Many of the items in Kabul's Bush Bazaar are food and cleaning supplies that have presumably been stolen from NATO deliveries to Afghanistan.
Many of the items in Kabul's Bush Bazaar are food and cleaning supplies that have presumably been stolen from NATO deliveries to Afghanistan. Sean Carberry/NPR
"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.
Afghanistan's economy still struggles, but years of Western assistance have helped keep markets well-stocked, like the Old City Bazaar in downtown Kabul.
Afghanistan's economy still struggles, but years of Western assistance have helped keep markets well-stocked, like the Old City Bazaar in downtown Kabul. Sean Carberry/NPR
"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.
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.