the Frontline of Democracy
It is a different world in Kabul from the one
I’m from. Destroyed mud brick buildings stand next to slow reconstruction.
My eyes burn from the thick dust and pollution in the air. Diesel
spews from the cars in jammed streets as drivers create the rules
of the road by fierce horn honking and aggressive traffic merging.
Goat shanks and carpets hang everywhere in packed markets full
of imitation goods shipped from Pakistan. I have made the 36 hour
trip from DC to Afghanistan.
Armored vehicles from the ISAF (International Security Assistance
Forces) roll through the streets and Apache helicopters and
A10 Warthogs ("Tank Killers") patrol over head. Security is
getting beefed up for the elections. Today, about 50 US troops
fully armed patrolled through the park near my guesthouse in
the Shar-e-Now section of Kabul. The extreme security isn't
much different from DC's new fortress look.
I stick out like a sore thumb in a world of turbans, burkas,
and long flowing clothes. Everyone stares at this foreign spectacle
on the street. My beard, which I thought would help me blend
in, has not worked. The locals ask my fixer, Fardeen, if I am
Special Forces-- these elite US troops drive around town in
SUVs dressed in T-shirts and jeans and look like backwoodsman
with bushy beards. For many Afghans, their only experience with
Americans are with these assertive men with guns. They are not
very popular according to Fardeen.
Kabul is a city that needs incredible work. A correspondent
from Al Jazeera told me, as Apache attack helicopters circled
above, “Afghanistan makes you happy to be where you’re from.”
This journalist was from Iraq. Open sewers run through the streets
of Kabul. Children tap on your car windows begging for money.
Fardeen hinted, in carefully chosen words, that September 11
was one of the best things that ever happened to Afghanistan.
Not because he likes terrorist Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban
(in fact Fardeen wants to move to America), but because it made
the world care about Afghanistan. At 24, Fardeen’s English abilities,
sense of humor (a quality that runs through the Afghans I’ve
met), and his ingenuity have carved out a better living for
him than most Afghans—who struggle to eek out survival. International
money flows into the country through aid organizations, but
little of it seems to reach the people on the street.
I have joined a 6-person team of American documentary filmmakers
working on an independent film about women’s roles in Afghanistan’s
democracy. I am coordinating shoots around Kabul and negotiating
with local news organizations. Cutting deals with the Afghan
Government’s film department (the same office that produced
the independent film hit in America, Osama) has been an eye
opening adventure into the world of international business,
especially for this 26 year-old novice. Sitting in a dark, smoky
room with a shifty Danny Devito character, his sparse hair combed
over, and pudgy, hairy fingers tapping his rings on a table,
he tries to get every last penny out of this so called "rich
American". Sipping my tea--it’s an Afghan tradition to serve
tea to guests-- I ask him for archive footage for the film.
Latif Ahamdi speaks back to me in broken English. Mr. Latif,
as he is known, keeps a stiff poker face. I sense in his beady
eyes a mixture of perceived power and ego, and a dislike for
me. Afghanistan is now very expensive. My guesthouse is $50
a night. And Afghan rugs can run you a $1000. It is a war economy.
Mr. Latif wants me to pay $3000 for a few minutes of footage
that should be free through the UN. I’m afraid the many hours
and days I have spent going to Afghan Films will be a waste
of time—a precious commodity. The director of the film, Virginia
Williams, will never go for his offer, and Mr. Latif will never
see any money.
Throughout our busy days running around Kabul shooting in a
reality tv style, our documentary team is following, among four
women, Massouda Jalal, the lone woman running for president.
Dr. Jalal, in her tight blue headscarf looks like a saint. Her
small, bland office flowing with tea and candies is packed with
foreign media eager to make her the shining example of Afghanistan’s
fledgling democracy. In a country where people take down her
colorful poster from buildings to decorate their own bare walls,
there is a long road to climb for women’s integration into mainstream
Afghan society. Men still do not want their women seen by other
men in public. In our interview with President Karzai last week,
he became defensive when Co-director, Halima Kazem, asked about
his plans to make women more visible in his cabinet. Karzai
responded, “This is not important! What is important is that
women are working and that they are educated.” About 80% of
the women in Afghanistan are illiterate.
Although Massouda Jalal’s campaign is run on shoestring, the
American Ambassador, Zalmay Khalildaid, told us in an interview
he considers her the “sleeper” in the race. She travels to rallies
in taxis and counts on the grassroots support from tribal elders—
much like Ralph Nader and his student movement. She is running
against men with lots of money and power. Our crew made a 20-minute
flight to Mazar-i-Sharif for an eventful morning with Karzai’s
main rival, a popular warlord, Younis Qanooni. Boarding Qanooni’s
chartered airplane, the flight attendants collected the Qanooni
entourages’ machine guns before take-off. Qanooni’s guards,
armed with Ak-47s and RPGs, made triumphant gestures upon arrival
as they drove in a motorcade of armored black Toyota Land Cruisers
through mobs of supporters reaching into the thousands. Our
cameraman, John Monte said it was one of the most intense experiences
of his career speeding through the desert at high speeds, his
vehicle rising up on two wheels and almost flipping on several
occasions. It was a scene out of Mad Max, plumes of dust rising
in a trail behind the convoy. Despite Qanooni’s strong support,
he is likely to finish second to Karzai in the coming elections
October 9th. Even with the surreal craziness and extreme poverty
that pervades life here, I have been at ease since stepping
foot on the ground. But people are getting nervous. The Taliban
has vowed to hit the elections. Much of the country remains
without security. However, Kabul is calm. Almost to calm. Westerners
are speculating about the next hit. Will they bomb the polling
centers? (We will be filming there Election Day). Intelligence
reports on the ground predict certain doom. Yet the Afghans
I’ve spoken with aren’t worried at all. After more than 25 years
of wars, warlords, and fanatical rule, the Afghan people are
more than willing to endure uncertain security to give democratic
elections a chance.