Saturday, October 07, 2006

Search, search, search, search, search search....

Today was our flight out of Kabul. My Uncle’s wife made us pass under the Koran 3 times before leaving and as our car drove away she threw a pail of water after us. I’m familiar with the Koran ritual from visiting my family in California, but the water throwing was new for me.

As we drove through the city I silently said goodbye to this bustling, crowded city. We got stuck in traffic so my cousin recommended the “back way,” which consisted of a dirt alley at the foot of the mountain. I finally got to see a closer view of the houses that climb up the steep hills here. There is no road that goes up the hill and these houses are without electricity, so residents have to lug water and other supplies up the hill by foot.

When we got to the airport we had to get out of the car for talashi (to be searched). They had a separate room for women. I confidently walked up to the room thinking, "No problem. I got this. Done this done that." Inside there were two small stern looking women. Unfortunately, Wazhma got the mean one with the tightly fitted uniform and tucked in shirt. Loosening her pony tail wouldn't have killed her either. I got a pat down, but the uptight woman made wazhma pull her pants down :(. Poor thing was so embarrassed.

When we got out my cousin’s husband said, "Look they’re even searching that woman’s dog,” motioning to another car. I guess not too long ago 25 foreigners were caught smuggling heroin, so now they are really strict about searching foreigners, whereas before they only searched Afghans.

When we got to the entrance of the airport they brought a dog out to sniff our bags, while we got searched again. We went into the booth and I said hello and how are you with a big smile, figuring it couldn't hurt. Unlike the first set of women these ladies were friendly and loving, asking us how we were, how our stay was, etc. I showed them my money belt rather than having them discover it on their own. “Oh, sweetie, what are you doing with that?” I said, “I keep my money here so I don’t lose it.” They laughed commenting on how cute we were--one woman even pinched my cheeks.

Wazh asked if she could take their picture and they happily said, “Of course!” The woman that pinched my cheeks insisted that I be in the picture and put her arm around me. Wazh showed them the picture and the cheek pincher said, “Oh wow, this really came out well” liking the way she looked. The other woman asked if we could take her to Ameica with us, half joking, half serious, “Can’t you put me in your suitcase?”

They told us we’d have to print the pictures and give them to them when we return to Afghanistan. They wished us safe and happy travels. As we were taking the picture another woman walked in puzzled to see our little “tea party.” “Is this the search booth?” she asked, quizzically.

The two women made our day and I will always remember them.

After we checked in we had to go through immigration. The man looked so sternly at me it took everything in me not to start laughing. After staring at me for 3 minutes and scanning my passport they let me through. Before I could rejoice I was directed to another search room. God. This woman was unusually tall—almost 6 feet tall with thick wiry chin-length hair and black eyeliner crumbled onto her lower lids. She stared at me intimidatingly while she asked how much money I was carrying, and Wazhma got depantsed again. I didn’t get depantsed but my pat down was pretty fierce, feeling like I had just left the doctor’s office. Wazhma still thought the 6-foot tall woman wasn't as bad as the first search woman who seemed to get some sort of sick pleasure out of torturing her.

After that we were finally allowed into the waiting area. We took our seats and my eyes focused on the TV which was playing Afghan Star—the Afghan version of American Idol. It wasn’t as humiliating as American Idol but the singing was just as bad. Where do they find these people? The three of us cringed as we were forced to listen to countless covers of Ahmed Zahir’s songs. (Ahmed Zahir is Afghanistan's Elivs Presley). Bored with the show, I examined the windows of the snack stand, plastered with a picture of President Karzai surrounded by sexy pics of a blond girl.

They announced our flight number and as I stood in line, all I could think was, if one more person touches me….! We walked up the stairs to the plane (there is no gate here, you just walk onto the landing strip) and I was disappointed to be pulled aside YET AGAIN for another search before boarding the plane. This woman wasn’t too invasive, but I was bitter to see the pretty blond girl enter the plane without any pat-downs.

Our plane ride was smooth. It was hard to imagine we were here only a week. It went by so quickly and so slowly all at once. The taloshi sucked, but on the upside it's a sign of improved security in the country. The definition of taloshi has been rewritten in my head for life. It’s sad that this amount of security is a necessary part of life here, and I thought about how good we have it in the US.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Caged Birds

The next day was Friday—a holiday in Afghanistan. They only have one day off here. My dad wanted to buy some curtains and take us to “bird street.” “You should wear some conservative clothes, ‘cause we’re going to old town,” he said. Wazh and I looked at the clothes we were wearing and then at each other. We were wearing our conservative clothes! Did he want us to wear a burqa or something?!

