Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 2

Wednesday October 24rd 2007

Kabul University – A Turquoise Mountain

After a solid nights sleep, the morning started abruptly. Waking up to the sight of my own breath, it had become so cold overnight that there was frost on the plants outside my window. Thankfully my prayers were answered and there was hot water for a shower. A quick breakfast of naan bread and honey and we were on our way.

Leaving the guesthouse in the morning we were met by our guards who opened the gates to let us out to the street and our waiting van. Writing this brings to mind that there is very little difference between keeping people out and keeping them in. Should the guards at any time have decided they probably could have just held us captive, not that I’m implying they would, it just would have been that easy. Over the course of the week there were several other instances of homes and other buildings that were described simply like prisons because of their heavy handed security measures.

Over the trip we would also have several other interactions with various armed security guards ranging from our guesthouse to checkpoints outside embassies. These interactions all passed without incident although not without some tension. I wondered how the guards felt towards us as we passed through to secure areas where they were only privileged to stand in front of or into establishments that catered only to foreigners because of cost or in some cases because of blatant segregation. The whole thing left a very uneasy feeling with me. Later in the day we would meet with Mowdood Popal, a successful American Afghan who returned to Kabul with his whole family and now runs a successful construction company. During our conversation he would offer great insight into the hierarchy in the security industry. Needless to say that Afghan guards are the lowest paid and often hired as “static security” which means they sit there all day long. More on that later.

The van ride to our appointment at the Kabul University took us through a more diverse cross-section of the city. We drove past embassies with their high walls and razor wire, past single story concrete buildings used as shops, past three or four story buildings with glass facades, and past markets which look to have sprung up from the open muddy lots they occupied.

The Kabul University campus was vast. You get a sense of this on the drive up to it. We approached it from the wrong side and drove around most of it to get to the main entrance. It’s fairly obvious once you are at its perimeter. The normal chaos on one side of the van gives way to a very rare uniformity of the same wall for blocks and blocks on end. In another city this might not seem strange but for the most part property lines are easily defined by the façade put to the street. The result is a patchwork of vertical surfaces as you drive down a block. At the University the wall becomes normal and more importantly different from the others. Where as almost all the walls you see have a blatant concrete utilitarianism to them, the wall around the University possesses a subtle ornate-ness, nothing fancy, maybe something you would see at the edge of a suburban subdivision in North America, which in Kabul is different enough to be pretty unique. The wall had a rusticated stone base and then rose up out of red brick the rest of the way with plain iron work at the top. In a city of walls which shout at you to go away, this one seemed more to be saying “this is a place of importance, and worth protecting”.

When we finally made it around to the gates (which of course had guards) our van was stopped and our registration recorded. In a country which still follows strict religious codes towards men and women it was a happy surprise to see just as many women as men walking through the campus. Once inside the gates there was a long main avenue down the center of the campus off of which there were various departments and buildings. Separating the buildings from the road were treed green spaces, largely unkempt and un-manicured. You could make out the distinction between which field was male or female as there was rarely any mixing. In the areas with men you could see groups congregating, smoking, embracing, conversing or reading. On the female side you could see groups of women reading or talking. There was very much an air of dignity in a city where this was often absent. The whole thing gave me a very strong feeling of what the ancient Agora must have been like in classical Greece. The collegiate atmosphere combined with the semi-rugged park setting gave the impression that one could walk up to any group and overhear an intense philosophical debate.

After our stroll through time we arrived at the school of architecture and engineering and met our contact Sayed Maqbool (head of the faculty of architecture). The building had a heavy and solid Soviet feel to it. We walked through its wide concrete halls, again taking us back in time, this time to the cold war, and then snapped back to the present by the sight of a digital projector and laptop setup in one of the rooms. The school also boasted a computer lab with an assortment of programs which unfortunately we couldn’t get into. The classrooms were stark but large and well lit. The ones we visited had drafting tables lined in neat rows.

The architecture program is a five year program; after which the graduates are entitled to refer to themselves as architects. This is of course a small problem as architects in Kabul suffer from a small self-esteem problem. The professors we spoke to lamented the fact that in Kabul it was more prestigious to be an engineer than an architect. “There is no architecture in Kabul….only construction projects”. Most of the students were recruited by engineering or construction firms as draftsmen a year if not more before they even graduate. The massive construction boom in Kabul is fueled by money and necessity and leaves little room for aesthetics. There were signs of hope for the next generation of Afghan architects. We sat in on presentations in Fahim Hakim’s fifth year studio where students were presenting sketches for a monument to the architecture and engineering department. Amidst sketches of building sized pencils, compasses and t-squares there emerged a few artistic and somewhat abstract designs of merit. One of the difficulties explained to us, aside from the students wanting to be engineers, was that many of the students had been educated under the Taliban regime. The first year of their education was just spent trying to un-brainwash them from the simple and narrow perspective they had been fed. We were told that simple issues of life safety were completely omitted during this time which reminds me of another interesting conversation we had. When asked how he approached the topic of safety when teaching his students one professor responded by outlining design elements like fire exits and stairwells. After adjusting the question to mean “security” he continued to discuss earthquake design requirements. Finally we broke down and spelled it out “how do you teach them to deal with attacks like suicide bombings?” “Oh, we don’t really do that”, a very telling statement. Over the course of the week it became more obvious that most of the “security” evident in either architectural or human form was dictated by international influence.

