Celebrity visitors that never were

18 10 2009
Site of the future Woman's Courtyard, a combined facility of health clinic, steam baths and mini bazaar.

Site of the future Woman's Courtyard, a combined facility of health clinic, steam baths and mini bazaar.

The politics are pretty much in the balance with the US putting pressure on Karzai to accept the run off so that he has an undeniable seat in power. However he thinks that they’re just out to get him.
Senator John Kerry was to come and visit us at Turquoise Mountain at the weekend after word of mouth after a social visit from the CIA. Unfortunately for him he had to go for a meeting with Karzai instead!

I take this with a pinch of salt as the previous weekend it was meant to Angelina Jolie (no really) but she pulled out due to security. Tom Freeson, one of the founders of MTV was pretty good company though. I do know that Jude Law was here a couple of years ago but we’re more serious now.

Duncan DJ

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Locked down waiting for politics

17 10 2009

It has been tense here over the last week. A massive blast outside the Indian Embassy killed 25 and injured close to 100. Although no Indian Embassy staff were hurt the Pakistani intelligence service has been blamed for the attack. Some speculation blames Pakistan’s fear of improving relations between Afghanistan and India although this comment itself will be divisive. We heard the bomb clearly from site in Murad Khane and the following dust cloud rose a couple of hundred metres into the air. Much of the rest of the day was a write-off as rumours of both a suicide bomber and a kidnapper roaming the streets led to further restrictions on our movements. Despite this I still feel safer embedded within a community that knows us than I would anywhere else in Kabul.

I’m not sure whether fresh fighting in Wazirizan will reduce or raise tension here in Kabul but I don’t envy any of the 30,000 Pakistani soldiers about to commence battle in fast-dropping temperatures.

The Peacock House in 2006 after rubbish clearance but before TM's year-long work to restore it

The Peacock House in 2006 after rubbish clearance but before TM's year-long work to restore it

The building below is of Peacock House, Turquoise Mountain’s first restoration project in Murad Khane. When TM came to MK the building, like many was close to collapse. The original wooden detailing was an inspiration for our commission for the Prince’s Lodge Suite in the Connaught Hotel.

Meanwhile we have been visited by our jolly sanitation engineer a world expert in his field. The longer I spend on managing Murad Khane’s infrastructure the more I realise how revolutionary his design is to the people of Kabul. I’m sure even after decades here you don’t become immune to the smells that hang around these narrow twisting streets. To treat the sewage for use on fields and actually dilute the river with clean water seems far-fetched but is technically within our grasp.

Peacock House in the centre of Murad Khane. This is a typical example of 150 year old architecture using timber panel that slide up in summer to open the rooms up.

Peacock House in the centre of Murad Khane. This is a typical example of 150 year old architecture using timber panel that slide up in summer to open the rooms up.

Whilst Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission decides whether to allow Karzai to start his third term or, in response to the significant accusations of fraud, allow his closest rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah a run-off we have been locked down waiting for likely unrest. The only thing stopping these politicians sending their supporters onto the streets is negotiations that would give Abdullah a significant position in the government.

Afghaniman - The Engineer. Probably mid fifties although he has given various ages depending on the circumstance.

Afghaniman - The Engineer. Probably mid fifties although he has given various ages depending on the circumstance.

Afghaniman this week is ‘The Engineer’ our linchpin in the Murad Khane project. Engineer Hedeyat aka Haji-Seb (those who have made the Haj to Mecca) has experience on a number of significant projects in Kabul and has worked for the UN all around the country. Charmingly he came to us because his family were worried about the risks of travelling in Afghanistan so sent him our way. Tough and as canny as any Afghan I have met he brings the local angle to all aspects of managing MK. A key debate is our attempts to bring in market values over Afghan hierarchy within the middle and senior engineering staff. Already with significant power in MK he does well to keep a tight cohort around him.

I have yet to get a photo of the head of TM’s health clinic, Dr Shokria. Both taking photos of and asking details about Afghan women is a serious faux-pas.

Duncan DJ





Mother don’t read this

1 10 2009
Primary School playground that TM have built. The matting is from old car tyres.

Primary School playground that TM have built. The matting is from old car tyres.

Halfway through writing this tonight and a grenade went off across the street. Not close enough to blow out the windows but I knew it couldn’t be anything else.
Earlier in the day there had been a fight outside a senior Minister’s house and two young men came back with a grenade throwing it over the wall into the compound.
Luckily only the Minister’s car was damaged and our guards caught the two attackers as they ran past the front of the fort.
Sorry to those of you who’ve been wondering where my regular posts were, I’ve been away for a few weeks and the new job is turning out to be busy a role.

Kids feet grass and the rubber matting woven by the local rubber workers from old car tyres

Kids feet grass and the rubber matting woven by the local rubber workers from old car tyres

Along with the health clinic and the primary school one of our clearest successes has been the playground attached to the school.
We had a plot left by a destroyed building and this half tennis court sized patch of mud and rubbish has been transformed into a safe space for the children to play.
The seesaw and slide were made by the local blacksmith in the bazaar and the play matting is made from weaving recycled tyres, another local trade. The kids love it and it is used by local kids and pupils alike whenever it is open.
Under pressure from the kids we’ve also gone for grass although it is notoriously difficult to maintain in Kabul.

Afghan of the week my Barber

Afghan of the week my Barber, Fariz Mohammad a Tajik from outside of Kabul

Despite a number of IEDs during my time away until tonight the streets were quieter than when I left a few weeks ago.

By the time I had arrived in Italy the country was coming to terms with loosing six paratroopers in a single explosion. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi reacted by saying that he would withdraw Italian troops but has not given a timescale so this might not change anything.
Afghan of the Week is now called Afghaniman. This time it is my Barber, Fariz Mohammad who has an enviable boufant style. At the last visit I took the site engineer along to translate their questions which were not what I thought they’d be. When I have a female, perhaps the TM clinic’s Dr Shokria, it will be called Afghaniwoman.

Duncan DJ





Convoy of injured soldiers in Kabul traffic

13 09 2009

 

Looking from Woodwork School through Woodwork Restoration to Jewelry School

Looking from Woodwork School through Woodwork Restoration to Jewelry School

Experimental jali-style screen made from mud and straw paxha and temporary polystyrene formwork

Experimental jali-style screen made from mud and straw paxha and temporary polystyrene formwork

You get used to the tension of someone fronting up to an armed policeman or the sound of gunfire in the neighbourhood but on the way to work today an army pick-up had a different urgency. The driver was weaving through traffic as normal but the soldiers running ahead to move cars aside were panicked rather than aggressive. As the vehicles passed what struck me was the contrasting picture of calm on the injured soldier’s face as he lay unconcious in the back of the truck. The Humvee behind carried more injured. They must have been in a firefight close to town, the soldiers’ clothing was more in disarray than those at the usual Kabul ANA checkpoints.
Another day in Kabul, another view of the turmoil that surrounds us, often unseen.
DuncanDJ





Tim Page and community horsetrading

10 09 2009

I met a legend in Kabul. His name is Tim Page and he has the rare acclaim of having been played by Dennis Hopper, in the film Apocalypse Now. Perhaps the kudos is the other way around. A British photographer and author, he spent a while in Vietnam during the early years of the war. One story goes that he and an American Sergeant were hit by a mine exiting a helicopter. They were both so badly hit that the helicopter crew zipped them up in body bags thinking they were dead. He came to on the return to base and cut himself and then the Sergeant, who was also alive, out of the body bags using his pocket knife.

When I met him at a party he had this new toy, an expensive camera that could take great photos in the poor light. He was charming girls by taking atmospheric and flattering photographs of them.  It felt odd to speak to him as two relative newcomers in a place like Afghanistan. He doesn’t do war correspondence any more but is here running photography courses under the umbrella of the UN.

The Engineer and the community representative, Palavan Aziz knock out a deal on land ownership.

The Engineer and the community representative, Palavan Aziz knock out a deal on land ownership.

This week has been crucial for progress on land ownership in Murad Khane. In a city where buildings suffer from war and weather traditional buildings come and go regularly. People build on whatever space they need, often without permission in these more neglected areas of town. Walls collapse, property lines are buried and where necessary property can be Istemlaked by the Government, similar to compulsory purchase orders. Comercially Murad Khane is valuable land as the only part of the old town still north of the river. The quicker we resolve and rebuild the better chance that we can keep it from commercial development.

The photo above shows TM’s ‘Engineer’ as he is known with the community representative knocking out a deal on land that we can use for infrastructure. In reality this horsetrading on a community scale. Although Palavan Aziz knows that TM are in Murad Khane to improve the community he is also aware that we are so committed to the plan that he wields a fair amount of power that can be used to his and the residents’ benefit, to varying degrees. On the wall is the original Soviet-Block style masterplan to flatten the whole of MK and replace it with modern blocks.

Group of Murad Khane's construction workers on site in the Great Serai

Group of Murad Khane's construction workers on site in the Great Serai

Plans to implement this are the reason the much of MK is Istimlaked. Whilst this is positive the concept of this total demolition still hangs over the head of Turquoise Mountain’s reconstruction project.

The photo is one we took earlier this of some of the labourers. Getting them to wear safety equipment has been an ordeal but they are now keen. Consequently the senior Afghan staff have now begun to see wearing it as demeaning. An odd state of affairs.

More on the Engineer in the next Afghan of the Week.

DuncanDJ





Kabul’s buildings and the popcorn maker

6 09 2009

 Mosque songA few buildings to give you an idea of travelling around Kabul. The first is the small mosque across the river from the main bazaar. Note the mini minaret on the corner where the mullah would have stood and called his flock to prayer but in a sign of the times it just supports two large megaphone that do much of the work for him. At midpoint through Ramadan we have heard half the Koran and that’s additional to evening and morning prayers.

The picture below is taken looking across the main courtyard of the Great Serai, Turquoise Mountain’s central focus in Murad Khane. The TM’s building staff lean out of all openings made possible because the removeable  wooden screens allow for whole-wall ventilation in summer or closure in winter.

There are so many people now working on Murad Khane’s regeneration that you can’t fit them into one shot.

 A serai is a combined inn and trading house. These buildings are still integral to the fabric of Kabul Old Quarter’s society.

The Murad Khane construction team filling the main courtyard of the Great Serai

The Murad Khane construction team filling the main courtyard of the Great Serai

Kabul business centre overlooking the main bazaar
Kabul business centre overlooking the main bazaar

The next is the Kabul business centre which reminds me a little of Trellick Tower not far from my flat in West London. This is one of Kabul’s distinctly Russian buildings another is the old Russian officer’s mess perched on a mountain peak overlooking Kabul. It can only be described as a cross between aircrift control tower and a Bond lair. 

Interior view of part of the blast riddled warehouse that TM are about to restore as a crafts workshop.

Interior view of part of the blast riddled warehouse that TM are about to restore as a crafts workshop.

Finally a view inside the warehouse that Turquoise Mountain are about to renovate to give us more space for making handcrafts. Note the rockets holes in the roof. The shapes of the resulting blasts are clearly patterned on the walls and floor.

Just for fun here is a link that is worth looking at if only for the simple concept.

Afghan of the Week - The popcorn maker at the corner of the medan in Murad Khane

Afghan of the Week - The popcorn maker at the corner of the medan in Murad Khane

Afghan of the Week is the popcorn seller who sits making popcorn all day on the corner of the square between my office and the Jewellery School site. He wears the most impressive pair of ski goggles to protect him from the popping corn. Either side are the blacksmiths hammering scrap metal and melting down drinks cans and the rubber makers who turn old tyres into bungees, buckets and brakepads.

All quiet here although there was a bit of trouble outside Kabul on the road to Logar. My mason’s past a bombed army truck on the way to find stone for the window reveals.

DuncanDJ





Body onsite and the elections results

4 09 2009
The remains of a person buried under the 150 year old foundations.

The remains of a person buried under the 150 year old foundations on the Jewellery School site

We found a body on site on Thursday. It is the last piece of excavation left and the disassembled bones were buried under the old foundations 3 metres below street level. The wall is around 150 years old and the skull is small so likely a woman or child’s but I’m no paleantologist. We recorded the discovery and they have reburied the remains in a white sheet by a small shrine in Murad Khane. I hope it’s not where we’re going to build next year.

You can only guess as to the reasons why someone was buried beneath the foundations of a house rather than in the many burial grounds in Kabul.

Turquoise Mountain labourers waiting for their wages outside the office.The shelter on the left is where, outside Ramadan we eat lunch together.

Turquoise Mountain labourers waiting for their wages outside the office.The shelter on the left is where, outside Ramadan we eat lunch together.

The official election results are meant to come out tomorrow. Despite significant accusations of fraud it looks like Karzai will have the most votes but not enough to avoid a run off for shared power. Obviously some of the 2000+ allegations of fraud must be false but most amusingly Karzai’s supporters accused supporters of his closest competition, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah of ballot stuffing in a strong Pashtun region in the south of the country. The joke is that whilst Abdullah received only 14 votes everyone said that even these must have been false as not one person would vote for Abdullah, who takes more of the Tajik votes in the north. Abdullah claims strong allegience to Massoud, the Lion of the Panshir who you may remember was killed by the exploding camera.

 

Adbul Samat aged in his early 40s.

Jewellery School Mason Adbul Samat aged in his early 40s.

Afghan of the Week is Abdul Samat, one of the skilled masons on the Jewellery School.

He is good natured but occasionally asks to leave early to go and tend his garden from which he feeds his family. I’m not convinced by this but can’t think of a decent reason to say no.

Alongside Afghanistan’s depressing poverty statistics life expectancy is a bleak prospect for many people. Currently it is 45. Something like 50% of children don’t make it past the age of five. Most Afghans look older than they are and many don’t know exactly how old they are. One of the stronger points of reference in this fascinating culture.

Duncan DJ