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FemAid report on Afghanistan and Pakistan,March-April 2005

This report was started in an antique Tupolev flying from Kabul to Baku, crossing the rugged mountain landscape so typical of Afghanistan as I was emerging from what may rank as one of the most intense and adventurous trips of my life, just after that first epic visit to wartime Sarajevo in 1994.
I had visited Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistani border several times over the past three and a half years, but this time I needed to understand the other perspective, the one coming from the capital city. So for the first time, I went to Afghanistan, invited to stay with a wonderful family I had met in the days when they were refugees in Pakistan. The journey included visits to Kabul, Peshawar, Islamabad, a lot in between including two refugee camps and at the end a couple of obligatory nights in Baku which would be worth a trip in itself
The continuation of FemAid projects with RAWA- the orphanage, sponsorship of students and a midwife training project were on the agenda as well as my ongoing anthropological research on female refugees. I also arrived with about 50 kilos of baby clothes and medical equipment, for which Azerbaidjan Airlines uncharitably forced me to pay a fortune in surplus weight and then proceeded to crush one of my suitcases driving the luggage to the plane after the stop-over in Baku, claiming wind as a « force majeure » (their term). You now know what route and flight-company to avoid.

Impressions of Kabul

Perhaps the problem is that I arrived when it was cold and raining after an unnaturally  freezing winter which had killed thousands in rural areas. It certainly did not prepare me to think positively about what I was seeing, wading through the mud and the filth in a largely unpaved city. All I can say is that the warm welcome I received and the sheer generosity of the people is equivalent in intensity to the dismal and despairing aspect of their city, as if to compensate for its daily agony. Where else in the world does the security person at the airport who has just frisked you invite you to have a cup of green tea and a chat with her ? Fahima’s husband had been killed by the Taliban and she was bringing her three children up in a single room, but managed to be cheerful and interested in my life in Paris. Where else in the world do people, when you leave them, wish you find to flowers on your road through life ? Where else do women and boys alike spontaneously break into verse, at full moon in a dismal refugee camp or huddling in a musty room in a wrecked Kabuli building ?

Everyone appears to think that conditions in Kabul are much improved since the time after the Taliban : at least that‘s what they claim. At this point of my life and in my middle years as a writer and novelist, and therefore a professional in the exercise of my imagination, words fail me. I cannot begin to conjure anything more sordid than what I have seen, especially in the suburb of Khairkhana where I stayed. The first images one receives (or rather are hurled at you) on the potted road from the airport, are ruins and more ruins, rusting tanks from Soviet times, followed by mounds of rotting rubbish with children rumaging for anything recyclable and therefore resaleable. Women in burqas stand in the middle of the highway begging, their babies at their feet as cars and carts whizz by. Admittedly, some construction work is going on. There are a small number of would-be modern building sites in the centre, looking utterly irrelevant, some sort of botched cut-and-paste job, including an unlikely bluish glass structure going up next to open drains and throngs of beggars tugging at your sleeve. In the ‘smarter’ streets (Wazir Akhbar Khan), the beggars in the know ask for Panch (five) dollars/Panch Afghanis alternately. On Chicken Street, a generally over-priced haven for aging hippy shoppers, these get particularly virulent, presumably encouraged by the pudgy GIS descending from their armoured vehicles in flack-jackets, sweeping the urchins away like flies. It seems that Claude Lelouch, the French film-maker admiring the newly rebuilt Ariana cinema showing recent, if not the latest, French films praised the quality of Kabul reborn. Had n’t anyone told him that women were not admitted to this abode of Gallic culture unless they attend « family » viewing at 8 am ? Obviously I’ve missed out on the progressive aspects of the city, picking my way through its refuse which stands around in stinking heaps everywhere. I did choose to avoid the expat community alltogether, its Intercontinental breakfast parties and embassy gatherings, where journalists and aid officials from the larger agencies throng. It seems that someone in the US compound fortified like a bunker and causing daily massive traffic diversions has had a tee-shirt printed with “Welcome to the most gated community in the world”.Indeed there seems to be little communication between the post-colonial humanitarian occupation and the local population, outside their immediate staff .

