Thursday, October 26, 2006

More Pictures

More pics from my balcony. I knew that Kabul was ringed by mountains, but I didn't realize that I can see mountains from all sides of our staff house until today (it's been too hazy/dusty).

frequency and consistency (this post is dedicated to Cari)

Today I had my first experience with the medical facilities in Kabul. After 7 endless days of diarrhea I decided it was time to head to the German Clinic to get some medicine. Actually, I was still considering waiting it out, but after 4 trips to the bathroom between 7 and 8 am I figured it was time to see a professional. I arrived at 9am at walked into what could have passed for an upscale small private practice in the US. I was immediately yelled at when I walked in for not covering my dusty shoes with blue slip-ons – ignorant American. Then, I got yelled again for answering my cell phone what it rang – guess that isn’t allowed either.

After checking in I perused the German magazines and daydreamed about non-Afghanistan appropriate clothing and getting a hair cut while I waited. Eventually the doctor, a petite German bundle of energy, called me in. As with most non-specialists, she became very excited when she found out I had lupus and wanted to know all the details about my diagnosis, symptoms etc. She insisted on doing blood work just in case (of what, I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either). Then, she asked me to give her a stool sample. Now, I have spent the majority of the last seven days in the bathroom, but at that moment, when I needed to perform, I found myself experiencing stage fright. After waiting an hour for the blood work, which was perfectly normal (for someone with lupus), I was sent home with a tiny capsule in which I was supposed to neatly deposit a sample. Sigh.

Within 5 minutes of getting home, I had the sample and then waited for an hour for a car to become available to take me back to the clinic. Today is Thursday, so if I wanted medicine I had to get the sample in today or wait until Saturday. After another hour wait at the clinic, it was determined that I did not, in fact, have any parasites residing in my intestines, so it must be a bacterial infection. Mind you, this was after the doctor conferred very loudly and at some length with the technician about the consistency etc. of my poop in the lobby full of Afghan men. So, more than five hours after my initial visit I was given a prescription for Cipro and asked to pay $174. It really is just like America! Except that I could have walked into any pharmacy in Afghanistan and gotten a prescription for Cipro without a doctor’s appointment and paid $40. Ah well, live and learn.

As a side note, I had a much better experience getting treatment in Kabul than I did in Cairo for the same problem . . . go figure.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


The sky in Kabul was crowded with kites on the first day of Eid. These are just a few pics taken from my balcony.

The kite on the fence seems like a good metaphor for Afghanistan - it has the potential to take off, but is caught up in circumstances beyond its control.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Beer and Bombs

Yesterday I went shopping all by myself (okay, I had a driver with me). It felt good to be a little independent and do something on my own. First I went to the PX to get more coke, and I found salt vinegar pringles (wOhoo!). After that, I was feeling adventurous, so we went on a beer hunt. Alcohol is becoming more and more of a commodity because of new anti-alcohol laws. I'm not sure exactly what the new law is, but I'm under the impression selling alcohol is now illegal. That said, there are several restaurants/bars in town that cater to foreigners and serve alcohol. Although the PXs no longer sell alcohol, there are little stores that still sell it - you just need to know where to look.

After conferring with Betsy, and having M explain how to find the establishment to my driver in Dari, we were off. The store that we went to was on a crowded market street, especially crowded because it was one of the last days before Eid (holiday after Ramadan) and EVERYONE was out shopping. Eventually we found the store - and they had boxes of Heineken in the window. I just don't get it. I guess the owner pays a pretty bribe for the authorities to look the other way.

Turns out the beer really is a commodity - $38 for 24 beers, which is exorbitant in Afghanistan. I felt guilty about spending that much money on alcohol when there are so many people in Kabul going hungry, but Nathan did ask me to pick it up . . .

So, the mission was successful. This morning, around 7:30 a remote control bomb went off in my neighborhood, on the street where I bought the beer. No one was injured, thankfully. It is scary to think that I drove by the spot where the bomb went off 14 hours earlier. . .

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Taxis and Bases

Thursday night was my first time volunteering with the Women of Hope Village project. After work I went straight over to Betsy's (or I tried to, the driver thought I said Beth's house, so I ended up on the wrong side of town -- I tried to tell him we were going the wrong way, but both men assumed I didn't know what I was talking about). Eventually I arrived at Betsy's, just in time to help load up M's taxi to head over to the Army Corp Engineer base. Now, it is amazing how much stuff Betsy and M can cram into a station wagon. They fit in the biggest suitcase I've ever seen, a regular sized suitcase, two big canvas bags about 3 ft high and two ft wide, a metal clothing rack, 4 wicker baskets, a huge duffel bag and three people. M, Betsy's Afghan counterpart, isn't a taxi driver, but he rents them once a week to transport crafts to different events.

