Hot pants and high jinks in Kabul at Christmas

Ali waits patiently.

Andrew assures me our favourite taxi driver has no qualms waiting for hours on end while he jumps out and rummages for images around the cacophony of activity on the street. I soon realise why.

On a late afternoon outing to photograph near an old British hill top fort, the light fails. Traffic is our enemy, so Andrew opts instead to stalk one of the polluted river canals, along which the locals walk home to dinner.

“What on earth is that music,” I say to Ali from behind the passenger front seat as we sit.

“It’s Shakira, see I’ve got a TV” he points to the screen nestled in the console. I’d not noticed it before.

Shakira’s Lebanese, I tell him, having read on a Beirut tourist pamphlet that she’s one of the country’s most famous exports.

“No, not Lebanese. She’s from Brazil’. Oh, right, ok maybe half Lebanese then. Judging by the way she moves across the screen, it’s pretty clear which part of her is Brazilian.

“Are you allowed to watch this kind of stuff?” I’m entranced and bemused. Outside the car in the cold dusk two women move past in burqas heads down, shuffling quickly through the dirt. Inside, Shakira wears nothing but hot pants, a sparkle bra and long flowing blonde hair.

“Ha” is all he says. We’re quiet for a while. “I really like her. She’s my favourite,” he is nodding, eyes on the screen.

I bet she is.

As the traffic clears, we opt for a Christmas eve drink at one of expat bars across town – L’atmosphere. Its red tones, open fire and post-modern block prints of advertisements like “Visit Palestine” make it an easy place to settle in to.

Sirens and police car horns are going off as we cut through the city centre. Hey you know what, I’ve not seen an ambulance yet, I say to Ali, dwelling on the noises rising from invisible emergency vehicles. “Yes we have them. They are here. If you call one in Wazir Akbar Khan or Shari-a-Now it will come quickly”, he tells us. Bully for those people a few more suburbs out. Another police horn.

Hang on, Andrew says from the front seat. Was that you, Ali?

“Oh yes it’s me. It’s this,” he waves a tiny remote control panel with a three inch anteane that’s been clasped in his hand the whole journey.

What? I’m perplexed.

Ali sets of the police horn. And a police siren for good measure.

We laugh like school children. In Australia, you’d get in to a lot of trouble for having that, Andrew tells him. Yeah, it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, I add (law degree finally coming to some use).

“But what if you have a police car?” Ali says. We’re silent, mystified. What do you mean?

“This is a police car.”

Ah, I’m pretty sure it’s a taxi.

Something, somewhere has been lost in translation. I know about kickbacks for local cops but I’m not sure $US14+ fare for our daily trips between the compound, the music school and the cricket ground constitute that.

He whips out blue and red flashing lights as if to prove his point, securing them to the dashboard and leaving them whir round as he drives. Now I just feel like a bit of a knob. I mean, I’m still 98 per cent sure we’re in a taxi, and I’m almost 100 per cent sure that everyone else on the road knows we’re just a taxi.

A proper, real, green, armoured four wheel drive police vehicle drives past and instinctively I turn from the window, drawing my scarf over my face already hidden by the darkness.

We arrive at L’atmos and part ways with Ali, agreeing to meet on Thursday for a tour of the Bush Markets – named, we later learned, after the man who put the Americans here, and comprised of various military paraphernalia that just happened to fall off the back of a truck en route to Bagram.

The bar is suffering from one of the city’s regular power outages and a concurrent glitch in its own generator. We make our way in, the only customers, and scan the drinks list by candlelight.

Ten minutes in and the lights blaze back on. I notice a Christmas tree, sparkling in the corner. It makes me finally feel like the Kabul orphan I am this year, knowing the family’s all at home, drinking something better quality and less inflation affected than my $US10 Johnnie Walker Red.

Nostalgia edges in quietly, until Michael Bublé’s rendition of White Christmas brings me crashing back. Thankfully, the track comes to an unnatural end two versus in, which is not to say they don’t stop trying to play it again. And again.

Mercifully, the evening call to prayer puts paid to any further attempts as the bar tender jumps and turns the stereo off. Another reminder that Western culture might be here, but it’s not always a comfortable relationship.

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