Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Access to Federal Benefits for Iraqi Military Interpreters

Congress has finally fixed a poorly drafted law that had barred Iraqi translators who came to the United States on Special Immigrant Visas from receiving the same federal benefits given to refugees and asylees.

Special Immigrant Visas or SIVs were created by Congress in 2007 so that Iraqis whose lives were in danger because they worked for the U.S. military as translators could be quickly evacuated to the United States, bypassing the normal refugee processing. Last year, immigrant advocacy groups discovered that, due to drafting issues in the federal law, many of these SIV holders are legal permanent residents who are now subject to the five-year bar on federal Food Stamp/SNAP benefits, Medicaid, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), employment services and not eligible for Social Security.

For SIV holders, the current federal law permits only 8 months of the Refugee Resettlement Program (RRP) and all other federal benefits, and then they are treated like all other Legal Permanent residents and required to wait an additional 4 years and 4 months before they can qualify. (Keep in mind that Iraqi nationals who entered with refugee status do NOT have this five year wait and are eligible immediately - and indefinitely - for most federal benefits beyond the 8 month limit on RRP cash benefits.)

On December 19, Congress passed the Defense Appropriations Bill (by an 88-10 vote) that eliminates this 5-year wait for both Iraqi and Afghan SIV allies. Specifically, it makes Iraqi and Afghan SIVs eligible for federal public benefits "to the same extent, and for the same periods of time, as refugees." (pdf p.119)

The List Project, other advocacy groups, and thousands of Iraqis are celebrating the end of this disparity.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Principle Pictures Teams up with WCVB's Chronicle Series

We've formed a new venture with WCVB’s award-winning Chronicle program. Throughout the year, you can stay up-to-date on our films and projects as Chronicle features our work and producers. The first joint Principle Pictures/Chronicle program is tonight at 7:30 on Channel 5. I will be on set for an interview as Chronicle highlights two Principle Pictures’ projects: BEYOND BELIEF and WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS, our newest Afghanistan film. If you’re outside New England or miss the broadcast, you can check it out online.

Mind Over Martyr

In Mind Over Martyr, a new article in Foreign Affairs, Jessica Stern takes a look at what works - and what doesn't - to deradicalize terrorists.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Iraq's Bob Dylan

If you're following the candidates for Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections, one candidate in particular is worth a close look: Nabeel Yasin. Known as "the poet of Iraq," Yasin was a defiant symbol of resistance to Saddam Hussein. His most famous poem, "The Brothers Yasin, Once Again," (see poem below) was secretly distributed by one of Baghdad's most reputable tailor shops - sewn into the lining of clothes or hidden in pockets. A new BBC film by Georgie Weedon captures Yasin's honesty, humor and humanity. This poem is a tear-jerker in English, I only wish I could read it in Arabic.

The Brothers Yasin, Once Again

Once again
On the road to the family

On the road that crosses the barbarian world to the family
Dumbfounded people waiting for a long, long departure to the family
And me, I stand in life’s deserts preparing my song to cross this evening
I gather my questions in my hands
Ready to understand the land
And the road becomes longer and my steps to the family shorter

O family
My angels did not return from their feasts
And me, I am getting ready for my last slumber on linens of dew and a bed of tears.

Like those voyagers who calmly craft their hymns
I will craft my hymns
And welcome tomorrow alone
I will make my wisdom a morning coffee
And with my middle age facial expressions
I will make light for my home
And go slowly to my cave
I will aim for my freedom in solitude
And turn over my past to search for an herb under the stones
The stones that are found on the road to the family
The road to the family is gloomy and its outlines are made of dust and mud

Its outlines seem to move from one sand dune to another, battered by wind
Wind on the road to the family
And the road to the family is a mystery of a distant light
And secrets of a sobbing woman
Years are frozen to stone
Like the pillars of a bridge – the bridges of Al Rusafa and Al Karkh – they are frozen in time.

And Baghdad is the last of places
God, at the apocalypse, where the dead will rise up and the noise becomes deafening
And me, I am the last of the wise men, miserable wise men, in a time where wise men are despised
And me, I am the last to grab smouldering embers before being consumed by fire

I am the last pillar
On which people lean
Silent as they are
On their way to the family
On the road to a woman, bent and curved like mirrors
On the road to a house that has been shattered with yearning

On the road is a man, exhausted and burdened by commandments
To those who suffer from the estrangement of their souls
Or the moaning of the heart in times of togetherness

On the road to my homeland
I saw mirrors
With dust on them
I saw stars dispersed in sand
On the way to Yasin’s tomb
I was stopped by frozen time on the riverbanks
Time is short
And me, I am ageing in my solitude
And my soul is growing older
On the road to my homeland
I saw mirrors
With dust on them
I saw stars dispersed in sand
On the way to Yasin’s tomb
I was stopped by frozen time on the riverbanks
Time is short
And me, I am ageing in my solitude
And, faced with my dilemma, my soul grows older

Me and my road to the family
Both are lonely
Both ended on his loneliness
And we both were united, the road,
Reaching the end, with my steps
And the road to the family
Is my road
The last song in my mouth
And the last grass will be stolen from my garments by a snake.

What can I give O Yasin?
As I do not have my freedom
Enslaved to the bones by an infidel Iraq
I feed him solace and comfort
In return he gives me shit and zaknabout

And the road continues from Eridu to Karbala
From Karbala to my desolate soul
As I stood in the alleyways of Babylon engraving on the stones of houses
The foreboding of a child
The estrangements of an old man from the family

And the road to the family is wide and prodigious
My road to the family
On both sides of which stood pondering angels
The candles of eternity of my road to the family
On both sides of which stood pondering angels
The candles of eternity and creation
Lit both sides
Dead steps and those who were killed can be seen looming
And on both sides caves’ paintings emerge
Along with my blood and my vows.
My soul’s foreboding
My God’s
And my eternal flood, my Noah’s Arc.

As I stood on my way to the family
Seeing the reflection on the water of the Euphrates
The eyes of those who drowned
They glistened like stars
And on top of palm trees dead stars
Shedding ash on the river’s embankment
And standing still I draw aeroplanes on the bodies of the dead
I take their eyes down to serve as shelters
To be shut down in the morning by butterflies which also strip drops of dew from a flower

O Nada, O Nada,
Every time I protect myself against the arrows of ruin
In the shelters of my soul
The echo passes
And in passing it tells me
That my soul is wandering aimlessly
That my ardent love was in vain

As I stand still on my way to the family
I see on the river Tigris
Between Al Amarah and Al Kut ships sails
And angels flying on water
And I see the angels carrying coffins lit by candles
I stand and my angels are stunned
They are wearing gasmasks
And when they ask me about my misdeeds
And write down what I have done
They go in search of God
Asking him to take a look at this country
And bless it with his peace

Yasin, then, knew what would happen
He then bid us farewell under the rain
He did not hear the cock that Thursday
And before he took leave of us he said ‘wait for what will happen’
But his sons fragmented into pieces.

Then he asked after them
As they were in the wilderness of their souls
As if they were the offspring of Gods left behind after Armageddon
To reshape creation in a second image
And prepare creation for another departure
On the road to the family
An event after an event.
Anguish after an anguish
War after war
As if the road of anguish is the road to Golgotha
That is then the road to the family
And Yasin is no more than an echo

He sometimes appears after the massacres take place
So much so that I saw Ilham by his tomb crying, ‘what have you done?’
Have you not any wisdom?
Or certain country to live in?
Have you not been on the road to the family?
Watching for symbols and signs that will show you the way?
Have you not?
And then I shouted
No, we have not.

On the road to the family
I walked all alone
Followed by my victims in a funeral and a song
And the long road to the family gets longer,
From Eredu to Babylon
Then the road turns to where there are shattered hearts.
This road, this prodigious and long road
On his sides there are trenches, and eternal corpses
Kites pick on the eyes of the dead
And bite dry flesh
Wind whistles inside helmets made of sand
Wind pushing through torn garments
And letters
This is the road drawn by the homeland, for her and for us.

