Browsing articles by "peretz | Jalalagood"

Help Fund Bold Initiative to set up Hackerspaces Across Middle East

Sep 16, 2012   //   by peretz   //   Culture and Tech  //  No Comments

My close friends are behind the project.  They are tal­ent­ed, enthu­si­as­tic and com­pe­tent.  There is only one day left to fund this kick­starter, so please chip in and spread the word on your networks!

The link to the full kick­starter is here:

Would you Fund a Mercenary / Documentary Film Maker?

Aug 20, 2012   //   by peretz   //   Culture and Tech, military  //  1 Comment
Matthew VanDyke with the PKT machine gun he used in com­bat in Sirte, Libya

Have you want­ed to do some­thing to help the Arab Spring but weren’t sure how? This is your chance.

In Sep­tem­ber, 2012 two famous free­dom fight­ers from the Libyan rev­o­lu­tion, Amer­i­can Matthew VanDyke and Libyan Masood Bwisir, will trav­el togeth­er to Syr­ia and join the rebels on the front line against the dic­ta­tor Bashar al-Assad. ”

What is the pur­pose of this project and what will VanDyke and Bwisir be doing in Syria?

[Among oth­er things, film­ing] Masood Bwisir enter­tain­ing and improv­ing rebel morale with his famous rev­o­lu­tion songs, includ­ing new ones or vari­a­tions of his Libya songs mod­i­fied for the Syr­i­an revolution”

This kick­starter appli­ca­tion reads like an audi­tion to be picked as a char­ac­ter in a first per­son shoot­er. Drop a coin and hit the space­bar to select this char­ac­ter for the Syr­ia level.

It feels as though the rewards should have been 25$ gets a mag­a­zine clip for AK. 100$ gets a new AK. 1$ buys chai on a hot Syr­i­an day.

I mean, I like crazy … I just think that this kick­starter is crazy in an both old and inter­est­ing­ly nov­el ways. I spent a lit­tle bit of time try­ing to relate to the mind that gen­er­at­ed this project proposal.

From here, it’s not such a dis­tant jump to imag­ine crowd­fund­ing mer­ce­nar­ies in third world places? Now imag­ine, two com­pet­ing fac­tions engag­ing in such fundrais­ing, eg “cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions”? I’m sur­prised Kick­starter has allowed this project up on the site, and I am glad that the fund­ing has begun to stall out at the final moments.

Matthew, if you read this, why don’t you just reach out to Vice Mag­a­zine and get an advance from them to cov­er your expenses?

On a relat­ed note, I high­ly rec­om­mend you read Cam­paign­ing on the Oxus by Jan­u­ar­ius Aloy­sius MacGahan.

He was an Amer­i­can reporter for the New York Her­ald Tri­bune who cov­ered the Russ­ian Army cam­paign in Cen­tral Asia in the late 1873 as a 29 year old. Start­ing from a remote Siber­ian town, he gal­loped 2,000 miles through the dessert to join the Russ­ian forces invad­ing Khi­va. His writ­ing is engross­ing.  On the way, he doc­u­ments a vis­it to a Khan’s harem, and when he final­ly arrives, his engaged jour­nal­ism takes him to the bat­tle­field, where he par­tic­i­pates in the slaugh­ter of the sword field­ing sav­ages with his own rifle.

You should in the least read the open­ing para­graphs of the preface.

Those were the good old days!

Obitutuary for Merhab Sarahj, Taj Mahal Guesthouse Manager

Aug 18, 2012   //   by peretz   //   taj  //  1 Comment

Accord­ing to a trust­ed source, we learned that the Taj Mahal guest­house man­ag­er has been shot by two motor­cy­cle rid­ing gunmen.

We knew him as Mehrab, while his full name was Mehru­bin Saraj. For many of us, he was more than the man­ag­er of the Taj Guest house, but our first condi­ut into Afghan soci­ety. He took us to pur­chase our Afghan clothes and explained the world out­side the com­poud walls.

Lunch with Village Elder

One care­free after­noon, I asked Mer­hab to tell me about his life before the Taj. This is a tran­scrip­tion of my notes from that day:

In the 80’s we saw ter­ri­ble things.

As a teenag­er, after a Sovi­et raid, I helped bury 14 mem­bers of my extend­ed fam­i­ly. That night we packed all our belong­ings onto a don­key drawn cart. With a car­a­van of 23 and two cows we trav­elled two sleep­less days to the bor­der with Pakistan.

My father want­ed to avoid the mass­es accu­mu­lat­ing in refugee camps on the bor­der, so he guid­ed us to the hills on the out­skirts of Peshawar, where he knew about some caves.

We sur­vived as shep­pards, hav­ing bartered some of our goods for ani­mals. We shel­tered inside the caves and blocked the entrance by stones each night to pro­tect the ani­mals from wolves and jack­als. At times I would stand watch with a rifle, and tried to fol­low my fathers advice “aim for the bright eyes”.

My father was most con­cerned with the posi­bil­i­ty that the kids would get bit­ten by snakes and scor­pi­ons. In time, he man­aged to pur­chase tents and we moved back to the refugee camps so that the youger kids among us could attend makeshift schools.

When the next sum­mer came, to escape the heat, my fam­i­ly again went back to the high­er ele­va­tions near the ancient caves, but this time we set­tled in the plum orchards. … and we brough oth­ers with us.

While the own­ers of that land had pre­vi­ous­ly tol­er­at­ed us as one fam­i­ly, they took an armed stand upon our arrival block­ing our way. They wor­ried that we would bring even more refugees with us and would start treat­ing the land as ours.

So we went back to the caves and only went to the orchards for picnicks!

In the 90s we returned to Jalal­abad. A branch of my fam­i­ly had escaped to Egypt and also returned. One of my broth­ers went miss­ing in Iran, and I still don’t know where he is.

We recov­ered our home and I was mar­ried to my cousin. We lived some­what apart in refugee camps, but my par­ents told me about her and made the fam­i­ly arrange­ment even before we returned.

Since then, I have tried my hand at var­i­ous enter­pris­es. I worked at what I knew best — as a shep­phard for 6 months. A soap fac­to­ry I start­ed failed. I tried my hand as a bee­keep­er, bought 25 hives, but they all died. And then I opened a tobac­co shop.

I dis­cov­ered the Taj Mahal Guest house when it was run by the UN. I came on as a pool clean­er, and worked my way up to man­ag­er. First I worked close­ly with the Kiwis, and now with Dave.

RIP Mehrab. August 2012.

Officially for Sale

Aug 24, 2011   //   by peretz   //   military  //  4 Comments

I spot­ted an old man sit­ting in a crowd­ed bazar, sewing army and police patch­es onto uni­forms. I hag­gled and picked up a dozen.

I'm Official

Celebrating Nowruz in Mazar-i-Sharif

May 31, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture, long, photos  //  13 Comments

We chose to cel­e­brate the Per­sian New Year, Nowruz in Mazar-i-Sharif because it is the epi­cen­ter of cel­e­bra­tion in Afghanistan. Over 200,000 peo­ple con­gre­gate at the Rowze-e-Sharif Mosque which the Afghan Shia believe hous­es the tomb of Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Tal­ib whom they con­sid­er Islam’s first Imam. Nowruz is offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized as a nation­al hol­i­day and high rank­ing offi­cials attend the celebrations.