I was lucky enough to stay with my adorable Pashtun family, far from the paved streets in the city centre. This is indeed a most traditional patriarchal family, where the married brothers live with their wives as well as single siblings and young cousins. Togetherness and loneliness operate simultaneously, women work very hard at daily chores, but the warmth and love is there. My contribution has mainly consisted of making French-style cakes, kneading dough on the ground and using a bread oven. Frugal Pashtun habits do not allow for sugar, but my productions were more than politely appreciated and Djevad, the youngest boy of the famiily has now taken over as the family pastry chef!
In Khairkhana, typical of most of Kabul, when the rain stops and the sun comes out, the stench is overpowering- but that is the case in every shanty town on the subcontinent, and Kabul appears to be a post-modern combination of a shanty town, a medieval bazaar after a Genghis Khan stampede, crossed with a rambling refugee camp and at its centre a latter-day version of Kafka’s ‘Castle’ where politics and money are generated. The mud roads are filled with every form of transport known to humanity since the beginning of time, carts pulled by sturdy weather-beaten men who hire themselves out as cart-horses, military vehicles, donkeys, horses, clapped-out Ladas, 4 X4 Toyotas and mainly some kind of cubist-collages on wheels, not to mention a few goats and roosters. Not a single traffic light, but less hooting and systematic shoving off the road than in Pakistan.Nobody in either country appears to have a driving license and about twelve appears to be the right age to put a kid behind the wheel- boys, that is, not girls.

Much of the population lives in the sprawl of mud houses that circle the city. I thought that these were just characteristic of rural areas and camps, having seen this kind of structure in profusion in the NWFP. Little did I know that this was also typical of capital city urban living. Perhaps the boundaries of rural/urban tend to be looser here, but the truth is that the NGOs have grossly inflated the real estate market and the rents are astronomical. The inhbitants of Kabul simply cannot afford their own city. A widow I met lives with her four children in a tiny room paying 8000 Afghanis monthly ($160) and the house my family rents in their unsavoury suburb costs them over $20 000 a year whereas the average salary is between 3000 and 5000 Afghanis (50 Afghanis to the US$), unless you work for ‘farangi’. NGOs who naturally pay far higher rents for less-than- clean and/or modern facilities. You end up wondering what the hell some of these are doing here : at least the effects on the general well-being of the population are not immediately visible, For a certain educated middle-class, just as in post-war Sarajevo, there are a number of rather well-paid jobs. So instead of teaching in schools and universities, the brains of the country find themselves as interpreters or drivers at the service of bemused expats, civilian or military making sure that the natives feel suitably grateful for all the benefits they are apparently pouring on them. One hears at least two contradictory assesments but which work together. First, that things would have been better if the Soviets had stayed (which is obvious after just one hour in any ex-Soviet republic like Azerbaidjan) and secondly, that if the Americans pull out, civil war is unavoidable. Nevetheless, this would be the result of the explosive political situation which the US has so carefully constructed and somewhat repeated in Irak. A self- destructing configuration dependent on Washington, dressed up up as ‘democracy’, President Karzaï, however, is immesely popular and is seen as doing the best he can in appalling circumstances.

