Friday, September 11, 2015

Kabul: Hitting and Missing the Mark on 9/11

The relationship between September 11 and Afghanistan is complicated.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in 2001, most countries of the world issued statements supporting the U.S. and condemning the attacks.  Afghanistan was no exception, and the Taliban, who were in charge at the time, denounced the senseless killing of nearly 3,000 people.  At the same time, the Taliban were harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda within their borders, which put Afghanistan squarely in the cross-hairs of President Bush's War on Terror.  The September 11 attacks ushered in the U.S./UK War on Afghanistan, which was absorbed by NATO a few years later.

Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself in Kabul for the 14th anniversary of the attacks.  September 11, 2015, fell on a Friday - our one day off during the week - so I got to sleep later than normal.

At around 10 AM, Eitan and I went to brunch, and we were shocked when we entered the West Dining Facility (DFAC).  For some strange reason, the DFAC's decision-makers had decided to mark 9/11 with a cake.  The cake incorporated all the symbolism - the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, the date, and the flag - and across the middle, the word "remember" was written.  Meanwhile, on all the tables there were bottles of sparkling grape juice.  The DFAC is not allowed to serve alcohol, so on special occasions like New Year's Day (and apparently 9/11), they break out the non-alcoholic bubbly.

This was definitely in poor taste.  September 11 is not an occasion for cake and champagne - at least not for Americans - and everyone in my vicinity was grumbling at the display.

Skipping both the sparkling grape juice and the cake, Eitan and I had our lunch and set out for the official 9/11 commemoration at NATO base Resolute Support (RS).  In addition to many servicemen and -women representing the coalition partners, there were numerous civilians at the ceremony as well.  The program, which included a few speeches, a moment of silence, and a wreath laying, finished in under half an hour but still had the professionalism and decorum that military events so often do.  It was a nice contrast to the DFAC celebration.

After the ceremony, the crowd dispersed, and Eitan and I went to the bazaar.  It was pretty much business as usual as the vendors jockeyed for our attention, but something caught my eye at a carpet stall.  War rugs are popular here, with tanks, missiles, and jets appearing alongside more traditional motifs.  On this day, however, it was the first time I noticed the 9/11 carpets.  These carpets featured representations of the planes flying into the World Trade Center.  Carpets of this ilk had probably been hanging around the market for a while, but for some reason, I had finally noticed them.

The crude, pixelated images of planes and buildings reminded me of my time in Papua New Guinea.  In PNG, artists derive inspiration from current events in a very direct way.  Once I was in the market in Port Moresby a few days after some Australians had died in a helicopter crash, and there were numerous paintings interpreting the event.  It was the same story with wildfires, other vehicle crashes, and calamities in general.  Everything would show up on a canvas in a day or two.  Naturally, September 11 was also a major theme, and there were many paintings of this event, almost always done in the local style.

I viewed the 9/11 carpets with a certain amount of curiosity, but I felt no compulsion to buy one.

Eitan and I continued walking through the bazaar, and then Eitan noticed something altogether different.

"Hey," he remarked, "look at your shoes!"

I looked down, and I immediately got his point.

I had accidentally worn my sandals which was a violation of base policy.  There are a few dress-code rules for people entering RS from the Embassy side, and one of them is that open-toed shoes are prohibited.

As explained during my orientation, if an Embassy civilian gets caught on RS with a dress-code violation, he will be "arrested" by the military police and made to stay in the MP office until his supervisor comes to retrieve him.  Obviously the point of this is to shame people who don't comply, but I'm not even sure it really happens.  In any case, I didn't want to be the first in my circle to have the honor.

I had already been walking around RS for an hour at that point, and my feet had so far escaped notice.  I figured there wasn't any real reason to rush out, so we finished shopping and left about half an hour later.  I tried to play it cool as we walked ever closer to the Embassy gate, but part of me still thought I might get busted.

