Women’s Travel Gold Winner: At Home in Afghanistan

by Diane LeBow

“That’s the Hindu Kush Mountains, the killer of Hindus.” An Afghan man sitting next to me on the Ariana Afghan Airlines flight from Dubai to Kabul leaned over and explained. Outside the window, the flat desert lands of Iran and southern Afghanistan suddenly gave way to barren blue and gray ridgebacks, like waves of a stormy sea. I thought about the land I was visiting and wondered how stormy the political situation would be during my upcoming visit to this war weary land. As I was leaving for the San Francisco airport twenty-four plus hours ago, a friend called: “Have you been listening to the news? There’s just been another bombing in central Kabul, many people killed and injured, and an assassination attempt on President Karzai. Do you think you should delay your departure?”

Beneath us, small villages of stone and mud dwellings became visible as we angled in toward Kabul Airport. Voices and nervous laughter grew louder as excitement among the passengers mounted. Many on the crowded plane were Afghans returning after fifteen, even twenty years absence.

“I left when I was three,” one man said to me.

Another confided: “I’m afraid to get off. Everything will be so changed.”

The landing was a new experience for me: past bunkers and a graveyard of smashed up planes and cadavers of military aircraft, evidence of over two decades of war. I remembered I was entering a land of lawlessness, anarchy, warlords, and twenty-three years of conflictactually a part of the world where civil war and foreign invasions are more the norm than peace.

Then we stepped off the plane into the “Country of Light,” as Afghanistan has been known. A young Afghan-American man who was traveling with us, said to me, “I thought I wouldn’t remember since I moved to the States when I was five but now that I feel the air and sniff familiar smells I know I am home.” The scene inside the terminal was bustling but well organized. Young men in ragged brown garments, looking like they had stepped out of the Middle Ages, pleaded to help me with my luggage in order to earn 10,000 Afghanis, about twenty-five cents.

Dust and people swirled all around me. The people were strikingly handsomeif dusty, like everything else there. Afghan eyes, dark and deep and very calm, really look into you and the look is not pained or demanding or threatening in any way: it is calm and clear. Perhaps the look is a result of millennia of survival and resignation to whatever the fates or world politics send their way.

Even though I travel extensively, I was never in a war zone before. There were a few things to get used to. As we left the Kabul Airport, my driver said, “Don’t worry that there is no seat belt,” as he saw me searching along the side of the seat. “I drive slowly.” With that, he floored it, and we raced up the wrong side of the divided street against the oncoming traffic. There are no traffic rules or stop lights in Afghanistan. Traffic when it moves, like spilled milk, goes anywhere there is a space. My driver Nabil’s technique suited the general sense of lawlessness in the air.

Through the open window of our car, I bought The Autumn 2002 Survival Guide to Kabul from a street child. It opened optimistically: “There’s a lot to see even if most of it is wrecked.” On the way to our guesthouse, all around us large areas of Kabul were bombed out wrecks of former homes, stores, and even palaces. Near the center of the city, burned skeletons of buses lie stacked one on top of another around the devastated former public transportation center. The ubiquitous blue burqaed women and street children begged at the windows of our van and later when I walked through the streets. Men with no legs, mine victims, negotiated along on a sort of skateboard amongst the traffic, pleading for “baksheesh,” some money.

As we drove up to the hotel I was to stay at, I noticed the top floor was missing and I joked to my driver that I hoped my room was on a lower floor.

There’s something about Afghanistan and the Afghan people that draws me back again and again. When I am there, I feel out of time, connected to all of humanity at all times. This land has been touched by so manyfrom Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, ancient Greeks, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Soviets, Taliban, to most recently, the USA–and yet maintains a strong sense of identity.  There is approximately eighty percent illiteracy, few roads, little to no electricity, running water, phone service, postal or banking system. People live mainly on a subsistence level. Yet, to be with an Afghan is to be aware of a keen intelligence, often along with a sharp wit, a sense of irony and enjoyment of life, and a pervading kindness and hospitality.

How can this be when all around are bombed buildings, destroyed roads, adults and children with missing legs, piles of rusting tanks and crashed planes? I sought to learn more about this strong pulse of life that was throbbing here.

My lifelong work for women’s rights and the horrors of the Taliban especially pulls me to this part of the world. Imagine being confined inside your house with the window painted black, only being permitted outside when accompanied by a male relative, being beaten for even showing a bit of wrist, and even stoned to death at the whim of a perhaps disgruntled husband who wants to be rid of you?  Imagine not being permitted any education or access to earning a livelihood, receiving medical care, or even an occasional visit to the public bath as you have no running water in your simple house? I wanted to learn more and see what I could do to help.

