26 October 2007

Trip to Mazar-e Sharif

This week for work I got the opportunity of going to Mazar-e Sharif. The best part, however, was that I got to go by road. For those of you who don’t know or haven’t heard of the place, let me explain a little bit about the city. Firstly, Mazar has a lot of historical significance. Its name means “noble shrine (mazar = “place of pilgrimage” and sharif = “noble”). Furthermore it is situated near and is the modern successor of the ancient city of Balkh. Balkh was a key strategic goal in conquests dating back to the Achaemenids and Alexander. It was also the city in which Zoroaster came to reside and propagate his new religion with the blessings of the local ruler of the time and the birthplace of the sufi poet Rumi, who eventually came to reside in Konya in Anatolia. The focal point of Mazar is of course the shrine at its centre reputed to be the final resting place of the Caliph Ali. The association with Ali suggests that Ali was in fact pretty awesome in that he managed to get around not just in life but in death as well. There are at least three other places contending to be Ali’s final resting place, and the most important of these is Najaf in Iraq (which is acknowledged by most Shi’is and is coincidentally local near where Ali establish his government in Kufa and where he was assassinated). In accordance with the old archaeological proverb “once a sacred place, always a sacred place”, the holiness of the shrine almost certainly goes back to far before Islam. It is very likely that the site originally marked the resting place of Zoroaster or an important site in the development of his faith, and for any one of the preceding reasons it is still regarded as holy by Zoroastrians.

More recently Mazar was made famous by the Taliban who took the city despite fierce resistance in 1998. Prior to the Taliban Mazar and its surroundings had been ruled by Rashid Dostum, a local Uzbek (speaking a Turkish dialect) warlord who had been in control since during the Soviet occupation when he was allied with the Soviets and their puppet regime under Najîbollâh in Kabul. Even though the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Dostum’s support helped prop up Najîbollâh until 1992. When Dostum withdrew from the government the regime quickly collapsed precipitating the mujahidin takeover and Afghanistan decent into total anarchy.

Mazar lies in the northern (şomâlî) plains near the border with Uzbekistan and the Amu River, about 400 km north of Kabul. It is separated both culturally and geographically from Kabul by the Hindu Kush mountain range. These mountain have traditionally formed a strong barrier in that they average between 4,000 and 5,000 meters in height. While Kabul faces the Indian subcontinent (the Kabul River drains into the Indus system), Mazar has always had closer ties to Samarqand and Bukhara and it very much a Persian city and part of the Persian heartland. Its climate is also much milder than Kabul’s given its elevation of 380m as opposed to Kabul’s 1,800.

For us the journey took about nine hours on the almost fully reconstructed Salang road. Leaving from Kabul the road ascends quite quickly from the plains above Çârîkâr to its highest point at the Salang tunnel which is at 3,800 m (that’s over 12,000 ft. for you Americans). After that you emerge very far above the tree line and follow and never-ending course of switchbacks until the road comfortably establishes itself in a lush river valley.

I can only imagine that this road and the people unfortunate enough to live along it saw a lot of action during the Soviet occupation, given that this was the main transport road between the USSR and Kabul. The terrain also provides numerous hideouts for potential attackers, who could easily attack Soviet equipment which must have been a sitting duck on the narrow path upon which it could travel. This is witnessed by innumerable shells of tanks, APCs, and parts thereof which litter the entirety of the road. It speaks to the Soviets’ helplessness, demoralisation, or both, that they did not or could not collect their damaged military hardware after attacks. It’s quite amusing see many former APC shells stacked atop and alongside one another to form embankments and tank turrets being used as flower planters.

