Imperialist Geography

People ask me what it means to be a geographer. Most people think of memorizing state capitals. I tell them I make and study maps, I also tell them about Tobler’s law : everything is related, closer things are more related than distant things. For my thesis, I wrote about Afghanistan, a country whose fate is determined by its physical and cultural geography.

Saying your’e a geographer or a cartographer makes you sound like a British Orientalist from the 19th century, but until American stops behaving like 19th century Britain in its foreign policy we’ll still need cartographers:

Day 7

Day 7 was kind of a Great day. I think it was Day 4 that we visited all the places I wanted to go, which was fun, but Day 7 was inspiration day. In my brain I differentiate between good and Good, good is just an adjective eg, lunch was good; Good is a moral claim, it implies character, virtue; the Olympics are Good, Sylvia was Good. These were all Good organizations. On March 7 we had visits with 3 Good humanitarian agencies, in fact if I was going to chose 3 organizations to publicize it would be these three. They all do great work, have mass-appeal and really need our help. If you’ve got a couple extra bucks that you got back from your taxes you might want to send them this way.

The first was Aschiana, meaning bird’s nest. It is a school for street children.

The organization recently published some statistics finding that Kabul has 60,000 street children and the number is increasing. Due to budget restrains Aschiana can only help the neediest, so in order to qualify you must either have a disability or a single parent. This is a picture of the founder, Mohammad Yousef, with a disabled child.

Below you can see some of the art that the children have done. I think their version of the famous ‘Remnants of an Army‘ painting is even better than the original.

The kids were taught in shifts; conventional subjects and also trades including woodworking and calligraphy. Until recently they were also taught theatre and music but these programs were cut because they couldn’t afford to pay the staff.

At lunch we met with Wahid Omar from Afghans for Tomorrow. Afghans for Tomorrow is a pretty great organization, organizing educational, agricultural and health programs across the country. What was most important to us though, is that they let us stay in their guest house and provided our wonderful tour guide. Without A4T I’d never have gone to Afghanistan, and you wouldn’t be reading this blog!

Finally, we went to see Jamila Afghani of Noor. All of us were so impressed by this lady; a handicapped Afghan woman from a conservative family with a Masters in International Relations and a PhD in Islamic Studies. She has been a women’s rights activist for many years. She recently started a program which trains imams in women’s rights from an Islamic perspective. Through their sermons she hopes to inspire and educate the public.

Day 2

Day 2 was Friday, March 2. Friday in the Muslim world is like our Sunday, the day of rest.

First we went to this lake high in the mountains called Kargha Lake. In the spring it a destination with paddleboats and picnics. The lake was frozen when we visited, but the view was beautiful. You can see the waterline on this lookout house from when the snow has melted.

Next we went to a refugee camp called Charahi Qambar. This was a pretty singular experience worthy of its own post. For now, here’s a photo from outside the tent.

After you pray it’s time to play. These children were flying kites on the hillside after attending services. There were also people on the hill playing the Afghan national sport of bozkashi. When we first got there, there were a few kites in the sky, by the time we left the entire sky was full of kites.

These two photos are from Babur Garden, a tomb and park named after the Moghul emperor Babur from the 16th century. During the spring this is also a popular picnicking destination.

I kept the ticket to Babur Gardens because I liked the calligraphy:20120417-205122.jpg

Returning home after a long day we were greeted by lambs and goats, or as we started calling them; kebabs.


Day 1

After hearing that my camera had been stolen, my fellow traveler Tim Kutzmark kindly sent me some of his pictures. He’s awesome. I’ll try to post a few of his pictures from each day.

This is a picture of the blue Ali mosque that we went to on the first day.

After a long day of traveling we walked through a nearby cemetery and took pictures of the houses on the hill.

Later we went to see Fatima Akbary, and her company, Golestan-e-Sabak, (I talked a little bit about her in a previous post). She was a widow who had founded an NGO to help women and underprivileged in her community, she ran a girls school, vocational training courses as well as women’s business training.

