Kabul Humanitarian Aid Assistance Mission

A Farangi in Afghanistan, Part II

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A Foodie in Modern-day Kabul
(See Part I of this series

by Susan Marx

As a humanitarian aid worker with a passion for good food, it was with trepidation that I made my move to Afghanistan in early 2007. After a tumultuous year spent in Baghdad, Iraq in 2006 during which I saw increasing suicide bombings and other attacks throughout the city, and had very limited access to culinary opportunities, I was uncertain of what to expect in the land of Ghengis Khan and the Taliban.  After three years and hundreds of wonderful meals and experiences, I am happy to report that my time in Kabul was a culinary success!

Kabul Humanitarian Aid Assistance Mission

An Afghan National Army commando hands out supplies during a 2006
humanitarian aid mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell
Klika, U.S. Army.

My first year was spent in the northwestern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where I performed emergency and humanitarian aid work in local districts. When I moved to Kabul to take up an assignment closer to my husband, things changed dramatically. After the months in the north—where I lived on rice and chicken, chickpeas, and okra, and quickly learned the Dari phrases for “please do not use so much oil”  and “the cat is not allowed in the kitchen”—my eating habits had to change. My husband and I decided that if we were going to stay on in Afghanistan, we had to take control of our own kitchen, so we opted to find our own house in a local Afghan neighborhood and proceeded to set it up to our liking.

In reading the memoirs of those who lived in Kabul long before I did, I am always struck by how simultaneously similar and different it appears to be today.  After three years of calling this desert nation home, I would say that living in Afghanistan is not exactly easy, and certainly not easy to explain to people—given the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and other security problems plaguing this war-weary nation of approximately 43 million. Perhaps the biggest difference in living in Kabul today versus the decades preceding the civil war is the deteriorating security situation (with the subsequent restrictions on those of us who choose to live there). Another difference is the current availability of a number of ‘expat restaurants,’ which include an Italian food place run by a Bosnian, a Mexican restaurant run by Australians, a Chinese food joint accused of being a front for a ‘place of the night’, and the ever-popular French restaurant.

Modern Kabul, Afghanistan Old Russian tank in Kabul, 2009
A view of modern-day Kabul. An old Russian tank in Kabul. Photo by Alexandr Kopysov.

A newcomer to Kabul will be struck by the poor air quality, the pollution, and the poverty. But perhaps the hardest reality to come to terms with is the restrictive nature of our lives. The majority of expatriates live in communal guesthouses that usually occupy an enormous modern-style house serviced by a team of staff including a cook and teams of armed guards. There are strict controls over our access and movement; it is standard procedure to be driven around in armored vehicles with a “shooter,” or armed security guard. Those of us who instead choose to live a low-profile existence in private homes in local neighborhoods are constantly wary of our exposure. Every trip to the store, to a restaurant or a friends’ house involves calling a driver and waiting. Some organizations even require pre-approval and an “official movement request.” While we do sometimes walk to nearby restaurants on a whim, the key is not to set a pattern, as this dramatically increases the risk of abduction (or worse).  The upshot of all this is that you are bound to spend a lot of time at your house, so we would always say: you have to love where you live in Kabul if you are going to make it here.

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