Old Town was an interesting experience, mainly because we were the center of attention. Everywhere we went men were staring at us and you could hear people talking about the “foreigners.” I was so tired of hearing the whispering I almost wanted to shout out and formerly announce ourselves to put an end to the curious stares and questions:
“My name is Gazelle Samizay. Yes, we are foreigners, but we are not dumb, and we can understand what you’re saying. We live in the US. I am a woman--have you ever seen one before? I don’t wear a burqa ‘cause I don’t want to. I am educated and I could kick your ass if I wanted to, so bug off!” That was the soliloquy going on in my head. But the shy six year old didn’t think unleashing her older feminist “I’m going to kick your ass” sister was appropriate.

On the corner was a stall full of white fluffy cotton being used to stuff cushions. It was early morning and the sun was glowing. It was perfect picture taking time, but I was so afraid that if I stopped to take pictures I’d lose my dad so I passed the opportunity.

We continued walking through the alley and entered a run down concrete building that housed several fabric shops. The only light available was that which was coming through the courtyard. We stopped at one fabric seller who was busy with 2 burqa-clad women requesting that he give them more change back. Unfortunately my dad was being indecisive about his fabrics and we continued out of the building onto the street where there were more eyes to peel the skin off my body. It is interesting how you can feel someone’s stare. Now imagine, 100 pairs of eyes staring at you! And they’re not subtle about it either. At one point I almost burst out laughing because this fat man saw us and he seemed to particularly notice Wazhma. He slowed down and tried to make himself as big as he could so that he would run into us, but we managed to pass him without any contact.

My dad finally went back to the original fabric seller to buy his fabrics and the fabric seller carried the large roll of fabric to our small white Toyota. As we walked I noticed how dirty and smelly Old Town was. It smelled like a toilet. After dropping off the fabric we walked toward “bird street.” Bird street was a tight alleyway packed to the brim with men, even though today was a holiday. I shuddered, imagining it on a weekday. It reminded me a lot of the souks in Morocco, which are easy to lose yourself in without a guide. Too bad I was too busy keeping my eyes to myself and my invisible walls of protection up to really take in the sights around me. Here the men sandwich was worse than in the immigration office, and these men were having a hey-day at the sight of Wazhma and I. Teasing, staring, laughing. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

On either side of me past the crowds of jeering men were hundreds of birds caged in small spaces. I saw about 10 pigeons trapped in a 1’x 2’ cage. They could barely crawl over each other, let alone spread their wings—not unlike how I was feeling at that moment. I wanted to take the birds and run away. Further down the alley was a large owl cowering in a cage while small boys poked their fingers through the cage in awe. I don’t believe in caged animals. I think they should be enjoyed in their natural habitat. If we cage animals, is caging women such a longshot?

We finally got to the end of bird street and my sister said, “Let’s get out of here!” My dad said, “You know, I didn’t think about it, but do you think we could get bird flu here?” “Yes!” my sister exclaimed angrily, “I was thinking that the whole way!” “Great.” I thought. I wish someone had clued me into the bird flu warning earlier so I could have at least covered my mouth or something. With the way these animals are caged, it seems very likely that any disease could manifest itself here.

After getting out of bird street, we headed to an old run down tomb overlooking Kabul. The space, quiet, and kite flying put me at ease. Small squares dotted the sky as little boys chased runaway kites. It’s funny the things that stick with you. Whenever I see a kite I’m transported to the beach along the Oregon coast. I was 7 and my family went to the Oregon coast with the Bartuskas, some family friends (who incidentally, my parents met in Afghanistan when they were on a fullbright). They had a nice blue kite and they were so nice they said I could fly it. One of them held the spool and told me to take the head of the kite to let out the spool of string. I was so excited I went running, but I ran too far and the head of the kite broke from its string. I was devastated. The Bartuskas were very nice about it and said it was no problem but I felt SO bad that I broke these wonderful people’s kite and that I couldn’t play with the kite anymore. Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever flown a kite. I should buy one when I go home.

My uncle tried to shoo away the circle of boys staring at us in awe like animals at the zoo. I guess my name is Gazelle. No amount of shooing worked and we hopped in the car to head home. As we headed back down the road a guy alongside the road stared hard at Wazhma. “It’s as if they’ve never seen a woman before!” exclaimed Wazhma, at her wits’ end. My uncle and dad chuckled in their signature Samizay laugh. I wondered if they really get what it’s like to be a woman. My sister said, “Well, I guess they haven’t seen a woman considering the ratio of men to women on the street is 50:1.” I think it’s more like 300:1.

When we got home, I read my Lonely Planet India. It was saying that in India 1 woman is raped every 30 minutes, but that in the US a woman is raped every TWO minutes! I can see that women have a long way to go.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


We decided to go shopping in Chicken Street, which is where all the antiques are sold. Well…supposedly they are antiques. Sometimes they purposely make things look old so they can yield antique prices. A “50-year-old carpet” can easily be a 5-week-old carpet run under the tires of a car 50 times.

