Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Children of Afghanistan

The following photos were shared generously by Cordelia Persen, another participant on the delegation...

Monday 3/6/06 Day Two (Part 1)

Above pic: A view in the city...
Below pic: Two of the staff at PARWAZ...

As soon as my head hit the pillow at 8:30 Sunday night, I slept straight until 6:00 AM Monday morning. I continued to rest, cuddled under my fuzzy blankets, until breakfast was served inside at 7:00. Awaiting us was a spread of fresh bread (nan), honey, black cherry jam, 'happy cow' cheese, and green and black chai.

If I am endowed with one cultural marker as a Seattleite, it is my addiction to coffee - and not just any coffee, but quality, strong, dark roasted coffee (preferably fair trade, of course!) I had a strong sense beforehand that Nescafe Instant coffee was what would be available for us at the guesthouse, and thus the 'emergency/luxury' item I allowed myself to bring was a Ziplock bag of my own ground coffee and a travel mini-french press. Fortunately I had packed my coffee 'emergency pack' in my carry-on backpack - so even though I didn't have a change of clothes (since my luggage had not arrived), I at least had my coffee and as far as I was concerned, that was all I needed!! Recovering from jetlag would have been far more difficult without it. If there is one memory that the other delegation participants and those working at the guesthouse have of me, I would be willing to guess that it is an image of me in the mornings, groggy-eyed with mini-french press in hand, imbibing my strong brew as if it were life itself!

In time, we all piled into the vans and head out into the city to meet with our first organization - PARWAZ.
PARWAZ, a Dari word meaning 'to rise' or 'to fly', is the first women-led grassroots microfinance institution established in 2003 in Afghanistan by Afghans for Afghans. PARWAZ provides financial services in the form of credit and savings to disadvantaged and poor women to start micro-businesses (tailors, carpets, hair salons, agriculture, etc.) PARWAZ is based on the belief that women's long-term success in society is dependent upon self-reliance and economic empowerment. If you would like more information about PARWAZ, please visit their website at
Our first visit with PARWAZ was a fine first example of the visits with organizations we would meet during our time in Kabul. Our vans parked outside the building that housed PARWAZ and Najib knocked on the tall white gate. A male guard opened the gate for us and led us inside. A warm, slightly mild-mannered yet very professional woman named Zamina greeted us and led us into a comfortable conference room where we all sat at a large enough table to accommodate our entire delegation of twelve, as well as Najib, Naqibullah, Zamina and Roya (pictured above) of PARWAZ. After a hospitable serving of chai and pastries, Zamina and Roya introduced themselves and the organization, both of them very adept at speaking English. After their introductions, we had the opportunity to ask our own questions. The majority of what we learned can be found at the above website (so as not to be redundant, as well as save myself from extra typing :). One of the delegation members inquired if it was common for the husbands of the women starting their own businesses and receiving loans from PARWAZ to object or oppose to their wives working outside of the home. Zamina and Roya explained that some of the women are still choosing to run their businesses out of their homes (while some are not) for various reasons such as reducing business costs (not having to rent retail space) and for the convenience of caring for family, children, etc. But for the women who have chosen to run businesses outside of the home, Zamina and Roya said that they have yet to hear of an opposition from the husbands. My own personal speculations in regards to this matter (though based off of very little experience) is this: Many in the West have yet another erroneous image of Afghan women and/or Muslim women as being completely locked up in their homes under the domination of their husbands. While women were lawfully prohibited from leaving their homes without a male relative during the Taliban regime, and while it may be the case for a certain percentage of women to face opposition from their husbands, I had a sense that due to the economic strife that Afghanistan faces today, a good majority of men and women have a sense of what is necessary to support themselves and their families - women starting their own businesses and working outside of the home as being one of them. Another inquiry was in regards to who was employed at PAWAZ itself. According to Zamina and Roya, there are 28 women working at PARWAZ and one male guard, one male driver and one male manager (very matriarchal!)....

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Brief Chronology of Afghanistan's Political Past

