A blanket hangs over New Delhi

New Delhi is in trouble. It is desperately trying to reduce pollution, and some of the steps its taking are admirable. But they don’t seem to be making a difference.

One can see the pollution hanging in the air. Worse, though, one can taste it. It’s grit on the tongue. It’s a scratch in the throat. It’s a tickle-cough. It’s a smell.

The Hindustan Times reported that the air quality in Delhi reached the “very poor” level on December 29, and was forecast to worsen on the 30th. For those interested in numbers, the PM10 was recorded at 304, and the PM2.5 at 197 micrograms per cubic meter. The normal levels are 60 and 100 respectively. PM stands for particulate matter. The EPA describes it as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets [including acid] found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”

 

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Morning in New Delhi

PM10 is especially dangerous because it can get sucked deep into the lungs and even work into the blood stream. People with heart or lung diseases like congestive heart failure or asthma are advised to avoid any exertion in this weather.

In 2015, more than 6,500 people died of respiratory illnesses, one of the leading causes of death in India. Many people who work outside wear masks over their mouths and noses, but most don’t. A colleague stepped out of the hotel the other morning and asked one of the doormen if he smelled the smoke that was quite obvious to us in the air. He considered the question and replied no, everything smelled normal to him.

I use a CPAP machine at night for apnea. At home I sometimes forget to change the filter. On my old machine it was a nylon cube about ¾” square, and after a month or so it looked pretty much white and new. Three years ago when I was here in Delhi I took the filter out after two weeks. It looked like a piece of coal. Jet black and sooty. At the time we were staying in a guesthouse with no air conditioning. This time I’m in a good hotel with a ventilation system. This year after five days the filter on my CPAP is the color of a fine charcoal suit. The hotel’s system isn’t doing much to stop the pollution for us here.

The reason? There is, of course, not just a single one. Delhi is a city of 20 million people. The Hindustan Times says the government reports there are 10 million cars registered. That’s one car for every two people, including children. A government report estimates car exhaust fumes contribute 25% of the city’s pollution.

Farmers in the rural areas surrounding New Delhi also contribute to the deadly haze. The only way they have of clearing stalks from the rice paddies is to burn them. Smoke from thousands of fires shroud the city and combine with vehicle fumes and dust from constructions sites. Open wood and paper fires line the streets at night as homeless people struggle to stay warm.

 

The result is literally a choking, acrid pall that settles over the city, and in a temperature inversion as Delhi has had for the last few days, it does not dissipate.

The city is trying to make changes. It has banned trucks that belch black smoke into the atmosphere. It has tried road rationing, in which cars with odd-numbered license plates alternate with even-numbered plates on the road each day. It’s trying to get rid of cars more than 15 years old, in poor condition and with less pollution control. But it doesn’t seem to work.

Public transportation is woefully inadequate here. In a city of 20 million people there are fewer than 5,000 buses. They are unreliable because they can’t get through the traffic jams created by the cars people drive because the bus is unreliable. The train system is already at capacity. There is no other way than autos, motorcycles and tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, to get around. Interestingly, though, many of the autorickshaws are powered with compressed natural gas, which emits less pollution than gasoline, or would if the engines were tuned. Really, the motors on those things aren’t much more than a garden tractor.

I’m relatively healthy, if a little chunky around the middle, and I’m only staying here two weeks. The pollution is going to annoy me, but not kill me. I’m going home to the clean air of a Midwestern city. I’ll cough out the soot in my lungs over a few weeks, try to remember the pollution I left behind in New Delhi, and I hope I remember to say a prayer of thanks every morning.

 

What is Dubai?

What is Dubai?

Dubai is planted firmly in the Middle East. It is the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a founding member of the once-powerful cartel OPEC which controlled oil prices for nearly 40 years. It is now weakened by in-fighting and by a defiant Saudi Arabia, which is determined to set its own course in deciding oil production quotas based not on its own economy or those of its coalition partners, but it’s enmity of Iran.

Dubai is Arab. It is Muslim. But step out of its spectacular airport, climb into a taxi, and drive toward the city, and you don’t see Arabia. You see a city that could be planted in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia or parts of Africa. You see steel, glass, marble and granite. You see construction cranes and rebar and cement. Shopping malls that house ice skating rinks, an indoor ski slope, and miles of stores with European couture names.

You see six- and eight-lanes highways that carry a lot of foreign automobiles. You see an elevated tram that scoots along the highway, crammed with people. Automobile dealerships selling BMWs, Audis, Mazeratis, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis down to the lowly Toyota, Ford, VW and Chevy. Hyundai and Kia bring up the rear.

You see people from all over Southeast Asia. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan to find work. They come from Africa – Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan – and send money back home. Business people from around the globe work here in every sort of business. The executive and technology jobs are filled with suited or casually dressed expatriates from America, Canada, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan, and Thailand.

Yes, Dubai is Arab, but it is minority Arab. By some estimates, only 10 percent of Dubai’s population is actually from Dubai, an no estimate puts it above 20 percent.

Dubai runs on an expat population. Emiraties – citizens of the United Arab Emirates, own many businesses and ventures. But it’s the expatriate population that runs them. Unlike in neighboring Oman, which is two-thirds to three-quarters Omani, very little Arab is heard spoken here.

There is almost no oil left in Dubai. The largest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, has the remainder of the oil here. It is the richest of the emirates, a fact that Dubai would just as soon you don’t know.

A friend of mine was dining with an old classmate, and the classmate leaned over the table and said what he had to say had to be whispered because he wasn’t sure who might be listening. Dubai, he confided, is in a recession. Hardly surprising news to anyone who’s been following the price of oil as it crawls along at drastic lows from five years ago. But why the big secret?

