The first thing to know about Kabul is that nobody here is trying to kill you or blow you up.
Let's be frank, this is not what you expect from the capital of a country in the grips of a 35-year-long (and counting), all-out Hobbesian war. The Soviets, the Mujahedeen, the civil war, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, NATO, the Taliban again. A veteran journalist who had spent two decades here, when asked for travel advice, endowed us instead with the mental image of human entrails strung up on trees like angel hair after a suicide bomber strike. Violent death is at the heart of Afghanistan's public image, and a white European male finds it frustratingly hard to believe he can walk more than two steps in the streets of Kabul without being stopped, verbally abused, physically assaulted, mugged, kidnapped and slain on camera for the sins of pastor Terry Jones.
And yet there we were, trudging down Chicken Street (Kabul's prime tourist attraction) – the worst danger we faced being an assault on good taste by the tacky jewelry in local shops. The air is full of dust, the sewers are yawning pits and 99 percent of the souvenirs – carpets, hookahs, scarves and faux-antique guns – are junk. But the scariest abuse you face in the street is avarice from frenetic shop owners, while everyone else is just curious, which is forgivable: They don't get too many visitors here.
Kabul is surprisingly low on hostility; it's just a big city that goes about its business. Its dominant ramshackle architecture is overshadowed here and there by sprawling glass halls that would have been shopping malls west of the Urals, but are in fact “Wedding Halls.” Its roads lack surface marking, and often also asphalt or simply a flat surface, but are regularly congested by good cars. Its men wear traditional shalwar kameez with suit jackets on top, while hip teenage boys sport jeans and keffiyeh neck scarves, and women go for anything between a burqa and a headscarf that playfully reveals more hair than it covers. Its people are polite and smile when they hear Russian speech, and many tell you “spasibo” instead of “thank you.”
Of course, there are also the medieval fortifications at the entrance of every hotel and office building, and more tough-looking uniformed men with AK-47s than you can shake a stick at (off-duty, they play volleyball in the street). Of course, Mercedes sedans compete for road space with police technicals – off-road vehicles equipped with arms – whose machine guns have been tactfully removed, in most cases. Of course, some of the kids and beggars who hound you in the streets, meekly mumbling “a dollar gift, friend” like they're stuck on repeat, have stumps for arms and feet. Of course, there are the statistics for terrorist attacks, and the chance that tomorrow a bomb could hit the checkpoint you're passing.
But everyday life seems unkillable.
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Bi-weekly column by Fyodor Lukyanov
Weekly column by Konstantin von Eggert
So read some signs held up a few hundred demonstrators in front of the recently rebuilt Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius braving the snow in a last-ditch effort to persuade Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to agree to an association agreement with the EU.