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





Security, watermelon and the National Museum

30 07 2009
Goats being hearded through Kabul rush hour

Goats being hearded through Kabul rush hour

Not surprisingly traffic in Kabul is erratic and one of the biggest dangers we face. Although I’ve not seen any injuries serious accidents are a common sight. Cars are mostly second hand from neighbouring countries, both right and left hand drive.  The police stop and search cars on impulse, often looking for a reason to keep you hoping that you’ll bribe them. They are armed yet young so you keep calm and let the driver do the talking. Apparently the regular searches in Kabul have uncovered large quantities of guns and drugs.
On the other hand I’ve had two or three encounters with heavy security in the last week or so.

Pottery student working in the sun outside the ceramics school
Pottery student working in the sun outside the ceramics school

The last, a Turquoise Mountain party with most of Kabul’s ambassadors (including all five american ones) was here in the fort. The US special forces guys couldn’t believe such tranquility existed in Kabul and took it in turns to go and relax under the pergola for their “10 minutes of holiday”. 30 armoured cars lined up outside with double that number of security personel is a stark demonstration of another state of mind that exists in this troubled city. TM have started to clamp down on our own security. I think I will go to Istanbul for a week during the elections. It will be, as the Chinese say ‘interesting times’ here but not much fun corralled in the fort.

Afghan of the Week - Nural Gar, Head Mason

Afghan of the Week - Nural Gar, Head Mason. From Kabul his tribe is Tajik and he smokes a lot of hashish. Age:41

Building – In contrast to last week’s positive progress on site I stopped the masons working for the day on Monday. Patches of poor quality stonework had started to appear. I put the site to work tanking the foundations and digging lime pits instead. It is time to get a site engineer. I would involve a junior architect but their single-track training and inflated egos make them difficult to work with let alone mentor. Also they refuse to wear site boots, I think because they find it demeaning. I am still looking for size 11 safety boots, my walking boots have to do for now as it is still far too hot for my steel toe-capped wellies. There is a trainee site engineer who may work out; Jawad from Ghazni. Enthusiastic, bright and straight out of college he will need to improve his English to make my life any easier as I take on some of TM’s more ambitious plans for Murad Khane. Nural Hak is doing his best to improve my Dari as the teacher shows no sign of coming back from the States. Afghan of the week is my head mason, Nural Gar also know as Okhgarseb, a deferential term as a relation of a religious leader called Gar. He’s going to be crucial when it comes to building the stone stairs and windows. We’ve made a 1:1 model of the window out of mud and straw which goes a long way to understanding the stonework involved.
11 am watermelon break from the heat and stonework

11 am watermelon break from the heat and stonework

This week’s on-site snack is water melon, not as exotic as fresh almonds but ideal mid morning as the heat starts to make work tough. I had a photo of lunch with all the MK team but my characterful camera has walked so another time. During lunch today there was the sound of a shot probably less than 50 metres away although difficult to tell exactly between the between courtyards. No one really noticed although we all recalled it afterwards.

The shell of the National Museum outside Kabul in 2003 before recent repair

The shell of the National Museum outside Kabul in 2003 before recent repair

A small group of us went to the National Museum to the south of the city near the palaces at Darulaman to see the handfull of items on display. Until the Taleban ravages of 2001 this held a truly significant body of artefacts from this part of the world. What the Teleban didn’t steal or destroyed subsequently ended up on the Blackmarket and is probably to found in an antiques shop or collection a few miles from wherever you are reading this. The remaining 10% is now stored in secret caches across Kabul waiting until the ANA and ISAF forces have solved the security situation in Afghanistan. They may well be clearing a thick layer of dust by the time it is put back on public display.

Duncan DJ





Nine days on the ground

3 06 2009

I arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan nine days ago and I am just scratching the surface of living and working in this fascinating country.

Writing a blog would not usually be my first choice but I will try to interest and stimulate. Any paragraphs starting “Building -” will focus on what I’m doing on site in case you want to skip them. Please do let me know if you want to hear more about anything in particular.

My employer, the charity Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TM) operates between its roles of cultural and physical reconstruction.
On the one hand the ‘engineering’ team (as we are known) run parallel conservation and new-build projects whilst through training, education and employment TM helps provide income and a sense of pride for those involved.

Typical carved column and pata screen detail

Typical carved column and pata screen detail

This means that taking longer to do something by hand is acceptable sometimes preferable.

Although Kabul is always busy it doesn’t feel like a city of 3 million people. It is thinly spread over a wide area that now climbs the surrounding hills. Although no-one is prepared (or allowed) to do a potentially inflammatory census the population has grown swiftly since American intervention in 1999. Despite, or probably because of, these ‘interesting times’ I think it is actually economically thriving.

As tension climbs towards the elections in August those who have been here longer say the army and police presence on the street is greater. Ironically Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) staff are therefore now more at risk from petty criminals who are freer to operate as the authority focuses on greater threats. Incidents now threaten local authority and politicians.

So far my only experience of international soldiers was on the way to work this week. The traffic is slow and had been held up at the roundabout ahead. As the American patrol of three humvees crossed the roundabout at speed, automated gun turrets spinning nervously, my only thought was that it reminded me of a computer game.

I say roundabout but they are really obstacles as no-one pays them much attention. To reach shortcuts the charity’s drivers, just as everyone else, regularly drive against the traffic. Trying to make a good impression our 2 new drivers must be the only locals who use indicators and seatbelts.

On a more trivial note I had a fantastic hair and beard cut yesterday. Head massage and everything although I passed on the almond oil. Not able to ask exactly how much I was so content that I overpaid him. I think this will become a regular end of week session although colleagues who also go there complained that paying $6 creates expectations for next time.

Despite some of the characters amongst the international staff life in the fort is pretty relaxed.

There is always somewhere private to go, especially as no-one needs to share rooms at the moment. As the only new-boy I actually have the first floor to myself in a separate building. There is definitely a hierarchy based on length of time at TM although the more romantic rooms that are in the main fort have their faults.

This afternoon I am still recovering from a birthday party down in town. A shock to the system as I haven’t really drunk for a week and a half. Despite this and the rain (almost a relief) we managed a walk up one of the hills overlooking Kabul. There are plans for the architects and engineers to go to Herat, western Afghanistan in the near future. Tomorrow a car load of us are heading out of town for the day. A real beauty spot by all accounts.

Duncan DJ