Kabuli Style

Kabul style: chess, chickens, clothes and carpets

When I arrived in Kabul the Ministry of Foreign Affairs people were not at the airport for me to arrange my Foreigner Registration Card. As soon as I could, I went to the Ministry itself to pick one up. They are free, but they are important – we are supposed to carry one around at all times, together with our passports.

We parked across the road from the Ministry and I looked at DK with some trepidation. There were four lanes of traffic coming one way, and three the other, plus people peeling off the roundabout on the wrong side and going in the wrong direction.

“You’re going to make me walk across the road, aren’t you?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

“OK, well you go on that side, so they kill you first,” I said, and put him on the four lane side. He set off and I walked in step alongside him, cars passing us with inches to spare, but we didn’t stop and neither did they. It was like watching the Mounties doing the musical ride, with the horses gliding in and out of elaborate choreographed patterns. Except now I was one of the horses.

We were given the usual pat-down and body search as we entered the gates, then we made our way to the Foreigner Registration room. The small lady and the man with a beard were both still there – they were there the last time I was in that office.


The man passed me a form which I filled out, and then he laboriously copied my entry on the Registration Form itself. While he did this I watched the lady, who had a box full of competed Foreigner Registration Forms. These, I assumed, were the ones collected from travellers as they leave Kabul airport. I watched as she took each ID card and unstapled the photograph, then stuck that in to a large ledger. As the glue was drying she copied out the details on the form, then threw the now used card into a large box beneath her feet.

A few days later I was waiting outside a shop on Chicken Street for my colleagues to finish buying silk scarves and pakul caps. It was hot in the shop, so I’d gone outside for some air. Across the road I noticed one of the ‘chicken in a basket’ stands I’ve mentioned before – a series of wire mesh cages stacked one on top of another, each with some white chickens inside.


As I looked across the street in a half-focused way I suddenly realized that a transaction was happening. A man had approached and talked to the fellow who was squatting next to the chickens. The latter jumped up, opened one of the cages, and reached inside. He pulled out a bird by its feet, wings flapping and a few feathers popping up in to the air. I was interested to see how the purchaser was going to get his chicken home.

The man with the chicken suddenly bent down, came up with a cleaver in his hand, flipped the chicken on to a wooden box, and cut off the head. He then held it over an open barrel of some sort, plucked and skinned the bird, and placed it on top of the cage. Then he reached for another one. It was amazing how quickly and efficiently he worked.

Now I know how people get their chickens home, and why the chicken we eat here always tastes so fresh.

When I got tired of watching chickens being beheaded I turned my gaze further up the street. Two men were sitting at a small table, with others watching them. I wandered over and saw that they were playing chess. At least, the board was a chess board, and the pieces were chessmen, with knights and castles and a king readily identifiable. But the game itself wasn’t chess; each piece was only being moved one square at a time.

One of the men looked up and invited me to play, but I just laughed and shook my head. I’m sure there would have been money involved somewhere, and I would have been the one to lose it. I watched a while longer. Later I asked one of my Afghan colleagues and he told me it was a game like chess, but more simple. People play it first, apparently, and then graduate to playing chess itself. There was some discussion about the name of the game but nobody was exactly sure what it was called.


My colleagues appeared and we walked up the street. At my second favourite carpet shop I bought a small kilim, which is a small embroidered carpet that does not have backing. I have a couple at home already but there are some family weddings coming up, and this might make a nice present. Unless it colonizes the house first, of course.

I also bought a patoo, which is a Pashtun blanket worn by men. It is made of wool, and not only keeps you warm but also keeps out the dust. I have seen some on the street which have an embroidered green hem, but the normal ones are quite plain. It is rolled and then brought up to the shoulders in a certain way. The long side then wraps around and over the short side, and suddenly one is wearing a patoo. After a couple of tries my colleague Doug and I more or less got the hang of it.


We kept walking and at my favourite carpet shop I bought another kilim, and we drank tea with the owner as he tried to sell us a whole bunch of carpets. Later, we drove to another little gallery where I looked at paintings, bought another small kilim, and then decided that a Mazar-e-Sharif style robe would look pretty good.


Today I went to a workshop being facilitated by one of my colleagues. We had 21 people there from 7 different NGOs, all anxious to learn what we are proposing with respect to teacher certification. We are not formally entrusted with a coordination role in this regard, but because our work will end up having an impact on all elements of teacher credentialing in Afghanistan the other groups want to know what we are doing. On the way back from the workshop we stopped on the street near a long wall. Against the wall were piled stacks of suitcases, and after some negotiation I bought one. Last night I had reviewed my purchases and realized that I had too many kilims for my suitcase.


Chess, chickens, clothes and carpets: it’s amazing what one can “see” if only one takes the time to look.

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