14 February 2011

Stupid Cupid

So…Valentine’s Day is depressing.  Pretty much as a rule (though I did receive an unexpected box of chocolates the Site Manager apparently felt compelled to give me.  Sometimes it’s good to be a girl).  I readily admit to the fact that’s because I traditionally lack a partner or am separated from the one I do have.  And I don’t care if this makes me a snob.  My standard Valentine MO is just to curl up on my couch with some red and a Bond movie.  Obviously that option eludes me here, so I’ve spent much of my pre-Valentine week in the morbid past time of watching everyone else wallow in their questionable romantic choices. 

The past few months have seen my adoption of a new flirting friend.  Ours is a relationship strictly and refreshingly plutonic, as he is utterly devoted to his fiancée.  Even so, flirting like mad can be very stress-relieving; he is also admirably good at stymieing my various swains, whom he calls with affectionate derision the ‘puppies’.  Outside of his general good humor, he is lately very frustrated, soliciting advice on how to cheer up a girl 20,000 miles away.  Watching her depression deepen through a bad semester at school, difficult time at work, and financial frustrations with planning their wedding, all with the constant undercurrent of loneliness for him, he is anguished that the only thing he knows how to do at this point is hold her, and even such a simple option is closed to him.

The ache of missing someone far away is anticipated by the pain of leaving someone behind.  I was recently speaking with a civilian theatre couple that is about to break up when one half finally goes home, after three years together on base.  His obvious excitement to finally leave Afghanistan behind forever was greatly tempered by the raw sense of loss between them.  At one point, as she was describing the beautiful salt cliffs of her home village in Bosnia, the woman turned to her partner and quietly said she wished that she could have shown them to him.  The foregone conclusion of love lost frankly astounded me.  How do you become involved with someone when you know the relationship has an expiration date? 

Of course, monogamy isn’t for everyone, not infrequently leading to complications with various levels of hilarity and stress.  The bitter-sweet sorrow of the shortly-to-be-parted-forever couple compares sharply with the romantic dervish that is my roommate.  Lately, her tertiary boyfriend is concerned about the potentially imminent return of her extremely jealous secondary boyfriend.  This might prove more interesting than the time her primary boyfriend (read: fiancée – they have a house together in the States) visited and the jealous secondary boyfriend staked out the B-Hut for a weekend.  All of which she shrugs off with flair.  Girl, she once waxed philosophically, I have handled a lot of dicks in my day.  It’s about damn time they start working for me.  This has all the hallmarks of a good soap sub plot.  As long as the shenangins don’t impact my sleep, I’ll be more than happy to pop some corn and see how it all works out.

With all its inherent heartache and complication, I still prefer the imperfect world of Western dating to that practiced by the Afghans.  The fellas were explaining to me the other day how arranged marriage (still a popular office topic), while not romantically preferable, is far and away the safest means of meeting your future wife.  Dating is apparently liable to end in someone being beaten or shot.  One of my co-workers, now married with three children, recounted his passionate love affair with a woman several years ago.  Passionate, for him, was taking long, chaste walks during which time he once touched her hand.  Unfortunately, her brother spied the love birds one day and, realizing that he could not best my co-worker in a fight, beat his sister so hard she never spoke to her lover again.  He sighed as he finished the story, looking past me and into what could have been.  “I think I would have been truly happy with her”.

Another one of my office mates countered with a somewhat zanier story.  He was able to secure permission to marry the woman of his choice, both from his parents and hers.  However he nearly ruined his prospects with an overly-long conversation with her over the garden wall one summer evening.  Her brother (why is there always a brother?), incensed at the impropriety of the chat (were there too many sweet nothings?  He did not elaborate), took a few shots at the suitor with the requisite household AK (if there is a brother, rest assured he is armed).  My colleague was apparently able to buy back his good graces by gifting his fiancée’s father with a dog he had long admired.  Nothing says romance like being traded by your father for a hunting hound.

Given some new context, it seems appropriate to re-evaluate my own love life.  Though it might be frequently reduced to a good Sauvignon drunk with Sean Connery, the only person to beat me up about my decisions is myself.  I think it’s an apt time to misquote Sir Winston Churchill: dating is the worst way of meeting a life mate, except for all the others.

13 February 2011

Searching for the Next Domino

I know that I always come late to these parties, but let’s talk about Egypt.  With a bit of distance, I can’t help but laughing.  Late in January, I was speaking with a Moroccan friend about Tunisia.  She expressed solidarity with the Tunisians and happiness at their success, but worried about what it would mean for her country.  After all, successful revolutions can inspire others, and were Algeria to follow suit, it could very much harm Morocco’s economy.  She was also cautious in victory; a stable, free state does not necessarily follow from revolution.  She concluded her musings by fervently hoping that Egypt remained stable – God only know what will happen if it falls!  Well, God and very shortly everyone else.
I in no way mean to take away from the giddy triumph suffusing Egypt right now, nor the tragic loss of hundreds of lives that accompanied the revolution.  But even as we cheer this moment in the sun as a despot takes his terrifically overdue leave, one has to ask, what’s next?

