Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Winter in Kabul

As I was leaving the office this afternoon the first soggy flakes of the season started to fall. The mountains have been snow capped for about two weeks - you can see them from anywhere in the city - but this is the first snow in Kabul. Hopefully not an omen, our generator died this morning (thankfully NOT while I was in the shower as the water is also connected to the generator). We have a temporary replacement now, but this afternoon I sat in my frigid candle lit room as the sun set and thought about the privileged existence I lead, even in Kabul. We expats pride ourselves on living in a conflict region without the comforts and security we are accustomed to, but we live in opulence compared to the average Kabul resident - never mind life in the provinces. Even my Afghan co-workers, who are highly educated and make good salaries, live without electricity, heat (other than wood stoves) and running water.

Now I'm sitting in my (relatively) warm room with my Internet connection, thinking about how grateful I am for the privileges and opportunities I grew up with. And how I hope I can help other people experience some of those same opportunities in the future.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Carpet Bazaar and the Omar Mine Museum

Carpet Bazaar

oTwo Afghan men at the carpet bazaar - they asked me to take their picture. It's washed out, but I like it anyway.

The grounds of the Omar Mine Museum, displaying different missiles

An airplane mounted outside of the museum

The inside of a an old airplane used as a classroom at the Omar Mine Museum

Poster distributed by the mine museum. The red painted rocks signal a mine field, and the women is hanging onto her child's shirt as he walks towards it. Different types of mines litter the field.

Saturday was an interesting day - in the morning I went to a old fort next to the former British embassy for a carpet bazaar, and then we went to the Mine Museum. A few weeks ago I posted about visiting the Kabul Museum, and what a sorry state it was in. The Taleban managed to destroy the majority of historic art and artifacts at that the museum, but the mine museum was practically bursting with displays. I think that says a lot about what decades of war can do to a country. Although, to be fair, the Taleban didn't plant a lot of mines - the mujahadeens and Soviets did a lot of that, with other internationals participating at varying intervals.

Luckily for me, I went to Omar Mine Museum with my friend Matt, who is writing his dissertation about mines, so I got a very thorough explanation of the different mines displayed at the museums, their uses, and some of the war theory behind the use of mines. Mines are mainly used as a defensive mechanism, but they aren't very effective because a determined army will plow through a mine field fairly quickly. Also, mines move with rain, so overtime a mine field expands.

The overwhelming casualties of mines are civilians. One of the displays showed butterly mines, brightly colored plastic mines that are dropped from planes onto an area below. They look like toys, and invariably attract children, who will lose a few fingers if they pick one up.

The museum is used as an educational platform for various organizations, especially de-mining employees, to teach them about different types of mines, etc. It amazed me that humanity has spent so much time creating weapons that will blow off a persons leg, or blow off their leg and shoot shrapnel 25 ft in each direction, or blow through the underbelly of an armored tank. Throughout the museum there are photos of children, women and men who have been maimed by mine explosions.

Ironically, Saturday morning (same day I visited the Omar Mine Museum) an Afghan National Army tank driving through the Karte Parwan district of Kabul veered off the road a little and hit a landmine. No one was injured, but it makes one very cautious about venturing off the beaten path, even in the city.

Unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside the museum, so I have some pictures from the grounds, which are also very interesting.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and this year was no exception. After pooling our detective skills and cash, we were able to procure two 10 kilo turkeys, 48 Heinekens and an assortment of additional yummy goodies. We invited about 30 people over for the feast, with guests ranging from the Country Directors of Oxfam and CARE to little gender interns like me.

Aside from finding the turkeys, Betsy contributed a fake Christmas tree and an assortment of decorations from the Women of Hope project. Thanksgiving day we went shopping for the party in the morning, decorated in the afternoon and ate and ate and ate at night. Baba Ji, our cook, did a fantastic job on the turkeys (I guess he marinated them for two days in a garlic-herb sauce that he made. He even make a pumpkin pie from scratch, which by the way, tastes very different from the pies made with pumpkin concentrate. . .

