My plane descended into Kabul at an uncomfortable speed – flailing side to side until we finally hit the ground. We pulled up to our gate on a runway that was lined with military aircraft and helicopters with the letters UN painted on in cyan. Our stewardesses, who wore navy blue pantsuits and headscarves fashionably draped around tiny hats, told us we could leave. “This is it,” I thought, “This is Afghanistan.”
Kabul is… odd. It’s a bustling, over-crowded city – full of marketplaces, businesses, billboards of Bollywood stars promoting cell phones, donkey carts, and herds of goats running alongside heavy traffic. But it’s also littered with sandbags, guns, barbed wire, men in camouflage, and UN vehicles for every imaginable agency. The Afghan National Security Force (Afghanistan’s police and military) are scattered at checkpoints every few blocks, and guards search your car for bombs before they let you into your guesthouse. Almost everything is fenced in heavy steel, and getting into a café, or restaurant, or work, or just about anywhere is straight out of a film noir. First, you have to knock on the door of an unmarked building. Then, a guard slides open a tiny window in the door to see who you are. And if you look unsuspicious, which – given my scrappy frame – I inevitably do, they let you in. In most of the places I’ve been to so far, there are another few guards with rifles and another steel door to get past before you finally make it inside.
Despite all of that, Kabul doesn’t feel threatening – at least not now. The much-anticipated Peace Jirga (conference) starts tomorrow and attacks are predicted, so the city’s on lockdown. But on a day-to-day basis, Kabul — for all its insanity — is peaceful. The infamous pale blue burkhas are indeed everywhere, but a number of women walk about wearing hijabs (headscarves) and shalwar-khemizes, and you’ll even see a few in jeans and full makeup — with swathes of hair defiantly visible. In the markets, long-bearded men in turbans and khurtha-pajamas work alongside clean-shaven men in t-shirts and pants. Little girls and little boys in school uniforms taunt each other on their way home. Kabul’s much more of a mixture than you might gather from the dramatic headlines, sensational images, and political rhetoric.