PART 1 Beyond the Burning Burqas: My First Visit with Afghan Women

Two years earlier, June 2000, the Taliban were still in power in Afghanistan. Their treatment of women is the ultimate in man’s inhumanity to women. Could any of us do something to help? Living in France at the time, I met a group of exiled Afghan women. Along with some French women, we organized a conference near the Afghan border in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as it was still impossible to have such a gathering inside Afghanistan. There we met with over 300 Afghan women who had escaped across the Afghan-Tajik border and were living at the time in this former Soviet republics. Our goal was to help them write up “A Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women,” based on United Nations’ documents. Major elements of our work were eventually incorporated into the new Afghan Constitution.

“Please, speak out about these crimes. But tell not just about the suffering, but also about the successes, how we are resisting.” I met Halida, a math professor from Kabul, who ran secret schools for girls inside Afghanistan all during the Taliban repression. She was one of several hundred Afghan women at this conference. These women were the lucky ones, educated and middle class, having the means and know how, to escape from their country as the Taliban took over. The stories of these women professors, doctors, engineers and computer scientists revealed to me what the civil society of Afghanistan has been and can be once again.

Western news coverage of Afghanistan generally presents a picture of illiterate warlords and draped women. However, earlier, into the sixties, Afghanistan was a progressive society. Women’s equal rights were guaranteed by the Afghan constitution.  In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, women, at least in the urban centers, were educated and active participants in the society. They comprised fifty percent of the civil administration, seventy percent of the teachers, forty percent of the physicians, and had fifteen percent representation in the highest legislative body in Afghanistana larger number than the United States.

“Persecution of women is a method to install terrorism in order to paralyze society, to create a submissive society,” Khalida Messaoudi, Deputy from the Algerian government opened the conference with these words.  She is a petite, auburn-haired powerhouse. Facing death threats everyday of her life and surrounded by security guards, she was a central force in uniting the Algerian women and ousting Algeria’s version of the Taliban and in establishing representative democracy in her country. “Imagine,” she said to me later in the lobby, “right wing Christian fanatics, armed with automatic weapons, taking over Washington, D.C., and the U.S. government. This is the situation in Afghanistan with the Taliban.”

During meals, the stories poured into my ears:

A young woman at our table told me she had three children and that her pilot husband was killed in an airplane crash. “I hated the burqa,” she said. “With the burqa, you always have eye ache and headache. It is especially difficult for women who wear eyeglasses.”

One woman, Masada, is a dentist with a computer engineer husband and two children. She is an exceptionally beautiful woman around thirty with symmetrical features, large eyes, and dark brown hair. Like many of the Afghan women, Masada eschewed traditional dress; in her case she wore an oversized tee shirt and jeans. She told her tale of escape, which was like many others. “The Taliban were entering our town that day. I couldn’t reach my husband. I quickly arranged visas and plane tickets to Iran for my children and myself. After eleven months in Iran, I was able to take a train with the children to Tajikistan. Finally, from here, through an international company, I got a message to my husband that we were alive.”

Another woman who had escaped from a Taliban controlled area told me: “The Taliban took seven hundred women hostage. More than 2000 people were killed when they took Kabul. They sold and raped many women, using them as sex slaves. Aged and disabled people, they left to suffocate in closed barracks in temperatures over 110 degrees.”

A young male Afghan journalist spoke to me as we were walking outside after one session. “The Taliban live in darkness, they follow ancient beliefs. It is not our culture to treat women this way. Women are human, not animals.”

Habeeba, an engineer, said: “When the Taliban leave, the women will burn their burqas, the men will shave their beards, and there will be music on every corner.”  The burning has begun but much remains to be done.

On my last afternoon in Tajikistan, a number of women friends from the conference arranged a country outing. We drove out in two vans and picnicked by a fast-moving river, surrounded by sunlit mountains which led on toward Afghanistan. A thin business woman in a tailored dress crouched down and drummed a Middle Eastern beat on an overturned rusty metal table. Soon one after another of the women began belly dancing. Small girls joined us. One woman drew me into the circle, the others clapping around us. Repeatedly, they said something to me that sounded like “Hurhun.” The word sounded uncomfortably close to a term I wouldn’t want to be called and wondered if somehow my behavior was unacceptable.

Back at the hotel, when we hugged goodbye, I took a deep breath and asked: “What does “hurhun” mean?

