Monthly Archives: August 2012

Tourism in Afghanistan

“Who you with?”

I looked back in the boarding line for the early morning Dubai-Kabul flight . The speaker was a man who looked to be in his 40s, short in stature, and wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap with “Retired U.S. Army” emblazoned across it.

“I’m a tourist,” I replied, stumbling over my words a bit, knowing how absurd they must sound.

“Right. I’m with Dyncorp. Who are YOU with?” he asks again.

“No really, I’m a tourist. I’m visiting a friend in Kabul. I’m not with anyone.” I realize at this moment that I’ve made a very unfortunate wardrobe decision as I enter Afghanistan for the first time. This guy is assuming that I am like him, a security contractor, or ‘mercenary’ in laymen’s terms.

Wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, I had inadvertently chosen the classic contractor outfit for my trip. ‘I need to buy some different clothes,’ I thought to myself as I got on the bus that would shuttle us to the plane itself. The contractor boarded the bus a moment later. He stunk of alcohol and paranoia, and latched onto me as the only other white person in the area.

“Where are you staying?” he asks.

“With my friend, he’s a reporter,” I reply.

“Which compound?” he asks, and then proceeds to rattle off a couple of names.

“It’s not a compound, it’s just private residence, a house. It’s in Qala Musa [a Kabuli neighborhood].”

I can see the contractor’s mind starting to explode at the thought of traipsing about Kabul without a trusty blaster in hand.

The contractor then began giving me his expert assessment of our fellow passengers on the bus.

“This guy right here, at your 3 o’clock . . . he’s scoping us out. Taliban motherfucker.”

Now, keep in mind that ┬áif you are ex-military white trash from America’s Deep South (this gentleman’s accent gave him away as a southerner), EVERY Afghan wearing traditional Afghan attire and sporting a beard no doubt looks like Taliban.

He then turns directly to the man in question and gives him a “Hey, what’s up?” (not a look, he actually says it out loud) in the most hostile, antagonistic way possible.

At that point I thought to myself, ‘I have got to get away from this guy.’ As the only two white people on the bus, it was clear that we had already been the subject of people’s curiosity. Now, thanks to Mr. Taliban Profiling next to me, we had the entire bus’s attention, and not the kind of Wedding Crashers positive attention that one would want.

A moment later, the bus finally stopped outside of the aircraft. I thanked God that I did not have a seat near the contractor, and after a short flight we touched down in Kabul.

As I took the five minute outdoor stroll to leave the Kabul International Airport, I walk by security contractors being met by their buddies in armored vehicles. You can see them throwing on their body armor and loading their weapons. To them, every inch of Afghanistan is a war zone. I keep walking, hearing the mechanical noises as rifle bolts are drawn back and bullets are snuggly deposited in the chambers of automatic weapons. I go through the final layer of security at the airport, and in a crowd of Afghans waiting eagerly for arriving friends and relatives I see Tom’s smiling face.

There’s three ways to do Afghanistan; there’s the security contractor way, where every Afghan is Taliban and you only leave your heavily-fortified compound in armored vehicles with guns locked and loaded. There’s the development worker way, where you take the dire warnings of your security team seriously and rarely, if ever, step foot outside of your compound. Finally, there’s the photographer/journalist way, where you weigh risks yourself, walk around with no security detail, and try to non-verbally communicate as much as possible (with smiles, body language, etc) that, ‘hey, I’m not a combatant and I’m not on anyone’s side!’

I’ve heard U.S. Marines say that “5.56 [the caliber of the bullets in their assault rifles] is a universal language.”So is a genuine smile, something that has served me well in my many travels.

When we arrived to Kabul, I found that Tom was snuggly set up in a little rustic urban estate house with a Chowkador, or servant, always on duty. He shared the neighborhood with several Afghan warlords, which meant that lots of armed guards were out and about on the streets and there was a general sense of peace and (relative) quiet.

As soon as I had a moment to settle in, Tom briefed me on the security situation in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. As I learned, safety was not a big issue in the capital city. Even with no ability in Dari and Pashtu, Afghanistan’s two primary languages, I would have little reason to be fearful walking around during daylight hours. That being said, Tom spent the first 24 hours with me whenever I’d go out so I could get an orientation of the city and how best to function in it as large, highly visible American man. This mainly involved being friendly and not being an asshole, which is something I strive to be at all the time when I’m in unfamiliar territory.

I’m not going to go into detail about all the things I did in Kabul; I’ve waited too long to write this post, and the details that make such travel narratives engaging are hazy at this point (besides the introduction, which I wrote before I even left the country). Thus I will simply post a couple of photos, which you can enjoy below.

Playing cricket in the park, Kabul

Security at a restaurant, Kabul. All establishments frequented by Westerners have armed security

The tailor shop that made my shalwar khamiz suits

There is simply not that much to do in Kabul, so after going through the tourist highlight reel I started doing research on where to do a nice 2-3 day trip. The original idea was to go to Bamiyan, the (former) home of two massive Buddha statues carved into a rock face (since destroyed by the Taliban, thanks assholes). The incredible Band-e-AmirLake is just beyond to the west. This plan was scrapped the night before, when Tom received reports that the road to Bamiyan was closed due to a military offensive along one stretch.

