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Afghanistan: 'Bush Bazaar' Offers A Taste Of Western Life

By Ron Synovitz and Freshta Jalalzai

KABUL, September 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Each day at dawn, 35-year-old Kaka Ajmal travels to a fenced plot of land near Kabul's presidential palace to set up a small shop under a tarpaulin.

Like other sellers there, Ajmal stores his goods during the night at a warehouse that is watched over by armed security guards. In the morning, he moves it to his stall.

Before the sun has time to warm the ground, dozens of similar traders have transformed the area into what Kabul residents call "Bush Bazaar."

Named after the U.S. president, the market is where Afghans can buy cheaply priced supplies that apparently have been gleaned from foreign military bases.

It is an unplanned economic effect of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan.

The Bush Bazaar is in central Kabul on a road leading to the military bases for most countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Ajmal explains that the bazaar was named spontaneously and unofficially.

"It was ordinary people who gave this name to our bazaar," he says. "When Soviet forces were in Afghanistan, it was called 'Brezhnev Bazaar.' Most everything sold here at that time was made in Russia. Now we sell mostly American-made goods. So people are calling this place 'Bush Bazaar.'"

Wearing blue jeans and an Afghan military jacket, Ajmal says the Bush Bazaar has become the lifeblood for dozens of traders who set it up after the collapse of the Taliban regime:

"It was a very dirty place before," he says. "We didn't have a job so we came here. We cleaned this place up and we set up this market. In the beginning, there were only about 20 of us."

From Toiletries To Beer

Karim-ul Allah is a tall, 50-year-old seller at the Bush Bazaar who wears a turban and has strands of white hair in his long beard. He says much of what he sells comes from Afghans who work at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul or at other foreign military bases to the east of Kabul.

"This is foreign product," he says. "It comes from those Afghans who work with foreign troops as interpreters or workers. They bring all this food and other things here to sell. Sometimes Afghans receive food as gifts from Americans and they don't eat it. They sell it to us. Sometimes foreigners distribute food as aid in provinces where the people are not used to eating such things. So they sell it back to us."

Employees of foreign nongovernmental organizations have complained to RFE/RL about seeing food aid they've brought to the country appearing for sale within 24 hours -- suggesting some who sell western products may have ties to Afghanistan's nascent black market.

But in many instances, packages of food sold at the Bush Bazaar are close to their expiration date -- suggesting they may have, indeed, been thrown out or given away by foreign troops.

Karim-ul Allah says Afghan officials now monitor the market to ensure that Afghans who are unable to read the expiration dates are not buying outdated products.

"In the past, we used to sell some expired goods. But not now," he says. "Every thing you see around here contains the correct expiration date. Supervisors from Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health come here quite frequently to check the food and drinks."

Afghan law forbids Muslims from buying alcohol. But cases of beer -- somehow, apparently, taken out of foreign military bases or shops for foreigners -- also can be found at the Bush Bazaar.

Whatever the supply sources may be, one thing is certain. The Bush Bazaar is a place where ordinary Kabul residents can buy authentic Western products that are more expensive or unavailable elsewhere.

Zelgai, a young Afghan man, says that is why he regularly shops here.

"I am here at Bush Bazaar to buy food and other things," he says. "I regularly come here, twice or three times a week. I buy meat. You can find very good food here, full of protein and energy. It is not beyond the expiration date and the quality is good."

Some Afghan athletes from as far away as Herat and Kandahar say they find protein supplements at the Bush Bazaar which, in combination with their training routines, help to build muscle mass.

Soaps, shaving cream, and even over-the counter medicated shampoos also are sold there.

Ready-To-Eat Meals

One example of a food that has become popular at the Bush Bazaar is a Louisiana Creole dish called 'jambalaya.' It is sold in tin cans as well as packages from U.S. military rations known as "Meals Ready To Eat," or MREs.

The canned jambalaya is a rich soup stock created from vegetables, meat, seafood, and hot spices. Rice is added to the broth and the flavor is absorbed by the grains as the rice cooks.

But Jambalaya was never intended to be sold or distributed to Afghans. Unknown to many locals who have been buying it, one of the meats in jambalaya is pork sausage -- a food that the Koran forbids Muslims from knowingly eating.

Karim-ul Allah says he tries to warn Afghans about eating food that contains pig meat. But he says that doesn't stop him from selling it:

"Yes. Why not?" he says. "Here we sell many kinds of food that Muslims don't buy. Our costumers sometimes buy food for their dogs -- for example pork, but not for themselves. And [non-Muslim] foreigners buy these kind things because it is not forbidden for them."

But most of the items sold at Bush Bazaar are not forbidden for Muslims -- and that brings back many Afghans and foreigners looking to experience tastes of the West.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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