Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Story of Dushanbe

Before I begin I want everyone to know that I love Rob Varsalone. Rob is my friend. He is a former state representative from the fine state of New Hampshire, Live Free or Die. He is the country director for IRI and played a historic role in Afghanistan’s elections. In fact, Rob won Afghanistan’s highest medal of achievement awarded to a civilian or a non-citizen or a civilian non-citizen (you get the point). It was presented to him by President Hamid Karzai himself. Rob is handsome and funny and reads about things like game theory and tipping points in his spare time. When not whining about never making it into my blog, Rob is working his way towards being a grand master wizard champion of sudoku.

Carrie and Erica on the border of Tajikistan waiting to cross to Afghanistan. 11/2/06

(Dushanbe means Monday. I thought it meant Tuesday. I told lots of people it meant Tuesday. But Tuesday is Saeshanbe. Plain Shanbe is Saturday.)

The trips to and from Dushanbe are just as important as the time you spend wandering the streets and parks of the city. The morning you leave the driver comes to get you at some ungodly hour to take you to the airport. Your house has no power and you aren’t packed so there you are, feeling rough (did I forget to say it is possible you had too much wine the night before) scrounging around in endless piles of black and brown clothing hoping to shove some combination of clean and weather appropriate apparel into your backpack. Not that you know what the weather is like. Or the name of the currency. Or whether they will really grant you a visa on arrival. Truth be told, you had to double check what country Dushanbe belongs to just days before. It is one of those mornings that has you wondering why you are awake let alone traveling to an unknown city in an unknown country that may or may not let you in.

You make it through the sham that is customs at Kabul International with two relatively non-invasive body searches and only a modicum of fear that the officials will find something you know you didn’t pack in your luggage. Up you go to the waiting room where, as always, there is something strangely disturbing playing on the TV. This morning it is Looney Toons and you want to scream “That’s All Folks!” at whoever chose the channel. You don’t. You sit and wait for the bus that will drive you the 100 yards to the plane.

You are aware that your plane may leave anytime in the next five hours but you are okay. You sit far enough from the TV not to get sucked in, you may, but only if you were raised wrong, buy potato chips and regular coke for breakfast and there is a chance, again, only if you were raised wrong, that you will launch into an a capella version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” followed by uncontrollable hysteria, with your travel partner. No matter how you pass your time, as the room has sections dedicated to prayer, internet and smoking, your headscarf is off and you know that your journey has begun.

You aren’t afraid to fly. Never have been. Until you approach the plane. Everything is miniature. Not new and streamlined miniature. Shrunk from old age and abuse miniature. Your friend who works in a province up north tells you not to worry because she has taken this exact plane before. She knows this because she recognizes the balding tire and seat belts tied together. Your relief is hardly manageable. The combination of odors from the kabob breakfast and god knows what has you clutching the barf bag stowed in the seat back in front of you. The barf bag goes unused but stays with you well past the landing.

Dushanbe airport security is post-Communism personified. Leftover hammer and sickle insignias and freedom worn in make-up and cologne. The visa on arrival is possible but only after you fill out a seemingly epic pile of forms in duplicate. You do it. You bring the forms and pictures and passports over to the ‘consular services’ booth where the man who was just dealing with the baggage carousel puts on a badge and glasses, whips out a stamp and book of official stickers, hijacks your passport for what seems like forever, takes some money and welcomes you to Dushanbe.

You are met by people who work for your friend’s organization. They take you to the apartment they arranged for you and generally make your arrival too smooth to even remember. The days pass in a haze of fashion TV, long walks, beer tents, ferris wheels, long lunches, DVDs and the occasional run in with belly dancers, colleagues who drink whole bottles of vodka by themselves and some much regretted public dancing. You celebrate your birthday far away from home, you fight your way through crowded bazaars, you eat too many cookies and pomegranate seeds and with every passing minute you allow your body to forget Kabul.

You begin to realize that you wear Kabul more than you live it. You feel Kabul more than you see it. Kabul is in your back. It is in your neck and shoulders. It is in your bitten fingernails and calloused feet. Kabul tastes like adrenaline as your mind can’t possibly process everything that is, or could be, happening around you. You have to go to work. You have to eat dinner and take drives. You have to go to meetings and weddings and picnics. You have to celebrate. You have to believe your friends can safely do the same.

