Monday, December 7, 2009

A Week in Kabul

It's hard to describe Kabul itself. It's a blend of third world poverty, war wreckage, gray-brown mud, and absolutely beautiful rugged people. Few of the roads are really paved, and the ones that are have huge ruts. It rained several times during my stay, which turned the dust into rivers of brown and made driving quite interesting. Kabul has suffered from a drought for many years, so the river beds run dry and over the years the trash has piled up. Buildings lie in wrecked heaps, piles of concrete rubble sit beside barbed wire and sandbags. In the midst of this are the people. Kabul was built for 500,000 people. There are now over 3 million. The streets are filled with men, some wearing western clothes, some in traditional Afghan clothes (baggy pants with a long knee-length shirt and either a turban or a skull cap). There are women in blue burqas or headscarves, and children bundled up to protect from the cold. What you don't see are has become too dangerous for foreigners to walk the streets, so they just glide through the city in cars and vans and jeeps, attempting to avoid attention. And there are guns. Lots of guns. There are soldiers and building guards and random civilian men walking around with machine guns...some dating from decades ago when the Afghans drove out the Soviet army. For the first few days, you notice the guns and the barbed wire, the blast gates and the sandbags. But then you grow used to it. Your eyes start to notice other things, like the random goat beside the store, the bright colors of carpets for sale, the many people on crutches or in wheelchairs after losing a limb to a landmine, the beauty of faces that have survived more suffering than we can imagine in a lifetime. There were so many moments when I just wanted to hop out of the van and walk the streets. One day we were driving near an outdoor market area. The rain had stopped and there were so many people out and about, bartering for deals in little shops lined up against the river bed. I wanted to join them, maybe barter for a few local goodies, enjoy the wash of culture. But security dictates so many aspects of life in Kabul, especially for foreigners. So I rode in the car and just enjoyed the privilege of being out and about in Kabul...even if I observed through the glass of my window.

I've been asked by many people how it felt wearing the headscarf. I've thought about this often, both in Kuwait (where I don't need to and rarely wear the headscarf), and in Kabul where I had to wear it from the moment my plane set down until I left. Within the walls of western/foreigner compounds I could take it off, but for all the rest of my trip it was simply a part of my wardrobe. I chose to wear the Kuwaiti hijab (headscarf). It's a two-piece black headscarf. The first piece is like a put it over your hair and tie it in the back. This holds the hair back. The second piece is the black scarf, which is wrapped around the head and then around the neck. Most foreigners in Kabul just wear a colored neck scarf over their hair, so my wardrobe choice stood out a bit. It actually caused quite a bit of confusion amongst Afghans, since I look Arab or even Afghan once I've covered my hair. When I was leaving the airport at the end of my stay, the passport control agent refused to believe I was American. Even though he was holding my blue American passport, he first spoke Dhari to me (assuming I was Afghan), and then insisted that I was Arab. I told him I was Irish. Then he asked if I was Muslim. I told him I was Christian. He then insisted again that I was an Arab Muslim, and I told him I was an Irish Christian. We had a good laugh about it, and agreed to disagree. He did tell me that I should be an Arab Muslim again as I was leaving...I think he was actually flirting, but I just smiled and went on to my flight. My van also got stopped at a security check-point when we were traveling back from the mountains to Kabul. The best I can understand is that we looked suspicious because it looked like a van full of foreigners with a random Afghan or Arab woman (me!) riding along. We were pulled off to the side of the road, and I was asked for my passport. After clearing up the fact that I was, indeed, an American, we were allowed to continue on our way. I do have to admit that it's a bit nerve-wracking to be pulled aside by security with machine guns at a barbed wire checkpoint in the middle of Afghanistan!

