29 November 2006

Bollywood Reloaded

Sorry for the delayed post, our internet's been messed up at work and I finally got time to come out to a coffee shop and get a connection.

So, the best way to describe me and Saurabh's party is to see the pictures, which I have just posted on flickr. The party was a great success and we managed not to get overcrowded. The music was awesome--between us we managed a pretty complete South Asian anthology. Of course there were other fun parts, like the fact that we seem to have scared away a number of Americans with the modern music selection and lack of alcohol. You'll also notice it was a grand excuse for me and Saurabh to get pimped out in full party regalia.

Otherwise I have been dividing my time between hanging out with Nathan and Sahar and watching Battlestar Galactica ("the DC refugees" whose compound I have termed farangestan due to the fact that it's more than a dwelling place, it's a cultural voyage to the land of potato chips and English speakers). Because the internet has been down in my office, I have spent the extra time improving my Farsi.

The other interesting thing that I can say about this place is that it is the middle ground between to titanic cultural spheres, India and Iran. The US doesn't matter and much of the West comes filtered thru Iran. For people who know what California is, they assume it's some sort of Iranian colony (not totally wrong) and that we are all Twelver Shi'is. It's also interesting to watch people correct their Farsi around me toward the Tehran/Los Angeles standard. All I can do is embrace my Iranian identity, sometimes I drop the Afghan pleasantries for the urban Iranian version, which both fits people's expectations and makes me anything but American (if they know what that is!). More important that my complexion and hair here is my cosmopolitan affectations, looks don't matter in the way a Westerner might expect, since people here look like everything (I've seen a few people blonder and pinker than me) and the surrounding countries are all equally diverse. I really kid you not, it surprises me just as much, but after a few conversations with people who don't know the difference between France, the US, and even Arab, you begin to realise that perceptions differ greatly! I think the calculus goes: "not Indian, not Western (firangi), so Iranian". In other words, though people might have problems with Shi'ism and Iran's expansionist politics, Iran is still the "near other" and refers to 'good' westerners as opposed to the 'bad' ones who continue to be culturally alien whilst in Kabul. Of course this is a slipshod analysis, but I'm rather surprised at the amount of street cred I get on my block, especially considering how I see my neighbours treat other Westerners and vice versa. It is what it is, but it's cool to have your worldview readjusted!

18 November 2006

Where's the party, yaar?

In my lastest right of passage, I have had the opportunity to witness the expat scene in action. The easiest way to describe it is that it is a much more extreme version of Cairo. Last Wednesday I went to Samarqand and it really was the bar scene from Star Wars--mercenaries aplenty and all sorts of other rough-and-tumble detritus from the oecumene. The next night I went to a house party that was only slightly better; less mercenaries but the music selection was lowest-common-denominator of old American pop and yet more current American pop. Of course there was no Farsi spoken at all and a random white guy told me that he was taking the time here to improve his Arabic!

Actually there are a lot of cool people, when met in a different environment. And the unfortunate truth is that a party's coolness is inversely proportional to the number of Americans present. Last night I went with Saurabh to have dinner at a restored beautiful fort in Kaarteh Parvaan, which functions as a base for an NGO that runs academies to preserve local artistic traditions. Fascinating project and cool people. 

So, again I'm thankful that I have a normal situation and get to live and work with locals. With Nathan, Sahar, and Lorenzo all gone this week I've branched off with the Desi crowd. Nothing beats chatting endlessly about cricket matches, fight scenes, and the best remixes. Whilst watching the B4U music video countdown me and Saurabh hatched the idea of having a Bollywood party, so that we can have our superior music and dress well. We'll see how that goes next weekend--we're gonna use the office and hopefully project montages of classic fight scenes on the wall. I guess this will be my debut on the party scene, but it should be a cooler and less provincial crowd due to the music selection.

