Thoughts on AUAF (Part 2)

This blog post is the second and final account of my experience at AUAF. For Part 1, about my time as an administrator at AUAF, the link is provided here. There are a number of links to PDFs of email exchanges in this blog. These emails are saved directly from Gmail or from my cache of AUAF student emails.

It is 9 months since my termination from AUAF as Media Relations Manager. I am still in Kabul.

I have been working for an Afghan media group called GroupOne Media. For the first 6 months I served as Director of Project Management in the strategic communications division of 1TV, and then as Director of Business Development for the group’s affiliated marketing agency, Pixel. In my second role, my schedule was flexible. I knew that I could take on something bigger. For the last several years I had been thinking of when and where I could undertake some form of graduate education, but I had yet to submit any applications.

Now I was ready to get back to school, but I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan. That put me in a bit of a pickle, since the only remotely credible graduate program in the country was the MBA program at the American University of Afghanistan. I submitted my application in April 2014, and met with the Program Director, Patrick Asea, at his office. We had a little chat, and I filled him in on what I had been doing in the Afghan media sector since leaving AUAF. I also told him about my various (often self-inflicted) trials as an AUAF administrator, which he seemed to both sympathize with and find amusing.

In July I received notice that I was accepted into the program. What happens next has been divided into four acts.

Act 1: ‘Shots Fired!’ – Hostilities Begin with Patrick

The MBA program at AUAF starts with a 2-week math ‘Boot Camp’. In summary, the material is extremely complex, with many students quickly finding themselves in the weeds. Our homework assignments were not graded, so we had little idea how we were doing in terms of mastering the material. At this point I have my first terse email exchange with Patrick. He does not seem pleased about receiving any kind of feedback. At the end of the boot camp, there is a final exam. Everyone manages to ‘pass’, although no scores are given and we are never given the opportunity to see our exams.

The Fall 2014 semester starts at AUAF, which I do not take seriously. I can work remotely for my marketing agency, so I take two trips that fall (to Georgia/Armenia and Pakistan). The class that everyone is most concerned about is Patrick’s Quantitative Methods of Business (QMB) 500, which involves fairly advanced mathematics. I received a 59% on the mid-term, which was then mysteriously scaled up to a 74% without any explanation.

Before you start thinking about how concerned I must have been about this 59% (74%?) grade on the mid-term, I should note here that this was the 3rd highest grade in the class. Typical grades for other students were 20% or 30% (or worse).

Other students in the program are panicking, so I write an email to Patrick and tell him about my concerns. He replies that my feedback is “Very useful”.

Soon after the mid-term, in November 2014, my boss at the marketing agency tells me that he wants to set up a division monitoring advertising on Afghan television. I tell him that I am learning all of this advanced business mathematics (in QMB 500), and we should go ahead and spin off an entirely new company dedicated to media monitoring AND market research. We find other investors and start work renovating an office space and registering a new company. The company is given the name Afghanistan Monitoring & Research (AMR).

AMR has no past performance record but my partner’s company, Pixel, does. In December 2014 Pixel wins the contract to monitor all telecoms advertising for Etisalat, a UAE-headquartered telecoms company with a subsidiary in Afghanistan. This contract is subcontracted to AMR. By the end of December I have 9 full-time staff and I am under intense pressure to find more clients so we can break even on our operational expenses.

Back to AUAF . . .

The QMB 500 final exam, originally scheduled for December 2014, is rescheduled for January 2015.

A week before the exam, I ask Patrick about the provision of study material. He responds defensively, and the email exchange gets ugly fast.

20 minutes later Patrick emails the study material that I had requested for the class. Without my email request, the class would have gotten nothing.

With the exam days away, I find myself faced with two business development meetings with two major Afghan banks on the same day as the final exam. In retrospect, I should have rescheduled the meetings with the banks and focused on studying. At the time, though, I believed that any student could simply re-take a failed class as needed. Keep in mind, there was nothing to indicate the contrary since there was no student handbook or guidebook provided to the MBA candidates, nor were any MBA program policies published online or emailed to students.

I skipped the final exam and took the F in QMB 500. In an email sent before the exam, Patrick acknowledged that the class was not prepared to be tested on a critical chapter from the textbook.

When I went to register for class for the Spring 2015 semester, Patrick banned me from registering for both of his courses (Managerial Economics and QMB 501), based on QMB 500 being a prerequisite. Rod Monger, on the other hand, waved the prerequisite for his Financial Accounting class. It wasn’t just Monger that was arbitrarily waving prerequisites; Patrick had waved the prerequisites for an entire MBA cohort from the Ministry of Finance the year before.

When I objected to Patrick’s decision by email, what ensued was an absolute train wreck back-and-forth exchange between Patrick and I, where we took turns roasting each other in front of the entire MBA faculty and the university provost, Dr. Timor Saffary. You have to see it to believe it (scroll down in the email thread to start at the beginning).

You would think that after such a vicious exchange between an MBA candidate and the MBA Program Director, the university administration would step in and intervene. Instead there was deafening silence.

I write to provost Dr. Timor Saffary directly, to ask him if he had any comments about me being banned from continuing with the program material. He provides a canned response about university policies (which do not exist for the MBA program) and course evaluations. Keep in mind, the course evaluation period is only open for a limited period of time before the final exam. As such, I have no official means to submit a critique of Patrick’s behavior in the week leading up to the exam.

Act 2: The Failed Rebellion and Patrick’s Ultimate Demise

In the Spring 2015 semester I took the one class I was allowed to take, Financial Accounting (ACC 550). I get a B.

In the Fall 2015 semester I take QMB 500 (again) with Patrick. I get to meet a whole new cohort of MBA students, which is cool (extra networking!). After the final exam, when I check my grades online, there is no grade posted. I go to Patrick’s office and ask him about the grade. He tells me verbally that I received a C. He also adds that this is ‘the highest grade possible a student can receive for a re-take.’ I leave the office feeling content. The grade is not actually added to my transcript until 6 months later, after Patrick has been fired. I have no idea that this C on my transcript will contribute to my expulsion from the MBA program.

It is now the Spring 2016 semester. I am taking QMB 501 with Patrick.

As the semester progressed, things were becoming more tense with Patrick. While the university administration was not particularly concerned about the mountains of complaints filed against Patrick, they were concerned with his role as a ringleader in the ‘Great Faculty Revolt’ of October 2015. That month the AUAF faculty sided overwhelmingly against then-president Dr. Mark English, in a Vote of No Confidence. Patrick was one of the key organizers, alongside law professor Nafay Choudhury. Choudhury was fired three months later, on 25 January 2016. By April 2016, the administration was coming for Patrick.

April 2016 ended up being a pretty wild month for the AUAF MBA program in general and me in particular. Let me go through the important dates:

3 April 2016: Representatives from the senior class (my original class) meet with us, the juniors. The topic of conversation is Patrick. The seniors are worried that if Patrick is fired, they will not be able to graduate from the program. When one of the juniors realizes that that one of the seniors, Nargis Azizshahi, is secretly recording the discussion on her phone, chaos breaks out. Several enraged juniors physically take Nargis’ phone and delete the recording. Fear hangs in the air – Patrick is cornered and everyone instinctively knows how dangerous a cornered animal can be.

The students are split into three main groups: those that are vehemently against Patrick, those who see an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Patrick, (and thereby win grading favors in the future) by spying for him, and those who don’t want to be involved at all. The third group is the overwhelming majority.

4 April 2016: Patrick emails all the MBA students to tell them that he will not be fired. His declaration of victory is premature; he will be fired shortly after the conclusion of the semester.

12 April 2016: I send an email to the provost, Dr. Timor Saffary, and university president, Dr. Mark English, detailing my suggestions for reform of the MBA program. I also CCed Patrick. I do not receive any response from Dr. Saffary or Dr. English, but I do receive another angry response from Patrick that included personally insulting language.

14 April 2016: I email the provost and president again, asking if Patrick has carte blanche to do as he likes. Provost Saffary responds that the rights of the members of the AUAF community, including students are “well defined”. I take issue with this statement.  

17 April 2016: I email five selected classmates I believe carry weight as leaders, from both the junior and senior classes. I want to talk about a reform proposal for the MBA program. I include Nargis Azizshahi, the senior class representative, even though she had been caught secretly recording conversations just two weeks earlier. That was probably a mistake. One of those five is a spy for Patrick, and forwards him my email.

18 April 2016: Patrick emails the entire junior class about a “special session”, scheduled for 20 April.

20 April 2016:  This was the day of the “special session” (we had received a second reminder about this session earlier in the day).

I make my way to class but I’m a couple of minutes late. Walking the long path to the ICAWED building where classes are held, I get a message from one my trusted friends in the program, “Don’t you think you should’ve been here?”

