Notes from Kabul # 1: Afghans Captivated by US Presidential ElectionBy Steffen • Nov 11th, 2008 • Category: 26th Story, Current Affairs, Politics
The American election captured Kabul’s attention this week. At an airy bar in Kabul shuttered behind two metal doors and four armed guards, a hive of excited Democrats celebrated Election Night, watching CNN and drinking blue cocktails. The collection of aid workers and rights advocates cheered Obama’s win, donning “Yes We Can” tees and signing the Obama ’08 banner hanging from the wall. No sign of McCain/Palin paraphernalia anywhere.
The Europeans in Kabul were almost as excited as the Americans. In international offices across the capital, Wednesday brunches celebrated the end of the Bush era and the Democrats’ return to power. BBC has played nothing but Obama video since Tuesday.
Afghans, too, were captivated by the vote 6,000 miles away. Nearly everyone I interviewed asked me about it. What did I think about Obama? What is his policy toward Afghanistan? Do I think he is serious about focusing on Afghanistan now that the US realizes the war in Iraq was a grave mistake?
Pulling up to one of the short and dingy apartment blocks near the airport, the kind of neighborhood where flies swarm unmolested and the arrival of strangers raises eyebrows, I walked up three flights of stairs to the headquarters of a women’s NGO. Inside I met a woman who organized schools and sewing classes for women during the Taliban years. As we wrapped up our interview, she congratulated me on Obama’s win. “I hope he will help to make things better here,” she said. “I believe that if the US really wanted to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, it would.”
She is not alone in thinking that if the international community really wanted to secure Afghanistan, it could.
One afternoon this week I interviewed a house full of women of all ages. The exotic foreign visitor, I was like the panda at the National Zoo. Sitting on plush pillows and drinking tea, everyone stared and laughed and asked questions by candlelight since the power was out. Am I married? Do I have children? How old am I? And do I live with my family? These are always the first questions I am asked. The idea of living alone astounds most people in a country where most families board together for generations and sharing a home is common practice. As we left the house one morning, a woman with a red scarf driving a dark four-wheel drive made a left turn onto the road in front of us. Though women are rarely behind the wheel here, the SUV-driver had the air of a prize-winning jockey, confidently handling her bouncing truck on Kabul’s maimed streets. My driver and fixer and I all spotted her at the same time, and my driver was clearly tickled. “Do you know how to drive?” he asked in Dari. I explained to him and to my fixer that I do indeed and that I even have my own car at home. Nodding in silence, they digested my answer.
American pop culture assumes strange guises in the world’s farthest reaches. As we ate Italian food served by Russian waitresses surrounded by heavily armed Afghan guards, old school light favorites from El De Barge, Debbie Gibson and Karen Carpenter serenaded my Scottish lunch mate and me. “Lady in Red” played as we arrived. A few days earlier my fixer asked the meaning of the words sprayed in lipstick red across the rear window of a beige Corolla speeding past us down one of the city’s few well-paved roads. “Don’t Cry Ladies, I Will Be Back” is rather tricky to translate, but I tried.