Sunday, September 27, 2009

Music Festival

This past weekend was the Second International Music Festival of Kabul, a presentation by renown musicians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I attended three of the events.

The first was held at the French Cultural Center - traditional music from Badakhshan which is the northeast-most province in Afghanistan.

First on the program were Ustad Bahauddin and Dour Mohamma Keshmi who were billed as 'the most prolific living examples of the Afghan traditional music genre, Qataghani.'
The man in the center is Keshmi and he's playing a ghishak or a 'spike fiddle.' The opening few notes of each song sounded suspiciously like the opening few notes of 'Dueling Banjos.'

Next on the program was a younger vocalist, Meer Maftoon, who was a big crowd pleaser. A lot of clapping by the mainly male audience. I clapped right along. Come to find out he was singing about the charms of women - their voluptuous hips and honey lips, and all that. (Dari lessons are coming up this week!)

For some reason there was a young boy on the stage with the musicians -- babysitter problems?

Friday's event took place at Turquoise Mountain, the site of a Foundation that seeks to preserve, for one thing, an original Kabul settlement. Aparna Panshikar was the vocalist: singing classical Hindustani music.

I didn't hear her sing words, but only create sounds which blended with the instruments, sounds that you might imagine being carried by the wind through trees in a mystic garden at twilight. Haunting! The setting was the courtyard of the old building.

Here's a shot outside the complex.

And the last performance I attended was on Saturday night at the Goethe Institute Garden, attached to the Germany Embassy.

Security was particularly tight; German elections were Sunday and warnings had been received from al-Qaeda and the Taliban that retribution might be forthcoming for the country's presence here in Afghanistan. (Remember what happened at few years ago in Spain, involving their presence in Iraq.) At each of the other events, bags were checked and there was a security gate. Last night there were three security checkpoints and I was searched (by a wand) twice.

The singer is Hayatulla Gardezi, one of the 'most famous traditional pashtun singers.'

The high point of this event for me was the dancing...billed as a group of Attan (traditional Pashto dancers.) I thought at first it was simply some young men that were overtaken, as it were, by the music and decided to get up and dance, but overhearing a conversation later, it seems, not only was it planned, but the steps are ritualized as well. Not quite as 'in step with one another' as perhaps Greek men dancing, but every bit as rhythmic and fun.

Overall a great festival and -- it was free.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Flew to Herat with Dee on Friday (9/18). Plans were to spend a week, shopping and sightseeing.

I thought I had made reservations at the Marco Polo Hotel, at least that's the number I called...or so I was told. The car which arrived to pick us up from the Herat Airport was not from the Marco Polo, but the Hotel Nazary. It seems that the Marco Polo was closed. (When?) Anyway, the driver convinced us he was not the Taliban, but it was not a good start for our trip.

The next step was picking up our luggage, which involved gathering around a cart piled high with bags and being pushed and shoved by men frantic to grab their stuff. It's a good idea to pay the young kids hanging around to push and shove for you.

That taken care of we were off to the hotel. Pretty nice, as it turned out, but the lack of truthfulness at the onset was a bit off-putting.

An amenity offered by the hotel: a prayer rug, which was found folded on top of the room's hall tree.

The first night (Friday) it was suggested that we eat dinner at the hotel, but since it appeared that the 'restaurant' also doubled as a barber shop, we decided against it. We did have lunch and a dinner there the next day. Choices were limited (lamb with rice or chicken with rice), but the food was good.

We hired a taxi and a guide from the hotel and ate at the Thousand and One Nights Restaurant. It was on a hillside, but it was dark when we got there so not much of a view.

Outside there were rug-covered platforms for sitting on and eating. (Someone told us later that women are not allowed at this kind of seating; that we should have gone inside. But when we were there, another woman was eating in the area, so we figured it was OK.)

We ordered a pizza; I'm not sure why - tired and looking for comfort food, perhaps. The only one available was with ham and cheese. Imagine scraping the innards out of a ham and cheese sandwich, adding canned mushrooms and spreading the mix on pizza dough. Not a 'traditional' pizza, but not bad.

Cokes as beverages. We were told there were no restaurants in Herat that served alcohol. (I started to wonder how long the bottle of wine that I had put in my luggage was going to last the two of us.) In Kabul there are a few restaurants that serve wine and other adult beverages thanks to the influence and demands of the many internationals in town.

From the window of the hotel the next morning. Many more trees in Herat than in Kabul - actually there were tree-lined streets. And no dust in the air. That's a traffic information stand at the bottom.

An early visitor.

A shot through the screen, but enough to see the yellow beak and yellow eye markings. It's a myna bird. I'd never seen one outside a cage. He (she) and its mate hung around for a while, but they flew off when I tried to open the window.

Saturday our first stop was the Friday Mosque - or mosque of the 'day of assembly. 'WOW!

The door seen in the preceding picture. Gold?

Stacks of bricks are placed throughout the main courtyard - to hold down prayer rugs on a windy day.

Here's the workroom where replacement mosaic tiles are made.

This is one of the gardeners at the Mosque. He didn't speak English; I don't speak Dari. But he understood what turns out to be universal among plant lovers: pointing at a plant, making scissor-cutting motions, and smiling. I got a cutting of another succulent for my growing collection. (More about my plants later).

That's the Mosque across the street. (Note passenger on scooter.)

This area is rife with shops and we shopped. I bought two great looking necklaces, but also ended up with a dress with an embroidered front that had a hole in it, and a head scarf that was unraveling. It's a good idea to check the merchandise sometimes. It was fun anyway and I'm going to a tailor tomorrow who can mend my purchases.

