|Postcards From Afghanistan 2003
Pamela Taylor Jennings
© Copyright 2003 by Pamela Taylor Jennings
25 April 2003
Kabul is a culture shock, no two ways about it. My childhood in West Texas (El Paso) early years in Guatemala and Mexico, later stints in Africa and the war torn Balkans helped prepare me for Afghanistan, but only partly. Kabul has the dust and dry heat of West Texas (though very bearable at the moment) the beginnings of the manic traffic of Cairo and the pollution of Mexico City. Even the little houses rising one on top of the other on the hills around Kabul remind me a bit of Sarajevo except here they are made of mud and the impression is that they are part of the mountain. Also like Sarajevo, beyond the hills around Kabul rise magnificent snow capped peaks. But the color of Kabul is uniformly brown, a five-year drought and massive destruction have seen to that.
It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with Bosnia and Kosovo because of the war damage one sees everywhere here. On my first day, the American couple I will be working with took me on a guided tour of the city. Zalmay, our driver and guide, although educated and with quite good English, clearly didn’t know the history of his own country. We had to stop and buy a guidebook by Nancy Dupree published in 1968 to get an idea of just how ancient Kabul is. According to Dupree there was already a town in the Kabul Valley when Alexander of Macedonia passed through the region in 329 B.C. in what is now Kandahar (infamous today of course as the home of Al-Qaeda).
But for Zalmay, Afghan history began with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and according to him Afghanistan’s own Mujahadeen are responsible for all the destruction in the country. I wonder if I will find this a widely held view? How many others agree with Zalmay that life under the Soviets was at least an orderly one with electricity, water, food and jobs? A lot of Americans (including me) believe that all people prize ‘freedom’ above all else. But aren’t we hearing today about some Iraqis lamenting the departure of Saddam because they fear the chaos and anarchy in his wake?
It was a sentiment I heard in Romania and others of you
have heard in other post-Communist countries, a sentiment which put former
Communists back in power in democratic elections over reformers because
they at least understood ‘order.’
Its still difficult for me to really appreciate this (but how could any pampered Westerner?) how a people could prefer living in a police state that ruled by fear rather than put up with the rigors that ‘freedom’ demands. But they will tell you they prefer to eat. And who can argue with that?
Each time we passed a bombed or burned out building we would ask who did this? Soviets? Americans? And each time Zalmay would reply in a disgusted tone of voice ‘Mujahadeen!’ The interesting thing to us was this Afghan’s insistence that his people bore the greatest responsibility! Zalmay considers both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance (Massoud is no hero to him) to be Mujahadeen. “Both were Afghans”, he said, “and they destroyed this country, first to drive the Soviets out but later in fighting each other and looting everything they could get their hands on.” Sound familiar?
We toured the ruins of Bela Hissar, the once magnificent palace overlooking Kabul, which has housed kings, Mujahadeen and Taliban and now lies in crumbling ruin. Zalmay said he thought it should be preserved in its ruined state as a reminder to Afghans who were already looking to blame Russians and others for its destruction. I told him about the Bosnian dilemma as to whether to preserve the offices of the Sarajevo newspaper ‘Oslobodjenje’; how some Bosnians want to leave it as a monument to man’s inhumanity to man while others want to restore Sarajevo completely to its former glory. Zalmay listened with interest and told me he agreed with the first group. “Forgetting is a dangerous thing”, he said.
We saw so many bombed out edifices that I couldn’t stop myself thinking about Sarajevo. I guess the difference is that the Mujahadeen succeeded where the Serbian Chetniks failed in bombing their respective cities back to the Stone Age. Restored Sarajevo today bears a strong resemblance to its former self (at the cost of millions of $$ of course). Kabul however, more resembles a backward African city with makeshift shops lining the streets and homes reconstructed out of mud and dung. Occasionally you see the remnants of Soviet-built multi-storied apartment blocks, or the tall former Information Ministry building dotting this antique landscape. And yes, Michael, the Shari-now Park is still here, though surely not as green as you remember it and the vineyards that climb the hills are brown and uncultivated. Raisins, not wine, once being a major export.
In fact my Guest Quarters is just across the street from the park. It is a haven of civility away from the dust and madding crowd with rooms around a garden courtyard. In fact I am sitting there right now listening to birds twitter as I write this. It’s not yet hot, unless you insist on standing in the direct sun. Perhaps 30 degrees but of course very dry. In the shade there is always a breeze and in the evenings I need a jacket and a blanket on my bed. I will probably spend a lot of time here because it is somewhat uncomfortable being a woman in the streets, even a foreign woman who is actually considered more like a Third Sex, as Simone de Bouvoir called it. Lisa and I wear scarves over our hair when we’re outside on the street but remove them immediately once inside. Some say foreign women don’t have to do this but we can see that Afghans like it and view it as a sign of respect. More important than wearing a veil however, is hiding one’s ‘forbidden parts’. Hence men and women both wear tunics over pants.
Well, this is much to long and I’ve only been here for two days. But I wanted everyone to know I arrived safely, I’m in a safe place and in good hands.
Stay tuned, Pam
2 May 2003
Just as I was going to write about how it’s beginning to get hot, we are suddenly enjoying a delicious cold snap. The sun is still brilliant but there’s a cold wind blowing down from the snow capped mountains ringing the city, oddly not kicking up much dust but then that’s probably because it also brought some much-needed rain last night which dampened things down a bit.
I’ve been moved to another room, a much better one, with the garden spread out before my window. I spend much of my time in this garden as I think I indicated before. Today is the Muslim Sabbath (we work Sundays) and I’m trying to type this with a warm sun on my back but a gusty wind making it rather difficult so I may be forced to go in. Naomi, you asked what kind of birds are in the garden. Only parakeets; parakeets of every color of the rainbow, about two dozen, all caged in a large airy aviary painted red. Very charming! It seems the Taliban banned all pets, even parakeets. I’m reading a book about a young woman who spent those years under that horrible burqa shroud and how the family set their parakeets free, thinking that was a better fate then having the Taliban kill them all. I wonder how long they survived in the wild.
