A poem by Samay Hamed

us-soldier-afghan-children

Afghan kids with a US soldier. (Source)

My child!
You will grow up even on American donated powdered milk
As I did grow up on Russian donated Moloko,
On counterfeit Pakistani Milk Pack, or
On pasteurized Iranian milk that I drank with insults.
You will grow up, too, even on expired milk from ISAF soldiers,

But you will not become a grown-up.

My Child!
You can write on the body of a donated Indian plane, Ariana!
And fly from Frankfurt to Kabul jan;
You can write on the forehead of a donated Pakistani bus, Milli Bus!
And go from Maiwand Avenue to Darulaman,

But you will not reach anywhere.

________

Original in Persian.

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Can Cities Save Afghanistan?

From the article:

Contrary to many other developing countries, where a few people control vast areas of land, the majority of the agricultural lands in Afghanistan are small family plots. However, due to the recent population growth, these plots are increasingly divided into smaller pieces among the heirs, making it even harder for families to live off of them. Plus, the un-mechanized mode of production continues to be a challenge for Afghan agriculture yields. If Afghan leaders want to root out the endemic poverty and malnutrition in the country, they need to focus on city-based economic sectors instead of the underwhelming agricultural one.

Read the full text in Foreign Policy. Or in The Kabul Times, where they’ve reprinted it with no mention of my name.

New article on census politics in Afghanistan

A short article of mine, “Afghanistan’s Demographic Drought,” was recently published in Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Channel. Please click here to read the full text.

Update: the Persian translation of the piece appeared in the daily Etilaat Roz (October 25, 2014) in Kabul. You can read it on their website.

The Hazara work ethics

Hazara Juwalis (porters) in Kabul / January 30, 2012

Hazara Juwalis (porters) in Kabul / January 30, 2012

Some observations from two foreigners (a US engineer and a British diplomat) working in Afghanistan about the work ethics of the Hazaras:

When the men from the south were gone I called for volunteers among the Hazaras, feeling intuitively that at least we had come among men again instead of children… In the first place, even from two days’ acquaintance with the steady Hazara people, I felt free to leave the pack train in their charge without remaining constantly in sight.

Fox, E. F. (1943). Travels in Afghanistan, 1937-1938. New York: Macmillan. p. 251-252

The Hazaras differ radically from the Afghans, with whom they have been constantly at feud, and retain many of the traits of their Central Asian ancestors.  They are honest, courageous, good-natured, and simple. They make excellent servants, first-rate solders, and cheerful labourers.

Fraser-Tytler, W. K. (1950). Afghanistan: A study of political developments in Central Asia. London: Oxford University Press. p. 57

About non-Hazaras, I have posted some interesting quotes too, click here.

Post-Taliban Afghanistan in three words

A hotel in Kabul (Photo:  John Moore/Getty Images)

A hotel in Kabul (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Years ago, I heard it from someone in Kabul.

People in Afghanistan, belong to one of the following three groups:

– Al-Qaeda (Taliban, insurgents and other terrorists)

– Al-Faeda (“the profit”, government officials, aid community, foreigners)

-Al-Gaeda (“the fucked”, the rest of the country)

Needless to say, I belong to the last group.

The future historians of Afghanistan, can sum up the entire history of the last decade in these three words. So deep!

A new building for Kabul Museum

Kabul Museum (Photo: MastaBaba / Flicker)

The US embassy in Kabul is going to contribute $5 million to the construction of a new building for Kabul Museum. This probably is one of the best news coming out of that embassy, this year so far.  The very idea of having a museum which could justly represent the long and turbulent history of the country is pretty exciting, but what worries me is that, the museum may be built like so many other government buildings in recent years funded by the US and other international donors in the country.

This is a museum after all; the architecture and building for a museum is as important as the things you exhibit in it.  I am sure the US officials and some of the people in the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture know that. With $5 million you can’t built a national museum, you are not building a ministry or a police office. I hope there is more money to invest in the proper design, construction, security equipment, preservation and exhibition methods for the new museum. I really don’t want to see a gaudy police office tomorrow, with blue glasses and a “National Museum of Afghanistan” sign hanging from top of its door. After almost a century of being cruel and unjust to this neglected institution, it is the time to do justice to this museum and build a world class building for it which could symbolize both the darks and delights of our history.

The history of Kabul Museum is as tragic and painful as the history of Afghanistan itself. The museum was opened in a modest building in 1918 on Bagh Bala hill (where Hotel Intercontinental is located now) as Ajayeb-Khanah (literally, “house of wonders”,  which is probably a misunderstood translation of the word “museum”, in Latin sense of the term). The collection was mainly historic manuesscripts of Quran, divans of poetry, items from the Anglo-Afghan wars and local handicrafts. In 1924, King Amanulla Khan moved the museum to the Arg, the royal palace where it was more enriched by the private donations of some Kabuli antique collectors. The museum remained there until 1931 when king Nadir moved it to the current building in south-west of Kabul, which then, was the Kabul Municipality.