The only things that keeps Dubai going are global business and tourism. Oil, which once seemed unlimited and lucrative, is depleted and cheap. Dubai has to keep up the façade of a forward-looking, economically progressive city that is still growing, still vibrant, still vital and still relevant. The fear is that if global businesses scent an economic slowdown, they’ll start to flee. And if they flee, there is no replacement for the lost revenue any more. If businesses flee, the money leaves, the tourist attractions will begin to deteriorate, and Dubai will return to the sand.

That is the fear, of course, and like many fears it is probably over-blown. Dubai is not going away any time soon. It is still an economically progressive city. It is still relevant. But the floor is much thinner, more precarious that it has been for the last 50 years. The Middle East has been important to the global economy precisely because of the oil. But as the world moves away from oil as its energy source, the Middle East in general will become less important, less a place that business feel they have to be involved in to protect their interests. Politically the region will change as well. Staying on the good side of Gulf countries in the name of world economies will become less important. The region will still be part of the global economy, but a smaller part, and with less influence in the economy than it has had by controlling the price of crude.

It will affect the Arabs and the expats alike and Dubai needs those expats.

Executive and technology workers have offices in the steel and glass towers, sitting in air conditioned offices, suites and cube farms. The construction workers build those towers, laboring in 95 degree heat with visible heat waves shimmering off the concrete and steel. Taxi drivers drive a couple hundred miles a day.

Some of them get to work in air conditioning. Service workers in hotels, restaurants and office buildings make sure everything looks great for the hordes of tourists and business people who make trips to this glitzy, money soaked spot in the sand.

But in Dubai, the money is showing the first signs of drying up. The question now is not What is Dubai, but What is Dubai’s future?

Leaving Oman

(This was written the evening of August 6th in the Muscat International Airport. I wasn’t able to post it until today, August 7th).

Leaving Oman is hard. It was hard four years ago. It was hard last year. It’s hard tonight.

My seven students feel the same way. They’ve said it. I can see it on their faces, too. Yes, I’m sure they’re eager to get home. But I also know they have come to love Oman as I have.

It’s gratifying as a teacher to be able to introduce students to an experience like this. For some of them this is their first trip outside the United States, the first stamp in their brand new passports. With the huge help of Zainab Jones, our in-country coordinator who runs Inspire Oman, we’ve given the students as broad an exposure to Oman as possible.

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Sea turtle laying her eggs

They’ve learned about the great things this country has. They’ve seen the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian see. They’ve skirted the desert. They’ve hiked the Balcony Trail and peered into Oman’s Grand Canyon that splits Jebal Shams, the country’s highest mountain. They’ve watched green sea turtles laying eggs in the sands of Ras al Jins, and even carried a hatchling too exhausted to complete the journey into the foamy sea.

They learned about Oman’s long history with the United States. They got a lecture on Oman’s culture of religious tolerance, not only among the various Muslim sects but also among Christian religions, Buddhism and others. They visited the World Health Organization office, the only one in the Middle East region.

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Dr. Obaid Al Shaqsi, secretary-general of the Oman Human Rights Commission

They met with the secretary general of Oman’s Human Rights Commission. They visited a business incubator and met with young and old entrepreneurs, all hoping to build their businesses and add to the employment sector.

One of the young entrepreneurs was a student of mine four years ago when I taught at Sultan Qaboos University. Despite that, Mohamed Al Harthy, Mustafa Al Awati and one other have built their film business into a 15-person operation. They’ve had at least two productions aired on Oman TV, along with other

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Mohaired Al Harthy, center, and Mustafa Al Alawi, filmmakers in Oman

commissions. Their three years at the incubator were up this week, and they had to move out. A business development counselor there said they’re ready; they’ll succeed. We saw a sample of their work – incredible.

They met with a DJ from an independent English-language radio station and heard their names mentioned on air. They sat with an American journalist working at an English-language newspaper and heard about the difficulties covering news and issues in Oman.

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Chris Fisher, afternoon DJ on Merge FM

Our students met with young members of a think tank, and visited the factory of Amouage Perfume, the most expensive perfume in the world. They saw how dhows, the ancient sailing boats of Oman, are still built by hand. They cruised on the Arabian Sea and swam in the gulf.

The tour of the Royal Opera House stunned them. The intricacies of the inlaid wood, inlaid marble, plush carpets and expansive auditorium rocked them. At the far end of the stage in the opera house is one of the world’s largest pipe organs, with 4,600 pipes.

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Looking directly up at the 8-ton chandelier in the dome of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Just as impressive was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, a spectacular example of Persia and Arabian architecture and design. Its carpet was hand woven in Iran. It took four years to make, was shipped to Oman in 56 pieces on two Boeing 747s, and woven into one complete carpet. For a while it was the largest single carpet in the world, until the Sheik Zayed Mosque was built in Abu Dhabi. Its carpet is approximately one square meter larger. After gaping at the soaring dome with its blue-themed mosaic the welcome center provided coffee, water, dates and conversation. And lots of laughter.

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Meeting with members of a young persons’ think tank

My students have experienced the worst of roadside toilets, truly dreadful, and spent the day at a seven-star resort. They’ve shopped in souqs, bargained with shop owners, bought pashminas, abayas, khanjars (the Omani-style dagger featured on the flag and national seal), coffees, saffron, t-shirts, key chains, and just about any other souvenir one can imagine.

