Afghanistan the beautiful
“Kabul is now my home — my possessions are in storage, and I am here for at least three years. And, yes, this is where I want to be.” I sent that email to my family in 2012 when I moved to Afghanistan as the World Bank country director. Three years stretched to four-and-one-half, and I still wanted to be there on the day I left.
Flying into Kabul is beautiful — brown plains lead to stark mountains and snow-capped peaks surrounding the valley in which Kabul sits. As part of a World Bank team visiting in 2002 to support the newly formed government, I realized there was plenty to share from snowy, bombed-out Kabul — incredibly cold sleeping rooms (with windows that did not close) at a hotel that had recently served as a Taliban prison, a powerful earthquake, unexploded ordnance in the garden, nightly curfews and a bar at the United Nations’ guesthouse that served only Red Label, Black Label and Sprite.
“Flying into Kabul is beautiful — brown plains lead to stark mountains and snow-capped peaks surrounding the valley in which Kabul sits.”
Work was demanding and urgent, but during my years in Afghanistan there was time for some enjoyment. Such moments don’t make headlines; devastation and struggles do. But in the everyday there is beauty.
For example, a picnic in an idyllic valley ringed by snow-capped mountains is a great way to spend a day. It was a bit more complicated in 2012 in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, littered with rusted carcasses of Soviet tanks. We met the governor of Panjshir Province in his office for tea. Then he (and his militia) led us over the fields, through the river, up a hill, through the river again and then to an ideal picnic spot nestled in the hillside. We spent an afternoon lounging on the carpets under a walnut tree. Our first course was a local Panjshiri specialty of plain yoghurt (they claim to have the best in Afghanistan) and a flat bread made of corn meal. Then came a walk around the valley (the local militia got a little nervous as we wandered along the river) and back to the main course — chicken and goat kebabs (fantastic) and pulau (a rice dish with carrots, raisins and nuts).
“For a fascinating time, I recommend watching a game of buzkashi (a kind of polo played with a dead goat).”
For a fascinating time, I recommend watching a game of buzkashi (a kind of polo played with a dead goat). Buzkashi is played in the winter; the game we saw was the kickoff for the season in Kabul. The horses were large and beautiful and trained for the game — often rearing on their hind legs and being ridden right into the thick of the game.
Critical to leading the World Bank team was being an active listener and learner. For example, I learned to distinguish the sound of marble tile falling and shattering on my balcony from the sound of a car bomb. (They are equally loud, but a bomb higher pitched).
Because security considerations limited movement, I did a lot of entertaining at my house — bringing together Afghans and their international partners to discuss education, economic management, energy, women’s empowerment and more. This was made possible by having the best cook in Kabul — Yaqoob. He is a self-taught master chef who can make everything: Mexican, Thai, Iranian, Chinese, Italian, Indian and nouveau Afghan (because he tired of regular Afghan cooking and likes to experiment). His mango ice cream and peach ice cream were particularly good. Brunches at my place were a sought-after invitation — primarily due to Yaqoob’s raspberry French toast, spinach salad, freshly squeezed orange juice and whatever egg dish he created that day.
“Human success is all too often a long and winding path. But it is a path worth traveling together.”
He was not pleased one evening when there was a rocket attack during a dinner. There were no serious injuries; but, while we were in the safe room, his dessert burnt in the oven.
I still do video chats with Yaqoob to catch up on families and food. His picture is in my kitchen.
An unexpected constant throughout my Afghan years was learning about and supporting Afghan veterinary services. A colleague, Dr. David Sherman, literally wrote the veterinarian textbook on goats, and he provided excellent medical advice when I had a serious case of pneumonia. His recent book That Sheep May Safely Graze: Rebuilding Animal Care in War-Torn Afghanistan tells of community-based veterinary para-professionals developing their skills and supporting their families by providing quality services to farmers and herders.
This is one of the great success stories of Afghanistan.
Ending with a success story is a good way to think about Afghanistan. The concerns of women, their families and all Afghans who have sacrificed much for a brighter future for their country are real. Human success is all too often a long and winding path. But it is a path worth traveling together.
Bob Saum is currently the director of procurement, financial management and standards and chief financial management officer at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.