September 1973 – Economic upswing for stamp makers Back in Kabul, back at the Green Hotel on Chicken Street. We get a triple room without being asked and nobody knows why. Michelle dared to drive again and I sat nervous in the rear and acted as if I was completely relaxed. All three of us
September 1973 – Economic upswing for stamp makers
Back in Kabul, back at the Green Hotel on Chicken Street. We get a triple room without being asked and nobody knows why. Michelle dared to drive again and I sat nervous in the rear and acted as if I was completely relaxed.
All three of us are a bit sad. In a few days our paths will separate. Monika and I want to continue through Pakistan and India to Bangladesh, which became independent just two years ago. Michelle has to fly from Kabul to London because she got a place at university and has to be at the uni in time. A few days we still have time but as a precaution we already exchange addresses and telephone numbers and promise to visit each other.
The situation with our visas for Afghanistan still seems to be complicated. Since there are stamps from the “Royal Afghan Embassy” in our passports, these visas are no longer valid. The kingdom is history and we need exit visas from the new republic. And indeed, as announced, they are only available at the Passport Office in Kabul.
The office is in the Shar-E-Naw district, not far from the Indian embassy. From our hotel within walking distance. Right after breakfast, the three of us set off. Less than 15 minutes and we see a queue of colourfully dressed foreigners at the entrance of the building. There are probably 30 or 40 people outside – I can’t estimate how many people are waiting inside the brick-house.
The atmosphere is relaxed and there is a rumour that the official, who can read passports printed in Latin script, is not in the house right now and that everyone is waiting for him. At least it is clear that nobody is working inside at the moment, because nobody is leaving the house either. Around 10:00 a.m. there is movement in the waiting group. A woman in a police uniform stands on the stairs and distributes application forms for new visas. Well, finally! The documents are handed over in small piles. In front of us a friendly rumbling can be heard, occasionally also astonished laughter. When we receive the forms, it is clear why: The applications for a new visa are written in the languages Dari and Pashto only. And probably nobody can read that out here.With big gestures the officer asks for some patience, and it really only takes a few minutes, then four or five scriveners from the Indian embassy come over to our place. The men bring a tiny folding table, an even smaller stool and a typewriter. Not an unusual picture, because these writers can be found in Afghanistan and many other countries in front of almost every authority, every office. What is amazing is that these scriveners can obviously read Latin script. With an illiteracy rate of almost 70 percent in Afghanistan, this is certainly a special aptitude. And the men get right to work. After a while it becomes clear that they only need four to five minutes per form and passport. In one hour we should have our new application.
But it comes a bit different than expected. It suddenly starts to rain – and there is no roof wide enough for us to shelter under. But the guys with the type writers know. Only about 100 meters away there are a few small stationery shops.
“Our” scrivener pulls us three and a few other people behind him through the first big drops. His travel-typewriter has almost completely disappeared under his jacket to protect it from the rain.
In here they sell ballpoint pens and pencils, erasers and rulers. This is also where the professional writers surely buy their writing and carbon paper. I can observe that writing paper is not sold in hundreds or five hundred packages but individually. Sheet by sheet.
I am sitting on a box in which blackboards are obviously kept. There is an agonising narrowness – but somehow it works. At least it is dry. Outside there is a doomsday mood. A cloudburst in which the drops fall so densely that you can only see a few metres away. It’s almost dark – there’s no electricity in the stationery shop anyway.
The small niche behind the counter is interesting. There sits a young man, maybe still a child, carving letters and simple symbols out of a rubber plate with tiny, sharp knives. The stamps he makes are about 5 x 4 centimetres in size. “VISA” is visible on top. Below the term “Republic of Afghanistan”.
It’s my turn. The scrivener takes my passport, inserts a form with three carbon copies into his machine and starts typing. After less than five minutes it is ready. Not a single question, not a look at me. Then Monika. After all, the man with the typewriter appreciates her for a look – just as he looks at Michelle from time to time later. Now it would only have to stop raining, then we could move over to a photographer near by.
At some point it clears up again. The writers trot back to the Passport Office and we walk towards the photographer’s place. Huge puddles are standing on the street – there is no sidewalk. We arrive at the photo shop with completely soaked sandals. It smells intensely of chemicals, in a showcase there is a Kodak bellows camera and next to it a “Kodak Instamatic” from the 60s. On the shelf behind the counter is a large number of films. Of course Kodak is well represented, Agfa and to my surprise ORWO, the films from the GDR.
The man wants to know if we are in a hurry. He offers us “normal” passport photos. They would be ready for collection in two days and would cost a dollar for four. In black and white of course. And then he would also have photos that we could take with us immediately. Does he really have a Polaroid camera, here, in this tiny shop in Kabul? Yes! He has. Instant pictures with a Polaroid Land Camera. Four pieces for 10 dollars! That’s a steep price! 10 dollars for each of us. For 30 dollars we can quite often go to dinner in the best restaurant in town…
We do it anyway. About a quarter of an hour later we all have three black and white passport photos and of course our finished application with three copies. Another ten minutes later we are again standing in front of the Passport Office near the Indian Embassy. But they are closed. The corridor and probably also some offices are under water and from inside we hear a “Tomorrow, tomorrow”.The next morning, of course, we are already standing on the stairs at the passport office shortly after eight. It was a totally shitty night, as we knew that in two days the separation of our trio would take place. Sleepless and with a booming headache we hand in our visa applications with the copies, the photos and our passports. There is an additional fee of $10 per person. “Wait outside”, asks the English speaking lady in uniform. And then it doesn’t take more than half an hour and a bearded old man brings the passports. He briefly compares the photos in the passports with our faces, finds everything for good and hands us the passports.
The visas looks adventurous, the writing in the stamp is hardly to read (it is probably also hand-carved) and it is valid one week only. For us it’s okay, we wanted all three out of Afghanistan anyway. Other travellers have problems with it and have already inquired what to do. A Swiss woman, perhaps in her mid-20s and with a figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger, was told that she would have to leave in any case but could apply for a new visa without any problems at the Afghan embassy in Pakistan or Iran, for example. She is devastated and is just calculating what the “short trip” to apply for a new visa will cost.
In her passport there is not such an “exotic” stamp as we have it now. She tells us that a few days ago there were no rubber stamps at all. The officials carved themselves quite imaginative stamps from potatoes in the first days of the republic…
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 16 April 2019. It’s title will be “September 1973 – A sad Farewell”. New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total.
Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia.
He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots.
To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at)australia-news.de (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)
My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic.
In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973. Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister.
I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country. Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants.
Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved. Dieter Herrmann
Translation from German to English with the help of www.deepl.com