A safe haven in a war zone
Afghanistan's Mobile Mini Circus
Tucked away in a back street of western Kabul is a magical place. A happy and colourful place that provides a stark contrast to some of the dark and unhappy lives that exist in Afghanistan. And after the sad events of last Friday, when our local supermarket was attacked by suicide bombers, we all needed a little cheering up and a check on the reality that it's not all doom and gloom in Afghanistan. So we headed to the Afghan Mini Circus for Children.
Founded in 2002, just months after the fall of the Taliban, the Circus aims to provide educational and informative entertainment for Afghan kids. During the school holidays the children come to the centre to practice for three hours each day. There are also a number of teachers who teach subjects such as Maths, English and Religious Studies.
The first room was full of boys ranging from 11 to 16 years old, all quite tiny and fearless-looking. Their talents varied - some showed the grace and confidence of an experienced acrobat, others were more clumsy in their movements. The female French teacher communicated with them with only a few Dari words, but mainly by grabbing their limbs to imitate the correct movement. She was strong and confident and the boys seem to respect her thoroughly.
When I asked why there were no girls learning to perform acrobats, the intructor told me, in a very matter-of-fact way, that it was too early for a conservative country like Afghanistan. And I saw her point immediately. She said that first, with the boys, she would prove to the government and the people that this was something worthwhile, and then later consider bringing girls on board.
Another schoolroom – a circular glass greenhouse – was filled with lots of excitable young girls forming what was the juggling school. The commotion and happiness in that small confined space was quite overwhelming to say the least. With tennis balls and juggling pins flying around our heads, I almost felt like an 11 year old myself. After a miserable attempt to juggle with two balls, a small girl came over to me and says “Nay, Nay”, indicating my technique was totally wrong. She then proceeded to guide me by demonstrating slowly the correct technique. “Yak, do”, (“one, two”) she shouted repeatedly as she slowly and deliberately threw the balls into the air one at a time and caught them in an effortless manner. I can’t say I mastered the technique, but the next time I have to juggle I will remember my little lesson in Afghanistan.
Concentrating on her technique.
Me, learning how to juggle
The most delightful part of the day was when the girls in time with each other started to sing the Shakira song, ‘This is Africa’. Together they sang, “Waka waka, ma eh eh, waka waka ma eh eh, Cause this is Africa!”
Group shot with the girls
More information on the Mobile Mini Circus can be found on their website http://www.afghanmmcc.org/
Kite flying by the Timurid musalla mineret complex
I have now been to Herat five times. And each time I go, I seem to discover more and more. On this occasion, I was tasked with the job of photographer’s assistant! A friend of mine was asked to photograph historical sights in Herat, so I jumped at the chance to join, and practice my Dari as his translator. In the past year my Dari has progressed to the point I can now chat fluently about trivial topics. Which, for those of you that know me, is a speciality of mine even in English, as I love to natter away to my heart’s content to anyone that will listen. And in my new found role as a ‘fixer’ I was glad to be able to demonstrate my knowledge of the city, instructing our driver to go from one site to the next, taking into consideration the optimal time of day for the best light in each location. I was also able to recommend the best restaurants in Herat for our food breaks in between full busy days of photographing shrines, mosques and bazaars. My favourite restaurant is called 1001 nights, and is particularly special as it is fully staffed by dwarves, quite a source of intrigue as we gorge ourselves on unhealthy oil-drenched Herati cuisine. Not in a nasty way, but there is something quite amusing about these Afghan dwarves with their turbans carrying huge plates of steaming rice and kebabs at head height, elegantly manoeuvring their way through the tables. Quite a sight.
Trying to handle the Kebabs. These were serious.
As usual Herat offers a welcome escape from the dust and pollution in Kabul. With the recent announcement by Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) stating that air quality in Kabul is roughly 100 times worse than the minimum acceptable standards of US cities attributing to the death of 3,000 Kabulis every year, my lungs needed the break. With it’s tall pine trees that in Summer provide a welcome shade, in the Winter their presence and scent send a boost of oxygen rushing through your blood.