Yep, The wind has won! I’m continuing this inside!
This week, I had a very enjoyable visit with a journalist
I knew from the Balkan wars who’s writing a book about Afghanistan.
He invited me to join him for dinner with some Afghan colleagues.
They took us to an Iranian restaurant where I had the best meal yet and
Faisal regaled us with tales about his 104 year-old father. Faisal
is only 29 so you picture the rest! Faisal says everyone calls him
Old One and his father Young One!
All three Afghans were excellent English speakers and well educated and I learned more in that one evening about Afghanistan than I’ve learned so far.
Faisal was born here but fled with his parents to India when the Taliban took over. Ishaq lived most of his life in Pakistan, first in refugee camps and later in Peshawar when his father found work. They are both still very westernized which made it a much more comfortable evening for me. We laughed and joked the way journalists in the field do anywhere in the world. I say ‘still’ very westernized because although lot of older Afghans grew up in a westernized climate in Kabul before the Taliban took over, it is amazing how reluctant they seem to return to the ‘old’ ways. It’s as if they are not quite convinced that the religious fanatics won’t come back one day and they are taking care not to offend such sensibilities.
For example the six guys in the office mostly wear beards although they’ve trimmed them shorter than the Taliban-dictated length of one hand. And all of them except my translator, Saboor, wear the traditional Afghan shalwar kameez (origin of chemise?), a tunic over loose trousers. Saboor is only 21 and therefore may be more optimistic or more defiant. When we walk the streets together, I hang on to his sleeve as we cross the madness of the traffic-jammed intersections and people call out ‘Hello, Hello’ in English. Saboor likes to respond ‘Hello’ back and leave them thinking he too is foreign because of his dark Indian looks. I call him ‘Little Brother’ and already affection has grown between us.
I discovered how wise my colleague Lisa was in advising me that equally important to wearing a headscarf, women also need long shirts, vests or tunics to cover their ‘forbidden parts’. Even here inside the westernized compound of my Guest Quarters where I am free to uncover myself, I see how the workmen grab themselves whenever I walk by. Even boys, who must be pre-puberty, do this! It’s as if it’s a subconscious instinct or reflex at the mere suggestion of this region of the female body.
One of the books I read about Afghanistan was by Tamim Ansary, who’s lived in America for the past 20 years and speculates that the essence of the great divide between fundamentalist Islam and Christianity is their differing views about men, women and sex in all its manifestations. In their effort to ‘protect’ their women from the perceived decadence of the West, Muslim fundamentalists have interpreted the Koran in the most puritanical way possible.
Faisal gave us a good explanation for why the Muslim world perceives the West as so decadent. US troops stationed at the Bagram air base just outside Kabul have a cable channel which can be received in a certain radius by anyone possessing cable TV. Late at night this channel runs foreign porno films for the edification of our US troops. It’s become so famous by word of mouth that Afghans from all over the city gather in the lobbies or homes or restaurants wherever this channel can be received. Late at night of course no women are out and about. I remember passing through the lobby late one evening to pick up my key and wondering why everyone jumped and flicked off the TV as I entered. They were all Afghans, most I’d never seen around the compound before.
Lisa also tells me it is nearly impossible to stop the porno Spam that pops up on the Internet whenever anyone in the office goes on-line. It’s hugely amusing to the all male Afghan staff but Lisa has made it clear we find it VERY offensive. This is important because according to Faisal, many Afghans think all westerners participate in pornography, after work, behind closed doors, because it appears to them to be such an omnipresent feature on foreign television and the Internet!!! Imagine!
Nuf for now. Stay tuned for my next installment.
9 May 2003
Tom was telling us the other day how the first thing he did upon arrival in Kabul was to walk the streets until he got lost. Lisa and I looked at each in mutual mock horror. Good for him! Neither of us would have considered such a thing. Tom seemed surprised at this reaction from his otherwise adventurous wife but finally admitted “I guess it is a bit different for women here”.
Yeah, a bit! It’s not that it would be dangerous but it’s startling enough to see unveiled women in the streets of post-Taliban Kabul let alone unaccompanied by a man. We do it nevertheless sometimes of course, but only to go quickly from point A to point B - always with a scarf over our heads which we wear out of respect, not fear. The luxury of strolling about, looking in shop windows and people watching is for the near future, I fear, a pleasure still reserved for men only. Even western men also have to expect to be stared at, harassed and followed by beggar children of course, but that’s a small price to pay for the freedom of wandering the streets.
I did get lost myself the other night - but I was in a taxi - so it was really the taxi that was lost. I had gone out to eat with a young Frenchwoman who shares our office compound (need to keep my French up!) and we thought we were so clever asking the waiter to call us a cab and explain that she needed to go to X and I needed to go to Y. The driver nodded vigorously; yes, yes, he understood everything and took off down the road, zipping right past Veronique’s stop without looking. We yelled for him to turn around which he did but then after dropping her we were heading in the opposite direction from the way I knew to get back to my place. We went round and round, none of the shopkeepers we asked knew my guest quarters and the streets were completely unrecognizable to me by night.
Finally I grabbed my mobile phone and called Faisal, the only Dari speaker I knew, who also knew where the Park was. He duly explained to the driver that it was next door to an Internet Café and voila I was home! Faisal later reassured me that I needn’t worry that Afghan taxis might take me for a ride in order to overcharge a foreigner. That “Indian habit” as he called it, hasn’t yet caught on here. Also Afghans, like most Muslims, have an ancient tradition of hospitality that means whenever you are in their place (home, shop, car) they must take care of you, even so far as sheltering you from the police (!)
