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).
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.
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:
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.
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’?”
“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.”
“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!”