When Seen dropped her here
Here in between the water of the Gulf and a chain of mountains
And the road to the family became longer than ever and more terrifying.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Lesson From History

As I meet Iraqis here in the Middle East who helped the U.S. try to bring peace and security to their country, we discuss what the military draw-down taking place right now means for this already imperiled population. It's worth taking a page from history - so as not to repeat the horrific fates that have befallen other collaborators. Look, for example, at what happened to the Hmong people after the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to join a "Secret War" in Laos. (It was a Secret War because even though a Geneva agreement barred America from sending troops into Laos, the U.S. pumped $20 billion into an air and ground campaign to stop the spread of Communism there.)

Like Iraqis today who serve(d) as military translators, secret CIA operatives and reconstruction specialists, the Hmong put their lives on the line to support the U.S. by blocking supply lines, gathering intelligence and flying combat missions. And while 15,000 died during the war, that number doubled when the U.S. pulled its troops out of South Vietnam, abandoning the Hmong, and forcing them to flee to Thailand for refugee.

Today's Thailand is here in Jordan. Today's Thailand is Syria (where we're headed tomorrow). Today's Thailand is Lebanon and Egypt. These are the countries where Iraqis who have been abandoned by the U.S. are fleeing.

One man I met today - Hamad*, a prominent sheik who lived near Abu Ghraib, described how he befriended the Americans who moved in to nearby Camp Bucca. As Hamad got to know them, and they got to know him, mutual trust and respect developed.

"When I had a heart attack, they promised to get me medical attention." Hamad understood it would be a difficult process to secure medical clearance to leave Iraq - but he believed the process was underway. So, when American officials asked him for a favor, he was eager to help: assist the U.S. in rebuilding Abu Ghraib. He was now an official employee of the U.S. government. Any by becoming such, Hamad essentially signed the death sentences of his three brothers and an uncle, and was responsible for the kidnapping of his 18-year-old son.

This afternoon, sitting on a faded sofa as a fan hummed overhead in his Amman apartment, he reflected on the abandonment he feels, "I never did get any help for my medical condition... But, it has been five years since all of this happened, and it's time to move on. America did nothing to help me - but I'm focused on the future." All the while he tells his story, he is smiling. Smiling because he is preparing to move to Australia in two weeks.

"You want to know how it makes me feel?" asks Kirk Johnson, founder of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Refugees who is traveling with us on this shoot. "I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed that Australia is doing more to help this family than we are - and we're the ones who tore them apart and put them in so much danger."

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. denied there was ever a Secret War in Laos. It wasn't until May 1997 - 24 years after America withdrew its support of the Hmong guerrillas that the Secret War was officially acknowledged. Let's hope it's not 2033 before our Iraqi allies experience some sense of justice for all that they have sacrificed.

(*Hamad's name has been changed for his protection)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Final Prep for Mideast Trip

After a week of much trepidation, I'm happy to say plans are falling into place. Iraqis who are on "the list" are signing up in droves to meet with Kirk Johnson, founder of The List Project, and Chris Nugent, a Holland & Knight attorney who is working pro bono on cases of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who are in danger. As soon as we hit the ground, we expect to be bombarded by Iraqis who are desperate for help. We'll be flying, driving and taking buses around the region...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The news is...

Thanks to major funding from ITVS, "The Promise of Freedom" is coming to PBS! Sean and I had a phenomenal time in San Fransisco last week for ITVS Orientation - thanks Cheryl, Richard x2, Matt, Annelise, Jorge and the rest of the ITVS family! We also had the pleasure of eating the best dessert ever: cheese-based sorbet with olive oil and sea salt. Phenomenal. Now we just have to make a movie!

The Rumors are True...

We do have BIG news to share... soon.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Hell of a Day

(Pictured: Beth Murphy and Sean Flynn at the TDF pitch table. Photo courtesy of Christian Pena.)

Our project, The Promise of Freedom, was the first and only one at TDF to receive on-the-spot funding (for both production and outreach) at the pitch table.** Thank you Judith Helfand, Julia Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger! (Read my blog entry on Chicken & Egg Pictures site, too.) We also received a commitment for distribution and support for making a pre-sale. It is phenomenally exciting, and I'm looking very forward to our follow up meetings tomorrow with some commissioning editors.

There was really only one way to celebrate: meal seven of sushi. And the Ryan Harrington fan that I am, I couldn't miss the International Premiere of P-Star Rising. I didn't want it to end.

P-Star and her Dad showed up after the film, and, surrounded on the sidewalk under a full moon, P-Star entertained us with one of her new hip-hop songs. We all agreed that this 14-year-old girl is more mature than we could probably ever hope to be.

**There were thirty films pitched here (25 as part of TDF, and 5--including ours--as part of TDF's Good Pitch). The four other films that were part of the Good Pitch were - Sean & Andrea Fine’s Resilient (signs of hope in women’s stories); Mona Nicoara’s Our School (Roma children in Transylvania); Nic Dunlop’s Burma Soldier (a Burmese soldier who becomes a pro-democracy activist); and Marco Williams’ Untitled Immigration Project (a community torn apart by immigration issues).

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lucrative, Easy and Meaningful

Producing documentaries is not easy. In large part because it is not inexpensive. We mused over drinks that it would be nice if every once in a while a film could fit this description: "lucrative, easy and meaningful."

I was celebrating the world premiere of "21 Below" at the Toronto Hyatt with the film's creators and supporters. In the film Sharon, the oldest and most stable of three sisters, returns to her dysfunctional family to help her 21-year-old sister, Karen, who is pregnant with her third child. The baby's father is an older black man who sells drugs and teaches Karen's older son (fathered by another man) that Jay-Z has 4000guns. The diapproval from Sharon and Karen's Jewish mother creates the tension and drama that drive this intensely personal film. Karen also has a 15-month-old daughter who is dying of a rare degenerative disorder. I nearly found myself hyperventilating during sections of the film. It was remarkable after the film to meet the Mom and see her satisfaction with it. It cannot be easy to have a packed theater watch your most intimate family drama on display.

I finally saw "Sergio" today. What can I say? Only that I have one wish: that I had never seen it so that I could walk back into the theater this second to watch it for the first time. And Director Greg Barker may have a through-the-roof resume, but there's no ego accompanying it. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Toronto Tales

Judith Helfand and Robert West, co-founders of Working Films, continue to prove why they're the best at what they do! As they listened to and helped tweak each of the five pitches (inluding ours) that will be given on Thursday in front of hundreds of people, good pitches evolved into great ones. Their mission to link non-fiction film to cutting edge activism is gaining even more momentum now that they're partnering with Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program to have the "Good Pitch" here in Toronto.

Most of the day was spent in this three hour workshop and an invite-only Doc Mogul lunch honoring Sheila (as Nick Fraser points out, HBO's Sheila Nevins is a one name wonder in the docu world).

The films I saw today were as heart-wrenching as yesterday's. Children of God tells the story of a 12-year-old Nepalese boy and his two siblings who eke out an existence by finding gold, coins and food used for cremations along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. And Rough Aunties focuses on an amazing group of women in South Africa who care for abused children. Together the films left me emotionally exhausted.

They both also brought back a flood of memories. I visited Pashupatinath in Kathmandu in 1999, and was as struck then as I was today by the seamlessness between life and death there. I remember watching family members carry the deceased to the edge of the river, bathe the body in the river's holy waters(nevermind that it is 90%sewage today), build a funeral pyre (a ghat) stuffed with ghee (butter) balls to help it burn, and then sweep the ashes into the river. That's when the kids come in - diving into the water to recover anything of value, and pulling magnets along the river bottom to snatch any coins. It really is a bit like the edge of heaven here because Hindus believe that once the ashes reach the water, the soul leaves the body to be with God.

On the lighter side...

