Food, Myths, and Fire

The days are blurring in to one another, as they tend to do in Kabul. The work continues regardless of calendar, and it is easy to forget what day it actually is. The first few days of any mission are spent getting up to speed on what is happening here, talking to people, having meetings, and generally re-establishing relationships.

Yesterday was a public holiday, Mujahedeen Day, which celebrates the exit of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. There were no parades, and no real signs that this was a celebration of liberation or anything like that. I was invited to lunch at the house of Sayid, the father of a friend in Charlottetown. I went there two years ago as well, and the food was as good as I remembered!

I took one of my colleagues with me, and our driver joined us as a guest as well as being our interpreter. When we arrived we first sat on cushions in a living room, chatting about Sayid’s family and how they were living on the Island. Someone else in the family had become engaged, and I agreed to take a DVD video of the party back to Canada with me. I looked around and saw that there were no decorations visible, except a clock on the wall, and the only furniture was a shiny metal stove radiating heat. Sayid’s son joined us, a doctor who is working at a government clinic as an internal medicine specialist.

After a few minutes our host invited us in to the next room, where there was a feast laid out on the floor – a huge plate of Kabuli pilau, of course, rice thick with mutton, raisins, and shredded carrot. There were salads, and dishes of braised vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes, onion, and others of broiled beef, placed around a pile of naan breads. We ate until we could eat no more, and then had yoghurt and fruit pressed upon us for dessert. Everyone else was sitting cross-legged on the carpets, but my knees are too old for such things, and I leaned back on a pile of cushions with legs outstretched to the side.

The conversation ranged around a lot of topics. How easy was it to get a visa to travel to Canada, they wondered? Sayid said he would like to visit his daughter and his grandchildren there, and his son had heard that Canada needed doctors so it might be an interesting place to work. It’s hard to be honest in the face of such hope, but the truth is that it is very difficult for people to get visas to travel to Canada, and indeed for Afghans to get visas to travel anywhere. In our project we had a study tour planned to western Canada last year, and some nameless person in the Islamabad embassy rejected thirteen of the eighteen applicants. More recently we decided to try more regional opportunities and established plans to visit institutions and ministries in Ankara and Istanbul, to explore how they designed their teacher certification programs. Last week we were sad to learn that all twelve of our applications for visas to Turkey were denied. Again, no reasons were given and, again, no appeal is permitted. What makes it all the more confusing is that six of the twelve educators have already spent extended periods of time in Turkey, and had no problems receiving visas at that time.

Another topic was the availability of alcohol to westerners in Kabul. The recent attack on the Taverna du Liban is on everyone’s minds, and the fact that the restaurant served alcohol was noted. However, the perception was that all the restaurants frequented by westerners served alcohol, and this was why they needed the armed guards on their gates. We tried to assure our hosts that this was not the case, and that most of the places where we ate did not serve booze, the guards were their simply to protect the customers and also to make sure nobody who had a weapon was allowed entry. I am not sure whether we succeeded in changing opinions, or were just tolerated as one tends to do with guests who are so obviously wrong in their ideas, for it is always hard to dispel myths once they get established.

After lunch we returned to the first room, and found a thermos of tea and plates of sweets and small fruits laid out on the floor. We sat and continued our conversation, and I tried to figure out what we were eating with our tea. After a number of false starts and rambling explanations, we discovered that the small and intensely flavoured fruits we were enjoying were sun dried blackberries. I think I’ll have to try making those this year, they were really good – and would take up less storage space than the bags of blackberries do in the freezer!

We had a bit of excitement last night, one of the chimneys on a bukerie (charcoal burning stove) got blocked and a colleague’s room filled with smoke. We were in the TV room having dinner when we smelled it, and with handkerchiefs over our mouths rushed to open windows and doors. Our collective lack of the fluency in the Dari language became rapidly evident as we tried to explain to a guard what was happening – I think he thought the house was on fire at first. Eventually we got the room vented but my colleague ended up having to move rooms, the smoke was really thick and toxic-yellow looking, and had an acrid smell. It didn’t reach the other rooms, luckily, but it certainly left its mark.

It is springtime in Kabul. Today is another bright sunny morning, the doves are building their nest on the window sill again and I can hear them calling. Another colleague arrives today, and then we have to go and tell the certification group that their visas to Turkey were denied. I am not looking forward to that.

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