Facebook Message, Rabia, 20 April Special Session

That message at least gave me about 60 seconds to mentally prepare for the ambush Patrick had laid out for me.

I get to class and Patrick has a PowerPoint running that explains – in short – how amazing he is with all of his degrees and gushing course evaluations, and how unqualified David Fox is (me!) to make any comment about the state of the MBA program. The PowerPoint included copied-and-pasted text from the email I had sent to the five select classmates on 17 April, as well as a (completely inaccurate) table of how all of my suggested reforms were either unnecessary or already implemented or “crazy/funny” (see below photo).

PowerPoint, Patrick, Slide 2

My photo of one of Patrick’s PowerPoint slides

This was the most Alpha Male play of all time, and in Afghanistan Alpha Male tactics work. Most of the class remained silent, but a couple of students chimed in to say how they ‘didn’t want reform’, and ‘just wanted to study’. Most of the class nodded obediently in response. A class full of successful management-level professionals had been completely cowed.

Patrick’s message was simple but clear; I am the Alpha, my spies are everywhere, and if I say 2+2=5, you say ‘Yes sir.’

All my work to generate student support for a proposal of reform for the MBA program was completely crushed.

I make a post on Facebook that evening about what happened.

Facebook Post, Patrick PowerPoint

Less than an hour later I get an email from Patrick. One of his spies on my Facebook friends list had taken a screenshot of my private post and sent it to him. He writes, “There you go again on FaceBook. You don’t get. You never will. Why would you lie that I cancelled class when you were part of the chorus that REQUESTED it UNANIMOUSLY?”

The class definitely had NOT unanimously requested to cancel class. Most of the students were in shock, and when three or four students meekly asked for class to be cancelled, the rest (including myself) did not say a word for or against.

That night I emailed the senior administration, and CCed Leslie Shweitzer (a member of the Board of Directors) to file an official harassment complaint against Patrick for his PowerPoint character assassination. There was no response.

April passes. Despite focusing intensely on study for both the mid-term and final for QMB 501 (and feeling very confident about the material in both cases), I receive a D in the course. Once again, I feel that ‘Gotcha! questions not covered in the study material, as well as non-transparent grading, led to the failing grade. With the senior administration still refusing to investigate Patrick’s practice of curving exam and course grades without explanation, I have no ground to stand on to file a grading dispute.

On 30 May 2016 all the students arrive to start the summer Corporate Finance (FIN 550) course. Patrick is scheduled to teach the class, but . . . there is no Patrick. Suddenly Rod Monger bursts in, and starts going on about being exhausted after preparing the syllabus late the night before.

After the class, I ask Monger why Patrick was not teaching the class. Monger replies that Patrick is on “extended leave”. We exchange knowing looks.

Patrick had been unceremoniously fired while he was on vacation. Cold . . . as . . . ice . . .

Act 3: Expelled Over a C 

After I learned about Patrick being fired, I was euphoric. The feeling I had was birthday + Christmas + winning the lottery, all at the same time.

I was still at AUAF. Patrick was fired from AUAF. I had won. I was winner. Patrick was the loser.

Following in the footsteps of my arch nemesis, I had prematurely declared victory.

On 1 July 2017, Rod Monger, now Acting Director of the MBA program, sends out an email to the rising seniors in the program (myself among them) explaining that students will be expelled for having more than three Cs in their transcript. The email also explains that students must complete the program in three years.

This is the first time any policy of this kind has been officially shared with students.

I should have raised hell right at that moment, but I didn’t. Patrick was fired, I had won, no need to worry anymore. Monger could be cranky and verbally abusive at times, but he was a reasonable man (or so I thought).

The problem was that although Patrick was gone, he had successfully taken a giant steaming dump all over my transcript. At that point I had one F (from QMB 500), one C (from my re-take of QMB 500), and one D (from QMB 501). This was enough to put me in the danger zone. I couldn’t even contest my C from my re-take of QMB 500, because Patrick hadn’t even added it to my transcript. All the rest of my grades were As and Bs.

That summer my company received its biggest project to date, the production of a video for USAID’s Promote initiative. Again, I was stuck between my obligations to my company shareholders and staff and the MBA program. I received a C from Monger in that FIN 550 class . . . which put me one step closer to expulsion.

At the end of the summer I go to the US for my little brother’s wedding. While I am in the US AUAF is attacked by terrorists. Many of my friends were at the main West Campus at the time of the attack; I watch in horror on Facebook as they post frantically for help.

When the attack is ended, the university administration has to decide what to do. If they re-open the campus immediately for class, they face accusations that they are putting students’ lives at risk (again) by not fortifying the campus first. If they cancel classes completely for the semester, then it would mean that ‘the terrorists had won’. So AUAF took a half measure; the semester would go forward, but with classes taken online.

For the seniors in the MBA program, we had four online courses: Business Law (MGT 570), Operations Management (MGT 520), Thesis Prep Course (MGT 598), and Leading People and Organizations (MGT 500).

I have my best semester yet at AUAF; two As, one B+, and one C+ (in MGT 500), for a semester GPA of 3.4/4.

That C+, though, was enough to trigger AUAF’s newly announced “policy” regarding expulsions based on Cs. I aggressively contested the C+ (a story for another day), but the AUAF senior administration maintained their unofficial policy of backing ‘their own’ in any dispute with students.

On 13 February 2017 I receive an email from Monger that I have been expelled from the MBA program, with no option to re-apply.

 Act 4: Searching for Accountability

I had spent two and a half years working for this degree, spent well over $10,000 dollars in tuition fees, and faced extraordinary trials dealing with Patrick.

I was not going down without a fight.

On 17 February 2017 I contact USAID’s Afghanistan division in Washington DC. They forward my contact information to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) office at the US Embassy in Kabul.

On 21 February 2017 I meet with SIGAR investigators at the US Embassy. They are currently investigating AUAF for corrupt practices. Academic issues aren’t really their concern (or USAID’s concern), but they want to talk to anyone and everyone who has anything to say about AUAF. They are particularly interested in my comments related to Provost Timor Saffary.

On 25 February 2017 I meet with then-president David Sedney. He is very unhappy to see me, and almost immediately calls in Rob Monger to participate in the meeting.

I ask Sedney how we can even begin talking about my academic status at AUAF when I cannot even access my transcript. He slides a printed copy of my transcript  across the table. I quickly circle the Cs, Ds, and Fs, and ask how I could be expelled over grades issued by Patrick, who had since been fired and disgraced.

Monger replies that, “Patrick is history.”

I remind them that while Patrick may be history at AUAF, his hatchet job on my transcript was very much not history, and was very much a leading factor in my expulsion from the program.

Sedney’s body language wavers between aggravation and disinterest. He wants this issue to go away. When I ask how the QMB 500 grade mysteriously appeared on my transcript, Monger jumps in to say that they will investigate it. Afterwards I email them to follow up on this matter, but I get no response.

On 3 April I file a complaint with the Afghan Government Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). The MoHE drafts a letter of inquiry, which they ask me to deliver to the AUAF administration. Although I had coordinated the delivery of the letter in advance, with president Sedney’s assistant, when I arrive on campus I am barred from delivering the letter and turned around. I have to send the letter by email, as a scan.

Conclusion

I think that the AUAF MBA program is an incredible asset for Afghanistan’s economic development. As someone who is deeply involved in the private sector here (as both a small business owner and a researcher on startup and trade issues), I can tell you that the business community is woefully lacking in managers that are familiar with higher-level business skills and concepts. For me, personally, I do not believe I would be able to build my market research agency, manage its finances professionally, and take on complex research projects without the classes I took at AUAF. I do not regret one dollar I paid to AUAF for tuition.

At the same time, the potential of AUAF’s MBA program can never be reached until it is managed judiciously, with firm oversight of the program’s faculty and Director, as well as clearly stated and widely published policies that are evenly enforced.

AUAF should also acknowledge (internally, at least) that its faculty and staff are more prone to mental health issues than typical university personnel in the United States. There must be a unit within the university that protects students’ rights (e.g. a Dean of Students) and keeps abusive and/or mentally unwell faculty and staff in check.

This upcoming Saturday I will resume the process of pushing forward my complaint against AUAF with the Ministry of Higher Education. Rod Monger, when pressed by the MoHE to respond to my complaint, wrote that I was expelled as a result of the “Policies and Procedures” of the MBA program.

If this is true, I would like to publicly challenge Rod Monger or any AUAF official to provide evidence that MBA program policies were published in print or online form and disseminated to incoming students. If Rod Monger cannot manage this, he should resign immediately for making false statements to an Afghan Government ministry in an official inquiry.

All students who have been expelled as a result of unpublished “policies” and mentally unwell faculty (i.e. Patrick) should be allowed to resume their studies.