I'm loving the fact that every other storefront in Toronto seems to be a sushi restaurant. This is fitting in nicely with my plan to eat nothing but edamame and rainbow dragon rolls all week! I was hoping to start each morning with some laps, but the pool here (sorry Sutton Place Hotel) stinks. It's small and square, and my circular swim this morning left me so unsatisfied that I grabbed my running shoes and hit the streets. It is perfect running weather here, and I'm looking forward to heading down to the waterfront in about 7 hours.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dismal Illumination & Empathy

In my next life, I want to come back as Nicholas Kristof. His writing for the NYT is done with such humanity and insight, and I loved watching him in action tonight at the International Premiere of Reporter. The film follows Kristof on a mission of (as the director calls it) "dismal illumination" to the Congo.

As Kristof searches for the one person who will illuminate the massive suffering of millions caused by war in the Congo (5.4 million killed in the past decade), filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar distastefully comments that hunting down the saddest stories "doesn't feel very good." (There were moments when I couldn't help but think of the book, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?) But, Metzgar admits, the worst stories will exist whether Kristof finds them or not.

When Kristof meets Yohanita, a woman so thin from starvation she is mistaken for a bundle of rags, his next column begins to take shape. His methodology is similar to my own (just without world leaders paying close attention!): tell personal stories that highlight larger political, historical and ethical issues. What I wasn't aware of is the "psychology of compassion" that informs Kristof's method.

One scientific study mentioned in the film is really fascinating: Subjects were shown three pictures... one of a starving 7-year-old girl, one of a starving 7-year-old boy, and one with both the boy and girl. People looking at the photos felt the same level of compassion for both the girl and boy in their individual photos. But when the two were pictured together, psychic numbing began to take hold, and viewers didn't feel as compassionate. And that's just two people suffering! How will the human mind comprehend 5.4 million??

In the end, Krisof says emotions are too unreliable to allow people to care about those suffering in our world. We need laws. But years of international inaction in Darfur prove that laws aren't enough either. That's why Kristof makes galvanizing public opinion and inspiring public outcry one of his primary missions--and his ability to achieve it is unparalleled in the field of journalism.


"I know I'm different than my mother," says the main character in the wrenching film, About Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw, "because I feel empathy." Gwen's mother, a drug-using schizophrenic, threw her into a campfire when she was 9-months-old, leaving her with even more internal scars than external ones. The film follows Gwen through much of her 20s as she searches for her mother and battles her own mental and substance abuse demons. Tracking her mother takes Gwen to homeless shelters and psychiatric facilities across the United States, and when her search ends on a bench outside a bus station in New Hampshire, her mother insists on seeing her ID--as if the burns that have disfigured her face and hands aren't proof enough. Instead of finding the love and family she has craved her entire life, Gwen discovers a selfish, angry, mentally unstable woman who seems to believe that she is the victim who needs to be rescued. Fortunately, Gwen does find a real sense of family with her half sister, and as the film closes, the two of them create a photo album together--the first photo album Gwen has ever had in her entire life. (I must mention - the original score was beautiful - great job Joel Goodman!)


I have several "must see" films on my HOT DOCS schedule, but topping the list is Sergio, based on Samantha Power's Pulitzer-winning biography, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vierira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. A career diplomat whose calm, suave style and good looks earned him a reputation as equal parts James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, Sergio answered the call to duty one final time in Iraq. You can watch the Sergio trailer here.

No time to read Power's book? Her New Yorker article (The Envoy: The United Nations' doomed mission to Iraq)is an excellent read.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pakistan's Islamic Schools - Hotbeds of Militancy

See article in today's NYT.

I've just started reading Ahmed Rashid's new book, "Descent Into Chaos." It is an incredible analysis of why Pakistan, unstable and armed with nuclear weapons, is terrorism's ground zero. In the book, Rashid questions how NATO can survive as the West's leading military alliance if the Taliban is not defeated and bin Laden remains uncaptured. He goes on to say:

What is at stake in Pakistan is even greater. A nuclear-armed military and an intelligence service that have sponsored Islamic extremism as an instrinsic part of their foreign policy for nearly four decades have found it extremely difficult to give up their self-destructive and double-dealing policies after 9/11, even under the watchful eye of the CIA...

President Bush's embrace of (Pakistan President) Musharraf and the military, rather than of the Pakistani people and the development of state institutions and a democratic process, has created immense hatred for the U.S. Army and America, hatred that penetrates all classes of society. Ninety percent of the $10 billion in aid that the United States has provided Pakistan with since 9/11 has gone to the military rather than development... When the Bush administration continued to back Musharraf in late 2007...Pakistan's middle class was overtaken by feelings of anti-Americanism, making it impossible to persuade Pakistanis to resist the extremists.

...the U.S. attack on Iraq was critical to convincing Musharraf that the United States was not serious about stabilizing the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

On the Road Again

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Boston as I make the final preparations for our trip to Hot Docs. My biggest concern the last few days has been making sure Beth and I have all the materials we need to pitch The Promise of Freedom both in the Good Pitch forum and at the many informal networking events offered by the festival. On the packing list right now are 50 DVDs of The Promise of Freedom trailer and sample scene, 30 DVDs of our previously completed work Beyond Belief , 3 copies of the 4-minute screener we'll be using during our pitch, and a whole armload of proposals and budgets. Our schedule for the week is packed with film screenings, Rendezvous meetings, panel discussions and of course the big pitch on Thursday, May 7. I'll try to report back with notes from as many of these events as possible.

Alright, time to hit the road!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heading to Toronto for HOT DOCS

It has been a busy week in the office preparing for HOT DOCS, North America’s biggest documentary festival.  Sean has been burning DVDs like a maniac, and we’re getting very excited about the opportunity to pitch THE PROMISE OF FREEDOM.  The film was one of five selected to participate in the Good Pitch, a pitching session that features human-rights focused documentary film projects in front of high profile film funds, organizations and NGOs.   This is the first time the Good Pitch has been done on this side of the Atlantic.  Can’t wait to see all our friends from Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures!  We’ll be blogging and tweeting from the road, so please check back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Afghanistan News and Analysis

CNN special reports about the resurgent Taliban, new threats to troops, public opinion, opium production increase, and historical analysis.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A(nother) Blow to Women's Rights in Afghanistan

"It's the Taliban all over again," an Afghan woman said to me as I was loading my luggage in the car to head to Kabul International Airport. "It's just unbelievable."
The disbelief and outrage is over a new law--just signed by President Karzai last week--that legalizes rape in marriage by forbidding women from refusing sex; bans a woman from leaving the home, working, or seeing a doctor without her husband's permission; and grants child custody only to fathers and grandfathers in cases of divorce. Women must also wear makeup if their husbands demand it.

"When a husband dies, women can only inherit movable property--no houses or land," this woman told me as she quickly transferred a damning UNIFEM report onto a USB drive. This would keep me busy on my overnight layover in Istanbul.

It is obvious that in an attempt to win support in the upcoming August elections, President Karzai (who is wildly unpopular) is trying to appease Islamic fundamentalists. What's not so obvious to me as I wave goodbye is where the hell the West was when this bill was drafted a year ago. In situations like this, I want to count on Hillary Clinton to spring from a phone booth, her human rights cape whirling. Isn't this a violation of international law and Afghanistan's own constitution, which mandates equal rights for men women?

I believe women are a bellwether in society--and what happens with them is an indication of where the society is heading. Women may be the first to lose their rights, but they are usually not the last. Therefore, it should come as no solace that this law affects Afghanistan's Shiite community(that's about 15 percent of the population who are allowed under the constitution to have their own family law).

Even as President Karzai simultaneously defends the bill and says it will be reviewed due to global uproar, another family law--this one for the Sunni majority--is in the works.

"This is a disaster for women," is one of the last things I heard as I left Afghanistan. And those words are still ringing in my head.

