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46: Learning the Kabul ropes

Ahmad Faisal
27.07.2013  |  Kabul
City of light: Kabul's power supply has improved dramatically in the last three years, illuminating formerly dark districts. (Photo and main photo: Faisal)
City of light: Kabul's power supply has improved dramatically in the last three years, illuminating formerly dark districts. (Photo and main photo: Faisal)

Kabul. One word, two syllables, a name that is close to the heart of every Afghan. I too love this noisy, teeming city, although I originally come from far away, from the countryside of a mountainous southern province where life is very different. Adjusting to this fast-paced metropolis of five million people in recent months has been a distinct challenge, laden with stresses and frustrations, but bringing its own rewards too as I learn the ways of my new home.

As in most big cities around the world, Kabul residents tend to have little time to pause and interact with you amid the frantic beating of the capital’s pulse. And while it has many services and comforts, Kabul can be cruel. Unemployment has soared due to unprecedented rural-urban migration, and strikingly, the city is home to a mass of war-disabled Afghans who lost limbs and eyes during the fight with the Soviets and the civil war. Their struggle becomes more apparent here, as the disabled here have little or no means of financial support and must generally beg in the narrow streets to survive. 

Then there is a sharp contrast of wealth that appeared in the last decade, evidenced by the luxury vehicles and palatial houses you also see in abundance as you cross the city. That trip will be inevitably hampered by the most visible sign of power and influence, the convoys of heavily escorted vehicles that sweep along, sirens wailing, blocking traffic for hours as the ruling elite goes about its business.

When I first experienced this noisy spectacle I asked my cab driver who it was. “A minister,” he replied abruptly, before venting at what is clearly a source of great annoyance to the rest of the local population. “Officials do not care about the public as they ride to their offices and we have to wait for hours to allow them to pass. The country will not progress if these road blocks continue.”

Maintaining the law or keeping the change?

Tough job with temptations: A Kabul traffic policeman holds the horde. (Photo: Basir Seerat)

Meanwhile, the throng of ordinary vehicles is swelling with the migration. Pollution emitted by old cars saturates the air, which in addition to dust causes severe respiratory problems and allergies for many people. The Kabul traffic police have one of the toughest jobs, standing for hours amid what must be some of the craziest traffic congestion in the world.

Although some streets have traffic lights, these tend to get ignored by drivers who once they reach their destination then clog the city’s arteries further by parking up anywhere, as there are few allocated parking areas.

The traffic police have to get hold of each driver and fine them, and this is where my sympathy ends for the officers. The money extracted from drivers seldom makes it to the government coffers, I am told, and is more likely to wind up in the cop’s pocket. 

Directions and transactions

Although I have visited Kabul many times, I am still learning its geography, still get lost and end up hailing a cab. I’m certainly overspending as I find my way around, but that is also part of the acclimatization process for me. Similarly, the dent in my budget was deeper before I properly understood the culture of bargaining in the capital.

In the southern provinces sellers usually have fixed prices and you are unlikely to get more than a 10 per cent reduction through haggling, whereas hard bargaining is the norm in Kabul. Vendors usually heavily overprice goods in anticipation of this, and if you are new to the markets you will pay through the nose unless you embrace the haggling ritual. If something costs 1000 afghanis you can usually drive the price down to 500. 

The beggar's tap at the window is a reliable feature of a car ride across the capital. (Photo: Faisal)

When I first moved here, I had no idea and would pay the asking price. Then I cottoned on by observing the bargaining process at the Gul Bahr shopping centre, one of several city malls that sell an impressive range of imported consumer goods.

Language leap and burger news

As a native Pashtu-speaker, brushing up my Dari has helped matters greatly. During Taliban rule, Dari-speaking residents of Kabul would try to speak in Pashtu because most Taliban were from Pashtun areas and their language prevailed. Things switched around after 2001, and now Pashtuns like me are making the effort. 

Meanwhile, I became acutely aware of the buzzing media all around me. During the Taliban era, people in Kabul and across the country were not allowed to watch TV and listen to music. Now, more than ever in the city’s history, Kabul is home to an unbelievably wide range of digital media and dozens of TV channels and radio stations. Although there are plenty of news and current affairs programmes, the locals seem indifferent to them, preferring to lose themselves in music rather than listen to a national debate they feel is being increasingly distorted by the authorities.

Lake Qargha offers beautiful scenery, clean air and a respite from the city's relentless pace. (Photo: Faisal)

And largely because of literacy issues, daily reading has not taken off as it should do. Sure, there are plenty of newspapers, but it seems that I see them being used more to wrap burgers than impart information.

Deep breath - and back into the fray

Kabulis, like everyone, need to also recharge themselves from the fast pace of city life. Whenever possible I join the procession of people flooding at the weekend to picnic at nearby beauty spots like Lake Qargha, which reminds me of the rural calm of the places I grew up in.

This tranquility makes it hard to return to the hectic bustle of the city, but as demanding as life can be in Kabul, it is now my city too. One word, two syllables, close to my heart, as it is to every Afghan’s.