A letter from Kabul

06-06-2010

I wanted to go back to Afghanistan the minute I left it. No less because within twelve hours of doing so, I found I’d swapped all the gritty wonders of that country for the faux mystique of Dubai. Dubai has as much mystique as Disneyland, but a cloud of volcanic ash kept me captive there for three days. At least I had a chance to fill myself up with fish, before going back to Prague, and to consider everything I had seen and heard over the two weeks past.

Shaving off the beehive on my chin was a relief, but I hadn’t liked taking off my Afghan clothes; that seemed to simply be a pity. Their all-purpose practicality seemed perfect, if not for life in general then at least for Dubai, where it is 35 degrees outside and 15-some degrees indoors, and you could carry all your shopping in your shirt tail. But fashion is a fickle fact of life, and my Afghan clothes, tailor-made for ten dollars, have been relegated to perfect pyjamas.

Photo: authorPhoto: author And then I think anyone must have a hard time leaving Afghanistan and parting with the people they came to know there. Not just because you want to stay and root them on, and stick with the endeavour of remaking a great country out of - what can seem to be - next to nothing. But also and especially because the people are in fact uniquely wonderful, and that is something that few journalists can properly convey, myself perhaps included. I could tell you they are kind and quite good-humoured, friendly in a calm and appropriate way, and thoughtful and engaging - such at least were my impressions. But the one thing I appreciated most about being among the Afghans was that I never felt a stranger. People were hospitable, but they are hospitable in most impoverished countries I have seen. Hospitality was not so much the thing that made me feel welcome, it was more a kind of worldliness that I imagine comes from the density of cultures and ethnicities that make downtrodden Afghanistan much more cosmopolitan than most any smaller town in Europe – certainly any Czech village. They may not be used to your differences, wherever you are from, but they are used to differences in people in general, and that kind of tolerance seems written into their behaviour and their interpersonal system of ethics. I do not claim it to be an objective or greatly experienced opinion; I am asked for my impressions after a fortnight in Afghanistan, and that is what they are.

And as for my impressions, I was impressed, once again, with People in Need, an organisation that has made bare-bones humanitarianism one of the Czech Republic’s best exports. Having had quite a bit of firsthand experience with many aid organisations from around the world, I can say that the austerity and daring of the low-key Czechs is almost unparalleled. Few such organisations will work as deep in the field and as closely with the locals, without helping themselves to any luxury or keeping the responsibility and money in the hands of expensive expats. Afghanistan is a lesson in the severities of life, and People in Need respects that by living close to the situation and the people immersed in it.

It never ceases to amaze me, the fact that you can be in a Kabul market one minute and only half a day later find yourself stuffed on fish and freezing to death in a hotel room in Dubai; the fact that the world has become so very small. But that also means that Afghanistan is much closer and more real than it seems.

06-06-2010