Archive for March, 2010

Herat part 1

Just back from a short trip to Herat, an ancient cultural center located on the Harīrūd river in western Afghanistan. First settled five thousand years ago, Herat has always been regarded as the cradle of Afghan civilization, Like in Egypt, as one flies over sandy wastelands, a straight line changes the landscape to one of irrigated green fields and trees.

Shakila, the woman who visited us last summer invited me to spend the Now Ruz (New Year) holiday with her old friend from nursing school, Soleha, her husband Ali, and their 4 year old daughter, Munis. They live in a nice apartment with gorgeous pink marble stairs, two bedrooms, a “squat and squirt” toilet and no internet. Soleha has become a midwife and has opened her own midwife clinic/pharmacy. (One item she sells at the pharmacy is Happiness brand Depo Prevara.) She cares for her family during the day until 4pm when she opens her clinic. Assistants at the clinic watch Munis while she works. The day Shakila and I visited, she had a non-stop flow of patients for pre-natal care, birth control, gyn issues and post-partum check ups. Lab work takes weeks to return and she doesn’t do routine pap smears. She says that the women prefer her to a doctor because she takes the time to listen to them and if she doesn’t know something, she works hard to find out.

 Queen Gowar Shad's Mosque and Seminary complex

Notice the remaining tile work

The following day we went touring around. The mosque and seminary complex completed by Queen Gowhar Shad in 1418 is now rubble with only five towering pillars remaining. Among the dirt hillocks and low mud brick walls remaining, heroin addicts have fashioned huts out of rubble.

Makeshift housing of heroin addicts

Makeshift housing of heroin addicts

Gazar Gah is the burial place of Ansari of Herat, a renowned and well-loved Sufi poet who died in 1088.

Here is one of his poems:

Give Me

by Khwaja Abdullah Ansari
(1006 – 1088)
TimelineEnglish version by
Andrew Harvey

Original Language

Muslim / Sufi
11th Century


O Lord, give me a heart
I can pour out in thanksgiving.
Give me life
So I can spend it
Working for the salvation of the world.

Inside this shrine and others also offer an oasis where women can gather to visit with each other in this conservative city where there are few places for women to “hang out” in public.

women hanging out at Ansari's tomb

women hanging out at Ansari’s tomb

The tomb inside

Next we visited the Haji Galton Wali shrine, also known as the shrine of the “Rolling Saint”. When I visited here in ’03, it was full of men and I was told to come back on a “women’s day”, which I couldn’t do. This day there were only a few people, so I took the opportunity to give it a try. My attitude was that I don’t believe in it, but I don’t disbelieve, either. I lay my head on a stone for that purpose, crossed my ankles, made a wish and the shrine-lady there gave me a push to start me rolling. It didn’t really work. The few rolls I did took effort.  I took that to mean that I wasn’t going to get my wish. I changed wishes and this time once I got started, it felt as though I were rolling down a gentle hill. I came to a stop in the middle of the “yard” and wondered if I could roll more so I tried to continue to roll under my own effort. This time it was hard, not natural like the rolling was earlier.


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Business Student Interviews

My head is swimming from transcribing the interviews of four students of the IEEW. (The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women,

When I listened to Rahela describe her yard-long list of activities that she had done over the years to provide education, health and employment services for women, I was wondering what anyone in the West would have to teach her. What she (and others) appreciate about what IEEW and other business training organizations have to teach are the mechanics of organization, writing business plans, self-promotion, “wayward employee” management and things like these which aren’t part of Afghan culture.

Throughout all of the interviews I’ve done with these women and others, there is the common theme that they are who and what they are because of the support they got from their families. And they feel a need to pay it back. Farghana says that her dream for herself is to be an internationally known successful businesswoman, but also “I would be a woman who will take her family along with herself. I know my power,… but I think that my family is my backbone”.

Sometimes they had to fight for that support and prove themselves, like Miriam, a photojournalist, whose father wouldn’t let her travel to Herat with a female foreign colleague. She “worked on him” for awhile until he got used to that idea and later the idea of her living alone in another town on another assignment, then to take a photo course in India, and etc. etc. At this point, when she’s not home by 9 PM, (which is generally unacceptable for women in Afghanistan) he will call her to make sure she’s safe, but he trusts that she’s doing important work. It helps that she’s bringing in a good income.

What finally convinced him is that she told him that when she’s out photographing, interviewing and interpreting, no one sees her as a woman, that they see her as a man because of the way she acts and talks. Really, these fathers are taking a big chance in a society where even rumors of their daughter’s unacceptable behavior can land the woman and by extension their families in serious trouble, if not even prison. I’m seeing that often this “trouble” comes from conservative relatives.