People ask if you are afraid and you start to wonder what is wrong with you. You aren’t. They ask you what you think about the attack they just saw on the news. You don’t. They praise your courage, tell you how brave you are, and tell you they could never do what you are doing. You are tempted to believe it.

But then you go on vacation and sleep so soundly you realize you haven’t really rested in months. You notice that without your cell phone your hands can’t keep still. You feel every muscle in your neck and back release the death grip you didn’t even know was bearing down on you. You go on vacation and you realize that without exhaustion you can’t focus.

You drive to the border of Tajikistan and wait for the boat that will take you across the river. As you approach the mud banks of Afghanistan your backpack suddenly gets heavy and you need to stretch your neck from side to side. As you climb up the mud bank and feel the hand of an Afghan soldier pull you to dry land you feel your shoulders tighten. Border control. Immigration. Baggage search. Nail biting. Headache. Back spasm.

As you drive to Kabul you realize that you wear the fear. You feel it rather than live it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Millions of People Like Her

Safia Amajan, courtest of MoWA

Safia Amajan on a visit to China, courtesty of MoWA

The concept of death, the idea that someone is suddenly gone from your vision, gone from the world, has been unsettling for as far back as our stories go. Murder is particularly shocking. Particularly disturbing. Simultaneously dealing with death and violence is never an acceptable process for human beings. Simultaneously dealing with personal loss and the rage that comes from knowing someone has suffered pain and fear and isolation in their last moments of life simply does not make sense. It defies the gravity we have come to depend on as we walk this earth.

When we got the news of Safia Amajan’s murder everyone was terrified and shaken, but not shocked. Over the next few days I came to realize that it was Amajan’s life that was stunning, not her death. I came to realize that it was Amajan’s public commitment and her bravery that were shocking, not her death.

Amajan was buried in Kandahar two days after her murder. One of the Deputy Ministers of Women’s Affairs took an ISAF flight south to stand with her family and the hundreds of men and women from across the province who came to see her buried. In Kabul a fateah (funeral ceremony) was held in Share-e-naw at the Women’s Park. Hundreds of us sat together as a solemn prayer, sung by a young woman, echoed off the walls of the room. The women’s rights community held an emergency meeting, drafted an open letter to everyone from Kofi Annan to NATO and finally, last Thursday had a gathering to talk about women’s security. Out of 40 women’s organizations invited, 10 came. Those absent cited security as their reason for not wanting to be publicly attached to the event.

The same day Amajan was killed President Karzai, in Washington with Mr. Bush issued a statement saying, "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to kill people working for the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan. The enemies of Afghanistan must understand that we have millions of people like Safia Amajan, who will continue to serve this great nation."

Millions of people like her? Really?

Amajan didn’t serve her country as much as she served her people. She didn’t serve her country as much as she stood up for what it could, and should, be. If there were millions of people like her President Karzai would not be in office, the Taliban would not be controlling a quarter of the country, the narcotics trade wouldn’t be the best part of the Afghan economy, schools wouldn’t be closing faster than they are opening, women would not be forced to chose between torture and cultural isolation, maternal mortality rates would be dropping, the threat of suicide bombs would not be part of everyday life and dozens of prominent women’s rights activists would not be paralyzed by fear.

If there were really millions of people like Safia Amajan, chances are that Safia Amajan would be alive today.

Friday, September 29, 2006


Women's rights activist and government official Safia Amajan was murdered on September 25, 2006 at 7:20AM. Amajan was a beloved member of the education and women's rights community and her assassination highlights the increasingly violent conditions facing the humanitarian, political and aid workers in Afghanistan. AWN along with our members, fellow coordination bodies and partners in the international NGO community have been working to put together a response to this tragic event. The details of our formal statement and event will be forthcoming - as will my personal blog about the fateah (funeral) of Mrs. Amajan. For now, I want to share the short statement which will be posted on the AWN website, with all of you.

Kabul, Afghanistan, September 26, 2006.

It is with deep sorrow, and enduring condemnation, that the women of Afghanistan mourn the loss of Mrs. Safia Amajan, assassinated by the Taliban en route to work on the morning of September 25, 2006. We offer our condolences to her respected family, community and province during this time of senseless grief.