Below you can see her showing us what had happened over the winter. The tent she had built as a temporary workshop had caved in under the snow and her tools were ruined; she would be unable to fulfill a furniture order that spring.

These are some girls in her class, the one in the pink hijab was reading aloud to us.

Fatima also teaches calligraphy and woodcutting to disabled people, a type of vocational training. This is some of the calligraphy they had done.

Thanks again to Tim for the pictures!

Panjshir Valley

If you read the FAQs post you know that my camera got stolen with most of my pictures on it. I did have some other pictures on a separate memory card though and my friend just lent me his cardreader so here they are.

These pictures are all from one of the last days of my trip when we drove outside of Kabul to the Panshir Valley.

This is the Panjshir River. The Panjshir valley translates to 5 Lions, and refers to a family from there than had 5 brothers.

We stopped to eat kebabs at a restaurant by the river. I stuck my hand in the water, it was…not warm. In early March the snow was just starting to melt.

This valley is famous for being the birthplace of Ahmad Shah Massoud – an Afghan hero in these parts. This village had his picture on their bridge.

We were relieved when our tour guide told us that it was duck season and the men we kept seeing with rifles were just duckhunters.

From Massoud’s tomb you can see the Panshir valley. The crops were just starting to come in, I’m sure now it’s very green.

These are some pictures of the monument and the tomb where Massoud is buried.




You can see they were doing some construction to build a museum and a new parking lot.

These are some views from the top of the hill.20120412-144805.jpg



Afghanistan Trip FAQs

I’ve been back from Afghanistan for 2 weeks now, here is a list of questions people have asked me about the trip. Please feel free to email me any other questions you might have and I’ll try to address them on the trip page

Why did you go to Afghanistan?
I’ve been trying to go to Afghanistan for almost 8 years. I became interested in Afghanistan in high school when I met Patricia Whalen the International Association of Women Judges and women from the Afghan Women Judges Association. In college I was a Near Eastern Studies major, I studied Persian and Pashto and wrote my thesis on the Legal Systems of Afghanistan. While the University of Chicago supported my studies, I couldn’t find anyone to support a trip to do research.

Who did you go with?
I went with Global Exchange on their International Women’s Day in Kabul Reality Tour. It is their 10th year of doing reality tours in Afghanistan. The trip focused on women’s rights and women’s organizations as well as other NGOs and peacekeeping organizations.

Our tour-guide and translator was Najibulla Sedeqe, who was instrumental in parlaying (sp?) our way into some really interesting situations. My fellow travelers were a Unitarian Minister named Tim Kutzmark and freelance journalist named Salena Tramel.

How did you get there?
My flight went from New York to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Dubai, Dubai to Kabul.

Where did you stay?
We stayed at the Afghans for Tomorrow Guesthouse which I think is mostly aptly described as kind of a bed and breakfast. Downstairs were the offices for Afghans for Tomorrow. We had a cook, a maid, a porter/night guard and pretty much anything you could ask for.

How is your Arabic?
Terrible, I don’t speak Arabic, but neither do Afghans. In Afghanistan they speak a Persian dialect called Dari and another indo-european language called Pashto. In college I learned the Iranian dialect called Farsi which is very similar to Dari and I took an intensive Pashto course one summer. I didn’t really want to risk being misunderstood in the complex political discussions we were having during the day, but in the mornings and the evenings I was able to talk to the guest house staff in Farsi.

How did you deal with the heat?
Afghanistan is considered the Middle East, but it’s not a part of Arabia or North Africa; it’s not a desert. It’s a mountainous region of Central Asia and as such, the weather was really quite cold. The snow was just starting to melt during the first week of March, and it was 30°-50° F during the day and colder than that at night.