The next best option was Herat, a city to the far west of Afghanistan that was once a part of Iran (the country’s western neighbor). A predominantly Tajik city with a high level of security, a general distaste for the Taliban, and a number of impressive sites to see, Herat turned out to be a phenomenal choice. My first day there Tom arranged for an Afghan photojournalist to pick me up and take me around. He did not speak a word of English (at least as far as he would let on), but we had an altogether pleasant day visiting the city’s massive, re-built citadel, its trademark masjid (one of the world’s largest), and some ancient leaning towers.

My guide was able to communicate to me that he would not be available for day two (out of three) of my trip due to work commitments, which meant that I’d be on my own for the remainder of my time in Herat. I had no problem with this, and when he dropped me off at my hotel I began using the interwebs to see what other sites I could check out in the city. This is when I met a young man who I shall call “Ahmed” for the sake of his security. Ahmed was visiting his friend, the receptionist at the hotel, and when he saw me he quickly introduced himself in American-accented English and explained that he was an ex-U.S. Army interpreter. After operating in different areas in Afghanistan, he explained, he was forced to quit the job when the Taliban learned his identity and threatened reprisals against his family. Therefore he returned to his native Herat and began medical school.

Now I take risk management fairly seriously when I travel, but I also believe that if you are intensely risk averse, you miss out on a lot of the main benefits of travel, mainly meeting new people and learning about the country you are visiting on a deeper, human level. Ahmed seemed like he had approached me simply because he genuinely liked Americans, and so I asked him if I could pay him to be my tour guide the next day. He said yes, and as a result I was able to able to have an incredibly unique day, though not before I did some solo wandering that evening.

I took off for what may be considered ‘Downtown’ Herat to have dinner at a traditional Afghan restaurant. I blew people’s minds as perhaps the only white person to have ever stepped foot in the establishment, and then proceeded to take a stroll through the market area to blow minds there as well. One shopkeeper was particularly excited about having a Western visitor coming through, and his English was quite good. I started chatting with him and this soon turned into an impromptu question & answer session with a growing crowd of curious Heratis. There were obviously few American who had simply come through Herat as tourists, so people had questions about me, about America, and about my various travels (I like to think of myself as a budding Ibn Battuta of sorts).

The next day started with a special tour of Herat’s AWESOME Mujihadeen Museum (not yet open to the general public) and ending with an incredible dinner at Ahmed’s father’s house that included long discussions about the future of Afghanistan and the fate of the country after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces. As with Kabul, I will include a couple of my favorite pictures below.

Dinner, Herati restaurant.

Participants in my Q&A session, Herat

The citadel, Herat

Now when I returned to Kabul (boarding my airplane with a handwritten ticket, might I add), I had enough time for one more day adventure. I chose to go to Panjshir, the province of one of Afghanistan’s mightiest heroes, Ahmed Shah Massoud. What is there really to say about Panjshir, except that it is spectacularly beautiful. A winding, two-lane highway takes you into the mountains where I took a who bunch of pictures of war junk, beautiful landscapes, and finally the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud himself.

Cool war junk (there was tons of it), Panjshir

Final resting place of Ahmed Shah Massoud, Panjshir

Was I scared at all on the trip? Can’t say I was. The scariest thing I experienced the entire time was on my last day, when I realized I barely had enough time to finish preparing my postcards and picking up three shalwar khamis suits that I had ordered, meaning that I would have to take a taxi into the heart of Kabul in rush hour traffic to pick up the items, and then turn around and head the opposite direction to the airport to catch my flight to Dubai. Miraculously, I managed this feat and did not miss my flight.

This is probably the only time I will ever go on a vacation without seeing a single other tourist the entire duration of the trip. Seriously, I saw some of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life and there was not a HINT of another tourist. When I was in Herat and Panjshir, I did not see another white person the whole time. That’s four days of no white people on and eight days without seeing a tourist.

Who can beat that?

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The Great War for Civilization

In 2010 I read a book that will probably remain one of my favorite works of all time, Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. The book is a first-hand narrative account of basically every major event in the history of the Middle East (and many major events in Afghanistan and Iran). The title of the book was taken from an inscription on the back of a World War I campaign medal awarded to Fisk’s father, a veteran of the first “Great War for Civilisation.”

I am now going to adopt this phrase to describe my assessment of the culture war the human race is currently engaged in, not simply in America or the Middle East, but on a global level. I live in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and have for the past three years, so naturally much of what I write is in the context of my extended residency in this country.

First, let’s talk about the word “civilization.” In Jordan, the word cannot be used without arousing a kerfluffle amongst both Arabs and Western liberal academic types. As a former colony and then quasi-colony of the British Empire, Jordanians assume that if I label a part of the culture here as “uncivilized” (e.g. honor killings), then I must automatically believe, as a white American, that my own race of people (the pale faces) and country (Amurca) represent all that is civilized. This could not be farther from the truth.