With Dr. Kenneth Holland assuming the position of AUAF President last month, there is a real opportunity for reform. Dr. Holland can either choose to ‘not rock the boat’, and allow his subordinates to continue to victimize students, or he can work to bring AUAF closer to the level of a real ‘American University’, in which student education and welfare – rather than suppression of dissent – is the primary concern of senior management.

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Thoughts on AUAF (Part 1 )

It has been over 3 years since I’ve posted anything on this blog. I write private remarks on my Facebook account about my life in Afghanistan, but the politics and culture of this country are so complex and nuanced that I do not feel confident enough to publish commentary on most of my experiences here, even on a personal blog.

What I do finally feel quite ready to write about is my experience with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), as both an administrator and a graduate student.

I will start at the beginning.

Part 1: Working at AUAF

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to document my experience as an employee at AUAF (which did not end well). Anyone wishing to skip directly to my experience as an MBA student should wait for Part 2, to be published tomorrow).

In 2012 I came to Afghanistan for the first time, as a tourist, to visit a journalist friend. On this trip I visited AUAF, met with the Communications Director, and interviewed him for a now defunct online news site called Essential Edge. My piece was published (I will link a PDF of the text here, since the original article no longer exists online), and AUAF management was pleased.

I returned to Jordan, my home since late 2009, and got back to my life working remotely for a PR agency in Dubai. My work then was horribly tedious; most of my time was spent editing banking website text for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I was also trying to break into journalism, but the more I learned about the industry the less appealing it looked. Thinking back fondly to my summer trip to Afghanistan, I decided to contact the AUAF Communications Director and ask about any communications-related positions that may be opening up at the university in the near future. This led to a successful application for the position of Media Relations Manager, and on 29 January 2013 I arrived in Kabul to start working for AUAF.

857079_325635007557303_394359916_o

Me, during my first week as an administrator at AUAF

I am going to try to summarize my employment experience at AUAF as succinctly as possible. Overall, I loved working with the students, but the atmosphere in the administrative wing was toxic. I shared an office with a woman who I would describe as a genuine bigot; our office was a rallying point for bitter American staff to casually chat about how stupid the students were, how lazy they were, how barbaric Islam is as a religion, and how much they hated working at the university in general.

So Disrespectful

My thoughts listening to my racist colleagues bash their own students

There was one elderly woman in the administration – the head of print publications who ‘designed’ AUAF’s yearbook using colored paper and scissors –  who once made a comment like, ‘How could a Westerner marry an AFGHAN?!’, in a tone of complete disgust. Another topic of gossip for Team Racism was the relationship of an American expat woman in Kabul with an Afghan man, who they referred to as the “mud-hut lover”. Keep in mind, these were well-travelled White Americans who would probably describe themselves as ‘multicultural’ and ‘progressive’.

So, what happened? In short, I shot myself in the foot at every opportunity possible. When the elderly racist hag in my office couldn’t manage to do her own job without excessive assistance from my end, I made sure to write her a sharply worded email . . . which was, of course, immediately forwarded to the university president (her close personal friend). When a member of Team Racism started spreading rumors about me having a criminal record, I angrily printed out a copy of a clean FBI background check I undertook before moving abroad. I dramatically tacked it up on a pin board behind my desk . . . which naturally made me look like a crazy person. By the time my immediate supervisor and mentor at the university, Vice President David Roberson, retired and returned to the US, there was no one left in the administration who was willing to say anything positive about me.

Working at AUAF

Summary of my career at AUAF

Soon after Roberson left, my office mate filed a complaint against me with HR, for printing out my travel photos and posting them on my side of the wall in our shared office. The complaint was validated with an order for me to move out of the administration wing into a small empty classroom. In my heart I knew the end was nigh.

At the end of the month I caught a flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to meet an old friend who was working as an aid worker. On my first night in Dhaka, I saw a detailed comment criticizing the university in the comments section of a positive article on AUAF published in The Atlantic I completely lost my composure. For weeks I had suspected that a disgruntled faculty member named Nemat Sadat was posting anonymous online critiques of AUAF (I was very familiar with his writing ‘voice’ as editor of the faculty newsletter), and all sense temporarily left my body as my fingers typed up a public comment accusing Nemat of writing the critiques. Within hours I was getting emails from the university president ordering me to delete my comment. Horrified at what I had done, I frantically tried to delete my own comment and quickly found that it was not possible.

When I tell people this story, they usually ask if I was drunk or on drugs when I wrote this public online accusation against Nemat Sadat. I was neither, but I was certainly not in a good place mentally. I had spent months in World War I style attrition warfare with hostile administrators and faculty. Every day I was going to work wondering what kind of bullshit I was going to have to face that day. When I arrived in Dhaka for my vacation I was at the breaking point, and I broke.

A month after I returned to Kabul from Bangladesh, I was asked to resign from AUAF. There was nothing to be done but fall on my sword. They offered to pay for a flight back to the US, but I demurred. I had moved off of the university’s staff housing months before, and I was fast becoming an expert at navigating Kabul on my motorcycle. I was an ex-Marine trained in reconnaissance with years of experience living and traveling in the Muslim world. Kabul, to me, was the last outpost to the frontier. It was and remains the most attractive place that I could imagine living.

I told AUAF that they could save that flight money for something else. I allocated 24 hours to feel sorry for myself, and then I started looking for work.

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The K-Town ‘Kabubble’: Thoughts on Expat Security in Kabul

2014 has started out as a bloody year for Kabul. A number of high-profile attacks have shaken up the city, especially its community of Western expatriates. Two of the attacks, on the Lebanese restaurant La Taverna Du Liban and the Serena Hotel, clearly intended to communicate to foreigners that none of their cherished getaways are safe.

Outside La Taverna du Liban. Photo: S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency

Outside La Taverna du Liban. Photo: S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency

Weapons used by attackers at the Serena Hotel. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Weapons used by attackers at the Serena Hotel. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus, AP

 

The fact that the Serena, La Taverna, and their ilk are prime targets for the Taliban is something that I have been saying since I arrived in Kabul over a year ago.

Like many Westerners arriving in Kabul for the first time, I was quickly introduced to the alcohol-fueled cloistered world of Kabul’s expatriate scene. I am hardly a puritan when it comes to alcohol consumption or bedroom funtivities, but I recognized almost immediately that something was terribly wrong with the expat community in Kabul, both in terms of how they viewed their own place in Afghan society and how they viewed risk management.

Let’s start with how most foreigners view Kabul; in expat lingo, Kabul is often referred to as the ‘Kabubble’, which alludes to this notion of the closely-knit community of expats who frequent alcohol-serving restaurants and underground clubs together.

The way that I interpret the ‘Kabubble’ is an attempt by the expat community to carve out a little ‘home away from home’ by trying to replicate the social life they enjoyed in their countries of origin. Problematically, the very much for-profit security sector indulges this desire, and we get a bit of the snowball effect where risky behavior leads to more risky behavior, and so on and so forth.

The end result is that there are a handful of institutions that have made it to the vaunted ‘approved’ list of social venues for security sector companies. Expats are funneled to these locations, thereby ‘fattening the pot’, so to speak, for a Taliban attack.

I'm living in a conservative Muslim country with an active religious extremist insurgency - TIME TO GET SHITFACED WITH MY PEEPS!

I’m living in a conservative Muslim country with an active religious extremist insurgency – TIME TO GET SHITFACED WITH MY PEEPS!

What is darkly ironic is that the security sector so cloisters those it has pledged to protect that when they do have leisure time, they desperately want to leave their guest houses (perhaps more aptly referred to as ‘gilded cages’) and see other people. The security sector does not allow its principles to leave their houses and interact with their neighbors and members of their local community. They do not allow their principles to move around freely and become a true member of the neighborhood or city where they are living.

In short, the security sector makes life for the average Western aid worker more like a military deployment rather than simply a change in residence. So when the expat aid worker wants to get out after spending the week restricted to their guest house, their office, and the vehicle that takes them back and forth between the two, their security department will only give them permission to visit the venues on the ‘approved list’, also known as the list of places that the Taliban is probably performing reconnaissance missions on at any given moment.

So with this introduction, here are some of my notes on the Kabuli security sector:

The ‘hard target’ vs. ‘soft target’ dichotomy is a fucking joke: In security sector lingo, a ‘hard target’ is a heavily fortified/guarded person or position that would be very difficult to kill, be it a person, or breach, be it a location. A ‘soft target,’ in contrast, would be somewhere or someone with few security measures.

This dichotomy is bullshit in Kabul, or at the very least grossly misrepresented.

The only true hard targets in Kabul are the military bases – the ISAF military bases – the Western embassies, some Afghan Government ministries, and the airport. Every other location can be breached, and any person can be killed.

