I wake up early in Kabul, even when I need more sleep. Something always kicks its way into my consciousness. This morning (Sunday) it was word that a man was outside our gate with a big stick and he wouldn't go away.
It wasn't the first thing I heard as I lay on my cot, or the most important. There were some distant booms. Backfiring? Artillery? Mine clearing? And there was the pop-pop of a military transport ejecting defensive flares or chaff as a precaution as it landed at the airport nearby.
But all news is local, and the guy with the stick certainly was.
Like most first reports, this one, from the Afghan who watches our gate, was not quite accurate. It wasn't a stick, it was a cable lock from a bicycle. But, no matter. The guy, who looked about 18, said he was a translator who wanted money from a free-lancer staying in a room at our house. Claimed he was owed $30 from two months ago. The free-lancer, unarmed but physically much bigger, said he'd actually overpaid the guy, including a cash wedding gift, and the two set to arguing.
I and the other USA Today reporter in the house were staying out of it, except to make clear that this situation had to be solved. As we drove off to a news briefing on the upcoming loya jirga, the big Afghan national assembly, the two were yelling at each other in the street.
I could feel the momentum, and it was already hot. On some other day I might have done something. Is it possible to call a cop here? When we returned, we found out that there had been some shoving and hitting and some nearby Afghan soldiers broke it up. Not good, but by Afghan standards not much, and it seemed to be over.
My translator troubles, however, were not over.
Larry, the USA Today guy who's been here several weeks, is getting ready to go home. I just got back here on Friday to cover the loya jirga and Afghanistan in general for the next few weeks. I can't do it without a good translator. Skilled translators are hard to find here. Many educated Afghans fled during the wars. The school system collapsed, and women were denied education under the Taliban.
We had a terrific guy named Ahmed until a couple of weeks ago. I worked with him on two of my previous visits to Afghanistan. Not only was his English good, but he had picked up a feel for news. When I'd have a story assignment from the bosses, or an idea of my own, he made suggestions for interviews. He was a former translator for the foreign ministry during the Taliban, so he had a good professional manner, which also helped.
Our relationship with Ahmed ended because he got himself classified as a refugee so he could leave Afghanistan for Sweden, where his young pregnant wife and her refugee family were already. Sweden is about as different from Afghanistan as anyplace on the planet. I wonder if the culture shock will be too much.
Ahmed recommended a successor, Hamayoon, and Larry hired him for two weeks of tryout. He was studious and reliable. Only problem was he couldn't translate conversation. So, today we let him go. He didn't make it easy. Carefully pronouncing his words, he told me three different ways (I didn't think he could do it!) that he hadn't been given a fair shake. Of course, he had. But I still felt lousy. There are few jobs in Kabul, hardly any that pay as well as the $50 a day that journalists pay translators. Larry paid him and he left.
I went to the United Nations to turn in Hamayoon's press card. The woman looked surprised—translators rarely are fired, and especially on the eve of a big event. "What was the problem?" she asked. "He can't speak English," I said. "Oh, like the rest of them?" she quipped.
Fortunately, a friend from the Daily Telegraph recommended a solid-seeming guy named Tamir who just moved to Kabul. He's lived and worked with journalists in southeastern Afghanistan, the former Taliban territory where rumors say Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar may still be hiding. I asked him about racing down there if they are captured, the Big Story we're all waiting for. "Of course," he says. "I have family and friends there." I wonder who they are, but it gives this guy extra points in my book.