Other Reading:

Washinton Post Article
New York Times Article
Al Jazeera Report

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Budding Documentarians…. We’ve been training students to use small HDV video cameras that we will leave behind when we head back to the States. We’ve never done something like this before – but we’re hoping that they’ll provide us with some intimate family and village life material that we would not otherwise be able to capture. There is some trepidation about handing over expensive electronics.
Nadia, a third-grader who took the camera home last night, beamed as she showed us her footage this morning. But then we saw her in many of the shots. Wait a minute! Who’s filming? Her father had taken charge of the camera, she told us. Ultimately, we like the idea that the whole family buying into this project. There are three girls we’ve trained: Khodija (the orphan whose 12-year-old sister is engaged), Nadia (first in her class and one of 12 children thanks to her father’s marriage to two women—both of whom I was able to interview), and Raila (the 18-year-old fifth grader who wants to be a police officer some day).


Love Marriage… since the majority of marriages here are arranged, it’s rare to hear about two people who fall in love and live happily ever after. When it happens, though, it’s called a “love marriage.” But trying for a “love marriage” when your parents want an arranged marriage is illegal. I learned today about a boy and girl who ran off together the day before her arranged marriage. They were hoping to escape to Tajikistan. But her parents called the cops and the lovebirds were arrested and thrown in jail. It’s common for people to sit behind bars for years for this “crime.” I’m working on setting up an interview with them when we return to Kabul in a few months.


The vote is in… and the winner is… corruption. You’re supposed to be 18 to register to vote, but we know a 15-year-old who has a voting card. “They’re so easy to get,” his sister told us. “You’re supposed to show your identification card to get one, but a lot of people here don’t have any ID, and they give them to you anyway. They’re desperate for people to vote.” Is she planning to vote? “I don’t know – there aren’t any candidates worth voting for, that’s how a lot of us feel.” And if you’re finding it hard to get a voting card for some reason, don’t worry – you can buy one.


A new Iranian complex—replete with mosque, madrassa and TV station—is working hard to spread anti-Americanism in Afghanistan. Since the TV station hit the airwaves, the religion-politics Molotov cocktail has been stirring up resentment among locals about the invading infidels.


It’s official – we moved! And we love our new pad. I have 10 light bulbs in my room!! We’re near American University and the former Russian Cultural Center (now a drug den). The house has some tin sloping on the roof, so we can hear the pitter patter of the rain. We’ve already taken to calling it PPK (Principle Pictures Kabul). Many summers ago I taught a course at American University Paris—and had promised myself I’d look into other AU opportunities around the world. Never did… until now.


It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to everyone, but I’m thrilled with what we’ve filmed and the relationships we've built. This is officially my last blog from Kabul--but I will keep writing! (If you're interested, over the past few days I've been able to add pictures to past blog entries. Success!)

Wedding Present for Nilab

Eighteen-year-old Nilab asked for one present from her husband when they were married: his permission to let her teach. “This is the only gift I wanted,” says Nilab—two years later—standing before her fourth grade class. “And he agreed.”

Nilab’s first teaching job is here at the Zabuli School. “I plan everything so carefully, and decide each night how I will start class the next morning and precisely what I will say.”

As she’s talking, I can tell she’s nervous. She pulls me aside and asks, “When you filmed me yesterday, could you hear my voice?” Yes, I tell her. “Oh, I’m so ashamed,” she said, her eyes widening. “I made some mistakes when I was speaking Pashtu. You have to delete it.” You’re trilingual, I tell her, you’re entitled. “No,” she insists, “you have to get rid of it.”

For school director Zia Haidai taking care of the eight teachers here is as important as caring for students. “All of our teachers come from Kabul,” he says—meaning they’re city girls who aren’t used to village life, and, perhaps more important, village life isn’t used to them.

“We are not allowed to go outside the gate,” Farzana, the school’s 3rd Grade teacher says, pointing to the red metal entrance. “The villagers are very conservative, and they don’t approve of us.”

Jeans. Makeup. Visible eyes, nose and mouth. There’s a lot to disapprove of. Zia had to lay down some ground rules. No tight clothing. As little makeup as possible. Head scarves a must all day. No walking on the streets outside the school. Long skirts past the ankles are always preferable to pants.

The teachers, Zia says, are one of the major reasons why he works so hard to keep village elders and religious clerics happy. “I don’t want them to make a rule that our teachers have to wear a burqa like all the other women in the village,” Zia says. He knows that if given a choice between a burqa or a job, they’d all put on their Levis and walk.

But it’s a delicate balance, school founder Razia Jan admits. Keeping everyone happy can be time-consuming and expensive, and it’s already a struggle to keep her own school running.

And as much as I think keeping the villagers happy is a slippery slope, the security concerns demand it. That means delivering freshly slaughtered sheep meat—as they will do this Friday—is as important to their safety plan as the security guards who sit near the gate around the clock.

You don’t have to go far to find girls’ schools under attack. Last year—just 30 minutes down the road—a girls’ school was burned down by terrorists.

“When I hear a report like that on the news,” Zia says, “I call the guards to alert them.” And since phone service is often down in Afghanistan, Zia reminds the guards that they have ten different numbers to call in case of an emergency. Then he spends a sleepless night. “I'm so anxious, and only feel better when I arrive at the school the next day and see for myself that everything is alright.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

Finding Sahera

Sahera holds a copy of Beyond Belief. Her picture became the movie poster and DVD cover for the film.

Three years ago, I had one of the most powerful filming experiences of my career. Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, the two September 11th widows featured in my film Beyond Belief met Sahera Naznia, an Afghan war widow. On the surface, they had absolutely nothing in common--Susan and Patti lived in Boston's wealthy suburbs and enjoy women's rights to their fullest. Sahera was struggling to feed her children and was not permitted to leave the house without wearing a burqa.

But the women connected--as widows, as mothers, as women.

When Susan found out I was heading back to Afghanistan she asked me if I would deliver a video message. The idea of reconnecting with Sahera was almost too good to be true. Despite the fact that she's illiterate (90% of the 500,000 widows in Kabul are), Sahera was one of the most eloquent and poetic women I have ever interviewed.

But would we be able to find her? The search was on.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of so many CARE International staff (Monte, Jasveen, Amy and Zora), we found Sahera! We decided to meet at a CARE Poultry Center in Kabul's District 5, an area that has been hit with three suicide bombings in the past month.

From a second story window, I watched Sahera arrive with her sister-in-law and was surprised she wasn't wearing a burqa. Three years ago she told me that although the burqa blinded her and made her dizzy, she was forced to wear it by her in-laws who told her that a widow--especially a young and beautiful one like herself--could not be seen in public.

"But when my mother-in-law died two years ago, I threw that thing away," she told me this morning. "She was the one who insisted. Now, I don't have to wear it any more. I was so happy to get rid of it," she giggled.

It was the same beautiful and animated Sahera.

(Kevin films as Sahera and her sister-in-law, Sadiqa, watch Susan's video message.)

Her eyes lit up even more when I played Susan's video message. "I am so happy that Beth is back in Afghanistan to share this with you," Susan's voice rose from my laptop. "I feel such a connection to you... I miss you, and I love you."

Susan shared news from her life--remarried now to Donald Ger, they welcomed baby Rebecca into the family last year. Sahera was visibly moved, "I'm so happy for her. I can see how happy she is," Sahera beamed.

Sahera is doing well, too. When I met her in May 2006, she was part of a poultry program supported by Susan's organization, Beyond the 11th, and she earned money by selling the eggs. It was just enough to support herself and her five children. But when chickens in the village started getting sick, Sahera sold her birds and focused on sewing.

"Selling the chickens gave me money to buy fabric, and now women in the village hire me to sew." It's enough, she says, so that all of her children can go to school. But they still struggle. When her oldest son was accepted at Nangharar College in Jalalabad earlier this year, he had to turn it down because she can't afford the dormitory fees.

"It's still my dream," Sahera says, "that my son will be the first person in the family to go to college."