Friday, November 24, 2006


My eight days in Almaty were a whirlwind of work, sleep depravation and fun.

High Points:
  • Walking around. Something I don't get to do much of in Kabul.
  • Being praised by my boss for designing and giving the best presentation during the strategic planning sessions.
  • Hanging out with Jenny and Ian who were in Almaty from the DC office.
  • Gorging myself on the homemade cookies that Gavi's mom sent from the US, via Ian.
  • Watching Kazakh music videos.
  • Eating pepperoni pizza, having an American style brunch complete with bacon, going out to bars with the Kazakh staff and drinking micro brews.
  • Using the hotel laundry service, which includes dryers (my jeans shrunk back down to size).
  • Not having to worry about being culturally inappropriate.
  • Not wearing a headscarf!
***Pics in order: Soviet statue in the downtown park of Almaty; Cathedral in the same park; Ian and Igor (DC bonding with Kazakh staff) at Murphy's Pub; Nathan and I on our way into the same pub; DC staff participating in the local custom of toasting with vodka; me enjoying one of the cranberry and white chocolate cookies sent to Nathan and I from the US (Gavi's mom is the best EVER).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shoot on Sight

I returned from Almaty yesterday feeling refreshed after 8 days of relative freedom. Of course we did a lot of work during the study tour/strategic planning sessions, but we also explored the city, frequented bars and (my favorite) walked around. On Sunday, our free day, we went out for brunch and then I walked and walked and walked. It was awesome. I will write more about this later (and post pictures), but I wanted to write about something that happened tonight.

After work Nathan and I went over to Scott's place to check out his new office and apartment. He has a more traditional set up with an open courtyard in the center of his staff house and several small buildings around the garden. Afterwards we walked over to another friend's house for dinner. Now, we were breaking the rules by going for a stroll, but we were only walking a few blocks and I wasn't going to complain. As we walked and talked I realized that this is furthest I've walked in Kabul. Scott said hello in Dari to each person we passed on the street, and I couldn't help thinking that our security measures are a bit extreme. In his two weeks in Kabul Scott has already seen more of the city and met more people than I have in two months.

We arrived and settled down for dinner. Two of the roommates who live in the house were home, and the third was at the gym but was expected home any minute. I was feeling very jealous of their normal lifestyle - going to they gym in the evening, walking around to get to each other's homes, etc. . . After a 1/2 hour the other roommates started getting nervous. Turns out the gym is only a block away, but everyone was nervous about a woman walking that distance alone at 9:30 pm. They kept trying to call the roommate, but there was no answer. Eventually we started eating and S got a call, and he rushed out of the house. A few minutes later he re-entered with his missing roommate, Aneela.

Apparently Aneela had left the gym on time and was jogging back to her house when she was suddenly slammed against a wall by an ISAF soldier. After a brief exchange he explained that the military was removing a car with an explosive parked on her street, directly across from her house. The street was blocked off (we must have arrived at the house just before this happened) and they wouldn't let her go home until the car was towed away. The soldier told Aneela that they had already disarmed the bomb, and just waiting for the tow truck to arrive. They were using a jammer (in case of a remote control bomb) so cell phone signals were blocked.

While she was waiting the soldier told her that she was lucky -- his partner had been ready to shoot, but as he said, "I thought it looked like a lady running, so I told him to wait." When Aneela questioned if it was their policy to shoot at unknown persons in the dark he explained that that was, in fact, their policy and their orders.

Understandably, Aneela was quite shaken by the experience.

When we got home, about an hour ago, I checked my work email and found a new security notice. Looks like a US Military Convoy in Kabul opened fire on a contractor vehicle that was traveling too close to the convoy. This caused the driver to lose control and slam into a shop. The convoy then opened fire on the vehicle, killing one doctor, one civilian and wounding four other doctors who were traveling from Bagram to Kabul.

Guess Aneela really was lucky.

In unrelated news, today I was offered and verbally accepted a new 3 month contract with my NGO working as a gender consultant.