They’ve visited a village that probably has never seen an American. They were treated in Omani style to coffee, water, juice, bananas, apples, oranges, dates, and plums. They ate tuna that had been spiced, wrapped in foil and grilled

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Omanis welcome guests with a tray of fresh fruit…

on hot coals. They ate lamb kababs and Omani rice. They also went American once or twice. Shawarma, a wonderfully spiced wrap that is standard fast-food fare here, became a favorite. An early morning visit to the fish souq let them see how the local Omanis bargain with the fishermen, their day’s catch impressively displayed on counters.

They come away from Oman with knowledge of a country most had never heard of nine months ago. They also come away with some new impressions of a region that is continually wracked by bad news. Oman is peaceful, gentle, friendly, open and hospitable.

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And then follow that up with rice and, in this case, lamb.

What did I get out of it? I got to go along, offering whatever guidance I could, answering their questions. I got to see the wonder in their eyes as they saw, smelled, tasted and experienced new things. I got to be the recipient of their enthusiasm. I got to watch them grow into new areas of thought and appreciation. I got to go where they went. I got to re-experience all the things Elaine and I did four years ago. I got to return to Oman.

This whole thing was made possible only with a grant from Nebraska University that subsidized the cost of the trip. Otherwise it would have been prohibitive. I don’t think any of them could have afforded it. But after two years of subsidy, there is no guarantee that the money will be available next year. The NU administration may decide to spend it on trips to other parts of the world, and to be honest, that’s not necessarily bad.

And as KLM flight 450 gets ready to board, I’m sitting here with one enormous fear. I don’t know if I’ll get back here without a class to bring along.

This may be my last trip to Oman.

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The crowded fish souq in Seeb on Friday morning.

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Bar al Jissa Resort for a day of swimming in the pools, or in the Gulf of Oman beyond.

The physics of sweat

Last week was pleasant here in Muscat, the capital city of Oman. The temperature was in the high 80s to low 90s, and the heat index was barely above 100. Maybe 105, but not much more than that. Here is Muscat in July, that’s heaven. When I talk about the heat in Muscat, people say it’s a dry heat, though, right? Well, no. Muscat is a port city. It has ocean all along one side, and mountains that trap the humidity from all that water on the other. It’s an urban pressure cooker. A giant oriental steam basket.

Therein lies the problem. The humidity of the air makes the heat especially dangerous. With dew points easily in the 70s, and even into the 80s at night, Muscat is a dangerous place to be hot. At 7:00 am today in Muscat the temperature was 99F. The heat index was already 107F. Within moments of stepping outside one starts to sweat.

As we all learned back in elementary school, the reason we sweat is to cool off. It didn’t make much sense back then, and it didn’t really seem to our unformed minds like it worked. But of course it does. Evaporation is an endothermic process in which heat is absorbed as the water turns into gas. The air absorbs the heat and our skin is cooled.

This is great in the interior regions of Oman like Nizwa, the one-time capitol, or Buraimi, a once disputed area on the Northwest border with the United Arab Republic. In coastal cities like Sohar, Muscat and Sur, however, the humidity is often so high the sweat does not evaporate. No cooling takes place. The moisture just drips off, or soaks your clothes. There is no exothermic reaction. Your body just gets hotter and hotter, and the sweat rapidly dehydrates you.

Thus the admonition to visitors who are not used to such heat and humidity to drink water constantly. It’s not an issue of rehydration – its an issue of constant hydration. If you begin to feel dehydrated here, it’s too late. You have to find a cool place, rest and drink. A good test is actually urine. If one’s urine is dark, drink. Drink a lot of water. If it’s light, everything’s ok. One must constantly have a bottle of water, everywhere. It doesn’t have to be ice cold water. It can be chilled or room temperature (remembering that an un-air conditioned room is 100F or more).

Coffee and soda don’t figure into the equation, especially colas. While they are not taboo, they actually aid dehydration, so even more water is required until the caffeine is out of the system. But in fact, even water may not be enough in this extreme heat. It only replaces fluids, not electrolytes.

“Electrolytes regulate our nerve and muscle function, our body’s hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue,” according to medicalnewstoday.com. “Our muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as the ‘electric tissues’ of the body. They are reliant on electrolyte movement between extracellular, interstitial and intracellular fluid (fluid inside, outside or between cells).” These electrolytes include potassium, bicarbonate, sodium (or salt) and calcium. The loss of electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, tics or twitches, and in extremity seizures.

That’s what Gatorade and PowerAde were designed for. Those drinks, however, are virtually unknown here.

thumb_DSC_0406_1024Here in Oman they drink a product called, somewhat unappealingly, Pocari Sweat. It is not, in fact, refined from anyone’s sweat. Admittedly it does take some getting-over to actually pop the top and drink up. It contains sugar, but not in the quantity or cloying sweetness of the American drinks. Pocari Sweat, and yes, it’s just as fun to say out loud as it looks, was developed by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company of Japan. It’s manufactured in India and imported in huge quantities to Oman.

A can or two a day is good for moderate outdoor activity. Just walking from the air conditioned car to an air conditioned building and back probably doesn’t require anything more than water. But if the shirt is damp, the sweat is running down one’s legs, and the socks are like wet sponges, Pocari Sweat should be part of the day’s routine to supplement the water.

By the way, Omanis are very good at air conditioning. Most modern houses have an individual unit in each room rather than central air conditioning. Older homes and window units, but the modern ones are mounted toward the ceiling in each room. They are usually turned off until the room is used, which saves a lot of energy. Every single village in Oman has electricity, something the Sultan has accomplished in the 46 years he’s been in power. So even in the smallest towns in the most remote areas air conditioners are often in use.