Bargaining is a necessity here, especially if you’re a foreigner, which made things interesting considering neither Wazhma nor I like to bargain. We first went into a shop run by a friend of my uncle’s. As my uncle’s niece, I felt obligated to buy something, but there wasn’t anything that caught my eye and we quickly left the awkwardness. We walked further down the street through pairs of men with sideways glances and furtive stares. I had my protective bubble turned on so I didn’t notice rude comments such as “have you no shame” my sister later mentioned to me. Ignorance is bliss, right?

I was drawn to one particular shop that had bright blue lapis pieces lined along the window. Inside was an old man with a white cap and light brown eyes--clear like tea. Even in the waning light (the electricity was out of course) his jewelry glittered and the strong colors were drawing me in. I felt myself retract into my shy six-year old self. “Dammit!” I thought, “Not again!” I couldn’t even ask the prices I was so shy and remembered my mom prodding me, “Just ask!” I glanced at my sister hoping she would start, but my otherwise chatty sister was conveniently silent. After 10 minutes of circling the store, knowing exactly what I wanted, I started the negotiations. I’m sure the old man made a killing, but somehow I could tell from his eyes that he had a hard time ripping me off. After all, he himself had two daughters.

A beggar child came to the door, dirty, with hair tousled about. The shopkeeper told him to go away and lamented about all the beggar kids in this area.
“It’s hard for people like us not to feel bad and give money, but it teaches them the wrong thing. They should be in school or learning skills for work, not begging,” he said.
I liked this man. He had a sweet face and good philosophy. I took his picture as he told me both his parents and grandparents were jewelers and he learned his trade from a very young age.

The next shop we went into was run by a handsome man about my age. By this point I had gotten warmed up, and the shy six-year-old went to bed. I remembered my mom and her bargaining skills and wished she was here to charm the shopkeepers with her infectious laugh and beautiful eyes. I knew I had to up the ante and make my momma proud :).

A few stone pendants etched with gazelles caught my eye. Wazh wanted one with a lion on it but they shopkeeper said he was all out. Still he tried looking for one, trying to pass a horse off as a lion and a camel for a gazelle! We had some good laughs about that. In the end I was able to bargain with him for a good price. The poor guy was outnumbered by female strength and had difficulties combating our bargaining. He would tell my sister the price and I would ask for less. Meanwhile my uncle’s wife was clamoring in the background about good prices in her sweet and high-pitched voice. We finally set on a price, and I gave him a $100 bill. He said,
“Ohhhh this is so old…and the corner is torn!”
Apparently Afghanis are deducted for each blemish on the bill. This torn corner would cost him about 20 Afghanis. Wazhma managed to find a cleaner Benjamin and the shopkeeper was happy but looked somewhat dumb struck by our recent transaction.

Satisfied by our shopping, we decided it was time to go home and we called someone to pick us up. The problem was we’d have to wait another 15 or 20 minutes before the driver came. I wanted to go into more shops rather than waiting on the street, but Wazh felt guilty because it was almost time for the shopkeepers to break their fast, so we waited on the corner. Bad idea.

An old beggar man on crutches asked for money with his raspy voice, but I didn’t have any small bills to give him. Plus when you give one they all come out of the woodworks and swarm you. I stood there uncomfortably and a small boy selling mini Korans approached me. I wasn’t quick enough, and the bastard slipped one into my hand. This is the game they play. I tried giving it back and he backed away, giving me the most mournful look—his eyes were like a black hole sucking my energy. Finally I convinced Wazhma and Salma to go into the shop and escape. The boy lingered by the doorway and I saw some new boys sitting a few feet away. I found some money and called the boy in trying not to call the attention of the others. What started as a happy shopping day ended in feeling drained. It is emotionally draining seeing the poor and not knowing what to do about it. So you give them money one day. Will that really solve anything or keep them in a cycle of begging?