In her video message, Susan acknowledged all that Sahera has been through in her life. "I hope that when your children get older they have the strength and dignity that you possess. They are so lucky to have you as a mother."

"The bond that we have is not typical," Sahera said of her feelings for Susan. "We are not just two people who have met. We are like sisters. I hope that we will meet again."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Problem with American Men

We've visited one family at home since we've been here, and had no trouble filming because the two girls are orphans and the aunt they live with is a widow. So, that means there is no man in the family to tell them that they can't be filmed. Free to make up their own minds, they are excited to participate.

But today was different. We were invited into the home of Hameida, a first grader at the Zabuli Girls' School, who lives with seven women and two men (her father and grandfather). And there was no way these men were going to allow Kevin, a foreign man--and worse an American man--intimate access to their home where he would see their women's faces. Disappointed, he handed the camera over to me.

"This is what happens here," our translator said as Kevin graciously accepted a cup of coffee from the school administrator. "The men sit around and get served coffee, and the women go to do the work." No laughter from Kevin. Or from me, for that matter.

And even though I was being allowed to enter the family's home, no one wanted to draw attention to the filming or to give the neighbors any clue what was happening. I wrapped the camera in pretty floral fabric, rocked it in my arms like a baby and snuck right through the gate, unnoticed.

Tomorrow I'll be going it alone again - and just wish I had some pithy, lapidary comments to sum up my views on the gender problem.

Instead, I'm grateful we're getting footage of these families at all. And I'll choose to focus on the other fun things that are happening here -- today I hugged a sheep and flew a kite.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Afghanistan the new Vietnam?

A former North Vietnamese army officer thinks so. Read this GlobalPost dispatch. And don't miss the Reporter Notebook - great read.

First Day of School

When 18-year-old Raila Wafa took her seat in fifth grade class this morning, she officially became the oldest student at the Zabuli Girls' School.

"I'd like to put her in Grade 6," said school founder Razia Jan. "But we don't have a sixth grade yet because of funding." What will happen when fifth graders graduate? "We'll add one then," she says, just like they added a fifth grade class this year for all the fourth graders who graduated last year.

Raila was one of three students for whom today was the very first day of school here. For the other two students, today was their very first day of school--period.

(Majida at recess on her first day of school.)

Although eleven-year-old Majida and eight-year-old Baso had repeatedly asked to go to school, their father would never allow it. Instead, he insisted the girls stay home and work in the family's grape fields, harvesting grapes by hand when they're ripe in the summer, and removing dead leaves from the plants during the winter and spring.

But after meeting with Razia yesterday, their uncle--who is a village elder and teacher--intervened.

"My uncle came over last night and begged my father to let me and my two sisters come to school," Majida said in a quiet voice. "He finally agreed for me and my younger sister, but not my older sister. She's 17."

When both Majida and Baso failed the entrance exam (and their ages keep them from entering kindergarten), I assumed Razia would send them on their way. When she didn't, I assumed it was because their uncle is a powerful figure in the village, and she wanted to keep him happy in order to secure his support for the school.

I was wrong on both counts.

"For the first time in their lives their father is willing to let them go to school," Razia said as the girls were being led to first and third grade class. "This is their one opportunity. How could I possibly say no to that?"
As praise is coming in from Afghanistan's president for Obama's new war plan, the Afghans we talk with say they're cautiously optimistic. "I don't want to focus on then negative," one person told us. "But you see on people's faces here that they are anxious. They are just waiting for what's next. No one really knows."

While calling the growth of radical forces here the greatest threat to America and the world, Obama laid out a plan that will put more American troops here (4,000 now are added to the 17,000 already announced), do more to train Afghan forces, and (if Congress approved it) hand over $1.5 billion to Pakistan to help fight terrorism.

I'm no terrorism expert, but I've been re-reading Ghost Wars, and Pakistan has a long and troubling history with the Taliban, and there is still evidence that the Pakistani Intelligence Service is largely responsible for supplying the Taliban and Al Qaeda with money and weapons.

Interesting reading from Foreign Affairs on strategy of target killings--made popular by Israel, and now being adopted more and more by U.S. in War on Terror.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Meeting the Mullah

Across the street from the Zabuli Girls’ School is a mosque with a madrassa, an Islamic religious school where boys study and memorize the Koran. Madrassas have earned a bad reputation of late—associated with producing militant Islamists who interpret religion in violent ways. In Pakistan especially, Taliban fighters are known to have been educated at Saudi-backed madrassas teaching Wahhabism, a particularly fiery brand of Islam.

But there are still madrassas, like this one in Deh Subz, where boys come not to be Taliban, but to become Talibs or teachers.

“The word Talib can be somewhat misleading here because Talibs are an important part of life in Afghanistan.” says Razia Jan, founder of the Zabuli School. Razia remembers Talibs coming to her home as a child after a death in the family. “There can be as many as 30 Talibs associated with a mosque, and after someone dies they come to your house one- by-one and recite different parts of the Koran. You feed them, and they go.”

Today, after Friday prayers, the mullah (think Catholic church monsignor) of the Deh Subz madrassa and twelve village elders* walked across the dirt road to meet with Razia, school administrators and teachers.

“I’m very proud to see this here,” the mullah said about the school. “But I think it would be good if you could add three classes for boys, too—maybe in the afternoon.”

Razia told them she’d consider it, but she’s more focused on their other request—adding another first grade class and a sixth grade class for girls. “The girls need more classes,” said one village elder who recognizes how good the education is here. He brought his own three daughters to register, and when the principal tested them, he was shocked to discover that his 12-year-old—who had gone through 5th grade in public school—could not even write her name. After a week at the Zabuli School she was able to write both her name and her father’s name.

Allowed to enter fourth grade, the girl is technically at a first grade level—but putting her in first grade at her age is forbidden by the Ministry of Education. Although many other students in this situation are denied entry—we witnessed two girls fail their entrance exam yesterday—school administrators decided it was more important to maintain a good relationship with the powerbrokers in the community. Without the support of the mullah and elders, nothing can be accomplished here. And a lot has already been done to earn their trust, and get them to back girls’ education.

It wasn’t always this way. When the school was being built the mullah and all the village elders pushed Razia to make it exclusive to boys. “They approached me right before we opened and said, ‘This is your last chance to make it a boys’ school,’” Razia recalls. She refused. When they told her that it was more important to educate boys because boys are the backbone of society, she argued, “Boys may be the backbone, but girls are the eyes. You are blind.”

*Village elders do have to be men, but they don’t have to be elderly. Among the twelve village elders who came to the meeting today, 5 were younger men whose jobs and income caused them to rise to prominence here.

Update: We learned the reason for the massive military police presence on the streets heading to Deh Subz yesterday. Some organized criminals from Tarakhel had spent the night attacking cars and robbing passengers.

Kabul at Night

The last time I was here, I didn’t venture out after dark, so I’d never really seen Kabul’s nightlife. But last night we were invited to dinner and a fire pit party at the U.S. Embassy compound, and Razia Jan and I were excited for a night out. Given that Friday is the weekend, Thursday night is a big night for weddings, and the Kabul Dubai Wedding Hall was lit up like a Las Vegas hotel. In Afghanistan men and women are separated during the wedding celebration—this way the women can wear slinky dresses and gyrate on the dance floor to their heart’s content. Live music is played on the groom’s side, and the sound eventually makes its way to the women.

“They pay $10-15,000 for these weddings,” Razia Jan says, “and then they are in debt the rest of their lives.”

When we arrive at the ISAF entrance of the U.S. Embassy compound, we walk down an eerie, dark alley past large, beautifully painted murals. Several of the pictures depict images of peace—two hands clasped, a dove, calm seas—but they are interrupted by a gruesomely graphic image of a man being hanged; he is nearly decapitated, and his body is limp and lifeless. “It was pretty disturbing,” I tell some USAID staff over a dinner of salad and pizza on a heavily fortified deck attached to an apartment. “Welcome to Kabul,” someone says. Yeah, if that’s the worst thing I see here, I guess I’m doing pretty well.

