Thursday, September 30, 2010

We'll be right back...

We're setting out tomorrow on our first R&R break from Kabul. We had this great plan that we were going to have entries set up to auto-publish for the whole time we're away. But instead, we don't. So, we'll see you on October 20th, fully rested and relaxed and recuperated and rejuvenated and with some pictures of other exotic places mixed in with the pictures of Afghanistan.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Smelly Goat

Actually, I'm fairly certain that he was covering his airway because the SUVs and MRAPs in our convoy kick up so much dust on the unpaved roads. But it's funnier to think that the goat just smells. OK, not that funny, but around here you take comedy where you can find it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

City Goats

We were intending to do "Goat Week" here at the Holla but astute readers will note that this is actually a picture of sheep. You do also see goats in Kabul being herded down the street through oncoming traffic. But these - these are not goats. We apologize for the false advertising.

Photo credit to The Lovely Katherine, who maybe didn't understand the assignment was to go find goats to photograph, or maybe never really had any assignments in the first place.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

In Praise of the Municipal Sanitation Departments of America

We are sure there are lots of sociological explanations and theories out there on why developing-world cities are often so dirty. Lack of sanitation services is an obvious guess, but surely not the only one. On the other hand, it's not like poor people have no pride or are just dirty people by nature. So despite in some way intellectually understanding it, it is still hard for your correspondent to not be just a little taken aback at the site of neighborhoods strewn with trash. It's not a syndrome that's unique to Afghanistan or even foreign to some of the less well-to-do parts of the United States.

Pictured above, from a neighborhood in Kabul not terribly far away from the Embassy, some sort of drainage ditch has widened into a pond, perhaps fifty feet across and every inch of it covered in plastic debris. I'm sure that if it were my neighborhood, I wouldn't have any more desire than the current residents do to touch the water in that pond for the sake of cleaning the trash out of it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

She didn't sing "Pink Cadillac"!

Living abroad has a way of making one grab at whatever entertainment opportunities are available. Even in more civilized parts of the world, we've stretched what we consider a good time, because there aren't art-house movie theaters or clubs hosting touring indie-rock bands. This was pushed to its logical extreme in Kabul last night, where, surprisingly, Album and Record of the Year Grammy-winner Natalie Cole played Embassy Kabul. Yes, life is a little surreal here, but that may have taken the cake.

Through some connection that was never made clear to me, the daughter of Nat King Cole is friends with (but I guess not related to) an Afghan-American woman named Sonia Nassery Cole, who managed to make a movie set in -- and actually shot on location in -- Afghanistan. So that movie was having its World Premiere projected from a laptop dvd player onto a bed-sheet, in a big Afghan tent set up on the Kabul Embassy compound tennis court. (This NYT article claims that the military got to see it first, which is a dirty lie.) And because Ms. Cole (the famous singer) knows Ms. Cole (the film-maker) through various Afghan charities, she (I guess?) decided to come along for the ride and sing a few songs at the premiere.

So, we Embassy employees gathered on the tennis court, where a makeshift stage, an insultingly bad PA system, hundreds of folding chairs, and a carnival-style popcorn popper cart were set up for a mini-concert and film screening. Not to be cruel, but were I in the United States, I'm not totally sure I would cross the street to see Natalie Cole perform for free. It's just not my bag. I would guess I wasn't alone among those who turned out for the show. But you have to take your hat off to her for coming to Afghanistan and singing for some pampered diplomats and some less-pampered soldiers (at ISAF tonight). Metalheads and jazzbos alike gave her a standing ovation when she battled through the staticky Embassy sound system and broken backing track to do an a capella version of her mega-hit "Unforgettable." I may or may not be the only person in the crowd for whom the second most familiar Natalie Cole song is her cover of "Pink Cadillac," but I guess she decided that one didn't fit the mood.

In any case, thanks to her. Even though she's not one of my favorite artists, this was definitely one of the most memorable concert performances I've ever seen.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gas Cans

Your correspondent isn't quite clear on what this is about, but it is a frequent site here. Along any road with any amount of commercial activity in Kabul, you'll spot these mountains/walls of big containers out at the curb. We assumed at first that they were full of gasoline for sale to passing motorists. But then we heard a competing theory that they're empties, waiting for a truck to come re-fill them (for running generators, maybe). I don't think the security guys are going to let me hop out and figure it out.

