Kabul’s rock festival in quotes

I was incredibly lucky to have attended this festival. It was an act of musical defiance that gave young people, including the hundreds who attended the history-making main event in Babur Gardens.

Kabul’s underground concert venue:

Late Tuesday night saw Hoodie’s kick off a week of jam sessions, starting with Tears of the Sun, one of a dozen bands from the U.S., Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and of course Afghanistan.

At first, the show brought in more photographers than audience members.  But before long, the room grew stuffier and smokier with more people trickling in.

“It’s the best night of my life,” one young man shouted.  He and his friends — Afghan men in t-shirts and skinny jeans and the odd hoodie — slam-danced to set after set.  They jumped, swayed, pointed their fingers into the air, flicked on their lighters.

Breaking into the Boy’s Club:

“There are not many girls who are brave enough to come to these parties,” admits Nagris. “There are many Afghan men at this party who think it’s wrong for a girl to come. But now we come and they can see it’s not something very bad. It’s only music, we’re just chilling.”

Farida says she’s determined to try her best to lead a normal life: “We know anything can happen. Everyday when you walk out of your house, you know you might not come home in the evening.

“But we can’t lock ourselves away and not enjoy our lives. We need to take the risks to live our lives like human beings.”

On authenticity:

Transgression was once central to rock and roll. Our iconic image of its genesis is Elvis Presley’s pelvis threatening to upend the staid social order of the 1950s. But we’ve come a long way since then. On the day of the show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there was a certain characteristic irony in young people — call us hipsters, if you like — that is in a sense actually a half-heartedness for life, an affected enthusiasm for things that we aren’t really committed to.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of a certain post-modern exhaustion, where, in a throbbing cornucopia of sensual and cultural delights, there’s nothing left to rebel against.

Musicians who play in societies where there is a serious danger from repressive governments or violent extremists are putting something real on the line. They tap into an uncomplicated notion of authenticity that’s not easy to find in the West anymore. And that’s fucking rock and roll.

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.


Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.


Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.


Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.


The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.


The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.


From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”

Slow clap

A guy, to me: “So, you’re into Central Asia and stuff, huh? I don’t know anything about Central Asia…you know, all those ‘stans and things that were part of the Soviet Union but no one talked about because they weren’t Russian Russian. But hey! I just got a map of the world shower curtain and I’m memorizing them. I think I can find , uh, Kazakhstan now. I’m good with Africa though.”

At least he’s trying. And to his credit, he could probably draw a decent political map of Africa freehand.


In other Central Asia blogging news, Joshua at Registan posted the trailer to  a documentary that promises to be equally ridiculous and offensive. It inspired me to create the following map depicting how America sees Central Asia.


Im in ur sovrentee, observin ur elekshuns: Kyrgyzstan edition

Bad times for democracy in Central Asia continue.

Via Registan:

The OSCE has officially said the Kyrgyz election “failed to meet key OSCE commitments, despite some positive elements.” Before the elections, OSCE observers saw “instances of obstruction of opposition campaign events as well as pressure and intimidation of opposition supporters.” Then, on election day, there were “many problems and irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, inaccuracies in the voter lists, and multiple voting.” But hey, at least they had multiple candidates!

Joshua has a good summary of the Kyrgyz election mess (complete with ballot-stuffing video) here.

Tough questions from Alanna Shaikh

Alanna recently wrote a disquieting post about the worst story someone ever trusted her with in the field until now, implying that she just encountered something worse in the course of her work. It’s a disturbing read. At the end, Alanna asked a few questions, including the following.

Alanna: I want to know whether it’s useful to have the EU pull its funding from the country whose name I won’t mention or if it’s more effective to keep pushing small changes and hope they add up.

It’s probably not useful, unless the regime in power relied very, very heavily on foreign aid. And even then, if the regime can support itself through some combination of oil and gas exports, drugs, private sector corruption and organized crime, then it’s still probably not helpful.

Of course, if we’re talking about sanctions, that’s a bit different. Some quick thoughts on sanctions.

When Serbia under Milosevic was placed under sanctions, its crime networks benefited mightily while ordinary people suffered. That legacy continues to hinder development and democratization today. Much of Serbian civil society, people who opposed Milosevic, were also against the sanctions, because international isolation made their work more difficult as well. Eventually, Milosevic was overthrown  and turned over to the ICTY to stand trial, but only after running Serbia into the ground economically, shredding its social fabric, bloodying much of the region and drawing the wrath of NATO in the form of seventy-eight days of airstrikes. And Serbia in the nineties and early 2000s was a vastly more developed country with a stronger civil society than any of the Central Asian states have now. Sanctions are like aggressive chemotherapy in the international body politic. Even if they work, the collateral damage is staggering. I’m not categorically opposed to sanctions, but I think that they are more often than not poorly designed and enforced unethically. Iraq after the First Gulf War is a horrible example of this.

Alanna: I want to know if supporting democratic institutions actually leads to democracy.

Working in a governance development organization, I should have a better answer to this than, sometimes, when conditions are right, and when we’re lucky. Some quick and hopefully not entirely incoherent thoughts on democracy assistance.

What we know is that the impetus for democratic reform has to come from within if it’s going to lead to anything approaching liberal democracy. Democracy support is most effective in regimes that have just undergone a paradigm, whether it’s a full-blown people power revolution, the end of an armed conflict, or just a slightly less un-free election. In these instances, the new government is often full of people who didn’t plan beyond getting into office. They can be swayed in one direction or another, but the window of opportunity is small. If they can’t meet rising expectations and the citizenry starts getting restless, the new boss will start looking and acting a lot like the old boss. Democracy assistance to institutions can, in this case, help a new and tentatively pro-democracy government meet the expectations of the people, or at least not fail utterly. Where there is no indigenous pro-democracy movement and the democratic impulse is weak, where the regime in power has no qualms about using violence to destroy its opponents, or where current regime leaders have made it clear they won’t leave until they die or someone kills them, external assistance to institutions alone will not start the engine of democratization. However, that doesn’t mean that external assistance for things that improve the everyday lives of people, like the reform of social welfare and education ministries (generally seen as more technocratic than political) isn’t worthwhile.

I might come back to this in a few days. Right now, I have to finish packing. Tomorrow, I move to a new apartment.

Some of the grim things I’m reading

According to the latest International Crisis Group report, Tajikistan is a weak state quickly sliding toward failure. Here’s hoping the lights stay on in Dushanbe. [For some reason, the ICG website isn’t loading, so here’s the BBC article.]

Luke Harding of The Guardian summarizes the most recent developments in the ongoing wave of  racist skinhead terrorism in Russia.

A 19 year old Kazakh journalist was severly beaten and needs brain surgery. Here’s hoping the kid lives.

The indispensable Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi of IWPR writes about how evidence of past mass atrocities is being destroyed in Afghanistan.

And finally, there’s child slavery and debt bondage, also in Afghanistan.

Oh. ‘Eff.