Several times the collections in the museum were looted or destroyed, the worst one was between 1992-1995 when the mujaheddin groups used the building as a bunker. I am looking forward to read the book, which according to Guardian, Joanie Meharry an American scholar is writing about the history of Kabul museum. The tragedies of Kabul museum is a national embarrassment for all Afghan people who had a sense of belonging to it, documenting the history of atrocities committed against it, is a good way to remind us all of our responsibility in protecting the nation’s cultural heritage.

But “responsibility”? such a foreign word for Afghans!

The taste of Kabul air

Darul-aman Road, Kabul / Sep. 2010

The polluted air is probably the most distinct urban characteristic of Kabul city. This air claims 3000 lives each year, which is higher than the number of civilians killed by NATO forces and Taliban combined.

This beautifully shot report by Karishma Vyas gives some good insights into the problem:

One issue which was not noted in the report is Kabul’s lack of any mechanism or infrastructure for human waste management. Kabul doesn’t have a sewage system, this makes you wonder where all the the human waste in this over-populated city of 5 millions go? According to Prince Mustafa Zahir, the director of Afghanistan Environment Protection Agency, a considerable part of it goes into air. “According to our lab tests”, he told a reporter in December last year, “the Kabul’s polluted  air contains 32 percent human waste, in the form of powder”!  Well, in other words, those who live in Kabul city, literally eat $hit on a daily basis without knowing it, (no offence)!

This is a major health and social problem in Kabul, which is getting worse every day. The Kabul municipality has proposed a plan for construction of Kabul sewage system which will cost $850 millions. This is a lot of money that no one will pay, I am sure.  The corrupt officials in the government, would rather eat shit than investing money in infrastructure.

A new building in the presidential compound

The new Presidential Information and Coordination Center in the Arg, Kabul (Photo: dvidshub)

Bogdan Figiel, an American architect from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has designed a new building in the the Afghan presidential compound, known as the Arg (a Turkish word which means palace). The new building which is located right opposite to the Hamid Karzai’s office, will house the Presidential Information and Coordination Center, where the intelligence, press and PR affairs will be carried out.

This $ 7.3 million project is expected to be completed in 2013 and give a new look to Afghanistan’s most turbulent courtyard. Mr. Figiel who has been desinging office buildings in the US and militeray camps in Afghanistan, was commissioned to develop this project after winning a design competition among the architects in  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Unlike other architects who presented more modern looking designs, Mr. Figiel’s work had strong classical features inspired by European classicism and also the surrounding buildings in the Arg which are neo-classical structures with some indigenous elements built in 1880s. President Karzai choose Mr. Figiel’s work over others – at least he has a taste in architecture!

Almost all the buildings built by Americans in Afghanistan in the past ten years (not before that) are remarkably low quality and ugly. Schools, bridges, office buildings, etc, all are built by tasteless Pakistan-educated Afghans who apparently have the wrong definition of beauty. The Americans did not even bother control and evaluate the projects properly, they just acted as dump bags of Dollar. ………. Hopefully, this new building in the Arg will be a pleasant work of art to look at and work in, … and in addition to other functions, teach some architectural lessons to those idiots in the palace.

Read other details about this new building in here.

How (some) foreigners see Afghans?

Americans moving their damaged vehicles, Kabul / September 2010

On May 24, last week I was invited to talk about Afghanistan’s development issues  for a small class of graduate students at uOttawa who are being trained to become international development specialists.  The class is actually focused on Afghanistan and is taught by the former director of CIDA in Kabul. My lecture was entitled The “hearts and minds” of Afghans, in which I talked about the history of development aid in Afghanistan, aid dependency, failed state, security issues and how different players since 1880 has been trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghan people by different shapes and sizes of aid carrots. One of the issues I discussed was the colonialistic attitude of some western aid workers in the third world in general and in Afghanistan in particular.

I think one of the reasons why aid strategies in Afghanistan in the past 10 years have been a failure, is the inability of westerners to understand Afghans. The misinformation they had, led them to develop peculiar ideas about Afghanistan, its culture and people. Traditionally the westerners have known the Pashtuns as their partners in all levels of politics, security, development and culture and therefore have this untrue idea that all Afghans are like Pashtuns. Only since 1992 the Tajiks also have been entering their circle, to some extents. The Pashtunwali code of conduct, misogynist beliefs, hatred of others, close-mindedness and religious bigotry are believed to be shared by all Afghans which is not a realistic assumption about the whole Afghan society. I believe only the British and the Soviets had the deepest knowledge of Afghan people and politics as a result of the massive investment they made in understanding Afghans. The British, apart from an army of archaeologist, geographers, linguists, historians, anthropologists and politicians they sent to Afghanistan for fieldwork, they also translated many texts from local languages to English in order to get a sense of how Afghans think about things. Even the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland had a very productive Oriental Translation Fund.