I have made the acquaintance of a fascinating Anglo-French Afghan businessman, also staying at the Park, who is back for the first time in 19 years. He says the infamous ‘burqa’, that horrible all-covering shroud that women still wear did not come from either the Taliban or from the villages, where he says most women simply wore a scarf around their heads. He says the ‘burqa’ was a fashion that originated with upper class women who wanted the freedom to go and come as they pleased, shop, meet lovers etc. without being recognized. Hmmm, I wonder.
Farid says the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that even Afghan women returning from exile tell him they are reluctant to go out unveiled because there are still Taliban mullahs walking around who love nothing more than finding a modern woman to beat up on! He says some of these mullahs don stolen police uniforms and stand outside schools for women to prevent girls from going inside (yes, even in Kabul!). Of course, it’s probably unlikely they would beat up on a foreign woman but if she was unescorted, who knows?
He agrees with me that it is very strange that even in Kabul, Afghans are hanging on to such customs now that they are free again. He thinks it’s an indication the mullahs still wield enormous power in many neighborhoods, cities and villages and that people are not 100% convinced they won’t return to power again some day. Afghans have overturned many other Taliban taboos. Once forbidden music and Bollywood films are now heard everywhere, photo shops abound and you can even have your picture taken on the street with huge, ancient box camera (something I fully intend to have done!). Graven images are coming back, not just of President Karzai but posters of Indian film stars (naked shoulders, decolte and all!). Birds, pets, kites, all things forbidden by the Taliban have returned to Kabul. Yet the majority of women are still afraid to go around without a burqa!
More later, Pam
16 May 2003
Today I got out of the city. It was the Muslim Sabbath and everyone traditionally heads for the hills where it is cooler and greener - and so did we. I foisted myself on another visiting reporter who had hired Faisal to be his interpreter and fixer. We first stopped at Lake Kargha on the outskirts of town where in the good old days (i.e. before the 1979 Soviet invasion) Kabulis went for picnics and many had villas. The Soviets may have destroyed the interiors of these buildings but the exteriors were completely razed by Mujahadeen and Taliban. Nothing remains but the remnants of elegantly carved stonewalls.
Again I remarked to my male companions about the absence of women (except me). Faisal said they were mostly gathered inside the ruined villas, preparing meals. Sure enough, there they were, like gypsies camping out. How much more pleasant the gatherings of men under the trees on oriental carpets, playing chess, cards and an Indian game with beans Faisal tried to explain but failed.
We stumbled onto a group of men forming a circle around a couple of younger ones who were doing traditional Afghan dances (in their culture dancing is for men only). They parted to make way for me - I thought so I could see better; but no, they wanted me to dance too! Ever aware of the tenuous position of women I protested but one English speaker begged for a photograph dancing with me. Knowing how both dancing and all ‘graven images’ were banned by the Taliban I decided to comply and waved my arms around in tune to the music for a few minutes as the crowd went wild.
I surprised even myself by this spontaneous act, given the reserve I have here about being a woman in such a man’s world, but I never for a moment felt the slightest concern. Afghan men are extremely gentle (when they aren’t fighting!). They never touch you, not even to take your elbow to guide you through a crowd. Faisal and my interpreter Saboor expect me to follow them as they forge a path. But later back at my guest quarters when a guy at the reception desk said he’d seen me dancing, I felt somewhat chagrined.
From Lake Kargha we bounded along a rutted road, shaking
and jostling like
Mexican jumping beans to climb the inviting mountains to the town of Paghman in the valley of the same name. The snow in the higher elevations is beginning to melt and all the streams and rivers were rushing torrents of crystal water which Faisal assured us was perfectly safe to drink. Bob and I nevertheless declined. He had just recovered from a bout of dysentery from a bad lunch in Jalalabad in the way to Kabul and wasn’t going to risk it. I, knock on wood, have not had any stomach (or other) problems yet and want to keep it that way for as long as I can. Paghman Valley (about 20 minutes outside Kabul) is as beautiful as ever for those of you who may have seen it back in the good ole days. But every man-made structure has been blasted to smithereens. Only occasional stonewalls, or maybe a piece of a lovely carved archway, remain to indicate there may once have been beautiful villas here. The peasant villagers have of course rebuilt their mud and dung hovels and plotted out the land to grow wheat, potatoes and other vegetables.
The most notable thing about Paghman today is the dramatic change in temperature from Kabul. At 2,200 meters (over 7,700 feet!) it’s cool, clear and dust-free. Apart from a lovely Greco-Roman arch built by King Amanullah in early 1900 and now pockmarked by serious shelling, the only other buildings are the mud-walled compounds.
We stopped alongside a rushing river, the site of a once-famed Tea House transformed into an informal tented area for buying tea or cokes from some enterprising vendors. Bob commented how it was like stepping back into medieval times. Yes, I agreed, but not medieval times as we know them from European history, but rather a feudal time only a few steps up from the stone age. Any medieval fortresses or castles that might once have been here have been razed to the ground. The only ancient edifice we saw was inside the city limits of Kabul, the remains of a wall climbing one of its hills. Faisal says it dates from Roman times but who knows, most Afghans are completely ignorant of their own pre 20th Century history. I’ll have to consult Nancy Dupree.
Ciao for now, Pam
23 May 2003
I finally got my camera repaired and just in time because I’ve become very frustrated at not being able to photograph this endlessly fascinating place. I still have to be careful about photographing women. All the men appear to be great hams and love to have their pictures taken - but not their women. I’ll wait until I’m inside the office compound where no one minds. Out on the street it’s not a problem only because most of the women are wearing that horrible burqa.
Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera the day Farida took Lisa and me to the market to buy some cloth to make long lightweight cotton, sleeveless tunics, slit up the side, for wearing over shirts and pants. Kabul markets are a fantastic cross between the covered Middle Eastern souks and the open, teeming markets of Africa.