This was my first time riding in a regular taxi, and it makes for a whole different experience. My NGO has several vehicles, all of which are four wheel drive, so you don't really feel how bad the roads are. In a taxi with almost no shocks, you get a whole new experience. So, I was bouncing around in the backseat when I noticed movement above the little one story shops crammed tightly together. A couple of kids were running along the roofs of the shops, playing tag. In the SUV it's hard to get a clear view of the roofs, but on that ride I also noticed shop owners climbing up piles of their wares to take breaks on the roof and men sitting in chairs chatting. I feel like I discovered a whole new level of the city.

I don't think I've talked much about driving in Kabul, but it really is a free-for-all. There aren't any rules of engagement, no traffic lights or lanes, and traffic at roundabouts goes in all directions. It is a constant game of chicken. M cut off another driver, and the driver pulled up, rolled down the window and politely asked him if he wanted to fight. Honestly, it seems a bit more civilized than the US, where road rage ends in accidents and shooting.

When we reached the base we had to pull in to have the car inspected, but there was a problem and we were told to wait. So, we waited and waited and watched other cars get cleared to go in. When I inquired about the delay, Betsy explained that we were waiting because she refused to pay the guards a bribe to let us in. We were ordered to move from our spot onto the main street and then waited about 20 minutes until one of the guards finally waved us in. While we waited four or five beggar kids came up to the car and knocked on the windows, trying to sell gum and get money. It is really sad. Sometimes they are as young as four and five years old, walking between cars on busy streets with rags, wiping down the cars and hoping for some charity.

Eventually, we entered the base. Once inside we all got out of the car while it was checked with mirrored poles (bombs hidden in the undercarriage) and bomb dogs. While the car was being searched Betsy made small talk with the guy in charge, and everyone looked at me uncomfortably thinking that I was an Afghan woman. I joined the conversation, and it was funny to watch the soldiers' reaction to my American accent. M was searched, and one of the soldiers finally asked if we were both American. I said yes, and he said that they didn't have to search me, but they did need to go through my bag. Now, this was hysterical because before we left the house Betsy stuffed my bag full of snack size Dorito bags, cookies and crackers because we would be on the base when the sun set (and the fasting ends) and none of us had eaten all day. You can image the soldiers' expressions as they pulled out bag after bag of snacks.

There is a little bazaar set up for the Afghan vendors, but Betsy is set up separately because she is a non-profit. So, we had a porch area all to ourselves with tables and chairs. It took about a 1/2 hour to get everything displayed, with a 5 minute break because Betsy had to talk to the lead soldier to get the Afghan guard away from our tables - he was ogling us the entire time we were setting up, and Betsy said the Afghan vendors probably bribed him to spy on our wares and report back. He disappeared shortly thereafter, and we waited. And waited. I think we were set up by 5, but people didn't wander over to our little porch until 6:30. We made less than 10 sales that night, but we pulled in around $500 because the pieces people bought had a lot of embroidery on them. Then, at 8 we packed everything back up into suitcases and canvas bags, lugged it back to the car, dropped it off at Betsy's and headed home. Needless to say, I was exhausted after working all day and then spending the evening moving wares and shivering (it's getting cold here). It felt great to come home physically exhausted from working for a good cause. Then, I got up at 7:30 am the next day to do it again, at a different base.

Friday was a little more difficult because I'm back on the Kabul diet (got the runs), so I was popping Kaopectate caplets before I left the house. The second base is set up very differently from the first, and we were much busier, but overall it was a similar experience. We made over $3,000 on Friday (9-4) and all three of us were busy most of the time. Betsy was really pleased because that is the biggest day they've had so far, and it was perfect timing for the women who create the crafts - they got their money just in time for the Eid holiday.

Although selling crafts at US Army Bases isn't exactly my ideal volunteer situation, it is one of the few things that I can do as a foreigner that doesn't take an opportunity away from an Afghan, helps Afghan women and gets me out of the house. I still haven't solved the problem of interacting with the local community, but at least I am contributing in some small way. And, admittedly, it's nice to hang out someplace where I can sit outside in short sleeved shirts and jeans and not offend anyone.

*** Sorry, no pictures. Cameras aren't allowed on the bases. . .

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

an interesting conversation

Below I pasted an excerpt from a friend's email, and my response.

