Afghan Chronicles: Day Six, Charikar

We drive to Charikar today in Parwan Province. It’s about a 90-minute drive outside Kabul. I promised my family I would never leave Kabul, oops.

After a brief explanation of the day’s events, I get in the car and go. I have given up trying to imagine how the day will unfold, because I am always surprised by what I see, and nothing turns out the way I think it will be. It’s a huge leap of faith, but here, it’s the only way to be, prepare as best you can, get in the car and let go.

Our first stop is a meeting with the Parwan provincial council/shura/local government.

At this meeting, in a two-story non-descript government building with no electricity, ACKU is working with the head of the local shura to establish a library to help local government officials lead within the Afghan Constitution and laws. Nancy and her team have brought a sample of their law books for the shura to review.

We discover they have no copy of the constitution or any laws. They govern by what they think is fair or how they have decided grievances in the past. And this is one of the more functioning and progressive local governments. Basically no one has a clue as to what is going on in Kabul and there is absolutely no communication with the other provinces on the “constitution” or a unified rule of law. This is nothing new, but I am still stunned at the level of chaos and dysfunction of the Afghan government. The US is not much better but at least there are laws, a constitution, parliamentary procedure, even if there is massive corruption and around everything, we still have the illusion of a democratic society. In Afghanistan there are no illusions. The chaos is as open as the stream of raw sewage that surrounds the city.

But even more disturbing to me is my reaction when the door opens for our meeting with the shura members.

Lined on either side of the narrow pea-green room are four couches. On the couches sit a group of men, with full beards, dressed in brown and black patus (shawls) and the standard Afghan pakol (hat). In my paranoid-U.S. mind, they stare death-like darts through their eyes, I remember the reports of the various attacks throughout the province, and my immediate instinct is to run like a lunatic into the street, shouting ” Taliban!” This scenario plays itself out in my head in less than one second. Prejudice, fear and lack of understanding raises its ugly head in the most inopportune times.

Instead, I take my cue from my 84-year-old intrepid guide, Nancy Dupree, as she walks purposely and respectfully past the men to meet the head of the shura at the end of the room. “Follow her, don’t freak, breathe, and make sure the camera is on,” I tell myself.

After the session, I ask Nazir if it is okay to videotape the men for broll. They consent. All during the session many of the men look at me with curiosity, maybe contempt. I am clean shaven and bald, not a winning combination in these parts.

After Nancy and the group leave to another part of the building I linger in the room. To break the ice with the guys, I pull off my hat to expose my bald head. They all laugh. I disarm them with my “lack of virility.”  I am not a threat.

Charikar, Parwan Province
Charikar, Parwan Province

By the end of the session, we are smiling and taking pictures with one another.  My new friends were just as suspicious of me as I of them.  It is a reminder how easy it is to close off your mind and make anyone who does not look like you, the enemy.  It is a real flaw of the human condition. It happens to everyone.  Fear and the havoc it wreaks.

We move on to the boys school, Hazrat Noman, in Charikar City. It is the site of the first ACKU school library. We are met by school and city officials who give us a tour of the library. Some well-meaning American foundation and assorted NGO’s donate unusable books, in this case, over 50 physics and chemistry text books written in English. The books are hard enough for native English speakers to comprehend, let alone new literate children who barely read their native Dari or Pashto. Most students don’t understand a word of English. The books look nice on the shelves but have never been touched by the students. The foundations keep sending them.

Nancy learns that the library has not been updated with new useful books in over a year. She makes a note to her assistant to send a new batch of ABLE books, e.g., Dari and Pashto short books for new literates on history, geography, health, etc.

The student-appropriate books that are on the shelves, are read. They have a sign-out sheet that track the number of borrowed books. The students are putting the appropriate books to good use.

Before we get back in the car I am hankering for good b-roll, e.g., cover shots of students. I ask if I can shoot footage in a couple of classrooms. An administrator accompanies me to a classroom. I start to shoot and no one moves. Everyone stands at attention and looks at me or the camera, frozen. This has happened before, so I put the camera down, and tell Nazir to tell them to ignore me. They comply, I get some shots and go to the next classroom.

We enter one more room. Again, attention, freeze. Please relax and go on. When I leave, a student calls out in English, “Can I ask you a question?” I am stunned, it’s the first English I have heard from a student. Mohammad Sharif, 18-years-old, stands up.

“Yes, of course,” I say.

“Where are you from?”

“New York City.” I never say I’m from America or United States. I think no matter what people feel about America, if you say New York City, people will be a bit more forgiving since most people are curious about it.

We move on to the local school and meet with teachers and local leaders.  My group is peering in through the window behind the door, “hurry up, we have to go!” I leave the camera running, turn to them, pleading, “please give me one minute.” I turn to Mohammed and ask, “What do you like to read?”

He says, “books.” Not satisfied with the answer, I change tactics. What are you interested in? His English is good, but halting. He looks at Nazir, the translator, checking for the correct word.

He says, he and his friends are tired of war. They want computers, technology, to be connected to the world. He says he wants to be a doctor or lawyer. He is so bright and full of promise. Now I stand frozen. What can be done? How do we help Mohammad and others like him? The school has no electricity or running water. How do we get computers here? Generators? Who will run them? The town is poverty-ridden and rife with corruption. What opportunities do they have other than joining the insurgency or running drugs or arms? On the car ride home I am told to forget about it, nothing can be done. It haunts me still.

After the interview we drive into Charikar and eat at a local restaurant. It looks like a greasy diner in Queens but the food is surprisingly good. Chicken and lamb with rice, julienne carrots, raisins and what tastes like nutmeg. I eat every morsel. The TV blares above , and the men (women eat behind the curtain in a tiny section of the small restaurant) eat wordlessly, staring vacantly at the screen. Some things are universal.

Nancy asks the group to detour to a hilltop outside Charikar where a purple flower is in bloom. Nancy because she and her late husband, Louis, would picnic here the when the trees were in full bloom.

When we return to Kabul, I am invited to dinner at the New York Times house by photojournalist, Bob Nickelsberg. Although it’s our first meeting, it’s the first time I really relax in Kabul.

I have been a great admirer of Bob’s work and my former professor at The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Judith Matloff put us in touch. The BBC’s Martin Patience, another Columbia alum and student of Judith’s, rounded out the group. It was great to be around other journalists who really knew the lay of the land, told great stories and were generous with their suggestions. Also at dinner was Richard Oppel who was on deadline, and kept running from the table to his computer. The work never ends.

The dinner is a tasty hearty stew, and I stay way past my bedtime, but enjoy their company so much, I forget I have to get up early the next day to have a final shoot with Nancy, and go to the Palace to meet President Karzai.

Click here for Day Seven: The Palace.