Signs of progress can be spotted around Kabul. Among the most picturesque: newly lighted homes pressed up against the hillside. At dusk they form electric constellations stepping out to offer some cheer amid the mud and dust which surround them. The transmission of electricity from neighboring Uzbekistan also means the city has gotten a lot quieter: foreigners and Afghans alike are learning to live without the thumping hum of generators which for years have powered their houses and offices at exorbitant fees.
Kabul University also has changed over the past half a year. A new German reading room is open in the sprawling library whose collection had to be rebuilt after the Taliban, and the library now features the same "no cell phone" warnings as college libraries across the globe. The university's cafeteria is the only local eatery in which men and women sit in the same room with no one -- aside from the abundant crop of monster-sized and remarkably loud flies -- paying the slightest bit of attention.
At an early morning meeting, I learned of another, rather more unlikely Western export making quite an impression here. After my very gracious host wheeled out a breakfast of naan bread, cherry jam, cream, and chai tea, he asked where I lived. When I told him Los Angeles, he quickly recited to me a list of American wrestlers, some of whom came from Los Angeles and most of whose names I readily confess I had never before heard. Batista, who heralds from Virginia, was a particular favorite.
I had a far more traditional cup of tea with a group of women the other day who were asking me about American wedding habits. Weddings here in Afghanistan are madly expensive affairs which cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, and many times much more. Guest lists easily and regularly top 1000. When I told the women that Americans regularly marry two and three times, they shook their head in astonishment. I tried to explain that this was because we are an optimistic people who never stop believing in the promise of marriage, but I confess that got a bit lost in the translation.
Campaign season is on in Kabul. Posters are all over the roadside and news conferences have begun attracting reporters keen to cover the start of the election. I asked one young woman whether she planned to vote. She joked with me that the most handsome and the most appealing candidate would have her support. This very scientific rationale will surely sound familiar to anyone used to covering American presidential elections.
One group of Afghan women is taking the elections very seriously. They are a network of activists and community leaders pushing the presidential candidates to include women in senior and significant government positions. No more will they be satisfied simply to have a Ministry of Women's Affairs, they say. They want qualified women to serve as ministers and ambassadors and deputy ministers. Much like women's groups in the US urge presidential candidates to represent women once in office, these women are mustering a constituency and speaking the language of political power. They have the votes, they say, and this time around they want to be heard, heeded and seen in the next administration.