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Technology: Life

Political System

In 2002 Loya Jirga, a meeting of two thousand Afghan superguys, 70% of whom happened to be warlords or warlords' buddies, have appointed Hamid Karzai as the president of the country for two years. He was reelected in 2004 in more or less country-wide elections.

Outside of Kabul power in reality belongs to the warlords, each of whom controls one or more province of Afghanistan. For example, Rashid Doustum controls Mazar-i-Sharif's environs, Ismail Khan — Herat area, and so on. The president of the country is seen as a distributor of foreign money and a neutral placeholder, an alternative to everyone fighting everyone for that place, as it has happened before.

The president appoints provincial governors who are in somewhat strange positions since any warlord possesses an army bigger than the Afghanistan's national army. Governor's authority is thus based on the same distribution of foreign money.

Seven o'clock in Kandahar, Shahidan Chowk

There are little frictions between these kinds of power since everybody minds his business, everybody needs peace, and everybody needs free foreign money. No single warlord is more powerful than the remaining ones, and it is pointless at present to try to grab the power with weapons.

Most warlords are nice guys who want a lot of happiness for their people and a little money and respect for themselves. Do not be scared by the term itself. It is useful to know the name of the local warlord, or a “commander” as they are known, and use it if your relationships with the locals start going sour. They know you can get to the warlord's ear by simply showing up at his headquarters; this may persuade them to leave you alone. Try not to socialize with people in power, though, — if somebody decides that it is time to get a new commander, you may become collateral damage in the process.

Weather

Winter lasts December and January. Mountain regions at that time get covered by snow, and the roads may become impassable. Salang Pass is usually kept passable, but it can get closed for a few days.

Summer is very hot, especially in the plains. Kandahar can be unbearable. But in Kabul it is nice, the city is high enough. At Salang Pass it is cold even in summer, and you will not last there long in a t-shirt.

As in any desert regions, hot days can turn into quite cold nights. By September you will need a warm blanket to sleep comfortably.

Treatment of Foreigners

Treatment of plain foreigners — and it is better to say “of tourists” because these are the only “plain” foreigners — is very friendly and hospitable, regardless of your nationality, be you even American or Russian. Besides, tourists are the only foreigners the Afghans can meet, since everybody else drives around in jeeps with guards and does not socialize with the locals.

Foreign peacekeepers are still seen more or less positively because they are perceived as allies in the fight against the Taliban, and it is expected that they will leave soon. Whenever I would tell the Afghans that the Americans have come to stay because they needed a jump board to invade Iran, the answer was the same, “Then we shall be killing them soon.”

Another question, “What would you do if you saw a Russian?” generated equally persistent answer, “I would kill him.” — “You would kill a tourist?” — “Oh, a tourist!.. Nah, let them come. The Russians are nice people like everybody else. A soldier I would kill. But we are always happy to see a guest.”

Questions about life under the Taliban lead to nowhere; people give answers they think are expected. “It was very bad.” — “Why?” — “We could not shave beards.” — “But have not the talibs stopped all this madness the mujaheds had started here after the Russians had left?” — “Yes…” — “Well?..” — “Well what?..” At that point I had to change the topic since the interviewee would become nervous and disoriented.

Bin Laden and Al Qaida are universally hated. However, by Al Qaida the Afghans usually mean non-Pushtun members of the Taliban. The real Al Qaida in Afghanistan was small-sized and preoccupied with its own designs. Bin Laden at one point was asked by the Taliban leadership to shut up and do not comment publicly on Afghan affairs. They also expressed a desire to give him up when all the problems have started, but perhaps the US needed a formal reason to overthrow the Taliban and did not accept the offer.

Family

The Afghans get married early. Almost all marriages are arranged by their parents, and the first time the bride and groom see each other is the wedding itself. However, this is not a sign of oppression, but is rather the result of young people not being able to meet each other at some social occasion and fall in love. There is simply little possibility for that. An alternative to prearranged marriages is a marriage between distant cousins who could meet each other at some extended family function. Or between college students. In other words, if a guy can find a wife for himself, nobody objects. If he cannot, his parents will help. In rural areas he hardly can.

Polygamy is officially allowed, but in reality most people have one wife. Still, not too few men have two spouses, but the original wife has to go along with the idea. Often people get a second — young — wife at the age of about 35, the first wife being the same 35 years old. The idea seems to be appealing as it probably makes families stronger with a husband not looking for adventures on the side. Sometimes a second wife is a widow of a husband's brother, but this is more of a social duty since a widow with no support can only beg on the streets.

Religion

My jeep driver stops for a prayer when the assigned time comes

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic not only in name. People are quite religious. All five daily prayers are strictly observed. Intercity taxis stop when a prayer time is near. If there is a mosque nearby, people go there. If not, they pray where they are. Muslims have to wash their private parts before praying, so leave them alone at those times.

You should not pass in front of a praying person because that officially nullifies his efforts. But the restricted zone ends at any object one foot or taller in front of a praying person; thus many prefer to pray at a wall or a tree. But multi-row praying is apparently also allowed.

