we climbed around the rusty metal, the wind whipped falling snow at us prim­ing us for some hot tea, so we went in search of a chai­hana. As we drove up the val­ley we stopped to ask men wrapped in green Uzbek robes, hud­dled against the cold, where we might be able to get some chai and a bite to eat. “Fif­teen min­utes up the road” seemed to be the stan­dard response. After a few incar­na­tions of this, the road finally passed through a tiny town cen­ter, com­plete with a mosque, a few stores, and exactly one place to get food.

We stomped in and hud­dled near the fire they lit for us. After real­iz­ing all they had was beef broth and tea, so Najib took charge and sent the employ­ees to the bazar for sup­plies and then ended up cook­ing up the meal him­self. I’ve encoun­tered few restau­rants where you bring your own food and cook for yourself.

Najib gives the thumbs up

Grate­ful to be out of the car and out of the cold, we relaxed on the raised wooden plat­form cov­ered in car­pets. The other patron across the way started chat­ting with us. We learned from him that every Fri­day in win­ter the vil­lage played Buzkashi on a field just down the street. They were now on a break for prayer, but would resume the game in an hour. He invited us to come watch.

Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan. It’s a win­ter sport, played on horses, some­what like polo. Two teams com­pete to grab a dead goat and trans­port it across a field into one of two goal cir­cles. Usu­ally two vil­lages com­pete against one another and there are cash prizes for the play­ers who score goals.

The match we saw was played in a large field of mud and snow. A clump of play­ers reared their mounts, smash­ing and push­ing one another in attempts to reach down and scoop the 36 kilo dead goat off the ground. Many of the play­ers wore Soviet tanker hats. When asked how they acquired their head­gear they answered “We took them from the Rus­sians we killed.” Four hats per tank, hun­dreds of tanks, you do the math. As they kicked and whipped and pushed, the horses’ and play­ers’ legs alike were cov­ered in muddy brown slush and the goat was inde­ci­pher­able from a bag of mud.


And so we spent the after­noon hud­dled against the cold with the entire pop­u­la­tion of a small Pan­shir Vil­lage, watch­ing horses and men fight each other to carry a dead goat across the valley.

Epi­logue: On our jour­ney home we stopped to watch some kids shoot snow­balls across a field using a long sling­shot appa­ra­tus. When they real­ized I was video­tap­ing they quickly pushed their ace sling­shot­ter for­ward, encour­ag­ing him to dis­play his tal­ent. They then taught Peretz how to shoot, applaud­ing his efforts. His num­ber two shot earned him much whasta.


Downed Helicopter

Tile Porn

Feb 16, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, photos  //  3 Comments

Pre­sented here for your visual enter­tain­ment and aes­thetic enlight­en­ment are images from Herat’s Fri­day Mosque, one of the gems of Islamic Archi­tec­ture.
Entrance Courtyard

Squares and Teardrops

Color Explosion

Orange Starburst

Traffic fLaws

Feb 2, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, long, photos  //  1 Comment

Osten­si­bly, in Afghanistan, traf­fic dri­ves on the right hand side of the road. How­ever, this rule is leniently applied. In Afghanistan the road is used for dri­ving, and if the left hand side of the road is open, a dri­ver will take it.  Today while cruis­ing down the lane of oppos­ing traf­fic, we had to edge back into the reg­u­lar flow to pass a check­point. The guard was angry.

Why were dri­ving on the other side of the street??” He demanded, accord­ing to Najib’s translation.

What did you tell him?” I asked.

That I had for­eign guests in the car! [Refer­ring to us]” Was the answer.

I saw one dri­ver in Kabul even drive up onto the side­walk. No small com­mit­ment because the street is sep­a­rated from it by a 2 foot deep ditch so he’d have to drive the length of the city block before get­ting back. Still, the road was full of cars honk­ing but the side­walk only had pedes­tri­ans on it– and they learn quickly to get out of the way.

