Sympathy for the White Land Rover Mafia

It's a little too easy to blame the expat mafia.

It’s been a while since someone wrote an essay-length comment on one of my posts to scold me for things I never actually wrote, so I’m going to reply in full-post form to the comment Farah from Steal This Hijab left on ‘Is it safe?’ (You might want to read my  original post now, if you haven’t already.)

Here’s what Farah wrote:

Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers.

Has Farah read anything else on my blog? Both here and at UN Dispatch, I have written extensively about the dangers faced by ordinary Afghan civilians and by Afghan aid workers. And how does dispensing common sense safety advice to other expats demean the sacrifices or diminish the suffering of Afghans? This type of comment falls into category of: ‘You wrote about one thing. I wanted you to write about this other thing. I demand gratification.’

Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan.

Farah is either reading lines I never wrote (my post doesn’t discuss motivations for working in Afghanistan), or she’s implying that we’re all so mercenary that, hey, maybe those of us who return home in coffins are getting what we deserve for being greedy careerists. If it’s the latter case, she needs to seriously re-examine her own moral code.

Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid.

Not every expat lives like this. Many do, sure, but many others do not –or didn’t until recently. I spent my first full year in Afghanistan living in mud houses with only intermittent water and electricity, sleeping on a taushak, cooking my own food and walking to the bazaar by myself. None of my expenses were paid by my employer. I supported myself on a salary roughly equivalent to what I would have made back in the United States. My housemates and most of my expat friends shared in that lifestyle. We refused to live within the Archipelago of Fear.

During my second year in Kabul, walking the streets became more difficult. Men threw large stones at me when I refused to answer their catcalls. Teenage boys surrounded me, groped me, and called me vulgar names in Dari. The police began stopping me more and more often just to stare at my passport picture and pass it around to their buddies, humiliating me in front of my Afghan friends and drawing unwanted attention from passersby.

Then came the Taliban’s summer offensive, with its midnight gunfire symphonies and suicide bombing assassination campaign. My Afghan friends worried I would be kidnapped, so they advised me to take a taxi whenever I needed to leave my home. I still didn’t have a guard or driver, but I began planning my movements more carefully and carrying a switchblade.

There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people. I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.

No, I really don’t think Farah has read much of my blog, because I have addressed these issues and Farah and I are generally on the same page when it comes to security theater and the odiousness of ‘Afghan-Free Zones.’

That said, the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere is very bad now, and worsening by the week. That’s not Chicken Little squawking — that’s an irrefutable fact.

2012 will be my third year in Afghanistan, and almost certainly my last. I won’t be able to live my freewheeling lifestyle anymore. My days of picnics in Kapisa and damboora nights at Qargha are over. This year, I will have to live in a formal guesthouse with a guard, or in a hotel. I won’t be doing much walking outside, if any at all, and I certainly won’t go strolling alone, even in the Kabul neighborhoods I’ve come to know so well I could navigate them with my eyes closed.

I’ll continue taking the roads in civilian vehicles as long as I can, because the fear I feel clawing into my ribs when I’m winding my way through the narrow valley highway between Kabul and Jalalabad keeps me honest, connects me to my colleagues, and saves thousands of dollars that could be –and are– better spent on project beneficiaries.

But going “low profile” and eschewing the typical security measures of armored cars and chartered flights between cities is not risk-free, cost-free or always the more ethical choice. If I take the roads, even while hidden under a burqa, I risk the lives of the Afghans traveling with me. If we are stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and my identity is revealed, I’ll mostly likely be kidnapped, but the Afghans with me will be summarily executed. If I live in an ordinary house in an Afghan neighborhood, instead of an expat compound, I plant a target in my innocent neighbors’ midst. With my mere presence, I knowingly run the chance of drawing evil men onto the streets where their children fly kites.

In a morally muddled conflict like Afghanistan’s, the ‘right thing’ is seldom obvious, and, in my experience, expats –aid workers and others– are usually left with no truly good options.

You know you’ve been in Afghanistan too long without R&R when…

...your default facial expression is this one.

…you start using Afghan insults against other expats.

…you know the pricing scale for contract killings in your city.

…you don’t scream when you find a toenail in your bread, you just pick it out.

…your phonebook includes “stalker #5” and “harasser #9.”

…you find it kind of gross but not at all weird that the hotel reception clerk is staring at full-screen photos of dismembered corpses on his computer when you check in.

