World Watch: Playing through in Kabul
KABUL, AFGHANISTANIt used to be a minefield, but now it's the Kabul Golf Club. And today is a momentous occasion: the first-ever Kabul Desert Classic golf tournament. Twenty-eight westerners are playing nine holes. The winner, it is advertised, gets a one-night stay at the Serena Hotelwhich has not yet opened.
White rocks line the course to show that it was recently demined. Thistle bushes grow all over it. To get from one hole to the next, one must scramble across ditches and run the risk of a sprained ankle. The players must carry around little round pads of artificial grass, which they put down for each shot because of the condition of the "green."
John Dempsey, a 34-year-old lawyer from Boston who is advising the Ministry of Justice here, got the idea to organize this tournament with a couple of friends a week and a half ago. They managed to raise $4,500 in four days, which will go to a nongovernmental organization that helps orphans. He bustles around making last-minute changes to the list of players.
"Some people couldn't get security to come out," he sayswhich probably means they are from the U.S. Embassy, notorious for keeping the tightest grip on its employees. He stands on a chair to explain the rules: "If your ball lands right next to a wall of dirt, you are allowed to move the ball one club length so you have room to swing."
The caddies mill around, waiting to be paired up with the players. They charge $5 for the day.
Javed is 12, and all the others say he is the best golfer of the group. His words of advice for a novice golfer on how to improve? "Practice." He says he comes here every day after school and practices for one to two hours. Who is his hero? "Afzal," he says promptly, referring to resident golf pro Muhammad Afzal, who is also the manager. But then, he has never heard of Tiger Woods.
The players separate into teams of four, beginning at different holes. I choose to follow the team that includes a 58-year-old named Van Auburn, who is here visiting for a month. Auburn learned to golf at the previous incarnation of the Kabul Golf Club back in the '60s, when he attended the American International School in Kabul because his father worked as an economist for USAID.
"This is amazing to me," he says. "I never thought I'd golf in Kabul again."
The team tees off on a rocky promontory. Cars packed with families going on Friday picnics by the reservoir, just above the golf course, slow down to stare. For many of the players, this is their first time playing. A family with a red carpet spread out under a tree by the second hole watches nervously. As we walk over, the family members smile and invite us for tea. "It's OK; it wasn't that close," the father says. He points to the ball, which lies 10 feet away. They come here every Friday for a picnic.
On to the next hole. Ian Holland, a 38-year-old Brit working at the Ministry of Finance as a budget adviser, scratches his head. His ball has landed on a mound of fresh dirt in the middle of the course, which he believes to be a grave. "Do you think we are allowed to move the ball off the grave?" After some quick consultations, he gingerly picks up the ball and moves it before taking his next shot.
By this time, there is somewhat of a traffic jam on the road that runs alongand in some cases throughthe course. A few of the bolder boys have jumped out of their cars and stand on the edge of the green watching with fascination.
"I've seen it on TV but not in front of me," says Fahim Daftani, 23. "All I know is, this is a game that rich people play. I don't even know what it's called." He turns to a friend. "Is it colf?"
"No," the friend replies. "I think it's 'golf.' "