Saturday, September 30, 2006

Warm Welcome

Friday, I spent the morning with a gender consultant who has 12 years experience working in Afghanistan. The country director of my NGO arranged the meeting to give me an opportunity to network and ask questions about my career trajectory, opportunities, etc. . . It was really nice of Tilly to arrange the interview, but the woman really wasn't very helpful. She told me not to bother pursuing a career in Afghanistan (wasn't planning on it) because there are too many gender people here -- then she suggested I try Sudan. I could have come up with that on my own . . .

Later I met Nathan at a restaraunt down the street, where we talked about work. Eventually, Waise and his friend Sharna joined us. Sharna is an Australian NGO worker who was helping Waise conduct interviews for his documentary at the international military base (I guess the soldiers are pretty excited to talk to a woman). We shared baba ghanoush and humos and talked about various experiences in Kabul. Sharna's been here for about a month, and I guess her first night here a missile accidentally landed in the garden of their compound. Apparently Sharna has developed an amazing ability to sleep through anything -- she attributes it to 5 months in Morocco. This, combined with her jetlag, let her sleep right through the explosion. It wasn't until her roommate woke her up that she smelled the burning deisel and realized what was going on . . .

There were three stray missiles. One landed in a park, one landed in my County Director's friend's compound, and one landed in Sharna's compound. Nothing like a warm welcome. . .

Sharna was also telling us that she went to a party at the Italian embassy, which ended up getting busted by the police for the noise. She said the police entered the compound in the middle of a strip tease being done by the off duty Italian security guys on one of the balconies of the building. That couldn't have helped the reputation of foreign workers in Afghanistan. . .

*** Blurry picture from Kabul. I haven't been able to get many good ones from the moving car yet.

I haven't really been talking about the security situation here, but by all reports the security in Kabul is increasingly uncertain. There was another suicide bombing this morning - at the Ministry of Interior. It is unclear how many people were injured/killed at this point. The blast was at 8am; I was sleeping and didn't hear anything (I'm not close to the MoI). This is the 65 suicide boming in Afghanistan this year, according to our security officer. The provinces of Kandahar and Helmut have been hotbeds for the insurrgency in the last few years, but more and more of the bombings are finding their way into the capitol city.

Iftar and Star Wars

On Thursday, Nathan invited about half of the male staff over to the staff house for Iftar. I was exhausted from the Jalalabad trip, so I crawled into bed for a nap before sunset. Baba Gee, our cook, prepared a feast that made Iftar at Waz's house look like a snack. There were Pakistani style kabobs (awesome), roast beef, rice, fruit salad, lamb, other things that I can't remember, and dessert. Unfortunately I wasn't able to really enjoy the meal as I seem to have eaten something that is corroding my innards.

Dinner was a little awkward because I was the only woman present. At one point, one of the staff members asked me, pointedly, if women eat with the men in Kuwait. I said, well, not always, but I do. That ended that.

After Iftar, we all settled down in the living room to watch Star Wars, Episode I. Nathan is attempting to introduce the staff to the better parts of American culture via George Lucas. He had already showed Episodes 4, 5, 6. Now, the funny part about this is that incrementally, Nathan will stop the movie to explain what is going on, and to give the Afghans a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind the Star Wars movies . . . Between Nathan's explanations and the constant ringing of cell phones (the movie stops for cell conversations) it took 3 hours to watch the movie. It was a lot of fun, and I think the concept of the evening - Iftar and Star Wars, is probably unique in the history of dinners in Kabul.

The guys have promised to bring over some Pashtun movies, so that they can introduce us to some of the funnier parts of Afghan culture. . .

*** Picture is of taxi transports in Jalalabad

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Road to Jalalabad

On Thursday, I left Kabul for the first time since my arrival and traveled to Jalalabad to continue our gender impact assessment with one of our partner organizations located there. It takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours to travel to Jalalabad from Kabul, and by my estimation the roads are pretty awful. Apparently until last year, the same trip took over 6 hours because of how much worse the roads used to be. The road conditions are very sketchy - narrow, steep curvy mountain roads without guard rails, uneven pavement and big potholes. I guess the road used to full of craters from missile blasts, so this is a huge improvement. We passed construction on the road, and the government is paving the roads - in one spot there were even lines on the road - not that anyone knew what they were for.

