Letters from Kabul: 11 October 2013

Parrots and Pedagogy

The other day I was sitting in what we call “The TA room”, it’s on the ground floor and has a nice big table, good WiFi connectivity, and big windows looking out on to the garden. The various technical advisors use it when they are here. Hence, TA room. Duh!

Suddenly there was the most raucous screeching. I thought at first that maybe the house cat (named, sadly, Wuscers) had either got into (another) fight or was finding her lunch. But the noise continued. I looked up in to the apple trees that grow along the side of the lawn and there I saw – a parrot.

Immediately I thought some smart-a**e had gone and done a Monty Python on me, using some nails, a plush toy, and one of those bird-caller whistle things. Then the “dead parrot” moved. It was green, with a red bill and a long tail. Then a second flew in, and started eating another apple.

To say I was gob-smacked would be an understatement. Parrots? In Kabul? Who knew?

Over the next couple of days I saw more of them, including a flock of about 20 wheeling over the house a few doors down, but I didn’t have my camera with me, and even if I had I likely wouldn’t have taken the picture because that’s the house with the guards who filled the night with automatic gunfire during one of my previous trips, nervous at a car which went through the checkpoint without stopping. The driver won’t make that mistake again, nor will his passenger.

I did take a photograph of the parrot in our apple tree, though.


It’s pretty well camouflaged but if you look carefully you’ll see it, right in the centre of the photograph. I was happy the next day to see a couple on the top branches of one of the trees, nicely silhouetted against the sky.


I thought maybe they had escaped from the Kabul Zoo, at some point during the various conflicts of the last 30 years, but a bit of research showed me that I was wrong, and that this particularly parrot made it to an Afghan stamp, back in 1985.


So one quiet evening I decided to check the web and find out about this mystery bird. Apparently it’s the Ring-necked or Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), and according to the World Parrot Trust (who runs these organizations, and maintains these websites? Is there a special sign by which they self-identify? Next time you’re in a crowd and see someone scratching the side of their head, ask!) …. But I digress.

According to the World Parrot Trust, and I can’t let this go, I really hope Michael Palin and John Cleese are members, I discover that this bird is found all over the place, from Mauritania to Myanmar and places in-between [http://www.parrots.org/index.php/encyclopedia/profile/ringneck_parakeet].

I wondered whether this was the same bird that had surprised me once when I was walking through the rhododendrons at Kew Gardens, that calm oasis just outside London, and sure enough it was [http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/r/ringneckedparakeet/index.aspx]

So there. Now you know. Parrots – they get everywhere!

Please don’t think I spend every evening surfing the web, or thinking about parrots. I don’t. I normally read, as there are limited English language channels on the TV and you can only watch so much news even when you are rotating between the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, just to make sure you have balance. In fact, I’ve just finished reading a great book, My revolutions by Hari Kunzru. I picked it up at Tenovus, a charity shop in North Wales, while I was looking for novels to read when I’m fed up with reading or writing reports, something interesting to accompany my chai sabz in the evening.

This one attracted me first because it had a back-cover blurb from Big Issue, and you don’t see many of those. It’s good to support Big Issue, which for the uninitiated is a magazine published on behalf of and sold by homeless or vulnerably housed people, but it’s not a publication I normally associate with book reviews. Which is probably more my bias than that of anyone else.

Anyway, I then saw that the book was signed by the author, and immediately my little brother’s industrious use of E-Bay to sell autographs came to mind. So that was a second plus. Third, I read the synopsis – it’s basically about a fellow who’s about to turn 50, and whose life during the radical protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s has caught up with him and the genteel middle class life he’s been living. (Which of you, gentle readers, remember Paris 1968, the Grosvenor Square riots [pop quiz: What building is located there? Who was Blair Peach?], Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, and so on?).

Anyway, three check marks! And then I saw it was on sale for a pound, so I was hooked. Sold to me!

It’s about a period that I remember – well, I remember some of it. As someone once said, if you can remember the 60s, then you weren’t there. It’s a bit like that Abba movie. Most of the people I know (well, the men, anyway) who travelled Europe and the hippy trail in the 70s and 80s love that movie. You ask them why and they mutter about the songs, the scenery, Meryl Streep … but when you dig a little further, it’s because deep down they’re just so glad they never got that letter!

Anyway, back to the book. In one sequence, Kunzru cites the famous banner which hung over the London School of Economics during the 1967 ‘sit-in’:

Beware the pedagogic gerontocracy

I found myself nodding my head in agreement. I remember those days, the teachers we had, how they were so disconnected from the world around them, the world of youth and change and future. How they didn’t understand the music, and the fashions, and the rhythms of the time.

And then I thought: Hey, wait a minute! That’s us, now! All of us who are survivors of that time, with stories from “back in the day” that we really don’t want to share, are facing the dilemma superbly articulated by Henry Priestman in Did I fight in the punk wars for this? from his album, The Chronicles of Modern Life (2008). Which is a superb album. Or CD. Or download. Or however they sell music these days. If you’ve not heard it, get a copy!

This was an awkward thought, on a warm autumnal evening in Kabul, and one to explore in future letters. If green tea could curdle then I would have had to learn a new word in Dari.

Kabul, 11 October 2013

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