Two meetings, less than a week apart. One is in a large room with black leather couches around the perimeter, the most senior person’s desk — this is his office — in the corner furthest from the door. More important people sit closer to the position of power; less important closer to the door. The floor is covered by two matching large 10 x 15′ Afghan rugs in black and red and green and white. In front of the couches there are faux-wood coffee tables with chrome feet and floral-design clear glass tops. A bookcase with sagging shelves sits in one corner. Gilt-framed maroon velvet bulletin boards hang on the walls with organizational charts and calendars and quotations in Dari, and framed plastic-covered maps bracket a gold-framed photo portrait of President Karzai in the place of honor between the windows.
The couches are filled: there are a total of nineteen people in the room. There is an initial speech of 25 minutes or so, noting academic issues that have come up, offering guidance. There is some discussion of the fact that a Web presence and a Facebook page for the Academy have been authorized, and that “These will solve most of our problems.”
A cell phone rings, and a person on one of the couches answers and then stands up to leave the room, talking as he does so. There are other arguments raised: the Afghan culture is primarily oral, and there’s a great deal of orating over fine-grained questions and details. A courier walks into the meeting and delivers two envelopes. Everything here seems important enough to merit attention, and access is the way of doing business.
The discussion moves on to an argument about the lengths of breaks between classes and the academic schedule. The most senior person sits back in his chair, surveying the increasingly vocal back-and-forth across the room. His desk phone rings and he holds up his hand to take the call. There is a small fringed Afghan flag next to a globe on his desk. He hangs up and argument resumes. He is relaxed, calmly and indulgently responding to the increasingly loud and fast and agitated talk, moving his hand slowly and laterally to calm the discussion.
The discussion shifts again to the question of the shipment of computers that has arrived: 36 pallets of new laptops for students. Someone asks: how will we distribute them? Again, much agitated discussion. Should we hand-receipt them? Who will do it? Only the permanent instructors should do it, not the contract adjuncts. No, no: perhaps we should leave it to the technicians to issue the laptops. There is no discussion of the students in the current computer class that does not have internet access. After an hour and a half, the meeting ends, and we depart the office and go our various ways.
I walk past the profusion of roses to the Languages building. I’ve learned not to email the instructors I work with: business is best conducted face-to-face here, with chai, or at least by phone, if face-to-face isn’t possible.
The other meeting is at the base two miles down the road. We put on our body armor and kevlar helmets and gloves and ballistic eye protection and get into the up-armored vehicles and turn the jammers on and turn into traffic, moving swiftly, staying close.
On the busy downtown street — a local lane in either direction on the outside and then a wide, divided high-speed boulevard in the middle — we pass a donkey cart on truck tires being driven by a teenage boy with his younger brother sitting behind him waving a scrap of ribbon in the wind. We pass vegetable gardens worked by teams of pickers in city blocks between blocks of shops and garages and apartments. We pass residential walled and concertinaed front yards and driveways where residents sell vegetables and bottled water and jerricans of diesel.
When we arrive at the street outside the British Embassy, there are two Afghan security guards outside a shipping container passing eggs from one to the other and examining them and talking. Outside the wall, there are concrete Jersey barriers with looped rebar lift points lining the curbside between the sidewalk and the street. Some of their grey and black and yellow paint remains; most has worn and peeled away. In the gaps between them there are rosebushes in full bloom: pale pink, yellow, red, dark pink, white.
We turn in our badges, receive other badges, are escorted inside. It’s not the old Raj-style British Embassy — that building is being renovated — but a Cold-War-looking construct rented from the Bulgarians. The meeting is warm, cordial; we’re talking about which texts and which curricula and which approaches to use for English language instruction. One of the British civilians gives us sample CD-ROMs with online instructional resources to examine. We talk, briefly, about the prospect of Afghan instructors going to graduate school and the challenges associated with the various options: going to the US, going to regional schools, taking online graduate courses and degrees. Nobody mentions the challenges that the Afghan instructors focus on associated with trying to take online courses in a city with only intermittent electricity and worse internet access. One of the British soldiers notes that “We’ve decimated the professional class in Kabul” and hurt the very reconstruction efforts we’re trying to promote in the way that we’ve distorted the city’s labor market: there are hardly any Afghan laywers, teachers, doctors, or engineers in Kabul, because they can all make better money as interpreters. Interpreters make $600 a month; doctors, $200.
When we leave, one of the Afghan security guards is getting a straight-razor haircut in the shade of a tree between the shipping container and the guard shack. He sits on a chair on the sidewalk, draped in a gray sheet. It’s a warm day: 90 degrees at two thirty in the afternoon.
On the drive back, we see a watermelon vendor with a shade umbrella, his two-wheeled cart piled high with whole watermelons, next to a new glass office building still unfinished on the inside where men in shirtsleeves and neckties confer and point around them to the building’s bare girders and blank windows, next to a large, dusty vacant lot rimmed by shantytown shacks and tents and tarps. We see rows and rows of bicycles outside private high-security gated compounds, their walls topped by triple rows of concertina wire and floodlights and security cameras. We see billboards for wireless companies; Dari graffiti on pock-marked concrete walls; vendors pushing wooden carts or pedaling bicycles with trailers selling sunglasses, cucumbers, neon-colored cell phones. We pass a group of eight shaggy brown oxen on the side of the street, standing on the dirt curb in front of an alleyway that punctuates a crowded row of shops. We pass ANA soldiers sitting against the bases of streetlights cradling AK-47s in their laps and talking on cell phones.