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DISTRICT UNKNOWN
by Steve Mumford
 
Around 11 pm someone I’ve never met sitting at the next table pulls out a joint and offers me a hit. I’m working on my third glass of white wine and the proposal has an organic logic.

I’m a little tired, having been awakened at dawn by the forlorn calls from Masuda’s peacock, Groundhog, from directly under my window. His mate had simply flown off one day and Masuda vows not to replace her.

I locate Naser and his buddies, and find myself newly loquacious.

The band is striving good-naturedly over Blondie and the Violent Femmes. A woman sitting between Naser and me announces that she’s called Drana, "like drama"! She heads for the dance floor; one of Naser’s friends claps me on the shoulder.

"I want to see her and whiteboy dance!" Somehow I’ve acquired a nickname, perhaps in relation to this Afghan-American crowd.

I’m not that ambitious, however. The boisterous talk goes on. Another Saturday night in Kabul.

At the crowded La Cantina, the spirits are high, amid a raucous mix of Americans, Afghan-Americans, and Westerners from a smorgasbord of countries. They’re business people, PhDs doing research, contractors, UN or NGO staffers or freelancers (some of whom are violating their curfews to be here, imposed due to fears of kidnapping). They’re happy to find themselves among friends, where they can forget about worrying about the small and large instabilities of this place.

Outside past the restaurant’s security detail (a small dim room with a couple of Afghans toting AK47s), the revelers’ drivers idle their SUVs. Walking about in daylight is acceptable, but to do so at night is tempting fate.

Four days before, arriving for an embedment with the Marines, I’d found that Indian Airways had lost my luggage between Delhi and Kabul. Strangely, they’d shown me the bag before boarding and I’d watched it be spirited off towards the luggage hold by a petite Indian woman in a sari. Had I been expected to proffer a baksheesh? I didn’t know if I’d been given the chance.

Now faced with a grim interlude at Camp Kaia, the NATO military side of the airport, waiting for my bag to arrive in two days on the next flight, or perhaps the one after that, I had a bolt of inspiration. I phoned my friend Ann Marlow, someone I could honestly call an old Afghan hand. It was late in the States, but seemingly within minutes she secured me an offer of a place to stay in town.

Masuda lives with her brother-in-law, Naser, in a nice neighborhood by Afghan standards. It’s a narrow but busy thoroughfare with small shops and leafy ailanthus trees. The larger streets are dusty and crowded with cars, bicycles and pedestrians. They’re fairly clean (lacking Baghdad’s enormous piles of trash strewn along every boulevard and intersection), although some are unpaved and filled with potholes. Two-foot-wide wastewater channels edge the streets like moats, crossed by occasional thick flagstones. Bicyclists ride a dangerous razor’s edge between the cars whizzing by with centimeters to spare and the deep sewer channel; nonetheless, boys bike recklessly, sometimes two to a bike, shouting at the cars, which honk mercilessly back at them.

The house they live in has two stories, with a central curved glass atrium extending dramatically up to the second floor, giving it a 1970s Las Vegas-modern look, popular in the Middle East as well.

It’s protected from the street by high walls and a big brown gate; the guards can pull back a metal grate to peer at visitors, backed up by the ubiquitous AK47. Masuda and Naser also employ a cook, a driver, and a khalla, a kindly, middle-aged cleaning woman.

Masuda is an Afghan who grew up in the U.S. and came here after 9/11, hoping to help and also perhaps to get a deeper sense of her heritage. But both she and Naser aver that coming here reinforced their awareness of themselves as Americans.

She was one of the founders of Women for Afghan Women, an NGO that concentrates on helping Afghan women create small businesses. Realizing the importance of actual commercial acumen, she went back to school for an MBA and returned to work on business ventures through which she hopes to employ Afghan women and mentor their business ambitions.

She’s currently involved in several PR campaigns for the Afghan government. She’s driven and ambitious; I hear her on conference calls late into the night.

I wonder aloud at the uneasy mix of Westerners who work hard and play hard in the context of a traditional Muslim culture. Afghanistan had a reputation for tolerance before the Soviet invasion. This hasn’t completely vanished, but tensions exist.

Masuda tells the story of the irate mom who barged through her security one night during a party to retrieve her son who she suspected of adopting decadent behavior.

Another night we go to a farewell party for a guy who works for USAID and is going back to Washington. Music plays softly in the background; a sumptuous table of Afghan food is laid out along with drinks.

I chat with an American woman who grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban; her family ran an eye clinic in Kabul.

"I used to drive everywhere in the country then; as an obvious foreign woman I was like a third sex to the Taliban -- they never bothered me. The Arabs and Chechen fighters were a different story. The Taliban soldiers used to apologize to me for their behavior."

An Afghan rock band named Kabul Dreams is playing the next night. Among the fans to show up are the members of District Unknown, Afghanistan’s only metal band. They’re appropriately skinny, swathed in black, sporting long hair and young goatees.

"Our name is based on that movie, District 9? But instead of nine, where we are is, you know, completely unknown." Qassim tells me that they’re mostly doing covers of American songs but are working on new songs in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two major languages.

Among the many problems is finding rehearsal space in Kabul. Landlords don’t want to rent to them as the neighbors complain. Their last space was near a mosque, but their music interfered with the call to prayer.


STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). The illustrations accompanying this text are his own. For a selection of his earlier reports from Baghdad, click here, here, here and here.



 



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