Jalalabad Road

Crane recov­ers fallen truck on Kabul High­way. (Todd’s photo)

With all this chaos you’d think that there would be lots of acci­dents. And you’d be very right. The road from Kabul to Jalal­abad winds down gorges for miles before open­ing up into the plains of Nan­garhar. This is where 16,000 British Troops and their fam­i­lies were noto­ri­ously slaugh­tered in their retreat from Kabul in 1842. One lone sur­vivor, Dr. Bry­don, made it out of the val­ley to Jalal­abad. As the story goes, the Afghans let him sur­vive so some­one could tell the tale. Mean­while, today the gorge is not dan­ger­ous because of IEDs or Afghans shoot­ing from the hills but because of hor­ri­ble dri­ving. Dr. Baz Moham­mad, the direc­tor of the Pub­lic Hos­pi­tal told me that in this year already there have been 1400 acci­dents and 300 deaths on that road. He knows because many of the patients treated at his hos­pi­tal are vic­tims of those crashes. (The Afghan cal­en­dar starts on the Ver­nal Equinox, and so these fig­ures cover 9 months of acci­dents, not just 1.)

The main road in the city of Jalal­abad has a divider down the mid­dle of it, in a futile attempt to keep traf­fic on its own side of the road. Often it works, but it’s cer­tainly not uncom­mon to see a vehi­cle dri­ving the wrong way on your side of the bar­rier. They’re com­mit­ting to dri­ving against traf­fic, act­ing on the assump­tion that traf­fic flow­ing against them will all spot them in time to swerve around their oncom­ing car.

Inefficient Traffic Cop

There are no road signs in Jalal­abad. Dri­vers indi­cate they are pass­ing by honk­ing loudly. No on uses left or right blink­ers as turn sig­nals, but it is locally under­stood that flash­ing your blink­ers means you plan on hurtling straight through an inter­sec­tion, regard­less of oncom­ing traf­fic. The only street­lights in the city are found at one par­tic­u­larly busy traf­fic cir­cle in the mid­dle of town. They aren’t pow­ered. Instead, a cop with a shrill whis­tle and a stop sign the size of small diner plate stands in front of the lights, wav­ing his sign men­ac­ingly while being thor­oughly ignored by the cars fight­ing to get by. Round­abouts are com­mon here, and dri­vers usu­ally go the same way around them. Not always.

directing traffic

Tak­ing a turn, espe­cially a left-hand one, is not for the overly car­i­ous. Cars will not let you turn unless you give them no other option. The only way you’ll be let into the flow of traf­fic on a busy street is if you get the hood of your corolla nosed in far enough that cars can’t swerve around it. The rule of the road is that you never give up space to any­one if you can’t help it. This includes budg­ing an inch for the army truck with 4 men hold­ing AKs in the back try­ing to wedge its way into traf­fic. No excep­tions given. When we rid­ing in the Teach­ing Hospital’s Ambu­lance (they sent it to the Taj for our ride) its dri­ver turned on the siren in a vain attempt to push faster through traf­fic. The siren had lit­tle effect. It could barely be heard above the honk­ing of horns, not that peo­ple would have heeded it if it had been louder.

5 lanes of traffic

Five lanes of traf­fic? This is a two way road with one lane in either direction.

Park­ing is also hap­haz­ard. There aren’t really park­ing spots down­town so much as there are gaps between food carts where you can stash your car for a while. The cops, Mehrab told me, don’t give tick­ets because “no one would pay them.” Instead, they go around with a screw­driver and take the license plate of cars parked “ille­gally.” (The vast major­ity of parked cars here would qual­ify as this in Amer­ica.) That way, dri­vers have to go to the police sta­tion and pay to get their license plate back. The fee is nom­i­nal, but the has­sle of hav­ing to pick it up is sup­posed to deter.

Oregon Plates

Most cars are bought on auc­tion in Amer­ica (after hav­ing been totaled) imported and repaired. You often see plates from CA, MA, TX, and even from Canada.

The odd­est acci­dent I’ve almost got­ten into involved a van div­ing in front of us whose wheel popped com­pletely off the vehi­cle. Maybe the nuts weren’t tight­ened, oth­er­wise they were rusted com­pletely through because the whole tire with its wheel popped off the axle and flew across the road, into oncom­ing traf­fic, smashed into the front of a car going the other way, and ric­o­cheted back into our lane. Najib slammed on the brakes as the tire bounced across the road in front of us. Mean­while the dri­ver of the van had man­aged to keep con­trol and pull it over to the side, undam­aged if you don’t count the miss­ing tire.  The car that took the brunt of the tire seemed to have a smashed front light, but lit­tle other dam­aged. And we cruised between the two stopped vehi­cles, head­ing into town.

