The Nomad’s method
“Why in alphabetical order?” and “How do you define a ‘country’?
These are the main questions I get, along with the amused remarks that it will take Virtual Nomad quite a few years to go through all the places, books and food. I’m unconcerned because there are no timelines ‒ for now ‒ so our virtual journey will take as long as it takes. Time runs with an incredible speed but still manages to stay relative. Virtual Nomad is a nomad after all, and the journey is often more important than the destination.
As for the questions, the first one has made me think. Why do we need this rule, and why not just jump first to those places that are most accessible or we fancy the most? Pick a group of 30 and forget the rest? Just do the usual suspects of world cuisine and the work is done!
While pondering this, my marvellous friend MM from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides gave me the answer.
“Every place has an equal value for a nomad, and the fairest way to approach them is in an alphabetical order.”
So, alphabetical order that is.
To define a country is also tricky so, for now, we will just make it up as we go and hope that our good intentions as we celebrate counties and regions, people and peoples, will suffice. This may lead to disagreement over definitions at some point, but for now Virtual Nomad is bubbling with fresh positivity and an adventurous spirit.
Therefore, the journey begins.
First stop: Afghanistan
The first stop Virtual Nomad takes is Afghanistan, a mountainous landlocked country in Asia with slightly over 40 million inhabitants. Surrounded by six Central Asian states, Afghanistan has a long history of unrest and armed conflict. The capital of Afghanistan is Kabul.
I can place it on a map, have a high degree of awareness of its recent history and I also have close friends that have lived in Afghanistan. Yet I have still been amazed, when taking a closer look, at the composition of the society ‒ its diverse ethnic groups and the richness of the cuisine,
L and A could roughly place Afghanistan in Asia and for them it resonated with the Taliban and the repression of girls ‒ an unfortunate reputation for any place to have. Commencing our virtual globetrotting with Afghanistan means an interesting immersion to the rich culinary tradition, juxtaposed by images of the harsh reality that my children are not used to.
To ensure a soft landing, I have decided to start with food.
There are several Afghan restaurants in Sydney, mostly situated in the Inner or Outer West of the city. We chose Bamiyan in Five Docks. Supported by stellar reviews and a lovely name, Bamiyan is situated on the second floor of a commercial building looking towards a little plaza.
The restaurant carries the name of a city in Afghanistan where the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues in March 2001. While you choose your meal from the generous menu, you can read about the destruction of the statues and what was an immense loss to our global cultural heritage. The first of many heartbreaks on our journey.
The restaurant is cosy with friendly and attentive staff. The food is delicious and well deserving of the glowing reviews. I chose a vegetarian dahl ‒ a wonderful and delicious combination of flavours. JK and CH selected lamb kurooti and kabuli pallow rice, while L had an impressive looking lamb tikka skewers. We also ordered vegetarian ashaak (dumplings). Dessert was rice pudding and halva – different from the Moroccan one I am more used to but still with a hint of halva aroma.
CH, who immediately was promoted to the Special Advisor of Virtual Nomad (with more than 130 countries under her belt), told us about her solo-woman trip along the Silk Road ‒ an amazing adventure driving through different countries and landscapes. She showed photos that were very impressive, with an interesting tale emerging from each image.
I told a story about an old university friend who lived in Afghanistan as a child. One day his parents were going to take him and his brother to see the Buddha statues, but he had eaten ice cream from a street vendor (despite being advised not to) and became too sick to make the journey. His parents and three year old brother went, and my friend has regretted that ice cream to this day.
Bamiyan gets 5/5 from us ‒ top marks for food, service and setting. It really is an example of a restaurant getting everything right.
Afghanistan in images
The Afghanistan trivia of the night had been swallowed by the aroma and flavours of the cuisine, so the closer look at the country itself had to wait. The next step was to search for documentaries or other information on Afghanistan. Welcome to the Internet! Foreign Correspondent has documentaries on Afghanistan but the heavy content could prove too challenging or too boring for children. So…
Youtube is an excellent source for everything irrelevant but it also offers an opportunity to expose children to information without strongly challenging their attention span. I chose three Youtube videos as an introduction to Afghanistan.
The History of Afghanistan summarised by ‘Epimetheus’ is a fast train through the turbulent history of Afghanistan – pure facts of endless wars and domination. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, with each region getting invaded by one ruler after another before emerging into a turbulent 20th century that offers little relief.
