Monday, November 12, 2007

RSVP Kabul Recap

For more on the RSVP Kabul event take a look at the official website from Archis.

Also take a look at Archinect for notice of the event and the sidebar for the updated link for Archis RSVP Interventions.

Images for the posts are on their way as are the rest of the logs from the week. Stay tuned.

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.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 1

New York – Dubai – Kabul

Ordinarily I wouldn’t get into personal experience in this blog as the format until this point has been largely academic but given the nature of my trip and the experience in Kabul I think that I’ll share with you my accounts in the hopes that it might shed some light on the actual situation or at least my perception of it.

The trip begins in New York. My first flight from JFK left at the cheerful hour of 8:30am so the shuttle came to pick me up at 6 am and of course they were early. I must admit given the concern from family and friends before my trip I wasn’t really worried about it. Up until the morning of I was anxious mostly as the result of some frantic last minute planning and some complications with my flight booking from Dubai to Kabul. Now that the day had arrived I suddenly had a sinking feeling in my stomach. What have I gotten myself into? I’m going to Afghanistan.

The flight from JFK to Dubai (all 14 hrs of it) was one of the most pleasant of my life. The plane was relatively new, I could catch up on dozens of movies I’ve missed on my own personal TV screen (although the touch screen probably works best for people with toothpicks for fingers) and most importantly and luckily the flight was only half full. There’s nothing better than actually being able to spread out and sleep on a long intercontinental flight. I must admit, much of my anxiety at this point went away.

I arrived in Dubai around 7:40am local time. My flight to Kabul left at 12:00pm at terminal 2 where as my flight from New York arrived at terminal 1. Terminal 1 is as one might expect for a new international terminal, big, bright, and uses ample brushed aluminum throughout. The one thing that makes it distinctly Dubai is the unending billboards and ads for development and real estate corporations, a not so subtle hint at the building frenzy going on outside. A friend jokingly told me once that the official bird of Dubai was the crane because of the endless construction cranes ceaselessly working away in the city.

Terminal 2 was nothing like terminal 1. Pulling up to the departures entry the scene was crowded by taxis and cars trying to both get in and out at the same time and resulted in neither. The entire façade was covered in hoarding and the only indication was a small sign saying “entrance” pointing to a narrow painted plywood corridor where people were doing their best impression of the traffic out front. Upon entering the hall there is a large open space and qeue for a metal detector and x-ray machine before even approaching the check-in counter which was more like a check-in stand. During this process my passport is checked and I’m asked for my ticket which worries me since all I have is a print out of an email confirmation from and agency in Toronto. This seems to be sufficient and I’m now in another hall looking for the KamAir counter (one of two Afghani airlines, the other being Ariana Air or Scariana as I hear it referred as). Also represented in the hall are the Iranian Airline, Paksitan Airline (PIA), Pamir which also flies to Kabul, Gulf Air and UN chartered flights to Kabul. Its obvious that this hall serves mostly destinations that might be considered a little more obscure or secondary. Along with my flight to Kabul there were flights to Char Bakar, Lar, Bandar Lengeh, Erbil, Chelybinsk and Kish. I have to be honest, I have no idea where any of these places are. The departures lounge was another interesting place. Cleaner and newer than the rest of the terminal it was a holding area for some interesting characters and made for some unique people watching. I felt a little like I was in a James Bond movie, checking out an assortment of potential villains on their way to meet at some illicit arms bazaar. First of all there were the military contractor or security consultant types on their way to Kabul. They were easily given away by what I assume is their unofficial uniform of cargo pants and sunglasses with the strap to hold them around their necks as if they were about to go water skiing. Next were the NGO workers who looked like a bad example out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue, complete with button up shirt, jeans and hiking boots of some kind. To spice up the mix there were also some serious looking Russians (what Bond movie is complete without Russians?) ethnic Afghan’s, Pakistani’s, Indians, Iranians, Saudis and for good measure a few Korean tourists which where primarily preoccupied with the un-proportionately large and bright duty free shop.

We boarded our flight from the tarmac. The plane was not exactly new but not as old as I imagined. It was obvious now that I was spoiled on my flight in from New York. With the ball of anxiety beginning to creep back I fairly unsuccessfully slept through the two and half hour flight. Looking out my window occasionally between naps the landscape below looked forbidding. Not a speck of color other than the harsh color of lifeless dirt. Not a road or a town could be seen. This eventually gave way to equally forbidding looking mountains. To say the Afghan landscape is rugged is an understatement. I should say that after conversations with many people who have traveled outside Kabul, the landscape is actually very beautiful from the ground.

The plane landed making a series of abrupt corkscrew turns. I imagine this is because the airport, situated in the city, is protected by a ring of mountains which make a long straight approach unpractical. I had also heard of this technique being used for flights into Baghdad to avoid anti aircraft fire. Looking out the window as we taxied to the main building you could see both construction of new hangers and the remains of bunkers and gun placements, symbols of Kabul’s conflicted past and optimistic future. Also visible were a few Soviet looking helicopters and fighter jets belonging to presumably the ISAF.

