From Gayle Tzemach in Kabul

October 22 2008

85 Broads member Gayle Tzemach is currently in Kabul doing research for a new book. Click on the About Us section on our website to learn more about this extraordinary woman.

From Gayle:
Our driver in Kabul is a young fellow with a rush of dark hair and a shy and charming smile. He speaks no English. I practice my Dari with him and he has proven a good shepherd: When we are at lunch in the curtained-off family section and the servers take too long to bring my chai or my coke, he harasses the young men by making a hissing noise through his teeth to which they hastily respond.

Signs all around Kabul boast Dari, which I cannot read, and broken English, which I can. Among my favorites: Kabul’s Best Pizza-Ria, Uranus Curtain Saler and Sewang, and United Deals,We Deals in Gypsum board. Above a somewhat shiny storefront with pricey modern dishwashers and ovens in the front window: Life is Good Electronics. (Life is Good is not too far from the Kabul Paris Wedding Hall.) BeautifulDressWorld sells a rainbow of women’s party frocks in orange, green, red and purple.

Kabul’s restaurant scene for internationals is thriving. Indian, Korean, Chinese, Italian, you can find the Afghan version of all of them. A Pizza Hut is here, but it is not the American pizza shop, just a Kabul cousin borrowing the name and the graphics. KFC is real, I think, because Colonel Sanders smiles out the dusty front windows just like he does in the States. The other evening I dared to try delivery from Easy Food, which promises to bring diners “the most popular restaurants, with international cuisines throughout Kabul.” I ordered Number 16, hommous balila, from a Middle Eastern restaurant named The Grill. Lifting the white top of my foil container, I found a collection of pellet-sized chick peas rolling around in an unidentifiable oil. Hungry, I ate some of it anyway; it was not quite as good as it looked. I am to have Middle Eastern again this week with friends from Cambridge who are here now. Perhaps I’ll have better luck in-house than by messenger.

Thursday at 1:00 pm, the equivalent of Friday at 4, I went to see the director of a prominent education institute whose main offices sit on the top floor of a beautiful brick building paid for by the French. Making phone appointments is unusual here so we stood in a narrow hallway waiting for the institute’s director to see us. After 30 minutes, a young man ushered us in to join the other supplicants sitting on two low brown velour couches on either side of the director’s office. A commanding man with an expressionless face and a serious manner, the director gave all their turn. In the middle of the request period, a young man opened a black plastic suitcase, took out a wad of Afghanis, the local currency, and began counting it without even looking down, as fast as a Vegas machine and likely as precise. Each time he reached one thousand, the young man handed the cash to the director. I had no idea what was happening until later, when I learned he was delivering the director’s monthly salary. For all his work, and it was clearly a lot, the director earned exactly $300 USD per month.

In the afternoon I visited the bookshop made famous by The Bookseller of Kabul. New since my last visit to Shah Muhammad’s book shop, featuring lots of books you can get at Amazon but at twice the price: a Visa machine. Now not only are there ATMs all over the city, but the best English bookshop in town takes plastic. My gift with purchase: A paper bookmark with “i ♥ books” on one side and on the other. Western marketing has arrived.

Each week NATO hosts local shopkeepers at a bazaar in front of its Kabul HQ. Flash your foreign passport and the gates open to five rows of stalls selling silver jewelry, Afghan carpets, wooden boxes, old knives with wooden handles, silk shawls, and marble bowls. The prices are high, but the selection is good.

All the Afghan shopkeepers, teenage to age 70, speak the same Dari-accented salesman English.

“Madame, madame, come see my shop. Looking is free.”

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