On the way there are a variety of checkpoints that we had to stop at, but for the most part they just spoke to the driver briefly before waving us on. The drive itself was stunning. We were driving through the mountains just after sunrise, with the Kabul River sparkling on the left as the sun peeked out over the mountains. Once we entered Nangahar province, we had to wear our shawls . . . Nangahar Province and Jalalabad are more conservative than Kabul City.

We arrived at the NGO office, completed our interviews and left immediately to trek back to Kabul. The roads aren't safe after dark, both because they are trecherous and for security reasons. We had a little caravan; myself, Waz, the driver and the security guard in the first car, and another car with another security guard following us in a second car. I was not happy when I realized the guard in the second car was a Ministry of Interior police officer, in full uniform. The Taleban are currently targeting foreign military, Afghan gov't officials and NGO workers. We were trying to be subtle, and this guy was not helping.

We stopped three times on the way back -- once to argue with a checkpoint guard who was trying to re-route us onto a longer and less safe road back to Kabul (we won), once to buy pommegranites in a little village, and once because there was a pick up truck full of young Afghan men blocking the road. The last stop scared me a little because there were all these men in the truck, and other men on the side of the road (construction workers), and the ministry of interior guard got out with his big gun and started talking to them asking them to move. They moved, but it was a tense few minutes.

After returning to Kabul, completely exhausted (I only got about 3 hours of sleep before the trip) I checked my email and discovered that a security warning had been sent out for that day -- all foreigners were warned against traveling to Nangahar Province because of reports of Taleban action. . . The report said, "JALALABAD, Sep 28 Security officials Thursday claimed detaining four suspects along with weapons and other explosives in the eastern Nangarhar province." Hmmm. . . Well I'm glad I got to see a little of Jalalabad when I did, because it looks like it will be off limits for a while. . .

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Please Check Your Weapons at the Door

Today I went to the PXs for the first time. I guess PX is a military term for store, but the shops I visited were not on an army base; they were on the outskirts of Kabul and are privately owned. Very obviously catering to foreigners, these places have pretty intense security - they are walled in and have guards at the gate who check the undercarriage of the cars for bombs, and check your passport - I guess you have to be an expat to get in. Both of the PXs that we visited today have signs like the one I've posted in the picture. . .

Inside the PX they have a schmorgasboard (spelling?) of European and American products, everything from sneakers and athlete's food spray to chocolates and coffee. Until recently, they also sold alcohol. Nathan and I stocked up on chips, salsa, ice cream and chocolate (which melted all over the inside of one of the bags), q-tips and shaving cream. Oh, and coke. I am attached to my coke when it's available. . .

On the way out of the second PX - we were on a mission for laundry detergent that wouldn't make us itch - right by the gate to leave, I saw a sign demarking the terror level. Apparently, we are currently at level orange, which is what the US was at when I was leaving. We've had one assassination (of a minister of women's affairs) and several suicide bombings, or suicide bomb attemts since I've been here. I think it is fascinating that Kabul and Chicago are on the same terror alert at the moment. . .

Tomorrow I'm going to Jalalabad to visit some of our partner NGOs. I will definitely bring my camera and try and get some decent pictures. So far, all of my photo ops in Kabul have been from a moving vehicle, and they don't come out very well . . .

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


When I was in Palestine during Ramadan last year, I gained about 10 lbs because I wasn't fasting, but I was eating iftar (the meal to break the fast) every day. Now, this is a very special meal - in fact, I wouldn't even call it a meal - I'd call it a feast. An entire month of feast and famine, over and over again. The food has never been anything less than amazing, regardless of the country I am in, and there is one other little detail that is consistent across boundaries -- the harassment to EAT EAT EAT. As a guest, it is your duty to shovel as much of that wonderful food into your stomach as humanly possible, and then to contine eating for another half-hour. Afghanistan is no exception.

I went to my first iftar at a co-workers house in Kabul. There was enough food to feed a horde a grad students, but there were only five of us . . . you can imagine my dilemma. Luckily, Nathan, Anika and I stepped up the plate and did our part. Most of the Ramadan traditions are similar to what I had seen in other places - breaking the fast with figs, then praying, then starting with soup. This soup was called Oosh, and it was really tasty. Before we ate, our hostess asked us to kneel over a large silver basin, and she poured water onto our hands from a silver pitcher. She said it was tradition to wash guests hands before a meal in this manner, and that it was an honor for the pourer and the pouree.

