Vignettes | observations

Soundtrack to a city

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Since I arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, music has been a steady companion. From the daily calls to prayer to the trance of Sound Central, music has been both orienting and wonderfully disorienting, strangely familiar and – at times – just strange.

And “strange” was definitely the right word for it today, as I was shuttled around the city from meeting to meeting courtesy one of the taxi services that caters to expats. First it was the beloved beats of Reggaeton “Number 1 in Afghanistan!” the driver assured me as Daddy Yankee shouted about how much his girl liked La Gasolina.

“Do you know what they are singing?” I ask.

“No,” he responds, “my English is not so good, but I listen to music to learn.”

I wonder what the results of his lessons with the Daddy will sound like, but my thoughts are interrupted. At that moment we come to an intersection and face-to-face with a vehicle turning forcefully towards us. Because of the narrowness of the roads, the cars parked to either side, and the endless construction – for some reason, all of the city’s streets are being redone at the same exact time – driving in Kabul is a constant battle for right of way, with drivers playing chicken until one finally backs up and lets the other through.

The song changes, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t you wish your girlfriend was freak like me?

I watch the construction beside us. Laborers dig ditches on either side of the road and layer them with concrete. One day, there will be a working sewage system – or so they say. In the meantime, the ditches are open-faced, with narrow planks of varying sturdiness that allow pedestrians to cross (and sometimes fall, as was my case on Day 1 Hour 1 in Kabul…) Piles of gravel form complex obstacle courses for cars and people alike. Teems of workers, armed with diesel-spewing machinery, try to build around the moving mass of cars.


A worker pushes a wheelbarrow of gravel towards one of these ditches, whistling at the driver next to us to move. Another song comes on.

“I just want to fuck bad bitches…”

The driver next to us inches forward. He is trying to squeeze past us and into the tiny sliver of dirt between two parked cars that, clearly, will only bear one of us to pass. He glances at us and quickly rolls up his window. I wonder if he understands the rap song and finds the lyrics offensive? Unlikely, though I would be offended too  … if I weren’t so amused by the absurdity of hearing it blasting out of a car in Kabul.

With a sudden lurch, we win that sliver of dirt and leave the offended driver behind.

“You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub…”

We drive past a twenty-something man sitting on a chair on the roadside. He is dressed in desert camo and has his AK splayed across his knees, oozing alpha male. His ACU jacket is casually unbuttoned, revealing a tan t-shirt that can barely contain his muscled chest. The pattern of his uniform looks suspiciously similar to that of the U.S. Marine Corps. It wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. military uniforms are purchased on the black market, if my suspicions are correct. Combat chic is a hot look – and not just for expat contractors, it seems.

The next song surprises even me, as the Arabic rap is literally punctuated by the sounds of a woman’s pleasure. After about 30 seconds of this, the driver flips to the next song – whether out of sensitivity to my female ears or to the drivers on the other side of the rolled down windows I do not know.

We are treated instead to a Spanish language edition of Ricky Martin:

“Un, dos, tres, un pasito pa delante Maria. Un dos tres un pasito pa ‘tras.”

(One two three, one step forward for Maria. One two three, one step backwards now…”

Somehow, I can’t think of a more fitting song.


Eileen GuoSoundtrack to a city

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