Nearing completion In Murad Khane

13 06 2010

The Great Serai Extension nears completion. Finishes look good and are a good indication of how other new builds will look.

Due to a number of reasons the sanitation project has had to reduce in scope. This means a reversion to a simpler drainage design similar to the status quo on Kabul. Whilst disappointing it will mean that the project is completed on time.

The courtyard of the Great Serai Extension. The final of lime plaster is still to be applied.

One key factor has been the uncertainty of being able to acquire land for the treatment plant. The Istimlak process, similar to compulsory purchase orders in the UK, is used where the government can justify forcibly buying land at a ‘market rate’ for the benefit of others. In this case the German-designed Imhoff treatment plant was to fit on part of the illegally occupied rubber works site. When President Karzai took on responsibility for assisting the Istimlak TM didn’t realise that this would be debated in Parliament and broadcast on TV. Local residents were deeply concerned, delaying the process further.

Upstairs corridor in the Great Serai Extension. Pending an ownership dispute this will be the connection route to the Great Serai itself.

Their main concern lies in the bureaucracy of the process. The price offered is usually below market rates and the alternative offer of land is often far out from the city centre if this process is concluded at all. Around 80,000 people are awaiting conclusion of Istimlak process. There might be an opportunity for claiming adverse possession under Shari’a law (essentially ‘squatter’s rights’) after 15 years although in actuality this is 37 years to account for 22 years of war in the country. Even in Kabul it is unlikely that anyone has spent that long on a piece of someone else’s land.

Classroom in the Great Serai Extension

Meanwhile the first of the new build projects is nearing completion. The Great Serai Extension abuts the main building, the Great Serai, an intensive conservation project of three connecting courtyards. Whilst the Great Serai is for the calligraphy school with administration the Extension will have IT classroom, small lecture hall and the main hall for larger gatherings and Institute catering.

The electrics are complete and the stone flooring is going down. Windows are fitted which will help keep the building cool during work on the final finishes. Ramadan is mid August ‘til mid September, and the labourers will need any protection they can get from the heat during their 14 hours of fasting every day.

Plasterwork from the Mosque of the nine domes near Balk in Northern Afghanistan. This 9th century relic is reckoned to be the oldest mosque in Afghanistan although work to restore it has recently stopped.

The windows were made in-house by the carpenters. This has ensured a good quality timber and finish and that everything fits. We frequently brought metres of plastic window seals coiled up in our luggage from the UK.

This week's Afghaniman is a plasterworker at the palace in Tashkurgan. The Dutch goverment have sponsored extensive work on this project.

With 6 months to go to the handover it is good to see buildings coming together. Mistakes discovered on this project will save time on the later schemes. More photos to come.

Duncan DJ


Afghan New Year Photos and the Peace Jirga

6 06 2010

Clowns waiting to go on stage in the Double Column Serai


Although this was held a few months ago in March it is worth showing some of the fun that TM put together along with local help. Islamic New Year is mid to late March so feels more like the coming of spring. 

Clowning around


Girls singing Afghan folk songs at the Naw Rouz celebrations in Murad Khane

During the day everyone packed into the Double Column Serai, home of the  ceramics school to watch a day’s entertainment. Along with the circus was a puppet show and a demonstration by the wrestlers. There is talk of a wrestling venue being built on one of the open plots of land in Murad Khane. 

Wrestlers warming up for a show in the Double Column Serai


School children waiting for the next event

Puppet show for the children with the local elders in the right foreground


The circus is performed entirely by orphaned children which makes the mistakes more than bearable. 

The contrast to the giggling youngsters is the line of local elders who spent the day trying to look as unhappy about being there as possible. No one seemed to mind.

Girls still juggling with what balls they haven't dropped yet

The recent Peace Jirga passed reasonably peacefully although none of the intractable issues could have been resolved without key players such as opposition politicians, or Taliban spokesmen.
Whilst the Americans state that they will only welcome ex-Taliban to the table and the Taliban say they will only talk once international forces are out of Afghanistan there may be a problem with meaningful progress.
Duncan DJ

Trip north to Mazar Sharif and Balk

25 05 2010

The demolished old covered bazaar in Tashkurgan, razed to the ground by the Russians in revenge for repeated attacks on convoys during the occupation


Making the most of Kabul’s unusually quiet life we took the chance to head to Mazar Sharif, a short flight north of Kabul on the way to Uzbekistan. Historically Mazar is not a significant place but Tashkurgan lies to the east which was the last covered bazaar in the country before the Russians demolished it during their occupation in retribution for attacks on convoys traveling north from Kabul. 

The towering Gorge of Takt-e-Rostum at Tashkurgan, northern Afghanistan


The dramatic shear-faced gorge is a natural ambush point and the only way south to Kabul. Pockmarks scar the road from stones that fall the 300 clear metres onto unaware travellers. More significantly, to the west lies Balkh which, for over 100 years was a major regional centre founded around 600 BC and part of Alexander the Great’s extensive travels in Central Asia. 

Playing with a tank at Tashkurgan. The turret still worked so we used it like a fairground. To the right of the picture in the distance is the top of the Takt-e-Rostum gorge


The six building sites in MK are progressing well however the infrastructure has taken longer to resolve. Getting approval is crucial to resolving issues with the municipality. More than most local government, everything requires a letter. This is most likely a throwback to running the system in the 10 years after the Soviet invasion. However this short period has not affected Afghanistan as much as the tight centralised control that the ‘Stans to the north still suffer from. 

Riding around the Bala Hissar in Balk


Still, 20 years after the collapse of Soviet control these dictatorships are smothered by oppressive regimes. In Uzbekistan’s case this has been sanctioned by US and UK in order to seal agreements to use airbases. Furthermore Uzbek President Karimov and Afghanistan’s General Dostum have a lucrative relationship where heroin crosses the border uninterrupted on its way to Europe and the US. 

Group of friends, guides and farmers in a village near Balk, northern Afghanistan


Afghaniman is one of the locals who joined us on our trip around the area of Balk.  Pictured left he is an interpreter for US forces in the north. When he spoke to us in English we were all dumbstruck by his broad southern states accept that he’s picked up from working with Americans. Nicnamed ‘Joseph’ by the soldiers, his mannerisms and phrases were straight out of a small town in Alabama. 

Duncan DJ

Weddings, prisons and rebranding the Taliban

11 05 2010

Butcher's shop beside the road on the way to Istalif

We made another trip to Istalif and reached one of the ridges for a 3000m high picnic. With late rains the valleys are still green and very pleasant to walk through. Up on the ridges you can see between nearby peaks to the bigger mountains to the north. Meeting the same Istalifi shepherd I saw a few months before I was reminded of a recent story of an ex-TM colleague who has gone back to the UK to work on a friend’s farm to make money for up-coming studies.

Metal workshop on the way to Istalif. I've seen the big pans used for roasting popcorn but are probably used more for rice of which Kabuli is the speciality.

 The Afghans who have heard this feel insulted that they were taking advice, sometimes instruction from a shepherd. To have to try and explain that a university graduate working on a farm between degrees isn’t a shepherd seems one of the biggest differences in cultural belief I’ve experienced. Our colleagues believe that farming is the poorer living of which shepherding is the most remote.

Bright lights of a Kabul Wedding Hall. The choice of venue and size of these parties are a status symbol for Afghan men.

I went to my first Afghan wedding a few weeks ago. I was warned that these can be quite an intense experience for foreigners, taking your turn dancing under the gaze of everyone else in the room is obligatory. A cost to the Groom of at least $10,000 , the average Afghan wedding in Kabul is comparable to European standards in expense and therefore equivalent to a few years’ salary even for professionals. 

Congratulating the groom, Farid on his big day. Segregated, in this case by a high screen the two wedding parties, male and female eat and dance the night away. More a case of dance like everyone's watching.

The coloured wedding hall lights flickering in the city near the fort are the exuberant kitsch that Afghani’s have come to crave since the Taliban left the city. More than anything else the pressure for Afghan males to accumulate the money for this step up the social ladder affects our resourcing at TM. Photos of the wedding to follow. 

The lights of ISAF's Bagram Airbase seen from the other side of the Shomali Plane

On the way back we descended into the Shomali Plane by a different road and the lights of Baghram airbase flickered ahead of us. This has become a more controversial site since the accusations, denied by Vice Admiral Harward in charge, that there is a second prison with allegations of abuse from former inmates. As a favour to the Vice Admiral, who has help us with the MK school, I took a group of American servicemen and woman who ran Bagram’s detention centres around Murad Khane. Despite their assurances that the detainees left the prison as better people I was confused as to how they could make that judgement considering how unaware they were of Afghan customs during their 2 hours in MK. 

Istalif Valley in early summer. The river creates and destroys in equal quantities. Even since the last trip a few weeks before the valley is greener but the riverside road has become impassable in places

 Aga Khan Trust for Culture have sponsored an exhibition of paintings and photographs. Afghanistan Observed 1830-1920 neatly catalogues Britain’s interest in the country. At a time when Britain was taking greater interest in Afghanistan as a barrier to Russia moving south into India paintings and drawings became as much about intelligence gathering as a record for posterity. The earlier paintings show views of key cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Ghazni. Later photographs also provide an interesting comparison to changes in the cityscapes, particularly Kabul, but due to the ease of capture also give an insight into lifestyle, dress and the character of the period. 

The Taliban have announced a new strategy although no-one is sure exactly how this will materialize. To assist the uninformed New Yorker magazine has gone some way to filling this gulf in security intelligence. 

Lad in Istalif on his way home lugging brushwood, probably for the animals.

Afghaniman is a lad who was lugging brushwood down the valley in Istalif. His father would be perfect for a Davidoff advertisement. Perhaps a photo next time. 

And finally congratulations to the founder of Turquoise Mountain, Rory Stewart who has become MP for Penrith and the Borders. 