I didn't even realize the extent of my ignorance pertaining to Afghanistan's political past until I went to Kabul. Like most Westerners, I had been inundated with images propelled by Western media portraying Taliban and burkas - oppressive symbols that would come to define Afghanistan in much of the Western psyche. But I discovered that the complexity of the Afghan situation and political history goes so much deeper. The Taliban, as oppressive as that regime was, was merely one of the many factors that have caused suffering and unrest in Afghanistan over the past 25 years. Thus, for one to even begin to understand the scope of Afghanistan's wounds, one must look beyond these erroneous, demarcating images of Western media and consider the duration of Afghanistan's political strife......
The following chronology is published in My Forbidden Face - Growing up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story written by a woman using the pen name Latifa written with the collaboration of Shekeba Hachemi:
1919: The Declaration of independence of Afghanistan. 1921: The Treaty of Kabul marks the end of British interference in Afghan affairs. 1933-1973: The reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah. 1959: Women are no longer required to wear the veil. 1964: Women obtain the right to vote. 1965: The first parliamentary elections. 1973: The monarchy is overthrown by Mohammed Daoud, who establishes the first Republic of Afghanistan and serves as its president. 1978: A coup d'etat installs the second republic, a Communist regime, led by President Noor Mohammed Taraki and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin. Reforms imposed on Afghan society, which remains conservatively traditional, lead to popular uprisings and the rise of Islamic movements, which destabilize the government. 1979: Soviet troops invade. The mujahideen organize their resistance and begin a guerilla war against the Afghan army - which fight under the aegis of the Soviet army - that will last ten years. The successive presidencies of Babrak Karmal (1979-1986) and Dr. Mohammed Najibullah (1986-1992)[Made president by the Soviets, M. Najibullah was an Afghan Communist who remained in power until he was ousted by the mujihadeen.] April 1988: The United States, the U.S.S.R., Pakistan and the government in Kabul sign a UN-sponsored agreement in Geneva setting up a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. 1989: The last of the Soviet troops are evacuated from Afghanistan. 1989: The beginning of the civil war among mujahideen forces of different ethnic backgrounds; the principle antagonists will be the Pastun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Tajik Ahmed Shah Massoud. [A notoriously ruthless warlord, Hekmatyar first came to the attention of the West as a student at Kabul University in the 1960's, when he led a militant Islamic student group that threw acid in the faces of unveiled women students. Massoud would later become the leader of the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of ethnic minority political parties - mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hezaras - that will oppose the Taliban.] March 1992: General Massoud takes control of the northern provinces. April 1992: General Massoud's mujahideen capture Kabul. Sibghatullah Mojadeddi serves as President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan until June, when he is succeeded by Burhanuddin Rabanni. [Rabanni was the nominal head of the Afghan government-in-exile recognized by the United Nations.] Civil war flares up again, this time between forces of General massoud and Islamic extremists supported by Pakistan. The Taliban achieve their first successes in the south with the capture of Kandahar in 1994. September 1995: The Taliban take Herat (the main city in Western Afghanistan.) September 1996: The Taliban take Jalalabad and Kabul. 1997-1998: The Taliban continue their advances north. The city of Mazar-i-Sharif changes hands several times, finally falling into the hands of the Taliban in August 1998. General Massoud retreats to his home territory in the Panshir Valley and remains the sole effective opponent of the Taliban regime.[The Panshir Valley is an impregnable natural fortress that stretches southwest from northern Afghanistan to the Shamali Plain just north of Kabul.] September 9, 2001: Ahmed Shah Massoud is the victim of an assassination plot; his death is officially confirmed on Sept. 13. September 11, 2001: The World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. are attacked by terrorists in hijacked commercial airlines. The hijackers are believed to be members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Queda organization. October 7, 2001: United States and Britain lead bombing offensive against Al-Queda. November 9, 2001: After a month-long American campaign of bombing, the Northern Alliance regains control of Mazar-i-Sharif. November 13, 2001: The Taliban abandon Kabul overnight; forces of the Northern Alliance enter Kabul. December 22, 2001: Hamid Karzai is sworn in as the leader of an interim government, as agreed in talks held in Bonn, Germany earlier that month. The coalition is endorsed by Mohammed Zahir Shah, and its thirty members include representatives of several Afghan factions. Karzai is the first person to take power in Afghanistan peacefully in thirty years.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sunday 3/5/06 Day One (part 4)