What was a typical day?
We did about equal parts sight seeing and meeting people. Our first meeting was usually around 9, so the 5 of us (Zarif, the driver, Najib, the tour guide, Tim, Salena and myself) would all pile into the toyota corolla around 8:30 and to go to a meeting or two in the morning. Then we would stop for lunch at a restaurant. After that we’d have another meeting or go to see a sight in the afternoon and return home by dark, around 5 or 6. I’d write in my journal, we’d eat dinner at the house and I’d fall asleep.

(When I say sightseeing, it’s true in that we went to see sights; lakes, gardens, mosques, museums, etc., but not in the sense that you might think. There is very little tourism in Afghanistan, especially over the winter, and we didn’t really see any other westerners.)

What did you eat?
Bread and tea were the staples of my diet in Afghanistan. The bread is like the naan you would find at an indian restaurant (except fresher and better) and the chai was generally weak green tea, which was perfect for me because it was just enough caffeine to get through the meeting, but not enough to make me crazy. The tea also kept us warm as not all the buildings were well heated. Every single place we went they offered us tea.
For breakfast we had tea and bread with cheese or jam, and the cook often made us scrambled eggs.
For lunch we ate out at nice-ish restaurants and ate kebabs, rice, bread, sometimes soup, dumplings or curry.
For dinner we had soup and a vegetable dish of some sort, our favorite was eggplant, but we also had delicious cauliflower curry and dumplings.

What did you wear?
I wore the hijab, and I’m glad I did since I didn’t see one woman in public without it. Every islamic country has a different interpretation of women’s dress, in Afghanistan the norm was long loose pants, a long sleeved tunic or shirt that went past your hips and a hijab. It was really cold so I also had a long coat on every day. I wrote a little more about it on this earlier post.

What was the situation for women there?
I’ve been asked this question a few times and I don’t really know how to answer it. I’ll just say this, there were women in almost every job in Afghanistan, police officers, judges, parliamentarians, judo masters, doctors, etc. but the only single women we met were widows, and we didn’t meet any women who didn’t have children. We rarely saw women on the street on the weekends (Thursday and Friday are the weekend in Kabul) and in more conservative areas we saw women only in burkas.

Where did you go?
We stayed mostly in Kabul but we took a day trip to the Panjshir valley to see Massoud’s tomb and a day trip to the village of Istalif.

Did you take pictures?
I did, but unfortunately my house was robbed last week and they stole the camera with most of my pictures on it before I got a chance to upload them. My fellow travelers took some great pictures though so I will link to them, and I also have one memory card with some of my pictures but I haven’t been able to see what was on it.

How did they feel about Americans and the War on Terror?
In Kabul I heard 3 things with surprising consistency; the biggest problem or challenge in the country is lack of security, the Pakistani government is to blame for many of the country’s problems, and everyone we asked wanted to keep US or international involvement in some respect. We talked mostly to middle-class urbanites in Kabul, but this was the anecdotal evidence we were able to gather.

You can see the evidence of 30 years of war in and around Kabul, in every neighborhood our tour guide pointed out a building that had a suicide bomb attack, the palace and museum were destroyed, we went through check-points almost every day. But I can’t imagine what it’s like in the countryside.

What about the Qur’an burning and the massacre?
I got to Afghanstan days after the Qur’an burning and the streets were calm. Our tour guide told us that there had been some peaceful protests where the police took care of security, but that these were over. The people we talked to were very upset about what happened, but they had heard Obama’s apology and they understood that it was an accident, they also said their mullas had told them to be patient and calm. I was in New York when the massacre happened and haven’t heard what the Afghan reaction has been.

Part 1: Zone of Discomfort

I’ve read 5 whole books in the past couple weeks. Okay, so each of these books should have taken me less than a day to read and they were mostly distractions from the more serious book that I am ostensibly reading, but they were all great. I read, the Hunger Games Trilogy, Brokeback Mountain (I know it’s a short story, and I actually read most of the stories in Close Range but this one was on its own, so it counts), and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and other concerns). Instead of giving a book report about how great the books were (and all these books were great, except Mockingjay was just okay), I’m gonna talk about my experience reading these books (because a blog is like a therapy session, narcissism is allowed), if you want to know the plots, read them yourself, or watch the movies. I won’t give anything away.

