I keep forgetting what the purpose of this realgem exercise was. While I try to remember, we here present some glib idiot observations for those unfamiliar with the environment in Kabul.
Languages - We have Afghan Persian or Dari, spoken in Kabul and throughout central, west and northern Afghanistan, and the language of literature, culture and government. We have Pashtu, the oldest surviving Indo-European language alongside, I believe, Lithuanian, and bloody difficult to learn, spoken throughout the tribal south and east. There are many minority languages, such as Pashai, spoken by the kuchi, who are nomadic gypsy goat and camel herding types, plus Uzbek and Turkmen, which are Turkic languages spoken in the north. English is not widely understood, and any given person on the street is just as likely or unlikely to speak Russian or German, a legacy of communist-era educational exchange policies - such as which ISAF / UN / the Coalition have incidentally absolutely failed to implement.
Urdu is relatively well-understood, as so many people have spent time as refugees in or have other connections to Pakistan. It is not, however, recommended to walk around starting conversations in Urdu and assuming people will understand, as to many people, Pakistan is the home of the Taliban, suicide bombers, dodgy counterfeit electronics, over-spiced food, and Pakistanis, ie. everything evil, essentially.
However, if you know any Urdu, you will be at a great advantage if attempting to learn Dari, as it is full of Urdu words. Or more accurately, Urdu is full of Persian words. Urdu is and always was a bastard mixture of different languages, including English, created in and for the army camps of the vast and disparate Mughal Empire and later the British Raj. I was watching Pervez Musharraf on al Jazeera the other day, addressing the nation in Urdu after the Lal Masjid incident. One fairly typical sentence went something along the lines of: "Pakistan ka population me to social divisiveness bahut increase kia, is liyee pressure develop hua..."
Salad - The salads in this country generally consist of three slices of cucumber, two slices of tomato, one slice of onion and a green chili artfully arranged next to a mountain of grilled meat and nan bread, for decoration. Gutt. Don't be a vegetarian here. People will think you're weird.
Alcohol - For all that this is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, it is actually much easier to buy booze than in Pakistan, Iran, or even several states of India. Even a great many conservative, bearded, and apparently good Muslim patriarch types will often display a great fondness for Stolichnaya. For many people, alcohol is a status drug (like cocaine and yuppies in the 80s/early 90s), while hashish and opium are common and vulgar.
Burqas - The infamous blue all-enveloping things that in Pashtun areas are worn by pretty much all women in public and are not uncommon elsewhere as well. So how on earth do you check out girls in the street when you can't see them? Watch the locals carefully and take your cue from them - stare hungrily at their feet. Yes! It's amazing what you can learn to tell about women from their ankles and feet!
UN departments and NGOs - There are hundreds and hundreds of different NGOs getting in on the war reconstruction industry scam, and hundreds and hundreds of foreigners riding the UN gravy-train in hundreds of different UN departments. There is an absolutely bewildering array of different acronyms to master, and we aren't even beginning to consider the military here.
Examples: "Ok, I'll see you at UNIPLIP", "No no no, you're on the wrong side of town, I said UNIPLOP!", "Hi, I work for UNAPOG", "Were all the UNIPUTT people at the party?", "No, but most of the UNMOCRAP crowd were there".
Therefore I have decided to set up a FAKE U.N. BUREAU, or in UN bureaucracy-speak, to UNILATERALLY INSTITUTE A NEW U.N. DEVELOPMENT AGENCY!
No one will notice! They'll all fall for it! The working title for now will be UNANT (inspired by seeing an ant dragging a huge leaf get lost and start going in circles, hence United Nations Ant Navigation Training). I'll put a big white and blue UN sign outside, drive around in a big white SUV with UN painted in blue on the side, infiltrate the UN scene, and generate impenetrable reports and papers and incomprehensible protocols and institute committees that sit for years, until they have no choice but to legitimise my bureau.
Journalists - I have started to hate journalists and journalism with a vengeance. With a couple of exceptions, I grudgingly add. Fucking vultures, fucking futile, smug, self-congratulatory self-important wastes of space and oxygen. Do something fucking useful for a change. It's all one great big circle-jerk. It makes me hate myself and wish I'd done something genuinely useful with my life. It makes me want to join the US military, 'cause then I could waste press reporters and TV vehicles with a .50-cal from the comfort of a Black Hawk chopper and eat plastic-wrapped pre-fried vacuum-packed eggs for breakfast. That would be great. At least the first part.
Humvees - I just can't get around it, but I hate those damn things. There is something wrong with the whole aesthetic factor. To my eye they just scream at you to shoot them with an RPG.
The security situation in Kabul - I was at first disoriented by how very quiet it was in Kabul. Even in Peshawar and elsewhere in NWFP, there is a constant background crackle of happy-fire in the evenings. Here, total silence, except for one far-off and muted explosion a week or two ago, which was caused by a car-bomb that splattered two American 'security contractors' (ie. private-sector as opposed to public-sector grunts).
Most foreign media organisations and NGOs and particularly UN departments have strict security rules for their staff, including lists of security-approved restaurants, guest houses and venues. Consequently many ex-pats never see anything of Afghanistan beyond a few 'safe' streets through the tinted windows of an SUV and a few ex-pat restaurants and bars, and many journalists arrive and get their stories from secondary sources, with a quote or two from some authentic real locals that their fixers dig up for them.
Conversation among certain ex-pat circles in Kabul often revolves around the 'security situation', and how suicidally foolhardy it is for a foreigner like me to move around in local taxis, walk around at night, and especially to accompany Afghans to unknown locations and not let anyone know where I'm going. There is, after all, still a war going on in this country, and the number of attacks against foreigners both civilian and military have been steadily increasing the last couple of years.
However, any understanding of this should include, firstly, the knowledge that "Afghanistan situation spiralling out of control" is a headline and "Many Afghans actually like foreigners being here and think the Taliban are nutcases" is not, and secondly, that all the security consultants and officers of the various organisations have to justify their continuing over-blown salaries while avoiding being re-posted to Kandahar or somewhere even less hospitable.
The worst risk of violent death in most of central to north Afghanistan is probably being too near a US public or private-sector military convoy just when an IED or a flock of chickens flapping across the road startles the .50-cal machine-gunner, who then lays waste to everything in sight.