One more note on the effects of evaporation. In olden days, and even today in the villages, Omanis used evaporation to chill water. Large unglazed clay vessels, holding about a quart, are filled with water and suspended from a window with rope or twine. These vessels are porous, and water soaks through. The surface water evaporates, cooling down the vessel and the water inside. Although it isn’t cold, it’s cooler than the surrounding air, and thus quenching.

Evaporation! It’s cool!

 

 

 

 

Morning on Jebel Shams

We left for the mountain about 20 minutes late. Last minute dashes for extra bottles of water put us behind schedule. We were headed for Jebel Shams, Mountain of the Sun, in Oman’s interior, next to the desert. We piled into two SUVs at 6:20 a.m. and started the heart-stopping climb up a winding dirt road, to the trailhead in a tiny village of about 6 homes.

The idea was to walk along the Balcony Trail, which skirts the rim of Oman’s version of the Grand Canyon. The American Grand Canyon, of course, is a mile-deep, mile-wide chasm created by eons of erosion by the Colorado River. Oman’s grand canyon, on the other hand, is a massive collapsed cavern system. It looks a mile deep, and it looks a mile across, but I can’t be sure. It is impressive and beautiful.

Elaine and I walked this trail with our friends Bernard and Ramona from Sultan Qaboos University more than four years ago when we lived here. Since it’s a collapsed cave system, there is an end to the canyon and we hiked all the way in. By the time we got back to the trailhead all four of us had some sort of minor injury – twisted ankle, tender wrist, scrapes and bruises. It’s a difficult trek over rocks and boulders on an unimproved trail that is exhausting and arduous.

I started on the trail with my students fully intending to go as far as they went. But about 1500 yards in my knees reminded me that they are nearly five years older than last time, and that my frame is about 20 pounds heavier. A sat myself on a rock overlooking the vista and wished my students and their guide a happy hike.

They moved on down the trail, and I could watch them for quite a distance. The sun was hazy, just over the edge of the mountains across from me. “Look at Dr. Allen,” I heard one say quite clearly, “he’s just a dot up there on that rock.” I waved at them, and they waved back. A few hundred yards later they were around the corner of a ledge and out of my sight.

I sat there on that rock, and suddenly experienced something most of us don’t.

The sounds of nature, completely unbroken by any manmade noise. Not a jet plane passing overhead, not a car engine or tires on a road in the distance, not an electric motor, not the squeak of a wheeled cart, not the tick of a clock, no music, no water pump, no phone, no alarm no clang of a gate. Nothing.

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My early morning companion on Jebel Shams

The songbirds on the mountain took center stage. Above me I heard a few rocks falling and I looked to see a mountain goat making his unconcerned way along a ridge the width of a yardstick. Below me another goat popped up over the edge of a cliff from some tiny foothold it had, and stared at me. I said good morning to it, and my voice was tiny in that vast silence of nature. It bleated back, and its voice somehow sounded more appropriate than mine just then. The goat looked away across the canyon, then back at me, took a few steps and laid down to enjoy the morning sun.

I sat and absorbed the silence.

Eventually the sun became too hot to just sit. My students were hiking their way deeper along the trail into the canyon, and I wasn’t going to join them. I turned the other way, back toward the trailhead, and within a few hundred feet began to hear the sounds of humans. In the parking lot I found the car we had come in. The engine idled with the air conditioner running and the driver napping, his front seat reclined. I got in the passenger side, laid my seat back, and closed my eyes.

But I didn’t sleep. I thought about that silence, and I thought about fortunate I am to have heard it. Not many people do.

The way things work out

When Elaine and I left Oman just over four years ago after nine and a half months teaching at Sultan Qaboos University we cried.

We left with 10 bags of cloths and souvenirs, accumulated from friends, students and our own purchases, and struggled to get the new checked, paid for and off our hands. We walked through the process of turning in our residence cards, getting our visas cancelled and saying goodbye to Chefi and Jamila, who had brought us to the airport. We checked through security, walked to the departure area, sat down and looked at each other. Then the tears came.

We were leaving a place we had come to love. This is such a beautiful country. There is 1000 miles of ocean. Sharp-angled mountains split the country dividing the desert from the sea. Deep ravines make for spectacular hikes that transport one back in time.

The people we met had become our friends. My students were sweet, filled with humor. The experience was complete. And now it was over.

I wanted to return to UNO and pay back the year that I owed for the university’s support during my Fulbright experience. Then I wanted to retire from UNO, apply to teach at SQU, and spend the rest of my career in Oman, retiring at the mandatory age of 70. But my family situation just didn’t make that possible, and I was gloomy at the prospect.

In fact, God (or something) was protecting me. I found out the other day that the new mandatory retirement age for expatriates is 60, unless one has unusual skills or talents to do a necessary job. I teach journalism. I have no unusual skills, or highly prized abilities. I would be out of a job this year, having reached the mandatory retirement age last February. Moreover, at this age, and having achieved the rank of professor, my changes of getting another teaching position back in the states would be highly unlikely.

The reason for the change here in Oman? Oil.

Since we left four years ago, the price of oil has plunged. It was well over $100 a barrel four years ago. Now it’s hovering around $40. Oman had based its national budget on oil selling for $75 a barrel, so it was flush with money then. Way more than enough.  Now, though, it’s struggling. Recently Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the state-owned oil monopoly, had to suspend a number of projects because of the price drop. It laid off 200 workers. But the government said no, it could not lay off Omanis. It was forced to rehire them, and it will have to lay off expats to make up for the budget deficit.