The three of us, heads covered of course, wound our way through endless makeshift stalls displaying stacks of manufactured goods; bolts of pastel colored cottons, vivid silks for headscarves, velveteen for traditional Afghan dresses, finely-woven brocaded borders, jeans, men’s shirts (new Afghan style or used Western ones) and ladies lingerie. In this so recently repressive Muslim country I was taken aback to see a male vendor manhandling a bin full of brasseries for his female customers to admire (they were all veiled of course). But that was nothing compared to my surprise when Farida’s tailor took out his tape measure to get Lisa’s and my vital statistics for the outfits he was making for us. Cheap thrills for all I guess.
I wore my new outfit to my first dinner party the other night at Lisa’s place. She and Tom share a house with John, a Brit who is with another NGO. Lisa prepared most of the dishes but I contributed by making a Pasta Carbonara sauce from some Knorr packets I brought from Europe. We dined upstairs in John’s flat because he has a proper dining room. Other guests included an Afghan who works for the BBC, and Nigel, a Brit who’s just arrived in Kabul. John is one of those expats who’s gone native so we were happy to see he hadn’t given up some Western habits: gin and tonic before dinner, French wine with.
John’s living room was a beautiful recreation of a traditional Afghan home. Three walls ringed with mattresses covered with beautiful deep red oriental carpets and large pillows covered in similar fabric. Another lovely touch; while all the walls were freshly painted white, he’d had someone paint some verses from Omar Kayyam in Persian calligraphy on the bright red panels of all the doors: a verse about wine for the door to the dining room, one about sleeping for the bedroom etc. Sayed Amir translated them for us but no one can compare with the Edward Fitzgerald translation known to the English speaking world.
Driving back to our respective guest quarters late that night, Nigel remarked that Kabul by night was the most exotic place he’d ever seen. I replied that I found it much more exotic by day. But I know what he meant. At night it looks to me like an African city, Ougadougu perhaps, with few electric lights but dotted with the golden glow of kerosene lamps or bonfires. In Kabul those lights climb the hills.
But by day, Kabul is truly unique: you step back into another age. Everyone, apart from a tiny number of westerners, is dressed as they’ve dressed for a millennium; flowing robes and tunics, turbans of all kinds and colors, pakols, burqas and veils in all the colors of the rainbow. The shops, which line the dusty, rutted streets, are a ramshackle collection of kiosks made out truck containers left behind by the Soviets, with goods of all kinds tumbling out. And of course those vendors who can’t afford shops sell their paltry goods, spread out before them on the dusty pavement.
On one of my daily treks to the office, my translator
Saboor stopped to weigh himself on the street where scales have been placed
for that purpose (cost: about a penny), then we passed a display of wonderful
smelling spices spread out on a cloth on the sidewalk.
We asked a vendor to explain his collection of stones since Saboor didn’t know what they were. He told us they were ‘healing stones’, gray and charcoal pumice, polished stones in a reddish color that, when heated, cure rheumatism. Further on, a vacant lot has been transformed into a book market with the books displayed on cloths spread on the ground. I’m told there used to be a famous bookstore there before it was bombed to matchsticks and the owner fled abroad.
Cheers to all, Pam
6 June 2003
I finally got out of Kabul only to find myself counting off every day until we returned last night - 8 days later. Jalalabad is a sprawling city of heat and dust with not much to recommend it I’m afraid, after a quarter of a century of fighting. I had dreaded leaving the cooler, high climate of Kabul and the mountains to descend into the sub-tropical heat of Jalalabad. But although it was around 38 degrees (100F), Jalalabad was bearable, like West Texas, dry and with just enough of a breeze.
Grinding poverty has indeed ground what must once have been a charming town into a vast refugee camp with open sewers along the streets and markets swarming with people and flies. Jalalabad, so close to the border with Pakistan, is home to thousands of Afghan refugees who had fled the decades of fighting and are now returning home in greater numbers than can be accommodated.
Back in the good ole days, Jalalabad was only a 2-2 ½ hour drive from Kabul but 23 years of war and neglect have transformed the road into a bone-jarring, nerve shaking 3 ½ - 4 hour jostle, dodging gigantic potholes and oncoming truck traffic all the way. For security reasons we decided to take two taxis rather than a larger, more comfortable Toyota SUV, taxis being the most common mode of travel in Afghanistan. Everyone unemployed man, who can drive and can find a rattletrap, is a taxi driver.
Security remains a constant concern everywhere in Afghanistan, even in Kabul. Westerners are warned to keep a low profile and not attract attention - just in case. Lisa and I duly bundled ourselves up in headscarves, hiding our hair when passing through various checkpoints or villages along the way, hoping to be taken for local women. Fat chance! We even joked that we would wear a burqa if necessary but the Afghan staff said they would protect us. And they were indeed extremely protective, telling us when to bundle up and when it was safe to breathe again. How do Afghan women bear it?
The scenery along the way was more starkly dramatic than truly beautiful: soaring craggy mountains, deep canyon gorges and the rushing Kabul river. Maybe once upon a time the region was green but after so many years of war and drought it is green no more although they say it is ‘greener’ in springtime. For me the most interesting sight were the ‘koochi’ encampments, as nomads are called here. They are very friendly to strangers and don’t mind being photographed so I jumped out of the car to do so. The women and girls are very beautiful in their beautiful, colorful (if dirty) layers, and the men are very handsome. Near their tents they had tied up donkeys and even a few camels.
Halfway through our seminar I insisted on seeing something other than the hotel conference room and my own room, which was so dusty and unclean, it took me hours to scrub down the bathroom before I could bear using it. So six of us jumped into two of the colorful little jitneys used as taxis. On the road to Jalalabad I had already been captivated by the passing parade of Pakistani trucks painted in gay colors and decorated with mirrors, tassels and all kinds of ornamentation (Martha, the Pakistani truck we saw at the “Silk Road’ exhibit on the Mall was pale by comparison).