 The current climate in Egypt is, for all its drama, not totally unique.  The area has a history of ‘bread uprisings’, when economic crisis, starvation, and repression combine.  I felt there were shades of the 1977 Revolution in this recent effort, which was preceded by a several years of a horrific economy.  Protests against austerity measures led to clashes with police, and belated capitulations from the regime led to more demands from the protesters.  It’s also reminiscent of 2008, when ballooning wheat prices engendered bread riots not only in Egypt, and throughout much of the rest of the Middle East, West Africa, and Haiti.

Just as they weren’t in 2008, Egyptians not alone now in these concerns.  Obviously, this latest (and arguably most successful) revolution was not born of a single cause, but there is reason to suspect that rising food prices were the final straw to a camel already burdened with a broadly poor economy, political repression, and a rapidly politicizing youth bulge.  Egypt’s food market is strongly dependent on imports ay a time when major exporters are readily messing with supply: Russia and India engaged export controls; the US diverting corn to ethanol; and speculators are artificially inflating global food prices.  Indeed, world food prices last month reached record highs, well beyond those that resulted in wide-spread riots in the past.  Hedging their bets, regimes across the Middle East have begun stock piling wheat, guarding against both mass starvation and Egypt-inspired reformers. 

So, who’s next?  So far, a number of names have been bandied about (Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia…).  But what about Afghanistan, who boasts the world’s least-secure food supply?  Well, there are undoubtedly parallels, food inclusive.  Mubarak’s despotic anti-Western rhetoric about “foreign intervention or dictations” had some echoes of Karzai at his most irascible and sublimely ironic. 

A quick aside: how were there foreign dictations?  To my mind, actually, the US butchered this one in its tentative ambivalence.  The Obama Administration, on whom I admittedly place too many expectations (but they sort of invited it, no?) had a phenomenal opportunity to actually support those qualities which are supposed to be fundamental to the American ideal of statehood.  For years, we’ve supported petulant and ungrateful tyrants in the name of national security and at the expense of human rights and civil liberties, even as we have the audacity to claim to be a beacon for democracy.  I say it’s high time we put our money where our mouth is.  Obviously, I’ve never one to be accused of Realism (in the IR sense.  In life, I like to imagine myself a pragmatist).  Annnd….aside over. 

So, will a populist revolution happen in Afghanistan?  No.  Frankly, there has been too much war for the population to even have the energy to consider a demand for change.  Moreover, these kinds uprisings can’t happen (in my opinion) where: (a) there is a standing threat of reprisal; or (b) where there is so little faith in the government that there is no perception that it’s not upholding its end of the social contract.

The first of these explains why we haven’t seen recurrences (or even stirrings) of opposition political life in, for example, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, or Iran.  The Ahmadinejad regime, likely fearful that the Green Movement will hear in Egyptian success as a siren call (nicely timed with the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revoltuion), hanged 73 people in January alone.  Many of the condemned were political prisoners arrested during the 2009 post-election protests.  This kind of extremely violent repression, usually characterized by trumped charges against opposition leaders and the almost casual use of torture.  In many instances, pretense is done away with completely and executions become an extra-judicial affair.  A spontaneous, comparatively peaceful political protest is unlikely to be mounted, let alone come off, under such conditions.

Political repression is only half the story in Afghanistan, especially in that it is affected by sub-state actors, rather than universally imposed by the central government.  After all, even if the Karzai regime wanted to, say, shut down the internet, they likely would not have the ability to do so.  This of course speaks to my second point; Afghans, to use a ready example, are unlikely to demand that their government enact civil liberties in light of the reality that it is too incompetent, not to mention corrupt, to have subverted them in the first place. 

Case in point: Corporate recently decided, in an effort to support the fledgling state, they would require our local linguists to pay national taxes.  This edict has thrown our theatre finance director into a conniption as she attempts to figure out how withholdings work in Afghanistan.  When she asked some of our local co-workers, they were mystified.  Pay taxes?  Decidedly not.  One volunteered in response to her questions that his uncle, who works for the Ministry of Finance, might.  Even so, he doesn’t fill out any forms or get any kind of statement, and pardon, Mr. Deb, but what is a W2?  Another explained that paying taxes would be pointless; there was no official receiving structure and you would have no idea what became of your money.  More likely than not, it would be going for the individual collector’s own “beneficiary”.  Afghan officials, he groused, are only interested in lining their pockets and fleeing to Dubai.

