Bunker Down
March 5, 2007

 
I have to admit it -- I RESENT the head scarf. I resent that I always have to have it on when I step out of my room, until I get to the office. I hate how it makes my hair look when I take it off. I would feel completely different if men had to wear it as well. But they get to wear *whatever* they want. They should have to wear it too. It took me a while to figure out I didn't have to wear it around the guest house.

I can also take it off as soon as I get to work. Hurrah! I ride to work with two other people from here at Assa 2. So far, I've spent every day staring intently out the window, avoiding conversation. If driving to and from places is the only way I'm going to see the city, then I want to look out the window the entire time. I sit up front, with the driver, on the way to work, but in the back with whomever on the way home -- I'm not sure why that is, but it's just worked out that way. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes to get to work from the guest house.

My office mate, a young German woman who, as you may recall, took the initiative to connect with me before I arrived, says she goes out walking onto the streets of Kabul every day, no problem. And she's obviously not Afghani. But she doesn't have the same security restrictions as UN staff -- officially, she works for the Afghan government. And she speaks the language. She studied it back in Germany! She also speaks Russian. I can't imagine being that well-rounded in my 20s...

The UN has met ALL my expectations: not only was there no reservation for me at the Dubai airport hotel, not only were the directions they gave me regarding the airport transit desk wrong, as well: no one at my office was expecting me, except for my office mate (and that's only because she took the initiative), I have received no guidance from anyone on what in the heck it is that I'm supposed to be doing, as far as paper work, orientation, etc., and the UN HR office says they never received *any* of my previously-submitted paper work. And my boss is on leave. If you add up all the misinformation and lack of information since I was told I had this job in October, you can see why I laugh so hard at conspiracy theories that the UN wants to take over the world. THEY COULD NOT TAKE OVER RHODE ISLAND. If they have a plan to take over the world, it's long ago been misplaced, or is still in committee.

I found out from one of the women here that I was supposed to go to the UN office on my very first day in the country. Did anyone tell me that beforehand? Nope. And while my first day in this government office was Saturday, the UN office was closed. Sigh. So I went to the UN on Sunday. Which was a shame, because I should have just waited until Monday, my third official day on the job, when I had to go to straight to the UN compound instead of to the Afghan government offices where I work, because UN and government security were told by someone that there are suicide bombers (Taliban) in Kabul who want to target government ministries -- the Taliban are very angry with the government for being successful, quite frankly.

The government offices where I work are far outside downtown Kabul, on Darulaman Road -- I'd say it is the edge of town, except I don't know where the edge of town really is. Not that it isn't secure at the government offices -- we have a big iron wall around the compound, and there's no direct road to barrel down and ultimately into the wall (the road runs along the outer wall of our huge compound). But the UN compound is, truly, a fortress, with massively tall outer walls, huge anti-suicide-car-bomber inner walls, and even bunkers. Luckily, we didn't have to go to the bunkers -- all UN staff supporting the government had to just be inside the compound, anywhere. Most of us chose the cafeteria. So, there I was, sitting, bored out of my mind. I had no computer, no reading materials, nothing. I had only found out the night before that I could bring my work laptop home -- that I was, in fact, expected to. If only I'd known just one day sooner -- I could have had something to do!

So, we sat there, my Nepalese colleague and my Kenyan colleague -- everyone else went off to other offices. After almost four hours of jabbering about anything we could think of (and there were times we just sat there, quietly staring at something), it was noon, and we decided to have lunch. Just as I sat down with my food, I looked up, and there is Sonia, a French woman I worked with at a previous UN agency, strolling through the door. We hadn't seen each other in probably three years. If you could have seen our eyes and expressions upon seeing each other -- there is NOTHING like seeing a friendly face when you are so far from home and the people you love. She's working at another UN agency. We are getting together SOON, I hope, for some after-work, evening fun. So, that made the security situation worthwhile -- we never would have seen each other otherwise.

The other big shock was that the cafeteria was serving pork. Salami, to be exact. With a big yellow sign warning you that it is PORK. I just wasn't expecting to see pork for sale in Afghanistan, ever.

Around 13:00, when I had decided I was going to take up a UN co-worker's offer to find an empty desk and computer somewhere in his office within the compound, we got the call that we could go to our office. I could not have been happier. I want to work!! Apparently, if a suicide bomber doesn't hit a target by 8:30, he gives up, because he wants to have just prayed, have fasted, and be totally clean in order to kill large amounts of people. I now get to come into the office at 6:30! That means I'll be up at 5:30 a.m. every day. Oh, joy. Well, until they feel the danger is past. How will they know the danger is past?

I don't want to sound like I'm being flippant about the security situation. I do take it seriously. But remember that I had my life threatened twice by anti-choice religious fanatics while volunteering with CARAL in San Jose -- just for standing at a table distributing our brochures. People of that same ilk blew up two clinics more than once North of me when I lived there, and were constantly threatening to do likewise. I've faced this before. I'm much more worried about a car wreck -- or some crazy virus.

For everything else that hadn't worked out so well, I had found that I have the best view of anyone in our office building. My first days at work, I've looked out on snow-covered fields and mountains. Beautiful stray dogs were playing in the snow out in the compound. A good omen.

Two days later, the sun was shining, the snow was gone from the city, and I could even more clearly see the mountains all around me, most of them still snow-covered. There are little mountains (bigger than hills, with sharp inclines) on the edges of the flat part of the city, and the city continues up them -- I never understand how houses get built in such starkly steep places. There's a large stone wall starting on the plateau near the river and heading all the way up one of the jagged little mountains, with settlements on either side. I'll have to read more about that online.

We're hiring a local counterpart for our communications unit, and my office mate and I *really* want to hire a woman. The only thing is that culture (not the law) dictates she not go on overnight trips unaccompanied by her husband or another close male relative. And local women here adhere to local cultural law -- if they want to live. Women from outside the country, even Muslim women, can get away with much more. So much of the repression of women here, as far as I can tell, doesn't come from Islam but, rather, long held cultural practices, which probably far preceded Islam.

Here's hoping I can use my work computer in my guest house and, at last, work online from there!

((if you want to help regarding the stray dog and cat situation in Afghanistan, please make a donation to the Mayhew Animal Home and Humane Education Centre, and tell them you want your gift to go to their efforts in Afghanistan. They are working to help spay and neuter dogs and cats there, to train Afghans regarding veterinary medicine, and to change Afghans' cultural practices regarding dogs, which have no basis in the Koran. I have spoken numerous times with a representative of this organization; they ARE making a difference, and your support will help them do even more!))

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