It’s time to ban Afghan-free zones in Kabul

Look! Afghans and expats sharing a back yard --and a hookah! Such things are possible. July 2010.

I will begin house-hunting when I return to Kabul later this week. Why? My housemates have declared my current house an Afghan-free zone.

It’s one of the dirty secrets of Kabul’s expatriate community: a significant number of expat house managers and tenants refuse to allow Afghans other than their guards and housekeepers into their houses and then fly into theatrical rages when an Afghan (an Unauthorized Afghan!) unknowingly crosses into their private Expatland. That so many aid workers are guilty of this is shameful. Afghan-free zones are an affront to the values of the humanitarian community. But more than that, they fly in the face of human decency.

Afghan-free zones are usually enforced by alliances of housemates. Think: Westerners of the sets that tend to forget that not everyone owns a holiday home and members of the Afghan diaspora’s most affluent and arrogant circles –the people who tell you, within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, that they’re descended from Amanullah’s bloodline or were “from the last of the good families to leave Herat” before the 32 Years War. These are groups of people so deeply uncomfortable coexisting with “local” (read: working class, uppity ethnic minority, self-educated and rags-to-middle-class) Afghans that they can’t bear life in Kabul unless their residences are free of Afghans besides the non-English-speaking hired help, who wouldn’t dare risk questioning the status quo for fear of endangering salaries that support whole extended families.

Usually announced with little or no warning, Afghan-free zones are enforced by bullying dissenting housemates into silence, acts of passive aggression against expats with close Afghan friends and communal “house talks” that entail brow-beating the resident local-lover into moving out.

The practice of imposing blanket bans on Afghan nationals entering private residences in their own capital city is stunningly offensive, racist and mean-spirited. (Back in July, my housemates refused to let one of my Afghan friends use our bathroom after a 5-hour drive.) It’s long past time for the Afghan-free zones to be eradicated and their expat supporters to be called out, publicly. Let’s go.

27 thoughts on “It’s time to ban Afghan-free zones in Kabul

  1. Awww crap. First you let them in the house, then the bathroom…before you know it, you’re eating with them, then you start dealing with each other as people and figure out what kind of common ground you have, and, over time, you end up actually putting together a way forward that’s going to be beneficial and maybe functional. Do you see what kind of trouble that would cause?

  2. if you don’t want to mingle with the local population and want to live in a Western environment, please stick to where you fucking come from. I plan on going to Africa next year and SO DARWIN HELP ME, I’m gonna punch anyone who stops me from mingling with the population.

    AMEN, sister.

  3. Thank you for writing this and for being angry about it- it is not enough that organisations do all they can to make sure their expats do not socialise at work and outside and make all common venues off bound for “security reasons”, you also have the individuals who just add to the discrimination in the few spaces where they may be possible. Part of the discourse “Afghans are backward, different etc etc…”. And when you happen to have close friendships with the Afghan colleagues, you’re seen as a problematic, difficult, weird person. A friend likened that to being the “negro lover” during the civil rights struggle in the US. Is that what the state-building project in this country stands for?

  4. and they refuse to socialise with the people who they have come here, allegedly, to help! Now, how can you work for people, if you are not with people? Insane!

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  7. i’m a young afghan-american in my 20s who recently moved back to kabul. i have foreign friends who work here and i was shocked and appalled to find out that i couldn’t go within 10 feet of some of their compounds. i hear that kabul’s got a pretty good party scene that i could take part in on my US passport if i wanted to. but i couldn’t possibly have fun knowing that my fellow countrymen can’t enjoy the same luxuries simply on account of their nationality- and i know many of them who are my age wish they could. i hate that we’re treated like unwelcome guests in our own city. as an afghan friend of mine here told a contractor last week: “kabul was here 3,000 years before the first time someone ever uttered the word ‘washington’ and it will be here 3,000 years after the last time anyone ever utters the word ‘washington’. don’t make us feel like we should be ashamed to be from here.

    thanks so much for writing this post and bringing attention to the problem. i hope the word spreads.

    • Thanks God I don’t have any issues unlike some of the folks have above at my job. I am Afg-American, but if my company even tries to limit my social life with my own people, then my respond would be, and excuse my language, the “F” word. I go outside of the compound to live with my people every moment I wish, and will do that as long as I am here, and I dare our sec. man. or any of the guards to stop me. And for all those who haven’t seen different people and different cultures, maybe you have got to stay in your little remote isolated village in your own place, if you are so irritated by seeing different people. I have traveled the five continents and have lived with all kind of people, and love all cultures.

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      • I am in Kabul living with some of my fellow academics in a local college’s instructor’s dormitory. They have made me feel most welcome and it is good to be away from the rather isolated world of ex-patriots in Shar-e-naw. But my recollection of “Afghan free” zones was that it was not so much driven by prejudice as by security considerations and drinking.