…you know how to walk in a burqa like an Afghan woman.

…you refuse to let anyone put a flash drive in your computer for fear of porn download viruses.

…you’ve been accused of running a brothel and of being employed at a separate supposed brothel.

…you get hit in the face by a malfunctioning semi-manual washing machine on the spin cycle and fall on the floor laughing madly while clutching pairs of underwear to your chest.

…you look at this A Softer World and think, ‘that’s a plausible scenario.’

…you have a list of people to whom you’d love to send phony Taliban night letters, and that list is four whole pages long. Single-spaced.

(Because this list needed to be updated.)


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.

ATMs in Kabul

Contrary to popular belief, there are, in fact, working ATMs in Kabul. It’s just that they don’t often all work at the same time. Here’s a list of the Visa-and-Mastercard-accepting ATMS within reach of civilians:

  • Afghanistan International Bank (AIB) ATM in Kabul City Centre mall, Shar-e Naw
  • AIB ATM at AIB Main Office, opposite Camp Eggers
  • AIB ATM at AIB Shar-e Naw branch, opposite Chelsea Supermarket
  • AIB ATM at Spinneys Afghan Market, Wazir Akbar Khan
  • AIB ATM at Finest Supermarket 1, Kulola Pushta
  • AIB ATM at Finest Supermarket 2, Wazir Akbar Khan

You will get sick in Afghanistan

(Part of my guide for freewheeling expats.)

You will get sick here. Yes, you will. Even if you spent 2 years in a village in rural Namibia as a Peace Corps volunteer. Even if you ran an NGO in a Mumbai slum. Even if you worked in a clinic in Indonesia after the Asian tsunami. Even if you drink only bottled water and eat only MREs. You will still get sick in Afghanistan. Everyone does. Illness is the great equalizer among the expats. It strikes us all eventually, from the lowliest volunteer to the most pampered political officer. Disgustingly virulent Giardia and cruelly strong Helicobacter pylori (H Pylori) are the most common culprits when it comes to symptoms such as:

Continue reading

In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.

“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.


One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.


And a few more points: Continue reading

Staying connected: Internet connections, mobile phones and data service in Afghanistan

Part III of my ‘Freewheeling Expat’s Guide to Kabul’ series.

Advice to help Kabul expat newcomers stave off email and social media withdrawal:

An internet connection for your house.

I generally discourage people from trying to get a “house” connection. They’re not worth the cost. A satellite or DSL connection from one of the dozen or so private ICT firms in Kabul will run you between $800 and several thousand dollars per month. Installation fees can be as high as $2,000. Ridiculous, but true. And even the most expensive Kabul connections (my office had one that cost $5,000 per month at one point!) are too slow to play streaming videos or upload/download photos and audio files quickly. All of them experience frequent outages. That’s just the way it is.

Afghan Telecom, the state-owned internet provider, offers cheaper DSL connections ranging in price from around $120 per month to a few hundred dollars per month, but Afghan Telecom’s staff don’t always know what they are and aren’t allowed to do. I’ve heard stories of expats being turned down for service by confused Afghan Telecom employees. Also, Afghan Telecom uses a filtering system that blocks sites flagged as containing objectionable content; you won’t be able to browse for swimsuits or research breast cancer on an state-owned connection.

Advice: Avoid Rana Telecom. Ask around for the best deal. Consult other expats before you sign a contract. Play hardball with your ISP if you’re being overcharged or billed for a service you didn’t use. If opting for Afghan Telecom, ask an Afghan friend or colleague to help you sort out the paperwork and installation process.

Data cards.

This is your best bet. When I moved into my second house in Kabul, I needed an internet connection but couldn’t afford to shell out hundreds of dollars every month for one. So, I asked around and a colleague suggested I get a data card from Afghan Telecom. For me, this was the perfect solution. Now, I pay 2,000 afs per month (about $60) for a slow but mostly reliable connection via a USB modem that I purchased at the Afghan Telecom central office for $170. I used a CD to install the dial-up program on my laptop, and now I have (slow) internet service almost everywhere in the country. The device is small and pack it in my laptop bag. The best part? As long as my laptop is charged, I can get online, even if the power is out in my section of the city (as it frequently is). Roshan, AWCC and Etisalat also offer data card plans.