Duncan DJ

Writers and farmers

4 05 2010

Istalifi Kid

We have many visitors often both friends and professionals with an interest in what we do. The author William Dalrymple fits into this category as a writer researching his latest book. As I write he is in one of the most dangerous areas which saw in 1842 the final demise of thousands of British soldiers at Gandamak, also the name of the bar/restaurant run by an ex-BBC journalist. I am particularly interested in this period of Afghanistan. As part of my more regional reading I am up to late 1800s in a book on Afghan history. Men such as Roberts, Stewart, Abdul Rahman and Dos Mohammad had key impacts on the development, and deterioration of the country.

Istalif Valley as green as it gets in early summer. Once the rains stop only the snow melt will keep the fields and trees from drying out.

Security is calm although you have to realise that any day it could change. Karzai’s pressure on internationals has given the police an excuse to be more bothersome, it’s hard to go through a checkpoint without being stopped. They will use any chance to hold you back and so we all now carry passports as it’s the one thing they can’t argue with. Copies of work permits, company ID and registration cards are also in the wallet to cover all issues.

Farmers who cultivate the steep rugged hills above the village of Istalif

With the weather opening up we’ve had more chance to get out of Kabul. This time back to Istalif. With rain keeping the valleys green and some of the trees still in flower this is perhaps the best time of year to see the hills.

These farmers took time from their work on the steep slopes to talk over a few cups of tea. They were quite surprised that I had made any attempt to learn Dari, but I have a long way to go before I can describe more than my jib and my country.

Terraces stepping up the hillside

The hills they cultivate are barren dust and rock for much of the year. They build channels to carry the water from far up-stream to the thin terraced fields above their houses.

Having spent a few hours with the farmers I then managed to injure myself climbing down a terrace. They were most hospitable and took care to check that my (own careless) misfortune wouldn’t prevent me from going back.  And so they take the place of this week’s Afghaniman.

Duncan DJ

More skiing photos from the Salang Pass

25 04 2010

Posing with the Afghan Mixed Martial Arts Team at the bottom of the slope after skiingA few photos from Skiing in the Salang Pass last month. I am hoping to get back on the slopes again this weekend.Enjoying what counts for Afghan apres ski before driving back to Kabul

View from the slopes looking down towards the Salang Valley
Coming down the mountain above the Salang Pass
On the road up to the Salang Pass. With many containers in Afghanistan it’s not surprising that a few of them end up being used as target practice. Certainly some of them may have been attacked in anger.


Adapting your Kabul social life and other pleasures

16 04 2010

Skiing in the Salang Pass in March

In an apparent attempt to put a little pressure on the foreigners or ‘Harijees’ the police raided a number of Kabul bars/restaurants confiscating alcohol and in one case jailing the manager for a day or so. As always cautionary security reports follow rumour and social lifestyle although not stopped, is altered while things settle down again. There is potential to extend this charade to raids on private property but there is not much more that Karzai can gain from this particular political stunt. In the fort we are already making plans for more in-house entertainment over the summer months. 

Going back 3 weeks to March, an eventful few days started with a visit from Prince Charles followed by a chance to ski in the Salang valley and followed by Turquoise Mountain’s celebrated of Nawrouz, or New Year with the residents of Murad Khane. 

Despite a blanket ban on press coverage HRH’s visit to Kabul was leaked to Sky News not long after he left us in Kabul to fly south to Helmand Province. As the BBC had filmed the Prince during his visit they were quick to follow-up with full coverage. During the hour spent in the fort he clearly looked like he was enjoying himself and admitted to having looked forwards to this for four years, something followed up in recent press. Despite his critics in the UK regarding his opinions on architecture and urban design his passion showed through with perceptive questions on designing in a difficult environment and the need for good infrastructure. 

View looking across the valley close to the Salang Pass into North East Afghanistan

Skiing in the Salang was a treat that I have looked forward to for months. Not far from the site of the disastrous avalanches in February some part of the slopes still have 2-3 metres of snow and so we were wary of steeper slopes in the warming climate. It’s been a few years since Afghanistan had a working ski lift so not surprisingly the route up was significantly longer than the ski down. 

Afghaniman is a group of Afghan Army who provide security for the road through the Salang Pass. The group of French enthusiasts who I went skiing with recently handed over an assortment of ski equipment so that the Afghans could enjoy it for themselves. Skiing is one of a few activities and sport that many of the internationals take for granted but will take a few more years to become commonplace here in Afghanistan. I have heard of opportunities for paragliding and rafting.

The local ANA must have been busy when the avalanches swept vehicles off the road down into the valley. They are an amiable bunch and I look forward to meeting them on the slopes.

Afghan National Army soldiers who guard the road through the Salang Pass

The weather is consistently warm and we hope to be able to start putting the sanitation system into Murad Khane although there is no end of particular issues to keep the work interesting. 

Recent holidays to Delhi and Queensland have put a dent in my workload (and blog posts) but it’s time to knuckle down and catch up with the project programmes. 

Duncan DJ