Bird Watching in Kabul

parrots-close-upNature is all around us, even in the most desolate of areas. Flowers bloom in the desert and doves can roost in abandoned churches. In Kabul it’s a different kind of search for nature we’ve made a daily ritual. We call it birdwatching. Although its not your average type of bird we are searching for on the streets of Kabul.

It started on day two or three as a way to signal my photographer, Tony, that there were burqa clad women in the area. It is not good form to take photographs of these or any other women pubically. So Tony grabbed shots of these blue spectors as we drive through the town and more subtly when we are encountering them in the streets. I came to start referring to them as bluebirds due to the vibrant color of their burqa. “Bluebird at 2 o’clock” or “Check the bluebird coming our way”.

It was the start of a series of shorthand that allowed us to give directions quickly to get shots, and to communicate in code so that it wasn’t obvious to those within listening distance what we were shooting. The second bird to get tagged was the blackbird. Blackbirds are the private security roaming the streets hanging out in the back of coal black jeeps. These sunglass wearing, ammo carrying, dress in black are the big boys and NOT someone you want to be caught photographing. They were a goal of ours to capture an image or two as they epitomize the bad ass, in your face, shoot now – ask later, vibe that roams the streets.

Prevention dubbed the Afghan polic, parrots. They drive around in green jeeps, sqawk loudly on bullhorns during heavy traffic. Tony lives in Pasadena, where wild parrots live and they are the bane of his existence. Quite fitting as these Afghan parrots are the bane of our existence as well. Should they spot you shooting (photos) from within the car, they WILL start squawking up a storm. Our shorthand became, “Parrots on the left” or “check behind us for parrots”. Checking our tail, so to speak, so as not to ruffle any feathers.

One of the shots I wanted for the trip was a close up shot of the rag tag flock that makes up the Afghan police. Towards the end of the trip, we were running out of time. Walking down Chicken Street we came to a jeep with police pouring out of the back waiting for their driver to return. Tony suggested that maybe we get the shot ‘legally’ by simply asking. Looking over we decided that I would walk over and see if they would be willing to take a photo WITH me. I adjust my headscarf and stride over just as the driver returns and motions for everyone to get in. I quickly assert myself and the flattery works like a charm. Handshakes all around, names given and received, and then – all turn to face the camera. Voila! Our parrots were caught!

Tying our theme together is the scattered groups of streetchildren, begging for scraps, asking for money, and selling gum, magazines, and sweets. Dubbed street sparrows, these children swarm around the entrances of tea houses and restaurants, hoping for a morsel. Najibullah carries around very small bills in his pocket and will typically give them all 10 Afghanis (about twenty five cents). The buzz quickly spreads so that almost immediately the surrounding area becomes a flutter with little sparrows pecking and searching.

As dusk comes, the sparrows and bluebirds disappear, the blackbirds fade into the darkness, and only the parrots remain. Swarms swirling around the traffic circles, squawking away noisily, loud but in essence, useless.

photo by Di Zinno

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