Holy shit I’m in Afghanistan. The thought hit me as I was walking from the plane on the tarmac to the terminal with a big “Kabul International Airport” sign on the roof. I had been hoping and planning for this day for months and my feet were finally on the ground. Through passport control to the one baggage carousel, I eventually find my driver sent to pick me up. He puts my luggage in a well worn Toyota van and we are on our way to the guesthouse.

Traffic in Kabul is chaotic to say the least. There are no more than 2 or 3 working stop lights in the city which has a population between 2-3 million people, its pretty much anything goes. God help you if you are one of the poor traffic police who wave at the cars in a futile effort to direct traffic through the roundabouts. Our driver almost ran one over and the whole thing seemed pretty funny to him. I’m not sure why in most developing countries the cars are almost always Toyotas. Even the big new SUVs driven by the UN, embassies and NGOs with their bulletproof windows, radio antennae and snorkels were Toyotas…well except for the Americans who also found some way to bring their own Chevy’s with them. Every now and then you would also see a military convoy of 2 or 3 armored trucks with troops at the top, machine guns at the ready to shoot anyone that drove too close. These instances were probably the only times I actually felt threatened by a gun during the trip. I attribute this to the fact that only on these convoys did I notice the gunners with their fingers on the actual triggers of their guns. The Afghan locals knew this as there was usually a gap of about 50 yards between the next closest vehicle and behind that a huge backlog of traffic slowly but respectfully following along cursing them for the regular inconvenience.

The drive to the guesthouse could be described as dusty. The buzz and movement of the city also created this constant cloud. Along the main road to the airport which is the symbolic main drag of Kabul, you could see single story sheds being used as shops selling everything from pomegranates and spices to car and appliance parts. This became one of the things that impressed me about Kabul, that anything can be reused and most importantly in some cases resold.

Further along the drive you get the sense of what a large part of Kabul is like. Either side of the streets are flanked by unremarkable yet solid looking walls, often adorned with razor wire crowns and matching armed guards and gates. The city is host to an amazing number of international governments, NGOs and a huge UN presence. Each one of these groups has at least one if not several compounds in the city. Even most homes are within the confines of a solid 12 foot high wall protected 24hrs by guards and their Kalishnakov machine guns, a site so common I took it for granted by the end. Each gate had these guards who not only worked there but lived, often 2 or 3 in a small make shift hut by the gates where they slept. This kind of situation in the security industry I was told is known as “static security”. As far as I could tell, these guards were always Afghan, either police, or private security forces. Later on the trip we would meet people with their own “dynamic security”, their own armed bodyguards following them 24hrs a day.

We arrived at the Naween Guesthouse, a UN certified guesthouse which meant that it met certain requirements set out by the UN such as the aforementioned armed guards, walled compound, and a set distance of the building from the road or walls. The contrast between the walled canyons outside and the inside was dramatic. After entering our secure home away from home, the main building opened to a green courtyard where the traffic could barely be heard ( a nice side effect of being far enough away from potential suicide attacks). Guest rooms lined the courtyard and over the walls you could sometimes see kites being flown by the local kids. The situation reminded me of all the fancy villas I’d walked past in Italy, only to catch a glimpse of the private courtyard inside through the gates. Not quite Italy but close enough.

Just after settling into my room (which surprisingly had 60 channels of TV and internet connection) I met my dutch colleagues Niloufar Tajeri, Lilet Breddels and Joost Janmaat. An hour later we were back in the van, this time joined by our trusty guide Tehir. Tehir has lived his entire life in Kabul and no doubt seen it all, an older gentleman with a warm smile that never left his face (not even when we insisted as a group to explore through an old ruin currently housing squatters and random drug dealers). He quietly and confidently led us through everything in Kabul.

The business of meeting our Kabul contacts began with Dutch architect Anne Feenstra. We arrived at his office and home, the first of several experiences behind the walls of the rest of Kabul. Anne is a Dutch architect who opened an office (AFIR) in Kabul a few years ago, an excellent observationist and expert on the urban fabric of Kabul. He led us through the spacious building now converted into an architects office with all the amenities you would expect to find, CADroom, conference room, office model room etc… Anne, a former architect at Wil Alsop’s in London, proudly showed us a project he completed in an outlying province so remote that it required staying there for several weeks during construction. An experience he would share with us over dinner, the project demonstrated sensitivity by using local materials and building methods. Another project of his which we would see repeatedly displayed throughout town was one of the few mapping surveys of the city. It demonstrated Anne’s interest in the city fabric and his frustration with the choking security, something we would explore further with him in the coming days.

From his office it was off to dinner. While there are hundreds of places to grab a kebab on the street, sit down establishments are a little harder to come by. We made our way to a place nearby called “Rumi”. Like most restaurants catering to western visitors, it was sheltered in a walled compound. Once inside, a tranquil garden and a low rise windowed building created a serene contrast again to the street. Sitting down to candle lights and the flickering of the lights above reminding us of the instability and rarity of having electricity in the city 24 hours a day, we were joined by Sayed Maqbool, the head of the Department of Architecture are Kabul University and Pietro Calogero, an urban planning professor at the Kabul Polytechnic University and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. As the food arrived we discussed our list of contacts in the city and our trip to visit the architecture and fine arts departments at Kabul University the following day. When we returned to our guesthouse I was barely able to keep my eyes open and gladly passed out, happy to finally be in Kabul and looking forward to uncovering more to this chaotic city.