I met my first fellow Hazra – tomayto, tomaato; Hazra, Hazara, same difference – in a battered Toyota taxi on my way back from a slum near the Kabul University area today. Two chaps, keen that I visit their school, escorted me into a bylane with the craggy mountain range overlooking a garbage dump. But when the boys, after taking my email address and making me promise that I wouldn’t ever forget them, told me in front of their school that the school was shut for elections and Ramzan, I had a brief anxiety attack. I would now be dragged inside a meat shop and then be on YouTube. But the boys were very kind, of course, and said that they would put me in a cab if I could drop them in front of Kabul Medical College. It was after the two juvenile non-delinquents were dropped off that I tried chatting up Mr Aminullah, the taxi driver. Going by his Genghis Khan looks, I asked him whether he was an Uzbek or a Tajik. He replied without taking his eyes off the road, “I’m Hazara.” I told him my name, which was when he turned his head to me and said, “You a Hazara? No!” Feeling slightly slighted, I nervously laughed and told him that I wasn’t, but I must have Hazara roots. He looked at me before putting on yet another old Bollywood music cassette that real Afghans seem to love so much. And he chuckled throughout the rest of the drive.
There’s no news but good news
Nothing like the totally objective Indian media, I say with one hand on my heart, another in my pocket and the other tapping away on my unbiased keyboard. It turns out that the Afghan government issued an ‘advisory’ to newspapers and television channels about election coverage. Local editors were called sometime back and told that negative news and violence would be ‘frowned upon’. There was some confusion, especially from the international media, about what constitutes the term ‘frowned upon’. While venerable western journalists were explaining the theological difference between an ‘advisory’ (‘Please don’t air or publish bad news’) and a ‘prohibition’ (‘You are not allowed to air or publish bad news’) to their local tag teams, Afghan mediapersons tried to explain that coming from the Afghan government, an ‘advisory’ <is> a ‘prohibition’. As one Afghan Kabul hand pointed out, “If you read the Dari text, you’ll realise it’s a very, very impolite request.” “How can you do that? After all, it’s for the good of the Afghan people that they are given unbiased news. Surely, the Afghan media must stand up, ” hrrmphed a British journo. Once the talk veered to who would go to jail if the channel was hauled up, however, it was decided that the local hand would do the honours.
I’ve been to Jerusalem three days after a terrorist attack. Now, I’m in Kabul three days after the last bomb blast. So in terms of security procedures, who wins? Kabul, wins hands down. Entering any building requires a proper pat-down and a baggage check. Cars are stopped every half a kilometre by policemen who ask both the driver and the passenger separately, ‘Are you carrying weapons?’ (to which I have, till now, said no). But I <was> a bit surprised when three plainclothesmen approached me on the street. After some linguistic complications, I told them in Urdu (read: my Hindi) that I was a journalist from Delhi, India. As if I had just said, “I’m a journalist from Lahore, Pakistan,” one of the guys asked me whether I was from Pakistan. I showed my passport, which didn’t immediately help matters as a nincompoop in the Afghan visa office in Delhi had scratched and overwritten on the visa document. This became the cause for a huddle. One of them wanted to see what I had clicked on my camera. After seeing a few pictures on my digi-cam – including photos of my wife, my sister-in-law, shots of my friends striking embarrassing poses, pictures of me drunk, photos of a strange procession with red flags (a CPI(M) protest march in Calcutta) – the Three Stooges realised I was not a threat to Afghan national security and let me go.
That Drinking Feeling
As I entered the Gandamack Lodge – through a bunker-like series of buzzered iron doors -- I momentarily left Kabul behind and entered that nefarious zone known in the trade as the ‘Hang-out Joint for the International Expat’. This was a place owned by a Briton married to an Afghan lady and as I walked in, I realised that the man who came out limping on crutches did not receive his injuries by falling down the stairs. The posters of ‘Zulu’ and British imperial prints drove the ambience home. And there across the open-air garden was a beautiful mirage: a well-stocked bar. In the heart of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with the Teetotaliban knocking about somewhere or the other, there were bottles of Jacob’s Creek and cans of cold beer to choose from. I had two cans of Heinekens and was thankful that unlike back home, Afghanistan doesn’t actually have dry days. Not even on Election Day.