Afghanistan
4:13 pm
Tue August 21, 2012

In Afghan Bazaar, U.S. Goods At Bargain Prices

Originally published on Tue August 21, 2012 9:13 pm

"Welcome to the Bush Bazaar," says Zach Warren, an American who has spent years working in Afghanistan. He's giving me a tour of Kabul's shopping districts as we buzz around the city on his rickety motorcycle, slicing through the city's traffic.

It's one of the worst-kept secrets in Kabul that most everything in the Bush Bazaar was pilfered from NATO trucks and bases — except for the counterfeits.

The suspect origin of the goods helps explain the everyday low prices at the Bush Bazaar, named after former President George W. Bush, who launched the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan back in 2001.

"This was obviously named before the Obama administration, and the name just sort of stuck," Warren explains. "So, this is the bazaar where goods that have quote, unquote, 'fallen off U.S. trucks,' are assembled and sold again."

Vendors are selling industrial-sized cans of ketchup or cleaning supplies — items that look exactly like what you'd see in a pantry at Bagram Air Field, the huge U.S. base north of Kabul. The prices in the bazaar are less than half the usual cost.

We enter one shop that is full of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. These are the prepackaged military rations that are for military personnel and are not meant to be sold commercially. There are giant, tan-colored packets of "maple-flavored syrup," and "breakfast cake" MREs.

We speak with the owner of the shop, Fahim, who says he's had this shop for two years. Like other vendors in the bazaar, he's reluctant to discuss the details of his business operations with a couple of Westerners and an audio recorder.

"He says he buys it from a shop at Bagram," translates Warren. "And my guess is you can be assured that doesn't happen."

So, if you find yourself in Kabul and want to buy MREs and combat boots that your American tax dollars have already paid for, the Bush Bazaar is the best place to shop.

Busy Markets

But it's by no means the only place to shop in Kabul.

A decade of foreign assistance has not created any Western-style mega-malls in Kabul, but it has helped keep the traditional markets well-stocked, like the ancient Old City Bazaar, which is still considered the city's central market.

"It's one of the biggest bazaars, and you can buy virtually anything here from dates to mangoes to toilet paper," Warren says.

The bazaar snakes through dirty streets and alleys lined by old buildings in various states of disrepair. Shop after shop is packed with cheap household goods, mostly imported from Iran, Pakistan, and China.

We turn down an alley into what seems to be the home improvement section of the bazaar — there's shop after shop full of tools and pulleys and shovels.

"You don't have Wal-Mart-style convenience stores," says Warren. "You have rows of a particular product. Teapots, for example. This area here, this is all for serving tea."

Despite all the teapots and ladles, I note that there's actually no tea in this section.

"No, there's no tea. Probably have to go somewhere else for that," says Warren.

On the subject of tea, as we walk along, several vendors call for us to visit their shops.

"In some ways here the hospitality is quite aggressive," explains Warren. He says that there's an old expression that says you can decline the first invitation to join someone for tea.

"If they say it a second time, they really do want you to come for tea — they're not just saying it," continues Warren.

"If they say it a third time, they're kind of ticked at you if you don't," he says. Warren explains that in Afghan culture it's an honor to host a guest. "Especially if you have a foreigner who's come from a long way away, it's a big honor," he says.

The bazaar seems to wind on endlessly. About 80 percent of the vendors and customers are men and boys. There are few women, and even fewer Westerners.

"To be honest, I don't spend too much time here because it's a security risk for me," says Warren. "It was a lot better in 2005-2006, and [has] progressively gotten worse. During the midday like this we're fine. But you wouldn't want to be here later at night."

Nice that he waited until after we are deep in the center of the bazaar to mention that point.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

NPR's Sean Carberry recently wrapped up an assignment in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. He sent us this postcard after visiting two of the city's most popular bazaars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLES)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Small Chinese motorcycles are one of the preferred methods of transportation in Kabul. Zach Warren, a Georgetown University Ph.D. student who spent years working in Afghanistan, is one of the few Westerners who travels the city on two wheels. One afternoon, I hopped on the back of his rickety motorcycle, and we sliced our way through Kabul traffic. Our destination: the main bazaar in the old city section of Kabul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ZACH WARREN: So this is a central area for Afghans to shop. It's one of the biggest bazaars, and you can buy virtually anything here from dates to mangoes, to toilet paper.

CARBERRY: The bazaar snakes through dirty streets and dodgy alleys lined by old buildings in various states of disrepair. Shop after shop is packed with cheap household goods, mostly imported from Iran, Pakistan and China. This looks like the home improvement aisle. It's all sorts of shops with tools and pulleys and shovels and...

WARREN: You don't have Wal-Mart-style convenience stores. You have rows of a particular product. Teapots, for example, this is - this area here, they're all - this is all for serving tea.

CARBERRY: But there's actually no tea in this section, is there?

WARREN: No. There's no tea, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: You probably have to go somewhere else for that.

CARBERRY: The bazaar seems to wind on endlessly. At least 80 percent of the vendors and customers are men and boys. There are few women and even fewer Westerners.

WARREN: To be honest, I don't spend too much time here because it's a security risk for me.

CARBERRY: Nice that Zach waited until after we're deep inside the center of the bazaar to mention that point.

WARREN: It was a lot better in 2005, 2006, and sort of progressively gotten worse. During the midday like this, we're fine, but you wouldn't want to be here maybe later at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: So despite calls from various vendors to visit their stalls, we hop back on the bike and head across town to another and completely different market, one where you'll actually see some Westerners out shopping.

WARREN: Ah. Welcome to the Bush Bazaar. So this is the bazaar where goods that have, quote, unquote, "fallen off of U.S. trucks" are assembled and sold again.

CARBERRY: It's one of the worst-kept secrets in Kabul that everything in this bazaar is either counterfeit or pilfered from NATO trucks and bases. Vendors are selling industrial-sized cans of ketchup or cleaning supplies, items that look exactly like what you'd see in a pantry or closet at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul. And the prices are less than half of the usual cost. Maple-flavored syrup. (Unintelligible)...

WARREN: Maple-flavored syrup. Oh, yes. So we've got the breakfast cake MREs here.

CARBERRY: Yeah. Maple-flavored syrup. Yeah.

FAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: We speak with the owner of the shop. His name is Fahim, and he's had this shop for two years. Like most of the vendors in the bazaar, he's reluctant to discuss the details of his business with a couple of Westerners with an audio recorder.

WARREN: So he's saying he buys it from a shop at Bagram, and my guess is you can be assured that doesn't happen.

CARBERRY: So if you find yourself in Kabul and want to buy back MREs and combat boots that your tax dollars have already paid for, the Bush Bazaar is the place to visit. Sean Carberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.