The architecture and agriculture in view along the way was also quite fascinating. At lower elevations the rivers are surrounded by rice paddies, which are well watered when fed by the rising waters in spring during the melt. In mid summer and fall these field seem to by used for grass and forage for livestock. At higher elevations and in more rocky terrain, the grains are replaced by orchards of fruit and nut trees. These were really beautiful being that we travelled the road in October and their leave were all coloured in bright yellow and red (and this set against the barren mountains in the background). Everywhere a tremendous amount of effort had gone into terracing and irrigation. The terraces reached their greatest complexity for the orchards, many of which were cut out of slopes of up to about seventy degrees. Even on flatter ground every tree had its own little channel that supplies it and runs into a little well immediately around the tree’s base. Furthermore, the each tree is also based on a small rise to provide adequate drainage. In many cases individual trees were supported by complex masonry which exceeds that of any human dwelling. The efficacy of these techniques is apparent when one compares maintained trees to ones which have been abandoned or gone feral. These individuals appeared to be in a much sorrier straight, plus it’s interesting to note how quickly the terraces degrade when not maintain, with tree quickly breaking free and falling below to the river. Some points relating to harvesting: The tractors on hand were all Soviet or FSU in origin, with Belarus’ eponymous tractor making quite a strong showing. Given that the fields were all too small for tractors or used for crops not suitable for mechanical harvesting, the tractors seemed to be used entirely for hauling things such as blocks. Hay is threshed with a scythe (I didn’t see this in action but it was apparent from the patterns in the harvest fields) and left to dry in piles on individuals’ rooftops. This is depending giving that the weather is predictably rain-free until November.

Given the scarcity of arable land in mountain valleys, the towns usually don’t try to compete. They are all clustered on the sides of mountains and stacked on top of one another like the pueblo style in the US. It would have been really interesting to walk around one of these villages and check it out at closer range. All the houses are interconnected by interwoven networks of staircases and paths and interspersed at irregular intervals by individual gardens and fruit trees (which means that there must be an interesting water supply and drainage system at hand to keep all of the watered and then to keep your [rooftop] garden from collapsing into your neighbour’s living room). I was paying special attention to building materials given my current project at Altai, and two things were apparent to me; local materials are amply used to good effect and the local architecture is both practical and dignified. It really makes me disgusted with the compound-style houses favoured by the Afghan middle classes, which are designed at fortresses to protect familial honour from threats which either never have or will exist or actually originate from within such compounds. The traditional architecture consist of baked mud-bricks or fitted and cut stone (more stone at higher elevation since erosion is happening at a faster rate). On top of this they usually have a covering a dried mud-plaster mix. Nothing looked sloppy, with fixtures such as windows carefully fitted at neat angles and carved out of local wood.

We stopped in a town called Douşî for lunch, which was awesome. The menu at this restaurant consisted of lamb kabab, yahni, and dâşi, which we in the West recognise at digi. The digi consists of meat and gravy, with the meat being whatever they have (we ate at this place on the way back too; the first time they had veal, the next they had lamb) and the gravy also consisting of whatever they have. It’s all served in something like Kashmiri style with bread, lots of raw onions, and some masalas which you can add, one being based on dried red chillies and the other of dried green chillies.

The city of Mazar itself is not overly impressive. It’s not that large and not exciting. It is laid out on a rectangular grid with broad avenues, all perfectly centred on the shrine. This sobriety is reflected in the people, who by their own admission are much more focused on religion than having a good time. The city shuts down at sunset and restaurants are not open past eight. Although apparently young people compensate by going buck-wild in Uzbekistan on the weekends. The city of Termez right on the Uzbek side of the border has a disproportionate amount of clubs all disproportionately stocked with hooched out Afghan youth.

We got to eat in a few family homes too. One night we went to the house of Najib, who runs Altai’s Mazar office and the next to the house of Rafi’s family (Rafi being are consultant on this project who comes from Mazar). Our hosts were gracious and the few great, but I was deeply troubled by the intense immorality of a place where you get to meet the male family members but none of the women. Even though they were both very progressive families (one of the families made a great show of serving us beer), my overall impression was one of sadness, incompleteness, and un-Islamic-ness.