After we got home, my dad decided he wanted to have a party and invited friends over and some musicians. One was a tabla player and one played harmunia, which looks like an accordion but sits on the floor like a piano. Many of these friends were expats working in Afghanistan. They represented Los Angeles, Virginia and Germany, and a generation lost, finding its way. They didn’t belong to the West and they didn’t belong to the East. They certainly don’t belong in the new generation of Kabulites that are not familiar with the education, cleanliness, and openness of Kabul’s yesteryear. Old Ahmed Zahir tunes filled the house as they chimed in and danced one by one. Meanwhile my dad was snoozing on the chair—still recovering from jetlag. But the man sitting next to him made sure my dad’s tea did not go to waste. I was reminded of an old black and white picture my dad has hanging in his office at WSU in little ole Pullman. He is sitting cross-legged on rugs with his friend in a smoky haze. It looks like they’re having a party, similar to this one. I felt like was being warped back into that time—a time that no longer exists, but somehow does among all the “Afghans” of that generation.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Gazelle the Tomboy

The night before last my cousins came over with their kids. It’s a good form of birth control to see a room full of wandering, crying children. It was a little bit awkward in the beginning because I hadn’t seen them in a year and a half. I brought some pictures of my aunts and uncles in the US and showed them to them. I also had some pictures of John, which I was reluctant to bring, but I knew I had to be honest about what my life was like. They were like, who’s that “khorijee” (foreigner)? You’re engaged to a khorijee? There weren’t enough Afghans for you to choose from?

The next day we went to Salang with a few of my cousins, my aunt and my uncle’s wife, Salma. As we drove through the north end of Kabul, Salma showed me the area where she and her family lived before selling their house and fleeing to Iran in ’96. She said it was such a wonderful area--lots of shops and things to do.

As we exited Kabul I saw tons of small houses climbing up the mountains like small little matchboxes staggering up the hill. Apparently this is where all the poor live. Kabul is surrounded by mountains and most of the country seems like a series of various mountain chains. My uncle’s wife imagined how difficult it must be for these people to go back and forth to their houses during the winter when the mountains are full of snow. Just two minutes further down the road were huge mansions, built in the style of Pakistani houses--some were completed and some were just being built. I asked who lived in these, and apparently they are all owned by one person. My cousin, Mustafa, explained that the owner may have 4 wives who then have 5 children that marry and have 5 kids themselves….the point is that all these houses belong to one family. These houses are large and luxurious by US standards, so you can imagine what a contrast it is to see these in Afghanistan where people live in tents, bombed out buildings, or worn down mud-walled dwellings.

As we continued on, my aunt described how green this area is during the spring. She loves greenery and misses it tremendously. She kept after us about how we came during the month of Ramadan during winter. If we had come during the summer we could have gone to the river and had a picnic an eaten melon.

We passed some schools, and my aunt explained that all the buildings are new. The Taliban burned everything that was here before. They even burned cows and sheep alive and their skeletons remain as proof. Apparently they have burned 150 schools and Karzai says for each school they burn they will build another one.

As we drove along, the sun started to bake me and I wished I hadn’t worn my mom’s green silk “paron” that was from the old days. It was very windy in the countryside and I saw girls walking around the road with scarves wrapped around their mouths to block dirt out.

Driving in Afghanistan is like driving in the Italian Job. Here I was worried about suicide bombers, when really driving in a car is probably a higher threat to my life. There are no set rules it seems. For the most part people drive on the right side of the road, but there is an imaginary middle lane that people use to pass other cars whenever they can. There is always a race to pass the next car, and the game of chicken is the norm, not an exception. This was especially nerve racking as we made it closer to Salang where the road winds around the mountains. First there is the fear of getting hit by a car (or bus) winding around the corner, and then there is the fear that your car won’t make it up the hill.

Once we neared the river we stopped alongside the road. There were houses built upon the hill overlooking the river and tons of goats running around. My aunt and Salma sat by the river to chat while the boys and I went exploring. We crossed the river by traversing a bridge that was made with scrap pieces of metal wood and other materials. I tried not to look down too much. The river was beautiful. The crisp air was a nice reprise from the diesel and dust filled drive. I started to get excited as we explored the area and my tomboy side started to come out again. It was me and the boys, as it always had been when I was a kid. We came across another bridge and my cousin turned to me and asked if I could cross it. “Of course!” I said. I’m a bit competitive when it comes to men. I always have to prove I can do whatever they can if not more. When we got to the bridge I started to regret my need to prove myself as a more than capable woman, as this bridge was not as complete as the last. It was very narrow and at the end there was as HUGE gap--a gap, much bigger than I was comfortable with. My cousin went before me, and though I had denied his hand of help walking down the mountain (I could walk down the mountain just fine, thank you very much!) I had to give in this time. I did not want to cross that bridge! But I took his hand and made it across. Phew!

I saw some goats walking up the steep rock face wondering how they could do it. One of my cousins jumped on a rock and started washing his face in the water. It looked nice, but the word “giardia” kept me from doing the same. It felt good enclosed between the rock walls, the water and the mountains. I felt like I could breathe and just be. No worries about suicide bombers, no overactive imagination of what does so-and-so think of me, is my scarf on properly, etc etc. Just a few minutes of being me. Tomboy Gazelle. Forget the scarf. Though I must say it’s much more liberal here than when I went to Iran in 2001. After a few minutes of enjoying the atmosphere we decided to head back. Who knows where the others were. We passed by some more goats chillin’ in the shade of the trees and ran into some shy school girls. They stood there and stared at us as we walked back. It was particularly hard not to return the stare of the girl with the blue eyes. I tried taking their picture, they were so cute, but they ran.