“Sister,” they replied. “Thank you, our sister, for being here.”

PART 2 Afghanistan: The Friendliest Country

After the fall of the Taliban the following year, I flew to Afghanistan as part of a human rights delegation sponsored by the San Francisco based organization Global Exchange. There were eleven of us, mainly young Afghan-Americans and me. Our mission was to assess the state of Afghan culture and the arts and set up projects to help both immediately and in the long-term. In addition, I planned to visit women’s projects and learn about specific ways I might be able to get involved..

The cover on an Afghan tourism brochure from the 1970’s that I found in a Kabul bookstore announced “Afghanistan, The Friendliest Country.” Believe it or not, that’s what I’ve found during my visits there and with the continuing friendships I have with Afghan people.

Driving through Kabul with my young Afghan friends even in the midst of the dusty chaos that is Kabul’s perpetual traffic gridlock, I never saw anyone yelling in anger. People laughed and joked. Kabul is a remarkably tight knit community. My driver used the traffic jams to shout messages to other drivers and passengers. “Tell my cousin to ask his friend Hamid about the tire he is fixing for me.” Since there were few functioning telephones in Afghanistan, I realized that the gridlock is a communication opportunity. Even when people run into each other, they don’t seem very upset. On one occasion, one of my drivers knocked a man off his bicycle. They both chatted for a few minutes, laughed about it, and drove on.

My friend, Tareq, a university student, said to me, “Why does everyone pick on Afghanistan? We are merchants and businesspeople. If they want something we have, all they have to do is talk with us and, we’ll do business with them. They don’t have to drop bombs on us.”

My new friends even made up jokes about the ubiquitous blue burqas. “Will the woman in the blue burqa please stand up?” they imagined someone announcing to a large crowd. Hoots of laughter on their part and mine followed. Wiping her eyes from laughing so hard, Shoukria said, “To the coat check girl: ‘I’ll take the blue one.’ More gales of laughter.

Not just high spirits but industriousness and ingenuity were apparent everywhere. In areas of Kabul, as well as in surrounding villages, piles of freshly cut poplar logs, a fast growing tree, were being used for rebuilding. During visits to Kabul Radio and Television, the staff showed us how they had concealed their precious archives of tapes and film inside panels of the ceilings or plastered up doors, so the Taliban couldn’t find them. Now everything was out in the open again and being broadcast. When the Director of the Kabul Museum showed me room after room of statues smashed by the Taliban, he and his staff assured us that, with international help, “We can reconstruct them.”

We purchased a few hundred dollars worth of electrical supplies and helped get the lights back on in the Kabul University library reading room where we saw students hunched over books in the darkened rooms. Every department at the University needed international assistance. The music department lack instruments. The Fine Arts department wrote out a prioritized list of supplies they needed. Before we left, we dropped off paper, paints, and clay.

At the National Archives, the director took me into a room where mounds of deliberately ripped canvases lay stacked. However, the establishment reopened and they were hanging a show of recent paintings while we were there. At the University as well as the National Library, we examined cases displaying books that the Taliban shot through or shredded with knives as all images are forbidden under their extreme rule.

I visited an orphanage that housed more than one thousand children but had no running water or functioning plumbing. Children made a game out of taking turns at a single hand pump in the schoolyard. A fifth grade class of orphaned girls sang for us: “Afghanistan, you are now my mother, and I must take care of you.” Over the next days, we purchased pillows and wool mittens for the children.

Afghanistan is a teacher’s paradise. Eager learners, both girls and boys, pack schools, half of the students sitting on the floors, shared the scarce books and writing on tattered bits of chalk boards. “Please stay here and teach us. When are you coming back?” the students of Alfatha Girls School addressed me in excellent English. Their 37-year-old principal, Mahgul Nawabi, ran underground schools for girls during the Taliban years when all girls were forbidden education. In many classrooms during my visit, I saw older women attending classes with much younger pupils, hoping to catch up on the years the Taliban denied them education.

I also visited a well-run school for the deaf, the first and only one in Afghanistan. The director developed the first system for signing in Farsi. “I try to help those who have been forgotten,” he told me. Another unique school is for street children. There are five such centers in Kabul, serving over 38,000 homeless children or children without functioning families. At these centers, the children spend a few hours each day, are taught literacy and basic mathematics, have a meal and access to bathing facilities, and, perhaps most important, have friends they can count on.

