Czechs in Afghanistan, Pt. IV: When in Afghanistan, do as the Afghans do

Today we continue our series on Czechs in Afghanistan. That series focuses primarily on the Czech humanitarian aid organisation People in Need, and for good reason: there are few organisations of its kind that work as closely with beneficiaries in far-removed parts of the world and live like they do. This week, Christian Falvey looks at the day-to-day lives of Czech aid workers in both the urban centres and remote mountain communities of Afghanistan.

It’s Friday evening in Kabul, and this is the Le Atmo restaurant. If you’re a foreigner in the Afghan capital, you try to come here in two cars – the other one can report what happened if you’re kidnapped or attacked. Just knock on the first steel door by the men with the Kalashnikovs if you want to come for dinner, but the sign on the wall says you will need a foreign passport. The first peephole will open and you will be frisked thoroughly before the second peephole opens in the second steel door and then you’re literally home free: back among the bare-headed women of the western world and white guys in button-down shirts, and swimming in alcohol if you can afford it (if you're a foreigner in Kabul, then you probably can).

The authorities in Kabul recently raided expatriate bars like Le Atmo, checking for illegally employed women and absconding with the alcohol. The exciting but tough life of Western expatriates anywhere is compounded in Afghanistan by the culture’s strict distain for certain staples of Western “good, old-fashioned fun,” namely imbibing distillates and meeting members of the opposite sex. It’s a rare occasion that Czechs are seen in this milieu though, because the only Czechs there are in Afghanistan are mostly closed in an army base or far from civilisation with the humanitarian mission of People in Need, some of which are better reached on horseback.

Shoran Pain is a village of roughly a thousand Tajiks living in dislocated communities about a hundred kilometres from Mazar-i-Sharif. It is extremely inaccessible, with no real road leading to or from it, just a seasonal river surrounded by high walls of brown rock, where I was led by Pavel Přikryl, who showed me People in Need’s water and sanitation projects in the area.

Amrakh canyon
“We are about two days travel from Mazar-i-Sharif, we just passed through the Amrakh canyon, in which the road is basically the river, so we are very remote. There is no mobile phone coverage, no electricity other than this hydroelectric plant. You can get here by car, but not so easily, it must be four-wheel drive, so normally people in the villages travel by donkey or by foot. To reach the regional bazaar for instance they have to travel one full day on a donkey, so it’s quite isolated I would say.”

To be frank, you see very little in these places that you would not have seen several hundred years ago, aside from the televisions and radios in the few places where People in Need has helped provide hydroelectricity. Bringing your foreign lifestyle with you here would be very counter-productive. We eat on the floor, two people to a plate, almost always rice with raisins and perhaps a piece of mutton or beef, in the same kind of room that any other villager eats and sleeps.

“This is what our field offices look like usually. It’s basically a very simple room, just a simple carpet on the floor and around the walls you have something called toshak, just large pillows that you can sit on, or sleep on... and a TV, obviously – that’s an important part of the room.”

To appreciate the thrift with which the Czech aid workers live, it’s important to know the conditions enjoyed by some other aid organisations, whose hard and dangerous work is offset by a palace lifestyle, with large staffs, expensive SUVs and frequent evenings in Le Atmo or elsewhere. Czech aid workers live on a tight budget that their donors can see through, and that at the end of the day also makes them more efficient, as the mission head Jan Štěpán points out:

“We are obviously one of the most efficient organisations I would say, because, compared to western NGOs, we do work with relatively lower costs, be it because we don’t really need the comforts that others have here, be it because our security is based on low visibility so we use older cars, we dress like locals, we don’t have armed guards, we don’t have huge compounds, we don’t have sophisticated security systems... That makes our operations cheaper and that differentiates us a bit.”

Czech frugality has left its mark on public perception in Afghanistan. No wonder that I was asked, as an American citizen, to pass myself off as a Bohemian for safety’s sake, and playing Czech paid off for me more than once in common situations like this one with a random fellow customer in a textile shop in Kabul:

What is his experience with Czechs?

“He says he has good memories of the Czechs, that they are really honest and good people. The Czech people, he says, are really nice and really observe our custom and culture. And he had a Czech teacher during his studies.”

And indeed, Pavel Přikryl cuts a fine figure back by the river in Shoran Pain, dressed in flowing sheets and a scarf.

Pavel Přikryl
“As you can see, this is the basic garment, this is a peron tombon: very loose pants into which I could fit maybe five times, and then a long shirt that comes down to the knees, and in addition to this people usually wear vests or sweaters or jackets, depending on the weather and how many pockets they need. It’s very comfortable actually. It’s not very practical when you need to do... things, like going to the bathroom. But otherwise it’s very loose, and it’s very nice actually, I think it’s very fashionable.”

So you don’t feel out of your element?

“No, not really; I think the local people appreciate it more that you wear their local clothes.”

As we have mentioned before in this series in passing, Czechs begin life in Afghanistan with a slightly privileged position. Czechs and Slovaks made a name for themselves among the Afghans as skilled manufacturers, as Afghan Czechoslovak Karim Zahmat explains:

“Good things came from Czechoslovakia, crystal from Bohemia, for example, is very well known. Razors came from Czechoslovakia and they were very good, and shoes from Baťa and Partizanské, our people know these things well, and excellent fabrics that you still see in Afghanistan today, everyone looks and asks if what you’re wearing is from Czechoslovakia. But some know about the breakup and some don’t, so you say you’re Czech and they’ll say ‘where on earth is that’?”

But in the mountains of Afghanistan there are places where few Afghans have never been, to say nothing of Baťa and Partizanské, and in some places what they know of Czechs is People in Need. Engineer Feda Yari:

“We really work in areas where even the government has never been and where there have never been any projects, you will see now what conditions people live in and they are glad that there not soldiers with us, that we are a civilian organisation working for the people, and the people find that very acceptable.”

Two competing proverbs come to mind as I sit in the makeshift bar in the dilapidated compound of People in Need in Mazar-i-Sharif after a sweaty day in the field: “when in Afghanistan, do as the Afghans do”, most certainly. But also “you can take the man out of Bohemia, but you can’t take Bohemia out of the man”. And inside every bearded or scarf-draped Czech after their terms of months to years here, there is a natural thirst for home.

What is that?

“This is a homemade beer, and you will be the person with the honour to taste it first.”

Is this the first Czech beer made in Afghanistan then?

“Yes. Mazar Urquell.”

And how did you make this?

“Out of instant powder. Pavel received it as a farewell present from his friends. Na zdraví! [drinks]... I would call it a success!”

Photo: author