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Glimpses inside Afghanistan

Entrepreneurs keep a wary eye on the future

August 27, 2012
By DAWN THOMPSON ( , Messenger News

Editor's Note: Dawn Thompson was a reporter for The Messenger from 2001 to 2008 when she enlisted in the United States Army. A Special Operations soldier, she is currently on her second deployment to Afghanistan. This is the fourth in a series of articles by Thompson on day-to-day life in Afghanistan.

Hallah Mohammad is an entrepreneur.

And in Afghanistan, where faith in the future is shallow and instability leaves the local economy quaking, being an entrepreneur means dreams are tempered by immediate pragmatism. This is why Hallah Mohammad, a family man from Parwan Province, deals in transportation rather than pursuing his true interest in food service.

If he could sell full-time what he calls "burgers," he would easily give up his bike shop and parking lot business. Burgers are sandwiches he makes with seasoned cabbage, potato slices, and hard boiled eggs wrapped in flat bread.

"I make burgers for friends," he said with a smile, "and friends don't pay."

Thus, he makes no money on burgers. Instead, for the past four years he has operated a parking lot for motorcycles and bicycles where clients pay him $3 a month to secure their vehicles. He currently watches over an average of 30 motorcycles and 25 bicycles, and he has recently started to offer small-scale repairs and services such as flat tire fixes and brake system maintenance.

Business competition exists in the form of another nearby parking lot in the village, which is why Hallah Mohammad started to offer additional services. It is also why he said he encourages the use of his shop as a taxi stop. Socializing is a popular pastime in Afghanistan, and by making his shop a communal point it provides a place for people to connect and interact for a bit before going to work or heading home to their families. Hallah Mohammad's shop then becomes more attractive than the other parking lot and, he said, hopefully more people want to park their motorcycles under its awning.

One day, Hallah Mohammad said, he would like to own a motorcycle of his own, but at the moment he settles for overseeing those parked at his shop and entrusted to his care. Motorcycles are a popular means of transportation in Afghanistan, he said. People like their easy maneuverability through mountain passes and their ability to transverse rough roads or quickly go off-road all together. Additionally, motorcycles are cheap and fuel efficient.

The appeal of roaming the landscape on two wheels stems from more than practical application, though. Motorcycles and their accessories are status symbols, Hallah Mohammad said.

"Everybody wants to buy the bigger motorcycle," he said, "but you buy what you can afford."

The most popular models Hallah Mohammad sees at his shop include the 150cc Parwin, CG150 Pamir, Prado, and Land Cruiser. Every motorcycle on his lot has a red gas tank except one, which has a purple tank. Purple is a popular color in Kabul, he said, but in the province, red is much more prevalent. Accessories vary too, but the most popular items include flashing lights, custom horns, fuzzy seat covers, leather covers for fuel tanks, and colorful flags or scarves that flutter while the bike is in motion. Hallah Mohammad said he likes the heart-shaped mirrors that are often added to further customize the motorcycles, as well as the circular style rear brake lights.

"Everyone wants sexy pictures, too," he said.

Sexy pictures are slick and flashy. Typically, they include city scenes in Dubai or other mid-Eastern urban centers. They are often framed and posted in place of registrations and license plates. This is technically illegal, Hallah Mohammad said, but the authorities don't really force the issue because they are often kept busy with more important matters. One regulation that is enforced though is the ban on lights and sirens that mimic police and emergency vehicles.

Again, in a country of war and instability, pragmatism tempers the creative impulse.



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