I can’t go into the details of our conversation because most of it was off-the-record, but it was fascinating to learn the degree to which our government officials here live like they’re—these are their words—in a minimum security prison. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good life, a very American life in the center of Kabul—but the enormous security concerns mean there are a lot of rules that must be followed, and tracking devices in phones and cars let officials know where their staff is at all times.

One younger government worker told me she bribed her driver last month in order to see some of the city. “I asked him to turn off the tracker, gave him $50, and told him to drive me around Kabul.” She asked him not to stop until he thought he’d gone $50 dollar’s worth. But the driver didn’t know where to take her for such a sight-seeing expedition. “I don’t care,” she said. “Show me where you live, show me where you shop, show me anything.”

I can understand her desire—the sights, sounds and smells here overload the senses in a way that makes you feel more alive and energized than ever. Here are some of the things that have caught my attention on the street: a military policeman holding a gun in one hand and a brass teapot in the other; entire animal carcasses hanging on metal hooks in the hot sun; a boy with his pants around his ankles going number two on the side of the road; bright orange shredded carrots piled three feet high; a woman in a burqa balancing 15 pieces of naan on her head as she navigates a steep, rocky hill; kids washing their faces in filthy puddles; a man with only eyes and legs visible from the trash bag he uses to keep dry as he rides his bike in the rain; two men pushing a wobbly cart of fresh coconuts; families living in bombed out, mostly collapsed buildings with no doors or windows; billboards for armored cars boasting “We’re just a phone call away.”

It’s only 10pm when we leave the U.S. Embassy, but already the streets are deserted. There are more Afghan policemen on the road than cars, and they’re spread throughout the city manning checkpoints and stopping anyone who passes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Green City

Deh Subz means Green City, and it's named so for all the grape vineyards that grow here. The best green grapes and raisins in Afghanistan come from here, and our driver was in the middle of a sentence about the excellent soil quality when we noticed military police lining Pacha Sahib Street, the main road east out of Kabul center. When we turned right onto Deh Subz Road, the line of force kept going--MPs perched in the back of Toyota pickup trucks, mounted machine guns at the ready.

In a city where ISAF, Operation Freedom, and Afghan forces (and all the tanks, military vehicles and guns that go with them) are such a constant presence, this might not seem like a big deal. But this was different, and we could all sense it.

"Today there is much security," our driver said. "There is danger."

The danger is Tarakhel, the village in the center of Deh Subz District. Tarakhel is known as an area where terrorists and organized criminals roam. At a time when kidnappings are on the rise across the country--and most go unreported--Terakhel lays claim to one of the best known crimes: In October 2008 a former presidential candidate and the son of a wealthy banker were thrown in a narrow well and given a small tube to breathe. Three weeks later they were rescued, and news articles said they'd been found in a safe house.

During the day, tanks drive by the school, clogging the entire dirt road as they pass. By the end of the day, though, there's not a soldier or military policeman in sight. We haven't been able to get any news about what happened. Nor do we know why there was a mob gathered around the family entrance of the War Victims' Hospital.

Back in Kabul, we go apartment shopping. We learn from Razia Jan, our host, "We have to move before you leave." I'm having trouble uploading pictures, otherwise I'd show you my "Moving Day" series... the house where we're headed moved out today, and all the furniture was packed up on wooden carts and pulled by an old man down a busy street.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Case You're Wondering...

I want to provide some updates to past blog entries:

Today we met Khodjia (pictured left), the younger sister of Khudaja, the 11-year-old bride. She is a sweet girl who sat in the back of her class and wandered through the playground alone as the other girls twirled around singing and laughing. Later, we went back to her home, and saw Khudaja and the aunt, their guardian. I can’t get one part of the conversation out of my head: “I don’t want to hit them,” the aunt told me, “but sometimes they drive me to it. Sometimes they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, so I hit them.” Why was she telling me this? I didn’t even ask. “I can’t hide it from God,” she said. “So why should I hide it from you.”

I also found out that Khudaja’s wedding will most likely happen in three years—when she is 14 and the groom is 12.

After causing a little stir by filming burqa-clad women, we were told we would have to drive in a different car and take a different route. Today, we were in our same car, but did take a different route (and it seemed to us that for the last stretch of the drive –all dirt road—our driver really hit the gas).

(A burqa-clad mother picks her daughters up from school.)

I’m over the whole gender privilege idea. I’m already wearing loose, baggy, long clothing and have my head covered, but now I’ve been advised that--to be sure I don’t offend any men in the village--I should cover up even more. Enter the massive shawl. Still, in this village, that’s the equivalent of wearing a bikini. You will not find one woman—not one, not ever—out in public without a burqa. Gender privilege, my ass. It sucks to be a woman here.

As I mentioned, Deh Subz village is a very conservative Pashtun village. And although Pashtun is the tribe of the Taliban, terrorists have never been able to infiltrate this village. Based on what I found out today—I’m not sure why they’d need to! They already live in Tarakhail, the village next door! Tarakhail is the hometown of Gulbuden Hekmatyar who at this moment is probably looking across cave at his best buddie and roomie, Osama Bin Laden.

In lighter Deh Subz news—this village is the planned site of The New City of Kabul. There’s a 30-year plan to build a new capital city here. Plans include a park that is five times the size of New York’s Central Park.

I’m saving the best for last… A new student registered at the Zabuli School this morning. When the principal asked her father to sign the registration paperwork, he admitted, “I’m illiterate. I only went to school through the third grade.” The principal took out her stamp pad, and the father used his thumbprint to sign. “I want her to be a doctor or a teacher some day,” he said about his 6-year-old daughter. Incredible. Limping because of a war injury, he hobbled out of the school as the principal escorted his daughter to her kindergarten class. The look of anticipation and awe on her face when she was handed her very first notebook and pencil brought tear s to my eyes.

Pajamas to Dinner

You know how we have curbs on the side of the road? You go a little too far and your tires hit, a nice gentle tap reminding you to stop, and protecting you from what’s beyond? Well, here there are wide, deep ditches lining the streets. Go a little too far, and you’re stuck.

And that’s what life is like in Afghanistan. It’s like everyone has fallen in a deep ditch, and is trying to escape. Some are climbing, some are clawing, some are content getting high and sitting at the bottom, waiting for the walls to cave in. Few ever actually make it out.

Things are so difficult and take so long here it’s mind-boggling. We went to the Ministry of Interior General Directorate of Foreigners Affairs Consideration Recording of Population Data Foreigners Registration Office (try turning that into an acronym) to make ourselves “official.” The first time we went in the middle of the workday, but the office had already closed. This time, we had trouble getting in because the skeleton key wouldn’t work. Why bother with the key? I thought. There’s a big hole in the window that’s been patched with a notebook cover – let’s just go in through there.

To hook up to the internet, you have to go to the Ministry of Information with about $200 and your computer in hand, and they’ll set it up. But today they were out of the wireless USB ports and told us to come back. When? They couldn’t say.

And then there’s the electricity. Or rather, the lack of electricity. The power situation is much better than it was – up from one to three hours a day two years ago to twenty hours a day now. But what happens on any given day is always a surprise. Yesterday, the power was out all day. Today, it was on all day. Even the poorest of the poor often have generators to power one light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling and more than 50 TV channels (cable is only $5 dollars a month and soap operas and music videos from India are Afghan favorites).

Over dinner tonight the 87-year-old royal family member who is also staying at our house (by the way—is it inappropriate to wear your pajamas to dine with royalty? If the answer is yes, too late) had the answer: solar and wind power. “Why are we getting our electricity from Turkmenistan?” he asked rhetorically. “Then we will always be dependent on them, and they can shut us off anytime they want,” just like Russia did with gas to the Ukraine this winter.