This is not entirely unreasonable. Omanis should have the first chance at jobs in their own country. Oman has had an aggressive program of “Omanization” for many years, working to replace expats with Omanis as they become trained and experience to take on the work. That’s one reason why 3/4 of Oman’s population is still Omanis, and only 1/4 are expats. Compare that to Dubai where nearly 80 percent of the population is expatriates. Dubai citizens are a minority in their own country because they would rather let the expats do the work while they collect a paycheck for being an Emirati.

So Oman’s policy makes sense, but I suddenly realize I would have probably been caught up in it. Maybe not. Maybe there aren’t that many Omani journalism teachers clamorring for a job. But at least I have the security of UNO that I don’t have to worry about it.

I love being back here. I love the sights and smells, and even the heat and humidity. Today our students visited with Dr. Mohamed Muqadin, a history professor at SQU. We sat in the Staff Club and chatted away about Oman’s history with the U.S., and about several current affairs issues. In the middle of it the turned to Zainab, the person who has put together our tour here, and mentioned that last year he treated the students to lunch at the Staff Club. But this year we were visiting after lunch. “I want to treat the students to lunch,” he said, and he wouldn’t let it drop until he was sure it was arranged for this Sunday (the Monday of the Muslim week). We will each lunch with Dr. Muqadin, and he will treat us all.

Is it any wonder I love this country?

Between two extremes

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there. This is the last of the blogs I wrote in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a difficult country to write about. It’s tempting to focus on the difficulties here – the violence, and the threat of violence, which is almost as oppressive as the violence itself. The poverty. The corruption. The bleak prospects. All of those are evident from afar, by anyone who only listens to media reports. All of those are evident, too, from close up, by driving through the streets, by talking to people one meets.

It’s tempting to focus on the optimism of many Afghans and make the story some sort of sentimental paean that sounds hollow and formless, ignoring the harshness of life so many Afghans experience every day.

Somewhere in between is the right tone, and I don’t know if I can find it. It’s not exactly in the middle of those two artificial poles. It’s probably somewhere toward the bleak end, but I’m not sure just how far.

I was talking to a staff member for the University Support and Works Development Project, the agency that’s administering our grant to work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Mazar-i-sharif, and I asked him what he thought Afghanistan’s future looks like. He tried hard to move it toward the positive end.

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The historic Blue Mosque

“The thing is, Muslims believe everything is in the hands of God,” he said as we stood in the small garden atop a nine-story building. We had just hosted a dinner for our Balkh University colleagues, and dessert was served in the garden. It overlooked the huge, historic Blue Mosque. We were not allowed to visit the mosque out of security concerns.

 

“So Muslims have to be optimistic,” he continued. “They have to believe that God is looking out for them. Otherwise we would all climb over this rail and fall to our deaths. There would be many suicides.”

In fact, the suicide rate in Afghanistan is tragically high. In 2014 the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) reported that suicide was the second highest cause of death in Afghanistan in the 15-29 years age group. That’s the very group our grant is aimed to benefit – young people, people just getting their education and starting their careers. It’s higher than murders and war deaths combined, to put it into context. You want raw numbers? More than 800,000 Afghans commit suicide each year, in a country of 30 million people. There is a suicide every 40 seconds.

“Reliable data on suicide in Afghanistan is scarce,” the MoPH reports said. “A large proportion of Afghans suffer from mental health problems such as depression, a major risk factor for suicide. Gender-based violence, substance abuse, trauma and stress relating to conflict as well as displacement, poverty and continued insecurity around the country also increase the risk of suicide.”

The majority of suicide victims are women.

The MoPH says the lack of help for the mentally ill is one of the reasons for the high rate. But the fact remains that Afghans are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

AfghanistanMy colleague was trying to be positive, and yet he also had to bring up the fact that thousands of people still flee Afghanistan in hopes of making things better for themselves and their families. They pay five thousand or ten thousand dollars to smugglers. They risk crossing the Iranian border (Afghanistan, if you haven’t looked at a map, is land-locked, and the only way to the sea is through Pakistan or Iran) only to push off from the shore in leaky boats hoping to get to Turkey, where there is no real guarantee of refuge or relief. Some of them will die along the way, perhaps shot trying to cross a border. Others will drown when their boats capsize and sink. Some will reach land only to be turned back. Many will languish in refugee camps with little food, inadequate water, poor health care and no privacy. Few, almost none, will realize their dream

So I still can’t find that point.

One of my dinner partners that night talked about the number of young people who go abroad to study, and then return home to try to make the country better. It’s the young people, he said, who are the best hope for his country. They are the ones who can overcome the terrorism, the tribalism, and the corruption.

And yet they are the ones killing themselves. If you are constantly swimming against the current, how long is it before you finally surrender, turn around and do what’s necessary to keep your family safe and fed? Is there a large enough swell of young, educated people to turn the fortunes of Afghanistan? Will they stay and make that effort? Where is the in-between point?

Of course, so much of this also depends on what all the countries who meddle in Afghanistan do. Pakistan and the U.S. are the biggest meddlers, and there’s not much real hope either of them will leave Afghanistan to itself any time soon. Iran is also a player in this, a long time partner-antagonist. Afghanistan buys most of its electricity from Uzbekistan, so there’s another player, although more like a supplier than a wanna-be conqueror, but electricity is a powerful lever if Uzbekistan ever decides to use it.