A propos the stench of the gutters. One realises that this is when a veil turns out to be useful, you just lift it gracefully to your nose (though never as gracefully as Afghan girls). Nevertheless, this hardly explains the ubiquitous burqa. In the city-centre, female faces are certainly visible on the street, usually wrapped in a dark scarf, topping loose clothing and high stacked heels, but they are the exception. Those who claim the contrary must keep on running into the same girls and/or have never left the two or three central streets of the city. Everywhere else, burqas abound ; the difference since the fall of the Taliban is that they are not shadowed by an obligatory male escort-cum-jailer, the mahram, usually a close relative as opposed to an unrelated therefore (Allah-forbid) seducable man. The locals at Khairkhana must have wondered what yours truly was doing walking down the road with a succession of handsome mahrams obviously unrelated to her stumbling, sternly beshawled person.
Shrouded in the comforting albeit cumbersome anonymity of the burqa, women nowadays go about on their business alone, especially to shops and markets where modernity comes in the form of brittle plastic consumer novelties made in China and also exorbitantly highly priced vegetables (nearly 1 US$ for a kilo of tomatoes or apples, the same for a big bottle of Pepsi) : multiply by ten to get the Western price equivalent.
The middle-class often find themselves donning the blue nylon burqa--shroud, under the pressure of conservative mother-in-laws with whom they have to live, as a girl always moves in with her husband’s family in order to serve and wait on his parents. This is the case of a university professor who arrives to her classes in her burqa, sheds it for her classes and pulls it back one once she leaves work. Things only change if the money factor comes in- which leaves the women out. Access to education which certainly is a plus of these post-Taliban times, does not bring wealth, unlike shady entrepreneurship, so typical of a post-war economy where war profiteers rule and allow themselves a degree of freedom in terms of business and social practices as well, sometimes,life-style. The traditional regulation through patriarchal family structures and the typical Afghan frugality are beginning to disappear in these circles as far as men are concerned even if restrictions continue to operate for women. Another thing, once the burqa drops, surprises abound even in the refugee camps where I went after a week in Kabul. The wearer often turns out to be a carefully made-up woman wearing fancy clothes and flashy jewellery ; one twenty-year old I met in an otherwise pro- Taliban refugee camp actually had multiple piercing in her earlobes with silver hoops and a CK scarf. Thanks to the media- mostly Bollywood and Islam-friendly Western clips permitted on Afghan and Pakistani TV, these girls are in the know and not just for fashion. Yasmin, my brilliant Afghan daughter who has been interviewing young girls all around the country reports that through the radio, they have become aware of their rights and are indeed clamouring for what the government has promised them. Naturally, this heightened awareness does not help for easing their conditions within the traditional family set-up. This is exactly where the zone of friction is setting in : women’s new expectations clash with those of their males who have not had to rethink their authority and see these changes as an attack on their privileges. This new-found awareness is often the result of having been exposed to alternatives from abroad, as refugees in Pakistan and Iran, corroborated by the new democracy- speak spouting from the media. Just by the way women walk, you can immeidately tell where she has spent the last few years. This goes a long way in explaining the wave of suicides of Afghan girls, who could be termed as first-generation literate especially those who have received some education and vocational training and cannot bear to be married off and condemned to be ruled over by domineering and largely illiterate husbands and mother-in-laws.

Afghan Politics for the Western Sympathiser

What can any Western sympathiser hope to achieve in such a set-up ? I think the first thing is to help to set the picture straight. Keep a critical mind in front of the images of carefully orchestrated propaganda that serves to legitimate what the West has deemed appropriate for Afghanistan, namely a religion-based government made up of the crew that originally brought bloody civil war to the country after the Soviet retreat, so much so that the Taliban were greeted as liberators.
Part of the Western production includes the by-now iconic image of Ahmad Shah Massoud, plastered all over the city, down to the ramshackle booths of stalls on the road to Pakistan. The Lion of Panshir comes in all shapes and sizes, as post-cards, giant posters (even on the facade of the airport, next to Karzaï) leaflets, or wall-hangings or carpets : at least you can stand on his face, which may have been the secret intention of the local weavers….. If the current logic prevails,, doubtless tee-shirts, mugs and, why not, thongs will follow to be sold to US and allied soldiers and embassy staff, Even if the French, for reasons that remain their own, invented this national hero who happened to be fluent in their language, the Kabulis themselves don’t mince their words when it comes to describing the atrocities he committed on the civilian population. Why not ask the Afghans themselves to chose their national hero and write their own history ? They would have voted for King Amanullah. After all , unlike Massoud he was a true progressive who believed in women’s rights- and got killed for his attempts at modernisation in the 1920s.