Eid celebrations with the local Herati women. Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli
discovering photography. Photo: Julian Albert
On this particular trip, being Eid, there were many people out and about enjoying the parks and the usual hangouts at the shrines. We stumbled across a number of black-turbaned, kohl-eyed men who had moved to Herat from the likes of Kandahar and Paktia. Most conversations with these obvious Talib-types were somewhat friendly. We were even invited to sit down and share a bag of Cheetos with a group of young Talibs. Although they didn’t want their photo taken, we all thoroughly enjoyed each others company on that sunny Eid day.
cheetos with the taliban
Other conversations were not so pleasant however, with one young man from Paktia starting to quiz me aggressively on my knowledge of Islam. Feeling mightily uncomfortable, we made a swift exit. However, what was interesting was that the more moderate Sufi Heratis were debating with him about his extremist views on life. Unfortunately, the poor kid had probably spent most of his life rocking backwards and forwards in a madrassa and was not really open to discussions, apart from forcing his own warped views on us.
Sufi and security deep in discussions at the Ansari Shrine
So, after two days of that type of excitement, we head back to the military airbase and hung out with the Italians for four hours waiting for our flight to take off. It has to be said, even in the dusty mess of an Afghan airbase, the Italians know how to live. We were invited for a delicious lunch which to my delight did not involve a hint of kebab meat, where I walked into a canteen full of what seemed like 500 Italian soldiers staring at me. I wasn’t really sure what to do as I felt their eyes follow me around the room, so in true SJ style, I just smiled. A nice end to another adventure in my favourite Afghan city, Herat.
Still smiling thanks to the hospitality of the Italians during our four hour wait at the military base.
The Friday mosque, Herat
Greetings in the Ansari shrine
God bless Merica
Cool on location set for the new H&M range?
My trip to Daikundi was one third of a three-part mission I am conducting for my new job. In my last year here I have been lucky enough to travel to many provinces, meet many types of people and have genuine moments of clarifiying experiences to keep me happy and motivated. My last year in Afghanistan has shown me a different way of living life. One that involves simply absorbing my environment without trying to understand everything, and through that absorption, slowly and gradually I have come to fall in love with a country that has provided a passionate, deep companionship as well as one that has pushed me to my boundaries and allowed me to grow as a person.
It started with a helicopter ride, my first helicopter ride ever in fact. Being a pseudo engineer and ex-almost pilot, this was exciting for me. The journey was smooth but loud, and we drifted West almost effortlessly across Afghanistan until we reached Daikundi, looking like a planet from outer-space.
my first helicopter ride
Daikundi presented itself to me like a breathe of fresh air. It was more remote and rugged than anything I have experienced so far. There is not a single paved road in the province, and with the harsh mountainous terrain, most parts of the area are cut off from the rest of the world and the country for up to five months of the year. It was already pretty damn cold there, and I was happy that I was not there to see the proper winter.
The people of Daikundi were exceptionally friendly. My Afghan colleague repeatedly showed shock when they didn’t try to rip us off in the bazaar when buying bread, eggs and fruit. “How much did he charge you for that?” he said. “15 AFS. Is that OK?” I said. “Yes….that is amazing. They are so honest here!”. And so we drifted through the bazaar with many inquisitive stares, but no hassle at all. The bazaar seemed idyllic to me. A place that is stuck in time, with a community buying and selling from each other in a circular fashion, with little outside commerce and an air of happy contentment of the simplicity of life.
famous Daikundi almonds
Most of the people in Daikundi are Hazara, and Daikundi was actually formed in 2004 to separate the Hazara region of Oruzgan and give them autonomy. With the peace that they are now able to enjoy, I felt as though Daikundi was a blank canvas. A province that could be developed, women educated, health care provided for all. Anything is possible.
Directorate of Public Health - one of the many qalas in Nili, Daikundi
I left Daikundi with a feeling of satisfaction. I had seen yet another part of the colourful spectrum that is Afghanistan, and it pleased me to the core. I felt re motivated and positive that Afghanistan is not a place of just war and destruction, but it is a place of beauty and simplicity.