Mrs. Amajan, a 65 year old mother of four, spent the entirety of her life devoted to the empowerment and advancement of the men, women and children of Afghanistan. Her unyielding commitment to education and her belief in public service led her to spend her life as an advocate and activist for women's rights. After the fall of the Taliban Safia was elected by the people of Kandahar to serve as the provincial women's representative to the government, a position she held with conviction and integrity despite the grave and dangerous conditions in Kandahar.

The Afghan Women's Network and the Women's Political Participation Committee denounce this brutal, un-Islamic act yet we stand strong in our fight for the safety, security and empowerment of all Afghan women. The murder or intimidation of our courageous leaders will not stop us in our struggle to promote and protect women's rights in Afghanistan. We will remain focused and driven until our vision of democracy, freedom, equity and liberation is a reality in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

We ask the people of Afghanistan, and our brothers and sisters around the world, to channel their sorrow and anger into a renewed and binding commitment to achieve the dreams of Safia Amajan and the many other martyrs who lost their lives in the fight for human and women's rights. We ask the people of Afghanistan, and our brothers and sisters around the world, for their solidarity and support in showing the world that Afghan women believe in peace, demand protection and are willing to fight for the security of their country and families.

The Afghan Women's Network, in conjunction with fellow coordination bodies and select INGOs is producing a formal statement and planning an event to honor the life of Safia Amajan. The details of both are forthcoming. For more information please contact

Monday, September 11, 2006

Women, War and the Work Ahead - Speech Given on 9/11 at NYU

The following is the text from the speech I gave at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service on the evening of 9/11. The night was truly amazing. I didn't realize how important it would be to put my feelings and ideas down on paper. There is so much to think about that so many things simply have no place in my brain. There are so many things to think about I find that until it is absolutely crucial, like needing to have something to say in front of a discerning group, I avoid thinking about the big picture. I think it would be impossible to wake up everyday and do my job if I allowed myself to think of all the possibilities of a given day. Writing this speech gave me the space to begin the process of making the hard connections. It is rough and raw but it is the beginning of something.

May every human life be pure, transparent freedom.

- Simone De Beauvoir

Let me begin by saying thank you to all of the people who made this event possible. It is hard enough to pull an evening like this together in just a few months but indescribably more difficult when you are forced to coordinate with people living in Afghanistan. Between the time difference and our less than reliable work conditions (no power, no internet) tonight’s organizers – Elizabeth Norman, Heather Malin, Jason Sunshine, Katty Jones, Lisa Taylor and Professor John Gershman – are a testament to dedication. I would also like to thank Carrie Hasselback, Craig Berkenpas and Tom Purekal for being here tonight. Carrie is on her way back to Afghanistan, Craig on his way home from Afghanistan and Tom, in from DC, returned from Afghanistan about a month ago. Though I rely on each of their wisdom, humor, guidance and support more than I am comfortable with, I take incredible comfort in the knowledge that ten years from now I will be able to relive Afghanistan in each of their eyes. Carrie, this speech is equal parts both of us – thank you having the words and vision when I am off roaming the fields of abstraction with no clarity in sight. Two peas, one pod as we say.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Dean Schall and the vision of Wagner she has brought to life. A year ago this summer I went to the Wagner orientation. In addition to a humiliating group skit that still haunts me today, we were promised an education, a community and a new way of thinking. At the time I remember thinking the spiel sounded good but I was, as always, skeptical. It wasn’t until I found myself working in Kabul for a local NGO that I realized just how valuable the skills we learn in our Wagner classrooms – from stats (yes, I said it, stats) to log frames – really are. It wasn’t until I found myself working half way around the world that I realized just how far the promise of community and support and endorsement really goes.

Wagner is one of the only schools in the country with the words public service – rather than affairs – in its name. I think it is essential to learn how to serve. I think it is essential to learn how to be professional, efficient and effective – not just dedicated and passionate – when working on behalf of cause-based organizations. Working as a public servant affords you the honor of speaking about, and often for, whole segments of the population that have no voice. Wagner prepares you to do this with the integrity and expertise that is fitting for such an enormous task.