WD to Evers to Chance:
"It sounds like a real big structural problem (based on what both you and Nathan have said/written) is the illiteracy. Should that be the first and foremost issue to tackle? Also, do you ever feel like it's hopeless? Maybe not gender relations in Kabul, but the fight for equality for women in the broader muslim world? It seems like a hell of a battle at this point. Don't get me wrong, I do believe the most important stuggle in the world is the one for equal rights for women, it's just what we read in the West makes it seem like much of the islamic world (at least from Eygpt to Pakistan) is getting more conservative and repressive, not more open."

My reply:
"Literacy - This is a huge problem in Afghanistan, but how do you teach people how to read when they can't eat, are living in tents in the middle of winter, and more than 80% of the population doesn't have access to clean water? Oh, and over 95% don't have access to sanitation and sewage. Hell, there are places in this country where you have to travel 9 hours on foot or by donkey to reach the nearest city because there aren't any roads. . . And, how do you increase the literacy of the population when many of them refuse to let women attend any kind of schooling? Not only are women more than half the population, but they are the ones who spend time with their kids, who theoretically should be in school. How do you convince a starving family that their 8 year old daughter who does the house chores so that the mother can embroider and sell wares should go to school when the family knows there won't be any jobs for her and she's just going to get married off and have babies anyway? How do you convince people that instead of marrying their daughters off at 12 for some goats and sheep, they should keep her at home (continuing to feed and clothe her) and let her go to school?

My point is, I don't think you can focus on just one area, like literacy. There is a huge push for schooling here - the enrollment rate is up by 400% from 2001 (partially because of repatriation), but the country doesn't have the infrastructure to support it. You also need roads, vehicles, bathrooms, textbooks and teachers. That means you need to get communities involved, including women.

Yeah, I do think the Muslim world is getting more conservative, but I think it is in direct response to Western policies. And, a lot more women are fighting it than ever before, which is a good sign. Or, at least they are fighting it more publicly. Don't forget, the US is also becomming increasingly conservative and repressive - we're in the process of watching our rights slip away under Bush, the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. Alot of the current problems in the Middle East circle back to colonialism and the cold war. One of the biggest mistakes westerners and feminist muslim women made in the 60s and 70s was to tie women's freedom to modernity and the west. Now, the backlash is against the West and anything tied to it or seen as culturally foreign - including women's rights. Ironically, what the Taliban practices isn't even close to Islam, and fundamentalist movements in general miss the spirit of Islam. Fudamentalism is extreme political conservatism parading as religion. It's really sad.

It is a hell of a battle, but I think that women will win in the end. More women in the Muslim world are educated every year, and that is the key to women claiming their rights. The current political dichotomy of pitting the West against Islam is tragic because so many people are suffering on the periphery. At any rate, modern history in the Muslim world shows that conservative trends move in waves, so things are bound to swing around eventually. The more Bush and the West screw around in the Middle East, the longer it will take to swing, but it will, eventually."

Maybe I'm too optomistic.

*** Pic is of the conversators - no, of course it isn't from Kabul

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

LOOK . . . A Ninja!

Or maybe just a "modestly" covered woman who has been trapped indoors too long . . .

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Burqa Dolls and Hydroponics

Yesterday, I went shopping. Not in the ususal sense of going to malls or stores, but by going over to Betsy's house (she's the christian fundamentalist temporarily living with us). I've complained about her before, but I don't think I've fully explained what she is doing here, partially because I didn't really understand myself until last night.

Betsy came to Afghanistan 5 years ago with about $3000 and a desire to help Afghan women. She set herself up with some refugee women living in Kabul, and has started several interconnecting projects with them. She has been teaching them how to do hydroponic gardening, helping them to increase the quality of their embroidery work and find markets for it, and she has been running literacy courses - all with the same group of women. She started with about 5 participants, and now she has 65 women who regularly delivery embroidery work, take reading classes, and run small hydroponic gardens. The really amazing part is that Betsy has absolutely no background in development, women's studies or Afghanistan. She just woke up one morning and knew that she needed to come to Afghanistan to help the women here.

Betsy lives in an apartment not far from my neighborhood, on her own. It is a smallish three room flat overflowing with handicrafts. Now, Betsy is a genius at marketing these women's work, and we're not just talking about embroidered pillowcases. She has taught her women how to make laptop bags with embroidery, wine bottle covers, i-pod and digital camera cases, backpacks, duffel bags, and non-traditional clothing. Add this to the more traditional wares of tableclothes, bedspreads, sheets, tapestries and Afghan clothes, and you begin to get the picture. She runs this operation with one Afghan man -- she handles all the inventory (which is quite complicated since most of the women she works with are illiterate) including special orders, creates mock-ups of new designs, sells the wares at the army bases on Fridays, teaches hydroponics and literacy classes, holds weekly self-help workshops teaching the women basic business skills and has become a part of their community.

