What’s NORMAL anyway?

Dec 26, 2010   //   by peretz   //   long  //  2 Comments

Words are pow­er­ful.  You read them and they paint a picture.

The prob­lem is, some things are hard to describe, our con­texts are too dif­fer­ent. Humans have an amaz­ing capac­i­ty to adapt, and we have already adapted.

You’ve seen some pic­tures and some videos.  We’ll keep those coming.

Once a week, I’ll try to write a longer post.  Lou and I have been here a week now and it’s time to share more fully.

It’s chal­leng­ing to back­track this process of adap­ta­tion, but nec­es­sary, so that future writ­ings will make sense from this shared context.

Afghanistan is a land of walled off com­pounds with no incen­tive to out­ward­ly adver­tise what lays with­in.  Things hap­pen behind large walls, and often sev­er­al tiers of walls.  Going some­where, is often a process of exit­ing one com­pound, quick­ly and qui­et­ly mov­ing to the next.

To begin with — the air­port.  We land, rough land­ing, the plane almost bounces on the tar­mac.  We’re dri­ven to the gate to col­lect our bags.  We’ve got con­tra­band — alco­hol, good as gold in an Islam­ic coun­try.  We try to take advan­tage of the com­mo­tion, stack our bags dense­ly behind a group bring­ing in a large load of box­es, whisk them away quick­ly, before the cus­toms guards learn to care.  We’re clear.  We’re here.  Where?

I don’t know.  Afghanistan for sure, but what is this place?

The sec­ond tier of secu­ri­ty seem to spend more time figh­ing with each oth­er than pay­ing atten­tion to us, punch­ing each oth­er, scream­ing at each other.

Cars don’t pull up to the ter­mi­nal.  You walk.  Todd knows the way, Lou and I fol­low. Through one bar­ri­cade of stone walls and barbed wire, then anoth­er.  We see a park­ing lot of cars.This isn’t for us.  They are armored.  A lot of the NGOs hire Land Cruis­ers with B6 grade armor to bring their employ­ees home.

We walk through anoth­er gate.  We walk past Sovi­et con­tain­ers turned into office.  We walk through what looks like an aban­doned bus ter­mi­nal.  It’s dark and empty.

At last, we are in the civil­ian lot.  A few cab dri­vers are fight­ing with each oth­er.  It seems like the issue is who got there first and who will leave first with a pas­sen­ger.  A younger one shoves an old­er cab dri­ver away.

Todd has called a car for us.  “Zuhak, we’re here and wait­ing for you.”  Zuhak is one of the mid­dle tier car ser­vice com­pa­nies and Todd likes them for their rec­og­niz­abil­i­ty — red Toy­ota Corol­las, all 9 dri­vers are cousins — and also their abil­i­ty to blend into the traf­fic — most cars are Toy­ota Corol­las.  “We’re less of a tar­get that way.”

We maneu­ver out of the lot weav­ing through bar­ri­cades set up to slow traf­fic down and make the air­port defen­si­ble when nec­es­sary.  We stop for a car­a­van trav­el­ing quick­ly, armored camoflauges Lan­drovers, sirens blaring.

Traf­fic is tense.  Every inch is eat­en up imme­di­ate­ly by any vehi­cle in a posi­tion to do so.  It does­n’t mat­ter what direc­tion it’s head­ing in, even if it’s oppo­site the direc­tion of traf­fic.  Dri­ving is a per­pet­u­al game of Chick­en. Larg­er vehi­cles have less to lose.  Small­er vehi­cles can con­sume small­er gaps. I am con­vinced we’re going to get hit a few times (even­tu­al­ly we did).  There are sew­er ruts on either side of the road.  We get so close, I am con­vinced we’re going to fall in.  (We see oth­ers who have.) It’s off road­ing in the mid­dle of the city.  We pass a check­point and Todd says, “We’re home.”

Masked gun­men approach our car and peer in inquis­i­tive­ly.  “Hel­lo my friend. Are there any rooms avail­able?” What rooms.  We’re in a dark alley.  Sand­bags are pilled high in the form of a bunker.  It is a bunker!   The ratio of guns to humans is upset only by the fact that we don’t have any.

They return Tod­d’s friend­ly­ness with a smile, Salaam Alekum.  Come in.

The entrance is designed like canal locks. The door behind locks you into a small steel cham­ber.  If you’re favor­ably assessed, the next door is opened.  A few iter­a­tions of this and we are in a lob­by.  A nice lob­by. Wel­come Sir, says a host­ess from the Phillipines.


My weak­ness is writ­ing long blog posts, and often leav­ing them unfin­ished.  I’ll cure myself this go around, and wind down with some anecdotes.

Among the ex-pats there is a stunt­ed social scene in Kab­ul.  In an amus­ing regard, it’s like high school, every NGO has their own cur­few, it’s own set of rules where they can and can­not go, and what chap­er­on­s (read “armed guards”) need to accom­pa­ny you.  Sleep overs are com­pli­cat­ed. You have to clear it in advance with your guest-house man­ag­er.  (Every NGO has their own guest-house and some are under such strict lock down that they have to bribe peo­ple to come vis­it.)  Sol­diers, for the most part, live inside an even more seclud­ed bubble.

Nev­er­the­less, some estab­lish­ments thrive in this envi­ron­ment.  One reminds me of Casablan­ca, cash only, crisp bills, no cred­it, locals aren’t allowed in (where alco­hol is served), the own­er has the final word.  Con­trac­tors and sub-con­trac­tors, NGO employ­ees, jour­nal­ists and thrill seek­ers spend their evenings over­pay­ing for booze inhal­ing the thick air full of smoke from cig­a­rettes and wood fires.

When we are frisked with­in the chan­nel locks, “No guns no knives?”  Do many guests have guns and knives when they come in?  The guard replies, “The smart ones.”  There are cub­bies for this pur­pose, to check your weapons before you enter the bar.

It’s now the hol­i­day sea­son in the West.  Many local ex-pats are tak­ing their vacata­tion, fly­ing back home, “back to the real world tomor­row.”  But isn’t this the real world also, I say to guy who has been work­ing for DAI.

The real world for me is when my daugh­ter tells me to turn the light out when I leave the room.  Over here, we’re always run­ning on gen­er­a­tors and they’ll use the same amount of fuel regard­less, plus we’re told not to alter the pow­er load too much by flip­ping light switch­es on and off.”  And that’s just the beginning.

Get­ting into a car, a local tells our friend Megan, “Don’t buck­le up.  It’s dan­ger­ous.”  Anoth­er adds, “well, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.  If we roll the car, or get into a high speed acci­dent, it would have been bet­ter to be buck­led.  If we hit an IED, it’s bet­ter to be unbuck­led and have the door open. That way, it may blow you clear.”  A spe­cial forces guy inter­ject­s that his tech­nique is to buck­le the bot­tom but put the chest strap behind the back, and men­tal­ly review the way to climb out of that posi­tion.  “It’s com­pli­cat­ed either way.  You got to make your own decisions.”