Although the fes­tiv­i­ties are cen­tered on the Mosque, Novruz is a pre-Islam­ic hol­i­day that is not men­tioned in the Koran. Because of this, accord­ing to some of the Sun­ni tra­di­tion, it is con­sid­ered bid’ah (a pro­hib­it­ed addi­tion to the reli­gion.) The Shia on the oth­er hand, con­sid­er it a cel­e­bra­tion of Hazrat Ali’s ascent to the Caliphate on this day in 656 AD.

Both the con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple and the reli­gious ten­sions sur­round­ing the hol­i­day gave us good rea­son to stay espe­cial­ly alert. The Afghan Nation­al Army (ANA) was equal­ly con­cerned, essen­tial­ly apply­ing a thick secu­ri­ty blan­ket to the cen­ter of Mazar, pro­hibit­ing any civil­ian car traf­fic and screen­ing pedestrians.


Civil­ian Air­ports in Afghanistan aren’t much more than an airstrip sur­round­ed by barbed wire. You land, walk onto the tar­mac, out the chain link fence and you’re done.


At 8AM on the morn­ing of Nowruz, we found our­selves in a desert, 8 miles out­side the city, car­ry­ing a heavy load, and with­out trans­porta­tion. Because of the mil­i­tary lock-down, trans­port vehi­cles were not able to reach the airport.

For at least a mile on the road lead­ing to the air­port, ANA sol­diers were spaced every fifty feet. They shift­ed their weight from foot to foot, smoked cig­a­rettes and stared out across a vast flat plane.

There wasn’t much for us to do oth­er than walk, and so we did.

A con­voy blazed past us towards the air­port. It was com­prised of fifty fan­cy SUVs, (Mer­cedes, Audi, and Toy­ota Land­cruis­ers) fol­lowed by fifty police and mil­i­tary trucks, most­ly 4x4 Toy­ota HiLux pick­ups (a favorite of the Tal­iban) with four seats in the truck beds for sol­diers with guns. Many had machine guns mount­ed on the roof of the cab.

Coin­ci­den­tal­ly we land­ed at the same time as Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and Gov­er­nor Atta Muham­mad Nur and these boys were here to escort them into town for a pub­lic appear­ance at the mosque.

After a few miles of walk­ing, we found a taxi which we shared with a fel­low pedes­tri­an, a UNDP employ­ee. As the city was cor­doned off, the taxi dropped us on the perimeter.

Taxi Welcome to Mazar

Hotel Barat

Hotel book­ings were at a pre­mi­um for the dura­tion of Nowruz, hard to find and with goug­ing prices. We relied on our friend Mai­wand (the cap­tain of Mazar’s bas­ket­ball team) to secure us a room at a pre­mi­um loca­tion. But in order to hon­or our reser­va­tion, the hotel insist­ed that we pay for sev­er­al extra nights in advance. As this was the best option (and frankly there wasn’t anoth­er) we had to give in.

Work­ing through a maze of secu­ri­ty check­points, we even­tu­al­ly got to our hotel. On the way we learned that the mosque grounds were only open to women in the morn­ing (at least until after Karzai’s appearance.)

Recep­tion strug­gled to find us a room, say­ing that they assumed we weren’t com­ing since we hadn’t showed up two days ago. They had to con­cede all sleep­ing spaces to the sol­diers who were every­where, even on the roof of the hotel, and had cots there too!

Roof Patrol

We respond­ed that we paid for the two nights before our arrival only because it was their con­di­tion for reserv­ing the room. Even­tu­al­ly, they kicked out the sol­diers and gave us a room on the top floor.

From our win­dow, you could sur­vey the entire grounds and gar­dens of the mosque. They con­sti­tute a siz­able city park, a square per­haps a quar­ter mile to a side.

Mazar Intersection

It was a dis­play of pri­ma­ry col­ors. The blue tiled mosque was gleam­ing in the cen­ter. The gar­dens were fes­tive­ly dec­o­rat­ed with gar­lands and stream­ers, but pre­dom­i­nant­ly ver­dant green.

Thou­sands of white doves pro­vid­ed an are­al blan­ket, while heli­copters made sur­veil­lance laps above them, drop­ping con­fet­ti and toys on lit­tle red parachutes.

Helicopters and Doves on Patrol

All the TVs were stream­ing live from the main court­yard of the mosque. Karzai was about to speak. We were so close that we heard the loud­speak­ers first and then the TV screen with a slight delay.

Giv­en that we missed a night of sleep, Lou and I actu­al­ly tried to get some rest. An hour lat­er we were jarred awake by the sounds of artillery fire. Along with oth­er hotel patrons, we ran up to the roof to inves­ti­gate. When you hear gun fire and music in Afghanistan, you’re taught to inter­pret that as a wed­ding par­ty. This is also the rea­son why many wed­ding par­ties had been bombed until the mil­i­tary learned to review their intel­li­gence better.

It turned out to be a cel­e­bra­to­ry salute to Karzai.

The Fun­faire at the Blue Mosque

Fail­ing at sleep, we explored the cen­ter of Mazar, its fresh juice stands and shawar­ma joints. When the restric­tion on males was lift­ed, we entered the grounds of the mosque.

Baloon Dealer
The atmosh­pere resem­bled a car­ni­val with ven­dors of col­or­ful bal­loons and toys, blan­ket spreads of semi­precious rocks, jew­el­ry, fes­tive dec­o­ra­tions, hen­na, sur­ma, women’s panties and silk robes.

Spread of Wares
(Night also revealed thought­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ed sculp­tures and bill­boards arrayed with LEDs.)

Welcome to the year 1390!

Every­one, but espe­cial­ly the youth, were fes­tooned to the Nowruz max. Girls and boys were active­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the gaze econ­o­my, the cau­tious give and take, yet not too much of either; cast­ing furtive glances, and if caught, walk­ing straight away.

The boys put on their shini­est shirts and fan­ci­est brimmed hats.

Stylish Kid

Festooned to the Nowruz Max

Festooned to the Nowruz Max

I even saw some girls faces, some­thing entire­ly unimag­in­able in Jalal­abad. But even under the blue burqa clad major­i­ty you could spy the glam­or of the out­fits beneath and guess at the delib­er­a­tion expend­ed to com­pose them. Lit­tle accents on their ankles and toes com­mu­ni­cat­ed vol­umes with the small can­vas that mod­esty afforded.

Were you a bach­e­lor in this cli­mate and only focused on the can­di­dates whose face you could see, you’d be dis­crim­i­nat­ing against the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion. I must admit, there is a cer­tain intrigue in not know­ing what is behind the cur­tain. We saw a boy, tail­ing two glam­orous girls in burqas, tempt­ing them in a very uni­ver­sal way, “I have a car.”

This gave new mean­ing to the term “blind date”.

