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Dubai to Kabul

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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Flying to Afghanistan from Dubai is an extraordinary
experience. Firstly there is the contrast between Dubai, the Disneyland of the
Arab world, and Kabul. The Dubai skyline is dominated by outrageous, shiny
skyscrapers and construction cranes building ever bigger, brighter, better
buildings. One often-quoted statistic asserts that about 30,000, or 24 per cent
of the world's 125,000 construction cranes, are currently operating in Dubai.
Whether or not this figure is accurate, there is no denying that Dubai is a
city building itself with gusto and big dreams. Whether you are driving along
the waterfront past the replica French chateaus or flying over the
extraordinary man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree, you can’t miss the
dollar signs. This is a city rolling in money, and if you are one of the people
who have all that money then Dubai is a city where you can get all the material
things you want.

Even in my short time in Dubai, however, it was apparent
that there is another side to Dubai’ story. Staying in a cheap hotel in the
Deira neighbourhood, I met Filipino women who worked in the local beauty salon
and lived ten to a room in order to be able to save enough money to send home
to their families.

But on its face Dubai tells a story of money and what people
who have lots of money can do with that money in order to get more money. It is
a city that attracts people who hope to get their own share of that money,
whether wealthy professionals from the West or indentured construction
labourers from the East. People come to Dubai for the money.

When you fly in over Kabul, having passed over the
extraordinary beauty of the snow-covered mountains in the Hindu Kush, what you
notice first is the lack of colour. Where as Dubai is a dazzling cacophony of
neon and shiny surfaces, Kabul from the air is all brown. The surrounding
landscape is brown and the city itself appears to be built out of the very land
on which it sits, and to a large extent this proves later to be true. Brown
mud-brick fences surround brown mud-brick buildings in compounds of brown
earth. In mid-winter there is no green to brighten this mud-hued landscape and
it was refreshing to the eyes (if not comforting to the rest of the body) when
the snow came to cover the relentless brown-ness of Kabul with its fresh coat
of white.

Once you are on the ground in Kabul the contrast with Dubai
becomes even more apparent. Whereas even Terminal Two of Dubai International
Airport had the trappings of airports everywhere, the duty-free store and the
departure lounge café, Kabul International Airport in 2005 was bare. Arriving
into Kabul we were taken from the UNHAS plane by bus to the arrivals hall. This
was an empty room with two booths where the arrivals officials were checking
passports and visas. Penny had put on her headscarf before we left the plane,
so I had done the same, but I noticed than most of the foreign women in the
queue had not. It was mid-winter in Kabul and I was dressed in brown pants
covered by a long brown jacket, topped off with a dark olive brown woollen
headscarf. Without realising it when I was packing in New Zealand I had
colour-coordinated myself perfectly with my new home city.

As we passed through the passport check Afghan men with
luggage trolleys came rushing up to me offering to help me with my luggage. I
couldn’t see any trolleys apart from the ones they were pushing and realised that
this was how they made a living. So, with Penny’s advice, I agreed a price to
carry my luggage to the car. As soon as we got out of the airport building I
was very glad I’d accepted this help. Cars, except those of the most important
VIPs, are not allowed to approach Kabul Airport. When you exit the building you
walk across the empty space, which in any other airport would be bustling with
taxis and people collecting or depositing their friends and family. You walk
across this area and into the first car park. Access to this car park is
limited to the next level of VIPs, and the park is filled with white 4x4s
belonging to government departments and international agencies of the United
Nations. We kept walking.

The next car park is where ordinary Afghans, and people like
me who are working with them, have to park and wait. As we walked into the
car-park a man stepped out of the crowd and greeted Penny, he was her driver
and was obviously really happy to see her. Just as I wondered how I would find
Horia, another man stepped out and also greeted Penny. He was the driver for
the organization I would be working with and he led us through the crowd to
where Horia was waiting. As I approached her she stepped towards me and
embraced me. As Penny turned to leave with her
driver I knew that I was in safe hands. 

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3 Responses to "Dubai to Kabul"

  1. Loving the story so far! Just a few things perhaps you could expand on. I’m interested in the comment you make about putting your headscarf on, I fully get why you would wear one, but maybe you could talk a little about that, is it a common practice for humaniatarian workers in the Middle East? How did you feel when you put it on etc. I think it is something western readers might be interested in. The other thing I think would be interesting is perhaps so further details about the flight, length, route etc. Nothing super-specific or wordy just a bit of background info so that us readers can imagine what it was like.
    Love the bit about landing though. The different levels of carparks says quite a lot really. (I hope that comment made sense, it is late and I’ve had my head in my research all day).

  2. Mandi says:

    I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve decided to share your story in bits and pieces here. Thank you!

  3. Gypsy Alex says:

    It’s great to read this! I am so glad to have more details… Dubai seems definitely not a place for me. I’ll skip that one for sure Can’t wait for more on Kabul.

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