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.

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.

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.