Shopping in a War Zone

Turquoise Mountain Foundation Compound
Kabul Afghanistan 6:58 a.m.

A quiet dawn here in the compound. The sun is back after a day or two of rain—somehow the cold here seeps quickly into one’s bones, even now that it’s already well into springtime. I hear the winters here are harsh, partly because with the little woodstoves often in use, you can fill your room with smoke but not so much with warmth—people describe spending weekends literally in bed because it was the only place in the house you could stay only mildly cold, instead of freezing.

Anyway, I don’t how these embassy workers travel across the planet only to spend their entire tours of duty inside the compound—as we’ve heard many Americans do while working here. Literally, spending months in a country yet never leaving the protected walls within which they work and live. I was already going stir-crazy after only two or three days inside the TMF walls, nice as this place is. So I was quite happy yesterday to get into town and start exploring, through the mission of searching for goods that might be appropriate to offer through Dharma Boutique.

The overall rap here seems to be that there are a few nice products to imagine sharing with the world, but that prices are very expensive and shipping logistics are a nightmare—so that’s the background context in which my hunt takes place. I do have a couple phone numbers to call regarding logistics; now that it’s Sunday and the weekend here is over, I can start to flesh out that piece today. But first, why not find out if there’s anything to ship in the first place?

The search began, as it must here, with help: a young TMF employee named Fatma offered to join us and show us around, act as translator when necessary (most of the time) and be our eyes and ears in this most unusual shopping environment: a military occupation zone. Fatma, a bright-eyed young woman of 24, was born and raised in Afghanistan until she was about 10, but the rise of the Taliban became very dangerous for her family, so they moved to the Netherlands for the balance of her childhood; she just returned here about six months ago.

We began with the obligatory amble down Chicken Street, an extended lane of carpet stores, curio and “antique” shops (filled mostly with cheap reproductions) that crowd onto Kabul’s most famous shopping district. Jenny came down with us to return a couple of dresses to one of a couple of shop-keepers she wanted to introduce us to. Their shops were filled with furniture, jewelry and old textiles. The plan was to split the day between Chicken Street and another place which houses a number of outlets featuring the work of women’s fair trade cooperatives—but it quickly became obvious that I could spend half a week scouring through all the little storefronts along Chicken Street—as it happened, we barely got to the craft co-ops 15 minutes before closing time, just enough to whet the palate.

I largely avoided looking at the furniture, even though I’d love to bring some back—but until I figure out the shipping logistics, why tease myself too much? Besides, while Chicken Street might be a decent source for some goods, I’m pretty sure it’s the retail place to buy furniture—better to seek out the wholesalers somewhere, though God only knows how the wholesale market functions in a war zone, or whether I’ll be able to suss that out in the week or two that I’m here. I mean, I can always have that conversation with the storefront owners-many will be happy to talk wholesale pricing in bulk—but still, that only works sometimes. But anyway, that’s largely for later. For now, I want to see the smaller goodies…

Mostly, it was tough to find goods I liked. I did, however, discover one super-cool find: a batch of vintage silk shawls and scarves from Afghanistan’s northern reaches, dyed in deep purples and some sort of greens and turquoises. I thought the pieces were old enough to pre-date chemical dyes, but I could not figure out what on earth they used to get the purples! Finally, I resorted to the detective’s savvy toolkit: I asked. The answer: anar. Pomegranates! Awesome—and, anar is the Hindi word for pomegranate, too, so I already knew that word. What an amazing color! I LOVED these silk scarves, and somehow, the starting price was not as high as I’d feared. After my first real Afghan negotiating session, I successfully secured my first Kabuli goods purchase: 17 great vintage pieces that I think I can retail for less than $100, not too bad considering their age, condition and provenance. And the pomegranates!

The other adventure of note yesterday involved our little trek down what passes for Kabul’s ‘high-end’ shopping street, including a visit to a fancy shopping mall, replete with modern-minded young men and ladies in as close to full promenade as this society allows. We entered through a metal detector and were searched by armed guards—it was hard to miss the stack of several heavy rifles lying on the ground beside the door, presumably waiting to be reclaimed by patrons on their way back out onto the streets. Okay. As Fatma commented on our way in, “now we are in Dubai.” Only the very wealthy come here to shop, see and be seen.

I felt claustrophobic—so not my environment of choice, yet so clearly the place to go, here. Good to experience, I guess. We were there to grab a little tea and a snack, so we wandered through the maze and settled into a little café in the back on the ground floor. The other patrons—almost all men—looked like cast-offs from a Russian mafia flick starring Jean Claude Van Damme. I mean, one group featured a lean young man dressed in a slick, shiny grey plastic suit, a bunch of extremely scruffy street-hood pals, and at least one big, stocky guy barely stuffed into his bulletproof vest-cum-ammo storage jacket—I felt like I was in a bad B movie. The tea was good, but the best they had for “biscuits” was a box Fatma picked out of orange cream wafer cookies—Sara, and later Jenny, both agreed they hadn’t seen (or eaten—they were more adventurous than I) such critters since roughly 3rd grade. The weirdest snack break I’ve had in quite a while.

Then, it was back on the street, walking the 10 minutes back from the “city center” to Chicken Street again. I don’t think I’ve seen so many armed men since my trip to Chiapas just after the whole Sub-Commandante Marcos/Zapatista Liberation Army episode emerged in Mexico: every bank here had a couple armed guards out front, often standing with their hands very ready to squeeze off a few rounds at a moment’s notice. White trucks with huge blue block letters proclaiming “UN” sporting massive antennae on the front of their 4x4s, apparently there to jam the nearby cell phones, jockeyed for position with the official police vehicles, their open truck beds often stuffed with multiple heavily armed forces, presumably with law and order in mind, though it was pretty hard to tell. The sight of one well-armed man standing by some nice Toyota truck while talking on his mobile phone blurred into the next armed sidewalk dweller—after a while, it seemed like this was normal life here. Arms R Us. A walking war zone.

One of the warnings we’ve received about walking in public is never to allow a crowd to form around us—the danger quotient gets too unpredictable, I guess. This only happened twice to us yesterday, each time a little weird. The first one, I recognized with the instincts of someone who’d been there before—in itself, a strange thing to feel inside myself. The second time, strolling down the sidewalk returning from little Dubai, Sara in full film mode found herself in a fun feeling little moment with a sidewalk food seller and his pals. She was laughing, they were friendly and smiling; I turned around and they were offering her a peeled cucumber (of sorts) to eat, and she was trying to take it while still filming—it all seemed good.

But Fatma was beside me maybe 20-30 feet away, and she said to me “I don’t like the crowd that is forming around them.” Because Sara is wearing headphones and I have a small lavalier microphone clipped onto my shirt, I can speak to her even while we are separated by distance. So I said, “Sara, it’s time to keep moving” as a little nudge along the way. She was right in the middle of her moment, though, and it was a friendly one, so she was lingering on the farewell. But I’d already internalized the “don’t let crowds form around you” dictum, so my hair triggers were being fully activated by now. Finally, after a second “time to go” went unheeded, I kind of barked at her a little harshly: “Sara! It’s time to go!” She looked up at us, got the message, and disengaged—earlier than she wanted to, for sure. It all felt a little funny. But shit, I guess that’s part of the price we pay for exploring—with a video camera, no less—in a land where everyone is armed and dangerous, and we really, let’s face it, do NOT know the rules on the streets here.

Anyway, we made it back to the compound safe and sound, me cradling my old silk scarves. Sometimes, being back in the compound feels pretty good.


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