Coming up with my remarks for tonight’s event was far more difficult than I imagined. For some reason I pictured it being easier to pull my thoughts together from home, from NYC. I imagined that distance would bring me clarity, would make it easier for me to tie together the many threads of the many experiences I have lived over last few months. However, being home has forced me to put words and feelings to things I simply don’t think about in my day to day life in Afghanistan. Hands down, the single biggest question posed to me is if I feel unsafe in Kabul. If I am fearful and worried and preoccupied by bombs or guns or threats of violence. Without thinking my answer is always no. My answer is always that the Afghanistan I live in is not the Afghanistan that you see on the news. The Afghanistan that I live in is not marred by constant violence and does not paralyze me with fear. Rather than giving me the distance I expected, writing about Afghanistan from New York City has forced me to see my Afghanistan through the eyes of my parents, my husband and my friends and family. Has forced me to really think about where I live and where I work. Has forced me to realize the power that comes with being an outsider living on the inside.

Since I have been home a bomb was detonated outside of the US embassy, 100 yards from where Craig works six days a week. Since I have been home two politically significant suicide bombs were detonated in Kandahar. Since I have been home a rocket landed in the middle of the only operational international airport in the country. As I watched these events on CNN I was struck with the realization that fieldwork leaves each of us with an indescribable privilege. Fieldwork allows us to live, even if just for a short time, in two worlds. While I can see what all of you see and read what all of you read, I can also see past the images of conflict to an Afghanistan that is bigger than suicide bombs, ISAF tanks and coalition forces gone awry.

For me there are two Afghanistans, each of which I have come to understand and respect while knowing they will, for a very long time, remain at odds. One is an Afghanistan of powerful Muslim women, grassroots activists, shelters, schools, shopping, laughter and the intense intimacy shared by women working for a cause. It is a country of eggplant, mantoo, bulani, naan and my dreaded cherry juice. It is a country that has wrapped me in its headscarves and hospitality. It is a country of reciprocity, one as willing to share its story as it is to read from my books. It is an Afghanistan committed to freedom and the pursuit of their own democracy. It is an Afghanistan that believes in education and health and justice and wants more than anything to witness a future free from violence. It is an Afghanistan that has embraced my foreignness with more love and acceptance than we Americans show our brothers and sisters who look and sound different than that which we know.

The second is an Afghanistan struggling to accept progress and modernity and all of the shifts that come with social change. It is a country terrified of losing its culture, losing its religion, losing its identity. It is a country of men terrified of losing their place in society, terrified of seeing their children leave a life that has been part of their family for centuries, terrified of the very real influences that come from participating in a world with no boundaries and limitless access. This is an Afghanistan where gender based violence, self-immolation, honor killing, suicide, illiteracy and incarceration are the realities that women and girls face everyday. This is an Afghanistan that is unforgiving and unjust but it is also an Afghanistan that can be understood and can be addressed and must be confronted.

Without a doubt the single most important thing I have learned is that in order to support the first Afghanistan and heal the second, the most crucial development strategy we can employ is patience. I have learned that the single biggest element required for lasting change and enduring freedom is time. I have learned that if you want permanent advancement you can’t enter a country and tell its people what they need. I have learned that people are resilient and forgiving and generous if you offer them respect and honor their history. I have learned that change, no matter how welcome its terms, means forever losing part of what you know.

Time is free and easy to come by but is one of the hardest things to offer. Time is all developing nations have – their greatest natural resource – but it is the one thing the industrialized western world has taken off the table. We demand change NOW. We expect results NOW. More time means more terrorism, more insecurity, more instability and more uncertainty. We want to feel safe NOW. We want to know our efforts are changing lives NOW. We want the effects of war to be washed away NOW. We want the horrors of past atrocities forgotten NOW. Yet, for all of our money and all of our planning and all of our strategizing we simply can’t buy time. It isn’t for sale. We cannot buy or rush the results that come from doing steady, bottom up development work. We can’t expect a country that has been at war for decades and has lost two generations of women to repressive regimes to be literate or healthy or empowered in five years. We can’t undo what has, for some, been a lifetime of isolation, violence and darkness with elections and quotas and the ratifying of constitutions and international treaties. We simply cannot expect lasting social change when we aren’t willing to making lasting investments.