Guns and Welding

Jan 20, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   Uncategorized  //  2 Comments

I was play­ing around with my stick weld­ing skills when I attracted the inter­est of one of our secu­rity guards. He wan­dered up, try­ing to look non­cha­lant, to check out what I was doing that was mak­ing so many sparks.  I showed him the sec­tion of an ammo case lid where I had ground off the paint and was prac­tic­ing lay­ing welds.

When he saw I also had a 40mm bul­let cas­ing, then he got really excited. He pulled out a clip of live ammu­ni­tion from his cammo vest and took an AK round out to ask, through ges­tures and hand sig­nals if what I had was also a bul­let. I nod­ded in agree­ment and he was hooked. Unfor­tu­nately, the bul­let cas­ing turned out to be alu­minum not steel, but I had acquired my first student.

Mean­while, dur­ing our bul­let exchange, Mustafa, the “house com­man­der” joined us. Not want­ing to be left out of the fun he picked up my angle grinder and ges­tured how he should use it, look­ing to me for a nod of assent. I showed him where the but­ton was and next thing I knew the two guards were grind­ing all the paint off of my ammo case, prep­ping it beau­ti­fully for lots of weld­ing prac­tice. If we got those two guards into the Boxshop, all our FLG grind­ing prob­lems would be over. They worked the thing metic­u­lously, get­ting at every scrap of green paint until the thing shone.

And that’s how I came to teach two Afghan men with very large guns who speak absolutely no Eng­lish how to stick weld. We’ve arranged for les­son two tomor­row, inshal­lah, as they say here.

Ladies Night…. Or Afternoon

Jan 15, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   long, photos  //  2 Comments

The park in Jalal­abad is, like so many other pub­lic venues, open to men only. How­ever, Wednes­day is spe­cial. Wednes­day is Ladies Day.

So Jenn, Kel­lie and I decided to take a soc­cer ball and spend a few hours hang­ing out in the park with the Ladies of Jalal­abad. The park is sur­round by tall walls, shield­ing it from the views of passersby and the entrance is guarded, per usual, by a young man in fatigues hold­ing an AK-47. He gave us a nod of approval and we slipped through the gate to the other side.

Women on the streets of Jalal­abad move quickly and pur­pose­fully from one des­ti­na­tion from the next, cov­ered in sky blue burqas. They don’t linger on the streets with the men. If lucky you may catch glimpses of red or pur­ple pants or a sparkly dress under the burqa’s cloak, but women are largely anony­mous, cov­ered crea­tures in public.

How­ever, the park on Ladies day, safe from the eyes of men, is an out­let. An oppor­tu­nity for girls and women to enjoy being out­side, uncov­ered, largely free. They sat in clus­ters and groups, burqas cast aside, dressed in bright col­ors with heavy lay­ers of kohl and lip­stick painted on. I have no way of know­ing if they always are so done up or if the park was an excuse to really dress up, but the golden fields of parched grass were cov­ered in the sat­u­rated greens, pinks, reds and pur­ples of the tunics and head­scarves of these women.

Afghan Lady

While their moth­ers and older sis­ters sat in the grass, pic­nick­ing and drink­ing tea, hordes of chil­dren ran around, scream­ing, play­ing, and fight­ing with one another. When Kel­lie, Jenn and I start­ing kick­ing a soc­cer ball around and invited some kids to join us we nearly started a riot as the clus­ter of kids raced after the ball.

Boys playing soccer

The kids also love hav­ing their pho­tos taken. The boys espe­cially will preen and strut in front of my lens, try­ing on dif­fer­ent poses and ham­ming it up. The girls bring for­ward their baby broth­ers for photo ops, their way of try­ing to get cap­tured on film. They’ve been taught they shouldn’t have their photo taken, but if it hap­pens that they are hold­ing a baby who is being pho­tographed and they make it into the shot…..

Afghan Kids_1

Afghan Kids_4

As we were obvi­ously not Afghans, we gar­nered lots of atten­tion, not only for our soc­cer ball and cam­eras. Young women fre­quently approached us, chat­ter­ing away in Pashto, not car­ing that we had no clue what they were say­ing. They showed us their babies, offered us tea, and ges­tured emphat­i­cally to get points across that were thor­oughly opaque to us. Smiles abounded and we nod­ded enthu­si­as­ti­cally, not know­ing what we were agree­ing with.

A few men are allowed in the park– they run the food stalls and the pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio in one cor­ner. For some rea­son this arrange­ment is under­stood as accept­able and the girls pose for pho­tographs and buy ice cream cones with their head­scarves down.

