Saturday, May 12, 2007

Red, Red Milk....

The other day my relatives were talking about “Sheer’e surkh” or Red Milk. ‘Red Milk?’ I asked. They started laughing, reminded of the ridiculous ironies of this country. “Red Milk” is actually wine imported from Italy. But instead of coming in a traditional wine bottle, it comes in a milk carton. They suspect that this makes it easier for it to be imported into the country, as the import and sale of alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan. A year ago stores were full of every type of alcohol you could imagine, but then religious constituents were angry and in order for the government to appear like it is religious, they banned the sale of alcohol. After all, this is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. All this really means is that alcohol is still available, there are just code names for it like “red milk” or “medicine,” and it is sold at VERY high prices. I think it is permitted for foreigners to drink alcohol here, as they have it in all the foreign-geared restaurants. Apparently there is a Lebanese and Mexican restaurant in Kabul, among other ethnic cuisines. The food is about 20 USD a plate, or 1000 Afghanis. (The average Afghan makes $50 USD per month while the rent for a 3-bedroom apt. in the worst part of town without electricity is $210 USD/month!)

As you might already know, I have been sick for the past few days, and I kept having to delay my trip to Herat. Finally on Saturday I was well enough to go. The problem was my previous ticket was cancelled and I had to find a new ticket. So my cousin Mustafa and my cousin’s husband Emal took me to see if we could find a ticket. You can’t buy any tickets from the airport directly because they won’t let you close to the airport unless you have an airplane ticket for security reasons. I was a bit nervous because it was 8 am and the flight usually leaves at 11 am and I still didn’t have a ticket. First we drove to the Kam air office, but their flight had left at 7 am. Then we drove to Ariana. Mustafa asked the man at their office and he said they had a flight at 10 am but it was already booked. But no doesn’t mean no here. He called my uncle to get some advice and my uncle told him to mention a particular person’s name. Mustafa went back in there and “name-dropped” and the same man that said the tickets were sold-out issued a ticket on the spot. As I’ve heard so many times here, “This is Afghanistan.” It’s all about who you know, who’s cousin you are, who your dad is, etc etc. Of course money doesn’t hurt either. If you’re willing to pay double, all of a sudden things start to happen.

So we got a ticket and headed to the airport which has two outer parking lots. Before entering the first parking lot you have to be searched. I entered the search room which is for women exclusively and recognized the woman that had searched me when I was here in October. She was the one that was super sweet and took pictures with us. I asked her if she recognized me and she said yes and I apologized for not bringing her the pictures. Last time she asked that I print the pictures we took and give them to her. I didn’t think I would be back here so soon and that I would also run into her again so I didn’t. Plus my sister has them. So she will have to print them for next time.

After being searched we were allowed in the first parking lot. As we waited outside in the first parking lot, Emal entertained me with stories about the Taliban. I don’t know if “entertain” is the right word, or “disgusted” or “shocked” is better. He told me that under the Taliban women weren’t even allowed to show their fingernails. I wouldn’t have been able to go outside with what I was wearing that day which was a long baggy top, baggy pants and scarf. At that time he was a taxi driver and one day while he was waiting in the car he saw a young girl walking with a burqa on. She scratched her side which raised her burqa by an inch, revealing her foot. A nearby Talib saw this and in order to punish her for her “indecency” he took a piece of wood which was wrapped in chain and started beating her on the street. The girl started crying and screaming at the top of her lungs, but it didn’t make a difference. The Talib kept beating her until she was forced to crawl under a car to escape him. Emal said that day he cried. He looked all around him and all the men that were watching cried because they knew they couldn’t do anything about it.

Emal also described the Taliban’s “jails.” One of the drivers that currently works for my dad had been captured and locked up by the Taliban because he was from Panjshir and was not Pashtun. When the Taliban locked people up they stuck them in metal shipping containers about 10’x10’ with about 20 other people. If you died in there, you died, and if you came out alive you came out alive. But the containers were under the hot sun with no windows and no bathrooms. The driver said that if it had been even 5 more minutes when he got out he would have been dead.

After about an hour of story telling I was finally allowed through the gate. As I mentioned only people with tickets are allowed to pass through. My cousin Mustafa had an old baggage claim ticket that he used to pass through. Since lost luggage is so common here, people often have to come back to pick up their lost luggage using their claim ticket. I was glad Mustafa was with me keeping me company because we sat in the next parking lot for another hour or two. I started to feel sick from the heat. By this point it was well past the scheduled departure time of the flight. I’m discovering flights rarely fly on time here. Sometimes they fly and sometimes they don’t. Here there is a lot of waiting and uncertainty.