An unconventional insurgent fighting force is always going to have an enormous advantage attacking their chosen target. Why? Because the attacking force has all the time in the world to perform reconnaissance on the target and choose the time and method of the attack. The use of explosives – and even more devastating, the use of suicide bombers in vehicles or wearing vests – can easily throw off any type of security scheme, regardless of the perceived strength and depth of the fortifications and the number of security guards. It is simply impossible for these security guards to stay sharp when they might be standing post for three years without any incidences, and then find themselves faced with an overwhelming attacking force that may have already blown them to pieces before they even realized an attack was underway.

In short, outside of my aforementioned list of hard targets, no walls can save you, no blast doors, no armed guards, and no pistol on your hip. The only thing that can protect you is not making yourself someone the Taliban wants to kill, individually, and not putting yourself among a group of people that the Taliban wants to attack, collectively.

Stop segregating foreigners: The Taliban is a fairly media savvy organization. They have a spokesman who reporters call after every attack, and generally they care about making the international news cycle. As a result, they have an affinity for the spectacular. Killing random foreigners out having kabob at local restaurants or buying bread at a local bakery does not cut it. Moreover, it’s easy to plan an attack on a stationary target – e.g. La Taverna or the Serena Hotel –  that is regularly inundated with foreign patrons. It’s much more difficult (and has less reward in terms of media spectacle value) to attack a single foreigner, like myself, who only eats in local restaurants and picks them randomly based on whichever one is closest at the point when I get hungry.

It would be extremely easy to walk up to me on the streets of Kabul and gun me down. I don’t carry a weapon here and never would. What would be rather annoying for the Taliban is stalking me for days to get to the point where they could shoot me.

Stop making lists of ‘approved locations’ for expats to go: The safest place for me to go get dinner is at the kabob restaurant around the corner from my house. Is it on any security company’s ‘approved list’? Of course not! Guess which establishments were on countless UN/NGO ‘approved lists’ – you guessed it, La Taverna and the Serena Hotel. I have previously made exceptions to my own risk management policies to visit aid worker friends at restaurants on their security department’s ‘approved list’, but from this point forward, if I know that an establishment is on the security sector entity’s approved list, I will not fucking go to it.

If you see other White people, time to get the fuck out (GTFO): In my experience, White people are really just as tribal as Afghans (the many ethnicities that there are), Arabs, or any other ethnic group. White expats like to hang out, and have a drink or two, with other White people who they feel like they have some kind of cultural bond with. The problem is, once a couple of White people get together to have a discreet drink somewhere, they start calling their friends over, getting rowdy, playing music, etc. etc., and all of a sudden the Taliban has a nice fat target of Whiteys to lay waste to.

So in summary, if I am out in Kabul and see one of my distant kin from the Tribe of the Pales Faces, I ask myself if I am somewhere where I absolutely have to be, e.g. a business meeting. If I absolutely cannot avoid being in the same room as another White person, then I just accept the admittedly infinitesimally small increase in risk and take comfort in the fact that my risk management practices, overall, put the odds of survival heavily in my favor.

As a final note, let me say that however clever I think I am in minimizing risks to my personal safety, I know that luck can be a biyotch and I am not invincible. One day I could find myself at the wrong place at the wrong time and get smoked.

I just want to say now that Kabul is one of the most incredible places to live in the world, and regardless of anything that may happen in the future, I could never have any regrets coming to live in K-Town.

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Modern Family: Travels in Senegal

I originally published this entry a year ago, in January 2013. I decided to remove it and heavily edit it out of respect for the privacy of the family members that I mention. Here is the amended version.

Modern Family

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My uncle Steven and his son, Mikey

If I could make one guess about how I became interested in the world outside of America’s borders, it would be my uncle Steven. I will never forget how in awe I was when, as a young boy, Steven presented me with a dagger from Africa. I will never forget his story about honey beer being brewed with bees and hives included, and young men standing along the road soliciting gifts in anticipation of their upcoming circumcision.

Steven was the only relative I knew of who had taken the path less travelled. He had earned his PhD in psychology and became involved in West Africa after a trip to Gambia following a failed relationship. This initial trip led to a deep involvement in Gambia and several funded studies, the first of which was on the psychological state of the refugees that had fled to Gambia from the horrors of Sierra Leone’s civil war. He would also go on to marry a woman from neighboring Senegal, Dimasse, and in his late 50s he became a father for the first time with the birth of little Michael (Mikey) Fox.

So this is my uncle, the nonconformist. Steven was not a big part of my family growing up, but if my travel bug could be traced back to a single individual, it would be him.

Before reuniting in Senegal, it had been six years since I had seen Steven, at my father’s funeral. I had never met Dimasse (they had only begun dating the previous year), nor had I yet to meet Mikey, who is now two a half years old. The idea for the trip was conceived over email, after Steven notified me and my siblings that he would not be attending family Thanksgiving festivities (no surprise, as it had been years since he had made an appearance). The reason, he explained, was that he would be spending December in Senegal introducing Mikey to the African side of the family and their heritage. I asked if I could come along for the ride, since his trip coincided with my plans to head back the Middle East and was ‘on the way’, so to speak. Steven quickly gave his blessing to the idea. And thus it was that I found myself sitting in a restaurant in the airport in Dakar, by myself, surrounded by a determined group of professional Senegalese hustlers . . .

Surviving the Airport

Before leaving the US, Steven and I were able to talk on the phone. My flight was scheduled to arrive in Dakar at 6:30 in the morning. Steven, Dimasse, and Mikey were scheduled to arrive at 9:30. This meant that I would have to fend for myself for three hours at the airport waiting. Steven gave me ample warning that the airport represented a danger zone rife with thieves and hustlers, and I should never trust anyone with my bags or let them out of my sight. This task was made infinitely more difficult by the fact that I had no less than four bags with me. It was the absolute maximum number that one person could handle by themselves without help of any kind: a hiking pack on back, a bookbag in front, and bags with wheels in each hand.

The plan contrived by my uncle was for me to make my way to the sole restaurant in the airport and post myself until he arrived. This seemed manageable. I have travelled enough to know never to accept help from anyone at places where tourists are to be found, i.e. airports, bus stations, and border crossings, because they will always demand tips and complain that what you give them is never enough. I therefore made it a point to carry my own bags, despite attempts by various porters to help. So after brushing off the army of porters without having to go through the hassle of giving a tip (and then, regardless of the amount, be told it is insufficient) I got to the restaurant.

What ensued was five hours of fending off the efforts of four Senegalese hustlers to wear me down and extort money from me. The game was simple; the hustlers would give me their sob stories and tell me that they just wanted 20 dollars to split between the four of them to grab some breakfast and support their families. Now keep in mind, Senegal is dirt poor – $5 dollars per man would represent quite a sum of money. $5 dollars is an especially large sum of money . . . when it is not in return for any goods or services. And this is what I spent the better part of five hours trying to explain, as I had mentally committed to not giving in to this form of extortion, which was basically, ‘pay us money and we’ll leave you alone’.

“Five hours?” you say, “but you wrote earlier that your uncle was arriving three hours later?” That’s true, I did. My uncle’s flight was delayed two hours, which was quite frankly terrifying for me. I did not have any contact information for Dimasse’s family, there was no monitors displaying flight information, and I didn’t speak the local languages (French and Wolof). After 9:30 came and went with no sign of my uncle, all kinds of questions started popping up in my mind; ‘What if he had been unable to catch his flight? What if I had somehow ended up at the wrong restaurant to meet? What if  . . . they forgot about me?’ *sniffle sniffle*

No seriously, these are the things you think about when you are by yourself in the airport in Dakar and you’re becoming delusional because you didn’t sleep at all on the overnight flight (watching movies) and you desperately have to use the bathroom but making it to the bathroom with all of your luggage is a Herculean undertaking too intimidating to consider. About once an hour a flight would touch down and I’d wait excitedly for the sight of my uncle walking through the doors of the restaurant. Every time I would be disappointed and the feelings of growing panic would become stronger.

Finally a flight arrived and Muhammad, the most affable of the hustlers, walked into the restaurant with a broad smile on his face and told me that he had found my uncle. In my five hours of waiting I had pretty much explained my life story, of course including a description of my uncle and his family. I still kept my guard up as I followed Muhammad out of the restaurant and outside the airport itself. After a two minute walk I finally set my eyes on my uncle and breathed a gigantic sigh of relief. I tipped Muhammad (he had actually provided me a service) and after some shenanigans arranging a taxi and changing money, we were off to Loul Sessene.