She is truly an insipiring example of how one person can really make a difference in other people's lives - even if I don't agree with her religious philosophy. So, I've offered to start helping her cart her wares to the army base on Friday mornings, and hang out and sell stuff. I think it'll be good for me - get me out of the compound and doing something that feels useful. Although I am going to miss my morning to sleep in . . .

**pic is of an anatomically correct burqa doll. These are not original to Betsy's project, although these are the only ones I've seen with cleavage. . .

Sunday, October 08, 2006


1. Every day at noon we hear a series of loud BOOMS. It is a company that is exploding landmines near my neighorhood - it is also how we know when it is lunchtime.

2. I recently met a guy who studied at my university, in my program, but graduated a year before me. He is studying Arabic while he is Kabul, because he wants to work in the Middle East, even though he doesn't speak a word a Dari.

3. I'm living is what is one of the most infamously conservative Islamic countries in the world, yet in my bathroom next to the toilet I find book titled, "A Portrait of Jesus," left by my fundamentalist Christian roommate in the hopes of converting me (I assume).

4. I recently saw a sign advertising a computer store in my neighborhood. It said, "We have hardwars and softwars".

**I will continue to add to these as I am inspired . . .
***Pic is of myself and my brothers on vacation this summer

Friday, October 06, 2006

Sunset in Kabul

Laying a Foundation

Wednesday night Nathan and I went over to Waise's house for his going away party. He was planning on leaving in a few weeks, but due to series of unfortunate events with the Afghan minister of defense he decided to leave sooner than planned. We went over around 7, because Waise wanted us to help set up for the party. I was envisioning meeting Waise's family and friends, but turns out Waise's father was out of town and the party ended up being mostly NGO workers (which was fine with me).

Waise's father collects Afghan craftwork; tapestries, swords, and all kinds of little works of art. It was cool to see these displayed in an Afghan house, although I wouldn't describe either the home or lifestyle as "traditional". We hung out with Boogie Nights playing on the TV in the background drinking and chatting. I met a guy who lived in Jerusalem for a while, and another who was studying at the American University of Cairo this past year. Rory Stewart, the guy from the Turquoise Foundation showed up late -- and remembered my name, which surprised me. After shoveling a plate full of food into my face around 10pm (I'd been under the impression we were going for a late iftar, and so was absolutely starving by the time the food showed up), I settled down next to Ben from Pittsburgh and started chatting with him. Then, Rory came over and plopped down on the ground next to me.

Now, my last encounter with Rory was a weird combination of intellectually stimulating and annoying, so I wasn't sure where this was going. Ben immediately started talking to someone else (Rory is his boss), so I was stuck. The conversation started out okay, but turned into an hour long discussion of the evils of NGOs with Rory quizing me about how I would handle myself in different situations and why was I in Afghanistan anyway? So, I explained that I was hardly an expert on Afghanistan and I couldn't answer his questions about my vision for Afghanistan in 20 years or what exactly the NGO community hoped to achieve in the long term. He responded by telling me that I was absolutely typical of the NGO community who had no real commitment or connection to Afghanistan or the Afghan people.

The annoying part is that he is right, I don't have any particular connection to Afghanistan . . . I'm just traveling through for a while, here to learn as much as I can while I'm here before moving on to someplace else. . . I've already decided that I won't stay in Afghanistan beyond my scheduled 3 months unless my NGO offers me a job here -- I'm not going to look for other opportunities. I feel too separated from the community I'm trying to help, and I want to live somewhere where I can walk down the street by myself without it being a major security risk.
Eventually the conversation turned to gender in Afghanistan, and how does one work on changing gender relations here? I responded by explaining what my NGO's policy and gender programming is -- and even to myself I sounded like I was reciting a bunch of technical jargon. Rory was arguing that the only way to really institute substantive change is through revolutionary action, and he was using the communist movement as a model. I responded by saying that if Afghanistan is going to have a gender revolution it will have to come from the Afghan's themselves, because it is not the place of the international community to stir up that kind of social conflict in a place that is already pulsing with anger at the foreign occupiers. Besides, if radical gender shifts are forced by outsiders, they will be viewed as an invasion of foreign culture and won't last. These sorts of changes have to be homegrown to take root - never mind the danger to Afghan women (and men) trying to radically change society right now. It would be easy, and irresponsible, for internationals to stir that up and then run away when things got messy. Then he asked me, well what are you doing here then?

I said that we are laying a foundation, helping Afghan men and women create a platform that they can use to institute the kind of gender changes that they find appropriate for their culture and society. But how can the NGO community accomplish that if they are not commited to staying here for the long haul? That wasn't Rory's question, it was mine.

