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.



Al-Farabi (872-950 AD)

Al-Farabi (872-950 AD)

I just wanted to share an aphorism from the great Al-Farabi, a man who is known in the Muslim world as “the second teacher” – the first teacher being Aristotle. An influential political philosopher, he also wrote extensively about cities.  When reading this  following passage of his, I couldn’t help but think about Kabul, our open city which resembles a painfully ill living body with no physician around to take care of it – to use the Farabian metaphor.

“Just as the health of the body is an equilibrium of its temperament and its sickness is a deviation from equilibrium, so, too, are the health of the city and its uprightness an equilibrium of the moral habits of its inhabitants and its sickness a disparity found in their moral habits. When the body deviates from equilibrium in its temperament, the one who brings it back to equilibrium and preserves it there is the physician. So, too, when the city deviates from equilibrium with respect to the moral habits of its inhabitants, the one who brings it back to uprightness and preserves it there is the statesman. So the statesman and physician have their two actions in common and differ with respect to the two subjects of their two arts. For the subject of the former is souls and the subject of the latter, bodies. And just as the soul is more eminent than the body, so, too, is the statesman more eminent than the physician.”

Al-Farabi (2004). The Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Texts (trans. by Charles Butterworth). Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p.12

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!

Dubai-Kabul air traffic

There is a surprise in the number of international visitors to Kabul during the last year. According to a new study by MasterCard the outbound passengers from Dubai to Kabul rose from 80,396 in 2009 to 261,063 in 2010. Dubai is the principle gateway through which the visitors to and from Afghanistan connect to other destinations. This year Kabul is expected to attract 390,041 air passengers from Dubai, which makes it the UAE’s third ranking destination following Kuwait and Doha, and ahead of London.

I just can’t understand this, from one hand the security is getting worse in Afghanistan, people are loosing hope especially after the NATO solders have started to pack up, on the other hand there is a flight rush to Kabul. Even Turkish Airlines, which according to the “World Travel Awards is Europe’s Leading Airline Business Class”, has began flights from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to Kabul three times a week.

This is probably part of the paradoxes of all post-war cities. I can see a thick air of hope and despair in the dusty sky of Kabul, with planes wandering around. I wish things go well for this city after all.

After Kabul Bank, this is the turn for Azizi Bank

Some Afghan MPs have revealed that Azizi Bank the second largest private bank in Afghanistan is on the edge of collapse. However the Bank executives try to downplay the whole thing. Haji  Zaher Qader on the Sunday session of the parliament said: “On breakfast time, they brought me $1 million and told me Haji Zaher be quiet! but Haji Zaher is not born from the kind of mother who would shut up for  money.”

According to 8 Subh newspaper, Azizi Bank had bought $450 million worth of properties in Dubai before the 2008 recession, now the value of this huge investment has dropped up to 60 percent. Also the real estate investment inside Afghanistan by Azizi’s Onyx Construction Company is widely believed to be fraudulent. The company has allegedly fabricated ownership documents in order to get official permit to build a residential township on a government land in Kabul city.  As Hossain Fahimi, another Afghan MP  has told TOLONews, I also think that “Azizi Bank would face the same fate as the Kabul Bank.”

The code for pimps?

An interesting report in WSJ about a new urban myth in Kabul city: the number 39.

When I was in Herat city, the number 39 was notoriously believed to be the code for pimps. No one wanted to have it on his car license plate, cell phone or even age. If you asked someone “how old are you?” he would say “around 40” or “1 year less than 40” if it was in the passport office. Sometimes people used 38+1 instead of 39 when had no other choice. In 2004 when I came to Kabul I didn’t notice this attitude towards 39, and I was so happy to see Kabulis were not superstitious like Heratis who probably imported this odd idea from Iran.

But last year when I went to Kabul, a friend of mine who is a car dealer told me that the 39 thing has arrived from Herat to Kabul as well, and now no one buys cars with a 39 on its license plate. He told me stories about a guy who resisted the sweeping urban myth and said it was bullshit, but after a month he begged him to “melt” his car.

The number 420 is also a nationally recognized bad number in Afghanistan which means a dishonest and villain person. People use it to tease each other, to curse, or in Panjshir to compliment! (However I’ve noticed that in Canada the number 420 has a better reputation ;)

There is an ancient Islamic science of numbers known as Abjad, in which each alphabet letter is coded with one number and then instead of using a certain number you use a word, a phrase or a verse of poetry to express something.  Most of the classical biographers used a poem to say an important date. Even some old grave stones have a poem instead of the exact date of the death of the person. Probably they believed it was easier to memorize a poem than a number.

Even today some Abjad numbers are widely and respectfully used in all Muslim countries like the number 786. Muslims usually begin a speech or any writing piece such as a letter with “In the name of Allah the most compassionate the most merciful” which is the first verse of Kuran. Since a piece of paper bearing the holy name might be unintentionally disrespected by throwing, burning or  smashing, so the people instead started to use 785 which is the Abjad number for that verse.

