Friday, December 7, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 3

Thursday October 25th 2007

A Real Mountain – Soviet Ghosts

Day number three. The day began by adding another member to our group. Joining us from the Netherlands (although its possible it was from some other corner of the globe with his travel schedule) Ole Bouman arrived in the morning. As well as other things, Ole is well known in architecture circles worldwide as a writer and critic of architecture from his previous tenure as the editor-in-chief of Archis, a Dutch architecture magazine of high regard, his current tenure as Editor-n-chief of VOLUME magazine and most lately as the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI). This is in addition to the countless other publications. To the rest of the group who work with Ole this could have felt like just another working assignment with him as they all knew Ole and had worked with him before. For the first day I felt much more like I was in the presence of a foreign dignitary. I had seen Ole before, when he came to the school of architecture at Columbia to speak with Mark Wigley and Rem Koolhaus for the launch of VOLUME. This was experienced with the same distance reserved for other architecture royalty who visited like Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry. You could understand why it would be a bit intimidating knowing I was going to spend the next three days straight with him most of which would be in the confines of a small Toyota van. In the end as I had hoped, I was put at ease and he was just another odd Dutch person in the group I was tagging along with.

Picking up Ole meant the rest of us took the trip out to the airport to get him. Also in our group, Jeanno had arrived the day before and of all of us there, been the only one to have her luggage misplaced. To be honest I was amazed that she was the only one, I definitely expected my luggage to vanish or at the very least be damaged by a sheep in flight in the cargo hold; so poor Jeanno had spent the night with just her carry-on bag in a guest house that had no electricity to boot. We all hoped that her bags would be there and that they had power or at least put out some new candles in her room.

Coming back to the airport after going through the somewhat nerve racking and awkward experience of meeting my driver without any instruction felt strangely satisfying. I was happy to know where I was, where I was going and also to have people around me that I knew. It was a rare comfort that even during trips to less hostile environments I usually didn’t have. I found it ironic that of all the places where I felt this comfortable traveling it was in Kabul.

When you arrive at the airport by car you are funneled past a roundabout proudly displaying what I can only guess is an old Soviet Mig fighter jet. From there your registration is noted (similarly to our entry to the University) and you are more than likely questioned about your where you are going. When I left at the end of the week, my bags were removed and passed through a metal detector before we even made it to the parking lot. We made it through the checkpoint and on to said parking lot. Only one of us and Jeanno were allowed in to meet Ole so Joost, Lilet, Tehir and I all waited outside the gate to the airport. When I say gate, I don’t mean the kind inside the terminal, I mean a real gate, a fence if you will manned by two men in army uniforms. We were outside with a large group of Afghans all presumably waited to arrivals as most of them didn’t make it past the gatekeepers. After a short while Niloufar emerged with Ole and Jeanno returned empty handed, one more night without her bags.

The plan was to meet Mowdood Popal, our unofficial guide to Kabul for a semi-official tour of the TV Mountain right in the center of the city, cutting it in half. I say semi-official because we required state permission to access the very top of the mountain which was a secured area for as you could guess, television broadcast. The drive up the winding dirt roads would take us up through the thousands of informal settlements built on the slopes. It was something I had been looking forward to since noticing the solid growth of these homes on all the surrounding hillsides of Kabul.

One thing that struck me about these informal settlements was the way they were constructed. I had originally imagined something like a Brazilian flavella, a collectively supported network of piecemeal structures. The houses built in the hills of Kabul all seemed to be made of solid looking mud brick or larger blocks. I couldn’t help but feel that these homes were better built than most of what I had seen in the city below. To think this is however to overlook a few things. First of all, I didn’t realize until we drove up the hill just how long it takes to make it up to these settlements. There were very few if any stores or means to get supplies up in the hills, everything was down in the city below. It took us what seemed like a half an hour to drive up, I can only imagine the walk. Secondly there are no services there. Like in many cities with squatter settlements, the city tolerates them but does not support them. They have no running water and no reliable electricity. One amazing thing I saw was a single telephone pole being choked to death by illegal cables connected to rusted and old circuit boxes. They had literally grown two deep on this pole. I can only imagine how many homes this one pole served.

Another thing that was difficult not to notice was the amount of children I saw by the roadside. Most of them were around 6-12 years old, playing in small groups or wandering up or down the road as we drove past. It was the middle of the day on a Thursday, obviously these children had no school and I assume their parents were down in the city working. I was saddened by this and at the same time amazed at the independence and strength of these children.

We arrived at the top of the TV mountain. Again I had a James Bond moment as we surveyed the small enclosed summit of the mountain which included a few shed like structures, a big television antennae, the requisite two military guards and the very modest shack they slept in. I felt like at any moment Bond would sneak up the ledge from one side and incapacitate the hapless and undermanned guards before destroying the communication lines of the Soviets. There was even a cold war era olive green painted jeep parked at the top to complete the set, uh I mean scene.

From the top we were afforded a 360 degree panorama of the entire city. My first thoughts were that this city couldn’t be this big! Driving around in the van it felt much smaller. As the places we had been were pointed out to me I realized just how far away they really were. This is even more amazing because you’d think with the crawling traffic everywhere the city would feel even smaller. Standing at the top of the mountain looking towards what I think was the south you could see a very dense concentration of the city. It was similar over on the north edge. I’m not sure whether it was entirely because of the low smog cover but you couldn’t make out the edges of the city. It just filled the bowl between all the mountains, spilled out as far as the eye could see and then up the edges. It was interesting to soak up the different parts of the city from this privileged view. We had been touring around for a few days so we had seen a little bit of what the city was about. There were a lot of walls and from this point they were completely useless. It was a nice reversal. I could see into the walls of the traffic police academy, the military hospital, the British embassy, all of the airport, and countless other compounds. It makes you think that if the people who truly are the worst off are living in the hills then they have the most power over those in the city in the valley who wish to segregate themselves by erecting walls no one can see over.

