Wednesday, April 25, 2007

War movies, fireworks and reverse culture shock

Tonight I watched Mrs. Henderson Presents. I’d had a frustrating day at work, and I felt like vegging out to a movie. The movie is about a lot of things, and it is set during WWII. During the movie they were showing brave young men in uniform, air raids on London and other war symbolism. While I was watching, I was listening a helicopter, and then a plane, flying low over my house. I couldn’t help but think about the way we romanticize war in the west, and how different it is for people who didn’t have young men in uniform, who didn’t have bomb shelters to retreat to but were caught in the same war. And of course, I think about the Afghans, and 20 years of war without the romanticism and pop culture making all their young men and women who died heroes.

I find war movies have a different effect on me now than they used to. I’m not living in a war zone, not by any means. But it wasn’t long ago that the neighborhood I live in was complete rubble, and my coworkers lived through that experience.

A few nights ago there was a huge firework display to celebrate the anniversary of the mujahaddin running the Soviets out of Afghanistan. I wonder if there will be a similar celebration to celebrate when the Americans leave. I was listening to the pop-pop-pop of the fireworks, and I figured they were fireworks from the sound at first. But as it continued, and got louder I became more tense. Then there was some machine gun fire (also celebratory) and one of my roommates flew out of her room in a panic. So, we made some phone calls and found out what was going on, and then watched the fireworks from one of our windows. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy fireworks the way I did when I was watching them in Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton on the 4th of July.

Lately I’ve been having the most disturbing dreams – from dreaming that I’m in Beirut during an air raid to being locked up in jail with my boss as my jailor. I assume these dreams are my subconsciousness’s was of dealing with the stress of being in Kabul during the spring Taleban offensive. Don’t get me wrong, it really hasn’t been bad, but when you get 4 or 5 security reports a day about things exploding and people dying or being kidnapped, even if it isn’t in your city, I suppose it wears on you.

I can’t help but wonder how much I’ve changed during my 8 months here, and how it will effect me when I go home – whenever that is. How difficult will it be for me to readjust to the American lifestyle? Will I want to? I guess I’ll get a taste when I go home for vacation in May or June. I imagine the reverse culture shock will be, well, shocking.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Spring in the desert - Mazar is famous for its April flowers

Me, in a bed of tulips

The famous shrine, called the Rosa3, at sunset

Entrance to the shrine

Pigeons...they say that all the pigeons that visit the shrine turn white

The drive to Mazar was beautiful, and about five hours after leaving Kunduz we arrived in the famous desert city. We stayed in a hotel that looked like a cross between the ultimate Afghan wedding palace and an amusement park - but at least it had air conditioning, and the wedding hall was in a separate building (not directly above our rooms).

I spent most of my time in Mazar in the city visiting partner organization and talking to them about their views of our program - what they like, what they'd like to change, etc... it was interesting. We did drive out to the desert to see the wild tulip beds, and we went the the shrine at sunset the day before we left and the following morning. It was HOT. While we were at the Mazar I got labeled as a Kharijee (foreigner) for trying to take pictures inside the shrine/mosque. I've never been in a mosque where you weren't allowed to take pictures, including the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Oh well, first they tried to kick me out completely, assuming that if I wasn't Afghan then I couldn't possibly be Muslim, but we convinced them to let me stay. I've also never been in a mosque that did not allow non-Muslims to enter, except during prayer times.

After a quick stop at the office we headed to the UN airstrip in Mazar to catch our flight back to Kabul. Now, these little airstrips are exactly what I used to envision for airports in the Congo - just a small building and a runway. The flight back was uneventful and my five day escape from Kabul ended too quickly. Luckily, I'm scheduled to head to Herat fairly soon, so I'll get to see the western most part of the country before I leave.

Road Trip to Mazar-e-Sharif

After we finished our work in Kunduz we took a 5 hour road trip to Mazar-e-Sharif, and these are some pics from the trip.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Kunduz - Part 2

Street traffic in Kunduz city center

Private home in Kunduz - check out the size of the door.