Of course no trip would be complete without its dramatic bits. Amongst our group we had the company of one extremely arrogant young man from Jalalabad who managed to embarrass the rest of us at almost every conceivable opportunity. This guy was pretty much a bad caricature of the embarrassment to humanity that is fundamentalism. First off he made a big show of refusing to go to the local franchise of Delhi Darbar because it was Hindu-owned, an action which is forbidden by almost any interpretation of Islam for a huge number of reasons. He also confronted our hosts for dinner on one occasion to inform them of how un-Islamic they were. Out of curiosity on one occasion I engaged him in a discussion of classical Sunni jurisprudence and found that, not surprisingly, he knew nothing (not even heard of classics such at Tabari’s History, Shafi’i’s Risala, or Bukhari’s collection of Hadiths) and gleaned most of his opinions from one Indian Deobandi leader and an intense obsession with originality (which itself fits into the psychology of the Deobandi movement). Anyway it was sad to see someone struggling with the ideas that the rest of humanity has confronted over fifty years ago—basically it reminded me of talking to an American Christian!

The trip back was a bit more intense in that the change in altitude comes as a much greater shock, as does the change in temperature. At one point we also stopped to take a piss and, as we were getting out of the vehicle, realised we didn’t know if the area had been demined. This was solved easily enough by finding a group of sheep. The logic here was that the sheep would have set off the mines had there been any. And it seems to have been right, judging by the lack of explosions. We also stopped at a few point to pick up fruit from the roadside—chiefly pomegranates.

16 October 2007

The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette

One of the highlights of my current job is getting to talk to people. In doing market research on construction materials I regularly find myself in the offices of five to ten heads of companies in a given day. This means I have had ample opportunity to compare and contrast different different settings in which Afghans conduct business. After a while, I couldn't help viewing these things through an anthropological lens as well.

The basic schematic of the Afghan office is, like many throughout the world, a projection of power. There are typical two rooms. The first will be less lavishly furnished and be occupied by an average of five people at any given moment; a mix of servants and sundry employees. The second room will be the lair of the boss himself. It will contain an enormous desk and the rest of the space will be taken up by obscene plush couches arranged in a salon setting. The meeting will also entail some sort of serving of food. This schematic allows numerous waits for exhibiting and mediating power, so here's how.

The number of people in the anteroom. This shows the power or status of the person you are about to meet. In fact most of them seem to have nothing to do but hang out (there are usually different servants who will bring you your tea later on). The people in the anteroom therefore, not just show how many people the boss can afford to hire, but also that he can afford to have them sitting around not doing much. The more powerful the boss, the more people and the more leisure on hand.

The main reception room. You and the boss will not be the only people in this room. Very often other people have been waiting since before you arrived to conduct their business. They may even have been waiting through multiple previous visitors. Unfortunately (for Afghan society) I never am made to wait, owing to the fact that Western visitors accord status, and those like myself who speak English are at the top of even that pecking order. Being made to wait and seeing the other guests that are brought in will impress upon the other individual the importance of the person they are waiting to see. If the person you are waiting to see cannot speak English themselves, they will frequently produce a foreign-educated son as a measure of social advancement, usually with the excuse of acting as a translator, which is pretty thin when everyone speaks Farsi. The desk is often little used and mostly for show, a fact often compounded by the impractical arrangement of unnecessary electronic gadgets upon it.

The food offered and the method of its offering. Tea can be served either before you sit down or offered just when it becomes clear that you are about to leave. The food will be non-existent or the usual assortment of nuts and raisins or include some specialties as souhan and gaz. Some people, as a result of class or pretension, go for the cornucopia effect, presenting you with a table covered in things like Pringles, Dorritos, and LU cookies. Some also dispense with tea and offer you coffee (perceived as a core indicator of things Western; Westerners are often perceived to dislike tea), soda, or even Red Bull.