The food here is good generally with some exceptions. Afghan Fried Chicken completely sucks. I tried it because it's the closest thing to my house, but it has no Afghan masala or jaadu or anything like that. I've tried most of the places for chapli kabab around here too. The one by the park is disappointing and the one by here gets props for using marrow and eggs in the mix, but still isn't spicy enough. The winner goes to Nathan's hole-in-the-wall place out in Karteh Seh (about five people can fit inside and the place is only identifiable by the clever sign on the window which reads "Peshawari chapli kabab". It's relatively spicy but it doesn't rank up there with Kabab Palace in Arlington or Ashiana in Diamond Bar. The Frontier (as this area is broadly know) is one of the world's cooler food ecosystems as far as technique and flavour are concerned, so there will be more good news hopefully. For those of you who don't know what chapli kabab is, Nathan put his finger on it by describing it as "a man-burger". It looks just like a hamburger patty, but the brilliant Frontier folks have figured out that you can ADD OTHER THINGS TO THE MEAT. And they add the most flavourful mix of spices, chillies and onions to the meat before cooking it in oil. Often some flour is mixed in to that it comes out a bit crispy (actually this can go to the extreme of deep-fried hamburgers at some of the famous fast food locales on roads around here. The frontier region is exceptionally rich with fast-food, which is one thing that US sorely lacks (burgers and fried chicken, or else you have to sit down and wait).

Some of you asked me to tell more about my job and what I do. Right now I'm starting up a project on natural resources and the government's role or lack thereof in their extraction. Within that, at the moment, I am figuring out which resources and what my methodology is going to be. There's plenty of time for drinking massive amounts of tea and bullshitting with my co-workers too! My outerior motive should be to find resources around Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, so I can make a trip up there, which Lorenzo also encourages. Another co-worker, Gul Pacha, has mentioned that we should go to Peshawar and maybe even Lahore for a long weekend. That would mean getting to see the Khyber Pass! It turns out the Peshawar is only 4.5 hours away from here.

12 November 2006

Home in the Hindu Kush

So, after a very, very long flight I finally made it here. Upon arriving in San Francisco (barely on time because we didn't have a gate to go to), I had to rush over to my Lufthansa flight. Lufthansa and United not only have a codeshare, but also have two different planes leaving at the exact same time from San Francisco. How fun! I of course got on the wrong plane and then was redirected to the correct one just in time.

In Dubai I had to take a taxi between terminals so I asked the driver to give me a tour. Totally awesome. I don't know if I have ever seen so much so big--pictures down to it justice. It is the most auto-centric place I've been but the architecture was uniformly inspiring. I'v never seening seen so many ways to build a skycraper and on such a scale. Even the shopping malls were cool (and of course gi-normous). It's a purely superficial and aesthetic impression, but it's worth seeing just for that. And bollywood was everywhere.

Arriving in Kabul occasioned a little bit of confusion--I wasn't able to check my email en route and I couldn't find my driver amongst the melee so I called Nathan and went to go hang out at his office and then got in touch with my boss.

My boss, Lorenzo, job, and living situation all absolutely awesome. My office is across the street from my house in Shahr-e Nou. There are about 15 people altogether in the organisation and we've got more projects than you can shake a stick at. There all young and extremely motivated, plus they come from diverse backgrounds (students, former civil servants, etc.). Yesterday, one of my co-workers entertained me with a discourse on the vices of virtues of chapli kabab in Kunar, Jalalabad, Peshawar, and Abbotabad, and the joys of the drive to Peshawar. At lunch there was a cool discussion about women's status throughout history and the compatability of Islamic law and code law--all in Farsi of course. More fun yet, my boss just left for an anti-corruption conference for two weeks so I've been left in charge of the office on top of figuring out what I'm supposed to be doing in the first place! Two cool facts: our doorbell plays the theme from Mohabbatein and we have significant category in our budget just for cilantro. Also, when I come into the office every day I get an awesome breakfast of walnuts, cheese (panir-e irani), olives, bread, and black tea with cardamom and rose. That rocks. After that I get to work (my typing in Farsi is pushed 30 wpm, and I'm getting used to the Urdu keyboard layout) with my choice of Indian, Afghani, and/or Iranian pop. oh yeah, did I mention that I get to wear kurta pijama every day to work?

Lorenzo's a great boss and this organisation is really top-notch and unique. He's very much the French version of myself with fluent Farsi and just as determined as I am that I use my time in Afghanistan to network, improve my Farsi, and immerse myself in the culture. It's definitely helping that this workplace is entirely Farsi-speaking with bits of Urdu, Pashto, and French in on the side. My house is great too--we have a few flats around a courtyard filled with roses. It's traditional architecture and beautifully decorated. There's one for Lorenzo, one for me, and one for our servant, Ghani.

The social scene is full of interesting characters and I can tell there's always going to be a party or mehmani to attend. What's more is that there's more people in on our India trip for new year's now....the party just keeps growing :-).