I am not sure if 39 has an Abjad basis as well, but to me it seems very ridiculous. The notion of “pimp” in Afghanistan had already been covered with myths. One was the vague Dari term we use for pimp: mordah gaw, which literally means “caw dead” or “someone whose caw is dead”. We don’t have any other equivalent for pimp in Dari; Iranians use other words for it. I have always been wondering what kind of connection there might have been between a pimp and a dead caw? This is even more bizarre than the connection between a pimp and the number 39.

At which city to stay?

Abul-Fazl Bayhaqi (995-1077) the great historian at the court of Ghaznavid Empire has said:

Do not stay in a city which does not have a just ruler, a proficient physician, and running water.

.در شهری مقام مکنید که در آن حاکمی عادل، طبیبی حاذق، و آبی روان وجود ندارد

Does Kabul have any one of these three?


The quote from Mosafer’s blog (in Persian).

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.

The garbages in Kabul

Kabul city, September 2010

In Jebrael, a small well-managed neighborhood in west of Herat city, people pay a monthly fee to a private contractor who collects their garbages. That area is a Hazara quarter, so it is very natural that they should take care of themselves because the government trucks will not come even close to their homes in a million years. However, there is one thing that Kabul a city with a non-functioning municipality, can learn from Jebrael: privatization of public services.

In Kabul tons of garbage is produced each day, but the City is not able to collect even half of it with the 80 trucks it has. So what to do? The municipality has already privitised some city services, like the bus system – which didn’t get any better for inadequate vehicles and bad management.  Probably they should also try it on other services as well, like the garbage collection. The city of Toronto has recently decided to privative some public services, starting from garbage collection.   Of course Toronto – with all the resources it has, is not comparable to Kabul in anyway, but from  a managerial point of view, it works better for the City to privatize the tasks like garbage collection,  and focus more on planning, regularisation of housing and urban re-development projects, enforcing these regularization and fighting corruption.

Because in this case people would “pay” to this private contractor and expect them to take responsibility for the public sanitation of the city. Right now, the “safayee” money that residents pay, is so small and even that small amount gets lost in the corridors of corruption in the municipality.  The real problem in Kabul city (and whole Afghanistan at large) is that people are used to heavily subsided and free public services since the King Zahir, on the other hand government is weak and corrupt and can’t afford these services. So if the private monsters take over these works, they will deliver services and ask the “price” for it from the people, and the municipality should act as a regulatory body who controls the things.

The westerners introduce only a caricature of the “values” they have back home to Afghanistan; the democracy is the dirty farce we are forced to wittniss in general elections, the free market is the loose borders through which the neighborer stuff the country with their outdated garbages, all the money-lending governmnet banks, like the Bank-e Zeraati (agriculture) and Bank-e Rahni (mortgage), are closed and the people are told to go to Kabul Bank! it is a free market after all. Privatization is selling the government properties  under-priced to your brothers….

It’s more than one year that I’m in Canada, I don’t see anything like that in this country, they have free market, they have a capitalist system, they are privatizing the public services, but also they have the laws and regulations for all these. Libraries are full of law books, they have rules for literally anything, and they enforce these laws. Afghanistan comparing to Canada, looks like a wild jungle. Of course, I hate to say the west should do this and do that for us, while it’s our country and we should take care of it. But what can we do?everything is under the control of the westerners particularly Americas, we can’t afford even a lunch for our solders let alone anything else. An american private can order an Afghan general, Karzai looks like a lazy first-grader in front of the principle, when meets a US official, we are a colonized country, even though they don’t write such in newspapers. Thus, I expect the westerners to take responsibly for most of the problems we have now in the sectors of governance and economy in Afghanistan.

I think the west namely the US, should have taught us the rules before pushing us into the game. We are playing the games we don’t know the rules, those few who know the rules, keep fooling the nation and manipulating the entire system.

I am not against privatization, in some cases and circumstances I find it very helpful, like the Kabul’s solid garbage collection, but we have to set the rules first.

Kabul at sunset

I think it was the evening of  September 23, last year when I went to Cinema Ariana to watch a very bad movie called The Black Tulip. After the movie, I walked from Forushgah to Shah Doshamshira bridge to catch the bus to West Kabul. On my way to bus station, I felt lost in the flooding river of crowd pressing me from all sides, it was like impossible to walk through all those cars, carts, men, women, porters, vendors, bicycles, motor bikes which intermingled under a thick blanket of sunset dust. It was the time when everyone especially the laborers, clerks, street children, beggars headed towards home and used the last minute chance to get the best bargains from fruit vendors who constantly shouted some repetitive words. In that crazy environment, I saw an old man standing on the edge of the Kabul river and praying with a relaxed and care-free attitude, it was impressive to watch him how he found a moment of solitude in  the middle of that massive hysteric chaos.

I tried to take better photos, but everybody was pushing me, so all my efforts resulted in  these shaky blurry shots that you see three of them here:

Pul-e Bagh Umomi, Kabul / September 23, 2010

Praying on the edge of Kabul river, Kabul / September 23, 2010

Shah Doshamshira mosque, Kabul / September 23, 2010