After that we went farther up the river and stopped. This time Wazhma and I followed our cousins’ lead and took our socks off, and put our feet in the cold water. We couldn’t stay long, but it was really nice to see a different part of Afghanistan.

Mustafa played “chicken” all the way home, so it was an interesting ride home. By the time we got home I was feeling pretty sick from the diesel, dust and bumpiness of the road, but there wasn’t much time to rest as we headed to a school that my dad’s cousin is running. They teach English and computer skills. They were having a ceremony of sorts and we walked in while one of the students was giving a speech in English about the importance of learning English and Computer skills in the 21st century. It was nice to hear the kids talk and I was very proud of them for being in school. We also watched a little video about my dad’s cousin’s relief work. Apparently he had come to deliver food and clothing when all the other aid organizations pulled out. He had to come as a “journalist” because they weren’t allowing aid workers in because it was dangerous. He himself had some very close calls with the Taliban. He founded a nonprofit by the name of Afghan Relief Organization based out of Los Angeles. . I’m thinking about setting up some kind of online communication between this school and a school in the US.

After going to the school we headed my aunt’s house for dinner. We were a little bit late and on the way there I saw some soldiers breaking their fast at a food stand. We turned off the main road down a bumpy dirt alley. Their home consisted of a walled courtyard made of mud. In the front were some propane stoves boiling water for tea.

They held a propane lamp to shine the way to the living room which had red rugs across the floor and floor cushions. It’s not typical for Afghan homes to have chairs and tables. Instead we all sat around the floor on the cushions. I sat next to my cousin’s mother-in-law who had bright red hair (probably from henna), and twinkling eyes. She was spunky with a good sense of humor.

They turned the generator on and screwed a light bulb in to provide light. They made tons of food and kept feeding us until we were stuffed. The melon was particularly sweet. Mustafa’s fiance’s family lives in the adjacent room. If you saw her family, you would think they were Brittish or Swedish. They have blond hair, super fair skin (John, they make you look tan ;) ), rosy cheeks and blue eyes. Mustafa’s sister’s child is also blond and blue-eyed. It was funny because I was always surprised when thy spoke Dari. I half expected some European language to come out of their mouths since they were so fair.

It was nice seeing all my cousins together, telling stories. Though they don’t have much in the way of money, they are all together and take care of each other, which is very endearing to see.

Unfortunately we didn’t stay too long because my dad was tired from his trip to Jalalabad. I was sad to leave. I was having a good time and enjoying the company. I think I was finally starting to get used to things here and getting comfortable. On our way home we drove past a few mosques that were basically a one mud room. There were men outside praying in the dark. On the opposite side was a small stand that was plastered with colorful images of women. They almost looked like baseball trading cards. I wonder if they trade cards of women ;).

Sorry for the choppy blog. I think my brain is getting confused between the Dari and the English and it’s hard for me to write today.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Afghan Gardens

Yesterday we went to the Immigration Office to get take care of Wazhma’s letter which would give her permission to be in Afghanistan. It was a small cramped office filled with a lot of sweaty men all trying to crowd to the front window. As my dad squeezed a shoulder in to get to the front I noticed how tight his pants were in comparison to all the other men that were wearing the traditional Paron-e Tomban (loose pants and long loose top). Wazhma and I were going to pass out from the smell of B.O. and she kept her eyes safely focused on the design of my top.

We got shifted from one line to another and my dad started to get impatient. I remembered John and I returning our cheap IKEA stools which were impossible to put together correctly despite their cute diagrams with the bubble man. IKEA had a number system. You took a number, then sat down and waited for your number to be called. I thought, wow, how that simple number machine would revolutionize the Immigration office and other such offices over here. I wondered how a number system would be received here. Would people use it? Like it? Or just keep crowding forward?

My dad finally made it to the front of the line and was given a piece of paper that would give us permission to go to another building in the same complex. However, they only allowed two people in--my dad and my sister. Mustafa (our driver/cousin. He is my half cousin’s half brother) and I had to wait behind. I thought, “That’s fine, I don’t want to wait in a crowded line anyway. The weather is nice out here.” But they wouldn’t let us wait outside for security reasons. So back into the sweaty man sandwich we went. The smell was killing me and I made my way toward the entrance way where I could see the light of day and get a breath of fresh air. After some time the security man took some pity on me and told me to stand on the other side of the door--man free.

