Initial security reports suggested that the attack had been a rocket attack in Quala e Fatulah, but it was not us, and life did go on and is going on. Outside, there is the loud whirring of machinery as they finally – but slowly – pave our dirt road. From next door, there is the clunk of bricks being laid for the monstrosity of a poppy palace the neighbors are building. A few times an hour, the melody of the ice cream carts drifts in through the open windows and, every few hours, the Black Hawks make their routine flight over the city.
This is the reality that Ben Farmer describes and, the longer I stay in Afghanistan, the more I appreciate his type of writing. 12 years in, it’s too easy to resort to the headline-catching cliches and stereotypes that paint vivid, if inaccurate, portraits of life in this “suburban warzone.”
Because Afghanistan is more than a headline; for millions – including, now, for me – this is reality and these are the in’s and out’s of my daily life."
I’m lying on a sofa bed on a high floor of the Burj Khalifa, staring out the windows at the sprawling metropolis at my feet. Here in Dubai, as everywhere else I’ve been in my month away from Afghanistan, I am haunted by the same question: “What would it be like to live here?”
I was tempted in Philly, as I have never been before, when a friend told me that he used to rent a downtown 1 bedroom for about $750/mo. It was unheard of in any other major city on the East Coast, and since all I really want is the hustle and bustle of a large city to call home, I momentarily wondered if I could make Philly it.
I asked myself this also in Cambridge, MA when I met another friend at 1369 Coffee House, an old favorite of mine during college. What if I had stayed in the area after graduation? What if coffee with this friend could have been a weekly, rather than annual, thing? But it was an idle thought, since staying in Boston had neither been a real possibility nor a real desire for me.
I looked forward to it in Manhattan, which I had decided was the only U.S. city that could keep up with me. Manhattan was home to some of my oldest and best friends, and as we wandered the streets, stopping in at any coffee shop that caught our eye, enjoyed evenings at the Met and late nights in Meatpacking, I felt like I fit in the city. It was as if Manhattan and I were kindred spirits and our energies matched, or something.
And yet, no place invoked that line of questioning more strongly than DC, where “What would it like to live here?” became “What would it be like had I stayed?” And so it is – nostalgia for the past trumps nostalgia for futures imagined, no matter how bright those futures seem…
It’s commencement season in the good old US of A, which means time for inspiration from some of the world’s foremost thinkers. Some of my favorites include this widely-shared classic from Steve Jobs, as well as this relatively unknown speech by Adrian Tan that tells graduates, “Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated.”
But this year, as I think about all of the unforeseen roadblocks, challenges, and big and small victories, this one by celebrated journalist Robert Krulwich comes to mind. Though it was delivered to a graduating class of journalists, it’s incredibly relevant regardless of your field:
Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
The world, and the path to success, has changed. Are you changing with it?
Friends that have spent time in Africa have a catch-all phrase to describe the trials and tribulations of daily life in the continent: “This is Africa”, or simply “TIA”. At the end of an anecdote, a sentence, or even as an alternative to any words at all, “TIA”, they’ll say, with a big roll of the eyes, a sigh, a shrug, or a knowing smirk.
We don’t have a commonly used equivalent of “TIA” in Afghanistan – at least not one that is so pithily expressed in three letters – but the concept of accepting the absurd as normal exists here as well. From the way the windows rattle under the twice-daily flights of ISAF helicopters to the horrendous traffic jams where cars, humvees, push carts, and the occasional donkey all vie for space in the poorly planned streets, definitions of normal change in Kabul.
But lately, I’ve had some experiences that are, if possible, even more “This is Afghanistan” than typical. These include…
“Tonight, here I am, lying on this custom-stuffed toshak [mattress] for which I drove out to the cotton market, stuck my hand into several bags of thick white fluff to feel for optimal softness, chose 16.5 kg of the more reasonably priced (and only minimally less soft) type, haggled, left a shop, started the process anew, haggled some more, chose a toshak cover, and hired a man to stuff the chosen cover with the chosen 16.5 kg of well-priced but less soft cotton.
Here I am, admiring my moody purple ceiling and my much negotiated for kilim rug for which, I am proud to say, I paid local and not expat prices. Here I am, thinking about all of the furniture to be bought and pinning and pinning my home decor ideas like crazy. Here I am, proud of the visible progress that I have made since moving in three weeks ago. Here I am, confident that whatever absurdities sure to come my way tomorrow, I can take it because you know what? I already have.
When I came to Afghanistan in October, I was irrationally and, perhaps, naively head-over-heels in love with every day and every experience here. Upon my return in January, however, I had a hard time readjusting. But thanks to moments – and people – like these, I gradually began to remember what it was about this country that I fell in love with in the first place…
Full piece here.
I’ve been lucky enough to get the chance to write for a number of other publications and blogs in the past few months, including:
- “At the UN-Sponsored Internet Governance Forum, Where are the Start-up Folks?” for Venturebeat
- “Humor Finds Its Way In Lost Translation”, first published in the NY Times At War blog, and then reposted in Afghan Scene
- “The Entrepreneurial Spirit Thrives in Bamyan”, for non-profit BPeace, which supports entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries
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