I never got to see the inside of one of these trucks but the jitneys are miniature versions. The back seats of these ornamental tin cans are barely big enough for two normal sized Westerners with a third able to sit up front next to the driver, legs dangling outside. However, we saw as many as five Afghans crammed in the back of other jitneys, fathers holding one or two children over the side up front. Inside it feels like riding in a child’s tin car and the only reason it’s not more dangerous is that it is impossible to go faster than a bicycle in Jalalabad’s traffic, which includes trucks, donkey carts, goats and sheep being herded down the middle of the street.
We visited a former royal winter palace, used since British times as an escape from the bitter cold of Kabul. Russians, Mujahadeen and Taliban occupants had transformed it into a vast, trashed and empty building. But you could see how wonderful the garden must once have been with lemon, date and coconut trees and a variety of others neither Lisa nor I had ever seen before. It made me regret (not for the first time) not paying more attention to my grandfather’s profession: botany.
An elderly guardian who showed us around said he had been a university professor until the Mujahadeen destroyed most of the university buildings. Asked if he had joined the Taliban he openly said, “Yes, it was better to join them than try and fight them.”
I am constantly amazed at how fear of the Taliban continues to dominate Afghan life. President Karzai has alarmed his people by inviting ‘good Talibs’ to join the government. American and other foreigners see Taliban under every bed - and not without reason. Taliban and Al-Qaeda are nearly synonyms in Afghanistan except that the Taliban is Afghan and Al-Qaeda is Arab. All around me I hear that MORE women are covering themselves than a year ago out of fear the Taliban will return once we leave.
Back in Kabul I saw a wonderful BBC documentary about Paddy Ashdown, the Brit who was Bosnia’s overseer for the past two years. Several times he made the point that Bosnia has so far managed to resist the insistent and constant pressure of Saudi Arabia to impose its brand of extreme Islam in Bosnia. But he said if the international community leaves too soon, Bosnia (like Afghanistan) will slip back into extremism and fighting.
I couldn’t agree more. So far I have seen an Afghanistan that doesn’t quite believe democracy will take root because its people fear America’s short attention span. They know the Taliban are just waiting us out, biding their time until we leave. Many westerners fear Afghans may also have learned a lesson from Kosovo (and the World Trade Center!) that only violence and terrorism get Washington’s attention.
More later. Cheers, Pam
20 June 2003
For those of you who’ve asked if I do my work with interpreters, the answer of course is yes, although I fear a lot is lost in translation.
Item: The Minister of Information assures he is in favor of an independent and free media then goes on to say that such a media cannot ‘offend Islam’ and must ‘present a positive picture of Afghanistan’!
Item: Asked why he is late, my translator Saboor diffuses my annoyance by explaining he overslept because he was up all night making bricks for his family’s home.
Item: Workshop participants ask to be allowed to end the day at 4pm rather than 5pm. “Because we didn’t know we were going to be journalists and must go home to weed and water the crops we planted this spring.”
Item: Modern Farida asks her employer Sam to invite me to dinner at her home, although I didn’t then know her, to show her brother and family that she was also working for a woman, not just a foreign man!
Item: My driver, Sayed Amir, greets me each morning with a cheery “Pamela, kak djela?” All foreigners presumably being the same.
Item: Afghans throw their trash and litter out windows and on the ground. “Where else can we throw it, there are no trash bins?”
Item: Naseer who is studying to be a doctor, invites me to visit his ‘clean’ home to see his newborn child, whom I observe in a basket on the floor, flies buzzing all over his little face.
Item: A news story is translated as saying “the Kabul municipality is creating new ‘brooks’ along the city’s streets.” On further examination ‘brooks’ proves to be an interesting translation for ‘open sewage canals’.
Item: Farida tells us her sister went to Jalalabad to be cured of hepatitis at an ancient pre-Islamic shrine. Farida herself doesn’t believe in such nonsense, she prefers to consult the stars or zodiac.
Item: Mujib, age 38, asks how Americans ‘space’ their children so their women don’t have one every year.
Item: Workshop participants are asked if they see any conflict between journalism and Islam. “No, because Islam invented journalism. The first news was sent between Mecca and Medina.”
Item: Saboor says his village is called “the Paris of Afghanistan” to the huge amusement of our French colleagues who ask if it has beautiful buildings, glittering lights or tree-lined boulevards full of cafes? “No, but it is the most beautiful town in Afghanistan.”
Item: When I try to eat some cherries straight from a tree, my shocked Afghan colleagues grab them from me to wash them in a nearby stream. They are puzzled by my explanation that I am less afraid of Afghan dust than Afghan water.
Item: Ajmal takes me to see his nephew and pushes me inside the door urging me to call out the little boy’s name because, as a man, Ajmal cannot enter the women’s part of the house.
Item: I ask to join the workshop participants for the final day’s lunch as they sit in their friendly circle on the floor. But I confess I found myself unable to eat at the spectacle of so many dusty feet so close to the communal bowls of rice and meat.
Item: I thought I had dressed properly in my down to the ankles wrap-around skirt and specially made overdress. But Farida urged me to button my wrap down to the last button, lest my skirt inadvertently fly open, and expose (gasp!) a bit of leg.
Item: My younger Canadian colleague Jamie, who’s shirt wasn’t quite long enough (barely covering her butt) spent most of the workshop sitting in demure silence and enduring the shameless stares of men who had never seen such peaches and cream skin and strawberry blond hair.
I could go on and on but I think you get the picture.