For the sake of the world we need to figure out how to defend peace, how to maintain development momentum and how to stand by our brothers and sisters when they need us most. For the sake of the world we need to figure out to stand up and stay put and buckle down when the citizens of the world are being threatened by war and violence. But how? Is it fair to ask governments or NGOs or the UN community to provide continuous financial support and unlimited ground power when their efforts and workers are being threatened by war? Is it reasonable to ask for more schools and more training and more security when the efforts to destroy these things are stronger than the efforts to safeguard them? Is it acceptable to stay on the ground supporting human rights and development when it is needed most – when it is being threatened by war and violence?

I don’t know what is fair. I don’t know what the word reasonable means and I have lost all ability to determine what is acceptable. What I do know is that the things we are doing are not working and the people doing them have lost the vision and integrity required to lead. People are dying, violence around the world is escalating, women’s health declining, nation building failing and poverty is swallowing entire countries whole. The things we are doing are not working. It doesn’t matter what any of us think is right or wrong, good or bad. It doesn’t matter who any of us think falls where on the ‘Axis of Evil’. Sitting here tonight I ask everyone to move beyond talking about peace as an ideal rather than a goal. I ask everyone here to stop debating whether we should have invaded Iraq or boiling everything down to oil or money or religion or culture. I ask everyone to take action, to be, as Ghandi asked, “the change you wish to see in the world.” There are very real problems destroying this very real world. We need new diplomacy and new strategies and I believe these will come from new players and new voices. It is time to re-invent the wheel. It is time to find the next great idea.

I believe that working on the local level, with grassroots activists and community organizers, is the best place to look for new ideas and build new relationships. Working for and with the people who can’t leave when things get rough – who can’t pull out when it is dangerous – who are the last providers of services and advocacy and education when the world goes dark. Working to strengthen and solidify the networks and organizations that are for the people and of the people. Lending our skills to their agenda, helping them to organize and collaborate and strengthen whatever voice and whatever movement best serves their mission. It means not taking an international salary, not living in a double walled compound and not having the safety net of armored cars and helicopters and expense accounts and evacuation measures. Just as money can’t buy time, big cars and caravans and fancy conference rooms can’t buy the trust and access that is essential to building a lasting, sustainable women’s rights movement.

Working on a local level has given me the privilege of participating in one of the most important and exciting women’s rights movements in the world. It has brought me into living rooms and training centers and, most recently, a women’s prison that had not been visited by NGO workers in about a decade. It has given me access to women and girls whose stories and details don’t make it into the press or onto the UNDP agenda.

We were able to visit the women’s prison in Jalalabad because of a man named Ghizal. He is the senior trainer for AWN’s Jalalabad office and has, over a period years, worked with the women and girls who have been incarcerated. We were granted access to the prison because of the trust Ghizal has built over the years. We were granted access to the stories and lives of the women because of the trust Ghizal has built over the years. Trust and access, two more things you can’t buy and certainly can’t rush.

The actual prison currently houses twelve women, ten of which have or are pregnant with children. The stories I can tell you about why they are in jail and how they were treated by the Afghan legal system are chilling. Most are incarcerated for running away from home. Homes in which they were being raped, prostituted and beaten by husbands, mothers-in-law and other family members. Most ended up in jail after primitive due process – a rudimentary meeting before a judge in which they were sent to prison for charges that were unnamed and periods of time that were unspecified. They are jailed with their children though the barely formed Afghan legal system and penal code have no provisions to care for children or infants.

After a rather uncomfortable meeting with the highly ceremonial, over adorned police commissioner we were handed off to a female prisoner who led us past the guard tower, down a barbed wire corridor and into the central courtyard of the women’s prisons. The gate closed behind us and we were immediately welcomed by a group of women ranging in age from 81 to 15. AWN Program Director Shukria Kazimi and I sat with the woman as they told us their stories, presented us with decrepit photocopies of fingerprints and other legal documents and cried for the humiliation they felt they brought upon their families and communities. While each of the women expressed feelings of injustice and anger, the common thread in all of their narratives was a certain conviction that prison may be the safest, most free place for them. Living in prison keeps them safe from family and community members who consider them dishonorable and living in prison allows them to keep and raise their children.