Map, Loul

My week in Loul

What can I say about Loul? This was definitely the most undeveloped place that I had ever visited. Very agrarian, lots of animal husbandry, and it seemed like electricity was a fairly recent addition to life. Not a computer, washing machine, or gas stove in sight, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a computer with internet access within a 100 mile radius. That being said, I have no problem showering myself with a bucket of water and a cup or using a squat toilet for my morning constitutional, so aside from the heat and humidity I was fairly comfortable.

My daily routine was simple – a good portion of the day I spent reading (finishing up A Savage War of Peace), as I had no real responsibilities. About once a day I would walk to the general store and buy any supplies that I needed, and my uncle and I would try to go on a walk through the village or the plains of the sub-Saharan sahel a minute beyond my uncle’s compound. We definitely got plenty of looks along the way. The kids especially would yell “toubob!” wherever we went. Apparently “bob” is slang for the British pound, and the Brits would pay Senegalese dock workers “two bob” (two pounds). Now Pale Faces throughout Senegal and the Gambia are referred to as toubobs.

Anyway, in my experience “toubob” did not have a negative connotation. My uncle told me that we were definitely not the first white people that the villagers had seen due to the presence of French aid workers in the area (none of whom we ever saw that week). There was, though, one young boy who definitely had not ever seen a Pale Face before, and hid behind his laughing peers as my uncle and I passed on one of our walks, in tears and with a look of abject horror on his face.

When I was with my uncle though, we would often stop to chat with people we passed. Steven speaks a bit of Wolof, and I think he had a goal of normalizing our presence in the village. Everywhere we went people were extremely friendly and curious about us, and my uncle would constantly chat with people we passed, explaining that Dimasse was his wife, that he would be staying there for a month, etc. etc.

When I wasn’t out on a walk with Steven or reading my book in the shade, I was hanging out with Mikey and his crew of cousins and neighborhood kids (also probably cousins). So allow me to introduce my youngest 1st cousin . . .

Getting to know Mikey

What can I say about little Mikey? Obviously he’s adorable. He’s also developed quite a personality for a two a half year old. Although he does not speak any French or Wolof (I chided Dimasse for not trying to teach him) he immediately got along fabulously with all of his cousins in the village. I didn’t want to contribute to his being a bit spoiled, but all I wanted to do was hold him and play with him. I certainly cannot let on that someone has that power over me, so I played it cool with Mikey.

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Mikey!

Every day Mikey would wear himself out playing and pass out mid-day in the arms of Steven, Dimasse, or (one time) me. He is a very smart, expressive, affectionate boy who likes holding hands, playing with the sticker books that I brought for him, and ignoring orders from Steven to wear his shoes (bare feet for kids is the norm in Loul, despite the threat of hookworms).

When I left Loul after seven days, I definitely suffered from Mikey withdrawal. I wonder if he will remember me the next time I see him, or when that will ever be.

In any event, I had told myself that I should also get a peak at the capital of Senegal while I was in the country, so after some heartfelt goodbyes in Loul it was off to Dakar for four nights.

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My new African family

Four nights in Dakar

Where do I start with Dakar? I’ll start by saying that I would never recommend the city as a tourist destination. This was my first experience travelling in a country with a professional class of thieves, and I really did not enjoy it. The first thing I did when I got into the city was head over to the ferry station to check out one of Dakar’s few true tourist destinations, Île de Gorée (Gorée Island), a former lynchpin in the West African slave trade. When I got to the dock I learned that I had an hour to kill before the next boat sailed to the island. I decided to talk a little stroll, and it was at this point that I had my first encounter with a pickpocket.

Now my uncle is an old hand in West Africa, so before I left for the big city he had briefed me on all the different techniques that pickpockets use. The key for a pickpocket is to get you to stop moving. In my case I was walking through a market area and I young guy kept shoving white undershirts in my face. I kept refusing and walking at a fast clip. He kept following me trying to get me to stop and talk. Finally he just went for the ‘nice shoes’ technique, where he bent down, ostensibly to look at my mind-blowing footwear (a $1 pair of flip flops, I should add). Steven had warned me about this technique, so I was immediately conscious of my pockets and where this man’s hands were in relation to them. At this point I grabbed one of his hands that had made its way into my front cargo pocket, pulled it out, and created space between us. Now facing a rather large enraged man (yours truly), the pickpocket decided to move on to other quarry.

Flustered, I made my way back to the ferry terminal, chose a seat without anyone sitting next to me, and waited for the next ferry to come. When I finally arrived at Île de Gorée, I found it fairly nice and welcoming. Beautiful yet dilapidated French colonial era buildings remain intact, creating the sensation that you are taking a trip back in time. A sensation, I might add, that is constantly being ruined by people trying to sell you tourist trinkets throughout the island. There are a couple of museums, unfortunately none with explanations of items and exhibits in English (only French). I walked around, took some pictures, and called it a day.

I could go into more details about Dakar, but I don’t think it would be very fascinating. My crippling inability to speak or understand French prevented me from having a single substantive conversation with a local Senegalese person. The only people that I could communicate with were the Arabs in the ‘Moroccan quarter’ of downtown Dakar (many are, in fact, Lebanese). This section of street is just off the main Pompidou Ave. thoroughfare, a market street, and what’s interesting is that within a minute getting on Pompidou there will be pickpockets targeting you and trying to get you to stop moving, either with the ‘nice shoes’ technique or the firm, momentum-halting handshake (travel tip: NEVER shake hands with a potential pickpocket)

When I wanted to escape, I would duck into Muhammad V St. (the Moroccan quarter), which was like walking into a different world. I certainly do not idealize any peoples anywhere, but after travelling in seven Arab countries I am willing to make the observation that Arabs do not take well to pickpockets. Almost every time I entered the Moroccan quarter, any pickpockets on my tail would stop as if they had encountered some kind of invisible barrier they could not cross. It was also on Muhammad V St. that I heard, for the first time in my life, the Islamic call to prayer (ithan, in Arabic) performed without the use of speakers. It was beautiful, making me curse the day that Muslims in Arab countries decided it was acceptable to use cheap, crackly speakers to sound the ithan, thereby spreading a particularly foul type of noise pollution that disgraces the religion.

Regarding the night life, Lonely Planet described it as being fairly vibrant. Despite feeling about as cool as AIDS going to bars by myself, for the sake of learning as much as possible I did risk a late night mugging to see the city on two of the four nights. As Dakar is a port city, I had many pimps mistake me for a sailor, and I had to politely decline offers of prostitutes on numerous occasions. I try not to judge in these matters, but engaging in sexual activity with hookers in sub-Saharan West Africa is dicey business and not for me. In fact, in my old age I had difficulty staying up until midnight, and according to Lonely Planet things don’t really get going until 1 am or later.

What I did see, though, was not positive. The establishments that I visited had women in the employ of the bar (Ukrainian, Moroccan, Senegalese, or Asian) who were there for male patrons to talk to. Were these women prostitutes? Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. What is for certain, though, was that it was a contrived, rather than natural, place of meeting of the sexes. For that reason I would sit at the bar, have a single drink by myself (feeling and looking incredibly awkward, I might add), and then sally forth to the next establishment to continue my survey. Now conducting this kind of survey can be very enjoyable when you have company (as I did in Egypt, as I will describe in my next post). In Dakar though, it felt like a chore and I was happy to get back to my hotel room after each night of bar hopping.

So these are the things that I found interesting enough to write about. I now leave you with some photos from Dakar, which I hope you enjoy.

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Île de Gorée

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Dakar Coastline

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Fishing boats in Dakar

Me, Mikey, and Mikey's Senegalese cousins

Me, Mikey, and Mikey’s Senegalese cousins

 

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Travels in Bangladesh

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A market in Dhaka

What can I really say about Bangladesh? From a tourism perspective, I would not recommend coming here unless you A.) know someone in the country who is knowledgeable and willing to travel with you as a guide, and/or B.) you have a genuine interest in learning about Bangladesh and the Indian sub-continent in general.

There is absolutely nothing distinguishing about Bangladesh that would make it a draw for tourists. Those features of the country that are marketed to tourists (rivers, beaches, jungles) can be found in other countries on a far more remarkable level. The tourism ministry’s motto for Bangladesh is, ‘Come visit before the tourists do’ (or something along these lines).  Having just made the visit, I can say with some authority that there will not be hordes of tourists following in my wake. That would be a great motto for Afghanistan, where natural and man-made wonders boggle the mind, but not so much for Bangladesh.

Country overview:

Well, if you’re one of the 10 or so people that have made your way to this blog post, you might as well learn a bit about Bangladesh. Bangladesh is, in fact, very remarkable, but in ways that are more troubling than anything else. The country is massive, with a population around 160 million. It is also one of the most condensed; with 16 million inhabitants, the capital, Dhaka, is an insufferable congested disaster.

