Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dubai Nights

So, I went to a board meeting of the parent company in Dubai a couple of weeks ago. It was an event I had been preparing for, and dreading, for at least a month. As it happens, the preparation was mostly for naught, and the dread was well-founded.

I knew it was going to be an explosive meeting, since anytime The Rug Merchant has to go hat-in-hand to the UK money-men, things tend to get tense. Like most Afghans, The Rug Merchant has an exaggerated sense of his own self-worth, convinced that only he can run the show and only he is responsible for any small degree of success.*

*Not that we’ve had all that much success to this point. Sure, we’ve managed to stay in business for three years before I arrived, but the company has basically nothing to show for it. No assets, no money in the bank, and only limited remittances to the UK investors. The focus on revenue as opposed to profit has meant that we’re basically a medium-sized employment agency, constantly one step away from insolvency.

So, the boss and I fly to Dubai* for the meeting, and I check into one of the swankier hotels in Dubai. That’s saying something, since Dubai is full of top-end luxury hotels. The Rug Merchant, of course, stays at home with the The Rug Merchantess, who lives in Dubai full-time. Better for me, ‘cause after four months with the moron, I don’t think I can bear another minute. Some of the money-men from the UK are there already, including The Godfather.

*First class, Ariana Airlines which is roughly equivalent to the cargo hold on British Airways. We actually board and get settled in before the rest of the passengers even leave the terminal. I’m actually well into an old copy of The Economist before the Minister of Commerce sits down next to me. Something to be said for connections.

After a catch-up dinner with the Brits and about five too many whiskies, I call it a night. I’m still recovering from the worst bout of food poisoning I’ve ever had, so serious food is out of the question, but Jack Daniels and rolls makes for an effective sleep aid. Manage to get just enough to function reasonably well for the meeting the next day.

Now, I knew that my boss was going to be in a sour mood and spoiling for a fight. It strains his fragile ego to go back to the investors and ask for more cash, especially since he has no satisfactory answer to the questions about where the first $3 million USD went. My expectation was that the meeting would start off fine and then quickly degenerate into a shouting match, as The Rug Merchant chose his target among the assembled officers. In this I was not disappointed.

What I did not anticipate was that the intended target for his childish rage would be yours truly. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming, but by the time he really got rolling I was seeing red and quite literally contemplating murder. In short, in an effort to deflect attention from his own obvious shortcomings, he repeatedly called me a liar, and insisted to all assembled that I lacked the skills or ability to make any decisions beyond what to have for breakfast. It’s important to realize that this, in his mind, was not a personal attack on me, rather an attempt to conceal his own failures and shift the blame to the investors’ hand-picked representative. Like three years of no profits could be blamed on the guy who’s been in-country for four months.

After a serious shouting match, during which The Rug Merchant actually threatened my life if I returned to Kabul, I excused myself and went back to my room to chain-smoke about twenty cigarettes. I was pretty convinced at that point that I was fired. However, cooler heads intervened (as they often do) and the money-men and my boss came to some sort of understanding. The end result is that I keep my job (whoopee!) and they will consider sending more cash to keep the whole enterprise afloat. Although I personally wouldn’t give the scumbag a dime, I’m hoping they do just that, since the company now owes me a hefty sum in back pay. Without that cash infusion, I stand little chance of actually getting paid for my time here.

After the meeting, The Rug Merchant and I were bestest pals again, at least on the surface. I’m fairly convinced that he actually has pushed the whole thing out of his mind. In the lobby as we left, he apologized for saying what he did (he didn’t mean it, of course, it’s just the way he operates) and started talking about how we had to work together to get The Godfather et. al. to send more cash. We’ll see if that happens.

Suffice it to say, I’ve had a long string of bosses in various industries, each one worse than the last.*

*Especially the time when I was self-employed. Man, that guy was an asshole.

But I have never had a boss who so effectively combined a massive ego, the mental capabilities of a retarded child, and an overbearing personality. Truly lacking in any redeeming qualities whatsoever. He may have forgotten the incident by now, or at least considers it something to be relegated to the past. I, on the other hand, have not. Nor will I. Rage and free-floating hostility are what keep me warm at night. All the better to have a focal point for it.

On the plus side, I did get to sit next to Prince Muhammed Nadir Khan on the plane on the way back. Nice guy, for a royal, and a lot more entertaining than the Minister of Commerce.


Yes, I’ve been very lax about posting lately. Standard excuses apply: too much work, not enough sleep, wonky internet connections, and a laptop that seems unable to cope with Kabul’s summer heat.

Oh, and laziness. That too.

Anyway, I’ve got some new stuff coming up soon. I’ll set it up to post every day or two, so as not to overwhelm my massive fanbase with a deluge of random thoughts. Much of it will be from several weeks ago, but it should still be mildly entertaining. Or not.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Things Some Afghans Believe

Inspired by a similar post by S4 at War, here are a few things some Afghans believe:

  1. US and ISAF forces are here to conquer Afghanistan and steal the oil.
  2. The ICRC is actually a front for Christian crusaders, and they force locals to convert to Christianity in order to receive medical treatment.
  3. There is a brothel on every US base, staffed by local girls kidnapped by US forces.