How­ever, the guard on duty within the walls was female as well– the first female Afghan secu­rity per­sonal I’ve seen. She was a stocky woman in fatigues and black head­scarf who bran­dished her large knife men­ac­ingly at kids who appeared to be mis­be­hav­ing. Unlike every male in fatigues, she had no gun.

After a few hours of enjoy­ing the sun­shine we said our good­byes to new friends, promised to return next week, cov­ered up our hair once more, and passed back onto the street, back into the realm of men.

Hardware Shopping

Jan 10, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   photos, taj  //  3 Comments

As it turns out, Jalal­abad has no Home Depot. Not even an ACE Hard­ware. So, when I wanted to pur­chase an arc welder  to make fur­ni­ture and art out of old ammo cases and bul­let cas­ings, Mehrab took me and Peretz to the bazaar. More specif­i­cally, to the hard­ware store sec­tion. Jam packed stalls nes­tled next to one another, crammed and over­flow­ing with jumper cables, machine belts, rusty bolts, and cheap Chi­nese screw dri­vers. Func­tion­ing as indi­vid­ual isles of the larger bazaar,  the coex­ist­ing shops all stock many tools while each spe­cial­iz­ing in a few. A cus­tomer starts a rela­tion­ship with one owner, who then sends run­ners from their staff to other shops along the way to grab any items not in stock. We choose a shop, out of acci­dent more than rea­son, and began the process of buy­ing tools.

Chickens in the Hardware Store

First, we col­lected assorted wrenches, ham­mers, and screw­drivers, ges­tur­ing “big­ger,” “smaller” or “heav­ier” to suit our needs. We perused the sin­gle aisle, avoid­ing the pair of chick­ens roost­ing under the fully stacked shelves. Angle grinder. Leather gloves. Weld­ing gog­gles. Check. Our shop­keeper showed us a file and told us it was “Good qual­ity. Made in India.” Even Afghans have dis­re­gard for cheap Chi­nese made tools, although the store was still full of them. The qual­ity prod­ucts they see come from India, hop­ping over Pak­istan to com­pete with infe­rior goods.

Then onto the rea­son we were there: a welder. The shop sold one option, a red metal box with 5 thick screws pro­trud­ing, announc­ing the amps they would draw, and a ground­ing screw stick­ing out the side. Instead of a power cord, two bare wires extended, ready to be stuck directly into a socket, as is the local pre­ferred method of “plug­ging in” an appli­ance. How­ever, for this com­pact metal box to be use­ful as a welder we needed to piece together its attach­ments. The store sold us eight meters of heavy duty wire, cut off a large yel­low spool. Next, we debated the mer­its of the two options for han­dles and set­tled on a heavy duty grip. But when I inquired about a ground­ing clamp, vitally needed to com­plete a weld­ing arc, our shop­keeper seemed per­plexed. He sent one of the boys lin­ger­ing in the shop off to find one, while he encour­aged us to drink some chai. We perched on tanks of gas and sipped steam­ing hot cups of sweet­ened, car­damom fla­vored tea until the boy returned, with a pair of jumper cable clips. Not exactly what I had in mind, but it’d do.

Hardware Store Purchases
The bits and bobs added up to most of what would be needed or use­ful for arc weld­ing and so, as we paid the shop­keeper, our tools and sup­plies were loaded into a wheel­bar­row for trans­port. Next step: assem­bly and test­ing of the Mac­Gyver welder.

Welder and Other Tools

Disaster Services

Jan 2, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   Uncategorized  //  5 Comments

Yes­ter­day Megan and I taught CPR to a group of Uni­ver­sity Stu­dents who have taken it upon them­selves to form a Dis­as­ter Response team and are try­ing to amass skills and knowl­edge that will be of use to them and their com­mu­ni­ties. One of the boys, Hameed, is part of our infor­mal “geek squad” at the Taj and wrote the pre­vi­ous post on this blog. Of the four he was the only one who spoke fully flu­ent Eng­lish. Two could get by in Eng­lish and the fourth spoke none, although he was flu­ent in Pashto, Dari, Urdu and Russ­ian. Many Afghans in this area can speak and read (if they are lit­er­ate)  Pashto, Dari and Urdu. If they are in their for­ties or fifties, they can get by in Russ­ian. The younger gen­er­a­tion tends to know dab­bling of Eng­lish. Pashto is the main spo­ken lan­guage but Dari seeps in from the West, Urdu from the East, and West­ern Lan­guages trickle in through the occu­py­ing armies sta­tioned here.

