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.