The idea that electricity lines are traveling through the mountains from Turkmenistan to Kabul –and that Americans and other expats are getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to install them—seemed to baffle everyone at the table. Inefficient doesn’t begin to describe it. But then again, inefficient is just about the perfect way to describe almost everything here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

11-Year-Old Girl Engaged to 9-Year-Old Boy

Pictured are 11-yr-old Khudaja (left) who is engaged, and her 9-year-old sister.

Today, we met Khudaja, a thin, shivering 11-year-old girl with big white teeth and bright dark eyes. “Salaam,” I say to her. “My name is Beth.” With a wide grin, she says right back to me, “My name is Khudaja.”

Khudaja learned some English last year in 3rd grade, her first and only year in school. “I like school a lot. I like to learn.” But three months ago, during school winter break, she became the victim of a fiancé swap. Khudaja’s 18-year-old cousin needed a wife, so her guardian—an aunt—traded her to get a girl for her own son. Khudaja’s fiancé is the 9-year-old younger brother of her cousin’s fiancé. And her future father-in-law is forbidding her to go back to school.

“Maybe you could talk to the boy’s family,” Zia Jan, school administrator, pleaded with the aunt this morning on the front steps outside her mud brick home.

“This is the best thing for us,” the aunt said about the engagement. “There is no other choice for us. We have so many problems because we don’t have a man here to help us.” Her husband was a soldier killed in fighting, and Khudaja’s father (by all accounts an abusive bastard), was murdered by her mother. At mention of the men, Khudaja runs inside and reappears with their pictures.

Zia tries to reason: By the time the boy is ready to marry, Khudaja could finish high school.

(Pictured is Kudaja with her aunt)

For Khudaja this whole conversation is a break from all the housework she is expected to do. As the oldest girl in the home, every chore you can name is her responsibility. She does all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the wash, and all the yard work.

“It is such a tragedy,” says Razia Jan, founder of the Zabuli Girls’ School. “Khudaja and her younger sister, Khodija, are different than every other girl we have at the school. There are 200 girls – and 198 of them are similar. These two are special. They need extra help.”

Khudaja’s younger sister, 9-year-old Khodjia, was in school today. I ask the aunt, “Will you make her be engaged, too, soon?” She shakes her head and chuckles, as though I’ve asked the most ridiculous question she can imagine. “No,” she says, “her sister can finish school. I hope she will finish.”

On our way back to the school from their home, we see two women in periwinkle blue burqas walking down Deh Yahyah Street—one holding the fattest, most colorfully dressed baby you’ve ever seen, the other holding hands with her daughter. It is a sweet and telling scene, and we want to take a picture. But the moment Kevin gets into position in front of them, several male shopkeepers come running down the street, screaming, and waving their arms like lunatics. “What are you doing? Stop! You have no right to take pictures of our women! It is forbidden!”

We return to the school to pick up Iqbal Shah , the night guard. Iqbal grew up in the village, knows everyone, and returns with us to the scene of the crime. Again, the men come—red-faced and nostrils flaring. Iqbal assures them that we have only taken pictures of the children, not the women. There is a loud and animated conversation. Then the men hug. Everything OK?, we ask. Yes, is the answer we both want and receive. Still, we are told that we should keep a low profile over the next few days. We will drive in a different car. We will take a different route. And when we visit homes, Kevin will stay back and I’ll have to go alone to do the interviewing and filming.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Power of Potential

First thing this morning we headed west out of Kabul for Deh Subz. It’s only 8 miles outside Afghanistan’s capital, but the roads and traffic are so bad that it takes 45-minutes. Still, it’s a big improvement from three years ago when the Zabuli School was being built. Then, there were no roads here at all – and none of the many vegetable shops and homes we now see lining this new street. “Sometimes when there was three feet of snow, we’d get stuck,” Razia Jan reminisced on her first trip back to her school since winter break. “People would have to come and literally lift the car up to rescue us.”

The new road, the shops, the houses – they are all, Razia says, a sign of progress—a sign that although Afghanistan is a land of broken systems, somehow these systems work. Another sign that the system is working is that the Zabuli School exists at all.

Deh Subz is a conservative Pashtun village (despite this fact, the Taliban have never gained a stronghold here). The village elders (all men, of course) make the decisions. Women here rarely venture outside the home, and when they do, they wear a burqa.

Still, the Zabuli School is thriving. Every day 200 girls between the ages of 5 and 16 walk through the school’s bright red gates, up a flight of steps, and into a world that is different than one they have ever known. During registration over the past two weeks, families flocked here in the hopes of getting their girls in. Class size is limited to 35, three languages-including English -are taught, and the school day is 5 hours. The only other option is a school farther away with 3,000 students – nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. There, 120 students are stuffed into each class, English is not part of the curriculum, and children only go to school for one two hour shift a day.

It occurs to me that trying to educate impoverished and underprivileged young girls around the world is a popular thing to do these days. Never mind that it’s always been the right thing to do – from Oprah to best-selling author Greg Mortensen, girls’ schools are a hot topic.

Pictured: Razia Jan greets students at the entrance of the Zabuli School.

“But what happens once the schools are built?” Razia wants to know. As founder of the Zabuli School, she knows first-hand how easily things can start to go wrong. “You can’t leave. You have to be there to make sure everything works.”

And “making sure everything works” here means gaining the support and the trust of men—in the families and in the community. “The first thing girls learn to write here is their father’s name,” she says. “That means a lot in the home.” Tomorrow she plans to schedule a meeting with the village elders to update them on the school’s progress.

“What’s your name?” Razia asked the other girls one by one. Her next question: “Are you engaged? No? Good.”

Razia is even more shocked to learn that one of her second graders has been engaged to a 9-year-old boy. It is the latest in a series of tragedies for this child and her sister. Their mother murdered their father after years of horrific abuse, and fled to Pakistan, leaving the two girls behind. They now live with their aunt, their father’s sister, who is as abusive as their father was. Two months ago the aunt sold one of the girls into marriage. In exchange, she received a teenage girl to marry her older son.

“That’s the way it works here,” Razia says in resignation. “It costs a lot of money for families to get their sons married – as much as $10-15,000. So either you give the money or you sell your daughter.”

Razia is so concerned about the welfare of these two girls, that she has confronted the aunt, and provides groceries to the family in the hopes of earning the girls’ some good will. This week she plans to confront the aunt for a second time. “The girls only come to school when I give the food. That’s not the way it’s going to be. They need to come to school all the time or no more groceries. I want them here so much, but if they can’t study, there are two other girls in the community who will.”

There are so many hurdles when it comes to educating girls in Afghanistan, but that’s part of what makes the potential so enormous. “I would give my life to keep this going,” Razia tells me over our rice and dahl dinner. “The potential. It’s so hard to explain – but when you see it, you know.”

I left there today knowing.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

It’s damn cold in Kabul. And it’s the rainy season. Not a great combination when you’re silly enough not to check the weather forecast before coming and expect balmy, dry 70s. As I’m shivering and trying to wiggle my numbing toes despite three pairs of socks, I notice the young girls at the school wearing nothing but sandals over their bare feet. And they have big smiles on their faces.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Brush, Bowels, and Becoming Gender Neutral

The Brush

We are experiencing a brush with royalty in Kabul. The 5-bedroom home where we are staying also has visitors from Afghanistan's royal family. The daughter-in-law and father-in-law of Mohammed Daoud, the country's first President, came in from the United States and Sweden for Daoud's funeral last week. Daoud had staged a coup against his own cousin, King Zahir Shah in order to take power in 1973, and then himself was killed in a bloody coup in 1978 that sent the country into decades of bloodshed and turmoil.