So we ate, and ate and ate and Waz told us a story about her grandmother. Many Afghan families eat on their roofs in the summertime because it is cooler. I guess, her grandmother was encouraging a relative to eat more, and she kept saying, "Eat," and trying to put more food on his plate, and he kept scooting backwards while saying "No, thank you". Apparently he scooted a little too far and fell off the roof of a two story building. He survived, which makes the story absolutely hysterical, and puts the social pressure of eating into context.


Earlier that day I was visiting some of our local NGO partners, helping with an assessment of ourselves and our partner organizations. At one of the offices a woman spoke to me in Dari, assuming I was an Afghan. Turns out, it was my co-worker's sister, and I saw her at the house during iftar. There are over 4 million people in this city . . . what are the chances?

Friday, September 22, 2006


Today, Friday (weekend here is Fri and Sat), I spent the bulk of the day cleaning up my notes from Thursday's interview. I didn't have any plans to go anywhere, which is good because we were put on curfew from 12-4. I guess one of the religious leaders in Afghanistan declared a Day of Anger in response to the Pope's insensitive comment. There were several peaceful protests scheduled, and that means internationals stay home. During the riots here in May, I guess our staff house was targeted (we are close to the Parliament) and every window in the building was smashed. I guess one of the security guards shot his gun off in the air and the mob moved down the street. So, protests mean stay inside.

Thankfully, nothing happened.

Tonight Anika, Nathan and I went out for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. The food was very good, and they even had alcohol. I guess it is now illegal to sell alcohol - restaurants are allowed to finish off their current supplies, and then the country will be dry. Sitting outdoors, eating mezza, with people smoking sheesha around me made me feel like I was back in Palestine. Funny how I can be homesick for a place I only lived in for a few months. . .

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Seeing Turquoise

Thursday was grueling at work, I was taking notes all day while Anika (my old supervisor from DC who is here for 10 days) conducted training assessment interviews. That means she was asking staff questions about the trainings they had received to figure out how effective they have been -- it also meant that I spent the entire day frantically typing. We were sitting in the conference room, and after the first interview I went looking for a really thick book to sit on because the chairs at the table were too short me to type comfortably at the table (because I'm so short, not because the chairs weren't proportionate to the table).

Afterwards we went to a new restaurant just around the corner from our house. Turns out the manager is Egyptian; the very first place I visited in Afghanistan is one of the big Arab hangouts . . . go figure. After dinner Nathan and I joined his friend Wise (An Afghan raised in the Phillipines and the US) at a Turquose Foundation event in an old palace inside Kabul. The palace is lived in, and being rennovated by the author of the book The Places in Between, Rory Stewart. I haven't read the book yet, but apparently he traveled around Afghanistan by himself, visiting villages and meeting Afghans from all parts of the country. Rory used the proceeds from his book to start the Turquoise Foundation (, which is a non-profit that is working to preserve and restore Afghan heritage, while also training Afghan's in traditional arts like caligraphy and beautiful, intricate wood carving.

Rory certainly seems like an interesting guy, he was kind enough to give us a brief tour of the palace and the exhibits that were still up (we arrived a little late). Then we got to talking about NGOs in Afghanistan and what good, if any, they are doing here. He and Nathan went round and round - I didn't contribute too much seeing as I had just arrived - but both of them made very valid points. I hate feeling like I am part of a colonizing force; I know the kind of work my NGO does is usually relevant, helpful and smart - meaning that we are teaching Afghans how to do everything so that it will be sustainable after we leave - but Rory still made some good points, even if he was a bit pompous. Just living in the staff house, with its walls and security, is so different from my experience in the West Bank. I dislike feeling so separate from the people I am here to help - and how arrogant is it of me to think that I can help these people at all?

By the time we left the party it was after 11, and our drivers stop working at 11, so we called Easy Ride - a taxi service for internationals with drivers that have had security clearance and training. On the way back to the staff house we were pulled over at an Afghan police checkpoint. The officer talked to the driver, then pulled open the minivan door (which was on my side) and started asking questions. He asked if we all spoke English, and both Nathan and Wise said yes. I didn't say anything at first, then I realized that I was probably the one he was waiting to hear from, so I said yes as well. He sneered at us for a moment, then slammed the door and waved the taxi on.

