Mars needs women. So does Kandahar
April 12, 2007

 
I'm back in Kabul, after spending two and a half days in Kandahar. I'm incredibly sick, and missed my first day of work. I'm off to the German clinic to pick up a prescription shortly... but the only fighting in Kandahar seems to be in my intestines.

Every time I said I was going to Kandahar, people at my guest house would open their eyes wide. It is an incredibly conservative area, and is perceived as the embodiment of potential violence against foreigners. It was a MAJOR Taliban stronghold, because it shared the same views about women. And when people are killed by bombs or snipers, it's often in this province, if not the city itself.

And, so, I went to Kandahar. My mission - I don't know. Something to do with communication...

I found out that before you get to the airport terminal in Kabul, you and your driver have to stop at this building to the side of the entrance driveway and have your bags searched. Because I lack a penis, I had to go in a separate little room, where a little middle-aged woman sat behind a broken baggage x-ray machine, watching a Droopy Dog. She asked me where I was going, and I told her. She asked what was in my bags, and I told her. She reached out over the broken conveyor belt, put her hand on my face and patted my cheek. Then a local guy came in to say something to her, and so I asked her if I could leave, and she said yes. It all felt really weird. I found out later from a woman security officer staying at the guest house in Kandahar that I had lucked out and avoided either giving the woman something from my bag, or money. She said this woman is a major shake-down artist. Great. Sooooooo looking forward to dealing with her again... I'm reading a LOT of bad stories online about shake downs at the Kabul airport. I'm not talking about backsheesh like you pay in Egypt to people who carry your bags or give you directions on where to go - I'm talking about *demands* for money from airline employees who check you in for flights, the security guards that handle your preflight security check, and the police. This is the kind of corruption that's going to derail this country. It's already holding it back in a major way. The government could stop it if they wanted to.

The departure terminal for UN flights is MUCH nicer than the arrival terminal. It's got a little snack bar, plenty of seats, it's well-lit, and it's clean. Nothing fancy, but worlds better than my first Afghanistan airport experience. The flight was full - our flight originated in Islamabad, and continued on from Kandahar to Herat, then back to Kabul - we took the same flight home on Wednesday. And for some reason, I can remember our flight attendants' names: Mohammad and Gloria. The pilot, from down under, did a great job of keeping us posted about delays and weather conditions and such. I always appreciate that.

Unfortunately, it was a pretty hazy day, so I took only a few photos out the window. The Kandahar airport proved much nicer than the Kabul airport - I felt like I'd arrived at some little Caribbean island. No photos allowed, though, and no women's restroom! After retrieving our bags, we headed out to the pickup spot, where all the UN trucks drove in at once, as well as other vehicles. Our new UN SUV was fully armored - the car door was incredibly heavy, per its reinforced doors and bullet-proof glass. It was lovely inside - very comfy - but when the car moved, you could tell it was a major amount of weight moving, much more than a regular SUV. We all moved out together, convoy style - such are the rules for traveling from the airport. As we drove out of the secure airport grounds and onto the highway to Kandahar, Rob announced, "You know, this is probably the most dangerous road in Afghanistan, because of the IEDs." Thanks, Rob!! Which is exactly what I said.

The landscape looks so much like the California/Nevada border that it was jaw-dropping. Except for the camels (first time I've seen them in Afghanistan; in Kabul, I've seen a few horses and donkeys). The highway looks new, as do the streets of Kandahar. Out the window, the city looked nothing short of charming. There were took tooks everywhere (if Kabul streets were better these would be ideal), lots of construction everywhere, lots of shops, lots of gorgeous houses behind walls (I was informed that this was "poppy money"), a lot less trash than Kabul, the shops that line the street look neat and orderly and are brimming with things to sell, the simple mud brick homes here and there look picturesque instead of sad and dirty, and even the dirt roads are smooth. But just outside of town away from the main travel ways is all the trash, as well as the Kuchi - the nomads of Afghanistan, representing a variety of different tribes. They are like Irish Travelers or the Roma or the Bedouins - and they've been driven off the land they used to graze with their animals for who knows how many generations, by war and drought and insecurity, and now have nowhere to go. They are incredibly discriminated against.

I also saw women on the street, though ALWAYS covered in a burka or wrapped in a massive shawl, exposing only their eyes. Well, except for some old women - two or three who were too old for anyone to care that they had pull the front of their burka back, fully exposing their faces and whatever they were wearing underneath. I had been told there would be NO WOMEN in Kandahar on the street. It wasn't so.

