Field Notes #2

Salaam Aleikum!

It’s Friday morning, 29 August 03, lovely and cool, here in Herat where summer daily temperatures soar above 115. I’m sitting in the garden of the IRC (International Rescue Committee) guest house, a beautiful British colonial type building. Petunias, roses and coxcomb are among the many flowers in bloom. It’s a quiet, peaceful refuge.

People have been so gracious about my project. When I first came to Afghanistan, I was hoping to find enough women who would be willing to be photographed and interviewed. Instead, I found them willing and eager to tell their stories. Most of the time, I’ve been struck by how grateful they are that I’ve come all the way from America to interview them. I only wish I could do more to improve their individual conditions.

As I visit organizations in order to connect with their teachers or ‘beneficiaries”, the word they use to describe their clients, I’m also asked what I can do to help them do their jobs better. At Herat University yesterday, I was asked if I could send some textbooks for the professors to use as a resource. A woman’s school director asked me if I could tell her how to teach English (ESL) more effectively. The greed here among some of the Afghan people in power is astounding, especially in light of such need. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are routinely siphoned off of ministerial budgets and used for fleets of Mercedes and palacial houses. I was also pleased to find, however, that there are hundreds of small NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) set up and run by middle class Afghans. I have been working with CWS (Church World Service) who, rather than setting up their own projects here, adopt existing local ones to help make them more effective. Success in any of these endeavors hinges on peace, and peace, in the long run, depends of the success of these endeavors. The military power of the Taliban was made possible, in part, by the poverty and lack of education of the young men who were victims of the Russian invasion and lured into becoming soldiers.

One touching story I heard was from one of the few semi-secular schools in Kabul during the Taliban. It was overcrowded with 50 students beyond its 100 student capacity. The daily knocks at the gate from boys wanting admittance were largely ignored. But one day, the knocking was so loud and persistant that the guards opened the gate only to find a young Talib. He wanted to trade his Kalashnikov for books and acceptance. They explained how full the school was and that admittance was impossible. Then he shoved his gun into the guard’s hands and said “then shoot me now if you won’t teach me.”They invited him in and explained how there was no room now, but he could apply at a later date. When I heard this, I was sickened by the thought of the lack of interest of some western kids in their education.

I have met many remarkable women, but one who stands out is Tajwar Kakar. The daughter of the chief of the Pashtun Kakar clan, and married at 14 as a second wife to an Usbek, she had a very difficult time in this family of a different culture and language. Nevertheless, in spite of her tremendous household responsibilities and the children she began bearing, she finished high school and then teacher training. When the Russians came, her husband’s entire family sided with them. The first wife’s two sons worked for the KGB and Tajwar was under tremendous pressure to join the communist party. She was watched, taken in for interrogation, etc. but still refused. Not only that, but she became a leader of the freedom fighters, often sneaking off to different villages to meet with her collegues. She had numerous narrow escapes, including having to leave for Kabul on foot with her 4 children 7 days after the birth of her 5th. Later, she was captured by the Russians, tortured, and held for a year. Finally, she escaped to Pakistan and got a job with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) which took quite some doing for a woman. She, along with other Mujahadin leaders made a number of trips to New York and Europe. At one point, during an interview with the BBC, she called on Afghan women to quit cooking and washing for their freedom fighter husbands if they wouldn’t give them some rights. This had a tremendous effect because a lot of people all over Afghanistan secretly listened to the BBC and the Mujahidin leaders received thousands of complaints from their soldiers. After a few days, having demonstrated the power of women, she called off the strike. Later, after the IRC received notice that she was due to be killed the next day and that it would be done by bombing the IRC office if they didn’t fire her, she resigned and the IRC sent her to Australia. She was there for 12 years during which time she was treated for cancer and underwent 12 operations. In 2000 she came back to Afghanistan. During talks with senior Taliban leaders she convinced them to let her open Hope School. (The girls’ school part of her proposal was agreed to but never implemented) In Kabul, she refused to wear a burka and even worked in the school! At one point 3 Talibs came into her office to beat her. She talked with them and before they left, they asked her if she would teach them. Tajwar is an old friend of Karzai and has been a deputy minister of Woman’s Affairs. However, she is quite outspoken and one by one, the doors of access to him have been closed by other ministers who were siphoning off huge sums of money for their personal gain. At this point, she works 3 days a week for the IRC and two days overseeing the construction of a new building for her Hope School which had been destroyed by the collateral effects of an American bomb.

I had the privilege of being invited to a wedding last Tuesday in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. It was an interesting mix of modern and traditional. When I arrived at 5:30 the bride and groom were sitting on their “throne” looking extremely bored. It was another hour before the actual marriage took place. The groom went to a smaller room with about 20 other men and the mullah. They signed some papers and different men made speeches. About a half hour later, (I was only allowed in for a short time to grab some shots) I heard a loud whoop to celebrate the completion of the ceremony. Meanwhile, the bride was sitting alone in a small bare room fanning herself. Then the photographer and his crew of 2 videographers and 3 assistants sprang into action, putting the couple through a series of poses. There were no family shots. Afterwards, the bride and groom sat in the balcony while the rest of us danced and ate. An hour or so later about 10 women and 2 guys changed into traditional Pashtun dress and followed the bride and groom down the aisle of the ballroom to the throne. After more ceremony, they spent an hour doing traditional dances before it ended.

As my time here draws to a close, I’m both looking forward to my life back home and wishing I could stay to delve more deeply into lives and organizations here. There is so much to do….

I trust this letter finds each of you well.

Khoda Hafiz,


3 Responses to “Field Notes #2”

  1. BernieR says:

    Hi there,
    Amazing! Not clear for me, how offen you updating your
    Thank you

  2. Peggy Kelsey says:

    Those field notes were written while I was in Afghanistan and ended when I left. Same with the Iraqi blog–it was just for the time I was there. I’m returning to Afghanistan in March ’10 and will be writing again for the two and a half months I’m there. I hope to post once a week or so.

  3. This is just awesome! Thanks for putting this out there 😀

« | »