Among the books the British translated is Tabaqat-i Nasiri of Juzjani a key historical text about Afghanistan and the region. The Russians also translated books into their language including all the important works of Faiz Mohammad Kateb (b. 1862-63 – 1931) the court historian who among others, authored Siraj al– tawarikh (Torch of Histories) which is considered to be the authoritative account of Afghan history (this book is translated by Robert D. McChesney a retired NYU professor from Russian into English but no one got interested to publish it, it still remains unpublished). But since the Americans arrived in Afghanistan they have done some things here and there with the high-tech facilities they have, but in terms of understanding Afghans and translating their books, they only have translated one book: My Life with the Taliban a very badly written Pashto dairy by a former Gitmo prisoner Abdul Salam Zaeef into English. Well, one should compare the choice of books made by the British, Russians and Americans, and get a sense of how far Americans go to get the right information about Afghan people.

Anyways, in that lecture, I shared a number of quotes from the international aid workers based in Kabul about Afghan people. These quotes are an example of how much the current army of western aid workers in Afghanistan know about Afghans. These aid workers were interviewed by Jennifer Fluri a geographer in Dartmouth College for one of her academic articles. I just put the quotes here and leave it to you to judge them. I personally agree with most of them, but I don’t think that you can generalize them to all “Afghan people”.

– “It’s extremely conservative, but very welcoming. They respect the fact that I am not Afghan, but [the culture]… well it is kind of crazy. Like the whole Pashtunwali, they will harbor enemies if you ask refuge, and they will turn on you if you screw up (female international development worker, USA, 26).”

– “Afghan culture is a lot about artificial hospitality. People are not very open, though they pretend to be. Afghans don’t appreciate closer interaction with outsiders and always maintain a distance. Hugging and kissing each other is quite superficial as people are not open. Afghans also take refuge in the name of religion and culture when they think that things are not happening the way they would like them to be (male international aid worker, UK, 25).”

– “The best way to describe it [Afghanistan] is Afghans have the emotional level of a 13-year-old. People will not and do not accept responsibility for anything both personally and nationally. It is always someone else’s job to take care of things … expectations are that you (internationals) must take care of things and that you have the capacity because you are a foreigner to take care of things and improve their situation, and now put that in the context of a 13-year-old and you have Afghanistan (female international development consultant, USA, 2006).”

– “They are like children in their capacity. I often think if we can put a man on the moon we should be able to teach an Afghan to think (female international development officer, USA, 2006).”

– “Afghanistan is bereft of skilled workers in almost all sectors, especially management/administration/finance; and what a challenge this presents in trying to help things/people “develop”. And, I would describe behavior and beliefs (to the extent that I understand them) and things that I admire (can’t think of any) and things that I don’t—girls can’t get to school, for example (female international aid worker, France, 2006).”

Fluri, J. (2011). Capitalizing on Bare Life: Sovereignty, Exception, and Gender Politics. Antipode, 43: no. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00835.x

 

“Aid for insurgency or insurgency for aid”?

Daikundi in the eyes of a girl from Nili, the provincial capital (Photo: Muzaffar Ali)

I come originally from Daikundi province – my parents were born there, though I have never been lucky enough to travel to that place. This time when I’m back to Afghanistan, I will definitely visit Daikundi and other parts of Hazarajat.

I have always been curious about the developments in Daikundi. My knowledge of Daikundi is limited to what I heard from my parents, my Daikundi-wal roommates in Kabul University dorm, my other friends from Daikundi and of course the history books. The national media (let alone the international ones) rarely mention Daikundi. Just occasionally I come across photos and blogposts about Daikundi on the web. I recently found Wazhma Frogh’s blog, she is a women rights activist and travels frequently to provinces, the post about her trip to Daikundi is really interesting and for me, heart-breaking too. She describes the physical character of Nili, the provincial capital and the depth of poverty striking that forgotten land and people.

Daikundi, along with Bamiyan, are the safest places in Afghanistan; in the former, the country’s first and only female mayor is working and in the latter, Afghanistan’s first and only female governor is deployed, but still it seems that these places, in particular Daikundi doesn’t merit any attention. The government’s exclusion of Hazarajat from development plans is understandable, because the people are Hazaras, no one expect more from this government. But why the international aid agencies are not willing to help these people in humanitarian and development aids? Some of these agencies misuse the peacefulness and open-mindedness of Hazaras and distribute talking bibles in their villages to “save” them from their miseries. These savors should know that if they do the same in any other parts of Afghanistan, the people would cut their heads and shove them somewhere in their bodies. This is the ultimate shamelessness to manipulate the poor to sell them some fairy tales while they have already enough of their owns. Most of the international aid agencies working in Afghanistan are either funded by individual donations or taxpayers money. In either way they have an ethical obligation to justly distribute the aid to all people in need. They should revise their politicized aid policies.  That school teacher in a small town in the US who donated $5 to charity after seeing a sad picture of Afghanistan on the news, will not forgive the aid agencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, if they only obey the politicians.

The photo above is taken by my cyber friend, Muzaffar Ali. He is a very good photographer based in Daikuni, working for the UN. His photography is my only source of visual knowledge of homeland, so far (to see his collection of photos from Daikundi click here). The UNAMA has an office in Daikundi, but I assume the only thing they are doing there is taking photos of these people to show them in New York, and raise more money to spend in Kabul and Kandahar.