The economy is in shambles, in part due to the hartals, or politically driven strikes, that frequently cripple the country’s transportation networks. The weakness in the economy means that there is endemic child labor, and the minimum wage is, at present, the lowest in the world. Another cause for economic weakness is rampant government corruption. Bangladesh is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Corruption is the natural enemy to the type of large-scale critical infrastructure projects that are necessary to support a vibrant economy. Many areas of the country have been made accessible by bridge-building projects that have been finished just within the last five years.

Some other noteworthy items:

  • Climate change: Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change; as sea levels rise, Bangladesh will likely experience a crisis of ‘climate refugees’ whose land has been reclaimed by the ocean or rivers.
  • Culture: The territory that makes up modern-day Bangladesh was never conquered by the Arabs, so Hindu and Buddhist traditions and dress remain despite the decisive Muslim majority. Women commonly wear saris, thereby exposing their midriffs (haram!), and scarfs are more often worn around women’s shoulders rather than over their hair. Additionally, women’s families are expected pay money to the groom’s family in the marriage of their daughters (to compensate them for removing the burden of supporting her), thereby contradicting the marriage rites of Islam.
  • Politics: Because of the extreme corruption and ineffectiveness of the government, an environment has been created where extremists Islamist groups are able to garner support.
  • Society: The trauma of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence is still highly visible on the national psyche. The ongoing International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), which is prosecuting collaborators with Pakistan over four decades ago, is used as weapon to rouse popular anger and attack the opponents of the ruling Awami League.

Why I visited Bangladesh:

I made the visit to Bangladesh not to have a leisurely, touristy vacation, but because I had never been anywhere in the Indian sub-continent, and I happened to have a friend. Laurie Visser, living in a remote village in the far north. Laurie, a Dutch national working for RDRS (a local, and very prominent, Bangladeshi NGO), had been based in Bangladesh for five months by the time I arrived. She had made the effort to learn the national language, Bangla, and from what I observed she had made quite a bit of progress in her relatively short time in the country. As a Pale Face European who spoke decent Bangla and worked for a respected aid organization, Laurie was able to connect us with people in a way that I could never have done if I was by myself. She was able to take me around her village, Kurigram, introduce me to friends and neighbors, take me to the chars (inhabited sandbanks in the country’s massive rivers) and overall played the role of linguistically-empowered foreigner that I like to think I am when travelling in Arabic-speaking countries.

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Laurie draws a crowd in Kurigram, as usual

I’m not going to go into the minute details of the trip, because it was all rather remarkable in how unremarkable it was. Laurie and I were extremely lucky in a number of regards in our travels throughout the country. First, there were no monsoons, and although rainfall was a daily event it never prevented us from doing anything. Second, there were no hartals, so no mobs preventing our buses from going where we needed to go. We saw some things, we went to some places, and spent a lot of time on buses. Over two full days (50 hours) of my nine-day trip were spent on buses, in fact.

I have no deep thoughts or Thomas Friedman-esque connections to make with my other travels. I will only say that the food was excellent (I managed not to get sick at all, WINNING!), the people friendly, the bus rides terrifying, and the rice wine potent. I have been further inspired to visit Pakistan to get its take on the 1971 war of independence, as the Pakis (is that politically correct?) are absolutely vilified in Bangladeshi history. Finally, I will say with no spite or animosity and all the love in the world for the inordinately friendly and hospitable Bangladeshi people, I hope I never find myself in Bangladesh again.

Bus trips:

Dhaka – Kurigram: 10 am – 9:30 pm (11.5 hours)

Kurigram – Dhaka: 6 pm – 6 am (12 hours)

Dhaka – Cox’s Bazar: 11 am – 11:30 pm (12.5 hours)

Cox’s Bazar – Bandarban: 9 am – 1:30 pm (4.5 hours)

Bandarban – Chittagong: 8 am – 10:30 am (2.5 hours)

Chittagong – Dhaka: 11 am – 6 pm (7 hours)

Total hours on buses: 50 hours

This does not include many hours on bicycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws (battery powered carts), and CNGs (gas-powered carts). It also does not include about three hours total in Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban arranging our government permit to the politically sensitive Hill Tracts, a fairly frustrating and inefficient process.

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A man dries rice(?) on an abandoned ferry. The newly built bridge in the background has made the ferry obsolete

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At the Golden Temple in Bandarban

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At the bus station in Rangpur

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Dhaka = clusterfuck

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Visiting a Hill Tracts tribal village, Bandarban

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A young girl from a char we visited

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A map of the char with critical information notated

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At the scenic Hillside Resort in Bandarban

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At the char

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A madrasa, or Islamic school, in Kurigram

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Travels in Cairo and Upper Egypt

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Sunset on the Nile, Maadi, Cairo

So after accidently getting off the plane in Mali on my way from Senegal to Egypt (I woke up from a nap, disoriented, and disembarked thinking we were in Addis Adiba for the transit), I finally arrived in Cairo in the early morning hours of December 15th.

My first impression of Egypt, which lasted for a full ten days or so, was very negative. There were no issues with professional pickpockets that I found so unsettling in Dakar, but there is definitely a class of unscrupulous Egyptians that shamelessly prey on tourists. Towards the end of my trip (as I will document shortly) Egypt really came to grow on me, but my initial activities checking off boxes in the tourist highlight reel left me with the foulest of thoughts about the country’s people.

My very first financial transaction in Egypt (after my cab ride from the airport) was to buy two metro tickets so I could get from Maadi to Tahrir Square. Maadi is a wealthy enclave in southern Cairo where my host for the trip, a State Department employee, was staying. I paid 10 Egyptian pounds (henceforth, simply “pounds”) got two tickets, and received 6 pounds in change. ‘Wow!’ I marveled to myself ‘each metro ride is only 30 cents!’ [One pound is approximately 15 cents]

Upon returning back to Maadi after seeing Egypt’s National Museum, I wondered aloud to my host, Preston, about how cheap the metro was. “Just two pounds!” I exclaimed. Preston just shook his head and laughed, explaining that it was actually just one pound for each ride, and that the ticketing employee recognized that I was a tourist and had taken the opportunity to pocket two pounds in the transaction.

As Preston explained to me, post-revolutionary Egypt was experiencing a period of “hyper-freedom”, where there is simply no legal recourse for bad behavior. This applies to regular Egyptians interacting with each other, and it especially applies to tourists. Let me go through a list of shenanigans I dealt with in Cairo, and then I’ll give a description of my trip down south (brief, I hope). 

The minaret hustle:

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View from a minaret, Islamic Cairo

If you walk around Islamic Cairo, you’re naturally going to want to step inside some of the city’s incredible masajid (mosques, as they are known in the West). The masjid doorman will probably offer you the opportunity to climb up to the building’s minaret, a tower that historically is for the muezzin, or ‘prayer caller’, to announce the five daily prayers for the Muslim faithful. Tragically, in my view, most of the Muslim world has chosen to replace the live recitation of the muezzin from the heights of the minaret with a crackly speaker system.

In any event, the minarets still stand, and in Egypt at least they afford the masjid caretaker the opportunity to make a couple of extra dollars a day from tourists. What they’ll do is suggest a donation for the masjid’s charity fund, to be placed in a locked box (which the caretaker probably has the key for). After you finish your ascent, they will request some bagsheesh, or tip. They will always shoot big, asking for around 60 pounds (10 dollars) for the collection, and 60 pounds for bagsheesh. They will gladly accept a mere dollar or two in both regards, if you make clear that you’re fully prepared to simply walk away.

It must be noted that outside of the citadel, there are hustlers who have walking routes around the city walls, looking for unsuspecting tourists trying to find the elusive entrance. They’ll give some kind of lie about the citadel being closed at that particular time for some special occasion, and offer to take you to a special masjid in their neighborhood with a great minaret. You’ll pay to see the minaret, they’ll ask for bagsheesh (after swearing up and down on the walk there that they’re not interested in your money), and then afterwards they’ll get a cut from the caretaker. I know because this happened to me, and when I went to the citadel at a later date, I saw the same scam artist there looking for marks.

The Citadel shenanigans:

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Police officer showing me the prison at the Citadel to scam me out of some bagsheesh

I went to the Citadel twice while I was in Cairo, and twice experienced the same attempted hustle. One area of the citadel is a historic prison where the likes of Muhammad Ali (the 19th century Ottoman Pasha, not the boxer) and Anwar Sadat were once imprisoned. The police have blocked this area off, and have basically starting using it as a rent-providing space. They’ll see Western tourists (preferring Americans over Europeans) and tell you that they’ll give you a special tour. They’ll let you into the barricaded area, give you a tour, and then ask for bagsheesh. By the time this happened to me, I had already had my wallet lightened by two masjid caretakers and the metro employee, and I had had enough. I looked the man in the eye – a uniformed police officer – and told him firmly, “No.” From that point on the only people getting bagsheesh were those who provided legitimate services.

