Book of Marvels
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Young Afghan Man Speaks

“What is your work here?” asked M, as I was waiting for a ride that never came.

I told him that I'm a writer and that I was in Kabul to work on three magazine articles.

“Are you writing about the women here?” he asked. “Because when writers come, it seems they’re always writing about the women.”

I told him that only one of my articles was about women. And that if he was interested, I’d plug in my laptop and write about him for my blog.

“My story is very long,” he said, but agreed to try to keep it within an hour. An hour wasn't long enough, though-- I planned to sit down with him again and ask more questions, but never got around to it.

These are some of the things he said.

"I was born in Kabul, in Khair Khana. We left the country when I was two—I’m 19 now—and my family went to India. They left to get away from the war. We stayed there for one year, then we came back to Afghanistan for my uncle’s wedding. We stayed here six months, then went to Pakistan. Everyone was still fighting in Kabul. Even if boys were only fifteen, they were taking them away to fight. I stayed in Pakistan for fifteen years...

Afghan men face many problems, but the women can cry and show that they are hurt. The men don’t cry and don’t want to show anyone they’re hurt. A lot of men have lost their wives, their parents, and their children, but they don’t want to show anyone they are hurt by this. My father was hurt by having to leave this country. He loves this country. Now he’s very happy to be back and to find his county is out of war, out of danger. But he is still searching for work. He used to be in the Afghan army before we went to India, but he can’t find work now. So I’m supporting the whole family...

First, I found a job working in the parliament doing shorthand for their meetings. But after three months, they didn’t pay me any salary...then I found a job as a waiter and worked there for one year. I met X in the restaurant and we became friends. She told me my English is very good and asked me what else I had studied. I told her that I had studied MCSE—Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer—but that I hadn’t been able to find a job doing that. I tried finding a job at the NGOs but they said I didn’t have enough experience. Then she called me and told me she needs me at her NGO. Now I am happy with both jobs...

When I was living in Islamabad, we boys would be able to play outside until 1:00 or 2:00 at night, and no one would tell us this is bad. But in Afghanistan, people will tell you it’s too dangerous. If I finish my work at the restaurant at midnight, then I just stay in a room at the restaurant. I can’t go home because it’s too dangerous. The Taliban are still here. You can find them everywhere. I’ve never seen them, and I hope God never shows me to them. There are different types of Taliban. Talib means the one who has memorized all the Koran—so people who are just like that, they won't hurt people. The Taliban who are fighting, they are not human...

I like the people of Pakistan, but not the government. The people are really good. Whenever I go back to Pakistan, I see them and they’re happy to see me. And it’s not so expensieve in Pakistan. Clothes, shoes, everything is very expensive here. Lots of people don’t have enough food for their families—they can eat in the morning, but not at night. It’s difficult to live in Afghanistan right now...

In Kabul, there are now people who have moved here from all the provinces. They are uneducated and they don’t know how to be with other people. Because of these uneducated people, the war will not be over in Afghanistan. Always these people want to fight -- they fight with each other, with Pakistan, with India, wherever. But we can’t find anything from fighting. We have to be like brothers and sisters to each other. Everyone has mothers and sisters. We should not look at each others’ mothers and sisters with bad eyes. "
Friday, June 15, 2007

A Letter From Kandahar

Ever since I started this tenuous connection with Afghanistan at the end of 2005, I've been getting an average of 10 emails a day about what's going on here, either from people with fat distribution lists or from organizations that compile articles from newspapers and magazines around the world. I've found it hard to keep up with all these reports while I'm here because the news is often so disturbing. It's one thing to read about a gunfight among rival politicians near the airport when I'm home in Cleveland, quite another when I"m HERE.

Today, someone forwarded me this letter, below. It's so filled with hope that I wanted to post it. I wrote an article about this woman last year for Entrepreneur magazine. She's an Afghan- American associate of Business Council for Peace who has settled herself in Kandahar, the area often called the "home of the Taliban," where the fighting is most intense. She started and runs a business called Kandahar Treasures that employs 300 local women.


Dear Friends of Afghanistan -

Greetings from HOT Kandahar! I have not written in ages it seems, but I was very touched and inspired and so I write. Today, for the first time in Kandahar's history the women of Kandahar organized to hold a special peace prayer at the sacred Shrine of the Prophet (Kherqa Sharif) in Kandahar.

This program was organized by ordinary mothers, sisters and daughters of men who have lost their lives in these unjust times - they have realized that politics, international policies and the current leaders of the country have not been able to calm the situation in their country. They have learned to turn to God to help!