Ok, back to the headscarf. As my plane landed in Kabul and I wrapped myself up in the black material, I felt like a little piece of myself was disappearing...hidden. It's an odd paradox actually...because what I've noticed is that the more I cover my hair, the more comments I get about my eyes standing out. In my mind, the eyes are much more alluring, much more dangerous than hair. If the purpose is to protect men from the dangerous allure of women, then it seems like a self-defeating prospect. In any case, when you first put on the headscarf it feels stifling. The material around my neck made me feel choked, hot, inhibited. But as I walked out of the airplane, surrounded by men (since I was the only female in sight)...I felt relief. Relief to be hidden, to have this thin piece of material that I could pull around my face. It was as if I could disappear, become an observer instead of the observed. I don't think it actually stopped any of the staring, but it was like a wall had been erected, protecting me from all that was around. When I think about the veil, I think of it as a subjugating misogynist tool...a label or tool inflicted on women to designate them as sinful and dangerous. The evil temptress. In my mind, that is what I believe. I don't agree with the forced use of a headscarf. And yet...the feeling of protection and near-anonymity that it offered was strangely comforting. As the days went by and I grew accustomed to wrapping myself up against the eyes of the world, I actually started to like the veil. For one thing, you don't have to worry about your hair! You can have a bad hair day, or even just skip the shower completely (since I showered with almost zero water pressure while standing in a bucket, skipping the shower from time to time was quite appealing!). It also keeps you warm in the frigid temperatures of Kabul.

But most of all, I grew to love the feeling of anonymity and blending...I loved the fact that when our van sat in traffic (the most nerve-wracking points of the trip for me...since we're sitting ducks when the van is hemmed in on all sides by other cars), I could just pull the veil over my face and withdraw from the stares of others. I know this sounds odd. It's completely opposed to my stance as a sort of Christian feminist. I don't actually believe that any woman should have to wear the veil...but I also understand its appeal. When I went to Afghanistan, I just couldn't understand why women still wore the burqa even though the Taliban is gone and they are now allowed to just wear a headscarf. But having walked a short distance in their shoes, I can understand. If you're used to being protected from the eyes of others, uncovering yourself would feel terrifying. If you have spent a lifetime hidden, surrounded by a wall of impenetrable fabric, how do you suddenly walk into the world unprotected? I don't really have any answers. As I re-read this blog, I'm confused by my own words. I haven't fully processed or come to any conclusions...but there is a small part of me that wishes I could wear the headscarf whenever I wanted. Perhaps it's the part of me that is the observer...the part of me that is global nomad, that is the cultural chameleon. If no one can see you, then you've achieved the ability to blend flawlessly. Looks don't matter. No one cares if blonds have more fun. You can hide from prying eyes and unrelenting stares. There's something just appealing about that. One last thought for today...on the day we traveled to the mountains, our van driver decided to make a pit stop. He suddenly veered off the road and bounced over potholes until we stopped in front of a house. The door opened and a woman in a burqa came out, leading two small children. They piled into the front of the van, and off we went. I was so intrigued...who was this woman? What did she look like? The burqa actually has a screen that covers the eyes, so that their entire face is hidden. We rode on for an hour, and then bounced off the road again. We pulled into a side street and stopped at a gate leading into a compound. The woman got out with the two small children. Apparently she was the driver's sister and was going to visit her family. She hadn't spoken a word to us. We sat in the van as she walked through the gate of the compound. Once she had crossed the threshold of the gate, she suddenly turned and lifted her burqa. With a beautiful smile, she waved at us and then turned and walked away. Under the blue fabric was an incredibly beautiful woman. Her smile was contagious. When you drive through Kabul and see all the walking blue figures, it's difficult to imagine the women beneath. I won't soon forget her was a rare peek into the strength and beauty of these people. I don't know what she has survived. I don't know anything about her story. But I can guess that she is a courageous have to be to make it in Afghanistan.

More blogs to come soon. I know it's been slow in coming, but it's difficult to find the words to convey the experience! Here are a few more pictures.


Danica said...

Loved this post. I could imagine you there, and I could see everything you described. I especially enjoyed reading about walking in the people's shoes. You truly got an incredible experience, and I loved it that you were able to blend in and be like the people. Can't wait to read more.

Donna said...

Dad read some of this to me the other day but I had not had a chance to get on your blog to read it myself, i love the story of the woman who took a ride with you and then you saw her face. you had an amazing opportunity to be in Afghanistan, I hope you get to go again, it seems to be a lot more of the 'real world' than where you actually live right now! I appreciate your courage and perseverance to go! love, mom