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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Culture shock in Kabul
Sock shop in Kabul
Afghans are getting used to goods in the shops

I have a good friend who whenever I use the term 'international community', asks: "Where's that? I'd like to go there on holiday."

Of course he's right. The international community is on a par with heaven for most people. We'd like to think it exists, but mostly, it feels like wishful thinking.

I'm here to report a peace, whereas every correspondent in the past 23 years was here to do war. I'm one of the many hoping it stays this way

If the international community does exist, it should be apparent in Kabul. There's a floating world that's touched down here.

In the slipstream of white land cruisers, you can drink Turkish wine at the birthday of the Italian ambassador, play Risk with the International Red Cross, have bacon breakfasts with South African pilots, and hear pipers from Kintyre serenade French captains in the officers' mess.

Worlds are colliding here. There's a fantastic internet system, but the phones don't work.

There are lots of flash cars, but the roads are a mess. It's possible to buy kilos of frozen seafood, fresh off a plane from Dubai, but the constant blackouts will ensure all your prawns are off, within a week.

Old men collect aid parcels in Kabul
Many people are still dependent on aid

Just so I get a taste of the real world, I'm learning Dari, the version of Persian spoken by many Afghans.

Admittedly, I have not progressed much beyond the very useful "there are elephants in my garden" - but slowly, we're getting there.

Part of the problem is I'm besotted by my teacher, who has helped me to understand life here, more than anyone. And he can tell a good joke.

His best is an old one, which like all good jokes has now been updated.

Here's the original, which came from the time when Russia ruled Afghanistan, and involves three men on a ship - an Afghan, a Russian, and a Japanese.

They're sitting on the deck, listening to the radio, when the Japanese man takes his radio, and throws it overboard.

There are more than 1,000 UN workers in Afghanistan - the loudest advertisements for the international intervention

The Afghan and the Russian are appalled. They ask him: "Why did you throw the radio overboard?" He says: "In Japan, we have lots of radios, and I'll get another one when I get back to Tokyo."

The Russian then pulls a full bottle of vodka out of his coat. But he takes just one sip, and then he throws the bottle overboard.

The Afghan and Japanese are amazed... and ask why. He replies: "In Russia, there's lots of vodka, and I can get a caseload in Moscow."

The Afghan sits and thinks for a while. Then he grabs the Russian, and throws him overboard.

He tells the Japanese, of course, that in Afghanistan, there are lots of Russians... and he'll get another one, when he gets to Kabul.

In the new version of the joke, the Japanese has a digital camera, rather than a transistor radio, and the Russian becomes an employee of the United Nations.

He throws his mobile phone overboard, rather than his vodka.

International force

There are more than 1,000 UN workers in Afghanistan. They are the loudest advertisement for the international intervention that's meant to bring a happy ending to the country, after the Taleban.

Afghans will tell you that UN cars have killed 39 people since their mission began, and that every five of them cost $1m in total to keep here.

I don't have to look very far to imagine what war might have been like. My balcony is peppered with bullet holes

The BBC is still here and will, one hopes, always be.

It's probably more listened to here, than anywhere else in the world. Not so much the English language service, but the service which broadcasts in Persian and Pashtu.

The times have changed for the BBC as well.

In the past, the English language correspondent was the only independent source of information here. Their despatches were broadcast on the local service, in deep, guttural Persian or Pashtu.

So throughout the times of the Mujahideen, the Russians, and the Taleban, it was William Reeve, Peter Greste, Lyse Doucet, Alan Johnson, Suzie Price and Kate Clark who told Afghans what was happening.

Occupational hazards

Alan Johnson tells a great story of when he took over from Suzie Price.

Because her name was the last thing heard before the beginning of a report, people assigned it a new meaning.

Ministers would ring up to ask him to come and "suzieprice" - a new verb, of course, meaning "report".

And when the Taleban pulled up a busload of journalists, Alan among them, all heavily bearded, in the Taleban style, they were all ordered off the bus, and lined up, as the Taleban demanded to know which of them was Suzie Price.

My job feels very different.

I'm here to report a peace - whereas every correspondent in the past 23 years was here to do war. I don't have to look very far to imagine what that might have been like.

There are sandbags at the bottom of the garden, my balcony is peppered with bullet holes, and I've still to replace a window, in the studio, where William Reeve was nearly blown up by a rocket a year ago.

I'm one of the many hoping it stays this way - and hoping the international community is more than just fantasy.


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See also:

13 Nov 02 | South Asia
12 Nov 02 | South Asia
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