Indian Decade

Stability Within Chaos?

Money exchangers offer a rare glimpse of stability and security in a country better known for conflict.

When Jalil Akbari saw me approaching his roadside stall at the Shar-e-Now market in Kabul, he thought I was coming to exchange currency. Without waiting for me to say anything, he started offering me a good rate for U.S. dollars. I told him in Urdu, of which most Afghans understand a little, that I actually just wanted to talk with him about his life and profession. He had quite a story to tell.

Displaying wads of currency from different countries on a small table, he offered to take my Indian rupees in return for “Afs” as the Afghani currency is popularly known. The 56-year-old has been a money exchanger for the last 30 years. At any given time, you can find bundles of currencies lying openly on his table, a foreign concept in most countries.

People in Afghanistan don't generally go to banks to exchange currency. They come to roadside money exchangers who offer them market rates. After all, the banking system isn’t all that strong or reliable in this war torn country.

This kind of occupation has served as something of a rare constant in Afghan society despite four decades of conflict. Even the harsh years of Taliban rule didn’t really affect the profession, Akbari tells me. Money exchangers are ubiquitous in parts of Kabul and other cities. Indeed, they are the first people to greet you when you are exiting Kabul airport.

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I wondered how these people could so openly display so much money. It’s hard to imagine someone doing this in New Delhi without putting themselves at risk. Yet despite the prevailing poverty and problems with security, you don’t hear about money exchangers being murdered or looted. It appears Afghanistan has been allowed one small reprieve amidst the seemingly never ending bloodshed and violence.

Akbari tells me that he isn’t worried about being robbed, but does get concerned about the periodic suicide attacks in the city. Just last month, he says, a Taliban attack took place near where he works. But he adds that uncertainty is now really just a part of day to day life for him.

Still, there’s undoubtedly an underlying sense of fear and uncertainty among the public here, and especially young people. What does the future hold after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014? Akbari says that no matter which regime is in power, he’ll soldier on.

“I don’t care what is going to happen after 2014. I know for sure life will keep on going, I will manage meals somehow as I have done in the past at the worst of times,” he tells me.