Baking bread in Nili bazaar
26 years old
This past week has been full of ups and downs, a normal occurrence in Kabul. However this week was extraordinary in many ways. This week I turned 26 years old. And this week a friend of mine was killed whilst doing what she loved in Afghanistan.
On 2nd August 2010, I had the most lovely party with flowing champagne and watermelon cocktails. I was surrounded by people you only ever dream of meeting. The sort of people that inspire you from a single conversation. The type of people that have a story, a journey that has brought them to Kabul. Kabul is what unites us is this crazy world. Kabul, a city full of love, frustration, hate, war, passion and peace all at once. And so people come together and meet.
My birthday toast was short, and I know I forgot many thank yous, so I decided to rewrite it, knowing what I know now about the shortness of life and the gift we all have. The rewrite would have gone something like this:
"I thank you all for being here, it is so great to see so many amazing people in one room. The is the best semi-surprise party I have ever had!
First of all thank you Stephane who brought all of you together and made this day so special. You really have outdone anything that I could have imagined.
Second of all thank you to Eric Davin whose play list has kept Kabul dancing over the years.
It has been 8 months since I arrived in Kabul, and it has been full of ups and downs. For all of us here, Kabul is an emotional place. There are days when we laugh with joy and toast proudly to being in Kabul, doing something, making a difference, being a part of history. There are also days where the war gets to you, the horrors of the country become apparent, there is no longer a silver lining to the conflict.
I remember one of my first nights in Kabul, I was taken to a party where I saw a guy on the dance floor busting some crazy moves. I thought to myself, “where the hell have I ended up!”. I am now proud to say that guy is a good friend on mine. Sam French, an inspirational film maker, with more energy than most people I know have put together. He is the epitome of Kabul. Unforgettable.
You all here today are here because you affected me. You had an impact. The people that matter in this world are the people who make an impact, those that make a difference to the world. And you all here have done that in your lives and to my life.
Someone recently told me that 26 was the best year of their lives. 25 was a pretty spectacular year for me, so it’s going to be hard to beat.
So I challenge you all right now....Let’s make this the best year of our lives!"
This blog is dedicated to Dr. Karen Woo, a friend and most of all an inspiration. Let us all take a piece of her and carry her legacy forward. Be extraordinary at all times.
Karen at the fundraiser she organised for the Nuristan Medical Trek in July
The Afghan Dream
empty Buddha niches of Bamyan
Looking over the Bamyan Valley in the early fresh morning, watching the mist sail past the empty Buddha niches, almost exploring them before moving on, sends a feeling of absolute completeness over me. To feel complete is something that we all strive for. In love, work, experiences and dreams. So I savour this moment, as who knows when it may disappear.
Bamyan valley - view from my room
Bamyan is a magical place, one which I will never forget. There I felt far away from congested Kabul, far away from the breaking news stories of how the ‘war on terror’ is or, in most cases, isn’t progressing. The Afghanistan in Bamyan is another world. It is peaceful, clean and rich in the history that binds the people together.
women of Bamyan.
dinner and sharing stories at the end of the day
Two and a half hours west of the Buddhas lies Band-e-Amir ‘The Commandar’s Dam’. Before coming to Afghanistan I had heard so many stories about this place from friends who tried to describe to me the beauty of these six lakes. I must confess, they failed! Because as we approached the site, the first glimpse of deep lapis lazuli coloured water glittering in the sun literally took my breath away.
Band-e-Amir on a Friday is full of Afghan families picnicing under the waterfalls that surround the lakes. Some take advantage of its so-called magical powers and bathe in the icy water, in the hope that they will be cured of their diseases. Women walk along enjoying the cool sensation offered to them by dipping their feet playfully along the shoreline. Boys make fools of themselves trying to impress each other with tricks in the water.
debating about whether to dive in to the icy water. I opted for 'NO'
aerial shot of the lakes
After a feast of tender meat and potatoes, cooked in a portable pressure cooker, eastern by the side of a spectacular waterfall, me and my Afghan friends set on our way to walk around the lakes. To my delight, after Band-e-Haibat (the largest of the six lakes) we came across some smaller lakes, which were almost private pools made secret by surrounding foliage. Here the water was warmer and much more inviting. The temptation to strip off and plunge into the pool was overwhelming, but in front of my Afghan colleagues I thought I should retain a hint of decency.