From the Department of Architecture and Engineering we made a short walk and backtracked to the Department of Fine Art. The building was set off the main road down a dusty lane with old trees and piles of old office equipment and furniture fading in the sunshine. Walking towards the Fine Arts department one could be excused for thinking of these heaps of nondescript chairs and desks as sculpture. We made our way to a second floor studio to meet a contact and the rest of her class which was in session. In a large concrete and well lit room we found about a dozen students in front of easels, working on their oil paintings for a year end show. We asked them about there work and the display of their projects. The school has a gallery where they will display the work. “What about on site installations?” we asked them. As it turned out the students had done an outdoor public showing of some abstract work in the past year with a less than enthusiastic response from the general public. “I don’t think they were ready for it, many of them laughed or asked what it was”, said one of the students we spoke to. Despite this the resolve of the students to try it again was impressive. It seemed to me in speaking with the students there that they were aware of their position between the old regime which had been pushed out and the new opportunity that presented itself with the open scenario to work in whatever way they wanted. That being said, it also seemed like this newfound freedom also was very fresh and had them unsure with what to do with it. We left with their promise to come on the Friday to an open meeting to discuss ideas for the city of Kabul.

As we left the University, we picked up our friend and resident urban planner Peitro Calogero on our way to meet Mowdood Popal. Mowdood as mentioned was raised in the United States before moving with his entire family back to Kabul where he now runs a lucrative construction company and his brothers also run a security company and some other businesses in the city. The Popal family was the perfect example of the Afghan Diaspora returning to the city after a long absence. Mowdood met up with us for lunch, again at a restaurant behind closed walls. We all sat down to lunch and we quizzed Mowdood for almost an hour on the way things work in the city.

We began our conversation with the topic of security as we always do. It was interesting to learn about the hierarchy of guards available. According to Mowdood security companies charge up to $2000 day a per person for a security guard, this number being on the high end which could land you a well qualified and skilled American of British ex-military type. If that’s too rich for you blood than you can drop to the next bracket and go for a South African, Canadian, or French ex-military type which would run you a little less or go for the bargain Gherkas which are only $500-$1000 a month or keep it local with Afghans for a mere $200-$500 month. We continued talking about security companies and the bad apples which had apparently gotten into a little trouble over the past few years in Afghanistan. Key players in security industry in Afghanistan were companies like Dynacor (Halliburton’s security arm), Blackwater (known for shooting civilians in Baghdad) to local mega companies like Saladdin and to a lesser extent Mowdood’s brother’s outfit Wattan Risk Management. We talked about the corruption and instances of security companies robbing locals and banks, an occurrence Mowdood told us that was limited to the smaller security companies you don’t hear about. For that matter, he told us that the Afghan government was forcing all the local security companies to close as a measure of tightening their grip. It might be a futile effort. We spoke about the security companies driving the politics of fear; that the companies know they are the only real sources for genuine protection in a country where the government is powerless and corrupt and the police are useless. This position he said allows for them to dictate the security situation for all the ex-pat community who rely on them while in Afghanistan. The result he said was that they drive the fear into their customers through daily or hourly reports of threats (some through SMS messages) to keep the fear in their customers and continue business. It’s an ugly cycle and not unique to this area. Before our food arrived I asked him about how local Afghans respond to security threats in their own homes. Obviously you’re unlikely to see a 12ft high concrete wall with guards around a modest Afghani home in Kabul and Mowdood set the record straight when he said that most of them would be more concerned with the decoration of their home than fortifying it. There are however a new class of local Afghans made rich by the rebuilding effort or in some small cases the opium trade who live in brand new mini palaces which adopt all the ex-pat methods of security right down to the razor wire dressing on the top of the walls.