I started the Hunger Games when I left for Afghanistan. When I was working in New York publishing I heard about and saw so many good books that I realized I couldn’t read everything and I was going to need a some ground rules. I settled on this, if I get 3 independent recommendations for the same book it is worth sinking my teeth into (now my definition of the word ‘recommendation’ is extremely broad and in the past I have included the fact that a book is on sale as a recommendation). I had heard good buzz about the Hunger Games so when David Plotz recommended it on the Double X Gabfest, I was waiting outside a local bookstore before I left for New York and I had a new (miles-earning!) credit card burning a hole in my pocket it was the American Express sticker on the door that served as my final recommendation.

I slept on the plane to New York, and while there I was amused enough that I didn’t start reading the book until my flight from Frankfurt to Dubai. By the time I got on the flight from Dubai to Kabul, Katniss was leaving the Capitol for the Hunger Games arena. The irony was not lost on me.

Katniss was prepared, she had her knowledge of hunting, her experience with hunger and her determination to avenge her sister. I had a couple years of Persian and Pashto, experience traveling abroad from an early age, and the determination to stick it to all the haterz who thought I shouldn’t go to Afghanistan. Katniss had her Mockingjay pin, I had postcards from my hometown. Katniss was leaving a land of excess to a go to an impoverished war zone; I was leaving Dubai to go to Kabul.

America is fighting a war in Afghanistan. Apparently Suzanne Collins got the idea for the Hunger Games while watching TV; she was flipping between a reality show and footage of the Iraq war and they started to blend together. The hunger games is, in a way, an extreme reality show, like Survivor except you dont get voted off, you get killed. The destruction is highly televised, the humanity isn’t. In the states, the footage we get of Afghanistan is all of war and destruction. I got to Afghanstan days after the Qur’an burning and the streets were calm, not burning with American effigies. Our tour guide told us that there had been some peaceful protests where the police took care of security, but that these were over. The people we talked to were very upset about what happened, but they had heard Obama’s apology and they understood that it was an accident, they also said their mullas had told them to be patient and calm. These sorts of discrepancies made me wonder whether Kabul was like district 13; had the American media been showing the same loop of angry protestors burning the American flag over the sound of the muezzin? I had all but stopped reading the news coverage of Afghanistan by the time I went to college, I knew people in Kabul who went to work every day, it couldn’t be the burning war zone I saw on TV. What was really going on?*

I wanted to see for myself, and talk to some people, but in a city like Kabul, where billions of dollars come in from foreigners every year, who can you trust? Everyone has an agenda. Even our tour guide wants to show the best face of the country, and his livelihood depends on keeping us happy. We took a lot of pictures, but like the tributes in the arena, everyone knew we were watching from home. How do you smile when you know someone is watching, when they have the ability to drop help from the sky? We interviewed, and filmed, and tried to get to know people and tell their stories, but our time was short and I’m sure some of their messages were lost in translation.

The Hunger Games had a focus on appearances, style, costumes and camouflage. Having never worn a headscarf before, the hijab felt like a costume to me, and I tried my hardest to fit into it. I didn’t have Cinna (or Lenny Kravitz) to help me prepare for the my arena so I just had to wing it. In a way, there is no camouflage more perfect than the burka, hiding in plain sight. I didn’t wear the burka, but with the hijab I could be similarly incognito. At the end of the day instead of looking up to the sky to see the score and hear the anthem, I lay in my bed and listened to the muezzin and wrote about my day.

I tried many things to distract myself so I wouldn’t finish the Hunger Games and I could save it for the trip home. I read a copy of Brokeback Mountain that I found in the guest house, I blogged about my experience, I went to bed early, but in the end, I finished the book, counting on the fact that I would soon be able to buy the sequel in the Dubai airport.