Above and below pics: Vegetable market/money changing market...
Above pic: Stall selling steaming garbanzo beans...
Above and below pics: Park overlooking the city...
The aroma of our first scrumptious lunch drifted from the kitchen as we began to settle into what would be our home for the upcoming ten days. We briefly met our cooks, two men with kind faces and an older woman with silver hair tinted orange with henna peeking from under her headscarf. After introductions, they politely ducked back into the kitchen to finish preparing our welcoming lunch.
Since lunch would still take another half hour, Najib decided to begin our orientation. We all sat around the cozy floor cushions in the living room as we were served a choice of green tea (chai sabzi) or black tea (chai siah), bowls of pistachios and the most heavenly yellow raisins that one could ever savor. With orientation packets in hand, Najib began with the subject of security; an issue of main concern for many on the delegation, as well as the main concern for probably all of our families and friends. Najib insisted right away that he didn't believe the security in Kabul to be as bad as the international news portrayed it to be. He continued to say that there is indeed violence still happening in other provinces, particularly in the south, like Kandahar. But Kabul is relatively secure, partly due to the strong military presence in the city. None the less, Najib asserted that as a group, we would still need to take precautionary measures by making sure that no individuals strayed from the group while out in the city and by getting the group back to the guesthouse by sun down.
The other issue that Najib addressed was that of electricity. He explained that the residents of Kabul were, at this point in time, granted electricity only every other day from 4:00 PM to midnight. The only buildings exempt from this were important Ministry/governmental offices. He said, however, that the guesthouse had applied with the Ministry for the ability to have 24 hours of electricity for the ten days that we were to be there and that the application had been approved. But, Najib continued, nothing is totally reliable and he insisted generously that he hoped the approval would manifest. As an alternative, however, the guesthouse has a generator that would be used as back up. In addition to my immense appreciation that they went to such measures, I honestly felt that the application for 24 hours of electricity was unnecessary and extravagant in relation to the state of the country, but then realized the pressure of having to please Westerners who are accustomed to such privileges. And if there is one adjective to describe Afghans, it would be 'hospitable'- most are extremely eager to accommodate guests. As the week proceeded, we would come to find out that despite the Ministry approval, our guesthouse didn't get electricity for 24 hours of every day. This didn't phase me or some of the other participants in the least bit. I was sad to see, however, that there were a few who couldn't contain their complaints and inflexibility over this matter.
After addressing the electricity issue, Najib began to speak about the trip itinerary and the organizations we would be meeting. The remainder of our time was packed full of meetings with Afghan individuals and organizations from 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM every day, including two short trips to villages immediately outside of Kabul. It was going to be an incredible and busy ten days.
After the orientation, our first Afghan lunch was served. Ohhhhhhhhh yummmmm. There was the most delectable home made bread in existence - a flat bread about an inch and a half thick made into long, oval pieces. Brown rice with plump raisins and shredded carrots steamed in mounds. Stews made of tender lamb and luscious, spiced tomato broths..... Yes, I am a big fan of traditional cuisine - every meal was a treat for me..... After our delicious lunch, we piled back into our vans to make a short excursion into town in order to exchange money and visit a park that overlooks the city. A trip back into the center of town gave opportunity to confirm the fact that yes, indeed, we are in Afghanistan, as well as the opportunity to further observe the social and physical landscape of Kabul.
Elliot reflects in An Unexpected Light, "I had seen photographs of Kabul in guidebooks from the 1960's and the sights had hardly changed. Years of conflict had paralyzed the hand of modernization. In the side streets time's touch was lighter. The roads grew more dusty; here shops and homes made from mud brick and timber bore the neglect less visibly than modern buildings. Shrouded women carried water in earthen vases and venerable, turbaned shepherds prodded their flocks forward at a timeless pace. Spice sellers sat between multicoloured mounds or weighed out flour and grain on scales balanced with stones, and at the butchers' stalls men hacked with iron axes at carcasses on wooden stumps polished and gently concave from years of use, and laid out severed heads in long rows like the grisly trophies of medieval conflicts."
In a short time, we arrived to where we would be changing our money from US dollar to the Afghan currency, the Afghani. We didn't arrive at a bank or even a building housing an official money changing business. We were dealing with the black market here. Our vans stopped on a street alongside a bustling vegetable market. Naqibullah, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, turned and asked for the money we wanted changed. Najib suggested that we would only need to change $100 US dollars for the basics of what we would need during our time there (daily lunch in the city, etc.) After the six of us in our van handed Naqibullah our money, he hopped out with $600 in his pocket. All the while as we waited, we were surrounded by the sites of locals haggling the equivalent of pennies for vegetables. The scene felt strange and somewhat unsettling for me as it served as a potent reminder of our privilege, recalling having read that civil servants in Afghanistan earn only $40 US dollars a month.
Naqibullah returned within minutes and our vans were off once again.....
Within a few more minutes, we turned down a street that began to incline. The street was lined with tall pine trees and stalls selling steaming garbanzo beans. Eventually we arrive at the end of the road at the top of the cliff overlooking the city and we all step out of the vans. The air was clean and crisp and the view was amazing. The atmosphere was serene in contrast to the animation of the city center. It was our first opportunity to put into perspective the fascinating layout of the city and see the tiny houses built into the side of the mountains. We stayed for approximately 15 minutes before making the 15-minute trek back to the guesthouse. Once back, we all spent the rest of the evening settling in, eating dinner and ending our evening early. I passed out by 8:00 PM. I had no doubt I'd be able to sleep until morning, in which our incredible time meeting organizations would begin.

Photos by Kristie McLean

"Once snared, as you so well know, one never fully leaves; a portion of one's heart is forever woven into the fabric of that place." Jason Elliot speaks of Afghanistan in An Unexpected Light. These are two photos taken (and copyright) by Kristie McLean, another woman from Seattle who also attended the delegation.