Giza scams:

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I got a lot of great photos at the pyramids, at the cost of an inordinate amount of frustration. The aggravation started right at the entrance of Giza where a non-uniformed employee asked me for my ticket and told me to hand over my camera for the x-ray machine. Now I had been specifically warned about hustlers trying to get people to hand over their tickets (which would be re-sold) before getting to the official entrance, so I initially balked and demanded to see identification. This escalated into a shouting match, and I finally took the man’s clear indignation as sufficient credentials. I maintain that employees at Egypt’s most famous tourist destination should be in uniform with visible ID badges, but I know that is crazy talk in the context of the clusterfuck that is Egypt.

Once inside I had a second yelling match with a man obnoxiously blowing a whistle at me and trying to direct me somewhere. I started angrily asking him in Arabic if he was an employee, and if so where his ID was. He indignantly started yelling back, and shoved an ID, in Arabic, in my face. I don’t know why he thought that somehow I could speak Arabic and not read it, and after looking at the ID for about half a second I read that in the “Type” section it was written “talib” or “student”. I pointed this out, at which point the young man gave up his indignant façade and ruefully smiled. I strode off in a huff, hearing the man behind me calling out to his friends something along the lines of ‘You’re not going to believe this foreigner over here . . .’ I like to think that I was probably the only Westerner he came across that day that he had a smidgen of respect for.

At Giza’s small pyramids there is a rent system like at the Citadel where ununiformed men (not police officers, this time) sit at the pyramid entrance to demand bagsheesh to enter the underground tomb itself. Like at the Citadel, I don’t consider this rent legitimate so I checked out the underground tomb, came back up, put my hand in a fist, and made the motion of giving the man at the entrance a handful of imaginary money. Then I walked away, leaving him dumbfounded and cursing me under his breath. Some may say that this puts me in the category of the stereotypical ‘ugly American’ world traveller – I couldn’t disagree more. When Americans allow themselves to be scammed by unscrupulous fellows like these, it is contributing to a tourist environment that is uncomfortable and even hostile, and thus bad for all Egyptians that take financial benefit from the tourism industry.

The Egyptian National Museum:

This enormous museum centrally located by Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo is, simply put, a disaster. The descriptions for each artifact (where there were descriptions provided) were mostly yellowed and decades old, having been clearly printed on typewriters. Some of the items in the museum are simply incredible, but they happen to be placed side-by-side with what I’ll term here as archaeological ‘junk’. The result is that after an hour or so of wandering around this massive building you’re ready to shoot yourself if you see another pharaonic figurine holding their sacred accouterments. A couple of additional things really bothered me about the museum.

First, you’re not allowed to take cameras inside, and you have to check them in a security station outside. I’m sure I’m not the first tourist that felt incredibly uncomfortable handing over my professional DSLR to a shifty Egyptian who could probably make a year’s salary selling it. On the same camera note, this rule doesn’t even make sense anymore, because everyone is running around with smartphones and taking pictures anyway. What they need to do is have a ‘no flash’ requirement (their concern is the damage that flash photography has on artifacts) and let people take pictures. Seeing King Tut’s royal burial mask was amazing, but all I have now is a fuzzy memory. If they let individuals take pictures that would undoubtedly be shown to friends, I guarantee tourism would increase.

Some advice for the Egyptian National Museum; recruit a team of high school students to re-write all of the artifact descriptions and print them out professionally, clear out all of the artifacts that aren’t absolutely stunning, and actually organize the museum so people can learn about the history of ancient Egypt as opposed to using the building as an artifact dump.

My trip to southern (upper) Egypt:

After a couple of days in Cairo checking off the tourist boxes, I took the sleeper train to Aswan. I was lucky enough to get a room on the train by myself on the way down (on the way back up I had to share a room with a Norwegian who looked like Skelator from He-man), and found the experience to be ‘neat’. During the 9-hour train ride the food was crap and I felt like the train might legitimately topple over at any moment, but it was my first time in a sleeper car and the close quarters put me at ease much like my childhood pillow forts.

I was warned that southern Egypt was one giant tourist trap, and as it turned out all the horror stories were true. You couldn’t walk the streets of Aswan or Luxor for a minute without someone trying to sell you a falluca boat ride trip along the Nile, or having a cheap souvenir or set of postcards shoved in your face at the pharaonic sites. These people prey on the fact that Westerners feel uncomfortable saying “no” under intensive pressure, whether it’s someone demanding bagsheesh for a minimal (or nonexistent) service, or a persistent falluca boat captain. Obviously I love saying no, but that doesn’t make the experience any less aggravating.  The only time I felt like I got a fair price for something was when I bought Big Macs at McDonalds in Aswan and Luxor.

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Luxor Temple

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The only fair price you’re going to get in southern Egypt – a Big Mac on the Nile in Aswan

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Philae Temple

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Egyptians hassling tourists in unpleasant manner

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Abu Simbal

While in southern Egypt I visited Abu Simbal, The Valley of the Kings, Philae, Luxor Temple, Karak Temple, and Elephantine Island. Except for Elephantine Island in Aswan, I hated every second of it and made it through only by telling myself that it was one giant photography exercise. After three days and two nights in southern Egypt, I paid 40 pounds to push my return train ticket back to Cairo to a day earlier, and left without any regrets.

Falling in love with Cairo:

It was only when I returned to Cairo that I finally started falling in love with the city. You see, I had already checked off all the tourist boxes, so from that point forward I was among the “real” Egyptians, not the ones that merely saw me as a walking dollar sign. I spent most of my time in Islamic Cairo, as this is the type of Middle Eastern environment that most appeals to me – ancient, vibrant, and full of soul. I would walk around, take photos (often of unmarked and unrestored historic sites) and take frequent stops for bowl after bowl of delicious quoshary (noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and tomato sauce). All the while I’d be basking in true Arab hospitality, paying local prices (a mere 5 pounds, or 85 cents, for a cup of tea and shisha at street side cafes), and watching people’s faces light up when I addressed them in my very functional Arabic.

It was also during this time that I confirmed that Cairo is decidedly for lovers. I had noticed many intimate-looking conversations between Egyptian couples at some of the main tourist sites like Giza and the Citadel (probably to avoid gossiping friends and family), but I continued to spy romance everywhere at places like the Cairo Zoo, al-Azhar park, and underneath the road underpass in Maadi. This was a far cry from Jordan, where the young men seem to confuse “love” with physical attraction, and the idea of wooing a woman by getting to know her on an emotional and intellectual level is not common in my view. The conservative tribal nature of Jordanian society – where marriages are often arranged between cousins in the same families – probably has something to do with it. In Egypt, love is . . . love. It brought many a smile to my face seeing married couples with children walking side-by-side at the zoo or at the park, clearly as much in love as the day they were married.

So that was my adventure in Egypt. I will definitely return to explore the Sinai, another day. Now nnjoy some photos from Cairo!

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Islamic Cairo

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Islamic Cairo

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Cairo is for lovers – al-Azhar Park

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Having a stroll in Islamic Cairo

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Quoshary!

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Cairo Zoo

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Post-apocalyptic sweet potato sellers – they are delicious

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Jordan’s Media Soft Containment: My Detention at the Queen Alia International Airport

So, here is the story of my 26-hour semi-voluntary detention at the Queen Alia International Airport.

I touched down in Amman, Jordan at 11 am on January 2nd, coming off a lovely two and half week vacation in Egypt. I get to the first counter in the customs and immigration area and hand over my passport. It’s scanned, a one-month visa postage-like stamp is pasted in, and I start moving to the next counter to get the ink stamp on top. At this point, out of the woodwork appears an airport security official who waves to me and tells me that they’re trying to speed things up and there’s a counter open in another area. So I start following the gentleman away from the main body of travelers, and a moment later I’m in a hallway, and then an office with a uniformed officer at the desk. At that point I knew I was in a bit of a pickle.

The security officer starts casually asking me questions, like ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘How long have you been in Jordan?’ The questions are all in Arabic and I answer in Arabic. Then he asks me ‘What is your problem with Jordan?’ I tell him I love Jordan, and that the country is very dear to me and has been my home for over three years.

At this point I’m tired of this stalling, and I ask him directly, ‘Am I going to be allowed into Jordan or not?’

He pauses, looks at me and asks, ‘Do you know what the mukhabarat is?’

I reply that of course I know what the mukhabarat is. The mukhabarat is a country’s intelligence service. In the case of Jordan, it  is the General Intelligence Directorate, or GID.

Then he says something along the lines of, ‘Well, the mukhabarat says that you are not allowed into Jordan.’

I ask why.

He makes a phone call.

After a couple of words on the phone, he hangs up and says, ‘They say you know why you’re not allowed in.’

