Notes from the Field

An Afghan Farewell to George Varughese

April 29, 2009

After four years of stellar service in Afghanistan, George Varughese is moving on to represent The Asia Foundation in Nepal. Earlier this year, I was fortunate to participate in one of many going-away tributes to George – one organized by The Asia Foundation’s Kabul staff. The events of that day are going to be difficult to forget.

By Afghan tradition, non-family events are exclusive to either men or women, so the farewell tributes I attended were all-male. Earlier in the week, an all-female event had already been held in honor of Kala Gurung, George’s wife (fondly referred to in Kabul as “Mrs. George”).

At mid-morning one Friday most of the Foundation’s male staff was gathered in the street outside the Foundation offices. A great many were attired in traditional Afghan ethnic attire, displaying the array of groups represented among the staff: Pashtun, Tajik, and Hazara. They wore their clothes with much pride and shared details on the materials with which the clothes were made, the craftsmanship, and on the appropriate modes and styles of wear – length, color, fall, flow.

George Varughese himself was resplendent in a salwar kameez or payraan tumbaan (long tunic and loose pants), patu (large shawl) and a pakol (hat – Afghan beret). He looked natural in the outfit – like he belonged to Afghanistan.

The entire group then entered a convoy of a dozen vehicles and journeyed to the outskirts of Kabul – where ceremonies and a feast awaited. Given the tense security situation, it was an unusual trip – but made with the usual stringent security precautions.

First stop: a stark, cement block of a building, painted all-white, somewhat incongruously set in the brown, vegetation-bare, rolling hills. Inside, a martial arts training center adorned with posters of old (King Mirwais – the great Pashtun warrior who ruled over 17th-century Persia) and new (Bruce Lee). Some 40 young men, ranging in age from six to late teens, were dressed in white martial arts uniforms. Afghanistan placed silver in the World Taekwondo Championships in 2007, and there was much to show off. The young men put on a testosterone-laden demonstration of taekwondo and Afghan martial arts. Toward the end of the demonstration, the audience was invited to join in, with several of the staff members showing off their own expertise with fists and feet.

The martial arts show ended with George being asked to help award promotion certificates to the best-performing martial arts students. Then, George himself was awarded a certificate for being a steadfast supporter of Afghan-led development.

Afterwards, the entire group was led, on foot, by one of the senior program officers to his home – a typical suburban compound in Kabul: a large lot demarcated by 15-foot high walls of compacted mud. Within the lot were several buildings, which included his family’s living quarters, utility sheds, vegetable plots, and animal pens. The homes were constructed adjacent to the others, linked by small doors set into the thick walls – all contributing to a self-contained tribal community, a veritable fortress in an insecure world.

All guests were ushered to a remarkable receiving hall within the lot, one large room with cushions, carpets and pillows that lined the interior perimeter. Spread out across the floor was a feast of traditional meats and breads (obi non and lavash), prized rice dishes (chalow and korma), and the national rice dish qaboli palao. Bowls of fruits completed the spread.

After the large meal, sweets and tea were served. Many retreated to the verandah to enjoy the afternoon sun and camaraderie – taking turns at tales and anecdotes recounting life, politics, and the sheer adventure of work and encounters with George. Four years in Afghanistan is a long time – long enough to generate many stories, shared histories, much camaraderie, and memories that will last a lifetime. Clearly, George will be missed in Afghanistan.

Bruce Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s Chief Economist and can be reached at btolentino@asiafound.org. He blogs here about George Varughese, the Foundation’s representative in Afghanistan, who leaves Kabul to take the reins in our Nepal office starting May 1.

View all posts by V. Bruce J. Tolentino

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