We had our taxi driver and the guide from the hotel with us - not so much as protection, but as male companions.

Herat is much more conservative than Kabul. Most of the women on the street wore burkas or were heavily veiled. We were stared at everywhere.

Traffic in Herat is just as jam-packed as in Kabul, but there seems to be a bit more of a system - maybe.

Here are the pedicabs again - built around a motorcycle. They were everywhere. We made a major miscalculation in going to Herat when we did. We got there right before the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan. It's a gift-giving time with family and much eating, after the month-long fast. Being a holiday, no one works! No one...not just university professors.

Saturday, after we went to the Mosque, we were told that on Sunday all the shops would be closed - probably for the three days of Eid. So we decided to shop Saturday and sightsee when the shops were closed. That didn't quite work out.

We made plans to change our return tickets from Thursday to Monday, thinking we'd have two full days to see some of the other sights. The hotel told us that there would be only one flight to Kabul on Monday, but no one knew when it would be leaving.

Pause here while everyone grasps the significance of a flight with no scheduled time of departure.

They told us they'd call (whom?) on Monday and by then someone (?) would know when the flight was scheduled. I was getting nervous.

We thought it might be a good idea to visit the Pamir Airline office on Sunday morning to just check on what the Monday flight plans (if any) were.

Here's where the trip morphed into an old 'escape' movie: Getting the right documents, and then hurry, hurry. Jumping on the plane just as it's leaving with the bad guys close behind.

At the airline office the young man informed us that there were no flights from Herat on Monday or in fact for three days! Trapped. "Please tell me you're kidding," I said. He didn't understand my words; he got my expression.

"Just let me make a call," he says. I'm holding my breath. He speaks in Dari on the phone, could well have been talking to his girlfriend, hangs up, and smiles. "I have good news. One flight today."


"Oh, you go to airport in half hour, maybe hour and half."

"When does the flight leave?" I try again. He smiles and shrugs.

Off we race to the hotel - quick check us out - pack up - hurry hurry. The taxi driver races to the airport - hurry hurry. When we get there the only people around are four or five armed guards at the one else. NO ONE.

The driver talks to the guards (Dari again). When I start to say something, the driver makes a 'shut up' motion, let him handle it.

Anyway, apparently there is a flight, but when is the question. The driver can't come into the airport grounds with us, so Dee and I enter the gate and here's what we see.

Possibly a waiting room. But empty. Deserted. And we are the only people, except for the guards, anywhere around. ANYWHERE!

I decided about that time that I was prepared to sit on that yellow bench and wait for as long as it took for a plane to arrive and get me out.

Dee wanted snacks. She kept trying to ask the armed guards when the canteen was going to open. Geez.

A parking lot, maybe, but empty except for flowers.

Eventually a well-dressed Afghan and his chador-clad wife appeared. We now had some hope that something would happen.

The wife came over to where I was sitting and extended her bag full of pistachios and almonds. I took a few. More, more, she gestured, until I had a lap-full. I was feeling more optimistic about our chances of escape.

Dee, on the other hand, was off looking for a canteen - ha ha.
Here's Dee and the gentleman. They had just gotten down from the bench behind them to look for a plane - none. The building on the right is the canteen! Closed. What looked like a high-ranking officer showed up, nodded and smiled at us, opened the canteen and Dee was able to get salt and vinegar potato chips, of all things, and a Red Bull.

Finally we got hold of the airlines and they assured us that a plane would leave for Kabul at 2:00 pm. I was feeling a bit better and a few more people had shown up.

Eventually, we were hustled into the derelict building to have our luggage weighed .

We stood in line some more, our bags were searched, we were searched, we stood in line again, walked for a goodly distance - all with our bags and finally got to the main airport building and there was a big plane. Yippee. That was my other concern: that if a plane showed up, it would be a tiny thing. But here was a big plane with big wings. I was so glad.

I went off looking for a restroom. The one I was directed to - language problems again - was filled with men. A very nice young man motioned me inside and smiled, seeming to indicate that I was in the right place. When I got a gander at the hole in the floor and the buzzing flies, I decided I wasn't in the right place, if you know what I mean.

By the time I got back to the waiting room, all the women were missing. Imagine my concern. Turned out they had all been ushered into the women's waiting room. It was dark and unpleasant.

Finally, on to the plane for Kabul, which didn't leave at 2:00, as advertised, but at 1:30. It's always a good idea to show up early - just in case there are last minute scheduling changes!

It was absolutely worth going to Herat to see the Mosque. Two other positives: the woman's kindness in offering me some of her goodies at the airport was one. And the waiter at the hotel's restaurant finally worked up nerve to show us a cover letter and his resume and ask for our help in correcting his English. Made me feel good.

But ... I was so glad to get 'home' to Kabul.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

curious stuff

Here's the greeter at one of the local western grocery stores. When plugged in, Santa sways and plays the sax - some jazz tune that I couldn't identify.
A choice amongst the soups and a new one on me. It's not made from a tail-dropping lizard. It's a traditional Scottish soup made originally from a shin of beef but here from smoked haddock. I bought a can. Saving it for that special occasion!
USAID - Agency for International Development - is part of the State Department and partially funds the American University in Afghanistan.

If you need photos taken for one of the myriad reasons you need photos here, you might try this little shop and choose this background -- Mickey and friends.
This is Darulaman Road - a main thoroughfare - which is currently being widened.

Here's the walkover that the SEP group is funding to cross the widened highway. Of all the things that Afghanistan needs, a walkover would seem to be close to the bottom of the list.

Here's the Dunya Institute of Higher Education - with armed guard.

And, finally - billboards - they're everywhere.