And it’s not only the fathers. Those who are married, must necessarily have accepting and supportive husbands, and not always pertaining to the women bringing in an income. When Sakina and her friends organized the demonstration against the Shia Family Law (in the West more famously known as the Hazara Marital Rape Law), “my family supported me.  Especially my husband, because we are like friends.”

Another benefit of that demonstration for her and her friends was the example of how powerful women working together can be. There are many cases of women doing things and creating organizations to help those less fortunate, but many who participated, felt as Sakina did, that “when we make contact with another woman and share ideas and our skills, we can improve ourselves.”

Posted in Afghan Women's Project, AWP 2010, education, women | 1 Comment »

Reconciling with the Taliban


My purpose in this blog is to be your eyes and ears on the ground, to report what I see and hear. My agenda is to seek out things that are going right, that are working, that can give one cause to hope that in a few years or decades, life for Afghans will be improved. This must also be balanced with other things I see that go in the opposite direction. Afghanistan is a perfect example of the story of the elephant and the blind men who, each feeling a part of the elephant and suppose it to represent the entire animal. I will share the bits and pieces that I discover and leave it to you to draw conclusions, knowing that even this is but a small window into the entire scene.

We met with Professor Akhram of the National Independence Peace and Reconcilliation Commission whose plan for peace is to integrate Afghan Taliban into society. First, he divides Taliban into the (bad) Pakistani Taliban and the (mostly good) Afghan Taliban. Five years ago he (and his cohorts) began meeting with 23 thousand tribal elders all over the country. These elders know how to talk with the villagers to persuade them not to send their kids to join the Taliban and to persuade the Talibs from their villages to give up fighting and join the peace movement. Of the nine thousand who turned in their weapons, 25 of them were high-level Taliban. Those who join get a paper stating their new status which they can present to US soldiers in order to avoid trouble with them. He claims that 85% of the Afghan Taliban are reconcilable, that they agree to schools for girls (as mandated by Islam) and for women to work outside the home. This last is a moot point in the villages.

The downside is the 6,000 Pakistani Taliban (out of 30,000) who are interfering with this peace process and who are funded and controlled by the Pakistani ISI (intelligence service). The Taliban in Marja are of this sort.

We got to meet with Professor Ramani, an ex-Talib, third or fourth from the top, who is now a senator in the parliament. He believes in women’s rights to school and says that as long as the religious conditions are met, women should be allowed to work. He himself has no problem working with women. He said that many of the Taliban excesses were from “wrong thinking because of war times”.

I got to meet with Prof. Akhram a second time and when I mentioned Prof. Ramani to him, he said that he didn’t trust him because he has property in Islamabad, Pakistan, and a whole network of Pakistanis.

When I asked the house guard here at the guest house, he told me that most of even the Afghan Taliban are “bad guys”. Others say that unless they are integrated into society and given jobs, there will be no peace.

I will be asking about this throughout my other interviews.

Posted in Afghan Women's Project, AWP 2010, Other, political, Taliban | 2 Comments »

Upcoming interviews

There is so much going on and so much to say, but when I get home at night, I’m exhausted. The Global Exchange tour will be over soon and I’ll have more time to write. Soon I’ll be interviewing the top Afghan woman general, a videographer who works for Tolo TV, a woman basketball player who once played in Washington DC, some orphan girl scouts and lots more. I’m excited! The lack of  rain today is a definite blessing for me, but I don’t understand how they can have muddy streets and, at the same time, so much dust in the air.  Downtown, people are starting to wear dust masks to protect themselves.

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Made it to Kabul!

A few quick observations:

Flying into the airport, I noticed that the giant graveyard of dead airplanes has been cleared out.

Giant billboards of Northern Alliance Commander Massoud are gone, but there is a huge memorial for him with a more tastefully small picture in the front. When I was getting ready to leave in ’03 I was told that this was about to be built and rumors were going around that it would soon be blown up.

Traffic was horrible and crazy in ’03 but now there are thousands more drivers on the road. The crazy driving would be scary except that you can’t go faster than 5-10mph. I’m amazed at their reflexes.

Lots of new “palaces” intermixed with ruins or mud brick houses. There never was any zoning, and now there are lots more new buildings.

Didn’t see many women on the street, but still fewer than half of them were wearing burkas. Saw several women in Iranian chadors in Kabul for the first time. Mostly the women wear large or medium sized scarves. I’m sure this is different in different parts of town.

Had some interesting meetings today that I’ll fill you in on next time.

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