Driving home from the prison on the dark, bumpy, dusty mountain road that connects Kabul with Jalalabad and then Pakistan, we sat in the car and talked about our next move. My American fix it NOW syndrome was operating on overdrive. All I could think of was calling the NYTimes and getting my pictures and the women’s stories on every conceivable website. I was blinded by the helplessness and anger that comes from spending a day with the forgotten – with women who are so far off the radar, there is no way their loudest screams will ever be heard.

From the back of the dark car Shukria asked me simple questions. If we get these women released from prison, what do we plan to do with them? Where will they go? They can’t go home – they can’t go back to their communities once they have been jailed for a crime that tarnishes their reputation and calls their morals into question. They will face isolation at best, death at worst. Afghanistan is a country of communities, of tribes, of clans. It isn’t like you can move to Philly and start over after a messy divorce in NY. Exoneration doesn’t exist. Relocation is not a reality for most women. There is no advanced network of social services and government assistance that will help these women pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They aren’t going to get jobs, or learn to read or be welcomed home by a family rejoiced. The problem is far bigger than hiring lawyers and calling the international press.

Shukria gently told me that we had to look at what we could do to for the whole crisis that is women and children in prison. It is a crisis of education, of awareness, of tradition. It is a metaphor for all of the social justice problems and impending solutions effecting women and children across the country. And again, it is a question of time. Provincial councils and local administrators need to be trained on everything from gender to law. Prison officials need to be trained on how to train and recruit and manage a prison and its employees. Women themselves have to be taught about their rights – legal and human alike. Have to be taught they deserve such rights. Communities need to begin a dialogue about equity and protection of women and girls. Training, education, capacity building and the increased willingness to talk about harmful traditions and erroneous beliefs. This is the way forward in Afghanistan for women. This is the way forward for women around the world.

So this is what we did. We put together a one year education and advocacy incentive that targets local government, local NGOs, religious leaders, teachers and the prison officials themselves. We put together a package that isn’t glamorous or dramatic. No women will be released from prison, no children will be sent to school. These things will come in time. At the end of one year we will have conducted needs assessments of the prisons, we will have documented all of the women’s cases and we will have begun the lifelong process of educating men and women about their rights and responsibilities. We will do this in their own language, in their own offices and provinces, with community leaders that are familiar with, and knowledgeable about, far more than the content of the work. It will take time, it won’t be easy to measure success right away and its most critical beneficiaries – the women and children of the future – will not be immediately recognizable.

Organizations like AWN work to reconcile the two Afghanistans. Organizations like AWN represent the thousands of ordinary women around the world doing extraordinary things. The women who work day in and day out and never make headlines. The women who show up everyday, on the front lines, to bring about change in places, and under circumstances, the whole world has written off as hopeless. Women with a sense of equity and justice so innate they stand up and fight when no one is looking, when no one cares and when no one else believes. Ordinary women are the revolutionaries of our time. They are the women I work with, and for, in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Erica speaks at NYU - 9/11/06

Forgive me, all, for stealing Erica's blog for a moment.

Erica inspires me in countless ways, not least of which is her brave work with AWN. Knowing how she loathes self-promotion, I would like to let you know that she will be in New York speaking about her time in Afghanistan in just a few weeks, and I hope each of you can be there to see her tell her story in person. The details:

September 11, 2006 at 6:30 PM
Hosted by New York University
At The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street, NYC

Erica will be joined by Afifa Azim, founder and Director of the Afghan Women's Network. An native Afghani, Azim is is an internationally respected speaker, facilitator and advocate for the rights of women in Afghanistan. Thier discussion will be followed by an informal Q&A on a host of issues related to their work for AWN.

And now, a short plug for AWN - their critical work as a not-for-profit organization needs your support. While this event is free, AWN’s work can only continue through the support of donors like you. Gifts to AWN are tax-deductible and can be made via the Advocacy Project at After entering the amount of your gift, note “For the Afghan Women’s Network” on the confirmation page.

I look forward to seeing you on the evening September 11, but, most of all, I can't wait to see Erica. I know we all feel the same.


Friday, August 04, 2006


Erica: “I NEED POWER.”

Rubina: “You have power in yourself.”