That could only mean one thing; somebody at the mukhabarat didn’t like my coverage of the opposition movement. You see, I’d lived nearly three and half years in Jordan without a single legal incident occurring this entire period. I wasn’t trafficking in drugs, I wasn’t personally involved in the opposition movement, and I had even gone through the legal channels to obtain press credentials through the government’s Press and Publications Office. I applied for a press card a month before leaving and never heard back from them, despite the promise of a phone call after two weeks.

The content I’d produced on the Jordanian opposition movement after attending a couple of protests in September was hardly much to speak of: an article in the Carnagie Endowment’s Mid-East publication Sada, a CNN iReport, and a blog post with an English translation of an opposition group’s protest statement.

In any event, having been formally denied entry, I was led out of this office and into a smaller office that is located adjacent to a detention room. I was told by another officer that I would be escorted to the ticketing area and was required to buy a ticket to any country of my choosing. The initial shock had worn off by now and I was ready to get belligerent. I announced angrily that I had done nothing wrong in Jordan, that I had merely been covering events as a journalist, that my time and money had been wasted, and that I refused to buy my own ticket. As a matter of principle, I stated clearly in Arabic, I would not pay out of my own pocket to self-deport.

They asked me if I did not have the available funds to purchase my own ticket, and I pompously stated that I could afford 10 trips back to the US. In fact, I could really only afford about five trips back home . . . using my credit card, but still, the principle was my main concern.

Anyway, minds started exploding at this point because they really had no protocol for someone with money refusing to buy their plane ticket out of the country upon denial of entry. An American, no less. I stress “American” because Jordan happens to be one of America’s client states, receiving nearly a billion dollars in aid from the United States in 2012. In my three plus years in Jordan, I had never heard of an American being denied entry. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first time these gentleman had seen it happen as well.

At that point (and I laugh recalling this) I spontaneously declared a hunger and fluids strike until I was purchased a ticket back to Cairo.

Finally the officer in charge found some courage and put his foot down, ordering me, the uncooperative, petulant American, into the detention room until I found the sense to buy my own plane ticket. So I sat in the detention room with the usual suspects you’d find in an Arab country’s airport detention room (a Gazan, an Egyptian, a Syrian, and a Tunisian) and about every two hours I’d be called into the security office and be asked if I was ready to buy my ticket. They got the same unequivocal “No!” every time.

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My detention room, photo taken discreetly. I folded the blankets to make it more homely.

I would walk back into the detention room after these meetings (which often involved raised voices) and my four Arab roommates would just be smiling, absolutely amazed at my gall. I mean, they were hardly surprised that they themselves were there, but to share the room with an American was something rather bizarre for them. All four had tragic stories. As Arabs from countries with no diplomatic clout in Jordan, they didn’t have the leverage to play the belligerent card like I was able to.

The Tunisian was supposed to escort his French wife and kids overland to Jerusalem where she had a new post at the UN, but due to a drug charge (which had been dropped) over ten years earlier, he was denied entry. His wife was forced to take their two small children to Jerusalem herself, while he was forced to purchase a $400 dollar one-way ticket to Tel Aviv. The elderly Gazan (who appeared to be on death’s door) was scheduled for a medical procedure in Amman but was denied entry because he was missing a key document, while the Egyptian (clearly well-educated and speaking excellent English) was not told why he would not be allowed in to take a job as an assistant manager at a department store.

The case of the Syrian was the most heart-wrenching; he was married to a Jordanian woman, and since Jordan does not allow women to pass citizenship to their husbands (men are allowed to pass it to their wives) he was being denied entry on a technicality. His wife was 8-months pregnant. I let him use my phone to call her. I would hear her tearful voice a number of times after leaving the airport, as she continued to call my phone and ask to speak with her husband (she could not, or would not, comprehend that she could no longer talk with him).

Finally around 6 pm I was getting really hungry and thirsty (please recall I’d been hunger-striking for seven whole hours at that point) and I asked the guy in charge what was going to happen. He nonchalantly told me I’d be going back to Egypt on an 8 pm flight. ‘Great,’ I thought to myself, ‘they finally caved in and bought me a ticket. Time to eat some KFC!’ So I broke my hunger strike with some delicious airport KFC and prepared myself to leave.

At 7 pm an Egypt Air employee comes around and the security officers tell me I’m to go with him to buy a ticket. I was like, ‘Seriously, where was I unclear before. I’m not buying a ticket.’ They continued to try to convince me otherwise for another couple of minutes and then finally gave up. At that point I was informed that there were no more flights to Egypt that day and I’d be staying overnight. ‘Fine,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to make it look like I love this detention room and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.’ I changed into my pajamas, gave myself a baby wipe bath, and even cleaned up my beard in the bathroom. I then proceeded to sprawl out over the benches and started reading my book.

Was it comfortable? Hell no it wasn’t, but I sure wasn’t going to let on as much. I also wasn’t going to let on that I had mentally planned to fold and buy my own ticket after three days, as I had a corporate webpage editing deadline within the week and I do NOT like displeasing my corporate slavemasters. A couple of times a new security officer would come on duty and the relieving officer would stand dumbfounded as it was explained to him that they were holding a stubborn American who refused to deport himself. I would look up from my book, smile, and wave lackadaisically to complete the absurdity of the scene.

Both sides of this confrontation had now settled down for a long battle of wills after the initial sharp exchanges. The security officials became very friendly and I was quick to respond in kind. After having a second meal of KFC (escorted by a security official, of course), I bedded down for the night as best I could and slept fitfully.

At 9 am I was woken up and (still in my pajamas) let to the office of Colonel Azam, who I assume to be the head of airport security. This is when I had my first conversation in English since arriving at the airport. Colonel Azam was extremely cordial, asked me how I was doing, and went on for a bit about how we were friends, etc etc. Then he makes an attempt to sweet-talk me into buying my own ticket back to Egypt. I return his smile and just shake my head. He asks if I’ve called the U.S. embassy and I reply that yes, I spoke to embassy officials several times the day before (three times, to be precise), and they had advised me to buy my own ticket, leave, and have my friends ship me any of my remaining possessions in my apartment. He throws up his hands like the problem was solved, “Of course you should listen to your embassy then!”

I told him that the U.S. embassy might have hung me out to dry yesterday, but if I was still at the airport after a week they’d have to act. I told him I’d contacted a friend who writes for the New York Times (true) and that the longer I was at the airport, the bigger the story would become (partially true). I told him that I had no problem staying at the airport for a month and was quite content (100% bullshit).

At this point I ask him, “Do you love your country?”

He nods.

“Do you love your king?”

Again, he nods.

“Well,” I tell him, “if you love your country, and you love your king, then you will personally buy me a plane ticket back to Egypt, because each day I’m here in this airport, it is bad for your country, and bad for your king.”

Colonel Azam shrugged his shoulders and explained that he would love to buy my ticket and then gave some excuse about having to get his monthly paycheck and not having enough money or something along these lines. I then asked if there was anything else to talk about, and Azam shakes his head.

“Ok,” I announce, “can I go back to my room now?” And with that, I stood up and left Colonel Azam with his jaw on the floor.

For the remainder of that morning I sat in the detention room with my laptop out, being as vocal as possible about the fact that I was writing an article about my experience in detention. Whenever a security official would come in the room, I’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s your name? You know, I need it for my article.’

Soon one particular officer started coming in every 15 or 20 minutes, asking me questions and writing my answers down. He asked me what articles I’d written that I thought might have offended the sensibilities of the mukhabarat. I told him. He asked about any relationships I had with members of the opposition movement. I made it clear that I only knew certain individuals as journalistic contacts. He asked how long I planned to stay in Jordan, and I made it clear that I just wanted three weeks to pack up my things and then I’d be off to Afghanistan for a new position.

Finally at 1 pm, after 26 hours at the airport, my three-time escort to KFC walks in, hands me my passport, and giving me a genuine smile tells me, ‘Welcome to Jordan. You are free to enter the country.’

To be honest, I was absolutely stunned, much more so than when I was initially denied entry. I was 100% sure that after another day or so (at the most), the airport’s security forces would figure out a way to budget a plane ticket for me back to Egypt. What I am speculating is that the airport’s security officials started building their own file on me after the second day, and then contacted the mukhabarat saying something like, ‘We have an insane American here making a giant fuss, and if there isn’t anything he did other than write an article or two, we should probably just let him in.’

And the reply from the mukhabarat (according to my theory), was ‘Meh, ok fine.’

And so that is the story of how I got back into Jordan and had three amazing weeks saying goodbye to friends and planning for adventures in Afghanistan (where I am now).

I hope you enjoyed it.

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Having a beer in detention, just to say I did. I wasn’t lying when I said the security officials were accommodating.

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