So, I promised myself I would come back to this spot and fulfil that desire.
The Indian side
The perfect vacation?
Choosing a location to escape from Afghanistan is always a challenge. Holidays are always precious, but trying to weigh up whether to make the most of being in the region, see another Asian country at the risk of landing yourself in the same conditions of which you tried to temporariliy escape, or opt for a ridiculously lavish vacation on some perfect beach in a country that runs well, where you don’t have to worry about security, dodgy plane rides or getting sick from eating a seemingly harmless salad.
So Kashmir it was, where all of the above worries came into play in their own unique and memorable ways.
Having grown up hearing about Kashmir on the news, it always seemed like one of those far away ever-lasting conflicts that I really had no idea about or cared for much for that matter. Perhaps a bit like Afghanistan is for the majority of people now. But since starting my career in the world of conflicts/post-conflicts, my interest in these forgotten disputes has been kindled. So, Kashmir here I come!
The capital Srinigar was pleasant and we hired a house boat on the famous Dal lake. Besides the pressure to buy ‘real’ cashmere and other souvenirs, it was a pleasant town, apart from Friday. Having only seen two other foreign tourists (the indicator for any good holiday destination), we set off into the old city to explore the citadel that beckoned to us at the top of a large hill. Unfortunately the rickshaw we hired for an extortionate $1, couldn’t actually make it up the hill, so we had to walk the rest. It turns out the citadel is actually militarised (by the Indians), and they wouldn’t let us in. We did bump into a family who I greeted with a friendly Assalam Alaikum, which was cut short with a half-joking, half-annoyed, I’m a Hindu not a Muslim (with the wife pointing to the bindi on her head). Ooops, I should be more observant next time! I did try to explain to them that it simply meant ‘Peace be upon you’, and they shouldn’t be at all offended. To them, that was not really an acceptable excuse.
Dal lake, Srinigar, Kashmir
Mughal gardens. Srinigar, Kashmir
two minor birds. Fighting!
Next stop was the Friday mosque. Our friendly but weak rickshaw had waited patiently for us and was happy to take us. But as we were driving towards the mosque, we see a mass of male youth marching towards us. Our rickshaw driver does a swift U-turn and heads away from the crowd of rioters. The petrified look of shopkeepers hurriedly slamming close the shutters to their shops freaked me out. The sight of families running away from the scene also unnerved me. I thought to myself, in Afghanistan, at this point I would have received some sort of text message warning me of the danger and telling me what to do. Here, nothing. Anyway, we made it safely away only to wake up the next day to the news that the group had been demonstrating for independence of Kashmir and that a Kashmiri boy had been shot and killed by the Indian army.
Old City, Srinigar, Kashmir. Check out the colonial 'Ambassador' car. I want one of those!
Next on the itinerary was magical Ladakh. Apart from the highly militarised country-side that formed the routes from Srinigar to Leh, the road there provided by far the most stunning I have ever seen, and the drive the most hair raising!
view on the road from Srinigar to Leh
summitting Fotula pass
buddhist statue at the side of the road
buddhist prayer wheels on the side of the road
Not having been challenged enough in Srinigar we chose to head directly for a two day, 4,900 metre hike to calm the nerves. Another near death experience at an altitude not only have I never experienced before, but I don’t think I ever want to experience again. I never actually realised that breathing, a bodily function which I will never take for granted again, could be so difficult.