I define “civilization” as the desired endgame in the human race’s long, stumbling battle to conquer our most basic, primal human instincts. I am speaking of the instincts of men to dominate women. The instincts to fear what you don’t understand. The instincts of humans to form collectives based on religion, race, or nationalism and use that strength to project power on others.

For all my American friends out there who think you are from a “civilized” country. I am here to tell you that you are not. While you may be swimming in a sea of iPhones and have your First World problems, I have some mind-blowing news; your country is not only NOT exceptional (Stephen Walt, do tell), but also, examined region by region, not yet fully civilized.

My hand is too fat to get into this Pringles container, I must be civilized!

Let’s work on defining “civilization” a bit more, shall we. Civilization is not based on race. It is not based on religion. It is not based on clothing. It is not based on the type of food you eat or how you eat it. To get into specifics, the following is a non-exhaustive list of the traits of civilization:

1.) Groups that are historically vulnerable are protected by a governing entity (the State). Such groups include (but are not limited to) women, children, the LGBT community, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities.

2.) People are allowed to change their religion at will without repercussions.

3.) People are allowed to choose their spouses with full freedom, without being constrained by family or community pressure.

4.) Individuals settle issues on a one-on-one individual basis, whether through discourse or the legal system, without using family/tribal connections to settle matters extra-judicially, e.g. targeting innocent, un-involved persons who may be from the rival’s tribe/sect/etc..

5.) Religious/ethnic/tribal majorities are not allowed to project power on minority groups.

Are we clear? Great, now I shall continue . . .

The Great War for Civilization is being fought in every country and in every community in the world. It is being fought in France, where Muslim schoolgirls cannot wear their headscarfs when attending public schools. It is being fought in Norway, where the atrocities of Anders Breivik punctuated the rise of a savage, Islomophobic, intolerant right-wing movement (inspired in part by savage right-wingers in America, mind you). In rural, underdeveloped communities in Jordan, women can be killed and raped with minimal punishment when the word “honor” is involved.

In my homeland, America, the war is being fought on multiple fronts. The American Jewish community agonizes over its support of Israel – the world’s last apartheid state – based on its primitive, tribal affiliations to their Israeli co-religionists. American Christians – especially in the half-civilized Deep South – continue to try to flex their muscle by trying to impose their views on abortion, alcohol purchase, and LGBT rights on non-Christians.

Another American politician spits in the eye of civilization by supporting apartheid in the holy land

These so-called Christians burn the holy texts of others, advocate for the wholesale destruction of other countries, and attempt to demonstrate their dominance in their communities with religious displays on public property. They call for fundamentalist Christian teaching of the origin of the universe in public school curriculums, while scoffing at the scientific method and the theory of evolution.

The paradox of fundamentalist Christian America, in a nutshell

On the opposite end of the spectrum, on the ideological left, the products of liberal Middle Eastern Studies Departments (justly) rail against Israeli crimes against humanity, though conversely draw red lines in the sand around the Arab/Muslim world. They warn critics that there are topics that non-Arabs (the pale faces) are not permitted to speak about. They bandy about words like “racist” and “bigot,” though their own views on who can and cannot speak are purely based on ethnicity and skin color.

These are the cultural relativists and apologists, the ones who say that we, as Westerners, are not permitted to make judgments or critical remarks on such things as so-called honor crimes or gender-discriminatory nationality laws. We (the pale faces) cannot comment on other people’s culture, no matter how repugnant some practices may be. Besides, claim the cultural relativists/apologists here in Jordan, Jordanian society will eventually reform itself, incrementally. Jordanian women will ‘one day’ succeed in securing their own rights, with outside pressure from non-Arabs deemed – subjectively – unhelpful. Teenage Jordanian girls will ‘one day’ not have to worry about getting kidnapped, raped for three days straight, and then having to marry their rapist (this really happened, fyi). One day . . .

I remember raping your mother for three days straight, and then she had to marry me or be killed by her own relatives. That’s where you came from junior!

I could not disagree more with these relativists and apologists. I am saying that we need to step beyond race, beyond religion, beyond nationality. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, I am saying that every struggle in the world for basic human rights is every other human being’s problem. I am saying that there is no monopoly on criticism; critics of Israel must not be labeled anti-semites, while non-Arab critics of so-called honor killings must not be labeled racists or bigots.

Wait, you’re criticizing us for spitting on little girls in our neighborhood if we don’t like how they dress?! Yup, you must be a Nazi anti-semite . . .

The Great War for Civilization isn’t one of the West vs. the barbaric hordes of the developing world; it is a war that is taking place on every continent, in every country, in every community, in every individual. It is a war against our very own instincts, our very own impulses, our very own human nature to hate and destroy. It is the human instinct to build power in numbers based on religion, race, or nationality and then project that power using force or the threats of force.

How dare you support gay marriage! Quake in fear at our power to give ourselves heart disease! [Note: sentiments not sanctioned by Jesus Christ]

The path to civilization starts with recognizing that the world is not held back by Arab, White, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, American, or Jordanian problems, but rather by human problems. We need to fix them together.

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