Next I was allowed into the airport and Mustafa and I parted ways. Since I am a woman they let me go to the front of the line. Everyone was pretty nice, showing me where to go. I was searched again by the tall woman that had searched my sister last time. She was really mean I remember and wanted to give her a piece of my mind on behalf of my sister but thankfully I’m not so stupid. She seemed to be in a better mood today. She’s very tall and intimidating with short hair and black eyeliner.

Next I entered the waiting room. Near the “gate” door (there aren’t gates here, you just walk on the tarmac) there was a section reserved for women. However, it was already filled with men so I took a seat at the edge of an empty row a few rows back. After I sat down I noticed a family in another row and wondered if I should sit with them, but out of principal I didn’t. I should sit wherever I like and men should learn how to mind their own business.
We finally boarded the plane and the steward was trying to seat everyone in their assigned seats but by the end he threw his hands up in the air. Everyone wanted to pick their own seats and everything was getting confused. I noticed 3 women wearing burqas scoot up the aisle. Damn, I thought. As if a plane is not claustrophobic and hot as it is.

Next to me a small skinny man in a suit started talking to me. He works for the environmental protection agency in Herat. Basically they try to protect any forests that have survived the war. I found out that he was an English major and he would ask me questions in English and I would respond in Farsi. Finally, he said, I’m trying to practice my English but you’ll only respond in Farsi. I said, yah, cause I’m trying to practice my Farsi! Finally I spoke English with him. The man sitting on the other side of him was kind of shy, maybe because I was a woman. Finally he warmed up and by the end of the flight he gave me his biscuits that the flight had provided insisting I should take them since I was a traveler.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Three Fish

The day before yesterday I taught my first workshop at Turquoise Mountain Foundation which is a center for arts in Kabul. For example, they have people working on ceramics, painting, calligraphy and other traditional arts of Afghanistan. The place itself is pretty interesting. They have taken over the old British Embassy which is a fort-like structure. I got to see how they make their ceramic bowls and the designs that they use to decorate the bowls. The men make the pottery on the wheel and then the women paint the design.

The workshop I taught was about how to mat you photos. We brought a mat cutting machine and taught them how to use it. At first the professor was not interested at all. He thought it was useless and had a “I don’t need this” kind of attitude. But after he saw the demonstration he got really excited and was the first one to make a mat (before any of the students!). Then the second class I taught he basically took over! It was funny. I had to encourage the female students that were sitting in the back to come forward to see the demonstration. They were very shy while the boys were very active and had more of a “know-it-all” attitude.

After that I went home and I was really tired. Driving around in Afghanistan drains my energy. It’s very dusty and the air is full of diesel fumes. On top of that the roads are in really bad shape—very bumpy with extreme pot holes. So any time I have to drive somewhere I’m exhausted afterward.

Yesterday I taught some marketing workshops to a class of female artists at the contemporary center for visual arts. I got to see their paintings and they were realllllly interesting. There was one that showed a well and the bucket from the well had a white scarf with red flowers sitting on it. The meaning of the painting was that a woman had committed suicide by dropping herself in the well. The flowers on the scarf represented her hopes and dreams. There were a lot of paintings that had themes of freedom. There was one woman that was very sharp and outspoken. She asked a lot of questions during the class. She had a painting of a circle with a small opening. Inside the circle were 3 fish-one red, blue, and yellow. Being the primary colors, these fish represented all of humanity, as you can get any color from combining red, blue and yellow. The meaning of the painting was that the fish (or humanity) had a door they could use to get out of their confined situation, but they chose not to.

After the class I spoke with some of the students and I was surprised that they were around 20 and 21! They looked like they were teenagers! I think they are so small due to malnutrition. I am planning on bringing their work to the US as part of resonance. After I came home it started thunder storming which I really liked!

One of the women I am interviewing for Resonance is illiterate. I will post her story to the resonance blog when I’m done typing it. Here I really appreciate the fact that I have an education and can read! It’s something I take for granted every day, but life is so hard if you can’t read! She is a widow and has 5 kids and works on her own to support her children. Her son wanted to quit school to work but she won’t let him. She says, I might be illiterate, but I want my kids to have a good future. They won’t be beggars. Her oldest daughter was taken out of school to take care of her dad when he was sick. Now she takes care of the kids while the mom works and goes to the mosque to read the Koran since she doesn’t go to school any more. Her mom wants her to at least be able to read “hospital.”

Unfortunately, I must have ate something I shouldn’t have because I’ve been sick for the past few days. Hopefully it’s not some kind of bacteria, but if it is I have some antibiotics with me. Tomorrow we’re heading to Herat and I’m not sure if I’ll have email access there or not.