25 January 2009

Rain falls first full day in Afghan capital

Winter in Kabul during more pleasant times, circa 1967-68, before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and the United States. From the online photo collection of the late Dr. Bill Podlich.

Rain is falling on my first morning in Kabul as I collect my initial observations after less than 24 hours here.

Kabul’s airport is dilapidated and passport control was slow yesterday, but the approach to the city by air is very impressive. At about 1,800 meters in elevation, the city is situated in a geographic bowl surrounded by sharp mountains devoid of any signs of vegetation. Qais Akbar Omar, who represents the fourth generation of carpet makers and was seated next to me on the flight, told me that Afghanistan has also suffered from global warming and that there has been below-normal levels of rainfall the last few years. Still, the taller peaks on the horizon were blanketed in snow.

Once outside airport terminal, security measures were evident everywhere: concrete barriers prevented any straight approach, or exit, by vehicle, speed bumps that were impossible to navigate at more than 5 mph, and Afghan National Army troops with automatic weapons.

The roads to the faculty housing compound were in poor shape, sections were unpaved, and here were no traffic lights, despite heavy vehicle use. We passed many small markets, several of which had carcasses of recently slaughtered animals, mostly sheep and goats I think, hanging outside. Beneath some were piles of skins. Many of the buildings we passed appeared not to have been maintained for many years. Street beggars, mostly older men, were common.

The contrast with Dubai, where I spent the night after my flight from Bishkek, could not be more sharp. Dubai, a global financial center on the Arabian Gulf and playground for the wealthy, is jammed with luxurious hotels, extravagant shopping malls, golf courses, and 21st century architecture, some of which are located on man-made islands and peninsulas. The principality hosts world-class golf tournaments, yacht races, track meets, horse racing and entertainment, including a jazz festival.

The faculty living quarters are modest and, outside the bedrooms, marginally heated. Electrical power occasionally disappears, though not for more a few minutes so far. I share a bathroom with another faculty member, Timor, an Afghan native who has returned to his homeland a week ago after 26 years in Germany. He cautioned me to unplug the water heater before I showered to avoid getting shocked. (It didn’t work.) We share a kitchen with one other faculty member, who I haven’t met yet, a native of Pakistan. Our building, one of four on the same compound housing international faculty, has a walled yard and garden with rose bushes, which will be welcomed in the spring and summer.

Outside yesterday, after arriving about noon, I could hear a rooster crowing, dogs barking, children playing, and in early evening the Muslim call to prayer. From overhead, I heard but did not see helicopters, presumably flown by U.S. military personnel.