Bored, I watched security search all the people coming in. They had an x-ray machine, but they didn’t use it. Maybe it was broken. Instead they searched the bags. Well sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t. That made me a bit nervous. We were standing in an official building (higher chance of being targeted) and the security was so so. I was anxious for Wazhma and my dad to return as my overactive imagination went wild with dreams of bombs and crazies. My imagination is not doing me any good on this trip.

To my surprise, they returned after a half hour. I thought the process might take all day given the way things work here. Even in the US you would wait months to get a letter like that with all the bureaucracy. It was good my dad went with her (he originally wasn’t going to come) because apparently only your husband or father can give you legitimacy. Hurrah! Wazhma is now officially Afghan ;).

After the Immigration office we did a little shopping near Chicken Street, but ended up staying in the first shop we entered which had colorful rugs and dresses hanging in the window. There were two young guys running the shop—probably teenagers. I wondered if they went to school and kicked myself later for not asking. We ended up buying all sorts of colorful shirts and I got two really incredible dresses. It was a fun experience, mainly because the boys were really cute and they were definitely lying. It was easy to tell they were lying because they were so young. We called them out on it a few times but didn’t bargain too much because we wanted to give them the money. At the end the older boy gave my sister and I an embroidered wallet as a gift. I think he felt guilty because he knew he had made a killing.

After shopping we headed back home and our driver talked about the suicide bombing that I mentioned before. It’s really not fair because the people here want security but it’s just a few coo coo’s that are ruining it for everyone else. I understand these suicide bombers are frustrated with the ways things are going here and they have every reason to be. But I don’t believe violence solves anything no matter what side you’re on.

Later that day my uncle took us on a tour and we went to Babur’s Gardnes which I had visited a year and a half ago. They had made much more progress in renovating the place. There were rose bushes, grass and the walls had been fixed with beautiful rock work. It was beautiful and peaceful here. The sun was bright and the atmosphere a hazy blue. Behind the gardens you could see all the houses climbing up the steep mountain. I was sad to see that the old tree that had been here since Babur’s time (13th or 14th century) that I had photographed last time had been cut down or “severely pruned.” But I guess releasing the old makes way for the new.

On our way to Chehel Setun (40 pillars) I saw many signs for boxing gyms featuring Arnold Swarzenegger and other buff men. I have a totally different association with Arnold now that he’s the governor of California. (By the way, did you know that a republican that had murdered someone is now running for office in Arizona? GROSS!). Anywho, my favorite painting depicted a black man with a pirate’s eye patch on. This was the first image of a black person I had seen here.

My uncle’s wife and Mustafa were commenting on how so many more people live in this area, but how it still didn’t have electricity. The park hadn’t been renovated, the garden was dry and the castle in shambles. Unlike Babur’s gardens, which had an entrance fee of 20 Afghanis, there were lots of men and children here hanging out and playing. I saw one old man in the corner doing some sort of exercises. Our SUV barely made it up the steep windy road that lead to the castle.

There were all sorts of little kids, dirty and covered in dust, playing among the rubble of the castle, which concerned me a little. It was nice to hear their laughter, but it seemed like they could easily get hurt. From this vantage point we could see across the gardens and across Kabul. Next to the castle was an old restaurant riddled with bullet holes. I could see a person through one of the bombed out walls.

As we drove away from Chehel Setun, I saw a group of men and boys swarming together like a hive of bees. In the center were two men fighting, and everyone came to watch—sad. In my day dreams I imagined myself the only woman walking through the crowd and breaking up the fight. Funny, huh?! Our driver stopped so I could take a picture, when the car behind us hit us. No one was hurt—just a love tap. Our driver got out and talked to the guy. He said he was watching the fight, he hit us, and then hit the brakes. There wasn’t any damage and we all went on our way. I like this system much better than our silly insurance system in the States.

After that we went home and Wazhma and I discussed the state of this place. The fact that the area around Babur’s gardens still didn’t have electricity put its renovation into question. Yes, it’s a beautiful place, and a piece of history, but I wonder if it’s a good idea to put all this money into the past rather than into the present: water, electricity, security… It would be nice if Babur’s gardens didn’t have an entrance fee so that all Afghans could go there and enjoy the peace and quiet. Seeing as how full the free and unrennovated Chehel Setun space was, Babur’s gardens would serve as an important refuge from the chaos of Kabul.

Wazhma and I are thinking of raising money and finding grants to make a school with solar panels here. My dad said the technology is very expensive, but we thought once implemented, it could be very useful as it would provide electricity not just for the school but the whole community. I think in the US there are laws prohibiting the sharing of electricity (dumb), but here that wouldn’t be a problem. I’m going to ask my friends Tom and Mark and other architect friends about the possibility of green architecture and renewable energy in Afghanistan. Who knows, maybe this could serve as a prototype for the US. (What a concept! The US learning from other models?!)