One day, several of us hiked up on the side of a mountain near the ancient walls of Kabul. Throughout the town, most people headed toward the stadium where the commemoration in honor of Masood, would occur.  A national hero, Masood, the great Afghan freedom fighter, was assassinated on 9/9/01, as part of the 9/11 attack on the USA, This was the infamous stadium where the Taliban performed public executions and stonings every Friday.  Above us security helicopters whirled. Below women washed clothes in the tiny trickle of water which was all that was left of the Kabul River after five years of drought

As we clambered up the steep gravelly hillside, from the flat roof of a mud and stone dwelling, a man on crutches waved at me and, with a smile, beckoned me over. As I approached him, I could see he had those movie star good looks of many Afghan men: gorgeous symmetrical features, muscular build, dark hair and beard, and expressive dark eyes. “Come in, have tea with my family,” he said through the university student who was my translator. I was having trouble staying upright on the steep slope and wondered as we entered his tattered house how my new friend managed on his crutches.

He introduced himself as Ashref. “I’ve fought against the Soviets and the Taliban to protect my family and little community here. I’m the mayor,” he told me in a matter of fact way, a broad smile on his face. A mine had blown one of his legs off, he explained, and he showed me various holes in his chest and back from mortar fire. In spite of his personal history, he joked constantly and was one of the most jovial people I’ve ever known. His wife, a beautiful woman with those special golden green eyes seen on some Afghans, interrupted to tell me, “My husband is a very good man.”

I asked him, “Here you are after twenty plus years of war, you’ve lost a leg, your body has been shot at again and again, yet you are so cheerful. How is that?

“Now we have peace,” he said, “and peace is everything.”

PART 3� TWO YEARS LATER

When I entered the unheated old cinema building in central Kabul, where until recently the Taliban had banned all films, the electricity went out for several minutes and I stood in the pitch dark with about one thousand Afghan women. They had traveled from all corners of Afghanistan to be here, on planes, on donkeys, and on foot.

Two years had past since my last visit to this country. The specific occasion this time was a women’s conference to prepare materials for the new Constitution at their Loya Jirga, or Constitutional Convention. For three days we sat in a packed hall for about eight hours each day, witnessing what the American Institute for Democracy, which helped fund the conference, described as “true grass roots democracy at work.”

Like a dam had broken, these women demanded every possible right and a perfect society. “We want freedom to wear what we wish. We want to be free to marry whom we wish or not to marry. No more polygamy, no violence, free education, health care. We want the right to ride bicycles.”

A few days later, some of their proposals were in fact added to the new Constitution, including a twenty-five percent requirement of women in the Parliament. Of course, enforcement is another story.

One afternoon, my plan was to find Ashreef, my one legged Mujahadeen friend, again, to see how he and his family were doing, and bring them photos from my last visit as well as gifts. With a few friends, I drove to the place in Kabul where the hills rise up from the bed of the Kabul River and where I recalled meeting Ashreef two years earlier. Street names or numbers don’t exist here. When we showed my photos to some people, they recognized him immediately, as he is well respected in his community. “He’s at the mosque,” and they ran to get him. Within minutes, rushing down the street on crutches toward me, with a new artificial limb, was Ashreef. We were both very moved by our reunion, tears streaming down both our faces. Somehow this illiterate warrior and I have a close bond.

“Diane,” he said, “we spoke of you often throughout the year. I looked at the little blue card you left with us, especially when I was sick or felt sad, and the thought of you always raised my spirits and made me feel happy again. Last evening I had a dream you were coming back and my wife and I spoke of you.” We spent a couple of hours talking over tea, nuts, and raisins in his modest but well kept tiny mud brick house.

He says he is an Islamist: women should have full rights to have careers, to go to the university, but still he believes they should wear the hijab. “We are Moslems, we want to respect our women wearing the cover. It is not the burqa which is the point but the freedom to move about in their lives, to live full lives, that is important. However, after conversing for over 1 1/2 hours, Ashreef said to me, “I’ve been at war for over 15 years, that’s all I know. I am thinking that maybe my mind and ideas haven’t developed as they should be. Maybe I need to rethink some of these new ideas especially regarding women and expand my mind and thoughts.”

Then he turned to the two young Swedish women journalists who were with me, “You are my guests, but Diane is no longer a guest.” My heart stopped for a moment. Had I offended him in some way?

“Diane is now part of our family.”

When William Faulkner accepted the Noble Prize for Literature in 1950, he talked about the human ability to endure and prevail: “When the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded in the last dying evening… there will be one more sound, that of the puny human voice saying ‘I refuse to accept this.” That’s the voice I hear in Afghanistan.

 

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