After lunch the entire group made the drive over to an amazing operation run by a foundation called Turquoise Mountain. Turquoise Mountain is a non-profit organization which focuses on traditional Afghan arts and building techniques, a craft which had suffered greatly during the conflict in Afghanistan. We would have two tours through projects that TM was working on, this one through their Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture. Essentially a huge outdoor laboratory, the centre is where they take traditional building methods using local materials and teach unskilled Afghans so that they can work and teach others. What is most amazing about the setup there is that they are also making subtle changes to these traditional techniques which incorporate modern knowledge. Case in point a wall section using a rain-screen made from dry fit stones, rice sacs filled with sheep’s wool, and mud brick. They have also been messing with admixtures to make exterior plaster last longer through the seasons. Small things like this make big differences. They take these hybrid ideas and then build full scale mock ups on site in their Centre. When we visited they had several mock-ups which they were leaving up through the entire winter to test their performance. What impressed me the most about this scenario is the underlying idea behind it. By utilizing local materials which are simple, accessible and cheap they allow themselves to build now, and when using traditional techniques which are often simple they are easily passed from person to person. This combination of building now with the ability to teach others is an excellent combination for achieving tangible results in situations which are complicated, compromised and generally found in conflict or disaster situations. The added advantage of modern modification allows the correction of shortcomings and might even allow for certain techniques to transcend their original uses. I think this is an idea that should be explored further. What materials are local and inexpensive in other situations like post hurricane Katrina or post tsunami Asia? These questions could help create better and more responsive solutions.

After a long day and a lot to digest we went for dinner to an ex-pat restaurant called L’Atmosphere. As you can probably guess it was a French inspired restaurant. The restaurant was actually half of the setup, L’Atmposphere is also a well known bar to ex-pats in a city not known for its night life. We were there the night before. Typical to the international catering establishments this bar was located behind a non-descript wall with one guard outside. A discreet note posted on the outside states that if you don’t have a foreign passport you can’t come inside, something that essentially boils down to segregation. Upon entering the exterior door you come into a small closed room somewhat tastefully decorated with a kind of Moroccan/French theme. In this small room is a man with a metal detector who pats you down and a small cabinet that reminded me of the old card catalogues in libraries. Each drawer had a key and on one night, a friend of a friend in our group unintentionally demonstrated what these were for when he removed his firearm from his hip and locked it on there on the way in. It came as a bit of a shock to us especially because he had been with us most of the evening and we didn’t even know he was carrying! Anyway, just like the Wild West, once your gun is checked at the door you walk along a narrow outdoor path through to a courtyard type garden complete with pool (or fire pit) depending on the season. Facing the courtyard was an all glass façade which was the bar and the restaurant next to it. Stepping into the bar it was full of people. The sounds of English, French, and Australian accents could be heard above the din. I ordered a Heineken for $5 USD and joined our group.

As it turned out I recognized someone from my flight into Kabul that I had spoken to at the airport in Dubai. A fellow Canadian he was a “security consultant” and had offered me some advice while we were waiting to check in. The fact that on our first night out in Kabul we ran into each other at the same place speaks to the size of the ex-pat community in Kabul. We met up and he introduced me to some of his “teammates” who also were ex-military types, one from Scotland, one from Australia I think, all very very drunk. At the airport this person had been very helpful to me, he had given me some suggestions on where to get a secure taxi and some other insights into Kabul for someone who was going for the first time. Speaking with him at the bar, with his colleagues was a much different experience. Almost immediately after starting the conversation they proceeded to tell me about how they could walk around the city with total impunity, a story I heard a few more times after speaking to other ‘security consultants” or mercs (mercenaries) as I heard one of them refer to themselves. This ignorant bravado combined with a disregard for Afghans that became increasingly more obvious in further conversation, painted a very unflattering picture. These guys were cowboys. They prided themselves on their cavalier attitudes and enjoyed the power they had over others with these security jobs. I met a few people who were like this, all in the security field and all made me uncomfortable. It was an excellent example of the distance between the local community and international community and how the methods of security which are being deployed are obviously generated by one with little regard for the other. It was the last time we went to the bar.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I am a civil engineer located in Kabul. I have been tasked with developing a conceptual design for the Afghanistan National Load Control Center. I came across your blog while searching for photographs of modern and traditional architecture in Kabul. Is it possible for you to contact me?

Leigh Wolf, PE
Black & Veatch Special Projects
93 795 440 141

Anonymous said...

If I had to guess, you probably met the security yahoos at La Atmosphere. It's one of their favorite hangouts.
I'll admit you're right in that a fair number of the security consultants come across as more brawn than brains. But I don't think its fair to tar them all with the same brush.
I've worked in Afghanistan as medic/security for almost three years now and would like you to know that a fair number of us do get out among the locals in the off hours and count many of them as friends.
We study the languages , Dari and Pashto, (Learn much yourself, by the way?) read about the culture and history and see what local sights are safe to visit.
What we do is a profession, just as your's is. While we have a number of less than stellar members I'm sure your own line has people who are only there for the paychecks as well. I've met them.
Anyway, good luck to you and enjoy your time out there. Khuda hafez.

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