One of the themes in the Hunger Games was fire; the coal in district 12, the way Gale smells like smoke, Katniss’s costume, the fires in the arena. As it was late winter in Afghanistan, fire became a theme of the trip too, children sold smoke for good luck, men warmed their hands in small fires, we visited bakeries where people were crowded around ovens and by the end of the trip each of us smelled like smoke too because each of our rooms in the guest house was heated by a wood chimney. The only time I think I was ever in danger on my trip to Afghanistan was actually in my own room. I was trying to read and was starting to nod off when my room started to fill with smoke. I thought it would go away, and tried to sleep, but I started coughing and noticed by flashlight that the room was hazy, I couldn’t see very well. I was so tired I couldn’t be bothered to get up. When my eyes started to water I tried to open the window by my bed, but the window was covered in plastic to keep the heat in so it wasn’t doing any good. After a few more minutes of coughing I put on my headscarf and went to get the guard. When I opened the door, I saw his look of surprise as smoke billowed out of my room. For a second I felt like Katniss, escaping from the fire that woke her up in the night. But mostly I felt like an idiot when Naqib told me his solution was just to open another window and leave the door open for a few minutes.

On the way home I prepared for my presentation in my hometown. The trip had changed me, and I needed to show that, but I also wanted people to recognize that I was the same person, and that I hadn’t been corrupted by the Middle East. Mostly what I felt though, was dirty. When I got to Dubai my first reaction was that the people looked so white and the airport seemed so clean. Arriving in New York, I felt even grimier after 15 hours on a plane, like Katniss after the games, I needed a skin polish before I got home. I settled for an overpriced mani pedi at JFK.

*I really do not mean to denigrate the journalists who risk life and limb to report the ongoing war. I have the utmost respect for them and the work that they do.


I have started a new page about my trip to Afghanistan, please visit that page for pictures and some choice thoughts and feelings about the trip. I try to make this blog about my current thoughts and feelings and for or better or for worse, I am no longer in Afghanistan. I’ve touched on the issue of hijab in the last post and in this post I talked about the war so I think that answers some of the major hot topics of the trip. If you have any specific questions please feel free to email me or write in the comments and I’ll try to address them.

The Hijab

Over the mysteries of female life there is drawn a veil, best left undisturbed
-Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

For the program they told us to make sure we put our headscarf on before we landed in Kabul. I decided to put mine on when I landed in Dubai. As I walked out of the bathroom I felt the way I do whenever I change my appearance; like everyone is staring. But after following the gaze of some onlookers I realized they weren’t staring at me, they were staring at the girl in the polka dot miniskirt.

I became accustomed to it quickly (though practically I still find it difficult to walk in the wind without losing my scarf and to eat without eating my scarf or spilling on it); it seemed the least we could do to show respect for the culture of Afghanistan. We saw no woman outside without a hijab (and inside only twice, with a hijab around her neck). The first days we were there, Thursday and Friday, are the weekend in Kabul and we saw almost no women on the street, only rarely a woman in burqa (chador), who was presumed to be a widow, because, presumably, there is no reason for a woman to leave her house on this day save desperation.

I noticed 3 types of women’s dress, the chador, a more conservative working woman outfit, and a more fashion-forward style. In older parts of town and on holidays we saw many blue burqas but during the week we mostly saw type two, working women with long loose pants or a long skirt, a long-sleeved top which covers the rear and a scarf wrapped loosely around the head. Walking around town, most of the women we saw were going to and from work (the university was over winter break still) and chose this style in earthy colors. The last category I saw in upper class neighborhoods, and occasionally in fancy restaurants, it was very westernized with skinny jeans, pointy black boots to kill, a long sleeved top and a tight hijab often in loud colors with sparkles and jewels. I felt my clothes fit squarely into the middle category, however with my height, I think from behind I probably looked most like an Afghan man. It was very cold and it is not uncommon for a man to tie a scarf around his head during the winter. Their traditional dress is actually quite similar to the women’s.