It all felt very for­eign from the Afghanistan I came to know and rely on while liv­ing in con­ser­v­a­tive Jalal­abad. While even in Jalal­abad it was impos­si­ble not to read into the per­son­al frus­tra­tions of every­one you got to know indi­vid­u­al­ly, it was nev­er on pub­lic dis­play, like this, by everyone.

White Doves at the Blue Mosque

They say that one of the mir­a­cles of the mosque is that when a non-white pigeon appears, it soon turns white. Though I have no proof, I think that what actu­al­ly hap­pens when a non-white one appears is that the care­tak­er kills it, or maybe tries to give it a whiten­ing bath in bleach with the same result.


Jahen­da Bala

In the inner court­yard, a group of Shia hud­dled close and were work­ing them­selves into a trance by chant­i­ng. They were present for the Jahen­da Bala, a flag rais­ing cer­e­mo­ny, com­mem­o­rat­ing the col­ors of the ban­ner that Hazrat Ali raised in bat­tle for Islam.

This reli­gious prac­tice was pro­hib­it­ed dur­ing the time of the Tal­iban and to the con­di­tioned eye of a Sun­ni Pash­tun, it still seemed like the work of heretics.

Even Najib revealed his prej­u­dice. His face became flush and he said, “Let’s go. I’ll tell you about this later.”

Afghan Nation­al Army’s most heav­i­ly armed man

We spent a cou­ple hours wait­ing for Najib’s friend Sheikh in the com­pa­ny of the ANA’s most heav­i­ly armed man. He had a quiver with four RPGs and car­ried anoth­er loaded one in his hand.

Afghanistan's most heavily armed man

Najib guid­ed us next to him and remarked that we were in the safest place in town, but I did not agree with his assess­ment. There wasn’t a place for miles in over­crowd­ed Mazar where such a weapon could be used effec­tive­ly with­out sub­stan­tial col­lat­er­al dam­age. In fact, being next to such a war machine made me feel like more of a target.

Besides, the RPG slinger said he had only ever fired four rounds, all for prac­tice. It’s an expen­sive plea­sure. He claimed each round cost $10,000 but I doubt he knew what he was talk­ing about.

Afghanistan's most heavily armed man

There were a few kids hang­ing out with the sol­diers. Fre­quent­ly, they’d ask to play with the guns or just tugged at the bar­rels with­out ask­ing. And sol­diers, who were Afghan kids them­selves and could relate, oblig­ed, non­cha­lant­ly pass­ing the guns around with­out so much as a word of cau­tion to not point them at people.

Sheikh and Nasir

We were wait­ing for “Sheikh”. He’s a busi­ness asso­ciate of Najib’s rel­a­tive Nasir. Nasir had recent­ly run up a huge debt with Najib and then dis­ap­peared. Such a thing strains but does­n’t nul­li­fy friend­ships. Najib lament­ed, “if only we were still on good terms with Nasir, we could ride across the entire north of Afghanistan and have peo­ple slaugh­ter goats in our hon­or and show us a good time. Sheikh was our stand in for Nasir and though I don’t know what it would have been like with Nasir, Sheikh was an excel­lent host.


Sheikh car­ried him­self with the air of a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man on the verge of secur­ing a large con­struc­tion con­tract with the Amer­i­cans which would make him even more successful.

His first ges­ture was to give a crisp 100$ bill to his nephew (who dou­bled as his min­ion and dri­ver) to get us “something”. He then flagged down a Pash­tun police com­man­der and got us an escort to the governor’s pri­vate­ly owned amuse­ment park on the south­ern reach­es of the city.

Once inside, we were sur­round­ed by blinky lights, LEDs, glowy orbs and illu­mi­nat­ed sculp­tures. It was strange­ly rem­i­nis­cent of Burn­ing Man. Frankly, much of this adven­ture felt that way. Najib got ride tokens.


In line for one of the carousel rides, we met a Russ­ian speak­ing boy, Ali. He over­heard me talk­ing to Najib and came to make friends. We talked about his time in Rus­sia, his fas­ci­na­tion with Hip Hop. On his shoul­der he car­ried a large boom box. He wore huge sun­glass­es. His skater hat was at an angle. His shoe laces were neon green and pink. We were yelling in Russ­ian, Eng­lish and Pash­to, all of Sheikh, Ali, Lou, Najib and me; all scream­ing over each oth­er, mer­ry mak­ing. One of the guards approached us and tried to get Lou to leave the men’s line (where we all were and hadn’t even real­ized there was a sep­a­rate one.) Najib and Ali start­ed berat­ing him loud­ly, even­tu­al­ly shoo­ing him away. We were whipped around on teth­ered swings and even got pudgy Sheikh to strap in for the flight with us.

Oth­er People’s Women

We toured the amuse­ments and spot­ted a large group of girls sit­ting around a pic­nic blan­ket. Najib cau­tioned us about walk­ing too close. He said that they are oth­er people’s women and if we approached too close, we may have to resolve the mat­ter with their men.


Sheikh’s dri­ver reap­peared with “chars” (the Afghan word for hash). Sheikh’s chars han­dling skills were mas­ter­full, like a true char­si (chars user). We sat on train tracks in the process. Through Najib’s trans­la­tion Sheikh inquired about the logis­tics of com­ing to the US and specif­i­cal­ly how much mon­ey he’d need to save up in order to have a week’s worth of good times. “Will $20,000 be enough?” I asked his inten­tions. He replied defen­sive­ly, “no casi­no, no bars, no girls… just nor­mal things.” I said that a few thou­sand should be plen­ty. “And what if … what if, we did some casi­no, some bar and some girls?”

Afghan Ice Cream Vendor in In-N-Out t-shirt

We bought ice cream from a boy in an IN-N-OUT t‑shirt.


Jama Khan

The next day Sheik showed up with a new side kick, 19 year old Jama Khan. Jama is the son of war­lord Coman­dan Haji Akhtar دمحم رتخا ېجاح Coman­dan Haji Akhtar is on the Balkh Provin­cial Coun­cil and has a pret­ty awe­some ride (4x4 SUV).

Accord­ing to Jama and Sheikh, Jama’s old­est broth­er Wali Muham­mad Ibrahim Khil was killed by Amer­i­cans after the gov­er­nor Atta Muham­mad Nur told them he was work­ing with the Tal­iban. Whether he was or was­n’t, it used to be that say­ing some­thing like this to the Amer­i­cans was a rather good way to elim­i­nate a pow­er­ful competitor.

Sheikh was ten­ta­tive with our plans. “Where you want to go? How about you come to my village?”

Ah, that elu­sive Afghan vil­lage(!), idyl­lic, pas­toral, won­der­ful, and … every­thing, except it’s infest­ed by Tal­iban.  (Najib tells us that this is espe­cial­ly true of Sheikh’s village.)

Sheikh insist­ed, “I’ll make sure you are safe.”

Najib said “Thank you, but NO” on our behalf and instead we aimed the SUV for the neigh­bor­ing city of Balkh.

