My mate Rick, is a TV producer who I worked with behind the scenes on a number TV projects over the years. Last year he rolled the dice and took a job working in the fledgling Afghani TV industry. In the late 90’s while the word was watching “Friends” and “Seinfeld” the Taliban were getting rid of any device that allowed people to watch Television. But now with the new guys in charge the quickest way to get to the masses is through the box, and they’ve hired some westerners to help get their industry off the ground. Here are just a couple of email1311s from Rick to the folks back at home about life and showbiz in Afghanistan.
GOOD MORNING AFGHANISTAN
The greatest threat to the hundreds of Afghan kids who fill the makeshift studio for a recording of the popular “Hawa Taza” children’s program is not the second hand fumes from cameramen smoking on the job. It’s not even the fact cameramen throw lit butts away in a space packed with children but devoid of any fire exits or extinguishers (and there’s no point calling the fire brigade – there isn’t one). No, the greatest threat is to the children sitting on the top rows of the audience bleachers who have to duck every time the half tonne crane sweeps across them. There’s not even a verbal warning from the operator. If they don’t duck, they get knocked unconscious. Welcome to the show.
THE ESCAPE PLAN:
One of the disturbing things about the February 26 Kabul bomb blast is it targeted a foreigner guest house. Like most expats who don’t live in UN compounds, I live in a foreigner guest house. The insurgents’ modus operandi is not sophisticated. A suicide bomber blows a hole in the guest house security wall allowing other insurgents to run in and kill the occupants.
With that in mind, my colleagues and I work out escape plans from our guest house. My original plan is to place a chair under the bathroom window (with a footprint on it) to fool them I’ve jumped two stories to the neighbour’s roof. In fact, I’ll be in the wardrobe. Ingenious. I do a test run and work out I can shut the wardrobe door with a bent coat hanger. After a few more practices I have the manoeuvre down to 28 seconds. But I revise the plan because the wardrobe seems too obvious. I’m now behind the sofa instead. Even more ingenious.
Bernie across the hall has a door that opens on to a little balcony. He’s risking broken ankles and jumping on to the neighbour’s roof. Trudi downstairs works out she’s small enough to hide on the second shelf of her cupboard and cover herself with a garbage bag. She wins.
Escape plan tested
Not long after the guest house attack, five of us are at Crazy Zacks bar and restaurant. It’s a renovated house with the distinction of being the only place in Kabul (outside UN compounds) to serve pork. Two of us are at the bar, two on the sofa and one standing. We’re enjoying an illegal pre-dinner drink before our illegal pork chop. Suddenly there’s an explosion.
It is the loudest noise I’ve heard. The kitchen servery windows blow out and shattered glass falls at our feet. Then an eerie silence. Why isn’t there the sound of insurgents with blazing AK47s storming through the hole in the wall? Why isn’t there moaning from the two chefs who take the force of the blast? And why haven’t any of us screamed? Or maybe we have. Time seems suspended.
Richard, the bar’s American owner, runs in to the kitchen and yells that everything is okay. A terrified but relieved Muffy starts laughing uncontrollably. Someone else yells to check if the chefs are alive. Richard emerges through the blown out servery and announces the pressure cooker has exploded.
The kitchen is destroyed. The stove has hole in it through to the oven. Food is dripping off the ceiling and every wall. Debris (including snapped pieces of metal) covers the floor. The two chefs who hit the deck emerge shaken but unhurt.
It’s not until later that I find out how we all react to a possible insurgent attack. Giusi and Muffy grab each other on the sofa. Trudi runs away from the kitchen servery. Sean runs to it. I don’t move. I’m paralyzed. I may have to revise my 28 second guest house escape. Paralysis is not part the plan.
Escape plan untested
At 8.37am Habib walks in to my office and tells me I look more relaxed than when I arrived in Afghanistan. At 8.47am Trudi walks in to my office and tells me she’s received a text from a security company saying a British man has been kidnapped an hour ago from our local supermarket. That’s one way to remove the relaxed look off my face.
It’s not good news. There is a consensus amongst some expats that they can blow us up, they can shoot us but they’re not going to kidnap us. I’ve been to the supermarket several times without a bodyguard.
Later that day I ask our company security what they’ve heard. They say they don’t think it happened. Apparently a car didn’t stop at the road block outside the supermarket the night before. The police fire a magazine from an AK47 in to the air, chase the car and arrest a warlord’s son (who will no doubt be released as soon as Daddy is informed). I’m not sure how the two stories get confused. But hardly surprised. Concrete facts are a rare commodity in Afghanistan. Anyway, I’m going with the ‘it didn’t happen’ version. Where else I am going to buy my Pakistani made Coco Pops?
(@danilic: Here’s the latest from Rick, Copied from his last email1311 on 30th May, 2010.)
Beware the men of Australia. Upon my return I may get uncomfortably familiar. Afghanistan is turning me in to a serial groper. It’s been 3 months and I’m going native. Afghan men touch each other a lot. They kiss when they greet. They hold hands when they walk. They stoke each others’ hair at work. It’s not uncommon to see one man with his arm around another’s waist while resting his head on the friend’s shoulder. And that’s just the security guards.
Male contact makes sense. Afghan men don’t have alternatives. They’re not really supposed to talk to women so touching them is inconceivable. Some girls haven’t spoken to a man, except their father and brothers, until their wedding day.
It took a few stand-offish weeks for my work colleagues to feel comfortable. Now they can’t keep their hands off me. I even get kisses on the cheek rather than the slightly more formal brushing of cheeks. If we stop to speak, we will hold hands, arms or shoulders. Out of interest I’m doing handshake tallies. My daily record is 87. But I’m sure I’ve got a hundred in me.
The best thing about winter in Kabul is the mud. That’s because the alternative is dust. Now the rains have finished for several months, dust is everywhere. It’s on your clothes. Up your nose. In your hair. In your ears. Showering at the end of the day is an exercise in self restraint. Don’t look at the water going down the plug hole. It’s not a pretty sight. And don’t think about the fact that an estimated 30% of the dust is fecal matter. At least it’s not all human. Afghans use animal dung for cooking because the Soviets cut down trees making wood a rare commodity.
Few roads in Kabul are paved so while driving in summer the dilemma is window up or down. Asphyxiation by dust poisoning or heat exhaustion -the choice is yours. And keep your lips closed. That 30% statistic leaves a nasty taste in your mouth.
Birthdays are not big in Afghanistan. In fact, they don’t really exist. Most people have no idea which day they were born. I’m yet to determine if it’s a cultural thing, the very high illiteracy rate or the chaos of war. Whenever I ask a Tolo TV colleague how old they are, the reply is invariably ‘about 22’. And they’re the veterans. The breakfast show on our sister channel is produced by a 19 year old. There are very few people at the network over the age of 25. Maybe it’s not surprising in a country with a life expectancy of 43.
A new Tolo TV drama opens with a man showing a suicide bomber how to make a bomb. In the character breakdown it mentions he is 46 years old. Because he’s only in one scene, the character doesn’t have a name. In the script he’s referred to simply as ‘old man’. And I thought I was only middle aged!