I was relieved when it was time to go; talking to Rory is uncomfortable partially because he is so socially awkward -- he stares at the ground while the other person talks and grimaces constantly -- but mainly it is uncomfortable because he asks me questions that I don't have answers to, nebulous questions that were already gathering on the horizon of my consciousness but that hadn't crystallized yet. And, if I'm going to be honest, because no one likes to be told that they are an absolutely typical representative of NGO workers - young, idealistic, and ignorant. That bruised my ego and put me on the defensive early in the conversation - particularly because at least two of the three are true in the context of Afghanistan.

He asked me if I'd be willing to live in an Afghan village for 20 years and work on gender issues. The suggestion of living the rest of my life that way was not at all appealing to me. I responded that I'd be willing to do that in a Palestinian village, but I didn't know Afghanistan well enough to say yes or no. But that wasn't true -- I already know that I wouldn't be willing to live in an Afghan village for 20 years.

In totally unrelated news, I have been promoted from intern to gender analyst. Well, not really. That is what my business cards will say, but I'm still getting intern pay and none of the expat employee benefits. But, it will look much better on my resume.

I'm considering not coming home for Christmas, and instead going to Beirut to visit my good friend Marcy and look for work and then to Syria to visit my friend Bob. Just thoughts at the moment. . .

*** 1st pic is of myself Waise and Nathan; 2nd is of a basin and jug similar to what Waz used to wash our hands before dinner (see earlier entry); 3rd is of Nathan and Waise and the liquor for the party (how terribly un-Ramadan of us); and the last if of a tapestry hanging in Waise's house.

Monday, October 02, 2006

White City and Fundamentalists

The last few days have been very tense here. There were three suicide attacks in and around the city yesterday morning. The UN has declared a "White City" which means all internationals (and anyone who values their life) should keep movement to an absolute minimum. The security forces apparently caught another wannabe suicide bomber, and another potential bomber was spotted riding a bike through the city - I guess someone noticed he was acting oddly and had wires sticking out of his shirt . . . Today there was a suicide bombing in Kandahar City.

I'm feeling very stir crazy. I haven't exactly been out exploring the city since I've been here, but I hate being stuck at home. I think the UN codes are a little funny . . . I wonder if they have an "Emerald City" code. It would be appropriate -- sometimes I feel like I'm in the middle of fairy tale. Not a children's fairy tale with happy endings; more like an original fairy tale -- gruesome and often heartbreakingly sad. I realize that sounds quite depressing, and I don't mean to imply that I am depressed. I am trying to explain how difficult it is to wrap my mind around some of the things that people will do and have done to each other. I'm not limiting this discussion to Afghanistan -- I think the US takes the cake this week for the murder of 5? Amish girls in their school. That is the sort of disturbing story we've come to expect from Afghanistan; a man sending the boys out and killing the girls . . .

I spent this evening with one of my temporary roommates, a nice woman from Virginia who came to Afghanistan 5 years ago to work with Afghan refugee women. She came here alone, with a mission, and has been wildly successful in her work. B was kind enough to hunt down beer for Nathan and I (quite a commodity in Kabul these days), so we spent the evening with her enjoying Heinekens. Unfortunately it turned into my second conversation with her about Christianity, and Christ as the savior, and the lost cause of the Palestinians (of course Israel will win), the evils of Islam (she believes that the Prophet Mohammed was visited by Satan, not Gabrielle when he received the Quran), and, well, you get the gist. Compounded with a crappy day at work, this has made me a little grumpy. I can ignore the religious talk, but when she starts on her rants about how Islam supports suicide bombing, and how the real problem makers in Afghanistan are all Arabs sneaking into the country and blowing themselves up it makes me want to scream. Unfortunately, she is a guest of my boss (one disadvantage of living with your coworkers) so I have to really watch what I say. ARGH.

Last night, she and a consultant visiting and staying with us were having a very serious discussion about whether or not the way Afghans fight (invaders and themselves) is due to genetic coding. Talk about frustrating, not to mention racist.

On a more positive note, I may be traveling again this weekend - the consultant is traveling to Kunar to interview some of our NGOs, and she said I could tag along if I wanted. I'd love the opportunity to see more of the country, and take some more pictures. One of the most frustrating parts of being here is that I came here to help the Afghan people, and I suppose I am in some abstract ways, but I am completely separated from them because of the security situation. When you combine that with the complex social codes of what is and isn't acceptable behavior from a young woman making social contacts becomes a little daunting.

I had other things to write about, but I'm all wound up now so it will have to wait for another time.