Now, checkpoints don't really bother me, and this didn't either until I commented to Nathan and Wise that I guess that answers my question about carrying my passport with me at all times (a must in Palestine because of the checkpoints). Wise just laughed and said a passport wouldn't make any difference at all. That made me a little nervous. My American passport was always my shield and trump card when I was in the West Bank. Both the Israeli soldiers and I knew that they couldn't really do anything to me except make me wait unless I did something drastic. Guess it doesn't work that way here. Welcome to the Afghanistan . . .

Once we got back to the house Wise showed up some footage that he's taken. He's making a documentary about the training of an Afghan army unit. It was pretty interesting; a lot of night shooting (guns and camera), and one part where Wise fell into a 6 ft ditch because he was looking through the camera lense instead of where he was going . . .

I think this night was a good example of what my time here will be like. A lot of questioning what the hell I'm doing here, meeting really interesting people, and feeling vaguely unsettled.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Arrival in Afghanistan, or Manistan as Nathan calls it

You'd think preparing for a 3 month stint in Afghanistan would be easy after 5 months in Palestine, but I found myself frantically packing the night before my trip, feeling vaguely uneasy that I was forgetting something really, really important. This is my own fault - I mistakenly thought my flight was leaving Monday morning, but luckily I checked my ticket Sat morning and realized I was actually leaving Sunday, September 17th. So, you can image my mental state Saturday as I zoomed around tying up loose ends, running errands, and wondering the the back of my mind what else I had forgotten . . .

Also, packing for life in Afghanistan is quite difficult for a woman preparing to leave from the US. Finding loose fitting tunic shirts that go down to mid-thigh tends to be a bit difficult at your average American shopping mall. Eventually I figured out that shopping in the Women's Plus section (thank you, Fashion Bug!) was one way around this cultural difference. Maternity shirts, however, are where I draw the line. The trick is to be culturally sensative while still managing to look profession (not sloppy). It is quite difficult, and I don't think I was totally successful, but I can always buy new clothes here.

The mental preparation for a trip to Afghanistan is more difficult. I assessed the situation and decided that the merits of the trip far outweighed the risk, in a very rational manner (in my personal, somewhat biased opinion) but the reactions I received from most of the people around me made me doubt my judgement. My family and friends were understandably concerned, but overall supportive of my decision. It was the responses from the nurse at the vaccination clinic, the woman checking me out at Fashion Bug who wanted to know why I was buying clothes twice my normal size, my doctor's nurse, and acquiantences in general that bugged me. Obviously these people aren't important in my life - hell, I don't care about thier opinions at all - but when I told the Fashion Bug woman I was going to Afghanistan and she gasped, drew back from the register with eyes as big as saucers and asked me if I was okay - well, that was a bit unnerving.

I felt much better once I was on the plane leaving Syracuse (after the "random" full security check and pat down). And I felt even better when I got to O'Hare airport in Chicago and noticed that considerate smokers had duct taped liters to fences by the exit for all the poor literless smokers like me. The flight to Delhi was long, but my seatmate was nice enough, and really it was as pleasant as a 15 hr flight in an economy seat can be. The hotel in Delhi was beautiful, although there was a little confusion over whether I or my NGO was paying for the room, and the flight to Kabul was uneventful until we hit the turbulence just before we landed. The airport is dingy little place, and the customs line was slow moving but uneventful.

One of my new co-workers (with security guard and driver in tow) picked me up at the airport and brought me straight to the staff house - the high walled, 24 hr security building that hosts the internationals working with my NGO. The staff house is much nicer than I expected; there is a big yard with lots of flowers, hot water, and I have my own little room with a balcony. We even have wireless internet connection (internet connection was my biggest problem in Palestine). It is a little weird living one room over from both of my bosses, but I'm sure I will adjust, and it is really nice having Nathan downstairs. Nathan is a good friend from grad school, and the person who hooked me up with the internship with this NGO in DC that has brought me to Afghanistan.

The next day, Wednesday, was my first day at the office. I met the staff, mostly Afghans, who all seem very friendly and profession, and tried to avoid any major social faux pas. I've already been asked twice if I am an Afghan, which amuses me to no end because no one ever thinks that I'm an Arab when I'm in the Middle East (which I actually am).

Nathan was traveling in the country visiting projects when I arrived, so we had our joyous reunion Wed evening - we reminisced about MillerStock, I delivered his Star Wars books, and we drank a beer.