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Diary from Kabul - One in the Chamber!

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One in the Chamber: I joined with 14 others on New Year's Eve for dinner at Le Jardin, a new restaurant that has opened here, two years in the building, the ambition of a wonderful and fascinating French man called Dan. There were amongst us 10 nationalities, a convention of taste and different cultural values, but the Afghans are becoming slowly westernised, and the westerners easternised, so it's an entertaining melting pot that homogenises many basic instruments of humanity. The Afghans ate steak and drank whisky, and so did we!

After dinner, the group splintered into different factions and we headed our separate ways. Myself, and a couple of friends headed to the Italian Embassy for their traditional New Year's Eve party. These 'jollies of debauchery' are by invitation only, and though we were on the official guest list, I had my doubts that we would get in. I had emailed the head of public affairs for the Italian Embassy a few days previously to request my place, and within minutes I had received a reply advising that I was already on the list as confirmed.

Happy and bemused I began to question the possibility. It's tempting to believe we are players in this place, that my legend was already such that a gilded clan of beautiful women had been jamming the Italian Embassy switchboard for weeks demanding that my name be added to the list, in the ephemeral hope of catching just a glimpse of me as the second hand turned passed the hour at 11.59pm on 31 December 2011. Blindness is as much a hobby as an ambition in such circumstances, and I could have whiled away a happy hour dreaming of a welcoming committee that included the great and good of high society 'Kabul' style, screaming and flinging underwear. But I am a shadow here, so by my calculations I was not on the list. There was a mistake.

I sent another email but again it confirmed that I was on the list. So giddy and drunk, we navigated a plenitude of checkpoints, until we presented ourselves at a quarter to midnight at the security for the Italian Embassy. The news of our arrival sparked panic inside, women were screaming and undressing, oh yes indeed - it was the sound of moist mayhem no doubts. A tiny aperture in the cold metallic door slid open, and a mouth said 'passport please'. I handed mine over and the metal plate slid closed. After a silent two minutes, it reopened, a disembodied hand returned my passport with the affirmation 'not on list' and promptly slammed the shutter closed. We knocked on the door and tried again. After the now customary two minutes the passport was returned with the same grim news. You could hear a collective sigh cut the ambient inside as broken woman replaced their underwear; a glimpse of my shadow was now unlikely.

Well I have to tell you, this did not amuse one of my friends, who started banging on the door and shouting 'he's on the list, he's on the list' in the manner of someone who's hair is on fire. What follows is a snapshot of life in this place, an explosive microcosm of a teetering existence. After about the third bang on the door, it suddenly flung open and we were confronted by three Afghan security guards, one with such menace and anger in his eyes that my skin began to flake. He grabbed his Kalashnikov and in a single movement and the flick of a switch, his weapon went from inert to loaded, a bullet in the chamber, ready to fire and he lunged dangerously towards us. I put my arm around my friend, said to the security guards "no problem" and gently coaxed my friend back from the abyss, and after a tense 10 seconds, a concession was agreed, we strolled back to our car and headed elsewhere.

I wanted to say "Happy New Year to you too buddy" but what would be the point of that, there is percutient disinterest in living here it seems, but a malevolent interest in the reverse. We were two westerners, one happy, the other slightly miffed, and the son of a high-ranking Afghan official, you really shouldn't pull a semi-automatic machine gun on us with intent to use, just because some Italian couldn't be arsed to do their job properly! I am fairly sure that if this had happened in the UK, well firstly you would all be pretty shaken, but next would be a public enquiry and common outrage, the public dismissal of those in charge and possibly the resignation of the Home Secretary. What happened here, was that we got in our car, giggled a bit and went to someone's house to continue our new years celebrations unabated. This place is full of dangerously unstable people. And Afghans!

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The potency of a gun is a traditional recourse to problem solving!

Images and words © Martin Middlebrook 2012

What's in a name: My name is Martin Middlebrook. The 12 of you who read this regularly know this of course, but by other countries other conventions apply. So depending upon relative status or affection, my moniker here is either Kaakaa Martin, Mr Martin, or Martin Jan. I kind of love them all because each is imbued with respect. I don't stand on ceremony, so frankly I don't mind if they just call me Middlebrook, or Middlebrook the Bastard Love Child of Jeremy Clarkson, or whatever. To be recognised at all in life can be a thrill, it's enough for me.

In the UK I would sit in my house typing away another wasted day, and the phone would ring. I would answer to the dulcet tones of someone trying to sell me a new kitchen I didn't need. Do your homework buddy I implore! And the call will go something like this:

"Hi, Bastard Love Child of Jeremy Clarkson here, how can I help?"

"Hello mate, it's Darren from Supremely Fatuous Kitchens, can I speak to the home owner please?"

"You're speaking to him..."

"Oh hello mate, well we at Supremely are in your area and... blahblahblah"

You see you have already lost me now because you keep calling me 'mate' and I have never met or spoken with you before. You are to me what Pol Pot is to Human Rights - nothing! Maybe I am just old fashioned, maybe I am getting older, but I am Bastard Love Child of Jeremy Clarkson, and you are Darren, 21, calling from a call centre in Leek, so please call me by my name. Or better still, don't call me at all.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that everything is rosy in the Afghan garden, I think my diaries and perspective are balanced enough, but credit where credit due. They do have it right when it comes to respect amongst individuals, and when it comes to status too. So here is the form. Whenever you meet anyone you clutch your left breast with your right hand and say "Shalom Aleichem" - peace be with you. This is anyone you meet you understand, from the cook to the president, and you say it a hundred times a day.

And when they call you by your name they will use it with either Mr, Kaakaa, or Jan. My taxi driver will call me Mr Martin, whilst the boys in the house will call me Kaakaa Martin (pronounced like our cocker), which means Uncle Martin. It is a term of affection, regardless of blood ties! And Martin Jan is reserved for those of a similar age and standing, and it means Martin Dear! But I can promise you that no one will ever call you mate, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it Darren from Leek in Staffordshire!

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For many of its failings, respect is an unconditional status in Aghanistan.

Images and words © Martin Middlebrook 2012

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