From the top you could also fully absorb the fabric of the city. You could make out the major arterial roads that seemed small and twisting because of the traffic before which now looked straight like mini highways. You could begin to connect places and make the visual relationships between places we had already seen in the city. You could make out an array of building types, grand mosques being constructed, highrise buildings, glass facades of new wedding palaces, the aforementioned compounds, outdoor markets, and streets lined with mid-rise commercial buildings. At one point I saw a main road which flanks the riverbank through the city which was faced by multi colored 3-4 storey buildings with pitched roofs that reminded me of Copenhagen strangely.

After wandering around for a while longer I noticed down the slopes a path outlined in painted white rocks. I asked our guide Tehir about them. He explained to me that the painted rocks indicate what parts of the mountain had been de-mined. After he told me this I suddenly became aware that it wasn’t just this path below us but these stones were all around us. Many of them were painted two colors, white on one side, red on the other. These rocks were placed in a string on the ground where the white was on one side and the red the other. You always want to be on the white side he explained to me. Red side equals mines. Well not exactly, being on the red side means that they haven’t swept for mines and this is generally cause for concern. Afghanistan is one of the 3 most heavily mined countries in the world. The particular hill we were on was the location of heavy fighting between the soviets and the Afghans and as such was heavily mined. As we walked around some more we found literally piles of heavy shells ringed by white rocks which meant that someone had collected them and put them there. There were no shortage of red rocks below us on the hillside and the thought of buried mines stayed with me for the rest of the trip whenever I wandered too far off the beaten path.

The trip down was just as bumpy and long as the way up. We eventually descended into the loud frantic pace of the city that we had been detached from for the last few hours. We decided that we would visit a friend’s office on the way back to the guest house before heading out again to Anne Feenstra’s house for a party. On the way there we happened to pass by an amazing sight which we had noticed before but not stopped to explore. With the daylight running out we decided to make a quick digression and check out this amazing ruin of a soviet workers and culture palace. Its exactly as you might imagine a cold war era soviet shrine to communism and the common man, all heavy concrete, brutal orthogonal forms and grand in scale. The site was surrounded by a fence but the gate was open at the front and we made our way onto the site, much to the discomfort of our guide Tehir. In hindsight I can see why he thought we were crazy for wanted to run around an dilapidated ruin of a building which housed any sorts of squatters (and drug dealers he told us afterwards).

To make things interesting for him we immediately scattered in this labyrinth of a building with our noses in our cameras and camcorders ooing and awwwing. By some chance Tehir ended up with me and diligently was one step ahead of me in every room, sweeping it for anyone he thought might have given me a hard time. The building having build in the brutalist soviet style made for a perfect ruin. The interior was a solidly built as the exterior. That’s not to say that it hadn’t suffered over the years. It was obvious to anyone that it had been the site of some ferocious battles. Every inch of the exterior was covered in bullet holes. Parts of the building had been blown clean right through leaving gaping holes which now let light into the dark space. Inside you walked over piles of brick ruble, occasionally coming to a room that had completely collapsed. The central building we entered was a theatre I think as I found my way to a large open room with tiered seating where the roof had completely collapsed and was now an open air amphitheatre if you didn’t mind pulling up a seat on twisted mangled metal that was once the roof.

We eventually all trickled out of this building through the other side and into the center of what actually was a large complex of several buildings. There were adjacent buildings, similar in style, a bunker like feel with mortar and bullet accents. In these buildings you could clearly see blankets hung over mortar holes by people and families which lived inside, we even had a few of them wave to us. Behind the main building was a large open space where several children were running around playing and kicking a ball around. The kids were equal in number to the herd of goats which were loitering in the courtyard as well. With our arrival the kids took interest in us, the goats not as much. Around this open space were other single storey buildings which looked like they were service buildings at one point, also large storage tanks, now empty and unable to contain even rain as they were sprayed with holes. Outdoor we found a true outdoor theatre and an empty swimming pool which was now full of rubble and I even noticed what looked like a mortal shell in the deep end.

With the light about to go we wisely made our way back to the van, much to the relief of Tehir. I’m sure he might have found it interesting and I doubt he would ever find himself there on his own, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought about following around these weird archi-tourists and the bizarre requests we asked of him and places we wanted to see. I hoped that on some level he enjoyed it as much as we did. He certainly never let on that he didn’t.

Back in the van we were now late for Anne’s party. A quick stop to pick up some pomegranates as a party gift and we arrived at Anne’s house. We had been there before albeit to visit his architecture studio which is attached. Anne and his girlfriend
Aunohita showed us some tremendous hospitality in the true Afghan fashion. They had invited pretty much everyone we spoke to up until that point on the trip and even others who we hadn’t met yet. We dined on traditional afghan food, non-alcoholic beer, of course some vodka and someone even managed to find a bottle of wine! We gathered in their large living area under dim candle lights and on Persian (or I guess in this case Afghan) rugs and talked until the early morning. After everyone had had their fill, we were even treated to some live Afghani music! Two young men whom Anne knew came and performed on the bongos and on an instrument that resembled an accordion but that was played on the ground. The show was excellent and ended with some audience participation on the bongos.

All in all it was a fantastic way to meet even more people and really have a better chance to talk frankly and comfortably with our new friends. We owe Anne many thanks for inviting us into his home and in general for all his help during the week. Tired and content we left the party with a ride from Mowdood, another eerie drive through the empty and dark streets back to our guest house and the end of another long day.


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