Kherqa Sharif is relatively a small shrine and Afghans believe that the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad is kept here. Every Thursday thousands of women come to pay their respect to the sacred shrine. The women wanted to hold their event at the Shrine because many women would be there anyway - no need to advertise to gather women. Initially the women did not ask the Shrine keepers to allow them in the mosque next to the Shrine so that they could use the loud speaker - but this morning when the women showed up the Mullah's of the Shrine/Mosque said to the women "you are our sisters and we want you to have a nice prayer - please go to the mosque and hold your prayer there." WHAT MORE DID WE WANT??? The only condition was "no children allowed" - which we planned on not having at any rate for the sake of spoiling the prayer rugs (no diapers in Kandahar!) -

So, the women eagerly went to the mosque and for the first time in Kandahar's history women made a presence at a very historic and public mosque and for the first time in history raised their voices through the loudspeaker that reached the open streets around the Shrine for the sake of peace. Many women were in shock and disbelief that they were allowed inside the Mosque!

I am proud of all the women here because inspite of the situation on the ground the women still gathered to show their solidarity and sisterhood in peace. After the event, my staff and I returned back to our office and I asked them what touched them the most about the event and the following are their answers:

"I have never been this happy in my life - today I read the Holy Quran for my brothers in Islam inside a sacred mosque!"
"For the first time in history we have raised our own voices!"
"After the event, I feel like my depression of life has been lifted!"
"Sitting at the mosque and praying with the women gave me courage to become more active. I know now that I too am capable of serving my people and my country!""This was the best Mother's Day gift that I have ever received!" (Today was Mother's Day in Afghanistan!)

Oh, this was an incredible event! It is indeed amazing what a group of women can do when given the chance. I hope and pray for peace for Kandahar and the rest of the world and hope that our policy makers and decision makers can listen to the cries of so many mothers who so passionately prayed from the bottom of their hearts for peace today in Kandahar. One mother said this while crying out loud " please hold these prayers often so that other mothers would not have to live through what i live through everyday after loosing my beautiful young son so innocently!"

In Peace,
Friday, June 08, 2007

Jingle Trucks!
During my last two weeks in Afghanistan, I've had a slight, very personal recurring despair.... I hadn't seen any jingle trucks.

Seems that I had seen plenty during my first two trips here.
I wondered if they were disappearing along with the blocks of traditional mud-brick buildings and other signs of old Afghanistan.

But yesterday, I went with some friends to a lovely lake with paddle boats and to Afghanistan's one and only golf course. While we were on our way there, we turned a corner and...there was a cluster of jingle trucks, washed and ready for the next day's work! I love the whole jingle truck ethos of embellishing the ordinary, of elevating the workaday to art, of driving beauty all over the country.

There should be a word appropriate for the many-ness of jingle trucks. A tintinnabulation of jingle trucks? A prism of jingle trucks? They are a delight to the ears (if one could hear them over the traffic) and the eyes.
PS--after I posted this, I saw the most magnificent jingle truck ever in downtown Kabul. It had a sort of huge rounded marquis over the cab. Like a headdress for a dancer-- painted, spangled, mirrored, ribboned, tasseled. Utterly magnificent. Who knows what ordinary cargo it carried-- toilet paper? computers? bricks?
Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The fabulous PARSA staff invited me to their compound for dinner and a sleepover last night. I had to share my room with these guys to the right. They were the first round of dolls made by local women for the PARSA gift shop, but didn't quite cut it-- eyes askew, over- or under-sized heads, overall not as artful as further iterations. But still, too delightful to throw away, so they sit on the executive director's windowsill.

When I was getting ready to bed down last night, one of the compound cats shot in the door. I'm allergic and tried to chase it back out again, but it whirled around the room, always out of reach. I thought it was just trying to hang out with me--cats love to make me sneeze-- but no! It jumped on the bed and lunged for one of the dolls, dragged it behind a cupboard and tried to claw off its beard. One of the Afghan members of the PARSA family rushed in and shouted, "He is trying to kill Osama!"

With the cat out of my air, I spent a lovely night in Marnie's office. I was surrounded by the beautiful art work of Afghanistan-- the rugs, the embroidered panels, the painted cupboard. I could hear the water sloshing around in the well outside, the wind passing through the wheat, the dogs' occasional bark, the goats' occasional bleat. I imagined I could hear the mountain, just over the wall at the end of the compound.

Monday, June 04, 2007
The Ice Cream Man

One of the things the Taliban did was to ban music. Clearly, the Kabul neighborhood in which I'm staying would have chafed under this restriction. Last night as I lay on the couch reading for a few hours, I could hear music coming from every direction-- from the neighbors to the left, from the neighbors to the right, from across the street. Wonderful, soulful, dance-worthy, croon-along-with music. Not, I'm happy to say, the theme song to Titanic, which I heard several times at an Afghan restaurant last week. For reasons I don't understand, Titanic is still a big hit in these parts.

During the day, the noise of traffic and construction and planes drowns out most of the music. But the other day, I heard a familiar sound coming from the street and ran up to the rooftop patio to see what it was. An ice cream man! I didn't recognize the melody, but that doesn't seem to matter. There is something universal about the ice cream man's song, whatever the tune-- something about summer and sweetness and small pleasures in the middle of the day.

See the child in the upper right corner, running off to beg her mother for this treat?

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