Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

En route to Afghanistan

I was offered a job in Afghanistan. Exactly what kind of work is not at issue. It was everyday stuff, though the context was unusual. Unsurprisingly the family was not impressed and I had to decide whether the job would be too dangerous or not.

From the word go I struggled to get a straight answer to this question. A journalist, that had been in Kabul for a while, wrote back that he would “under no circumstances” work in Afghanistan. A German woman working at an international agency said that she would “under no circumstances” travel in the countryside as my contractor expected me to do. “But isn’t the north fairly safe?” “No. Not the north, the south or of the centre. Nowhere is safe! Nirgendwo!”

Somebody else let me know that she had worked for my prospective employer and that it was a pleasant experience. Another had a friend in Kabul who was really enjoying it and said that they paid well.

En route to Afghanistan I ran into a retired couple in a hotel in Dubai. They were also going to Afghanistan and we went to a nearby ice-cream parlour to talk. While a young woman from Kenya served us, they told me they have worked as consultants in Afghanistan for more than five years and even had a house in Kabul. The husband was one of those real old bores, unable to listen to a word spoken by anybody but himself. To my surprise his wife was exactly the same. Having a “conversation” with two garrulous types at the same time required a remarkable effort but they had a lot of experience and I listened.

Not everything in Kabul was bad, they explained. Once they had invited a UN-girl for dinner. She arrived in an armoured vehicle with two armed guards who sat around in the garden while they ate. “Ridiculous!” They said. “We walk around openly in the streets but the development agencies or UN people may not put a foot outside their compounds without serious security.” They had a lot to say about double standards. “Everybody in Afghanistan drinks in spite of sharia law, just like the Arabs. But at the same time they support the anti-liquor laws.”

And then there was the prostitution, they said. At one stage the government prohibited Chinese women from entering the country, because of their presumed role in prostitution. But most of the prostitutes were Afghan war widows struggling to survive, they said, recognisable only by the red shoes under their burkas. It was clear that they did not actually like the Afghans, despite which they donated large amounts of money for charity in the country.

Suicide bombers were a danger, they told me later over dinner in a cheap restaurant. It could hit anybody. Just recently a high official was killed by a guy with a bomb in his anus. But apart from this, anxieties about security were completely exaggerated.

“Could I take a photograph?” I asked, convinced that this ordinary couple’s presence in Kabul would help to allay my wife’s fears.

“Absolutely not!” both said simultaneously. One had to maintain a low profile and photos could mean your death. That was exactly what happened to a British girl who had worked for a Christian charity organisation. They had placed her photograph on their website with the news of her transfer to Kabul. While walking the few hundred metres from her house to her work one morning, two men passed her on a motorbike. The passenger shot her in the head. Apparently she had tried to convert people over to the “true faith”, or so the story went. This was a stupid thing to do in Afghanistan and it was clearly a hit, they said.

Shortly thereafter the two talkers had departed for Kabul and I was still waiting for my Afghan visa. Downtown Dubai is filled with brand-new, shiny skyscrapers all the way down the coast. They reach all the way to the heavens. One of the new developments is called “Plastic City” with uncomplicated honesty. The streets are busy and warm, full of petrol-guzzling vehicles that roll towards you like tanks on a parade. Only the Metro is cool and calm.

The city is awash with foreigners and immigrants and real Emiratis are few and far between; potbellied men wearing white cloaks and sandals, often with an American baseball cap on the head. Some women wore black hijaabs and high heels. Indians squat in the bloody heat paving the sidewalks. They work on the building sites and drive around on colourful bicycles and at construction sites little bits of paper stuck to the walls advertise shared accommodation for “decent bachelors”. A worn-out old man sat next to the road and scratched between his toes. He wanted to go home.

In the evenings the imported labourers disappear from the streets and their sisters begin to dance. “Spice Girls”, the placard at the club’s entrance proclaimed: “Authentic Indian dancing.” It’s on the third floor of my hotel. Once inside I see only two customers sitting in front of the stage; muted light and burn marks in the tablecloths around the ashtrays. I ordered a beer.

“The show begins in five minutes,” the waiter assured me.

Eight Indian girls in traditional dress appeared on the stage, their eyes closed in what looked like meditative contemplation. Four men sat behind shutters next to the stage, fiddling with their instruments. One of the girls walked through the lounge with incense sticks. She smoked the guests and the dancers, then placed the incense in a flower pot and ritualistically washed herself with the smoke.

The music started and a young Indian man in a blue suit appeared on the stage and began to sing. The girls started to wiggle slightly, as if warming up but it did not look all that inspiring and I felt disappointed. I also started to wonder how the club could possibly be profitable with so many employees. Then I noticed a girl winking at a customer. Her head gestured in the direction of the exit.

It was a flesh auction house and I felt like a sucker. Girls flogging their youth. Suddenly they stopped wiggling and left the stage. The next group of girls appeared and began to dance. It was a well-oiled operation.

The next day I got my visa from the Afghan consulate and went to a shopping centre to buy supplies. A sign at the entrance commanded: “No inappropriate display of affection.” The picture underneath showed the outline of a man and a woman holding hands. The woman was covered from head to toes and the entire picture covered with a big red cross. One could do anything in Dubai, somebody claimed later, unless the authorities found that it was “impossible to ignore”.

Later that evening I ended up in a Chinese restaurant. Two young men sat at the table across the aisle, Chinese girls at their sides. They spoke Afrikaans to one another and looked a bit rough. The women as well. One of the men said that he was from Pretoria. His name was Johan and he dealt “in commodities”.

“What commodities?”

“Uhm … gold.”

It saddened me. When I was in exile in the eighties, finding an Afrikaner abroad was a rarity. Nowadays one could find one trying to make a living in every shytty little corner of the world. Spread out across the face of the planet.

I told them that I was on the way to Afghanistan.

“Good luck … ” one of them said. The other showed me how to hold the chopsticks. There was a pale band around his ring finger, like a piece of dead flesh.