Back on safe ground, we continued our Friday.  We went to a cocktail party, did some chores, and watched some TV.  Then for dinner, we ventured to the East DFAC, and it was the same story as with brunch.  There was another cake stationed by the surf and turf, and sparkling grape juice graced every table.  All that was missing was a "Happy 9/11" banner.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Kabul: Later, Waiters

A week after my first drama-filled reception, we had another one.  This one included 95 of my office's best contacts, and it would be the premier event to welcome our newly-arrived officers.

We decided to hold this event in the Embassy's courtyard instead of at the Ambassador's residence, giving us much more flexibility.  We were no longer bound by the Ambassador's rigid event checklist.

Working on a tighter budget this time -- and having just had expensive French catering -- we decided to go with an Afghan caterer.  Other than samosas, the lone Afghan item, the rest of our menu was a hodgepodge.  We had egg rolls, sliders, chicken fingers, and black forest cake.  Such things can happen when you select your menu by committee.  In any case, the food is only of secondary importance to many guests, for whom the bar holds more interest.

We had booked the caterer through the Embassy's concierge desk, and when we realized the caterer couldn't provide waitstaff, we turned to the concierge for this as well.  I was familiar with the concierge team, and I was a bit skeptical.

Perhaps sensing my hesitation, the manager with whom I spoke tried to reassure me.

"Don't worry, sir," he told me, "my guys have just been through a waiter training course."  "They know exactly what to do."

Facing a dearth of alternatives, I signed on the dotted line for five of the concierge's finest professionally-trained waiters.

When the big day arrived, the set-up crew arranged our space, and my boss added a personal touch by decorating the cocktail tables with festive scarves and candles.  Then about an hour before showtime, the waiters arrived with the food.

Two things immediately came to mind: First, the sliders we had ordered weren't sliders at all.  They were big-ass burgers.  These substantial, sloppy sandwiches weren't going to be easy to delicately eat in suits and fancy dresses.

The second observation I had was more worrisome:  There was no way the amount of food we had received was going to feed a hundred people.

In ordering the food, we had been asked to provide the number of guests and the food items we wanted.  It was up to the caterer to decide the correct portions.

The concierge was on hand, and he agreed with my assessment in his own way.

"If everyone only takes a little," he offered, "we should be okay."

I was unwilling to ration the food, however, so the concierge placed an order for more samosas from a shop not far from the Embassy compound.

Of the five waiters I had hired, one was designated to work the bar and the others were assigned to work the floor.

As the waiters finished setting up, I went to the main entrance to start escorting the guests.

When the flow of guests began to wane about half an hour later, I relieved myself of escort duty and joined the party.

Of the four servers who were supposed to be working the floor, two were crouched behind the buffet tables devouring heaping plates of food.  The other two seemed to be doing their jobs, but then I noticed they were picking up all sorts of garbage and then handling food -- without ever changing their gloves.

I pulled the team aside and politely explained that break time would be at the end of the party and that the point of the gloves was not solely to protect the wearer.  The gloves were also meant to keep the food uncontaminated.

"Yes, sir!" the guys responded, and they dispersed among the crowd.

Meanwhile, the bartender seemed to be doing a respectable job, but there was something amiss at his station too.

"Sorry, sir," he told me, "but we ran out of white wine."

How we had gone through a case of white in thirty minutes was beyond me, but it looked like there was plenty of red wine and beer remaining.  It was time for the official program to begin, in any case, so I turned my attention to the speeches.

I got a shout-out from my boss for organizing the event, and then the Ambassador gave some meatier remarks.

Once mingling resumed, my waiters were missing in action again.  They were sitting on a bench unsure of what they should be doing.

I directed two to walk around with the chicken fingers and egg rolls and the other two to collect used plates and glasses.

This kept them occupied for the remainder of the event.

At around 7:30, I ushered the last of the guests to the gate, and when I returned to the courtyard to help clean up, the bartender had a bunch of bottles lined up on the table.

"We ended up with 22 beers, 4 bottles of red, and 10 bottles of white," he proudly announced.

Naturally, I recalled the white wine shortage from the beginning of the night, but I didn't mention it.  I suspected his explanation would likely be more annoying than comical at this point.

Despite everything, the event had been a success.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder: The guys might have gone to waiter school, but did any of them actually graduate?!?

