Kabul is a city of walls and gates. A city where homes that could fit into Miami or southern California neighborhoods sit next to shells of buildings and mud huts. The homes that are designed to be shared by several unrelated to one another are referred to as guesthouses. You can spot the guesthouses by the guards outside the gates and/or the guard shacks often surrounded by sandbags. I suspect but am not sure that my living accommodations are similar to those of many expats living in Kabul and working for NGOs.
The house I live in has both a nickname for the university drivers and a security call sign. The nicknames are often related to something unique about the house (e.g, it’s color, it’s garden) or when there is nothing particularly unique about it a name chosen by someone at security. My house is named after a large bird symbolic of the United States. I choose to ignore the “patriotic” tone of the name and just think of the bird (being a birder and all that appeals to me). Actually houses often have multiple nicknames. Addresses are not a standard part of life in Kabul. Main streets have names. As far as I can tell the city is divided into districts and the streets within districts are numbered. I think that in theory the houses on streets are numbered though I am not sure how that would make sense given the demolitions and construction that takes place. Directions are given from main roads and traffic circles followed by counts of roads before a turn and then counts of gates and descriptions of gates. This brings us back to the the multiple nicknames. Once you use something like a taxi service (there is an approved list of those that the security company allows us to use), they log the location of the house and give it a nickname. Often the nickname is the person who first uses the service. For example, one of the other guest houses for the university is known as “Helen’s House.” There are also “Older Adam’s House” and “Younger Adam’s House.” You might be asking yourself about mail delivery — it goes to the post office where it might or might not make it out again.
Of the university’s guesthouses that I have seen, most have both a large double gate or two for automobiles to drive through and a smaller walk through gate. As the drivers approach the gate they radio the guards on duty at that house with the appropriate call signs and codes. Part of the team opens the gate while others armed with automatic rifles step into the street and cover it while the automobile enters. The gates are then closed and passengers are collected or dropped off. Behind the gates you find considerable variety. Some of the houses for the university have gardens, one even has fruit trees and a jungle gym for kids. These tend to be the older houses. Others, like the one where I live, are almost entirely covered with paving stones that are typically arranged in colorful patterns.
The house where I live was only finished this summer and like many of the new constructions seems to consist of two joined towers (if you can call something three stories high a tower). There are outside entrances into each of the towers both 1/2 story above and below ground. Though you can’t see it from the outside, there is a large ground to roof open column of space with a reflecting pool at the bottom and the walls facing this column of space are almost entirely glass windows. On each level there is a walkway that connects the two sides of the house.
There are two main levels in each tower plus a basement and one room/bathroom on each side of the roof. The two main levels each have three bedrooms. One in front of the stairs for which the bathroom is across the entryway and two at the back of the house with bathrooms you access from within the room. As you walk from the stairs toward the back bedrooms you pass through a common area with windows out the outdoor atrium (not sure what to call that column of open space). These spaces contain an odd mix of things. Almost all of them have refrigerators (the one outside my bedroom has two). Some of them have a dryer in that space. Some have both a couches/chairs and a dining table. For the floor that I am on, we decided as a group to make the space on one side of the house a sitting area with the television and the space on the other side a dining area with a large table and chairs. In addition to the dining table, you will also find an ironing board and drying rack in our area.
Off of this open space there is a kitchen with a smallish propane stove, a bottled water dispenser, a sink, and cabinets. I haven’t figured out how to use the oven yet. It doesn’t have temperatures on the dial and I haven’t been able to find an oven thermometer to figure out what temperature corresponds to the various marks. The kitchen were partially equipped. They came with a microwave, a coffee pot and electric tea kettle, a few plates/bowls and really awful quality pans. “My” kitchen seemed to inherit a bunch of mismatched and often useless things from an a guesthouse the university no longer uses. The kitchenware available here seems to be largely from China and of very poor quality. One odd thing about the cabinets both in the kitchen and in built in storage in the rooms is that the shelves seem to be meant for someone 6.5 feet or more tall and pretty much only the bottom shelf in the top cabinets is useful without a step ladder.
As you walk past the kitchen you enter a short hall to the back two bedrooms. My bedroom door is at the end of the hall. The bedroom is quite large. I would guess 12 feet or more wise and 20 feet or so deep. The wall at the back of the room has a large window; about 70 percent of the wall is the window. The room came furnished with a queen-sized bed on a very simple frame, a lovely rug, a side chair, a desk and chair, two night stands, and a vanity clearly not meant for anyone over the age of six. They have also delivered a cabinet/shelf unit and a coat rack since I moved in. Much of the simple furniture (e.g., chairs, tables, bed frames) for campus is built on campus. The rug in my room is a deep red with a design of roses and a simple border in shades of beige and tan. The walls are a pale yellow and the woods in the room are mostly golden.
On the same wall as the door to the hall is the opening to a short hall with built in cabinets that serve as dresser and closet. The hall leads to the bathroom. The bathroom is one large space that is tiled with ceramic tiles from floor to ceiling. Within that space are the toilet with the hot water heater on the wall above it, a urinal which I use as storage for cleaning supplies), the sink, and in one corner a shower head above a drain in the floor. There is a small window that is useful for light; its ledge also provides a place for shampoo and such to sit.
The basement is lade out a bit differently as it has a large room that connects the two sides of the house. There is some exercise equipment in that room and there is talk of moving the various washers and dryers into a bathroom in the basement.
As one would expect in this type of setting the house does not have central heat or air. There are wall air conditioners in each bedroom. The public areas are not air conditioned but between large windows that can be opened and ceiling fans they are not too bad even when the temperatures are in the mid to upper 90s. For heat there are radiators in all the rooms and we all hope that they will actually work this winter. The floors throughout the house are marble with the exception of the bathrooms. The house is filled with inconsistencies in terms of some very high end details and materials (from a US standpoint) such as elaborate crown moldings and gorgeous railings for the stairs combined with signs of poor workmanship, cracks in some walls even though the house is new, poor quality furnishings, and things that would be seen as tacky by most U.S. standards (the light fixtures especially fit this category).
The house in which I live fills nearly the entire lot. The two main floors have large balconies on the front of the house. I don’t feel comfortable using the balconies other than after dark. When on these balconies, you are visible from the street which means that you need to be covered with a scarf and such if you are outside on them during the day. The other outdoor space available to us is the roof. This top floor has only one bedroom and bathroom on each side of the open column and the rest is a large open space. It has nice views and is relatively protected from view from the street. If we had more and more comfortable patio furniture there it would be a better gathering place. Surrounding the house where I live there is a large mostly vacant lot/excavation area with a very small house on which I look down from my bedroom window. On one side is what feels like a middle class sort of home with a lovely garden and an older building that appears to be a guesthouse on the other side. Across the road is a compound that I haven’t figured out yet.
I share the house with 14 people. Three of the people (one married couple and one man who’s wife may join him) live in the basement and have little or nothing to do with the rest of us. Two of the people on the second floor are seldom seen. The rest of us interact on a more or less regular basis. Other than the female half of the married couple who live in the basement and myself, there is only one woman in the house she is the person I have come to know best here in Kabul.
Some photos of my home and views from the house can be found by following thislink: