Kabul is a city of hustle and bustle. There are few paved roads and no traffic lanes, intersections or traffic lights. Livestock including sheep, goats and camels weave in and out of traffic consisting mostly of old Toyota Corolla Sedans converted to taxicabs while young men in jeans talk on cell phones. It is a cacophony of traditional and modernity.
In March 2005, I traveled with the Global Exchange delegation "Women Making Change" to Afghanistan. I was in my final semester at Arizona State University, pursuing a BFA in photography.
My flight departed from Phoenix, Arizona, en route to Dubai via Amsterdam. Terminal one, Sheikh Rashid Terminal, in Dubai, reminded me of Las Vegas; date palm trees, gold pillars, duty free Givenchy perfumes, plastic camels, hookahs, prayer rooms and even a McDonalds with the standard Big Mac, as well as, a “McArabia Kofta” grilled beef wrapped in an Arabic style pita bread. It was in stark contrast to terminal two, a much smaller building connected by a shuttle, the departure point for security contractors going to Iraq (via Kuwait) and Kabul . After writing a handful of postcards and retrieving my luggage I donned a scarf and appropriately conservative clothing and boarded ARIANA airlines to Kabul.
Najib Sedeqe, our guide and translator met us at the war ravaged Kabul International Airport. Aircraft wreckage and un-cleared landmines littered the fields next to the runway. "Bakhshesh" or bribes were paid at various checkpoints and to porters as we navigated through the dimly lit airport towards the exit. Upon reaching the circular driveway in front of the airport, where our driver Farid had parked the mini van, we were greeted by armored tanks carrying Canadian ISAF Peacekeepers.
Time on the ground in Kabul was a short ten days. Itinerary was fast paced. Each morning we woke up at around 7 AM and had breakfast of naan, cheese, fried eggs, tangerines and tea. “Shower” facilities consisted of a bucket of warm water which was heated with wood in a water heater like tank with a spigot. Lunch was kebabs, kabuli rice (with carrots and raisons), yogurt, spinach, naan and tea at local Afghan restaurants, like The Marco Polo. Dinner was cooked and served by staff at the DeMazang District neighborhood guesthouse. Electricity was available for a couple of hours each night and was powered by a generator.
Our first day included a visit to the ARIANA Airlines office to confirm our return ticket and the internet café to contact our families. Orientation included advice to stay with the group and don’t take photos of ISAF, NATO, U.S. Military or Afghan police. We gave American dollars to Najib who negotiated with road side money changers on our behalf for Afghan currency. We continued on to the stationary shop to buy school supplies and the tourist shopping district "Chicken Street”.
While the local men and children often solicited me to have their picture taken, clowning and posing, the women were more reticent. I approached a small group of women in burqas and signaled that I would like to take their picture. As I took the photograph I was quickly surround by a large crowd pressing in on me, with hands outstretched shouting “one dollar, one dollar.” Suddenly a little girl appeared out of nowhere, scattering the women and motioning for me to go into a nearby bookstore. “I will be your bodyguard, no?” she asked in English with an impish grin. Anita was one of an estimated 40,000 street working children in Kabul.
During the five year period from 1996-2001, that the Taliban were in power, girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to attend school. Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many teen age girls having missed five years of school resumed their studies at the elementary school level. Our second day included a visit to the Afghans4Tomorrow girls school.
After the days itinerary a friend and I frequently walked around the Demazang District neighborhood where our guesthouse was located. One afternoon as we paused to photograph a small boy chasing a rooster through a family graveyard, an elderly woman stood at the top of a small hill, shouting in Dari and gesturing excitedly. At first I thought that she was angry with us. Perhaps we had offended her by trespassing or photographing the green Martyr’s flag fluttering above a grave marker. I had left on our unescorted walk filled with bravado. Now out of sight of the guesthouse all of my mother’s pre-trip warnings rushed at me like a pack of wilder beasts. “Chai“, she shouted. And then I understood. In a traditional display of Afghan hospitality, Quandi-gul was inviting us in for tea.
We made an unscheduled visit to the Rabia Balkhi women’s hospital where Najib had arranged a private meeting with the head of the maternity department. About a dozen women in a single room moaned and paced about in various stages of labor. Newborn babies slept two to three to an incubator due to a hospital equipment shortage. Basic necessities like anesthesia and sutures were in short supply or non existent.
De miners from the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) searched for and removed landmines from a field on the outskirts of Kabul. A metal post designated with a red flag marked “M” indicated a landmine. The first aid tent consisted of a canvas cot under an EZ up canopy. The Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled is the government department that is responsible for all issues relating to landmine victims, including de-miners that are killed (martyred) in the line of duty.
The itinerary which consisted of many meetings with governmental officials and heads of NGO’s became mentally exhausting after a time. A friend and I ditched the group, with Najib’s blessing, and hired a driver and a translator. In search of Afghan music we back tracked to a Chicken Street video store. Our young guide passionately recommended cassette tapes of Afghanistan’ greatest singer the former Ahmed Zahir, also known as, the Afghan Elvis.
Global Exchange Reality Tours organizes trips to over 30 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, including Afghanistan. Check them out at: http://www.globalexchange.org/tours/. They arrange guides, translators and drivers, which are all local and guesthouse accommodations and itinerary which is flexible. All you have to do is show up.
Afghanistan “Women Making Change”, March 2-11, 2009
Cost: $1750 airfare not included.