I’m off. Enough blogging for me!

Love you all,

I want my mommy!

I don’t know what’s going on with me but I feel numb. Like a zombie or a deer caught in the headlights. I think I have too many different emotions running through me and I don’t know how to deal with them.

This is a weird place. To a certain extent everything seems fine and I actually really like the place, as different as it is from “home.” But just when you think everything is OK and life is going as it should, you hear about another suicide bombing. It’s weird, on one hand I don’t want to freak out ‘cause I know that’s not going to change what’s been done or what’s going to happen, but I feel terrified and perhaps that is why I feel frozen.

Yesterday’s suicide bombing happened near where my uncle had his meeting in Microyan. It was so close he could hear the explosion. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt but if he had been one block over I don’t know if I would be recounting the same story.

I feel a mix of emotions: sadness, fear, guilt, fun, remorse, anger, bitterness and helplessness. The latter is gripping me the most because I know that I’m NOT helpless and neither is anyone else, but it’s hard not to feel this way and just want to run away.

Somehow I feel homesick. I don’t know if it’s homesickness as much as I miss John and I REALLY miss my mom. I don’t’ know how many times since yesterday I’ve thought, “I WANT MY MOMMY!” Maybe there’s a feeling of safety I feel around my mom that I don’t feel anywhere else. I mean I’d love to say I feel safe around my dad or uncle, but let’s face it, my dad loves living on the edge. Whether it be working in Afghanistan or drinking the tap water in India, he spits in the face of safety.

Where’s my mommy?! But of course I can’t always have my mommy around me. I gotta protect myself.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Wealth and Poverty


Today started pretty lax. My dad has a nice garden outside of his house with flowers and we saw 3 kittens wrestling one another. I really wanted to pick them up, but could hear the woman that gave me my vaccinations to stay away from all animals because of rabies. No fun.

Wazhma and I spent most of the day looking for a hotel in Delhi. I started to get really bored and remembered the TV. There was a great show on that was similar to the old MTV where you could call in and request videos to be played. The VJ’s were two handsome Afghan men. After one second of the show being on Wazhma and I burst into laughter exclaiming, “He’s sooo GAY!” referring to the skinny thing on the right. And he really was so gay. He was so feminine and pretty that he reminded me of my cousin Mariam! He had his skinny jeans on, large belt buckle and v-neck top on. The one on the right was dressed similarly, but the jury was still out on his sexual orientation. I wonder if people here recognize when men are gay or if they’re in denial about it. My uncle walked in and I almost asked him if he thought the VJ was gay, but decided against it. Homosexuality is NOT accepted in Afghan culture, whether you’re in Afghanistan or the US.

All the music videos were romantic and cheesy (not unlike American music videos). There was one Hindi music video featuring a couple dancing in the fields. The girl was wearing a mini skirt and dancing around and her legs were censored! It was hilarious to see this woman with no legs frolicking about. There was also another music video of an Afghan band that had two female members-both guitar players. One was wearing black and had a scarf and the other didn’t have a scarf and was dressed in a bright red outfit. My uncle says that one thing that has moved forward here is music.

My uncle told us there’s a popular Hindi soap opera played in Afghanistan that is translated into Dari. Apparently EVERYONE watches it. It’s such a “pandemic” that the religious figures in parliament wanted the show’s time slot to be changed from 8:30 pm because people weren’t going to the mosque any more! We also saw a commercial for that new mall I had seen called “City Center Mall,” or rather “Sitee Sentar Mall” It advertised all the gold, electronics and other things you could purchase there.

Later that day we went to the lake in a “village” called Quargha outside of Kabul. As we drove outside Kabul, I saw a different view of Afghanistan. The streets weren’t as crowded and there definitely weren’t any shiny buildings to drive by. Instead, there was basic life and basic poverty. I was somewhat surprised to see people still living in tents alongside the road. I guess I’d had higher hopes than that. The fact that the capital of Afghanistan has sporadic electricity is one marker of the progress made here, but that people still live in tents outside the city brought the marker way down. In Kabul there are soldiers, blockades and guards watching over many of the houses and buildings due to security. I couldn’t imagine living in a tent outside the city; far from police or a hospital of any sort, without any type of security.

Further down the road we saw large UNICEF tents--desks and chairs crammed underneath—serving as schools. This is a stark contrast between the City Center Mall, whose hotel rents rooms as expensive as $2500/night. My inclination is to say, “What’s wrong with these people!?” but I know that sort of attitude won’t get anyone anywhere in the progress of humankind. But I can’t help but ask why the Dubai developer couldn’t have invested that money into a school. That building could have housed thousands of students. It had security and a metal detector. What about the schools and teachers that are being attached by the Taliban—where’s their security?