Then comes even more conflict and wars. Then the Taliban, and the inevitable question from A: “Who are the Taliban?” L provided a quite accurate and interesting explanation that made me proud.
The next video is from a New Zealander Nick Fisher, aka Indigo Traveller, who travels around the world and gives a traveller’s perspective. I found the video Walking Streets of Afghanistan to be slightly overdramatised in the narration ‒ “A tragedy strikes Afghanistan on a daily basis” but the comments on the video are overwhelmingly grateful to the Indigo Traveller for documenting the daily life in Kabul, so it certainly has value.
It was an easy enough watching experience for L. It was uncomfortable for A, who is tormented by the images of malnourished children. L was more interested when he visits a women’s bazaar.
The last video was the one that had L most glued to screen. Life under Taliban rule: the Afghan girls fighting to go to school is a documentary by the Guardian that reflects the challenges girls face under the Taliban rule when not allowed to go to school. The girl in the documentary wants to be a doctor but is reduced to watching her brother depart for school every morning. Instead she teaches herself English at home, hoping to become a doctor one day.
There are so many other videos on Afghanistan on Youtube. Not all of them are happy ones, particularly the recent ones.
In Afghanistan: What’s life like under the Taliban?, girls in a secret art school talk about the challenges of creating art under the Taliban. In order to look at some contemporary art, L and I read about Negina Azimi , an Afghan artist that fled the country. She was part of an artist collective, painting murals around Kabul that were later destroyed by the Taliban. More of her art here.
The Kite Runner
Virtual Nomad includes reading a book or two from each place we visit. I have read ‘world literature’ (what a word!) extensively in the past, but have long planned to read a book from every country. Others have done this before me so I cannot take credit for the idea. It is the aspect of the Virtual Nomad journey that gets me most excited, while my fellow Virtual Nomads are more enthusiastic about the food.
The Kite Runner is the most famous contemporary book by an Afghan-born author. My dear friend SB, a soul sister of Middle Eastern origin and Professor of Communications told me it is the one to read. The book is so famous that everyone around me seems not only to have read it, but also to have seen the movie. When I mention the book, people often nod knowingly, making me wonder why I have taken this long to read it.
The Kite Runner is the first novel of an Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, a former physician who, since the success of the book, has been able to write full-time.
The book is compelling, riveting and captivating. It is a tale of guilt, redemption and tradition. It is structured in several acts: Afghanistan, diaspora and the return to the motherland. For me this plays in an uneven landscape.
I found the first act the most captivating – the main character’s childhood in Afghanistan and the tale of inequality, betrayal and cruelty through the lense of a child. It is the part that feels most authentic, most lived and most real. The themes are big: loyalty and betrayal, set in the majestic landscape of 1970s Afghanistan, which is beautifully conveyed.
The second act – diaspora – is also interesting. It’s a story that is familiar to any immigrant to some extent – how to maintain what comes with your background while negotiating that cultural baggage with your new home. It features the power play between the values and moral codes of the place of origin, navigating the lifestyle and customs of the new place.
I found the third act of the book to be less convincing. The main character returns to his childhood environment – a very changed Kabul – in search of redemption. It feels more forced and more distant, so I struggled to connect with this part of the story.
The book, published in 2003, was a huge success and was followed by a movie adaptation in 2007. The movie is available on Youtube for rent so I decided to watch it on one particularly chilly southern winter night while the children slept.
The movie is beautiful. Like any adaptation, it does not reach the heights and nuances of the original source, but it is visually pleasing and has a few very compelling performances. It is a good movie to watch for L (a teenager) but not A (preadolescent). I found reading the book first and then watching the movie to be the correct order.
The charm of the movie is in the stills, the landscape, the images and the silences more than the story itself. The movie was banned in Afghanistan due to the ‘sexual nature’ of some of the scenes – where there is actually nothing sexual in the sexual violence that is insinuated but not shown.
Before the Virtual Nomad moves ahead, we stop to read the latest news from Afghanistan (May 2022). The latest news is that the Taliban have forced all female on-air presenters to cover their faces. Another sigh and more heartbreak.
The next stop for the Virtual Nomad will be Albania.
I take this opportunity to thank the very wonderful JK for his editing craftsmanship.
Virtual Nomad would not be without you.