My entire life revolves around the single most unpredictable, temperamental, incomprehensible woman in the world. She is incredibly expensive, insanely controlling and one of the most spiteful creatures I have ever encountered. Though her deep voice rattles and shakes the entire office, it is her silence that is most dangerous. My entire day lives and dies according to the mood of Genny.

One could literally say that Genny is the difference between light and dark. Between a comfortable breeze and oppressive heat. Between connecting with the outside world and existing in lonely isolation. Without Genny I am devoid of words and pictures, food and water.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

JBAD: Part I

The plan was flawless. Flawless. Saraj was set to be at our place at 4:30AM with the car. Alison, Carrie and I would ride from our neighborhood, Karte Char, across Kabul to Qallah Fatoullah, where we would get Shukria. We would take the new road, we would avoid traffic, we would fly under the radar. We would reach Jalalabad around 9:30AM, take care of business and head back to Kabul around 1:00PM. Saraj arrived on time. The rest, not so flawless.

You know how people say that humans often start to look like their pets? Well, the same may be true for Alison and I and the women we work with. Alison works for a tiny girls education NGO, a few blocks from our house, surrounded by very conservative women. Accordingly, she has taken to covering every ounce of her flesh and wearing a large chadori-style headscarf that can often be seen revealing only her eyes. I work for a bigger, more radical women’s rights organization with women whose headscarves are more often around their shoulders than over their heads. In turn, I have, perhaps, become somewhat lax about covering all of the blonde bits of my hair. It doesn’t really matter that Carrie is somewhere between Alison and I on the headscarf front since she wears these shiny black Jackie-O sunglasses that nearly cause car accidents.

Saraj had a little trouble finding Shukria’s house despite the fact that she lives on one of the only numbered, or named, streets in all of Kabul. This meant that by the time we got to her she was waiting in the street in front of her house accompanied by every male member of her family. After convincing her father, brother, brother-in-law and some looming figure I believe was a cousin, that we did indeed know that leaving a woman waiting in the streets of Kabul before sunrise is wrong, Shukria, the picture of modern Afghanistan, climbed into the car. Keeping the above information in mind, when we sped out of Kabul in our larger than life SUV, I was in the front seat with Saraj (headscarf up but not really meaning it), Shukria and Alison (basically in burka) flanked Carrie (sunglasses gleaming) in the back. Despite our best intentions, one could say we were already on the radar.

The road leaving Kabul looks like one of those roads that could be anywhere war-torn and poor. Roadside stalls laden with fruit and vegetables give way to flat land marked by intermittent mud brick buildings and tent dwellings. Burned out tanks and buses lay overturned like statues in distant fields. Shell-pocked remnants of structures crumble around the children who use them as playgrounds. Men and women in groups of two or three walk along the road balancing things on their heads sidestepping beggars trying to flag down oncoming vehicles. Somewhere between the fruits stalls and the tents are deep side streets housing various industrial facilities and military compounds.

Jalalabad Road is the only paved road in eastern Kabul and arguably one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in the country. It winds through three sets of mountains taking on terrain as diverse as sand and rock. It races past stretches of open land as well as navigates its way through tiny villages carved into mountainsides. It stops for herds of goats while providing passage for brightly painted sixteen wheel trucks. As you head away from Kabul the pavement is disturbed first by tank treads embedded in the ground as speed bumps and then, as you reach the mountains, by centuries of sliding rock and sand. Cars and trucks bounce around the narrow mountain lanes in a well-practiced rhythm. A combination of inside passing, a seemingly random pattern of yielding and a healthy dose of bravado make for good driving here. The four hours of mountain travel required me to bind my chest with a spare headscarf, pray for our safe arrival and remember that irrespective of how I feel in my Kabul bubble, I am living and working in a nation that is marked by deep conflict, extremism, abject poverty and, for blonde haired women like myself, resentment and danger.