"If you ask any Afghan when did it all start, they will say it is because of that, the assassination of Daoud, this was the turning point," said Nadir Naeem, Daoud's grandson who left behind a white shirt on the coat rack in the room where I'm now staying. "The last day that Afghanistan was independent was 27th April, 1978." (Quoted from IHT)

Only a couple members of Daoud's family survived the massacre at the Presidential Palace. Those killed were buried secretly in the dead of night and the location of their bodies was unknown until last year when two mass graves were discovered in Kabul. It took six months for DNA and dental record tests to confirm their identities. This past Tuesday a state funeral was held for Daoud, and there are posters of him wearing Jackie-O-like sunglasses all over the city (and on the front and back windshields of an SUV parked in our driveway).

It's interesting to me that all this comes at a time when America's increasing criticism of President Karzai is causing him to warm up to Russia - some have even asked whether there's a New Cold War brewing. Karzai seems to be taking a lesson out of the Daoud playbook - as Daoud was the master manipulator of Cold War superpowers. He once famously said, "I light my American cigarettes with Russian matches."


No, not those bowels! This morning I journeyed into the bowels of the Kabul International Airport. Long story short: things got a little crazy on our way out of the airport yesterday and we left behind one of our personal bags. The question was - would it still be there?

On our way through the heavily fortified airport entrance, our car was stopped and Kevin was ordered to get out for searching. When our driver, Zia Jan, also started to open his door, the Afghan police officer motioned for him to stay in the car, "No, you're too old," he said chuckling. "You're not going to carry any guns. You're too old." Interesting security technique.

The luggage handler who annoyed us yesterday when he was grabbing at our bags and trying to "help" push our cart was a very welcome smiling face to see, and he was really there to help. Later he showed us a picture of himself as a younger man wearing a uniform - See, his eyes told me, I did something important once. I wasn't always a baggage boy. As a uniformed officer he would check visas, but was forced to retire. They told him to retire, to relax. But he has a family to support, and being near the airport is the only thing he knows.

My journey into the Luggage Dungeon took me underground - past dilapidated couches piled high and through metal prison doors. Inside, there was a maze of luggage - unorganized, covered in dust, mold and droppings. "Yes, there are lots of mice that start living in the bags," said the claims officer. "There's luggage here from ten years ago." I did not find the bag here. It was still inside the terminal, safely stowed underneath another officer's desk. They'd even wrapped thick tape around it to keep someone from getting inside. I'd like to credit the honesty of all the airport personnel, but some of the good karma, Kevin believes, comes from the 2004 Boston Red Sox hat he takes with him on every trip as a symbol of good luck.

Becoming Gender Neutral

People always ask me - "What's it like to be a woman traveling and working in Afghanistan?" It occurred to me last night that it's better than being a man and it's a bit like becoming gender neutral. It could even be said that there is some gender privilege. So what if a few men here and there don't shake my hand? Western men cannot meet Afghan women as easily as I can meet with both Afghan men and women.

Return to Afghanistan

I'm excited to be back in Afghanistan to film at the Zabuli School, an all-girls' school in the village of Deh Subz, about 8 miles outside Kabul. There has never been a girls' school in this village before and founder Razia Jan is a true force of nature. Despite lots of pressure from the Ministry of Education to turn the school over to the government, she maintains control. "If they got their hands on it," she tells me, "they'd destroy it. In one month there would be boys there, and soon there would be no girls at all."

Kevin Belli and I arrived yesterday - on Nawrooz, the Afghan New Year. We flew in on Ariana Airlines from Istanbul. (I'd spent a week in Turkey with my husband, Dennis, and daughter, Isabelle. It was an incredibly special vacation, and Dennis is such an incredible Dad - spending 21 hours traveling home with Isabelle and taking care of her for these next two weeks while I'm here.) Ariana has an interesting story - it's Afghanistan's national carrier, and during the American bombing campaign after 9/11, the airline lost 6 of its 8 planes. India donated a few airbus jets the following year, and Ariana was back up and running. They may have the planes, but they are still in the dark ages when it comes to booking flights, issuing tickets and actually knowing their own flight schedule. Despite what it says on their website and on any printed material they might send you, there is no flight out of Istanbul at 10pm on Fridays! And as you stand at the ticket counter and watch them tediously hand-writing your ticket, you wonder how you will ever get there at all.

The Ariana flight itself was interesting - filled with lots of Afghans being deported from Turkey. So many people trying to find a better life, a life with opportunity... a life with some hope. One well-dressed man with perfect English approached me, careful not to step too far from the undercover immigration offer who was escorting him. Sher Shah looked about my age, and told me about his years working as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces and how the Taliban tried to gun him down as he was driving home one day. He immediately sent his wife and two-month-old son to Pakistan, and paid a smuggler $10,000 to try to get himself to the UK; he'd pay another $10,000 once he arrived in London. He was bitter about the way he was treated in Turkey. "I need to be in an English speaking country. I can't stay here in Turkey anyway. They speak a bullshit language here that no internationals can understand."

His plan was to get settled in London and then reunite with his family. But he never made it. His fake passport worked on the way into Turkey, but not on the way out. He spent a month in jail in Istanbul, and now was being deported home. Well, he hesitated to call it home, but couldn't muster another word for it. After several conversations over the next two hours, Sher Shah told me I was his friend now, and he wanted to share with me the two items in his thin, leather wallet: 50 Turkish lira and the email address of his U.S. commander.

Because of the New Year holiday here, the Zabuli School is closed today, so our filming will begin tomorrow. I'm excited to meet the girls (some of whom are 16-years-old and in first grade), and their teachers and families. These girls are the future of this country, but their schooling comes at a time when the Taliban is gaining strength and girls education is increasingly under attack.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Global Post Goes Live

Today is a great day for international news. GLOBAL POST is live. With more than 70 correspondents in every corner of the world and a mission to redefine international news for the digital age, Global News is media entrepreneurship at its best. The special report titled "For Which It Stands" is a must read. And don't miss the video from Afghanistan titled "An Accordian Journey." As my friend and Global News founder Charles Sennott puts it, "The video will make you feel good and how many stories about Afghanistan are built around a performance of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire?" You have to watch it to know what I mean."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

You Can Help Susan Retik Win $35,000 for Afghan Widows. VOTE NOW!

Susan Retik, the founder of Beyond the 11th who was featured in our film "Beyond Belief," is a finalist for the Smart Cookie Award at Cookie Magazine. The winner will receive $35,000 for her foundation. THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS! Imagine the incredible impact that money can have in the lives of women and children. I think of Sahera and her five children who I met while visiting Kabul. Help from Susan's organization means the difference between Sahera having to send her six-year-old daughter to school or out into the street to beg for money and scraps of bread. For other families, the choice for young girls is even more horrific - forced marriage and prostitution. Vote now for Susan Retik (and Beyond the 11th).

As the U.S. increases military activity in Afghanistan, and the Taliban stranglehold grows in different regions, life for women and children continues to deteriorate. But Beyond the 11th is making a difference by providing life-saving financial and emotional support to those who are trapped in an ever-deepening cycle of poverty. Susan's grants help thousands of Afghanistan's more than two million widows become self-sufficient and financially independent.

Susan's work was inspired by the incredible generosity she received after losing her husband, David, on September 11th, and her realization of the scarcity of help for widows in Afghanistan. An editorial Susan wrote recently reminds me how much her work promotes peace and justice and protects humanity.

Together we can help Susan make a difference for the women and children in Afghanistan--a difference that will have a ripple effect throughout the world. There are no obligations to voting- you do not have to subscribe to the magazine and you will not be put on any mailing or call lists. One lucky voter will win a five-night stay for two adults and three children at the Azul Sensatori Hotel by Karisma in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

Please VOTE!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Media Re:public: The Future of News in This Digitial Era

For the past year my friend, Persephone Miel, has been working with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society to answer this complex question: What is the future of journalism in a digital world? After conversations and conferences with journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists, public broadcasters, publishers, advertising networks, researchers, technologists, and many others, they've released a major research report (and a cool short video to go with it).

As I continue to be astonished – and depressed - by the decline in international reporting, I was particularly interested in the research report focused on international news coverage.