During the fasting month of Ramadan Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, or have sex from dawn till dusk. Exact dates of that month shift back by 11 days each year. In 2004 it began on October 15. After dusk everybody rushes to drinks, food, and the remaining stuff. The sick, pregnant, traveling, and non-Muslims do not have to fast, but you should not drink, eat, smoke, or have sex in front of people — that is not polite. Food stores are usually open anyway because buying food during the day does not mean eating it right then. Restaurants are usually closed until dusk, but they may service you as a foreigner. It is better to eat in your hotel room, though.

People often inquire about your religion, but out of curiosity only. It is simpler to say that you are Christian, nasara or isavi (ee-SAH-vee). Moses and Jesus are Islamic prophets known as Musa and Isa (ee-SAH). Christians and Jews are thus brothers in faith. Somewhat slow brothers since they have not accepted the final prophet, Mohammed, but brothers anyway, with the same god.

Not subscribing to any religion is not a concept people in Asia can understand, so it is best not to present it to them even if you really do not care about any god. Also, do not let them call you kaffir, “the unfaithful”, because this will never be said in a good sense.

While “as-salam aleikum” merely means “peace be upon you”, it is potentially a part of a longer, clearly religious greeting that means “peace be upon you and god's mercy”. Thus the opinions on whether it is appropriate for a Muslim who is being greeted by a non-Muslim to answer “wa aleikum as-salam” differ. Some very religious or not too bright people may avoid that. Since it is impossible to really say by your looks whether you are a Muslim or not, you should make a note when one does not greet you fully in return to your greeting. Such a person is probably a moron or a dick. Persistently avoiding an eye contact is another sign that a guy is too righteous and too quick to pass a judgment on unknown people.

Customs

When people meet each other for the first time on this day, they shake hands. Every day. They also shake hands when they depart. The left hand is not used for taking or giving because it is used for washing one's butt in a bathroom. A person just out of a bathroom will usually give you his wrist for shaking, even though it is a right wrist. You should do the same after you have just left a bathroom. Continuing the subject, do not eat with your left hand. It is allowed to use it to hold a loaf of bread when you tear off a piece of it with the right hand, but many people manage to do even that with one hand.

Do not point the soles of your shoes at other people since it is an offence. It usually happens inadvertently when you put one leg onto another; avoid this pose. If you come to a mosque and there is no place to safe keep your shoes, hold them in your hand with their soles to each other.

As in many countries in the region, toilet paper is not used here. Instead, there is a faucet or a water jug, and you wash yourself up. It is more hygienic, by the way, just as bathing in running water is — another local custom. The notions of bathroom tissues and Jacuzzi will be seen here as disgusting.

Unless you are left-handed, you will not be able to wash yourself up with your left hand, but nobody will know that anyway. Naturally, you can use bathroom tissues if you have them.

Men squat to urinate, and their dress styles allow them to do that: pants are quite loose, and shirts are long enough to modestly cover a squatting man. You will not be able to do that even if you wear running pants. Therefore, when an intercity taxi stops in a desert, your Afghan friends can move two steps off the road and relieve themselves stylishly, but you will have to find a cover so that not to upset their feelings. Do not forget to ask about mines in this particular place first.

In local etiquette there is an unvoiced rule of three times: if someone offers you a gift or help, it does not necessarily mean they really want to give you something or to help you. Often you have forced them to do make an offer by leering at a thing or telling about your problems left and right. Therefore, you should refuse any big size offer two times, so that the offering person gets a chance to save his face and his property. That is, an offer and its acceptance are real for the third time only. Someone who offers three times in a row really wants to give. Someone who refuses three times in a row really does not want to accept. Before that it is just politeness. Remember about that in all Islamic countries. It does not apply to small things — small in Afghan eyes, not yours, — but if someone gives you gold, a machine gun, a young daughter, you can get yourself and your friend into serious troubles by not knowing what really goes on.

Women do not socialize with men outside their extended family, so male tourists should not approach Afghan women, or take photos of them, or ask for a permission to take a photo. Female tourists, on the other side, can go as far as even visiting a women's part of a house if they are invited.

Afghan men generally like to be photographed, but always ask first and give them an opportunity to refuse — some do not want to be photographed for religious reasons.

Utilities

Electricity is 220V, 50H. Power plugs have two round pins. Power cut-offs during the day are frequent in cities, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for 10 hours. In the evenings electricity is usually present. Outside of major cities there is no power in principle. They have portable generators and kerosene lamps there.

Running water exists in major cities only, but even there it is not present around the clock or in all buildings. In hotels the staff usually saves water in large drums when it is running. If your hotel does not provide hot water, it is simpler to go to a public bathhouse, hamam. To avoid culture shock, be warned that the adult Afghans of both sexes shave pubic hair. Men are all circumcised, naturally.

It is better to buy bottled water for drinking. Unlike in India, they do not even fill the bottles with tap water for stupid foreigners. The Afghans often drink from creeks, some of which are quite dirty. You should not do that. Hot tea is always safe.

Many hotels will do your laundry if you ask. A set of about five t-shirts and five pairs of socks will cost you about a dollar. Agree on the price clearly and in advance — the hotel staff will usually subcontract an outside specialist for this task, and then this tripartite coalition will argue a lot and heatedly about the true price. You may end up paying twice as much as you originally agreed upon.

In Mowafaq Hotel in Herat they wanted one dollar for each t-shirt, but it is a known rotten place.

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