Monday, September 20, 2010


This (like yesterday's post) is from an odd route we happened to take in Kabul the other day to avoid gridlock on a different route. But it's a business that is pretty common here. There is really only one kind of bread in this part of the world: Delicious nan. ("Nan" is also the word for "food" in Dari, indicating how basic this kind of bread is.) So when you see a bakery in Kabul, it's really just churning out round flat bread all day - somewhat poofier than the naan you might get in an Indian restaurant in America, but still basically flat. When I've been able to have it, it's been really tasty. Seeing it fresh from the oven made me want to ask the driver to pull over so I could buy as many loaves as this young gentleman.

Instead, I went back to the Embassy cafeteria and probably had a sandwich on their crappy sliced bread that can't hold itself together under the weight of one turkey coldcut and some lettuce. Perhaps the USG could save thousands of dollars and have happier employees by buying decent bread on the local economy. Write your congressman now!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thumbs Up for America!

Or at least, thumbs up for an armored SUV driving through a random Kabul neighborhood due to traffic jams on the main roads!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Happy Election Day

It's Parliamentary Election Day here in Afghanistan. Your correspondent's day job has focused pretty heavily on elections recently, so it's gratifying to see the day arrive, although we'll see how it goes before we pop any champagne.

Election advertising here is not too different from Guatemala: Without fail, a serious-looking portrait of the candidate, clearly without the help of the squadron of personal stylists any American candidate would hire before putting his face on a billboard.

The ballots here also feature pictograms to help identify who you're voting for. In Guatemala, there was a strong party system, so you just had to remember your party's logo. In Afghanistan, there are literally thousands of candidates, few of whom have any party affiliation. Any province's ballot will have tens of candidates on the ballot - each with their own personal symbol. Your correspondent saw the examples from one province, and honestly I'm not sure they're that helpful - did I mean to vote for the guy with three goats as his symbol, or two goats? Was it the guy with two jugs or two vases? (You can see examples of the logos - on the far right of the billboard in the first picture, four clusters of flower pots; in the last picture, of a business card size advertisement your correspondent found in the Embassy Airways waiting area (?) the logo is on the left - perhaps four stomachs?) Anyway, I hope the logos work for their actual intended audience.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Do You Like Afghan Music?

Yes, this is the same location (roughly) as yesterday's picture. The event that brought me to Bagram was a slightly late Eid-ul-Fitr, the feast celebrating the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting. This was a fun event, bringing together a lot of the partners we work with in RC-East, including Afghans, US Army, US civilians, and coalition partners. A great crowd and a nice chance for some of us who spend most of our time in the Embassy compound to interact with some real live Afghans. The meal was in the "Dragon Dining Facility" at Bagram, which has the ambiance of institutional dining halls everywhere (drop ceiling, flourescent lighting, decor consisting largely of fire extinguishers), but with a much more bad-ass, military name.

However, the industrial feel was spiced with a bit of local flair. First was the food, which included a take on Afghan pilau (rice pilaf with raisins and carrots) and stewed lamb. It was much better than what we normally get at the Embassy cafeteria. That said, it was still clearly made by the giant contractor that serves all USG meals in country; e.g. they also served the exact same poofy, square dinner rolls you have seen in every high-school, university, or hospital cafeteria you have ever eaten in.

But beyond that, a clear highlight was this guy - who is apparently a relatively well-known singer in Afghanistan. It seemed there were more Afghans snapping his picture (presumably because he was famous) than Americans (presumably because look at that costume!). I don't know enough about Central and South Asian music to know what differentiates him from any other guy working in this traditional style, but the music was fun and the singer certainly dressed for the part. I can't say I'm going to run out and buy one of his albums, but it was a cool cultural touch to a day on an installation with thousands of American airmen and soldiers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Of Bagram

We made a quick trip up to Bagram Air Field. It's huge. It really felt a lot like a small city, with little streets and no small amount of hustle and/or bustle. A small city with F-15s taking off from time to time, that is. Our little Embassy plane parked next to this row of C-130's, with this one, christened "The Rock" at the head of the line. I have to commend whoever is in charge of plane-naming. "The Rock" is a pretty good name for a C-130.