  9. These behaviour of expats will creat more reactions and hatrets for the presence of foriegners in Afghanistan. I know these people (afghans). Once you hurt with these racist attitude, they will go back and talk about it with others. And hatret for the presence of foriegners will spread with in the common afghans.

  10. Hi Una
    I think you are saying something really important here and for sure, such attitudes and those who hold them have no place here. I am a bit concerned though that in identifying an extreme behaviour like you have, the assumption then is that the rest of us are doing ok in our relationships with Afghans, and I question that. For example, how many of your outrage readers have made the effort to learn Dari, Pashtu or Hazaragi? Really learn, not just salaams and tashakors. How much cultural study have you done? and I don’t mean reading Taliban and The Great Game, I mean really getting to grips with culture. When do you say Kaka, when do you use Agha and when can you use Baba? When is something sometimes ok and when is it never ok?

    My regrettable observation is that nearly all expats here continue to relate to Afghans on their (expats) terms, and continue to practice the most egregiously offensive behaviours, without having any idea really what they are doing, or really caring. For the absolute majority of the time, expats relationships with Afghans are mediated through interpreters, or through English. How can you really claim to know or respect a country and its people when your interactions are on your terms? How does that dignify and respect a people, in particular the most vulnerable and marginalised, whose access to power is the weakest and the most at risk when having to be mediated via another?
    Or here’s another measure. What is your salary? How much are you and other readers taking in your monthly pay packet? Is it reasonable? How much of it do you give away each month? Of course, I am not arguing that all expats here should earn less (though the quality of expat would double for every halving of the remuneration), but that subtler, deeper and more corrosive divides exist here, than the obvious ‘Afghan free zone’ stuff you describe. How’s this: require every expat working here to become fluent in one of the languages, quarter the salaries and require several months of cultural study. These are not new ideas, they are much more fluently enumerated in ‘The Ugly American’ (Burdick/ Lederer 1958).

    • Phil,

      I don’t think I’m obligated to reveal my salary here and I find it off-putting that you’ve asked. That said, I’ll tell you this: until very recently, it was about what I would make in the same position in the US. No hazard pay, no allowances of any kind, no insurance, no car, no cook, no guards, none of that. I also spent several months making less than what would be minimum wage in the US. Now I’m doing much better, but I’m also footing the bill for more family-related expenses back home. I’m not getting rich, but I don’t worry about making rent anymore.

      As for language and cultural study, I have a long way to go. I don’t think that should prohibit me from working here, though. I know plenty of people (heck, I live with one of them now) who know the language and the culture very well, and are still spectacular assholes. The housemate who threw my Afghan friends out of our house last year was fluent in Dari and knew her Babas from her Kakas and Agas. “I work with those people all day, I don’t want to come home and find them in my house,” she’d say.

      You’ve been here since the civil war. You’re the extreme exception. For most foreigners here, Afghanistan will be a short-term place, somewhere they work before moving on to their next posting in Sudan or Sri Lanka or wherever. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. One can be a short-termer, just passing through, and still be a decent human human being who doesn’t leave the place more bitter than when he or she arrived.

  11. Hi Una.
    Maybe I wasn’t clear, and I don’t mean any personal offense: I’m actually not interested in your (singular) salary, nor anyone else’s, per se. I am asking the question, or posing the hypothetical that many (most) expats here would have their motivations vastly clarified by taking a 50% salary cut. And the fact that your house mate was culturally and linguistically fluent (and still a prat) doesn’t excuse the rest of us from becoming so: my point still remains, that for the vast majority of expats, Afghans have to relate to them on the expat terms, and that this does Afghans a disservice.
    And sure, short term folk have a place in a country like this – I seem to remember I put a fair bit of work into trying to organise your first internship here when I worked with Hagar…. but I say it again: the huge number of expats here today, culturally naive and on short term contracts are responsible for a great deal of the anger and cynicism now present. Projects are designed and executed by seagulls who don’t really know what they are doing, don’t stick around long enough to see the long term impact (failure) of their work, and too far removed from ordinary Afghans to ever get it. There is something wrong with that. This place has been warped, perhaps for decades, by the post 9/11, uncritical invasion of aid workers and aid money, and the ordinary Afghan in the villages and the towns out of Kabul is well aware of that, even if they can’t say it in English.

    • Phil,

      Sorry, I shouldn’t have taken your comment so personally or been so harsh in my response.

      I was grateful for your effort to me over here. This year and last, I have tried to balance my fondness for comfort with my need to uncomfortable, to varying degrees, in order to know what’s actually happening here. I’m trying.

      On the subject of salaries –I believe people should be paid what they’re worth and earn what they’re paid. And I’ll leave it at that.

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  13. This kind of expat elitism is unfortunately not unique to Afghanistan. I work in the DRC and we’ve come across the same problems… Congolese colleagues won’t be allowed onto the UN compound for a party in the middle of the bush, even though they’re well-educated, interesting, likeable, professional people. Coming to Herat in a few weeks and hope our compound won’t be “Afghan Free”!

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