Small BusinessesAfghanistan is full of honest people who work hard. Teachers strive to teach, from primary school through college. Their resources are limited, but their dedication is deep. Shop owners open their stores every day. Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls. Builders and welders, butchers and truck drivers all work to make a living for their

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Top: Small businesses on a side street in Mazar. Bottom: A more vigorous business district.

families, and many earn 100 dollars or less a month. Business men and women, many dressed quite sharply, although sans tie for most men, open their offices for various enterprises.

 

There are hardware stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, barbers, hair dressers, carpet shops, electronics stores, grocers, pharmacies and more.

It should be a stable and growing economy. Everything points to an upward turn. But the multiple layers make it a much more complex matter.

In the early morning, as stores open, shopkeepers are outside sweeping or washing the dust from the sidewalk in front. But the battle against dust is futile because the roads are bad. Kids run along the street on their way to school. The children will sit in a classroom with straight-back desks, pocked cement floors and walls, and few resources. But they are there, learning to read, to do math, to acquire the skills to improve themselves. And their teachers are there, too, doing what that can to make it possible.

The less fortunate children wander among the bumper-to-bumper traffic holding out small packets of tissue or bubble gum, wafting smoking pots made of tin cans, or offering to clean the windshield with greasy, filthy rags, all begging for change. Many of them haven’t been educated, won’t be educated. They are among the uncounted casualties of decades of conflict and instability.

Afghanistan has survived the British, the Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen, and the Taliban. It is battered, weary, bruised and suffering. But it does survive, and proudly so.

I’m just not sure where between the two extremes it lies.

 

 

The mountain

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now.

There is a mountain in the middle Kabul. Forty or fifty years ago, when Kabul was a small town of 250 thousand, it wasn’t a problem. Now that Kabul has grown to about four million, it’s a pain in the neck of the city.

Kabul is surrounded by mountains. It sits in a bowl. There are limited areas for growth, and they’re just about used up.

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Kabul, surrounded by mountains, from the mountain in the middle.

They extend to the other side of the mountain, which means that to get from one side of the city to another there is a bottleneck. Only a couple roads, and really only one main one, go around the mountain. It increases the travel time during morning and evening rush hours by at least a half hour, not only because of the traffic but simply because of the distance. Even between peak periods of traffic the delay is noticeable.

If one could go over the mountain the time would be much shorter. But the only roads that go over the mountain are narrow, twisting, rutted dirt roads, and top speed is 25 miles an hour at any good stretch. Mostly it’s 10 miles an hour or slower, and a dead stop when two cars meet and try to negotiate their way past each other. Because on this mountain there are thousands of homes squeezing in on the roads.

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Homes, seemingly built one on top of the  next, on the mountain

Land on Kabul flats, if you will, has run out. High rise apartments are going up, and the old mud brick buildings are coming down to make room. Most Afghans can’t afford these new apartments. A friend of mine who knows Kabul well says war lords, drug dealers and some of the slowly growing middle class, mostly merchants, live in the high rises. Kabulis who drive taxis, run fruit or vegetable stands, bake bread, or do menial government work – in other words, the vast majority – lived in the mud brick houses and are now being displaced. So they’ve moved up the mountain, onto land that was pretty much free, and built their new homes.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 3.36.45 PMThese are mean homes, not fancy, although a few people have chosen to put up more expensive residences that stand out like a rose against a gray sky.

Children dart in and out of the mountain homes and run along the roads on errands or at play. Old men sit on the door steps and look out over the city below and the mountains beyond. Cars dented from unfortunate contact with other cars on Kabul’s crowded streets, dirty from the constant dust in the air, and weary of laboring up and down the steep mountain every day, ease their way around hairpin turns, avoiding the kids, the old men, and the veiled women who are out to find food to cook for dinner.

The roads, of course, are not planned. They are almost an accident, more of a trail that goes wherever there isn’t a house. Some of these houses have no glass in the windows. At night they are shuttered. They sit on bare rock; there is almost no vegetation here. The children play among the mountain scree and withered scrub bushes. They laugh and chase each other and hold the hands of their smaller siblings. They are kids, just like everywhere. But then they are called to carry water or help with something at home, and they scamper through the open doorways.

Mountain from KU

The mountain comes to the edge of Kabul University

Somehow electricity has come to the homes on the mountain. It seems almost a mystery – it should be nearly impossible to bore a hole in this ground to hold a pole strung with wires. But at night the mountain is ablaze with lights from the windows of the houses. They didn’t used to be.

Two other utilities we take for granted here have not made the climb up the side of the mountain: water and sewage.

Water is carried up from below, in those dusty, dented cars, or on the donkey drays that are a common sight. Not a good solution, but the only one available.

But the sewage? That’s the problem with no solution. There are outhouses, of course, and as environmentally devastating as those are, there is something worse. Rain.

When it rains on the mountain, the sewage from the outhouses is washed out. There is no soft ground, no vegetation to soak up the water. It flows into the shallow roadside ditches that are everywhere, on the mountain and in the city. The sewage from those thousands of homes fills the ditches to the top and over. Those living in the topmost houses are spared what happens below. The sewage flows down the ditches, down the side of the mountain, picking up more sewage from the lower homes, surging downward and into the city – into the areas closest to the mountain, into the ditches in areas farther away, into the lives of the people who live where there is some form of sanitation system. Raw sewage from thousands of homes on the mountain. Homes that are there because the people who live in them have been displaced, or because Kabul as a city could never handle the millions who have moved there looking to escape violence or to find work.

Down below in the city men and boys clear the muck out of the sewers. In the rainy season it’s an every day job. I don’t know what they do with it. But they have to clean it out because otherwise cholera would threaten a million or more people, just as polio still continues to threaten them today. Raw sewage is a prime carrier of the polio virus.