Advice: Avail of this option. The only major downside is having to buy the recharge cards every month. Afghan Telecom only has three offices in Kabul, so, taking traffic into account, you’ll need to block off an hour or two every month for getting to and from the vendor.

Mobile phones and iPads.

You’ll need a frequency 900 compatible GSM phone for Afghanistan. You can buy a new, unlocked Android phone in Dubai International Airport for as little as $200 –less than half the price you’ll pay in Kabul. If you decide to bring a phone from the US, you’ll need to get it unlocked in Kabul. Unlocking costs around $20 for most smart phones and around $35 for Blackberries, Androids and iPhones.

First generation iPads can be unlocked for $50 to $100. Don’t bring an iPad 2 with you to Afghanistan.

Advice: The most skilled phone “unlockers”  in Kabul are found at Tamim Mobile in the Gulbahar Centre mall, City Centre and at the mobile phone store at the entrance to Chicken Street. Always ask for the price before you hand over your device.

Data service for your phone.

All of Afghanistan’s telecoms offer data service at this point. I pay 1,000 afs per month (about $25) for unlimited use through AWCC. The service is slow, but I can use Twitter, Facebook and Gmail without too much difficulty most days.

Advice: To sign up, you’ll need to bring a passport style photo and a copy of your passport or other official photo I.D. (such as an ISAF card or UN I.D.) to the mobile phone store in order to register for a SIM card. (If you don’t sign up with all the requisite identification, your service will be cut after 30 days. This is to discourage the use of SIM cards in IED detonators. No joke.)  After your SIM card is activated, you can use a data recharge scratch card to activate your mobile web service. This usually takes 24 hours from the time you register. To keep your account charged, make sure your account is recharged to at least 1,000 afs every 30 days. Mark  “recharge day” on your calendar.

Springtime sunshine, wind, and warplanes

After a few weeks, Kabul begins to fray my nerves. My head pounds from the pollution and the hours I have to spend in traffic every day, and playing the “what will be bombed next?” guessing game gets old quickly. So, I was relieved when I headed out into the countryside with a few friends last weekend.

We piled into an SUV and drove to a fishing village in Kapisa province, about two and a half hours from Kabul. There, we ambled atop stone walls running alongside a river. Local boys followed us on horseback and teenage girls in brightly-colored dresses watched us inquisitively while weeding fields. At one point, I pulled a Girl Scout move and carried a toddler across the shallow river and handed her to her laughing, surprised dad on the opposite shore. The little girl wore a sequined purple dress and her big green eyes were thickly lined with kohl. She grabbed my sweater in her tiny fists as I clomped and splashed across the river in knee-high rainboots I purchased with my mother in Boulder last December.

My friends and I inhaled deeply as we walked. No diesel fumes here. No sewer stench. The air was clean and smelled of the cold beginning of spring in Central Asia. One member of our party sang little English folk songs as she walked. I picked a thorny branch and teased my friends with it.

The war was still with us, though, even in that place, and it demanded recognition. Every fifteen minutes or so, American warplanes screamed high overhead, their sleek, black forms briefly visible through breaks in the clouds. Later, when my party sat to eat some local fried, spiced fish on a wooden platform over the river, two loud noises shook the hills behind us and made us sit up straight. I didn’t recognize the sounds, but my more munitions-savvy friend Erin thought they were mortars being fired. Sunburned farm girls who had been aggressively hawking cornbread to us stopped giggling and coaxing for a moment, but only a moment.

On the way home, we drove through the vast, still-fallow fields of the Shamali plain and passed NATO vehicles parked on the side of the road. The turret gunners swiveled and looked into our car through their sunglasses as we drove by. Soldiers always find it strange to see foreign civilians moving about with neither weapons nor armor.

Kapisa gave way to Parwan and Parwan to Kabul. We drove in silence. Gazing out the window, I noticed Peshawari-style apartment complexes and office buildings, half-finished, standing in the middle of otherwise timeless fields and mud villages. None of these new buildings appeared to be connected to the power grid. I wondered who built them, and for what purpose. I tried to imagine what the farmers of the area thought of the Corinthian columns, mirror glass and whimsical purple umbrellas in their midst.

As we drew closer to the Kabul gate, one of my friends talked about moving his family from Kabul and Kandahar to Dubai. He wants to work on political reform here, but he’s realistic about the violent days to come, and he wants his loved ones to sleep safely at night, even if that means living apart from them.