Pic­nic in Balkh

Balkh is a frail old­er broth­er to Mazar. It is an ancient city (4,000 years old) and a his­tor­i­cal cen­ter of Zoroas­tri­an­ism. Due to a Malar­ia out­break in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, the region­al cap­i­tal shift­ed to Mazar-i-Sharif (but the province is still called Balkh.)

In con­trast to Mazar’s square grid around the Blue Mosque, Balk is arranged in a radi­al grid around a cir­cu­lar park con­tain­ing the Green Mosque.

While his min­ion picked up a bag full of meat in town, Sheikh gave us a guid­ed tour of the park. We then dropped the meat at a near­by relative’s house which we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly raid­ed for pic­nic sup­plies: a large ther­mos of tea, a whole ser­vice of tea cups, vinyl table cloths and woven rugs.

Boys on Walls

From there we climbed the ancient city walls of Balkh to get good views and to select the per­fect (read “isolated”) pic­nic spot. Sheikh decid­ed on a fur­rowed field next to a shady grove where he unfurled the car­pets in such a way that the fur­rows became recessed rows of seats around an ele­vat­ed table.

Picnic in Balkh w/Sheikh

A few more rel­a­tives appeared with the meat, already pre­pared, in a pot.

Hun­gry, we ate the lamb, the Afghans teach­ing us to suck out the mar­row, and got our hands greasy and then han­dled cups of tea and Pep­si bot­tles, spread­ing the grease; and then made futile attempts to wipe our hands clean with tis­sue papers, which are the nap­kins of choice in Afghanistan.

What if “men with gun­s” appear?

The con­ver­sa­tion turned to the sub­ject of safe­ty and how nice it is that we are sit­ting here with a war­lords son (Jama Khan) which would be use­ful if men with guns appeared.

Picnic in Balkh w/Sheikh

To which, Jama respond­ed by say­ing that we’re safe not because of him, but because Sheikh is here.

To which Sheikh said, that if guns appear there won’t be a Sheikh here, because guns are guns and bul­lets don’t discriminate.

To which, every­body laughed and con­sid­ered the sit­u­a­tion resolved to the extent possible.

Kid­s’ Table

Not twen­ty feet off, behind the grove of trees, a few kids were pick­ing at the mud and glanc­ing at us with mis­chie­vous faces. Sheikh first shooed them away, but when they didn’t budge, he invit­ed them to eat with us, and when they proved too shy to respond, he round­ed up a bunch of meat on a plate and half of a Pep­si bot­tle and gave it to them. And so our pic­nic picked up a children’s table.

Girls can drive?

Back in Mazar, Sheikh itched to go back to the carousels. Jama Khan want­ed to dri­ve his jeep into the moun­tains. We com­pro­mised by dri­ving out of the city past the car­ni­val grounds where Jama could show us a bit of reck­less dri­ving. Then he turned to Lou and said, that if he could see a girl dri­ve a Jeep offroad that would real­ly make his day. And Lou took him up. In all our time in Afghanistan, we saw a female the behind the wheel just once, (and it was the Shari-Naw neigh­bor­hood of Kabul.)

Ran­som for a Good Time

We ini­tial­ly met up with Sheikh in order to pay him back the 100$ deposit he had sub­mit­ted on our behalf to Hotel Barat. And while I had giv­en the mon­eys to Najib, he hadn’t com­plet­ed the trans­fer to Sheikh. When I asked him about it, he said “Wait, I’ll give it to him at the end. This way he still has a rea­son to hang out with us and show us a good time!”

Our final day in Mazar we got some shop­ping done, and before long Jama Khan was call­ing ask­ing to hang out. He showed up with a body guard who he proud­ly announced was on the min­istry of interior’s pay­roll. To prove the point he made the boy pull out his ID card and show us. Sur­pris­ing­ly the ID card was also his salary card. It does­n’t real­ly mat­ter who you are until you show up in front of the cashier at the bank. When you col­lect YOUR salary is when it is impor­tant to know who YOU are.

Ministry of Interior

Today Jama want­ed to go show us the moun­tains he didn’t get to the day before, and so we drove south, past the gar­gan­tu­an Sovi­et bread fac­to­ry, past the car­ni­val grounds, past emp­ty streets of sub­di­vid­ed lots with retain­ing walls and some con­struc­tion, and then streets with lots with­out con­struc­tion, just retain­ing walls, and then lots, but no retain­ing walls, but just grav­elled roads in a grid, and out­door sewage ditch­es mark­ing their bound­aries antic­i­pat­ing the city’s expan­sion. There were only shep­herds there to graze their sheep, though there wasn’t much (left) to graze. The sheep tried to escape the heat by hid­ing in sewage ditches.

But Jama drove onward.

Juma Khan drove with­out regard for streets. He re-land­scaped the hills.

All of these plots, I learned lat­er, were from a planned expan­sion of the city orches­trat­ed by the gov­er­nor. We’ll be big­ger soon! The state can make mon­ey sell­ing plots of land!

After dri­ving for a while we seemed no clos­er to the moun­tains in the dis­tance. We were in the steppe and occa­sion­al­ly you could spot anoth­er group that voy­aged to these hills.  This is where they came to escape the bus­tle of the city (and the Tal­iban of the vil­lage.) This is where they came to be alone with their fam­i­lies. These were the “mountains” that Jama want­ed to take us to, as this is where he would come with his friends, rip donuts in his 4x4 and toke the chars.


(Click here for a more in-depth descrip­tion of the game. )

Novruz is also the cul­mi­na­tion of a Buzkashi sea­son and so we asked Jama to takes us to the match. It became clear after some prod­ding that he didn’t feel com­fort­able going.

It turns out that just like Amer­i­can oil tycoons buy foot­ball teams, Afghan war­lords main­tain sta­bles of buzkashi hors­es and teams of star rid­ers under their care.

The buzkashi field there­fore is not real­ly a safe place. It’s proxy war. But real war occa­sion­al­ly breaks out in the stands also. It’s the one pub­lic event where per­son­al scores are set­tled by assassination.

In the end, Jama agreed to take us, but “only for a lit­tle bit”.

These buzkashi grounds were very dif­fer­ent from the mud­dy snowy pit we vis­it­ed in the Pan­jshir Val­ley. It was a large hot dusty field lord­ed over by a gar­gan­tu­an Sovi­et bread fac­to­ry. On one side were the stands, seat­ing sev­er­al thou­sand peo­ple. A water truck was zig zag­ging through the field dur­ing the game, spray­ing the ground, try­ing to keep the dust down.

Soviet Bread Factory towering over Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

Jama dis­ap­peared and left us with his body guard. When he returned, it was on a horse. The buzkashi hors­es aren’t too tall, as then it would be too hard to reach down and grab the dead goat from the sad­dle, but they are hard work­ers. All of the hors­es were drenched in sweat yet they per­sist­ed in run­ning full gal­lop at the min­i­mal urging.

Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

In fact, a buzkashi horse is hard to keep still. If you don’t do any­thing, it takes off. It’s like hav­ing a car with­out the gas ped­al. It always assumes the ped­al is floored. You have to active­ly say stop.