Afghanistan is a breathtaking country. I didn’t picture it as a place of intriguing beauty. Before I arrived, the few images I had in my mind were generic. Beige really. A combination of other places I have been and movies I have seen where sand and pollution are the driving forces of weather. This is a place that has been at war with itself, with Russia, with the world, for decades. This is a place that has endured the isolation and seclusion of extremism. There is no Lonely Planet Afghanistan. The Taliban banned photography and destroyed images, icons and landmarks. The visual history of Afghanistan has been marred and in turn the only pictures I carried with me were those of war and destruction. A dirt-covered girl on the cover of National Geographic, a woman being hooded and executed by the Taliban, a man standing over the graves of his wife and children. I had no idea that freshwater lakes embedded between snow-capped mountains adorn the Bamiyan Province. I had no idea that lush terraced pastures broken up by crystal blue rapids line the roads heading east to Pakistan. I had no idea that the low, dry scenery of the west would produce stunning desert-scapes equipped with palm trees. There are some things that war cannot diminish; the beauty of nature is one of them.

Around three hours into the trip, just as we all began to be lulled into passivity by the rocking of the car, the heat and the beautiful scenery, we approached a village named Surubi. Even before any signs of village life appeared, the road narrowed and the menagerie of vehicles sharing the road settled into two lanes of gently crawling traffic. With windows open we rolled through the main thoroughfare of Surubi. Tiny cave-like shops carved into the mountain line the road at the same level as the cars. Terraced houses loom over the road from mountain ridges high above. From the moment our vehicle entered the village the feeling of tension was palpable. Between the heat and mounting agitation caused by the traffic, everyone was on edge. As we got closer to the heart of town a sizable group of men and boys followed our car with their eyes. Some got close enough to the windows to peer inside. What began as curiosity quickly became tense. You can never pinpoint the moment a mood shifts until the results are painfully obvious. Having perfected our we-don’t-see-you-stares, we all sat very still and looked out of the front window.

As we reached the end of the road, the silence that had descended upon the car was interrupted by an explosion. I have no specific memory of what it sounded like or when I realized it was happening. I turned around in time to see the back window burst and the side window be struck and shatter. Shukria immediately covered her head and hit the baseboard of the car. Carrie immediately slumped down in her seat, looking around for signs of what was happening. Darling Alison threw herself against the back seat, arching towards the window that was exploding. Reaching across Carrie I grabbed for Alison, struggling to reach her sleeve, yelling for her to put face against the back of the seat in front of her. I remember holding the back of Alison’s head. I remember my eyes locking onto Carrie’s. I remember Shukria reaching to squeeze my shoulder, letting me know she was okay. I could only hear the sound of breaking glass, my own heartbeat and the chaos of movement. Saraj asked me if anyone was hit. I shook my head no. He pushed the headrest behind my head down, created a path for our car in a space clearly too small to accommodate us. Within minutes he was plowing through the narrow opening looking for someplace to pull over and assess the situation.

We found no evidence of a rock or a bottle in the trunk. Saraj believed the car had been shot at. An assumption that would be confirmed when we returned to Kabul and had the vehicle examined. One thing is very clear, no one was trying to hurt us. If they were, one or more of us would have been hit or killed. As we drove the rest of the way to Jalalabad – in what became eerie silence – I couldn’t help but wonder what that bullet was trying say to us.

The tensions and perceptions between, within and around every group, culture and politic of this country are ripe and askew. The international news and radio only talk about Taliban extremists and Coalition forces. Suicide bombers and ISAF troops. The resurgence of Taliban forces in the south is real and incredibly frightening. The recently introduced proposal to re-create the infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is a terrifying symbol of the Karzai administration’s need to pander to the religious right. I still don’t have the words, or the heart, to share the details of the cases of child marriage, sexual abuse, self-immolation and honor killing I deal with every single day. There is no question that Afghanistan is being held together by strings so tenuous that a light breeze is a tangible threat.

You have no idea how badly I want to blame the Taliban for the criminal lack of social justice that exists in this country. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for the behavior boys and men display towards me as I walk three steps to my car. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for the level of distrust Afghan women show foreigners. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for girls’ schools burning in provinces as close to Kabul as Jersey City is to Manhattan. More than anything you have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for our car window getting shot at as we passed through a small village. You have no idea how simple that would be.

We want to know where the danger is coming from. We want to know who the enemies are. This isn’t Hollywood. They don’t all look alike, dress alike, think alike and live alike. This is a nation that has been let down by the government, by the warlords, by the world. The gun pointed at our car could have been held by anyone, sitting anywhere, thinking anything.