The class was punc­tu­ated by Hameed’s rapid fire trans­la­tion, side con­ver­sa­tions in Pashto, and the boys wrestling matches as they were a lit­tle over­en­thu­si­as­tic when prac­tic­ing the Heim­lich maneu­ver on one another. The best part of the class was the myr­iad of ques­tions the boys had, indi­cat­ing both a sin­cere desire to learn skills applic­a­ble to dis­as­ters they had wit­nessed first hand, as well as expos­ing deep seated cul­tural dif­fi­cul­ties that never arose in my numer­ous First Aid re-certification classes.

Noorah­mad probed about how to clear water from a person’s lungs, the mem­o­ries of last year’s flood­ing and earth­quake still penetrating.

They asked about the spread of infec­tion and how they were sup­posed to avoid get­ting dis­eases when sweep­ing a victim’s mouth clean or pro­vid­ing res­cue breath­ing. (The next step of prepa­ra­tion involves each of them assem­bling a med­kit, com­plete with lots of latex gloves).

Through Hameed’s trans­la­tion, Najib explained to me that he was from a very rural area where there were no trained med­ical per­sonal in any kind of prox­im­ity. He wanted advice for preg­nant women that he could bring back to the vil­lage and dis­perse. Accord­ing to the UN, Afghanistan has the sec­ond high­est infant mor­tal­ity rate in the world, topped only by Seirra Leone. It is the only non-African coun­try in the top twenty-five. Access to infor­ma­tion on preg­nancy and birthing, let alone trained med­ical work­ers, is slim at best. Even where there are med­ical facil­i­ties, mis­in­for­ma­tion abounds. I was shocked to find out last night that the direc­tor of the Neona­tal ward at the Pub­lic Hos­pi­tal in Jalal­abad has never seen a live birth.

Rah­mat raised his hand and said “In our cul­ture we are not sup­posed to touch women. What should we do if it is a woman who is not breathing?”Although sur­pris­ing to my west­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, the ques­tion is of utmost impor­tance. Most women in Jalal­abad still wear their burqas in pub­lic. Although Afghan soci­ety is extremely phys­i­cal, it is so in a fully seg­re­gated way. Men and boys are always play wrestling, hug­ging, and walk­ing with their arms around each other, but the two sexes never touch in pub­lic.  Mean­while, in the pri­vacy of the university’s two-month-old women’s dorm, I chat­ted with half a dozen teenage col­lege girls play wrestling in their own way– hug­ging, pok­ing and slap­ping. Still, one girl there was mar­ried and five months preg­nant yet her hus­band lived across cam­pus in a men’s dorm. There was no place they could live together within the orbit of the school.

Even in a life or death sit­u­a­tion, where a women would die if she were not given a few breaths of oxy­gen, there is a hes­i­ta­tion if it is the right thing to do. The ques­tion was not uncar­ing, quite the oppo­site, but it reflected the extreme chasm between men and women which will take more than an effec­tive counter-insurgency force and an army of preda­tor drones to solve. In the end, if these boys ever have to per­form life sav­ing aid they will have to make those deci­sions for themselves.

Nan Factory

Dec 30, 2010   //   by LouBu   //   videos  //  6 Comments

While walk­ing down the streets of Kabul last week I stared a lit­tle too inquis­i­tively into a nan store/factory pump­ing out the long, flat bread that is eaten with every meal in Afghanistan. The man stretch­ing the dough noticed my pry­ing and invited us in to see the whole process up close, encour­ag­ing us to take pho­tographs and film the intri­cate, six man team work­ing together to form the vat of dough into iden­ti­cal dia­monds of flat bread. The bread is baked in a clay tan­doori oven, stuck ver­ti­cally up against the inside wall. As the fin­ished bread is pulled off the oven walls with long iron hooks, a man in the win­dow sells the hot, steam­ing fin­ished prod­uct to cus­tomers, who fre­quently go away with half a dozen or more loaves. In a tra­di­tional Afghan meal instead of a plate each per­son is given a full loaf of bread. He or she tears off chunks and uses them in place of uten­sils to scoop up chunks of lamb or beans. They sent us away with a steam­ing, flat, piece of nan. Delicious.