Buzkashi Rearing

The hors­es are also remark­ably easy to rear. Both Lou and I gave the hors­es a try and suc­cess­ful­ly got them on their back legs, kick­ing in the air, over and over again.

Buzkashi Rearing

With Jama by our side, we were a part of the action rather than pas­sive observers.

Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

Our sched­ule was tight. From the horse track, we went to the bas­ket­ball court.

Bas­ket­ball Practice

My pipe dream for Mazar was that Najib and I get to join the Mazar bas­ket­ball team for a prac­tice ses­sion. I tried get­ting in touch with Mur­ta­zo, but for a cou­ple days all his text mes­sages report­ed that his father for­bid him to go out­side because it was dangerous.

Our con­nec­tion was Mai­wand, the cap­tain, the same guy who helped us out with the hotel. When we met Mai­wand, Najib grabbed him lov­ing­ly and they walked hand in hand all the way to the bas­ket­ball court.

Najib and Maiwand

Nei­ther Najib nor I were pre­pared to play, but they took care of us, giv­ing us sneak­ers and shorts and uni­forms and we went through the whole stretch­ing, warmup and exer­cise rou­tine. They split us up into teams and we played a few prac­tice matches.

MuryEmo leads Warm-Ups

At one point, there was a loud BOOM and a pil­lar of smoke rose just behind the wall of the court. Some of us ducked to the groud, but then Mur­ta­zo laughed, “it’s just a truck tire blow out!” and we went back to playing.


Half way through prac­tice, there was a tea break.

Tea Break

Many of the boys spoke to me in Russ­ian on the court. They were com­mon­ly Uzbeks or Tajiks edu­cat­ed across the bor­der. The coach had also stud­ied in Russia.

Najib tried some fan­ci­ful spin move and end­ed up twist­ing his ankle. Just as he sat on the bench, Sheikh arrived. He came bear­ing gifts, some per­fume for me and face cream for Louisa. At that point Najib asked him for Nasir’s where­abouts and gave him the 100$ bill.

Farewell Afghanistan, farewell Najib …

The next morn­ing we were out of Mazar and the next day we were in Delhi.

Nai­jb was on the verge of tears when we part­ed. “It will be bor­ing with­out you. Thank you. You’ve changed my life. I will nev­er for­get you.” I owe him at least a blog post, and prob­a­bly a lot more, so that you will under­stand why.

I’ll just add, since it’s a feel­ing that I’d rather not for­get, but when we board­ed the Air India air­plane in Kab­ul and I saw the female flight atten­dant walk by in a pair of tight fit­ting pants, I felt abashed­ly tit­il­lat­ed. There was a sight I had been deprived for the past three and a half months. Absurd, I know, sorry.

Goodbye Jalalabad

May 23, 2011   //   by peretz   //   long, photos  //  2 Comments

The wind picked up on our final morn­ing in Jalal­abad. It was soon strong enough that we locked our win­dows and yet it howled through the cracks. By the ear­ly evening the gusts were so strong that they broke win­dows on the upper deck, broke our deck fur­ni­ture and knocked over many plants.

Destructive Wind

We were about to leave Jalal­abad, our adopt­ed home, where I spent 1% of my life. Before head­ing back to San Fran­cis­co, we decid­ed to do some in coun­try tourism. The fol­low­ing day was Novruz, the Per­sian New Year, and we planned to spend it along with 200,000 oth­er pil­grims in the epi­cen­ter of the cel­e­bra­tion in Mazar-i-Sharif, the cap­i­tal of the north­ern Afghan province Balkh which bor­ders Uzbek­istan, at the Rowze-e-Sharif Mosque hous­ing the pur­port­ed Tomb of Hazrat Ali.

Novruz is defined by the Ver­nal Equinox, which hap­pens when the sun crests across the true celes­tial equa­tor. Ter­res­tri­al­ly we expe­ri­enc­ing major shifts as well.

After Lou and I fin­ished pack­ing we hud­dled togeth­er with our cowork­ers to drink wine and watch the tel­ly (for per­haps the first time.) Bombs were falling in Libiya. Egypt had expe­ri­enced a coup. Oth­er North African and Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries were under­go­ing or on the verge of revolutions.


Road to Kabul

I eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed a cer­tain pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ty on the way out of Jalal­abad. Just a few miles west of our com­pound, near the Darun­ta dam, I had pre­vi­ous­ly spot­ted (but failed to pho­to­graph) an amus­ing bill­board with a car­toon depic­tion of a gag­gle of beard­ed Afghan vil­lagers hap­pi­ly hand­ing over a Stinger mis­sile to ISAF forces in exchange for mon­ey. No ques­tions were asked. Every­one was smiling.

It was an adver­tise­ment for the Stinger buy back pro­gram. Dur­ing the 1980s, the CIA “donated” ~2,000 shoul­der fired Stinger mis­siles to Muja­hed­din “friendlies”. These mis­siles which could be used to shoot down Sovi­et heli­copters and tanks, had a sig­nif­i­cant impact in the out­come of the war. The Pak­istani intel­li­gence agency ISI had dis­trib­uted them with­out much account­ing. Con­se­quent­ly, no one knows how many are still float­ing around. Now the US has bud­get­ed mil­lions to buy back stray mis­siles for upwards of $100k a piece. It’s cheap­er than the con­se­quences. And this cre­ates an inter­est­ing eco­nom­ic val­u­a­tion cli­mate for weapons. How much is your ene­my will­ing to pay you not to shoot at them? The “ransom price”.

On the way out of town, we noticed that many of the bill­boards had been knocked down by the wind. Just yes­ter­day, they were still cov­ered with elec­tion posters six months past their due. I had won­dered just when they’d be tak­en down and by whom. The bill­boards that hadn’t col­lapsed entire­ly stood warped and bare, picked clean by the sand blasts of wind.

Herding Sheep on Kabul Jalalabad Hwy

The road to Kab­ul fol­lows the course of the Kab­ul riv­er, wind­ing its way along the south­ern bank through hills, past three par­tial­ly func­tion­ing and eter­nal­ly under-repair dams, and final­ly up a nar­row, dan­ger­ous, ser­pen­tine gorge local­ly known as Mohi Par (fish’s tail).

Road side peddlers on Kabul-Jalalabad Hwy

The road is dot­ted with makeshift shacks sell­ing the avail­able boun­ty of the land. Today men waved reams of riv­er fish and kids shook bunch­es of moun­tain veg­eta­bles at oncom­ing traffic.

Road side peddlers on Kabul-Jalalabad Hwy

We passed a cou­ple fuel tankers, a favorite tar­get for IEDs, Their rusty tanks were leak­ing fuel right on the road.

Next we encoun­tered an oncom­ing Afghan Nation­al Army sup­ply con­voy. Unlike ISAF con­voys that dri­ve slow and flock togeth­er, ANA seems engaged in a race with each behe­moth for itself swerv­ing around the curves.

Selling Fish on Kabul Jalalabad Hwy

Remark­ably, right before our eyes a large con­tain­er flew off the back of one of the trucks, bounced on the road, and spilled its booty of ANA uni­forms onto the road.

