Saying “yes” to everything here is the easiest way to fall down a metaphorical rabbit hole into one of the other dimensions that abound in these parts. Take last Sunday: a friend of mine who works in the ‘security sector’ (a self-confessed war-profiteer) asked me if I wanted to come along to President Hamid Karzai’s home to measure up some bomb-proof windows for his house. It’s quite a complex technical job and he wanted me to take pictures for reference in planning. So I said yes. I mean how often do you get to nosey about round a world leader’s back garden. Especially one that is reportedly two scotch eggs short of a picnic and suffering paranoid delusions and prone to making random threats to join the Taliban (they said no by the way). He’s not quite Michael Jackson but Presidential Palace Number One is the NevergettoseeLand of Afghanistan.
El Presidente lives in the middle of what is termed the ‘Green Zone’. It’s actually grey. Dirty grey. Thirty-foot concrete blast walls, watchtowers and razor wire surround the whole area. It is also home to ISAF and NATO bases and a number of foreign embassies. Access to the forbidden zone is difficult to say the least. The threat of suicide bombers is omnipresent. So just approaching the gate means you have to run a gauntlet of twitchy machine gun wielding policemen demanding ID and performing intrusive body searches.
The people who guard this place rarely spend time in the outside world so approaching barriers requires the light touch. Don’t look like an assassin is my tip. Security at each gate becomes more thorough as the level of protection and paranoia increase in equal measure. Finally we reach the inner sanctum. Disappointingly for you, my dear viewer, they confiscate my camera.
Being an unpopular president of an unstable country in the middle of an insurgency may be cause for a certain amount of suspicion. Hence the suited and jackbooted Presidential Protection Service who escort us into the inner sanctum. They don’t carry weapons but look like they could handle a few rogue window fitters.
Despite the forbidding atmosphere it seems peaceful, almost serene. This is as far away from the dusty, choking potholed streets of Kabul as you can get. The last 400 yards is on foot and the car free tree-lined boulevards remind me faintly of the Mall in London. Birds flitter from tree to tree as old bearded and trusty gardeners water the rhododendrons.
I don’t really know what I am expecting but the ‘Palace’ itself is a bastardised version of the Scarface mansion and an office block. It’s Tony Montana meets Frank Lloyd Wright. A 1970’s modern rectangular two-story shaped carbuncle, it seems to have more bolt-on bits than an A-Team assault vehicle. There is a steel missile-proof roof that has to be supported by giant steel columns so the roof doesn’t collapse. Consequently it’s pretty ugly, like a souped up Mercedes with Meccano extras that’s now unrecognisable from the classic piece of engineering saloon that left the factory in Germany.
Normality comes in the shape of a few children’s toys strewn around the garden and an oversized plastic moulded Fisher Price tree-house activity centre. There is an abandoned rusty barbecue left forlornly in the corner. The sound of laughter seems to have left this place a long time ago. Behind the beautiful maple trees there is a fenced-off mini safari park populated with some stunted deer-like creatures and, incongruously, a large cow looking as out of place as I feel. There is no sign of a llama. There is no fun fair. Trying to imagine a normal family unit co-existing here is a step beyond.
A lugubrious looking butler appears with a silver platter of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in fine heavy cut glasses. I try and imagine Barack Obama on his most recent visit chilling with Hamid on the sun-loungers imbibing from the same tumblers whilst chewing the fat and discussing the Great Game. It’s not happening.
As we complete our business measuring up the building for another blast-proof steel-framed bullet-proof encasement bodge job I try and peek inside the darkened windows, much to the annoyance of the shadowing close protection officers. No one has seen his wife in public for eons but I am trying to imagine her sat on a sofa in a dressing gown, comfortably eating in front of the giant plasma TV watching Indian soaps. As I walk along the first floor balcony I am startled by a mini-me-Karzai in Spider Man pyjamas banging loudly on the window from inside. He wants a game of peek-a-boo, which I duly engage in until, like a normal six-year-old, he gets bored. As do I. I want to leave. Can we go now please?