***Pic is of Scott's mini-apartment.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Headin' to Central Asia

Well, after an almost completely unproductive day at work, I'm packing up to head to Kazakhstan for 8 days. We're having a study tour/strategic planning retreat for the senior management team in Almaty. Of course, I'm an intern, not senior management, but I get to go too! I think I've earned my keep by handling a lot of the logistics, I'm giving one of the gender presentations and I'll be co-facilitating the 3 days of strategic planning. Oh, and I'll be hanging out with Ian and J-Lew from headquarters, drinking in Russo-Kazakh bars.

woohoooooo! I'm ready for no head scarves, clothes that fit and dancing. Hopefully I'll have lots of good pics to post when I get back. Have a great week!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christmas Gifts

Rain or Shine

Yesterday I volunteered at the base, as usual. Unfortunately, it started to rain around 2pm (ironically right at the time I skipped out to get some coffee with my new friend Paul). Of course we were set up in a place without any cover, so we had to haul everything to a partially sheltered area. I say partially shelted because the tables and the customers were under cover, but Betsy, Mahboob and I were barely under the overhang. Add a little wind, and you can imagine how wet we were. Amazingly, we still managed to sell a lot of stuff - we almost tied our best day so far, in spite of the weather.

Kabul desperately needs rain, so it is actually a really good thing that it rained. Admittedly, the entire city turns into a mud pit, but at least it damps down the dust a bit.

At 4 we packed everything up and left the base. Then, we stood outside in the rain (now it was just sprinkling) for a half hour waiting for Mahboob to hail a cab. They all seem to disappear when it starts raining. Eventually, we squelched into a cab, heaved a premature sigh of relief. Premature, because when we got to Betsy's street the road was flooded. Because rain in relatively infrequent in Kabul, many of the streets don't have drainage systems. The taxi plunged into the water - at the deepest point the water was just below the car doors. I could feel the water flowing beneath the floor boards.

The water in front of Betsy's house was at least a foot deep, so we got the driver to drop us off a little further up the street, and we used a back side entrance to lug everything inside. As I stood in the mud waiting for Betsy to unlock the door I realized that the water flowing down the street was a mix of rain runoff and sewage. It was the smell that gave it away. Once we got inside we put on dry clothes and drank hot chocolate - thank god for hot chocolate.

When I dragged my slightly air-dried self back to my house, I was greeted by my good friend from DC, Scott, who arrived in Kabul on Thursday. After 1o minutes of talking, and my explaining my job situation, Scott recommended that I go out for dinner with himself, his new boss and Nathan. Scott insisted that his boss, Lorenzo, could be a vital networking link for me. Since Lorenzo is leaving Afghanistan for about 20 days tomorrow, it was a now or never situation. So, I dragged my soggy self upstairs and took a (mostly) hot shower. The light blew out in my bedroom, so I got dressed in the dark and we went out to dinner at an Iranian restaurant. I was so tired I could barely follow the conversation, much less impress Lorenzo with my charm, intelligence and overall employability. But, I did give two people my business card, so hopefully I made a better impression than I think. . .

When we got home I crawled upstairs and was getting ready for bed when a heard two bursts of machine gun fire. Close. I instinctively rolled onto the bed and away from the windows. I laid there with my heart pounding for a minute before it clicked -- wedding. Afghans, like Palestinians and many other cultures, celebrate weddings by shooting into the air. Amazingly, I crawled into bed a few minutes later and passed out immediately.

***Pic is a minivan stuck on Betsy's street in water almost up to the tail lights. Unfortunately I was shivering so hard I couldn't get a clear shot.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The song that keeps running through my head

On my drive from DC to Syracuse, my last stop before Kabul, I listened to some cds I borrowed from my wonderful friend Gavi. This Dar Williams song was on the first cd I put it, and I listened to over and over again. It's been in my head ever since. It captures part of how I feel about traveling - the love I have for it and how it is a part of who I am, although I can't really explain why. And how I question my motives for traveling, and whether or not the benefits are worth the costs. They are so far. I guess it is the saharinkabul theme song. . .