    “Stop,” I yell to our dri­ver Najib. I sense a real­ly epic sou­venir pick­up. Got­ta get this one quick. He skids to a halt, but so does the car behind us. Oth­er peo­ple have the same idea. I run towards the uni­forms and so does the grey beard­ed Afghan from the sec­ond car. 


    But before we’re able to snag the uni­forms, the next truck in the con­voy rounds the cor­ner, stops in the mid­dle of the road. Sol­diers hop out with their rifles and stare us down.

    “Alright, you win. You can have your uniforms.” I go back to the car with my heart pound­ing. Damn, it was close.


Dam on Kabul River


Face to Face

The mot­to “every car for itself” applies to every vehi­cle on the road. They swerve onto oncom­ing traf­fic try­ing to eek out ever more lanes out of two. If it wasn’t so dan­ger­ous their opti­mism would almost be laudable.

The one way I can explain it is that they are mak­ing a ratio­nal cal­cu­la­tion where the vari­able that is dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from my own val­u­a­tion is the val­ue of one’s own life.

Kabul River Gorge

“This didn’t hap­pen dur­ing the time of the Taliban,” said Najib. “Everyone knew their lane and what would hap­pen if you veered out­side of it.” (Of course, there were also few­er cars.)

Where Traffice Meets Face to Face

Now what you get is a lot of avoid­able grid­lock. They call it glibly “face to face”. It sounds nice. Sor­ry we were 5 hours late, “we had some face to face on the road.” And every­one under­stands that what is meant by this is that cars piled up for miles on a two lane road face to face with­out any room to maneu­ver. It takes a lot of coor­di­na­tion to clear such a mess. Even­tu­al­ly, some­how, with guns waiv­ing in the air, we drove out of it.



There was one errand left to run in Kab­ul.  We need­ed to pur­chase a few point to point anten­nas so we head­ed to the com­put­er shop­ping dis­trict.  A man with a rif­fle walked into the store and point­ed it at the shop­keep­er.  After a few sec­onds it became clear it was a joke.  Ha, ha, Afghanistan.

Hands up shop keep

We dropped our stuff at Una’s (the newest mem­ber of SSF but quite a vet­er­an for an expat in Kab­ul) and head­ed out for din­ner with a cou­ple of her jour­nal­ist friends.

One of the jour­nal­ists, Omar Mal­ick had just com­plet­ed a doc­u­men­tary in Pak­istan and come out to work for a Knight Foun­da­tion Grantee that used Face­book to report on 1/8 Marines deploy­ment in Kan­da­har. He was now strad­ed since the mil­i­tary chose to ter­mi­nate this exper­i­ment. Omar had instead thrown him­self into iPhone hip­sta­mat­ic pho­tog­ra­phy and shared some amaz­ing shots over Thai food.

Togeth­er we roved to a Novruz par­ty at a com­pound of an Afghan “consulting” firm where the spread resem­bled that of an Amer­i­can col­lege dorm par­ty. Beers were stacked in a pyra­mid. Chips, sal­sa and munchies for appe­tiz­er. “Pizza is on the way.”

The hosts asked us to “not be too loud and dis­turb the fun­da­men­tal­ist fam­i­ly that lives next door” as “they might do some­thing about it.”

The atten­dees were Afghan staff of NGOs, the UN, or var­i­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries. Think of it like an Afghan belt­way crowd.

The guests and employ­ees alike were most­ly edu­cat­ed at lib­er­al arts col­leges in the West and unan­i­mous­ly felt like Amer­i­can mon­ey was being thrown at them to try to solve the “Afghan prob­lem”. Jokes around the camp fire revolved around writ­ing impact reports and USAID pro­pos­als for fire­wood, which was run­ning low.

“Afghanistan is where the mon­ey is at. For edu­cat­ed Afghans and for secu­ri­ty con­trac­tors, that’s the best wind­fall. Where else can twen­ty year old boys and girls con­sult gov­ern­ments [by the seat of their pants, some­times by just being the eyes that read on behalf of the illiterate]?”

There was a rumor about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fire­works for Novruz so we ascend­ed to the roof. After the count­down to mid­night, noth­ing but the scent of Hin­du Kush and gen­tle gig­gles was heard.



An ear­ly morn­ing “Hope Tax­i” gots us to the Air­port. Six cham­bers of secu­ri­ty, each with a male and female line, nei­ther more secure that the last, and we’re in the main hall.

Gender Division

We have a Pamir Air­ways e‑ticket to Mazar-i-Sharif for three peo­ple. We’re hap­py to have Najib along. We’ve become so close and these are our last four days togeth­er. Because of the hol­i­day the air­port is crowd­ed more than usual.

We check in at the only counter that says Mazar, even though it actu­al­ly seems like a dif­fer­ent air­line. Bags are checked, paper tick­ets issued, no hitch.

Welcome to Kabul Airport

Through anoth­er tier of secu­ri­ty we find our­selves rest­ing in the wait­ing lounge.

Out of the cor­ner of my eye, I spot the air­line employ­ee who checked us in with a look of con­ster­na­tion. He’s clear­ly look­ing for some­body. He’s head­ing straight for us!

Evi­dent­ly the Pamir fleet was ground­ed as part of a gen­er­al Kab­ul Bank lend­ing prac­tice shake down and the airline’s inabil­i­ty to repay a shady $98 mil­lion loan. The air­line was shut down two days before our flight. We saw Pamir planes parked at the air­port. Iron­i­cal­ly, their online tick­et sales web­site is still run­ning, while we are still out $900+ for our flights.

He explains to us that we had pur­chased tick­ets for an air­line that ceased to exist by the time we got to the air­port. He had mis­tak­en­ly issued us tick­ets and now insists we actu­al­ly pay for them to get on the flight.

Nat­u­ral­ly we protest, but as absurd as it is, it was also clear that he was speak­ing the truth. No, he didn’t know how we would go about get­ting a refund from Pamir, but then again, nei­ther did the many oth­er peo­ple who were in the same sit­u­a­tion that we were.

We paid and boarded.

Kabul Airport Tarmac


To be continued …

To lose and find a child in Afghanistan …

Mar 14, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture, long  //  4 Comments

Rawed’s father Gulza­da brought him to Jalal­abad city to be seen by a doc­tor.  Sev­en year old Rawed was show­ing symp­toms of jaun­dice.  They drove into the city from a small vil­lage in the dis­trict of Sherzad.  As is com­mon prac­tice, dad tem­porar­i­ly left Rawed with a shop­keep­er from the same vil­lage and went to park the car.  “I’ll be back in a few min­utes, and then we’ll walk to the hos­pi­tal.”  When he returned the child was gone.

Gulza­da is our friend Haji Najib’s ma’­ma’, which means mater­nal uncle.  A pater­nal uncle is called ka’ka’.

The shop­keep­er insist­ed, “he was just here.” When thir­ty min­utes passed and the boy was still miss­ing, dad called Najib.

Ma’­ma: “What would you do if you lost a child in Jalalabad?”

Haji: “I’d make sure not to lose the child, and if I did …”

Ma’­ma’: “I lost my son.”