27 June 2003
Some of you wanted to hear more about what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan. The short answer is that it has been so very uncomfortable that for that reason alone I am counting the days ‘til my departure. This is a guy’s place and they are welcome. The long answer is of course more complicated and one most men probably won’t understand but here goes.
I’ve met several Afghan women from the Diaspora here at the Park who agree things have deteriorated for women since one year ago. Last year many women were hoping they had gained a certain amount of respect and were slowly beginning to shake of the burqa, literally and figuratively. These women are shocked to see more burqas on the streets again and very few, if any women, wearing no headscarf at all.
All of us, foreign and Afghan women from the Diaspora, miss the normal everyday pleasure of walking in the streets, going shopping alone or with other women, sitting in a restaurant without being stared as if we were from Mars. Men do not get this treatment because only part of the staring is innocent curiosity about foreigners. Another part is clearly hostility and designed to intimidate, saying to us how dare we go out without a male escort.
Marie-France, a reporter from Le Figaro who lives in Delhi, and I ventured out a couple of times in the evening without a man. Quelle scandale! She has covered the region for a decade and had the most perfectly designed colorful tunics and pant ensembles but she insisted on going out on the streets without a headscarf as she does in India. Walking back from a nearby Chinese restaurant together one night we were followed and harassed so much we got the message; the message being ‘all unescorted western women are whores’ and she too finally succumbed to the scarf and to trying to find a MAN to accompany us in the evenings.
As for that restaurant: the waitresses are straight from the Chinese hinterland, quite lovely, wearing the classic body-hugging silk gown, slit up each side to the panty line. It was such a shock, even to me, to see so much female leg that I found myself staring at them in fascination just like all the men in the room (western and Afghan). The rumor is that these waitresses are also prostitutes but in a country like Afghanistan you never know if that’s true or just their opinion of all non-Muslim women.
The Park’s cleaning ladies are from the Hazara tribe as are most menial laborers in Afghanistan and although they cover themselves in colorful long shawls, their Mongol faces are very friendly and open and I’ve grown to like them and they me. The other day ‘my’ cleaning lady gestured to a card I’d just purchased which was on a shelf in my room. It was a colored drawing of a sea of blue burkas with one bright spot in the center, a young woman bravely showing her face. The Hazara woman gave me a wide smile and the thumbs up sign.
Farida, one of the local trainers who will be helping me in Logar province next week asked me to come to dinner at her house recently with Sam, a young British photographer she had been interpreting for. Sam told me he suspected that Farida needed me to come along to show her brother and father that Farida was working for a man AND a woman. Evidently her brother (the traditional female watchdog) had become concerned. It was an interesting evening because it was my first in a typical Afghan home. We sat on low sofas and ate from common bowls filled with pilau rice, aushak, bulany, kebabs all prepared by Farida’s mother who never showed her face.
Sam was doing a photo reportage about Afghan weddings but Farida was unable to get him inside the female side of the wedding party after more than a week of trying until the last day when they found a ‘modern mixed’ wedding party where the men and women were even dancing together! Unheard of in Afghanistan even today where men and women are completely separated during wedding parties, lest the bride be contaminated by the lustful looks of other men.
I think I mentioned in a previous report what Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary said about it being the divide on sexual matters that’s at the heart of what divides Muslims from most other religions in the world. Australian writer Geraldine Brooks seems to agree in her book “Nine Parts of Desire”. The title is a quote from Ali Ibu Abu Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed who founded the Shiite sect of Islam: “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts. He gave nine to women and one to men.”
No wonder they feel they must keep all their women under burqas! Need I say more?
Cheers to all, Pam
4 July 2003
It seems I am one of the long-timers here at the Park Guest House. The first wave of people I had been palling around with have come and gone and the next wave is departing in the coming days. I don’t mind because I continue to meet an amazing mix of nationalities and diverse professions. I love being in a place where such interesting characters come and go, journalists, mercenary soldiers, businessmen and humanitarian workers - the flotsam and jetsam of other wars in other exotic places.
I have narrowed us all down into three basic types: those who are here because they love Afghanistan and really want to help and those who are paid handsomely to come here to try and do some good. I would actually put myself in the second category except I am not paid all that handsomely. I cannot say I love Afghanistan although people assure me you only fall in love with it after you’re away for some time. Perhaps, but as I tell everyone it’s the Balkans that stole my heart and I am not a fickle person.
The third category includes the many Afghans in the Diaspora who are returning to help rebuild their country. Most of them are from the educated classes who’ve done well in their adopted countries. But homesickness, language and lucrative offers have brought them back by the hundreds and I’ve met a lot of them are here at the Park. I’ll never forget Farid, the Anglo-French Afghan fresh from Paris, returned to train security guards for one of the many security companies run by former military types.
The first time I saw him was in the breakfast room: a tall, elegantly dressed tanned man with shaved head and graying mustache. At first he appeared dark and forbidding. In fact he looked like exactly what he turned out to be: a mercenary security agent, capable of killing and prepared to be killed. But when I asked if I could borrow the salt and pepper on his table he turned to me with that dazzling smile and old world charm some men have that few women can resist.
Over a period of weeks I learned that Farid began life as the aristocratic playmate to the son of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. At the age of 16 he and his family fled the Soviet invasion and settled in Paris. Once he showed us a postcard he’d found in a Kabul shop, a black and white photograph taken sometime in the 1890's of a royal Afghan hunting party. The names of the notable nobles were listed on the back, including King Amanullah standing beside Farid's great grandfather, who looked exactly like him.
Over a period of weeks I learned that Farid was married twice, first to a fellow Afghan in exile and then to a Frenchwomen. Unusual for an Afghan, he has no children. When I expressed surprise on learning this he explained that he had insisted on it because he didn't believe in 'fatherless children' and his life has been too full of danger. He showed us a scar on his throat where a bullet had nearly killed him once. On another occasion he recounted how he'd been badly cut with a knife in Bahrain and couldn't, for an unexplained reason, go to a doctor, and so demanded his wife stitch him up! She fainted instead.