One has to have at least the memory of a nominally functioning government to realize that it’s failing you, and a minimum of the space to speak if it’s to swell to a rallying cry.  It’s a formula that, in very small part, explains why protests abound in Europe, but not in Africa.  I also think this is where the role of social media enters the picture; it gives a semblance of a protected voice creating the space for political speech in the flesh.
But let’s get back to Egypt.  That is where we started, right?  Holy cats, I’ve meandered today.  Even with the recent positive developments, I suspect that we won’t know the outcome for a while yet.  And I don’t mean just the September elections.  There is only one organized opposition party?  The state now rests in the hands of the army?  In the best-case scenario, this is early ‘90s Poland, with their party for VCR owners.  More likely, the potential for long-term instability, violence, and repression remain.  September is going to be a hot mess.  Hopefully it is a mess which eventually leads to a stable, fair transition of power.  It is the smooth, transparent election that heralds democracy, not a purple-fingered show piece.

06 February 2011

She's Such a Doll

We’ve been discussing wives lately, one of the guys having just been married.  The conversations are interestingly wide-ranging, including, as they do, a handful of happily (I assume) married Afghan men, an embittered American divorcee, and myself.  It all began with a cell phone video taken at Ajmal’s wedding of some of his family engaging in a traditional Pashtoon dance.  It was energizing and beautiful, and I remarked that I’d so wished I could go (a desire also in part inspired by my longing to be in the casino-like wedding halls.  They’re gaudy, kitch, and easily some of the largest buildings in Kabul.  I love them). 

Ajmal considered me for a moment before advancing that he really didn’t think I would have appreciated the festivities. Initially, I was a bit put off, but then he elaborated that the women are kept separate.  Essentially confined to their own room, female guests only see the performers if they haven’t tired themselves out dancing for the men.  Indeed, looking at the crowd, I noticed for the first time its gender homogony.  Apparently, the only person who traditionally transitions from one party to the other is the groom; the best of both worlds belongs to him alone.  At this, my American laughed and applauded Ajmal for making the right move and keeping his new wife in check from day one.

Aside from that appalling sentiment, I have begun to appreciate that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Western chauvinism is verrry different than Afghan chauvinism.  The divorcee delights in trotting out all of the familiar tropes in the guise of marriage advice: she’ll run your life, take all your money, evanesce your manhood through her incessant nagging, etcetera, etcetera.  If the others in the office laugh off these pronouncements, Ajmal himself generally worries a bit more, being among the most sympathetic to Western mores.  His wife cries every morning when he leaves her to go to work, so he’s been late for about a month running.  He laments her immaturity (he is a whopping 23 to his wife’s 19), but explains to her that he has to go earn money so he can buy her presents.  But again, Ajmal really is one of the more (comparatively) progressive guys I know; he even took the time to escort his mother and sister, not yet having a wife, to the polls in the last election.

The thought of your wife taking all of your money is, however, utterly laughable to the others.  Let my wife have my money?  Please.  One explained the financial system in his house is based on petition: she asks for things, and if he finds the request reasonable, he buys it for her.  I was reminded of discussions I’ve had with past BFs about how we would treat our money, were we to get serious.  Would we go all in, or engage in some sort of tiered sharing system – sort of a yours, mine, and ours?  I got really annoyed with one swain who gallantly declared he would give me a stipend from his salary.  A allowance?  Really?  From my husband?  And they say chivalry is dead.  But even that affront pales in comparison to oh, yes, honey, I’ll determine if your needs and those of our children are deserving of my money. 

Even among professional women, money is apparently seconded immediately to the ranking family male.  We have two female local national linguists working for us on Phoenix, both widows (though they seem too tragically young to be so).  Their beneficiaries are their oldest sons, which is not terribly surprising.  What did throw me off was when they explained that all the money they earn goes to their sons as well (or in the case of the younger woman, will when he’s old enough).  Yikes.

Overall, our office relationship discussions are fascinating and are teaching me the value of choosing my battles.  Another one of my local co-workers has some noticeably OCD ticks.  We teased him about what his wife must say when he obsessively cleans or remakes the tea because it isn’t exactly right.  Nothing, apparently.  She keeps the house just as he likes it.  Of course she does.  Even as he revealed this, he joyfully told us the latest antics of his brand new baby girl.  I’ve seen photos of her – waving to her American Auntie – but never his wife.  Brothers, father, but no adult women.  They aren’t even allowed in the main receiving room when company comes (close friends and relatives excepting). 

Even among these remarkably Westernized men, who work with women and take orders from women, are still so cavalier about locking their spouses away.  Honestly, my favorite (as in genuine, not in that I like it) image of women in Afghanistan comes from the burqa dolls sold at the bazaar.  Under their tiny blue body bags, their eyes are crossed like a dead cartoon character’s, and their legs fused above the knee, like mermaids.  The slightly disturbing toy always strikes me as a tragically apt description of women.  I think of my co-worker’s beautiful little girl, that he loves so much he carries not only her photo, but a recording on his phone of her laughter, and wonder when she will make the transition in his eyes from his darling baby to a doll, ready to be passed to another man, shut away, neither seen nor heard.