So there is the absurd, indeed obscene worship of Massoud ; the presence of Fundamentalist warlords and like-minded affiliates in the government- such as Barhuddin Rabbani or the Chief Justice Shinwari whose sympathies lie close to the Taliban. He has named judges in the highest posts in the country who have absolutely no formal education outside limited Coranic studies. The maintenance of Afghanistan as an Islamic republic like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan makes sure that the strictest form of Sharia, religious law is here to stay. Why, if religion is an obligation,, can’t the country be allowed to be simply a Muslim country like Morocco or Tunisia or most of the rest of the Muslim world.? It is more than slightly sinister to ponder that the present bigot US president and opponent of modern human rights has chosen to ally himself with the most reactionary (and anti-women) Muslim nations. Fundamentalists of the world unite, your time is nigh! . Nevertheless, I do think the Afghans themselves have to do something about it as well. As I told many of the more academically-orientated RAWA members and supporters, they need to reconsider their own history and counter the propaganda. A courageous group has started a weekly called ‘Rozgaran’ which systematically denounces the routine abuses committed by the government, relating it to recent history. I really hope that someone starts to rewrite the history of the past 25 years ; the war-lords and Fundamentalist Mudjhaddins (Massoud included) styled themselves into the sole opponents of ‘heathen’ Communism, with the logistical blessing of the US- (watch Rambo in case you’ve forgotten). Now there were other modes of secular opposition ranging from intellectuals such as the poet Majrooh, various shades of committed socialists and one-time Maoists who found the pro-Soviet manner to be ineffective within the Afghan context.- this is where the figure of Meena the founder of RAWA has her place The leaders of these groups were nearly all murdered, usually by the most sanguinary of all warlords, Gulbedddin Hekmatyar. The memory of the socialist, non-Soviet secular alternative has been obliterated as anti-Islamic but it seems to me that today, the only people with whom a dialogue is truly possible are representatives of a secular alternative, admittedly few and far between. The outspoken parliamentary and one-time presidential candidate Malalai Joya in Farah is one such person. And there are others, these need to be sought out and encouraged by thinking intellectuals in the West. Despite keeping a low profile and concentrating on vital humanitarian issues, RAWA also needs to develop an open political platform. With religion as the moral norm creeping back into the daily fabric of today’s world at a frightening rate (viz. the media frenzy over the demise of senile, AIDS -promoting Pope John Paul), secularism needs to be defended and fought over by each and everyone of us- what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is bound to have sinister consequences in the entire Western world.

Travels to Pakistan

I am happy to say that I travelled over the legendary Khyber Pass overland twice inside a week. The road from Kabul to Peshawar, complete with gorges, precipices, camels against a mountain backdrop, orange groves, Kutchi shepherds- and brightly clad shepherdesses, goats and sheep holding up the traffic, enormous rocks thrown by a giant hand on the hillside, turbaned warriors of every kind (including Taliban) ancient caravenserail stops where locals dream their opiate dreams and the rest of us eat delicious pilaw- surely the trip of a life-time which doubtless your embassy will advise against, for all kinds of perfectly logical, completely pragmatic reasons… I chose the madcap romantic alternative and loved every minute….
The first time, I did n’t really know how illegal it was to cross the notoriously lawless Tribal Areas in Pakistan without a permit, the second time, on the way back, I did, and had to resort to hiding under a heavy shawl and ducking each time a soldier turned up tapping at the bus window. Just as well I’m not a slim young blonde after all. That’s when I fully realized what a sinister package deal the whole veil is : it is truly a system (in the Baudrillard sense), not an element of partisan costume, as veiling supporters in France (and elsewhere)would have you believe. Cover your head and your face and you discover that you may not show your hands or your feet, you have to keep your arms close to your body, walk in tiny steps, always look down, never stroll about, gape, wonder or take photographs, at best hurry from one place to another. Sitting motionless is just as hard, (my gorgeous Afghan son and travel companion-cum-bodyguard warned me : « And stop saying ‘Wow’ every minute otherwise we’ll really be in trouble »). For good measure, I removed my glasses as that’s a dead give-away in a country with about 90% rate of female illiteracy ; after all it’s at school that you find out you can’t see on the blackboard and need glasses…
When I was in Peshawar, there was rioting in this Fundamentalist stronghold held by the Taliban-friendly MMA coalition, stones had been thrown at windows and passing vehicles. This sinister party has just won a major victory by enforcing the stating of religion in Pakistani passports, thereby ensuring possible discrimination against the non-Muslim population. On advertisements and movie posters, female faces have been blackened-out, music is forbidden and women are rapidly disappearing from public space. The thinking, educated population is increasingly alarmed, but the reaction is to flee the area as far as possible.