Another time he mentioned how painful it was having a bullet extracted from one’s back! When I asked what was the occasion, he said it happened in Paris back in the early 70s when some KGB-hired thugs tried to bump him off. He said he returned fire and wounded two of them. Imagine, I was living in Paris then!
I've listened to his stories with what I think is a healthy mixture of fascination and skepticism. If it hadn't been for the presence of others, including his colleague Richard, who evidently knew him well, I would have been certain it was all invented for my benefit to impress and/or seduce. But by the other's reactions I gather it is essentially true. The problem with Farid is that he became a victim of his own myth. It took several weeks before he began to frighten us all with various incidents involving guns and too much drink.
The first incident happened after a party Farid took John and me to where a roomful of Afghan returnees (all men of course) and been drinking and dancing all evening. John decided that the Kalashnikovs stacked inside the entrance were going to come out soon (a traditional way to celebrate in Afghanistan!) and that we should leave. As we climbed back into Farid’s four-wheel drive, tinted-windowed Toyota, I asked what a group of men on the other side of the street were up to. Farid's dark face turned pale and suddenly I heard a loud crick-crick as he reached into his blazer and cocked his Lugar. No one else appeared to notice but I was sitting right next to him and asked what in the hell was going on. He only said 'I'm sorry', released the catch and replaced his gun. The next day at breakfast John and I didn’t know what to make of his explanation that he thought the men were Taliban.
The second gun incident happened after a lovely dinner
at one of the nicer eating-places here, another guesthouse run by Australians.
The owner has an impressive collection in the basement of antique rifles
and other guns of all makes and types. Farid insisted we visit the ‘arsenal’
and I guess my Texan roots emerged because I found it fascinating.
My colleagues looked on in horror as Farid and I hefted and cocked a few
of the more interesting specimens, all empty of course. But outside
in the street as we waited for our car, Farid decided to play with the
guard’s Kalashnikov, which was loaded! He had
definitely had much too much to drink and John, Harry and I beat a hasty retreat to the car before the gun went off.
The last straw was the evening Farid invited me to join him and an Afghan-American friend, a woman he said was his first love at age 16. Roshana didn’t appear to share this romantic sentiment but I liked her immediately and agreed to go with them to a German restaurant. It turned out Farid had some unfinished business with the restaurant’s owner who shared Farid’s testosterone-driven instincts. Their macho tit-for-tat got ugly when a now quite inebriated Farid started calling the German ‘fascist’ and ‘nazi’. Roshana paid the bill and I found myself placing my small self between these two large men and screaming at them to calm down and stop behaving like children.
Luckily Farid wasn’t wearing his Lugar that night, a condition imposed by Roshana and me before agreeing to go out with him. Farid ranted and raved all the way back to the Park about how he was going to go back and kill the German. I believed him and didn’t sleep at all that night wondering what I should do to prevent a possible murder. But Roshana turned out to be right and Farid, like most Afghan men, had a temper that flamed and burnt itself out before he had a chance to act and in the end he slept it off.
I was in Jalalabad when the inevitable happened. Farid was training some of his guards on a firing range when his gun supposedly jammed and exploded in his hands. Roshana was with him and had the task of rushing him to the German forces (ISAF) field hospital where they informed Farid they had to amputate his left forefinger. The medic said if the accident had happened in a more civilized country the finger could have been saved. When we all saw his bandaged hand back at the Park and heard the story, we decided Farid himself was a cocked gun waiting to go off and none of us wanted to be around when that happened.
We all avoided Farid until he moved into his company’s compound a few days later and we heaved a collective sigh of relief. Too bad, so sad; a complex, charming and interesting man who some how lost his way and turned to drink. And as Afghans and Texans should know better than most, drink and guns simply don’t mix.
Stay tuned, Pam
11 July 2003
In case some of you think I have painted a too negative picture of my time in Afghanistan let me assure you I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything in the world! For someone like me, traveling to a place that is truly the ‘back of the beyond’, a place few have ever seen or are likely to see has been an unbelievable opportunity and an experience I’m sure will be enhanced even more by time and distance. I know I will look back on these three months and remember only the good and positive times. That being said, I’m ready to go home.
The workshop I held to train radio journalists in Logar, a province just south of Kabul was my first and only experience of village life in Afghanistan. It was truly stepping back in time. Everyone had told me I had to get out of Kabul to see the real Afghanistan; that Afghan villages are much cleaner than the cities. But with the bad security situation that was easier said than done. The US embassy even told us we were going to Logar ‘at our own risk’, it being off limits to all of them.
We visited about three small villages in the province, including the one where our workshop was held in the home of a local politician (or warlord, depending on who’s talking) who wanted to encourage a ‘free press’. It’s true that the villages are cleaner. The dust and heat are the same as in Kabul but sewage seems to be better disposed of; there were no piles of garbage, and although villages were also destroyed during the Mujahadeen wars, houses of mud and dung are easier to rebuild. The result is the villages look much as they’ve looked for a millennium. The countryside around them was also greener than in Kabul with fruit orchards and fields of poor-quality wheat.
The BBC says only 10 percent of Afghans are literate. Others say it’s more like 20 percent. Whatever, but we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with that 10-20 percent of the population because sometimes the lack of basic education overwhelms us. They are very quick learners but imagine trying to teach the basics of critical thinking and computerized digital editing to farmers! As I think I wrote before, most participants had to leave early in order to care for the leeks they’d planted in the spring.