The mountain is an inconvenience every day for drivers trying to get from one side of town to the other. It’s a homeland for many who can’t afford to live in the city. It’s a hazard to those who live below it. It’s a health threat whenever it rains.

There is a mountain in the middle of Kabul. At night it glimmers peacefully, beautifully, like stars on a romantic evening. It’s anything but romantic. It is its own hell in the sky.

“You’re going to Afghanistan? Will you be safe?”

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now over the next few days.

 The sound a heavily-armored door on a security vehicle makes is unique. Most doors on modern cars make a good, solid sound that might have a bit of reverberation from the sheet metal. You might hear the click of the hasp on the door engaging the post on the frame. Maybe the window rattles a little bit. It’s a “clunk” of a sound, one we’ve grown up with. The sound varies with the size and age of the car, but we all know it.

The armored door shuts with a thud. There is no other way to define it. It’s a heavy thud. There is no slight reverberation, because the insides of the door are filled to the top with steel plate, at least a hundred pounds. Thud.

The climb into the SUV in is much the same as climbing into any Toyota Land Cruiser, with one exception. If the vehicle is on any sort of upward slope – even just a small upward tilt – holding a hundred pound door open while you step on the running board and heft yourself in is a challenge, and it’s a little dangerous. The door wants to slam home, and it doesn’t care if you’re in the way or not. Remember when you were little and your mom said, “Watch your fingers?” This door could probably take off your arm.

Conversely, if the vehicle is tilted even slightly downward, pulling that door closed feels like an Olympic weight lifting event. Two hands are required, and maybe the outside assistance of the driver, too.

Opening the door is just the opposite. There is no “stay” to hold the door open while you get out. The door is just too heavy. It would overcome any pause on the hinge that all our regular cars have. On flat ground all is okay. On any sort of incline it’s courteous to hold the door for others.

If you need to stow anything in the back before climbing in, the rear window panel goes up and the tail gate goes down. Then the armored door swings open to protect passengers and their possessions from attacks from the rear. The driver will place any luggage, bags or parcels in the compartment, close the armored door, lift the tail gate into place and pull down the window panel. Are these last two armored? I don’t know; I didn’t operate them. I’ve had lots of practice with the doors, though.

Our armored vehicles have no way to roll down the windows. The windows on an armored security vehicle don’t roll down. It would pretty completely defeat the purpose of the armor. The regular safety glass has been replaced by thick, crystal- clear, bullet-resistant glass. There is no fresh breeze on a sunny day. All ventilation comes through the SUV’s air system. I didn’t ask if it’s specially filtered.

This armored SUV weighs at least a thousand pounds more than your typical off-the-lot Land Cruiser, already a heavyweight among SUVs. The eight-cylinder diesel behemoth that purrs under the hood roars to life just to overcome the inertia as you start up. Our cars have manual transmissions. Maybe the car was just too heavy for an automatic transmission and would burn it out in no time at all, but I imagine it’s really so the driver has more control. Automatic transmissions can be a bit hesitant when you need to tear out of a dangerous situation, but a manual transmission is immediate.

Our drivers are excellent. In Mazar, where the traffic is a little lighter than in Kabul, our driver sped along at 50-60 miles an hour, flashing his brights (at night) or honking at vehicles ahead to move or stay out of the way. In heavier traffic he also preferred speed, but at the same time considered other drivers and especially pedestrians. And he used his turn signal, something you rarely see in Afghanistan. He wove us into traffic and back out. On little two-lane streets that carried four lanes of traffic he forced our SUV into forward positions, narrowly missing bumpers and fenders of other cars also trying to get ahead of others as lanes merged. At roundabouts, that diabolical traffic system designed by British auto body shop owners, he could cross multiple lanes fearlessly, cutting off slower and smaller cars, getting us to destinations in no time at all.

The same is true in Kabul, but with heavier traffic. It takes a skillful negotiator behind the wheel to successfully navigate the thousands of cars that populate roads built only for hundreds, or even dozens.

Our drivers are always pleasant, helpful, and vigilant.

Security on this trip, for me, is tighter than it’s ever been. On my first two trips I stayed at the UNO Team House in a residential part of Kabul. I rode in the office’s dated and unarmored SUVs, driven by the men UNO hires to do that and other odd jobs about the house. I would exit the cars on the street and walk through a door in the steel gate that led into the house’s courtyard.

This trip, my fourth, I’m staying in a fortress. A velvet prison. It’s a nicely-appointed, well-equipped hotel that caters to expatriates who are here working for NGOs, contractors, security companies and businesses with deep interests in Afghanistan. It sits at the end of a gardened and paved courtyard, and is surrounded by 12-foot high walls topped with coils of razor wire. It has a fantastically equipped gym, a lane pool, sauna and steam bath, coffee shop, a pretty good buffet restaurant, and according to the hotel literature, a fully stocked bar somewhere in the facility. I never did find it.

To get into the hotel, our SUV pulls up to a cross bar. Behind that is a huge, thick steel door. When the guard identifies us, the door opens, and the cross bar is lifted. The car pulls into an area designed to hold it only. Passengers exit and walk into a security area. The first time we had to take off our shoes, put all our bags on an x-ray belt, take everything from our pockets and pass through a metal detector. From then on, the security badge issued by the hotel was enough to get us in.

The car, meanwhile, has to wait until the first gate closes behind it. An equally heavy gate in front then opens and the car pulls into a second secure holding area, big enough for two or three cars. Presumably it is here they are checked for hidden explosives using mirrors to see underneath. We are not allowed to see this procedure. After that, a third heavy gate opens onto the courtyard where the SUV is parked.

