Of the things that still irk me, more than a year into my Arabian Odyssey, the sheer inefficiencies which seem baked into the system stand out for particular ire. Case in point: this past week to spend ten minutes picking up a letter from my employer and then delivering it at a government office fifteen kilometres away, I had to drive 250+kilometres. To my mind, it is something that can and should dare I say, be managed via an online portal but I found to my pain that this was not the case. It is no wonder then that in the short space of over a month I have driven just shy of three thousand kilometres, mainly between my outpost in the middle of nowhere, work (twice), the big city next door (multiple times) and the occasional trip to the provincial capital for some government thing or the other twice too.
One of those trips put into context why choosing not to buy a 4×4 wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Having taken a wrong turn off a certain road, I found to my chagrin that it soon dissolved into desert sands and nothing more. It was in trying to turn off it into the other side of the road to retrace my steps that trouble struck. My puny rear wheel drive, 1.6L engine, subcompact got mired in the sands which had accumulated on that section of unused roads. Several attempts only managed to get me firmly stuck with no seeming route to recovery. It didn’t help that I had left L and S at home with a view to dashing into the next town to grab some supplies and then return. My salvation came in the shape of two men who spotted me whilst driving their pick up truck across the sand on the other side of the road. After some frantic hand waving on my part to attract their attention, they came to a stop across the divider of the road as we tried to communicate my predicament. My Arabic is nonexistent as was their English but the one word we could both understand was ‘Help?’, to wish I nodded frantically. They promptly disappeared for a bit in a cloud of sand only to reappear at the bend where the road turned to sand. The younger of the two was dressed in full regalia, thobe and head gear included whilst his older companion had threadbare jeans and a denim shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Ten or so minutes afterwards, I finally came unstuck thanks to the younger getting into my car and proceeding to attempt to reverse out of the rut i had sunk into whilst his companion and I pushed. Not in a very long time, and I suspect/hope not in a long time in the future, have I felt such relief at seeing a stranger’s face.
Driving out here was one of the things I dreaded the most, given the stories of texting drivers and general disregard for other road users which were drummed into us during our orientation. Bar a couple of near misses where tailgaters have almost forced me off the road at 120km/hr, nothing much of note has happened. That, and the sense of habituation which has made the 60km trek to the next town feel normal are things to be thankful for.
The scent of life and of living
hangs heavy on this place,
Here, where the weight
of memory and first things
lose themselves in the labyrinth
of the mind.
First step, first walk, first smile.
First words – garbled beyond
recognition but finding
the connection between
the proffered body
First leaving, first returning then leaving – the first steps
of a lonesome journey
to a far country, of seeking
the wily welcome of the open world
calling – siren-like – from beyond
the walls that time has built.
The days have their dangers
and the nights their flights of fancy
but in moments of respite and clarity
I find myself here. Home.
Hailing, as I do, from a corner of the world in which colonization has left its mark in more ways than one, I cannot help but see the stark similarities between the Afghanistan story and that of my other country. Two podcast episodes from the Rest is History podcast (a general one and one specifically focused on the First Anglo-Afghan War) provided some context to the history of the country, dotted as it has been with inter-tribal frictions and the burden of being prized as a gateway location. The similarities appear to be more than superficial: both countries have had borders drawn on the back of envelopes splitting tribes between countries, have fairly well established Islamic insurgencies and have significant deposits of natural resources. There is also the British (read East India Company / Royal Niger Company) connection too, the tip of the spear by which both regions were economically exploited.
The images coming out of Kabul are stark, and speak to a very desperate situation with the Taliban gaining the ascendancy in very short order after the American withdrawal. Inches of paper and columns of ink have been spent on weighing up the pros and the cons, making moral arguments for remaining and framing the withdrawal as effectively ceding control of Afghanistan’s rare earth metals to China among other takes. Given its reputation for being the graveyard of empires, linked to all the aforementioned interventions which have never really ended well fore the occupiers, it is interesting that the powers that be have never really seemed to learn from history. The human tragedy is huge and, given the attack on the airport, only likely to increase as the Taliban gain ascendancy, which makes for very worrying times for those left behind, the regular folk who do not have the power of being visible working for them. One hopes that the noises being made by the Taliban have some substance, although given their priors, there seems little real hope for that. The question of just why the US and their allies have the right to appoint themselves the policemen of the world is a different one altogether but needs exploration.
The speed at which the Ghani government collapsed would suggest that there is a critical mass that supports the Taliban, for all the noise the public intellectuals make. The irony is that nothing has really changed, not in the last twenty years, and maybe not by much in the last 200 either. Previous Afghan President Hamed Karzai is a direct descendant of the puppet the British installed, Shah Shuja. The Taliban come from the tribe that brought him down. Now and as it was then, deep fissures remain, and only by understanding the history and the local context can these widespread failings be prevented.
One take away from the two podcasts I listened to was that current president Ghani was a very different beast from Karzai, one that was seen as rude and snobbish, failing to keep the tribal leaders onside. That and the manifest corruption (case in point that Instagram post) suggests that in the end, failing to make the country work for everyone perhaps made it unlikely that ordinary folk would stick their necks out and fight. A functioning state that cares for the ordinary person and imbues a sense of ownership in the ordinary citizen has a lot more heft than any outside influences propping it up, it seems to me. Given the state of Nigeria at the moment, and the increasingly disconnected ruling class from the ordinary citizen, I can’t help but have a niggling worry as to what fate might lie ahead.