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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Kabul

Globe and Mail Update
Saturday, August 10, 2002
From the Field
York Mark


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Pictures from Kabul

Afghanistan's national soccer team poses after a training session at the stadium in Kabul. The team will compete in the upcoming ASEAN games in Pusan, South Korea on September 29.
Photo: Romeo Ranoco/AP

An Afghan girl waits with her mother for admission to a school in Kabul. The Afghan Government has recently started projects to improve primary education.
Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP


It's soccer night in Kabul. Or so say the English-language bulletins posted throughout the city.

For those of us who can read English - a small percentage of the largely Dari- and Pashto- speaking population - this sounds grand. The World Cup. Live. On a big screen TV at the old stadium where the Taliban used to kill and maim petty criminals. The newswires say some 10,000 people are going to be there.

The lightbulb goes off for nearly all the 500 or so foreign journalists in town to cover the "emergency loya jirga" on Afghanistan's future. This here is a clear sign that Kabul Is Coming Back To Life. A colourful tale to supplement a week's worth of dry political writing about the coronation of Hamid Karzai.

We head to the stadium, the stories half-written in our heads. Our editors are going to love us. The problem with such well-laid plans is that reality rarely matches the imagined headline. We, the International Media, arrive by the dozen, armed with notepads, cameras, rumpled shirts and deep, booming voices. They, the Recovering Afghans, trickle in two-by-two, bewildered at why anybody would want to watch them watching soccer.

If the story had turned out the way the imagined headline had it, it would have been great. There are all sorts of genuinely colourful things to write about at the stadium. Ahmed Shah Masood, the late leader of the Northern Alliance leers down from a photograph at a field where the Taliban once carried out public executions. A soldier who once fought for the Northern Alliance shows me the bullet marks that remain on the repainted goalposts. Behind the big screen set up for the occasion is the luxury box where Mullah Mohammed Omar watched the proceedings.

They're going to show a mine-awareness video as the halftime show. Pure Afghanistan. The only thing missing is the throng of interested Afghans.

As game approaches, the fans are in clear danger of being outnumbered by the journalists. I sit down beside two young men who look like they might be knowledgeable soccer-watchers. Perhaps one of them can offer me a pithy quote that will save my evening. "What's your favourite team?" I ask one of them through a translator. He checks with his soccer-watching buddy as to what teams are playing. Italy and Mexico he's told. "Uh, Italy," he says, as if choosing pasta over fajitas at a restaurant.

I must Dig Deeper my journalistic senses tell me. Perhaps that nugget, that golden quote illustrating Afghan passions for the World Cup, is hidden in this case beneath a poor grasp of geography.

"Do you have a favourite player?" I press on. I'm pretty sure Woodward and Bernstein got to the bottom of matters this way.

"I don't know any," he says simply. Deep Throat he isn't.

It's all for naught, anyway. The projector doesn't work. We sit in boredom for an hour, staring at a blank screen, and rocking back and forth in our unsturdy lawn chairs. There's a sound system, thankfully, but it's playing some very sad, un-sporty tunes from local pop hero Ahmed Zahir.

Mr. Zahir, I'm told had reason to be unhappy. He fell in love with the wife of a communist officer during the Soviet occupation, and died an un-accidental death soon after his passion was made public. I'm touched, but I miss Thunderstruck, or whatever it is they play before sporting events back home.

At 8 p.m., an hour late, the game comes on, but there's no sound. Disgusted, I and half the paltry crowd head for the exits. But all is not lost: on the way out of the stadium, I'm indirectly invited to the birthday party of a man named Farook. I don't know who Farook is, but I accept.

By the time we get to Farook's house, it's looks as though the 10,000 Afghans who skipped the FIFA-sponsored World Cup broadcast are here in his backyard. There's a spread of Afghan meats, bread and rice that stretches across three tables, and desserts are waiting in the kitchen. Empty bottles of Russian vodka and American beer are strewn across the lawn.

Curfew in Kabul is 11 p.m., adding a sense of urgency to the party. We - Farook, his friends, the neighbourhood children gaping in awe from the top of the wall around the backyard - have just two hours to express how happy we are that Kabul is alive and kicking again after 23 years of war and assorted other things that don't seem to matter much tonight.

The band starts to play. People start to dance, wildly. Suddenly I'm part of an Indian music video, the kind where dozens of people are doing some kind of South Asian line-dance behind the star, who on this occasion is most definitely Farook. He's 27 tonight.

During a pause in the music, one of his friends gives an incredibly moving speech about how lucky Farook is that his parents remember how old he is and what day is his birthday. The speaker, and many others at the party, don't know such details about themselves. Their parents are either dead, or lived such miserable lives during the past two decades that they simply stopped bothering to keep track of their children's ages.

The speaker smiles sadly at the end of his speech, then recovers his wind and boisterously proposes a toast to the birthday boy. The band starts again.

Somehow I end up on the makeshift stage, playing bass guitar with the hired help. They're playing a traditional Afghan tune, I'm playing Nice to Luv You by 54-40. No one seems to mind - they just keep on dancing. Farook, by all accounts, is having the time of his life.

It strikes me that maybe the imaginary headline wasn't wrong after all. I'm tempted to call my editor. News bulletin: Kabul is coming back to life.

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