Ladakhi child from the family we stayed with in the mountains
Ladakhi woman washing the dishes
fresh and energised at the start of the marathon mountain summit
the view from the top. 4,900 metres
Then, finally, back to Delhi for some serious bollywood dancing action in one of the hottest clubs in town, where we some how were automatically admitted to the VIP section (despite my hideous sun and wind burned face). A great way to end a not-so-relaxing holiday full of new experiences and pushing life to the limit. Just what I love!
feeling my colonial routes in Delhi
Mughal architecture. Humayun's Tomb, Delhi
Four months on
THE CURIOUS TALE
OF THE SILENT LOVER
That day I arrived in the dark, wet, muddy city that was Kabul on November 22, 2009, I felt nervous, I felt excited, I felt sad, I felt regretful and I felt optimistic all at once. The moment I stepped off the plane and into the darkness was to be the start of something new; stepping far outside of my comfort zone into mystery. The unknown. Stretching my mind and my soul in ways that I never thought I could. Seeing and hearing sights and sounds that will stay in my mind forever.
The Middle East. My first love. He came, he seduced me and I fell completely and utterly in love. The type of heavenly love that takes over all of your senses, makes you feel safe, strong and balanced. The problem with first love is that it leaves you feeling curious; wanting to find out if there is a deeper love, somewhere in the world. Somewhere with different smells, different tastes, a different style of seduction.
The Middle East, my classic lover. Deep sunsets over expansive sand dunes; the call to prayer echoing at dusk from one beloved hill to another; the dark, deep, kohled eyes that grab you and make you feel like the only thing that matters; the passion of the people that you absorb, carry and reflect; the love; the friendship; the sounds; the laughter; the light.
All that a soul needs to live.
Afghanistan the clandestine lover. Afghanistan makes no attempt to entice you. You feel he maybe doesn’t want you, he doesn’t love you, he shows you no affection. But then somehow you find a way in, a way to understand this place of smoke and mirrors. You start to become comfortable, happy even, falling in love one addictive drop at a time. But suddenly and unexpectedly, just when you thought you understood, your clandestine lover rejects you, time and time again. He reminds you that his is a dangerous love, but you somehow cannot help but to fall again, and again, and again. The rejection drives you further.
You become an obsessed lover.
My love affair with Afghanistan is four months old. I’ve experienced those blissful moments of happiness, those rare glimpses into real life that I crave. This love affair has made me angry, and scared, it has seeped into my nightmares.
It is an intense love affair. In the moment, you can think of nothing else, nowhere else that you would rather be other than in the arms of this beautiful country. As the intensity subsides, you are left with love or hate. But nothing in between.
Afghanistan is like a silent lover. You want to know so much, but he will not tell. You can only guess. If only he would tell, you know you would fall. The Middle East told me everything, it held nothing back.
So how to get my silent lover to speak to me?
I will persevere
I will keep turning over the stones
Until I discover everything
BURN, BABY BURN
How to keep warm in Kabul in the winter?
As some of my readers will know, I am not a fan of the cold. In fact, anything below 25 degrees turns me into a human icicle and makes me extremely unhappy. So, having moved to Kabul I’ve had to figure out ways of keeping myself warm. Happily I’ve discovered that the Afghans have already invented many ingenious methods to keep toasty in the Siberian winters and with the first snow arriving this week I couldn’t survive without them. Here I will present just three.
Strategy One - Plastic over the window
In my country, we call this double glazing, but of course that all costs $$, so the Afghan way is to buy rolls of see-through plastic sheeting and stretch it across the windows. the next time someone gives you a quote for insulating your house, tell them where to stick it. Here’s a cheaper way to do it. Although you should note that it means you can’t open windows for the entire winter, and when combined with strategy 2, this can be a lethal cocktail.
plastic over my bedroom windows
Strategy Two - The Bukhaari
Anyone that has survived an Afghan winter knows all about the joys of the semi-deadly bukhaari. Each day I have a fresh bucket of saw dust delivered to my room ready for me to light. Eight times out of ten, I fill the room with smoke, but the other two times I get it right, I am blessed with a comforting, rustic heat that warms me to the core.
my bedroom bukhaari
Strategy Three - the Afghan Shawl
All around Kabul now you will see men wrapped from head to toe in a shawl made of thick wool. It looks so cosy that you almost want to go and snuggle. But I try to refrain from doing that most of the time.
keeping warm at Nadir Shah's mausoleum
Wish me luck!