Letters from Kabul: 23 November 2012

Kabul, Afghanistan

Friday 23 November 2012

I’ve decided not to do a blog this time, there’s just too much pressure! Generally the work here is pretty boring, it’s always a struggle to think of something interesting to write about. So I’m going to follow the example of our friends Jim and Louise, who send out a weekly newsletter describing their travels – currently they are in Bhutan – and often add a few photographs.

Not that this will necessarily be a weekly event – it depends on what is happening – but Friday is our weekend day off, and I try hard not to do “office work” today, so perhaps it’s a good day to write.

I’m going to follow an “opt out” policy – if you’re getting this and would rather not, let me know and I’ll remove your name from the list. No hard feelings – we all get so much e-mail these days that I can understand someone trying to curtail what arrives in their in-box. But if I don’t hear from you, I’m going to assume you’d like me to keep you on the list!

I arrived here last Sunday, after a couple of weeks spent in Alberta and Ottawa, and a night in London. There was snow in Alberta, over 30 centimetres of it, and rain in Ottawa, but here it’s dry and dusty. The days are warm, sometimes reaching 17 or 18 degrees, and it cools off to around 5 or 6 degrees at night.

Kabul is at quite a high altitude, about 1800 metres (nearly 6000’) above sea level. That’s a long way up from PEI, and makes it one of the world’s highest capital cities. Luckily I had the week in Calgary, which at 1049 m (nearly 3500’) acted as a sort of base camp for altitude acclimatization! Even at that height, though, it’s really in a valley, and is surrounded by mountains, so sometimes the dust just sort of settles here and causes the notorious “Kabul cough”. A number of people walk around with face masks on, but so far I’ve been able to focus more on the interesting photographic effects which come from the sun shining through the miasma.

Afg. Miasma

At the hotel where I’m staying there is a small restaurant, every night they put out a series of metal chafing dishes. The foods vary, but there’s usually some sort of lamb dish, and then others of chicken, fish, vegetables, and rice. Kabuli pilau is one of my favourites, rice studded with carrots and raisins, and with chunks of lamb throughout. Sometimes there is sabzi paneer, a spinach and rice dish, and yesterday we had mantou, a sort of stuffed dumpling which is very tasty! I was told that these were mantou Mazari, from the north, and filled with ground lamb, as opposed to ‘normal’ mantou which are filled with beef. Whatever, they were great.

What is also great is that it is pomegranate season! These fruit are grown all across the region, but the ones from Kandahar are especially famous. Right now they are for sale in the shops and from street vendors, whose barrows are laden down with them. A number of cafes are also selling fresh pomegranate juice. They hollow out the seeds, and then put them through a blender. The result is a wonderful drink, served in a half-pint mug for about $1.50. On the way back from work on Wednesday we stopped at a small café and tasted this delicacy.

Afg. Tim Tea

Two days ago at dinner there was a plate of a different type of fruit, thin deep red slices of some unknown variety. I tried it, hesitantly at first, and then with gusto, for it was truly delicious. I had no idea what it was. It tasted like a cross between a pawpaw (papaya) and a mango, sweet but not sickly, fibrous but not chewy.

Last night we found it served again, this time as the topping on a mixed fruit pie. I asked one of the young men, who tend the tables during dinner, if he could identify the fruit. He did not know the English word but said that in Dari it is called “Amluk”. My colleague, who is from the Îsles de la Madeleine, didn’t know what it was either – but as she pointed out, they don’t grow fruits out there in the Gulf, the winds blow all the time and the trees grow sideways! Another person at our table said she knew the fruit, they ate it in her country as well, and that in Bhutan it was known as “Anday”.

As an aside, I find it interesting that Jim and Louise (and Duffie) are currently in Bhutan, working to help provide teacher training there, and here was a young Bhutanese woman in Afghanistan as part of the Colombo Plan, working with youth who are in drug rehabilitation programs.

Back to the amluk, which after a diligent search of the internet I discovered was in fact persimmon. I’ve heard of that, but don’t think I’ve ever eaten it before.

Afg. persimmon

Apparently the persimmon originated in China, where it’s known as Shizi. Like the mantou, I guess, which is also the name for a Chinese steamed bun. I suppose that both these are evidence of the effect of the Silk Road, which comes from northern China in to Afghanistan, crossing the Hindu Kush and then traversing through Balkh (ancient Bactra) and Bamyan.

Tomorrow the work week starts again, but the office is closed, as is pretty much all of the country. It is a public holiday, one which recognizes the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet. All over the city large gates have been erected, metal scaffolding covered in fabric and dotted with flags. Cars drive around with large flags attached to their long sticks which have been tied to bumpers or protrude out of windows.

Afg. arch

Husayn ibn Ali, his family and a small group of supporters were killed in 679, at the Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq. The event is commemorated on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, with large processions and gatherings. This day, also known as Ashuara, is very special to adherents of Shia Islam. However, the event is not approved by the Taleban, who on Thursday attacked a Shi’ite procession in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Last year a gathering in Mazar-e-Sharif was disrupted by a large bombing in which many people were killed, and so tomorrow has been designated a ‘high security’ day. There is a large army and police presence on the streets of Kabul, and we have decided to keep off them tomorrow! Instead we shall work from the hotel, and hope that everyone in Afghanistan makes it safely through the day.

So with that I’ll close and send this out. I hope that wherever you are, you have a calm and peaceful weekend.



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