Sunday, December 27, 2009

A few more stories from Afghanistan

I know my blog posts about Afghanistan have been slow in coming. Work has been insanely busy, and by the time I get home in the evening, inspiration is elusive. But I'm on vacation now, so I thought it would be a good time to start writing again!

I've been back in Kuwait for over three weeks, and Afghanistan feels a million miles away. In the midst of the flaunted wealth of the Gulf, it's hard to believe that mere weeks ago I was traipsing through Kabul. Many people ask about my experience, and it's still difficult to find the words. One of the fun stories from my trip was the night I was able to do an Eid visit with an Afghan family. In the Middle East, there are a couple Eid after Ramadan, and one in November. The November one coincided with my time in Kabul. During this Eid, sheep are killed and the meat is distributed to the poor. It is tradition to do Eid basically spend three days going from home to home visiting friends and family. The lady that hosted me was invited to visit the home of one of her Afghan employees, so she invited me to go with her. We put on our hijabs (headscarves) and went out to find a taxi. I found out later that most foreigners use what is called a "safe taxi" (basically, a taxi from one of a couple companies that promise not to kidnap you). Well...those taxis are more expensive, so we just got a street taxi. Luckily we didn't get kidnapped! We wound our way through Kabul as the sun set, trying to get to our destination before dark. Our cab turned down dark muddy streets until we got to a neighborhood devoid of electricity. The homes were or two rooms generally without furniture. One room is the sleeping room, cut off from the main room by a curtain. In the main room is a mat on the floor (used for eating), and cushions around it for sitting. In many ways, it was like stepping back in time. The room was lit by a generator-powered lightbulb. We were greeted by the man who works for my hostess, and he brought in the rest of his family- 3 small sons, his brother, his father, and his wife. For the next hour we sat and drank tea with them. The man's brother is a high school student who spoke good English, so he translated for us. No one else spoke English, so at times our conversations stumbled as we translated between Dhari and was especially interesting since my hostess is from New Zealand- so her English was like another foreign language! As I sat on the cushion and drank cup after cup of tea (it was freezing, so the hot tea was a comfort), I wondered at the experience. To sit in that room with three generations of Afghans in Kabul was something so few people get to experience. This was the real Afghanistan...or at least a little taste of it. The man's father looked ancient. I can only imagine what he has experienced in his lifetime...the time of the warlords, the soviets, the mujahadeen, the taliban, the american invasion. The struggle to survive in a perpetual warzone. And yet he sat, grizzled and smiling in his traditional turban, staring at these strange foreign women. To my left sat the wife, smiling and beautiful with only her hair covered (no burqa). She spoke no English, but had a young baby so we just laughed and passed him back and forth. The young brother kneeling respectfully and translating to the best of his ability. Two young boys hiding under a blanket in the corner giggling every time I looked at them. This is a piece of Afghanistan that the military and the contractors never get to see. After we had drained the fifth cup of tea, they decided to bring us dinner. They brought out some fresh bread and a bowl of lamb. For these people, that bowl of lamb was probably the family's meal for that day and the next. And yet, they gave it to us. They didn't eat...they just kept telling us to eat. So we practiced the fine art of eating steadily to show our appreciation, but trying to take the smallest pieces possible in order to save meat for the family. At the end of our visit, the man went out to find a taxi for us (no small task in that area...he was gone for a half hour!). He accompanied us all the way back in the taxi, and insisted on paying for the ride. To put this into perspective, this man's income supports his entire extended family. In the west, we watch the news about Afghanistan and read about the taliban and the terrorists and all the evil. And yet, we sat in this family's home and they fed us...people who represent what many there believe are invaders. They fed us the food they were supposed to eat that day and protected us by riding in the taxi and paid for something we could easily afford. I know there are bad people in Afghanistan, just like anywhere. But this is the Afghanistan that will stay with me.

On another day, I was asked to facilitate an art therapy workshop for Afghan children. We decided to hold the workshop at a place called the Garden for Peace and Hope. Up until a year ago, this "garden" was a bombed out wreckage. Then the government decided to allow one of the nonprofits to rebuild the garden with the hope that one day it would be a place of peace and hope for young Afghan artists. They cleared the wreckage, rebuilt the walls, brought in beautiful roses, planted trees, and constructed a fountain where they placed small marble pieces with the words hope, peace, love, kindness, and patience. They have a small room that shows a pictoral timeline of the transformation...from wreckage and hopelessness to beauty and hope. It's a beautiful place. So one of the small schools brought ten boys to meet with me. I was a bit do I, someone who has lived a life of privilege and blessing in comparison with these children, teach them anything? But the beauty of art therapy is that you really don't teach. You use the art as a tool for children to explore something themselves. So the director of the garden walked them through the story of the place...showed them the before and after pictures. Gave them time to walk around the garden. The boys were young- probably nine to fifteen. Some were the poorest of the poor. I brought drawing paper and crayons and markers. They started by drawing the things that make them feel hopeless. As I walked around and asked the boys to describe their pictures, I heard stories of rockets, and grenades, and guns, and opium plants. Red blood. Destroyed buildings. Then we had them turn over their papers and draw things that could bring them hope. They drew books to symbolize education. They drew houses with trees and flowing water. They talked about a life of normalcy- the kind of life that any child would want. One boy showed up late. I found out later that he had come to school without the parental permission slip for the field trip. He was distraught when he found out that he couldn't go. The rest of the group left without him...and then he showed up! Apparently he wanted to participate so badly that he found his own transportation! We still don't know how he got there...if he somehow managed to get a cab or bus to bring him, if he hitchhiked. No clue. But he wanted to be there, so he found a way. For these kids, the field trip was the highlight of their month. For me, it was a rare glimpse into their lives. As a foreigner in Kabul, there are so few opportunities to interact with the Afghan people (due to security concerns). I feel so privileged to have had several chances to spend time with Afghans.

I don't really know how to summarize my trip. These are just a few small snippets...stories to supplement the impressions I blogged about in previous posts. Words to complement the pictures posted here and on my facebook. But in reality, my own experience in Afghanistan was just a small snapshot of life there. It was one week of walking in a place that receives so much news coverage but that is rarely truly seen. The military now talks about winning minds and hearts. It's not enough to go in with guns blazing...operation cobra's anger or whatever this week's military lingo might be. I support our military...I think that what they are doing is necessary. But I wonder if we can ever win hearts and minds when we spend our time behind barbed wire and machine guns. I know there is risk when we venture outside our fortified walls. Driving in "unsafe" taxis, walking into barricaded restaurants, riding through the streets separated from machine guns by a simple pane of glass...I know it's scary. I definitely had moments of wondering, "what in the world am I doing as a single American woman chillin' in the middle of one of the most dangerous places on earth?" But then I think of the kids in the art therapy workshop. I think of the family feeding us their dinner. I think of the smiling burqa-clad woman waving at us from the compound...and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to slog through the muddy streets of Kabul for a week. I try not to be too political in my blog, but I do wonder if we might start seeing more success if we showed up with clean water, plant seed, wood for stoves, a warm coat for kids...before we showed our machine guns and tanks. We probably need both...and I know that our military is giving their lives to both fight terrorists and to accomplish humanitarian missions. There really isn't an answer. Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. They are a fiercely independent people. You can see it in their eyes. They are survivors. And they are beautiful people. I hope I get to return someday...but for now, I hope that my stories have given you a small glimpse into their world.

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