Illiterate women use drawing to express their daily tasks and community problems
at a Kunduz women's shura

Usually, women and kids are in charge of gathering water. Most homes don't have running water - or even access to clean drinking water.

Kids outside of one of the women's shuras

Today didn’t start out too auspiciously – the wedding celebration ended around 12:30, only to be followed by about 90 minutes of cleaning and rearranging the wedding hall, directly above my bed. Every time I dozed off before 2:30 a loud bang or the shreek of metal scraping on metal would jerk me awake.

After downing a cup of coffee and some nan we headed over to our partner’s office to begin the day with a 3 hour interview for our gender strategy. It was an interesting process since our strategy consultant speaks Urdu and Pashto and the people we were interviewing spoke a mix of Pashto and Dari. She needed translation for the Dari speakers, and I needed it for everyone since no one spoke English. Needless to say it was a frustrating process, especially since my translator was by no means fluent in English.

Oh, and around 9am a bomb went off at the local police station, just blocks away from our hotel. Unofficial reports say that 9 people were killed and 20-some injured. Apparently it’s the first bomb in Kunduz city in a long while – guess we brought more baggage with us from Kabul than we thought.

After our interview we headed out of town to visit a women’s shura in a small village just outside of Kunduz. A shura is a community organization, sort of like a town council, but more informal. The villages are dusty paths bordered by a warrens of mud brick walls about 6ft tall. We pulled over on one of the roads, walked down a narrow lane through a wooden door and then climbed through two mudbrick rooms before reaching the women’s meeting room. This time there was no one to translate for me – of course they were translating for the strategy consultant and she could have translated for me, but like many others I’ve met here she doesn’t seem to think it’s terribly important to share information. So, through tidbits of Arabic words, body language and the occasional word translated for me I gathered that the women had started their own embroidery co-op, were holding basic literacy courses for women and had taught themselves how use mobile phones. They had also created a map of the village and labeled all the streets and buildings to help the women get around, which gives you an idea how often these women get to roam around the villages they were born in.

The rectangular meeting room walls were covered in poster paper the women used to create community appraisals of problems, the roles of men and women in their community, their problem identification lists and embroidery patterns. While we sat on low cushions on the floor and the women talked about their organization kids peaked in through the one window, climing on top of each other to get a look at the kharijee (foreigners). After we left that shura we visited a second one the next village over that was very similar in set-up, wall decorations and issues. Apparently they thought that we had come to solve their problems (i.e. give them money) so I’m afraid our visit was a little disappointing, but it was very interesting. Of course, it would have been more interesting if I had understood what was being said at the time.

Next we visited a conflict resolution program funded by my organization. Many of these women were members of different shuras, but in this project they come together to talk about problem solving within their families and communities. It was great to watch the women, many of whom are illiterate and had little opportunity for schooling in their lives, become animated as they participated in the discussions.


View from the Faisalbad airstrip

Wild tulips just outside of the Kunduz airport

Let me begin by saying that the UN people have it made. Flying out of Kabul airport is generally a chaotic, frustrating nightmare. BUT if you are flying on a UN flight, you get to bypass the main terminal completely, and while you still have to deal with the creepy Afghan security women who think searching your body for weapons consists of feeling your breasts, the rest of process is painless. Hell, there’s even a place to smoke while you wait for your flight, not to mention a bathroom with a real toilet that isn’t scary as hell.

There is no direct flight to Kunduz from Kabul, so we stopped in Faisalbad on the way. The plane that carried us on our journey was an 18 seater, every seat being a window seat. The rickety little plane really wasn’t any better than the Kam Air or Ariana flights, although the words United Nations were painted across the wing as a kind of talisman of security. As we flew into Faisalbad, all we could see below us was snowcapped peak after peak of the Hindu Kush.