A dose of reality for any Afghan readers out there:

  1. Afghanistan doesn't have any oil. That's why petrol is imported from Pakistan. You've seen the tanker trucks on the Jalalabad road, right?
  2. Has anyone ever met an Afghani Christian? Or even seen a church? Local Christians are pretty thin on the ground around here, and I doubt the ICRC could get their shit together long enough to convert anybody.
  3. There's not even a bar on US bases, much less a brothel. General Order No. 1 prohibts a range of items and activities that conflict with local sensibilities, like alcohol and pornography. I'm pretty sure prostitution is on that list as well. Besides, have you seen Afghan girls?! I mean, they're nice......if you think Groucho Marx with bad teeth and more facial hair is attractive. No one would pay good money for that.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Booze in Basra

No, Basra is not in Afghanistan, but the following quote from Col. Patrick Saunders, the last British commander in Basra, has a special relevance for me:

"I found it had a very important role to play in easing grief and helping people unwind. And I found a glass of whisky at the end of an operation helped me unwind. We should not be too prudish about the small vices: drinking and smoking -- they can be great comforts in times of danger."

Well said.

From the Foreign Policy piece by Tom Ricks.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Women of Afghanistan, Part Two

The first post on women in Afghanistan touched on some of the socio-economic difficulties faced when a country marginalizes half of its population. But really, the problem I have with the status of women in Afghanistan is more personal than that.*

*Yeah, we’re discussing “personal problems” now on this blog. Brace yourself for a bunch of touchy-feely introspection and stuff better left for a therapy couch.

It’s difficult to explain the effect that limited interaction with the female of the species has on a society and on individuals. To be honest, I didn’t notice it for the first month or so that I was here. Probably I was too busy adjusting to all the big differences (food, sanitation, work, etc.) to notice the more subtle things. Something was clearly different about this place, but beyond the obvious stuff, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that seemed so off.

I’m not sure that even now I fully understand the ramifications of a male-dominated society, but I can tell you that it’s very different than what I’m used to, and not in a good way.*

*There are probably several of you (you know who you are) who are rolling your eyes right now and muttering words like “misogynistic” and “chauvinist.” Bear with me.

Now, to placate those aforesaid eye-rollers and doubters, let me state unequivocally that women, at least the ones I know, for all their niceties, can be annoying, difficult and even occasionally infuriating. Yeah, I haven’t changed that much; I still think that way.

But without the input and participation of women, or even their mere presence, everything changes in very subtle but significant ways. The tone and style of conversation changes, even if the content is the same. The tenor and feel of a meal is different, more atavistic.* Even walking down the street becomes a hyper-masculine exercise in territoriality, not helped by the fact that the big dogs have guns.

*The primitive style of meals probably also has something to do with the fact that Afghans don’t so much consume food as they attack it. With their hands. Somehow, if women were in charge, I don’t think they’d allow their men to eat like that.

Status is everything here, with a constant battle for superiority and dominance, over the nation, the tribe, the village or the office. Even in small groups of close associates, Afghans are constantly vying for position, always trying to establish their Alpha-dog credentials, or at least get as close to the Alpha-dog as they can. In many ways, the entire country is trapped is this bizarre hyper-masculinity, largely due, I think, to the total lack of the ameliorating influence of the female of the species. So, yeah, I kind of miss women. Who knew?
As a follow-up to a comment on an earlier post (and because I know that the person who left that comment will understand this):

Turkey Creek Jack Johnson: Why you doin' this, Doc?
Doc Holliday: Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.
Turkey Creek Jack Johnson: Friend? Hell, I got lots of friends.

Doc Holliday: ...I don't.

The Difference between "Friends" and Friends

On a recent evening, I was witness to a sad sight. A good man, dedicated to his job and his compatriots, a top-notch operator in the truest sense of the word, is leaving Afghanistan, probably for a while, perhaps forever. So we had a going away party for him, prearranged so that everyone had a chance to attend. Advance notice is everything in this town.

We arranged transportation, paid for dinner, drinks, etc. And how many showed? Five. Myself, two of his co-workers, and two guys from one of our clients who were there for the free drinks. With the exception of myself, the people invited had known him for years, depended on him for protection and security, literally trusted their lives into his care. And could they be bothered to appear? No. Sad. And pathetic.

Perhaps it’s indicative of the relationships that develop in this business. Perhaps it’s indicative of the people one meets in this business. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I spent the majority of my adult life depending on others for my personal and physical security, I would hope that when that relationship ends, I would have the stones to at least take the guy out for drinks. Or show up when he's the one buying the drinks.

Fucking assholes.