We were quite the spectacle nonetheless, in a country where one’s ethnicity is easily identifiable by their face and dress, we were a blonde woman taking pictures, a fair man in khakis and a tall black woman. We were tourists, but in a country with such little tourism, no one could place us. So they stared. and stared. and stared. Children would stare, old men would stare, the few women we saw would stare. I didn’t know what it was that made them stare, had they never seen a black person? Someone so tall? A blonde? Was my hair showing? In these situations I was glad I had my headscarf, I would avert my gaze and pull the scarf across my mouth. This is a traditional response to unwanted attention and seemed to bring people’s attention to the fact that they were staring. Sometimes they didn’t stop, but at least they knew they’re were making me uncomfortable. In a world were manners and respect are so important, this tactic seemed to work wonders. In addition to hiding in plain sight, pulling the scarf over my mouth helped keep me from breathing in the thick Kabul dust and the smell of diesel on the road or heating gas inside.

Inside the guest house I would often wear a hoodie, it was difficult for me to brush and plait my hair every morning because it was so cold that overnight it wasn’t guaranteed to dry. Normally my hair is pretty large and in charge so this was a daily challenge. But I found I was rewarded with a new fashion accessory. It may sound inappropriate but I feel that after this experience I can safely integrate the hijab into my wardrobe in situations where I might be more comfortable with it. When I landed in Dubai, I stood on an escalator next to a woman who was literally wearing what I had on for underwear, skinny jeans and a nude camisole (over which I had a long skirt and a large sweater). I had decided I would take off my hijab when i felt comfortable doing do, sitting next to a muslim couple on the plane to DC it didn’t feel right or respectful to take it off. Walking through security the woman asked I could take my scarf off, I said I’d rather not. Finally in New York, walking around with two heavy bags I got hot and changed my clothes to haggle with a Jamaican woman about getting on an earlier flight. My hair looked horrible.

When I leave my room I still like having my hood up, and it’s been raining so I’ve had a good excuse for my scarfy/hoodie look. As a westerner I always wanted to wear the hijab but felt it would be offensive, maybe it still is, but now it feels comfortable and appropriate to me. It’ll fade but I’m happy to have it in the mix.

Naqib the Guard

Naqibulla is the night guard at the guest house where I am staying. We hit it off initially because he was impressed that I speak some Farsi (my Persian is okay, I can have simple conversations which is fine for the night porter but not great for interviewing a member of parliament, I leave that to our tour guide and translator extraordinaire, Najib). He likes my Iranian accent because during the Taliban he moved to Iran with his family.

He is also stunned by my ‘seeah post‘ or black skin. He says he likes black people. They are good people. There are none in his country but there is a region in Iran called Bandar Abbas that has a lot of Africans. He played me a bandari music video on his phone and showed me his black friend on Facebook (who looked South Asian to me).

He says we are like brother and sister now. He gives me extra blankets and extra wood for my woodstove at night. When I woke up in the morning and my voice was hoarse he asked if I was sick and if my room was warm enough. It was just that he was the first person I’d spoken to, but it was sweet that he was concerned.

He is about my age, 22, but he says since I am a year older that in Afghan culture he should wait on me and bring me chai. He is married and only had 4 years of school because of the problems in his country. In the states when you are a student it means you are poor, here it means you are rich enough to that your family can afford to not have you working. I have gone from the 99% to the 1%, and it feels very strange to have a cook, a driver, a maid and a porter for a week.

Today he asked if i could take a picture with him before I leave. I’m sure he’ll want to show everyone his black friend.
It’s all pretty politically incorrect and frankly makes me a bit uncomfortable, but this whole trip is about stepping outside of my comfort zone a bit, and Naqib is genuine and sweet.

Gotta brush my hair and put on a hijab before the cook comes in to tell me breakfast is served. Laterz.