Anyway, Bagram is not actually a pleasant place, but it's not because of any failing in the scenery. We were lucky to have a relatively dust-free day, and could see the mountains in every direction. It's quite a picturesque location, except for there being an air force base there.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Afghanistan from Above 3

One gets some weird almost optical-illusion views flying in and out of Kabul Airport, as the sea of indistinguishable dwellings stretches on for miles, rarely actually involving right angles either because of the construction or because it is following the contours of the land.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Afghanistan from Above 2

This is the landscape around Taloqan in Takhar. It looks kind of like sand dunes, but they're really just dusty hills.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Afghanistan from Above

The mountains here are pretty spectacular. And oddly vegetation-free.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gas Station

Sorry, fans of prose; the pictures of Taloqan are outlasting what I have to say about Taloqan.

Friday, September 10, 2010

High Street Shopping

A couple guys selling watches or other odds and ends on the street in Taloqan.

Common saying among Afghans in regards to Americans, as reported in any number of articles and books and State Department training courses on our efforts here: "You have the watches, but we have the time."

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Watermelon Sellin Dude

The Holla generally tries to avoid what we consider one of the worst cliches of travel photography - the portrait of a really old wrinkly person. But hey, he was there, we were just standing around while the Ambassador shopped for watermelons, so why not? (He was standing under a red tarp, by the way, which is why the color is a little weird.)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Taloqan Market

We did actually get out of the car now and again in Taloqan. In this case, to shop for watermelons.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Taloqan Swimmers

It's nice to see kids doing kid stuff despite all the problems here. As we crossed a small river, the bridge was lined with young boys who had been cooling off in the water.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Taloqan Donkeys

Lots of donkey riding going on in Taloqan. Obviously, in one of the poorest countries in the world, you don't expect everyone to be cruising around in Toyotas, but it's still always surprising to see guys riding donkeys through town.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Taloqan Walls

Along the surprisingly neat road leading from the town of Taloqan out to the airstrip, this shows the principle mode of Afghan home construction: Mud. At least in the north and west of the country, there are just no trees. So mud bricks it is. I would guess the cross-beams for the roof are hauled in from down near the Pakistan border.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Taloqan Zaranj

This is the coolest form of transport in town. These pickup motorcycles are all over the country - they're a motorcycle front but turned into a tricycle with little flat bed. You see them used to haul melons from one place to another, or similar tasks. But in Taloqan (and probably other places, they cover the truck bed, put on some gaudy decorations, and -- Pow!-- instant taxi. It's sort of like a tuk-tuk... but different. None of the ones in Taloqan that I saw were decorated with the same gusto as those farther West, which will hopefully be illustrated some time soon.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Taloqan Street Corner

A favorite from a relatively quiet residential area of Taloqan. Apparently educated women - I wonder what the books are. Luckily we are so fully dedicated to embracing our new shot-from-armored-car-windows aesthetic that it doesn't bother us that the women are out of focus.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Taloqan Airport

The editorial staff here at the Holla have decided we're going to embrace the blurs and glares and spots of photographing from a moving vehicle through bulletproof glass. It's not a limitation, it's an aesthetic. It's like the people who swear by using cheap plastic film cameras these days, except more dangerous. Having thus planted our flag in this fertile ground, we have a lot of photos to show you. Hopefully we can keep up a near-daily posting regimen for a while here.

This is, I guess, the control tower, such as it is, at Taloqan's gravel airstrip.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Your correspondent traveled recently to Taloqan, capital of scenic Takhar province, up near the border with Tajikistan. Traveling in a convoy with the Ambassador, a significant entourage of his staffers and press, and local officials was not the most low-profile way to get around town. A lot of people came out to stare. The staff photographer took a lot of blurry pictures of the crowds zipping by outside the armored G-wagon windows.