The use of Western artefacts. This is something of a cross-cutting theme. The amount of Western artefacts on hand is inversely proportional with the amount of modernisation of the given boss. This extends from clothing to food to decor. The person educated or brought up the West will great you behind a well used desk in an office tastefully decorated with Afghan objets d'art while wearing a kurta-pijama. On the other extreme, we once spoke with the son of the boss, who had been left in charge. This individual, whilst making an aweful attempt at a Tehrani accent (which is prestigious thanks to the cultural power of Iran and the massive Farsi-language entertainment industry based in Los Angeles which is also given voice in the accent of Tehran), was wear probably one of the most amazing get-ups off all time, consisting of: acid-washed, flared, and incoherently embroidered jeans (Rajastani embroider on one pant, mickey mouse on the other); a collared shirt which had massively oversized cuffs, cufflinks the size of bones, and patterned with oversized neon-hued pieces of cheesecake (the collar was necessarily popped), and to top it off, a leather life-preserver-style vest that was sekwinzed.

It's not just the boss's personality or pretension that factor into this but also those of the clientele. Whatever the individuals preferences, there clients or potential clients will also look for certain signals. Many people have a regal salon-style set up, but will instead take you too a modern and efficient office when given the chance. Another axis is professionalism. The more professional the company, the more familiar its offices will look to someone from the West. People who sat behind a desk where they were visibly at work knew how much they would sell in a given interval, the cost of their inputs, and be full of potential strategies for growth. The biggest divide overall is between businesses that just consist of trading and transporting goods and those that are trying to establish an actual corporate structure, which is necessary to institutionalise the benefits of economic growth.

10 October 2007

Life on Planet Altai

Going into my third week at Altai, I think I really like this place. It's a good mix of being professional and informal. The work is well divided so I don't have to focus on much beyond the job which I am supposed to do.

My job right now consists of finishing up some market research on construction materials in the place of someone who got sick just before I started. In a sense this is training for a large market survey which I am going to head up for Nestle starting in November. As little as I know about construction materials, the work is really interesting as it involves me going around Kabul and getting to talk to all different sorts of people, plus also getting to know the Afghan economy close up.

Due to my lack of technical know-how, I've been paired up with an Afghan engineer (Aref, long based in Germany) who helps me fill in the gaps in my interviews. While necessary for this project, in general I hope I won't have to take assistants in the future. It makes the interviews more difficult because people don't expect me to speak Farsi when I have an Afghan assistant. It is also problematic because Aref speaks only German and Farsi, and my technical German is crap. He is used to thinking of German as the language of technology where I accord that status to Farsi. As a result, rather than asking a direct question in Farsi, I have to discuss with Aref in German and then have him translate into Farsi. Yes, my German is improving quickly. It also amusing because I have spent so many years devaluing German as just another old European language and now have to treat it with some respect. But Farsi is better, way better.

The living arrangements are okay. Currently I'm in the largest guesthouse out in Taimani. Let's face it, these are dorms. It's great fun. I rarely get to sleep on time and instead spend time drinking Ovaltine with Mitra and Arzu. We have continental breakfast laid out for us every morning and people clean our rooms. I'm not complaining; I've been roughing it for the last year and I'm quite happy for the perks! My living situation will soon get much better as well. Four expats are moving out so Altai held a room auction. I was the only one who placed a bid, so I got my pick :-) My new room will be in the guesthouse directly across from L'Atmosphere (a French restaurant with readily available alcohol which serves as a second office for the Altai staff) and only 50m away from the office. The room is right next to the bathroom and kitchen (yes, at moment my room is unattached, so I have to go outside to get to the bathroom, common room, or kitchen, which will suck come winter) and also has a desk and really soft mattress. I might also spring $120 for a diesel heater. One year of lighting the bokhari (wood stove) by myself has been quite enough, plus with a wood stove it will be cold in the morning unless you keep waking up in the middle of the night.