(I usually include a photo or two that illustrates what I’m talking about. In this case I have no photos of the SUV or the hotel. Because of security, I didn’t take any. It didn’t seem a good idea at the time. It still doesn’t)

We are driven everywhere. On the Kabul University campus, we are allowed to walk once we are dropped off at our building. But in Mazar it’s a different story. We were meeting with Balkh University teachers one day when we got a call that the chancellor wanted to meet us. We climbed into the SUV, drove no more than two blocks, and got out on the other side of the street. It would have been an easy and refreshing walk. But we drove, because of security concerns.

Everyone here, everyone, is aware of the security issues. They apologize we cannot simply take a drive around the city, or get out and buy something in the shopping district, as I did on my first trip here in December 2010, or shop in the bazaars and street fairs, or just walk in the neighborhood and meet people, as I did in April 2013. When I told one KU faculty member that I had stayed in the team house and ridden in an old SUV with a cracked windshield three years ago he was horrified.

“You should take more care,” he said. “You cannot do that now. It’s not safe. Even we sometimes feel not safe.”

I know this, and I’m grateful for the security. Just three days before we left for Afghanistan a suicide bomber killed several dozen people outside one of the ministries. But, this is the first time in four trips here that a bombing hasn’t happened somewhere in the city during our stay.

Fortunately on the campuses I can meet people, talk to students, and shake hands with someone other than my teammates. It’s a slim connection to Afghans and their culture, but it’s a connection I need, one that I crave.

The heaviest plated armored SUV hasn’t kept me away from that.

 

 

A primer on Afghan Food

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now over the next few days.

Afghans love food. And I must say I love Afghan food. And at the top is lamb – anything they do with lamb.

“Fast food” here is kababs. Don’t think American kabobs. I’m a fan of American kabobs. I make them several times a summer. A skewer of marinated chicken or beef interspersed with peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes is a great patio meal.

Afghan kababs are different, as they are in most of South Asia including Arabia. These kabobs – I don’t know. I wish I did. They’re smaller for one thing, maybe ¾ – inch dice. Ours are usually 1- to 1 ½ -inch. They are marinated, but I can’t figure out in what. I think it involves cardamom. Maybe not. I really don’t know. I still have a few days to find out, though.

They are skewered alone. By that I mean that only cubes of lamb (or beef or chicken, you can get them all at a kabab shop) are put on the broad, flat skewer. No veggies to confuse the cooking time or flavor. Admit it, by the time the chicken is done on our kabobs (notice my difference in spelling?) the mushrooms are seriously wilted, the onions are nearly ready to fall off and the tomatoes have oozed all their juices. If you cook the kabob to get the veggies just perfect, you’ll bite into a piece of raw meat.

No, these kababs are just meat, cooked to tender perfection, spiced exquisitely, and served with a disc of Afghan naan bread, which you tear up and use to pick up the meat pieces. The kababs are served on top of the bread, so the middle part of the naan soaks up the juices. Oh, lord.

The naan here is not the naan of Indian restaurant fame. Afghan naan has risen slightly before baking. It is rolled into discs or ovals and then scored with perforations to help make breaking it apart easier.

Afghans make outstanding bread. The naan is good with those kababs, or with honey, or with peanut butter, or with yogurt or with…

In Mazar I had a special Northern bread. It was also a flat bread, but made up of dozens of flaky layers. The taste was wonderful, but it’s the texture that is special. The layers slide apart as you chew, like your teeth are slipping on ice. As you bite through you feel each individual layer. Not a clue how to make it – and I love making bread.

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Lunch with our colleagues at Balkh University in Mazar-i-sharif

We had this bread at lunch with the Balkh University Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication. We had naan, of course, this special wafer-y bread, and a third one called boulogn, although I’m sure that’s not the way it’s spelled. My Afghan friends said it’s pronounced something like bologna, but with the accent on the first syllable and no “ee” on the end. BOOlogn. Anyway, the bread dough is rolled to paper thin, see-through thickness. Vegetables are layered on half, in this case leeks, and then the other half is folded over and sealed.

And then the fourth bread was samosa, common throughout India and South Asia. This had a meet filling, but samosas are just as often filled with veggies. The closest comparison is to a calzone.

Oh, but we also had fried chicken, meat dumplings, salad, fruit, deliciously seasoned lamb cooked low and slow, melt in your mouth tender and rice. Always rice, but seasoned and studded with raisins. Four kinds of bread, dumplings and rice. Not so low carb. Over the top on flavor.

Of course, this is no common, everyday fare. The rice is, the naan is. There are small naan shops all over the place, and bread sellers in the markets. But many Afghans wouldn’t have meat every day. Rice is the filler. This was fare to welcome guests.

There are kabab shops all over the place. On campus, the student dining area features a kabab cook who fans the charcoal fire roasting your choice of meat. Street vendors sell kababs. Small shops sell kababs. High class restaurants sell kababs. Hotels sell kababs.

Chicken, lamb and beef are available in other forms, too. Slow roasted and juicy chicken thighs that pull apart with your fingers is so good. The same with lamb and beef braised for hours and hours. A meal that starts with a fresh Afghan yogurt, with only a slight tang to it, progresses through meat, rice and bread, and ends with fruit is just delightful. If you can enjoy it outdoors, under the stars on a warm, windless night, as we did at a restaurant our last night in Mazar-i-sharif it seems nothing short of heaven.

I’ve had some very good food in Afghanistan. But my favorite is simple and basic: give me lamb kabab and a hunk of naan, and I’ll be content.