Haji: “I’m on my way.”

Haji, which is how every­one calls Najib, always seems to be deal­ing with emer­gen­cies and he’s good at it.  We call him in like a stor­m troop­er and he comes through. After he got this call, we lost him for two days.

So what do you do if you lose a child in Afghanistan?

Haji, Ma’­ma’ and Ka’Ka’s son rent­ed a loud­speak­er, mount­ed it on the car, and start­ed cruis­ing an increas­ing perime­ter around the site the boy was last seen.  They brought Ka’ka’s son along because he has a mem­o­rable cell­phone num­ber.  They fig­ured this was impor­tant if you were going to be shout­ing it out in passing.

Dear fel­low Mus­lims, we have lost a 7 year old child around 9am.  He was wear­ing grey cloth­ing and white shoes.  If you have any infor­ma­tion, please call 077 77 20 900.”

They kept repeat­ing this fruit­less­ly until 3pm.  And then a 15 year old boy who sells phone cards in a road side shack ran up to the car.

I’ve seen your son.  He was with me until 11:30am.  He was cry­ing and I tried to calm him.  I bought him an orange.  He refused.  I bought an apple.  He refused.  He kept say­ing my home is there and point­ed at the hori­son.  ‘I want to go back home to Sherzad.’ ”

The 15 year old found a 10 year old who was from the same dis­trict.  As it lat­er turned out, that was a for­tu­itous move.  The 10 year old was a rel­a­tive.  But nei­ther the 10 year old or Rawed knew their relation.

The 10 year old was instruct­ed to bring Rawed home.  Sure­ly, some­one from Sherzad should take care of a miss­ing child from Sherzad. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Rawed did not coop­er­ate.  He kept cry­ing and just min­utes lat­er refused to go any fur­ther.  “I want my dad.”

As it hap­pens in fairy tales, three tweleve year old boys chanced upon Rawed and his 10 year old com­pan­ion.  They inquired, delib­er­at­ed, and decid­ed that they should take Rawed.

They did the sen­si­ble thing.  They first took him to the near­est Mosque and hav­ing announced the case and con­sult­ed with the Mullah, they decid­ed to start scan­ning their own perim­iter, on foot, announcing:

Dear Mus­lims, we have a lost child.  Here he is.  Look at him. He is from the vil­lage of Shirzad.  Help us find his parents.”

And they walked like this for many hours.  Even Haji Najib heard about them from peo­ple who walked up to his car with the loud­speak­er.  The twelve year old boys tried dili­gent­ly.  After many hours, when the
sun was near to set­ting, at 5pm, they met a 25 year old man in a car.  He was also from the same vil­lage and offered to help the boys out.  He would take Rawed and help him find his father.

By this point, the loud­speak­er broke twice and Haji Najib and crew had both times replaced it.  They also request­ed an announce­ment to be broad­cast on three radio sta­tions at 11 am.   They wore our their voic­es, tak­ing turns, until 10pm.

At this point, activ­i­ty stopped on the street, and Haji, Rawed’s dad, and all of the male mem­bers of the fam­i­ly present in Jalal­abad gath­ered around the din­ner table and made their plans for the fol­low­ing day.

They decid­ed to break up into teams.  At this point, they heard about the 12 year old boys and the fact that they con­nect­ed with a local Mosque.  They fig­ured, one team will can­vas the schools and one the Mosques.  Sure­ly, they would find him.  A third team, lead by Haji, would con­tine enlag­ing the perime­ter with the loud­speak­er.  If nei­ther par­ty found the boy by 4pm, they would make an announce­ment on television.

After a sleep­less night, they set out at 6am.  They had no suc­cess.  Haji start­ed to get phone calls from a man claim­ing to have found the child.

Con­sid­er as if he is with his moth­er and father.  If you pay money, you have noth­ing to wor­ry about.”

The phone calls per­sist­ed.  The sums request­ed were small, maybe 10$ worth of phone cred­it, but the caller refused to allow con­tact with the child.

It is not uncom­mon (in Afghanistan as else­where) for peo­ple to oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly prey on oth­er peo­ple’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Haji’s phone num­ber had been announced on the radio, so the caller could just be a prank. Nev­er­the­less, it was the one active lead, so Haji start­ed tap­ing his con­ver­sa­tions, drag­ging them out and try­ing to extract as much infor­ma­tion as possible.

At 4:30pm they deliv­ered a pho­to from Gulzada’s phone cam­era to a local tele­vi­sion sta­tion, RTA (Radio Tele­vi­sion Afghanistan).  Then they resumed dri­ving around with the loudspeaker.

Hameed joined the crew at 5pm and took over the announce­ments with a fresh voice.  At 7pm of the sec­ond day, the loud­speak­er broke for the third and final time.  It was too late for repairs or a replace­ment.  And they were worn out.

They returned home for sus­tainance and an all hands meet­ing.  After din­ner and tea, the search par­ty, which by then had grown to 10 peo­ple, crashed out in Haji’s fam­i­ly’s liv­ing room.

At 9pm, the elder of the house (a law pro­fes­sor at Ari­ana Uni­ver­si­ty who had stud­ied in Bul­gar­ia) roused them with news that Rawed’s face had just been shown on RTA tele­vi­sion.  And at 9:45pm Haji got a cal­l from anoth­er num­ber, say­ing that they had the kid.

It turns out, that the 25 year old brought Rawed home as promised. His father, a big merchent in town, hand­ed the boy to one of his employ­ees for care.  This way Rawed spent the sec­ond day in the vil­lage of Baze ik Malati (where Baze refers to its prox­im­i­ty to the Amer­i­can base at JAF, Jalal­abad Air­force Base).

On the phone they agreed to meet at a pub­lic square called Chowk Muh­brat.  The mer­chant and his 25 year old son came alone. When they con­firmed the iden­ti­ty of the child with a pho­to, they agreed to exchange Rawed at the police station.

The mer­chant drove with Haji, while his 25 year old son went to fetch Rawed.

At the sta­tion, Haji ran up to hug Rawed, but Rawed looked star­tled as if he had­n’t rec­og­nized his cousin, and start­ed to cry for his father. I’m not sure why they did­n’t bring his father in the first place, but at this point, they sent a car for him.

In his fathers arms, Rawed cried and laughed.  The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was com­plete and the cel­e­bra­tion started. One of Haji’s uncles gave 2000 Afs to the mer­chant as a find­er’s fee and anoth­er 500 to his 25 year old son. Anoth­er uncle gave 2000 Pak­istani Rupees to the 25 year old.  The police asked for some too, say­ing they also want­ed to cel­e­brate.  So they gave 500 Rupees to one offi­cer and anoth­er 500 to the clerk who filled out the paperwork.

They also picked up oranges and apples and hand­ed them out to everyone. The fol­low­ing day Rawed and Gulza­da went back to their vil­lage car­ry­ing a load of fruits, tea and sug­ar from the big city, expect­ing to host lots of rel­a­tives in the vil­lage who were aware of the sit­u­a­tion and under­stand­ably concerned. They did not stop to vis­it the doc­tor in Jalal­abad.  Anoth­er one of Haji’s uncles is a Tajik­istan edu­cat­ed doc­tor that lives in Sherzad and runs a phar­ma­cy, so they decid­ed to bring the boy to him.