The Faisalbad airport was little more than an airstrip with a few buildings and some armored vehicles, but the landscape surrounding it was stunning. It’s late spring here, and everything was green and lush, with little white and yellow flowers sprinkled all over. After a 10 minute break, we continued on to Kunduz. We flew at a lower altitude this time with the landscape changing from green, khaki and brown patches of earth of blue, burgundy and salmon colored mountains. When we finally landed in Kunduz, it was HOT. I know that I traveled about 7 hours north of Kabul (in a car), but it is much warmer here than the capitol. As we drove away from the airport, again everything was green and lush, but this time the flowers sprinkled in were red – wild tulips grow everywhere here.

After checking into the Kunduz Hotel, which looks like a public high school but is tiled like a swimming pool, we stopped by our partner’s office to introduce ourselves and then went to visit one of my organization’s grant project. Next, we drove around the “city” which looks like something out of the 19th century except for the occasional all glass building artfully placed between mud brick huts. We stopped at the best place in town for ice cream, which was cardamom flavored and quite yummy, but I’m sure I’m going to regret eating it tomorrow.

Now, I’m sitting in my moderately clean hotel room listening to the music pounding from the wedding that is taking place directly above me. I’m kind of itchy, and I’m hoping it’s from how hot and sweaty I got today, and not from bed bugs…As a funny side note, one of the security guards (yes, we’re traveling with security guards) knocked on my door a few moments ago with a sheet and stapler. My room is on the ground floor, facing the front of the hotel and apparently men were trying to see in where the curtains part and don’t stay shut. So, thoughtful man that he is, he stapled a sheet to the curtains to keep them closed and prying eyes out. Only in Afghanistan….

Friday, April 06, 2007

Too Close for Comfort

At 8:15 this morning a bomb went off on Daruleman Rd, just blocks from our current staff house, and directly in front of our old house. The bomber killed himself and four Afghans, including the police officer who stopped the car because it seemed suspicious. Apparently there was a loud boom and all the windows shook - of course, I slept right through it...

This is the second bomb in our neighborhood in two weeks - and we're on the quiet side of town. I guess being close to the Parliament building doesn't help. I assume the Parliament was the target because the cop stopped the car just a block before it. We're on lock down today because there are so many checkpoints set up all over our neighborhood after the explosion, which is unfortunate because I had plans to meet a friend for brunch. Hopefully they'll let us out tonight, but I think we'll be locked down for 24 hours.

In other news, I'm scheduled to travel to the provinces in the coming weeks to meet with our Afghan NGO partners. I'm super excited about getting out of Kabul - I've been here for 7 months now and the only place I've visited is Jalalabad. The trip will be touch and go based on the security situation, especially since 5 NGO workers were kidnapped in Helmand yesterday. Seems like I'm playing wait and see in all parts of my life these days...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Little Earthquakes

Me and the Kuwaiti family at the airport

Well, maybe not so little, but relatively minor in Kabul. I guess it was a 6.2 on the richter scale in Badakshan (northern Afghanistan) but in Kabul the ground only shook for about 2 minutes. Long enough for everyone to run out of the buildings and watch the satellite dish tremor. Then it was back to work as usual.

Speaking of work - I turned down the regular staff position offered to me by my NGO. I was ready to stay, but the position they finally offered me was not what I originally negotiated. In the end I decided it would be a smarter career move for me to look for something elsewhere, where I don't have battle intern syndrome. Intern syndrome, for the uninitiated, is when you've interned for an organization and they continue to think of you that way, even after you've proved yourself to be a quality, hardworking employee over and over. So, I've extended my consultancy contract until mid-May to get things in order - then I'm off to new adventures. There is a chance that my NGO will counter offer with something better, but at this point I'm inclined to look for something new. We'll see what happens...

I went to Kuwait for a weekend at the end of March. It was great to see my Dad and Lujein, and Abdulla was visiting from the US, so it was even better. I had a nice time with my Kuwaiti family (nice than usual, to be honest) but I was glad it was a short weekend. I got a lot of comments about how it's time for me to be married off to nice Kuwaiti man... ack!

Otherwise, I've had a nasty cold, which is part of why I haven't blogged in a while. Also, our internet connection has been beyond sketchy. Hope you all are doing well...