Friday, September 04, 2015

Kabul: The Barber Shop

Six weeks on, and my hair was getting unruly.

When it comes to haircuts, I generally lean toward more modest establishments, and thus, I skipped the Green Spa and went to the barber shop on the East Side.  The actual name of the East Side outlet is "The Original Barber Shop," owing to the fact that it was the first barber shop on the compound.  You can see the shop's humble begins in some random photos that pop up from time to time.  It started out as nothing more than a plastic chair under a tin roof - open-air with no walls.  Today it's fully enclosed with a barber pole, two hydraulic barber chairs, two TVs, three barbers, and the full assortment of hairstyle magazines that no one ever seems to read.

Eitan came to the barber shop as well, and when we entered the shop, a man was already there getting his hair cut.  Eitan had another appointment after his haircut, so I let him go before me.

In a few minutes, however, the first man finished, and I too had a seat.

My barber fussed with the broom for a minute, moving clumps of hair around on the floor.  Then he turned his attention to me.

He draped me in the cape and pulled the white strip tight around my neck.

"How do you want it, boss?" he asked.

"Shorter all around," I answered.

Considering my vague instructions, he looked me over for a second.

"Do you want me to make you look good?" he asked.

Compared to the alternative, this seemed like the way to go.

"Yes," I told him, "make me look good!"

Then, having secured my buy-in, he went to work.

My barber and his two associates all had long, black, wavy hair, and I wondered what his idea of good short hair might be.

He trimmed the sides and back with the clippers and went to work on the top with scissors.  He didn't speak to me during the haircut, but he would occasionally step back and comment.

"Yes, that's right," he'd whisper to himself.

After maybe 20 minutes, he did the final edging work on my temples, shaved my neck, slathered my hair with gel, and wheeled me around to the mirror.

"It's fabulous!" he exclaimed.

He was clearly proud of his work, and in fact he had done a decent job.

There was one peculiarity, however.  He left the front of my hair fairly long, and he stood it straight up with gel.  While it wasn't nearly as pronounced, I felt slightly like Cameron Diaz during the famous hair-gel scene in "There's Something About Mary."

"What do you think?" he asked me.

"It looks good," I told him.

He was clearly an artiste, and I didn't want to deflate his enthusiasm by asking him to chop more off the front.  I figured I'd fix it myself later if it got too annoying.

"See," he replied, "I told you I'd make you look good!"

He was happy; I was happy, and I was in the homestretch now.  The barber took away the cape and started giving me a final dusting with his little brush.

He had one more thing on his mind, it turned out.

"Do you know who you look like?" he asked me.

"Oh, Lord," I thought to myself, "this should be good."

I get "recognized" fairly frequently, and it's always ridiculous.

"Who do I look like?" I asked.

"You are Spider-Man 3!" he replied.

"Oh, yeah," I responded.  "Who exactly in Spider-Man 3?"

"Obviously, the Spider Man," he replied.

"I just cut Spider Man's hair!" he continued with a wide smile.

I didn't really see the resemblance, but there's no point in arguing about such things.

Besides, it was just another celebrity doppelgänger to add to the list.

In no particular order, we have:

  • Tobey Maguire, actor (Spider Man, etc)
  • Cesc FĂ bregas, football player (Chelsea Football Club)
  • Bradley Cooper, actor (Hangover, etc)
  • Lionel Messi, football player (Futbol Club Barcelona)
  • David Duchovny, actor (X-Files, etc)
  • Andy Garcia, actor (Godfather, etc)
  • Gaspard Ulliel, actor (Hannibal Rising)
  • David Schwimmer, actor (Friends)
  • Jim True-Frost, actor (The Wire)
  • George Hamilton, actor (Where the Boys Are, etc)
  • Ben Stiller, actor (Zoolander, etc)
  • Sam Waterston, actor (Law & Order)

Add to this a host of politicians and other people I've never heard of.

I guess there are worse things than resembling the "sexiest man alive," but of course it's all foolishness.

At least the barber had a bit of fun, though, and my hair was good to go for another six weeks.