Translator Ajmal took me to see his family’s house after
class one day. We had to walk single file on a narrow ridge carved
out of the middle of a field of wheat. I asked if this was a shortcut
and was told no, it was the main road! The houses were set in the
middle of a lovely garden of cheery and mulberry trees bordered by rose bushes. Ajmal’s uncle sat on a raised platform while several other male family members sat around him on carpets spread on the ground. The women were of course invisible. The uncle was 68 years old but looked more like 88.
Everyone was picking cherries and mulberries, neither of which tasted like the fruit I remember from California. Our godparent’s house in Los Angeles had a wonderful mulberry tree under which my sisters and I used to play house when we were little. It dripped like a weeping willow with dense branches spilling down to the ground, creating a hiding place around the trunk. In Afghanistan, mulberry trees are much larger and the fruit is pink and whitish, not blue or purple and the taste much sweeter. The cherries were actually what we call ‘sour cherries’ and I found them too bitter to eat but all the Afghans popped them into their mouths the way Americans eat popcorn or peanuts. But much healthier!
On the last day of the workshop my translator said the participants wanted to hold a prayer vigil for a member who’d just learned someone in his wife’s family had died. I said of course and rose to leave the room (being the only female as usual) and was told no, it was OK for me to remain. So I remained seated on a chair with the others around me on the floor. The oldest participant, in a magnificent white turban, intoned a verse from the Koran in a lovely discordant voice. It was a magical moment and I felt that whatever burdens each of us carried on our shoulders that day suddenly lifted and wafted out of the room. Afterwards when their eyes turned toward me I told them how honored I was to be included and they responded that Islam welcomes all religions.
Perhaps, but Afghans are very confused about what Islam does and doesn’t permit, largely thanks to the Taliban. The story they chose to write for the workshop was about whether or not journalism is compatible with Islam. And the subject dominating public debate in the Afghan media is whether democracy and Islam can co-exist. The Taliban and various other illiterate Mullahs have succeeded in confusing all Muslims about their religion. Most Afghans, even in the villages, noticed that the Taliban did not practice what they preached, allowing themselves all the pleasures they denied ordinary people, music, drink and sex with young boys. Last week, a leading Kabul journalist was arrested for daring to write that many Mullahs in Afghanistan practice what he called ‘religious fascism’. Most Afghans, including President Karzai, weren’t ready to hear such heresy and supported the arrest.
18 July 2003
After three months in Afghanistan, largely confined to Kabul because of security concerns, I’m outta here on Saturday! It was a wonderful, if bumpy ride and one I will never forget or regret.
I came to Afghanistan expecting to see a long-oppressed and war-torn country on the road to repair but instead, I fear, I witnessed the beginning of a slide back into the twin terrors of poverty and religious intolerance. My own country of course made promises it has not kept and its short attention span is now focused elsewhere. But Isama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and innumerable followers of Al Qaeda are still here, poised on both sides of the Pakistani border and waiting us out.
Afghans know this and I think that’s what explains the otherwise unexplainable. Since my arrival I have been struck by how much the seven years of Taliban rule dominates all thought and conversation. Of course, much of the population is in the twenty-something range; in 1995 they were just entering the age of reason. But I also spoke with many older people who remembered life under Soviet occupation and yet they too only talked about the horrors inflicted by the Taliban.
And remnants of the Taliban are not just in the south or along the Pakistani border. They are also in Kabul I am told, just keeping a lower profile. My interpreter Saboor, and others, say they can easily recognize them by their headgear (!). Just as followers of Mujaheeden hero Ahmed Masood wear the traditional Afghan pakool, some Taliban followers still wear black turbans. Many Afghans told me they would not get into certain taxis if they suspected the driver to be Taliban.
Once when crossing a busy street with Saboor, a taxi pulled up alongside and addressed us but Saboor waved them off. A few paces further on, the car cut us off and again addressed Saboor who took my arm (something he’d never done before) and guided me around the back of the car and hurriedly across the street. I might have been more alarmed had it not been for the teeming crowds of people and the fact it was high noon. But Saboor said he found the men suspicious and feared they might be Taliban because they were insisting on giving us a lift even though Saboor told them we were happy to walk.
One of the Afghan reporters in the office is working on a story about how mullahs in Kabul are upset at the way Western women dress when they walk in the streets of Kabul. And here I thought I looked like a paragon of virtue in my long tunic over long-sleeved blouses, long pants and of course a headscarf. But then I remembered the young Croatian woman (believe it or not!) who owns a guest quarters here and strides through the streets dressed much as she would in Zagreb: skin tight pants and shirts, high-heeled sandals, gypsy earrings; her only concession to local custom, a short bandana type handkerchief tied to cover more of her forehead than hair. I greatly admire her attitude and hope it won’t cost her.
One of the things I did in my last workshop was to invite a constitutional expert to give a us a press conference in order to teach participants the fine art of asking tough questions and how to write the story afterwards. The expert talked about a recent nation-wide survey on what kind of constitution Afghanistan should have and he told us the results showed that 80% of those surveyed believe their constitution should be based on Islam. In writing their reports, the participants revealed, to their own chagrin, that they believe Islam and Democracy are not really compatible.
The concept of separating Mosque and State is totally foreign to them. The law of Allah must be supreme, they say. Of course it is a question of education and interpretation but who is giving them this? We are all focused on ‘democracy projects’, the nuts and bolts of creating western style market economies, which they see as undermining Islamic values. Who’s talking to them about Islam except fundamentalists like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? For that reason alone I am worried about the future of this once magnificent, open and tolerant country.
Sorry to end on a down stroke. See you all soon, Pam
Pamela Taylor Jennings is an American journalist who
has lived and worked overseas for more than 20 years, covering events like
the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. She left her job with an international
broadcaster to become a media consultant in post-war Bosnia. In this
new line of work she traveled widely throughout Central Europe and the
Balkans and most recently finished a three-month journalism-training contract
in Afghanistan. Taylor Jennings lives in Geneva between her
travels to the Balkans and elsewhere.
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