What is it about capitalism that narrows people’s conception of wealth strictly to the monetary realm rather than focusing on the value of life itself? What good does a mall that sells gold and iPods do when the majority of people’s quality of life is not high enough to even enjoy these commodities? Furthermore, who cares?! If I was a developer in Dubai, I would feel a greater level of satisfaction building something that provided something more than a false sense of reality in Afghanistan. I could just take pictures of the posh in Afghanistan, and you would think Afghanistan is as rich as the US or richer. The crazy thing is this mall hasn’t gone out of business yet, so there are definitely people here that can afford it.

We continued on our drive and reached the lake which was a beautiful blue green color. There was a restaurant at the end of the road with a nice patio and lawn. Across the water to our left was another club, whose membership was $250. This is why I wasn’t sure if I should call this a village or not. On one hand it looked like a village, on the other hand there were these fancy clubs that weren’t very village like. Apparently on Fridays this place is really hopping.

It was very peaceful here. The lake was a shimmering blue green, the breeze was calm and quiet, and the mountains a crisp silhouette against the sun. This sense of calm and security was disturbed by some military helicopters that flew over head. I took a picture of one and then stopped, thinking, these people could kill me if they wanted. It’s a very weird thought to look at a helicopter or a soldier on the street and think, “One wrong move, and I’m dead.” We should be careful that the level of security in the US doesn’t reach this level.

After relaxing for a bit we headed home. My uncle could smell Bolani (fried potato thing) and it was almost time to break fast. On the way home the streets were packed and filled with men and a few women bustling about. I had my window open and we were driving through the crowd. One guy kind of jeered at me through the window and I tried to ignore him. Did I mention my dad was driving? This added a whole ‘nother dimension to the experience as we don’t like to let my dad drive in the US! I think the traffic rules of Afghanistan fit his style better though.

After we got home, I went straight to bed. All the dust, gas fumes, and jostling of the road exhausted me.

Kabul by Night


Driving home from the airport it looked like the outskirts of Kabul were more developed than the last time I had come and there were all sorts of ads and billboards lining the streets for banks and wireless service. My favorite ad was of a beautiful Afghan woman with dark shiny hair holding a razor phone. All it said on the bottom was “Motorolla.” I definitely noticed more images of sexy uncovered women around.

We arrived at my dad’s office/house in the Karte-seh neighborhood, which had colorful kilims across the floor. I met my uncle’s wife who seems very nice and tried to stay awake while my dad and uncle discussed work, politics and other such matters. Apparently yesterday there was an explosion at one of the ministries and 40 people were killed. It was a suicide bomber. My uncle talked about how the Afghan media has no shame in voicing their opinions about President Karzai’s inadequacies as a president and the lack of progress that has been made in Afghanistan over the past few years. My sister started to stress as they started to compare today’s Afghanistan with the Afghanistan she left in ’81 and with Iraq. She started to wonder, “What the hell am I doing here?!”

I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and hit the sack hard. I woke up from my nap to eat some amazing aush, which is a soup with thick noodles and an amazing tomatoey base. This one was especially good because it was made with lamb’s broth (You taking notes John? ;). I’ve never had it like that before. We also had rice with a delicious “quorma” or stew. The veggies looked good, but I refrained.

After sitting around and watching the news and funny Afghan commercials, my dad took us on a night tour of the city. I was anxious to get out of the house as the gas smell of the generator was starting to make me sick. The electricity in Kabul is sporadic, and I think they’re on some sort of schedule as to when the electricity is turned on, but this schedule isn’t strictly adhered to.

Our night tour was definitely a different take on the otherwise bustling city. By contrast it is quiet, the air is fresher and there is barely anyone to be seen. This may also be because it’s the month of Ramadan and people are not as active since they’re fasting. We went through several security checkpoints as we went on our way.

One of the places we went to was a new mall in the Shahr-e now district. It had sparkling glass and brass bars with a glass elevator that made me feel like I was in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or is it Charlie and the Glass Elevator? Unlike the rest of Kabul this hotel/mall was very orderly. All the lines were symmetrical-the couches, the chairs, everything. Apparently, the hotel Shamina has rooms that start at $250 USD/night and can go up to $2500/night! Who stays in this place?! The mall/hotel was built by a Dubai company, which was not surprising, as the glitz and money was reminiscent of the Dubai airport.

We walked around another neighborhood and my dad tempted me with an ice cream shop, but I refrained. It sucks being careful! It was nice walking around, but the goz booy was killing me. What is goz booy? Goz=fart, booy=smell. In Kabul the sewer system is above ground in large gutters that line the streets. Needless to say, the streets smelled like a toilet that night.