Next to me sits a lanky Pashtun who thinks little of poking his elbow into my ribs every time he moves his hands to spit the remnants of stinky naswar tobacco from his lips into a plastic cup. And next to him sits a burly American from New Orleans who has already downed 3 pegs of Johnny Walker whiskey and orders another one. I think I am going to pollute this EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul. The flight is jam-packed so the option of moving into another seat is out. This is going to be my 36th visit to this war-torn badbakth country. I try and avoid going to Afghanistan in the winter – for obvious reasons. It is viciously cold, with no heating infrastructure to fend off the numbing cold that is supposed to penetrate every corner of my well-defended body as soon as I land.
A grumpy immigration officer compares my face with that in the passport, scratches his thick head of peppery hair, blows nauseating cigarette breath my way and mutters something garbled in Dari. I don’t think I have changed so drastically from the photo in my passport until he points to my ear; I get it! He is asking why the earing now and not in the passport photo. I am suddenly petrified; what if he says it’s a different man? I try to explain in my vain Dari that the earing is a very recent addition, for medical reasons. He shakes his head dismissively, looks at the ceiling in contempt and stamps the visa imprint with a vengeance that makes me jump and waves me on irritably. I thank Allah and scoot, breathe easier. These Afghans, Allah must love them, granting almost all of them a thick head of hair. Must be to keep the bheja warm, I suppose. While I have to settle for a Gujarati Khoja Banya gene.
In the adjoining hall, it’s a battle of sorts to register for a mandatory foreign ID card with a government official. There are so many of us, the lone official check no detail in the application; I could have written garbage for all it mattered to him. He is in a hurry to sign all cards with a flourish and stamp them with gusto. Maybe thumping stamps on passports and ID cards keep these guys warm? The next battle is retrieving my luggage from a ton of them dumped in a single conveyer belt from the fully booked Boeing 777-300 aircraft; it’s mayhem, literally. I survive, in a dark mood and am about to start some thumping myself, given a remote excuse.
It is surprisingly quite balmy outside, with heavy smog and I begin sweating through the thick underwear, leg warmers, a thick sweater, a scarf, a hat and a thick coat I have on as a defense. A car backfires; I jump and nearly pollute myself; my heartbeats all over the place. There have been so many suicide bombings in Kabul lately, I am on intense nerves. I suddenly shiver and wonder what in Allah’s name am I doing here. I keep shifting my eyes around along the walk, alert, on guard and thankfully seated in a warm car after I am done greeting, hugging and feeling happy to meet my two guardian angels; Basheer and Wasi yet again. Kabul has not changed a bit, only grimier, the air stinker, dirtier with the cheap gasoline in use and even more, taller concrete barricades shrouding every building worth its salt. The poor in Kabul, and there are tons of them, use everything they can get their hands on as fuel to ward off the bone-chilling freeze at night. So, in addition to the smog from the filthy fuel, the air is now filled with an unimaginable toxic mix that the non-existing winter winds can’t blow away. I have to resort to wearing a face mask from the next morning as I have difficulty breathing.
It’s the investments CAI donors have made in Afghanistan that forces me to come here, sometimes even in winter. The challenges, especially with the very dicey security situation, are immense and there is only so much I can do remote control. This is an enormous undertaking, one that constantly surprises me. With 19 schools constructed serving 10,000 students daily, 6 ultra-modern remote medical clinics catering to 500 patients every day, 150 orphans under CAI care and supervision, I am amazed and humbled how Allah guides us through the mammoth tasks and do justice to the miracle of donor generosity. CAI Afghanistan also has 50 homes for the homeless under construction right now, 50 destitute widows under training to weave carpets so they can become economically independent and various humanitarian food and medical support running.
Making sure CAI is 100% compliant, transparent and accountable is my job, so is ensuring the 320-student school in Kabul and the 150 orphans are in good care is my primary responsibility. All this requires constant and instant communication, anticipating and crises management, tons of patience (of which I have very little) and some of the best partners who share CAI’s values and goals (of who we have been plenty blessed with). Security of our wards and employees are of paramount importance, so I have to assume the role of a security expert as well, and unfortunately, our school/orphanage facility in Kabul resembles a high-security penitentiary now. Something fellow Trustee Sohail and I vehemently resist but have to implement nevertheless.
I spend 3 days in the icebox and get issues sorted out and am eager to taste warm sunshine and summer fruits of Tanzania, where I am headed next insha’Allah. I’ve accomplished most of what had to be done here and meeting with the 50 orphan girls and 50 orphan boys in Kabul is always a humbling treat and pleasure. But I’m ready to leave nevertheless, in spite of the usual flawless hospitality of my hosts.
It’s a herculean battle to clear the security checks and crowds at Kabul airport on departure; I guess they are eager for some warm air as I am. I get stared at and ridiculed by the powers to be at both the immigration and security desks but must grin and bear it. A man with an earring is a novelty here in Afghanistan; it is considered a sign of gender oddity. Doesn’t matter that abuse of young and vulnerable young boys is an epidemic behind closed doors in the country. I breathe a long sigh of relief when the Boeing 777-300 shudders against the bitter winds and soar towards the warmth of sunny Dubai.
A Tragic Loss
The NGO fraternity world lost a tireless and dedicated man to cancer last week. CAI Trustees mourn the loss of Amir Kareem, CEO of Lady Fatema Trust, UK, in London. I had occasion to work with Late Amirbhai and admired his relentless efforts to better the lives of the poor and downtrodden across our world. We earnestly pray that Allah grants the marhoom maghfeerat and a befitting place in paradise, insha’Allah.