In the final tal­ly, Rawed had changed hands from his father, the shop­keep­er, the 15 year old, the tweleve year olds, checked in at a local Mosque, the 25 year old, his mer­chant father, spent the night at the mer­chan­t’s employ­ee’s house and was final­ly reunit­ed with fam­i­ly at the police station.

The search par­ty (which grew to ten peo­ple and involved many others) last­ed for two days and spent a few hun­dred dol­lars on loud­speak­er rental, repairs and replace­ments, gas, pho­to repro­duc­tions, food and fruits.

In the end, they found Rawed.

Najib called the orig­i­nal caller back anoth­er time.  He asked whether he still had the child.  The guy claimed he had.  How did you get him?  Najib asked.  “An Army com­man­der gave him to me.”  Najib cursed him out.  Either this was all a ploy, or anoth­er child is still out there, kidnapped.


Mar 11, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture, photos, videos  //  2 Comments

On a down day in Kab­ul, we decid­ed to take a road trip up to Pan­jshir Valley.  Lou has writ­ten about our expe­ri­ences in a pre­vi­ous post.  This post focus­es on the game of Buzkashi.


The objec­tive of Buzkashi is to gain pos­ses­sion of a goat car­cass, car­ry it a full loop around the field, and then deposit it into your oppo­nents goal (which is a cir­cle on the ground).  If at any time you drop the goat, you have to restart the  loop again.   There are ref­er­ees who deter­mine whether the goat has been deposit­ed in the goal correctly.  Here’s a frame of the play­ers look­ing for the call from the ref.

Waiting for the call from the Referee

Los­ing pos­ses­sion means you either dropped the goat or some­one yanked it out of you, like a fum­ble in Amer­i­can football.  Here you see the dead goat on the ground among the pile of horses.  Now one of the play­ers has to lean down off his horse (with­out dis­mount­ing and pick up the ~100lb car­cass).   That is a dan­ger­ous propo­si­tion. Hope­ful­ly your friends have blocked out your oppo­nents well, before you try.  Oth­er­wise you will get trampled.

Mark the Sovi­et Tanker hel­mets many of the play­ers are wear­ing in this


I asked them where they got the helmets.  They said it was form the Sovi­et Tankers they killed.  Up and down the val­ley, there are hun­dreds of scat­tered tanks.  Four hel­mets per tank.  I believe them.  Nowa­days, some wear Amer­i­can Army gear.


The rid­er in the cen­ter is try­ing to reach down and grab the goat.


Mud soaked from falling.


This rid­er got up and rode again.  It is a bru­tal sport.  You show your met­tle to your fel­low villagers.

He got up and rode again

Some­times it takes four hands to brag the goat.


Here you can see a formation.  The three on the right are like the linebackers.  Then one behind them is ready to block out anoth­er team.  And the two behind him are shar­ing the load of car­ry­ing the goat.


Tak­ing pho­tos from the crowd.  And now turn­ing the cam­era at the crowd.

My Fellow Spectators

On the way back home, our car shared the road with Buzkashi rid­ers on horses.  This one tried to grab my camera.  Instead, I got a shot and then reached out and shook his hand.

Reaching for the lens

Now see it all in action (thanks Lou!):

How the Taliban hijacked our educational materials…

Feb 22, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture  //  2 Comments

Our Malik Dave had a won­der­ful idea. The rea­son­ing went some­thing like this:

Let’s employ the Afghan com­pa­nies that sprung up to print elec­tion posters.
They are cur­rent­ly out of work because the elec­tion sea­son is over.
Lest we hire them, they may be up to no good.

We call this tech­nique weaponized shop­ping and it’s one of the tech­niques in the arse­nal of the Syn­er­gy Strike Force.

Over the past month, Lou, Juan and crew have put them­selves towards select­ing and opti­miz­ing high qual­i­ty image files for large for­mat print­ing of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als. We did a test run with the print­ers and then sub­mit­ted our final order. Yes­ter­day, (Sun­day 20th) Hameed and Najib went to pick up the posters.

As things turn out here, the shop own­er had been arrest­ed by the police on sus­pi­cion of print­ing mate­ri­als for (Al Qae­da or) the Tal­iban. When the police raid­ed the store, they sen­si­bly con­fis­cat­ed all of the print­ed mate­ri­als in their pos­ses­sion as evi­dence. Among this pile cur­rent­ly in pro­ces­sion of the police are posters on the sub­jects of cell biol­o­gy, hydrol­o­gy, and the peri­od­ic table of elements.

Hope­ful­ly, we’ll get them back. We did pay a good 4,000 Pak­istani Rupee equiv­a­lent of 45$ Pak­istani Rupees, called “Cal­dari” are the de fac­to cur­ren­cy of Jalal­abad deposit.

Such a day’s course of events is start­ing to seem per­verse­ly nor­mal for us, as much as I can still imag­ine seems per­verse­ly abnor­mal for those whom I usu­al­ly count as peers.


Two days ago (Sat­ur­day Sat­ur­day is the first day of the work week. 19th) an attack took place in the cen­ter of town focused on Kab­ul bank where police offi­cers were col­lect­ing their pay. From our sources at the hos­pi­tal upwards of 40 peo­ple have died and many oth­ers are in crit­i­cal con­di­tion. Among the dead are report­ed the “deputy police chief and the head of crim­i­nal investigation.”

Many of our friends at the pub­lic hos­pi­tal were on high alert deal­ing with the patients that stretched their capac­i­ty. Mean­while our friends at a local radio sta­tion were broad­cast­ing the need for blood donors across the air­ways, result­ing in hun­dreds of donors show­ing up at the hos­pi­tal, ready to give.

Our friends say that the only day in recent mem­o­ry that com­pares at the lev­el of impact was when protests erupt­ed in 2005 after it was alleged that the Koran had been flushed down the toi­let in Guan­tanamo.  The dif­fer­ences are stark. There are many more civil­ian casu­al­ties and this was not a pop­u­lar uprising.


Yes­ter­day (Sun­day 20th) was a day of mourn­ing. Two of our guards had lost a broth­er. Many of our friends had checked out for the day to attend funer­als for friends, rel­a­tives and acquain­tances. Our UPS (unin­ter­rupt­ed pow­er sup­ply sys­tem) had died but we could­n’t get it repaired because the shop of the com­pa­ny that had built it was also dam­aged in the explosion.


We got hold of some exclu­sive footage.

In this video you see a cap­tured insur­gent and secu­ri­ty video show­ing how he entered the bank dressed as a police offi­cer and start­ed fir­ing. Sev­er­al things stand out. First­ly, he looks like a clean cut young man, noth­ing like what we have learned to think of as insur­gent or ter­ror­ist. Sec­ond, while he is fir­ing hordes of peo­ple run past him, with­in a foot in dis­tance, and none of them give his vul­ner­a­ble back­side a good whack.