Travelin' Again

Have I got everything? Am I ready to go?
Is it gonna be wild, is it gonna be the best time
Or am I just a-saying so?
Am I ready to go?
What do I hear when I say I hear the call of the road?

I think it started with driving
More speed, more deals, more sky, more wheels
More things to leave behind
Now it's all in a day for the modern mind
And I am traveling again
Calling this the ghost town, and where is the heart land
And I'm afraid to go, was there any good reason
That I had to go, when all I know is I can never come back?

Traveling I made a friend, he had a trouble in his head
And all he could say's that he knew that the bottle
Drank the woman from his bed,
From his bed.
He said "I'm not gonna lose that way again."
But sober is just like driving
More joy, more dread, someone turns her head
And smiles and disappears
He's gotta take like it is, and it goes too fast
And he is just like me, caught in-between
No sage advisor
Does weary mean wiser?
And someday will I sing the mountains that carried me away
From home and hometown boys like you?

Well, what about us? Was it really that bad?
Oh its hard to believe I want a highway road stop
More than all the times we had
On little dirt roads.
What am I reaching for that's better than a hand to hold?
It really was about driving
Not fame, not wealth, not driving away from myself
It's just myself drove away from me
And now I gotta get it back, and goes so fast so
I am traveling again
Sitting at the All-night, picking up a pen
And I'm afraid to go, was there any good reason
That I had to go, when all I know is
I am all alone again
And you are the ghost town, and I am the heart land
And I can say that's a very good reason
That I had to go, but now all I know is I can never come back.
And I will never go back.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

about that extension. . .

Well, we got verbal confirmation that our program would get the extension, but nothing on paper. The donor says it is too soon to commit to an extension (we still have 14 months left in the original program). So, I have no idea how that translates into a job for Sahar. I think I'm going to bring it up with my boss sometime in the next few days and see what she thinks. My motivation to apply for jobs will increase dramatically once it is confirmed that I will land in Syracuse, broke, if I don't get my ass into gear.

In unrelated news, I saw my first scorpion in the house today. I spotted it, but I let one of roommates kill it. I thought that was fair.

***pic expresses my current mood. I'm not sure what happened to my eyebrow in this picture - I just checked in the mirror and it's still there. . .

Monday, November 06, 2006

Wedding - Afghan Style

Saturday evening I went to my first wedding, Afghan style. I was a little nervous because I knew that most of the other women at the office weren’t going, although most of the men were. I would have been fine hanging out with the men, but most Afghan weddings (including this one) are separated by sex. So, I put on my new bright pink Afghan outfit, some make up and climbed into the car. When we arrived at the wedding hall, there were two entrances, one for men, and one for women. My coworker’s father escorted me into the banquet hall where about 100 vibrantly dressed women sat at tables.

Bashir’s father led me directly to Bashir’s sister, who promptly seated me at what I assume was a table of honor. It was next to the stage that the bride and groom would sit on when they arrived, and currently occupied by about 7 elderly Afghan women – none of whom spoke English. So, I smiled my best smile, said Salam wa Alaykum, and sat down to watch the show.

There was a band playing and a few young girls dancing. Some of the men from the bride and groom’s families were dancing in the center of the floor, and everyone watched them. I expected this wedding to be fairly similar to Middle Eastern weddings I’ve attended – but it was very different. As I scanned the room I noticed that none of the women were smiling. Hardly any were even talking to each other, they just sat and watched the event (the groom's family being the exception). And the event was watching the men dance. None of the women at my table even attempted conversation with me, not even the two young girls (maybe 6 and 8) who were also at the table. They just stared at me.

Thankfully, at this point the only female coworker who showed up found me and sat with me. She was with her sister who had just returned from 6 months of studying in Japan. We said our hellos and made small talk until the bride and groom arrived. As they walked down the open aisle, women from the groom’s family tossed flower petals in front of them and the groom’s mother followed them carrying a Qur'an over their heads. They walked somberly forward (a bride is not supposed to be happy or smile on her wedding day because it would dishonor the family she is leaving behind). The bride was wearing a lime/neon green dress and about 40 lbs of make-up (brides spend about 8 hours at the salon before their wedding, having all their body hair removed, and elaborate hair and make-up treatments). The groom was wearing a white suit and snakeskin boots.

