Thursday, February 14, 2008

Afghanimal House: Tripping the Light Fantastic in Kabul

Even from here you can tell it’s a zoo. Everybody’s in town, UNICEF, NATO, the UN, the EU, the Asia Development Bank, and even the Aga Khan runs a five star hostelry, the unfortunately named Serena Hotel. The Brits have airlifted in an ambassador called Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles – the name alone would make anyone nostalgic for the retreat from Kabul - and tried to get two for the price of one in the form of Paddy Ashdown but he had the door slammed in his face, the door shown the two guys apparently trying to arrange for several thousand Taliban to “change sides”. The White Man’s Burden, there’s nothing like it.

Meanwhile, well heeled thrill seekers are falling over each other in Kabul. The Serena takes only cash, and hosted the British Embassy black-tie New Year’s Eve bash, which must have cost substantially more than even an Afghan poppy farmer could imagine in a year. The horrific gate crashing at the Serena featured some American woman from an NGO having to “step over the body” of a staff member while retreating from the hotel gym, but the Serena’s back in business, a genteel memorandum from the Board of Directors arguing for Resolve in the face of Barbarism. One might argue that the existence of a luxury hotel in the midst of the hideous poverty of Afghanistan is itself an act of barbarism: and that precisely is the case.

Who are these people? OK, I’ll tell you. They’re ambulance-chasers from another dimension. The New York Observer article offers up quotes like half-submerged cow udders to half-starved piranha. As Malcolm Muggeridge said of the BBC Times, “You just can’t compete with it”, speaking in that particular case of an article on the role of the potato in English folk-lore. But get a load of this:

“In some ways, being an “international” in Kabul is one of the last great colonial adventures, complete with armed guards, drivers and the occasional attack”

“Social life in Kabul has evolved with economic development: some say for the better, and some say for the worse. In 2002—the satellite-phone-only, carry-in-all-the-cash-you-need stage—foreigners were a rough-and-ready lot, comprising disarmament and demining experts, well-diggers, road-builders and a few hardy entrepreneurs. They were a transient, overwhelmingly male group whose idea of social life was slinging back beers at the only bar in town (and, rumor had it, frequenting the brothels masquerading as Chinese restaurants). As one young American woman who worked on disarmament said, ‘The odds are good, but the goods are odd’.”

“A recent American arrival is Victoria Longo, a pretty 26-year-old George Washington University graduate working for AISA, Afghanistan’s private-sector investment-promotion organization. ‘You wouldn’t imagine such a thriving social scene in a place like Kabul, but it exists’, said Ms. Longo. ‘You meet a lot of adventurous types, and eccentricity is the norm.’”
“’This is college for eternity’, countered Sarah Takesh, Columbia ’95, a vivacious Iranian-American designer behind the local apparel company Tarsian & Blinkley. ‘People become addicted to the cozy insularity of life here. They say they’re fed up and they leave—and then they come back six months later.’ Ms. Takesh, who is a descendent of the Qajar dynasty of Iran, moved to Afghanistan in July 2003. Her company includes a small semi-couture business aimed at internationals.”

“’I started bringing over my real shoe collection—Sigerson Morrison, Marni, Sonia Rykiel and so on’ said Ms. Takesh. ‘I keep them in little bags in my closet and look at them every once in a while. I wear sad sandals, a $20 tunic and no makeup most days of the week—but it’s comforting to know that they are there’.”

“Naturally, as with college sorority and fraternity houses, there are more and less fashionable houses. Two English-speaking clusters, known for their well-connected residents, are the large compound where Ms. Takesh lives with eight others, and Lisa Pinsley’s five-person house. A graduate of Deerfield Academy and Harvard (’97) and a quiet, regal beauty, Ms. Pinsley shares a three-story 60’s-style bungalow and its spacious garden with the Australian filmmaker Sophie Barry, often named one of the “coolest girls in Kabul”; the stylish, petite Canadian brunette Kate Khamsi, Harvard ’95, one of Kabul’s most social; and two others.

“Ms. Khamsi, a half-Iranian, half-Irish-Canadian lawyer who is a direct descendent of Muhammad on her father’s side, arrived in December 2005 after working for almost two years in East Timor. ‘In Kabul, I associate with a broader cross-section of society than I do at home,’ she said. ’In New York, I hang out mainly with other young professionals and Ivy League graduates. I didn’t know anyone in the Army. Here, by necessity, you’re thrown into a more diverse group’.

“One of the more chic recent parties was the 30th birthday of Holly Ritchie, a slim, pretty English blonde who works for an N.G.O., at her home. Among the guests sampling the buffet from a local Lebanese restaurant was fellow Brit Rory Stewart, the very thin Old Etonian founder of the local Turquoise Mountain Foundation (preserving traditional Afghan building techniques) and best-selling author of The Places in Between.

Ms. Ritchie, who arrived in Afghanistan in 2004 after receiving a master’s in international development, said: ‘Ever since I saw Indiana Jones, I wanted to be an archaeologist or do something where I would experience other places and their realities. From 13, I knew I wanted to work in developing countries, and if you are British, Afghanistan above all will always hold a certain challenge and fascination’.”

If I was a poor Afghan peasant I’d want to know how I could get in on the action. If I was a principled religious fanatic, I’d want to nuke the whole thing.