As I watched them climb onto their marital dais I thought about the conversation I’d had with the groom two days earlier. My boss asked him what he wanted for a wedding gift from the staff and he said, “another wife”.

As they sat on their bridal couch the professional photographers swirled around them, snapping photos. Different arrangements of siblings and parents climbed onto the stage to be photographed with the unsmiling couple. The women wore pink, orange, teal, purple – the more festive, the better. Yet it seemed strangely in contrast to their expressions. Only the mother of the groom and his sisters, the hostesses, seemed to be having a good time. After they were settled on the couch the music started again, and the men danced some more.

Samira, my coworker, tried to drag me out onto the dance floor, but I refused. I like to dance, and I know enough Middle Eastern dancing to fake it in Afghanistan, but none of the other women were dancing besides immediate family members and pre-pubescent girls. So, Samira, stood up and went out to the dance floor by herself. Now, at work Samira is extremely quiet and mousy – she keeps her head down and doesn’t talk much. In the middle of the dance floor, directly in front of the video camera, she spun and jumped to the drumbeats, her hair flying around her gracefully. She was beautiful and alive in a way that no one else in the room seemed capable of. When the song ended she returned to the table laughing and out of breath. Bashir’s mother came over and thanked her for dancing.

Shortly after that the bride and groom exited the banquet hall to eat dinner with their immediate families. My phone rang, and it was Nathan calling to see if I was ready to go. I’d been told previously that it was rude to leave before the food, and I mentioned that to him. He said, “Oh. We’ve already eaten. We’ve been done for a while.” While we were talking men carrying huge platters of food started dumping them down on tables. So, I told him I’d eat fast and meet him outside. We got our food, and then another man came around with a bucket, unloading Pepsis onto the tables. He unloaded 8 sodas and moved onto the next table. Before we had even reached for the drinks, a male guest (one of Bashir’s family) walked up, took 6 of the drinks from the table and left. All the women just stared at him. Someone found the drink boy and got some more sodas.

After inhaling enough cold food to be polite, I made my exit. Samira escorted me to the door and I called Nathan to tell him I was coming out. As I exited the wedding hall, I entered into a sea of suited men. There wasn’t another woman in sight (they were all inside). Nathan walked up to me and I said, “Wow. I really am in Manistan”. He escorted me to the car and the sea of suits parted for us, with the men staring as we passed. I climbed into the car and watched the men stare in through the open door and windows at me. Then we went home.

I learned afterwards that the pre-dinner celebration (for the women) is supposed to be low key because they are grieving with the bride for the loss of her family. The post-dinner celebration is supposed to be more upbeat. I’m glad I went, but I’m not sorry that I missed the second half. . . it would have been difficult to celebrate a wedding where the groom had said he wanted another wife as his gift.

***pic is of Nathan and I in Afghan garb

I love Fridays!

Fridays are my favorite day of the week because I spend the day lugging crafts around and dealing with cranky people. No, really I love the opportunity to be outdoors (scarf-less), have conversations with total strangers, and get some physical activity. And, this time I smuggled my camera into the base, so you can see pictures of some of the things that Women of Hope Project sells.

See how enterprising I am!

Honestly, we must look so funny on Friday mornings trying to cram 3 adults, 2 suitcases, 2 big canvas bags, an enormous duffel bag, a collapsable metal clothing rack, 6 baskets, a brass money box with padlock and a bag of snacks into a taxi. Thankfully, Betsy and Maboob have it down to an artform. I just try to make myself smaller and stay out of the way during the taxi-packing process.

***The first picture is of Betsy, the brains behind Women on Hope Project and Maboob, her right hand man. Second pic is of a handwoven tapestry that I love but can't afford and the last one is a stack of hand embroidered hats.