Except for the oh-so-bright red carpets, the Ministry offices in Kandahar are MUCH nicer than ours in Kabul. They even have an outside volleyball court, which I have been whining to have at least once a week at the ministry's Kabul compound. Every office has its own bathroom, and away from the sun, the building stays naturally cool. However... no women! I was the only woman there in the entire four-story building. And you could tell a lot of the guys were not used to a woman wandering around. The engineers and the head of the ministry office, all guys in their 30s or younger, were all nice, respectful and helpful. I could tell they felt at least a little awkward, but beyond that, they were fine. But the upper management guys in their 50s and up... they wouldn't even look at me during *meetings*. And it TICKED ME OFF. So I started coming up with questions both to force them to look at me and force them to have to answer to me.

I only wore my headscarf in the non-armored vehicles (because they don't have tinted windows), the airport, in the driveway walking into the military base (more on that later) and at the nonprofit I'm going to talk about later. My philosophy is this: when we are at work or in the guest house, or even just the grounds for such, we are all brothers and sisters. And a woman isn't required to wear the headscarf with family. I go with my gut when it comes to wearing the headscarf - my international male colleagues are no help at all when it comes to advice. One American colleague even said I shouldn't wear it at all but, well, my intuition said otherwise. Men really have no idea what it's like for international women here, truly.

I try to say "Salem Walaikum" (peace be with you) to everybody. And I would say 90 percent of people return the greeting. The older male laborers in Kandahar seemed thrilled when I said it - they would have this gruff, somber look on their face, and then I'd put my right hand over my heart and give the greeting, and almost always, I'd get this big semi-toothless grin, a bow and the greeting heartily returned. And most men do shake my hand, even in Kandahar. And my Daddy taught me how to shake hands. But sometimes, I'll get a guy who mumbles "Hello" and walks by with little eye contact. I always assume they're extremists - extremist Muslims don't believe one should give that greeting to non-Muslims. No literal Koranic basis for that, ofcourse... as usual...

I went to the big Canadian army base, for a meeting with a Canadian government group funding a lot of the ministry's projects, and doing some of its own reconstruction work as well. A military liaison was there too. I really liked them all - they all so sincerely want to make a better, more secure environment here. And they were so happy at how much I liked Kandahar. I liked seeing the women soldiers - you go, girls. The compound flag was at half staff, however, per the Canadian soldiers killed in Helmond province.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to one of Rob's former colleagues, who runs a nonprofit called Afghans for Civil Society. The woman who runs the women's programs was born in Afghanistan, but grew up in Northern Virginia. She was particularly impressed by my ability to say "Kandahar" like her non-Afghani friends back home (and Tariq, a young Afghan guy that is our official representative in Kandahar, kept trying to imitate me, and it was hysterical). Over a delicious lunch at the offices, Rangina, the director of the NGO, told us about the AMAZING things they are doing to help Afghan women in business (and by business, that may mean a woman selling boiled eggs out of her house). She recently organized a women's only bazaar, with only women vendors and customers (a mixed bazaar would NEVER be allowed in Kandahar). Women provided crafts and food to sell (yes, it included boiled eggs), and other women came to buy things or just simply eat and enjoy getting to sit outside together. It was so wildly successful that they are looking to do it regularly. But she faces such terrific challenges. She kept going on and on about the work they are doing to empower women, how skeptical she is of government initiatives, how much better she believes her work is than a lot of what's happening in Kabul, how she pushes and pushes, and when we walked out, Tariq looked shell shocked - he said he'd never heard an Afghan woman talking that way, with such confidence and power. He was impressed. And maybe a little changed himself. Rangina works with more than 400 women making a variety of crafts, and this stuff is GORGEOUS. Yes, I ended up buying something. She said she is having a show of items in Santa Fe, New Mexico soon. I'll try to get more details, in case any of you will be in the area or know people who will be. I wore the headscarf throughout that meeting, because she did -- I went with my gut, and that's what my gut said to do.

I love Kandahar. I really do. Well, the city, anyway - the province is, indeed, quite dangerous. I understand now why the people who are based in Kandahar city dread going to Kabul, and why they are in such a hurry to get back. For the people in Kabul who quake in fear or turn up their noses - that's just fine with the people here. If I lived here, I'd spend at least one lunch a week at the ACS house, and I'd volunteer twice a week to teach English.

I just wish it wasn't so bloody hot in Kandahar... and it's only April!!

My mistake on the trip: not taking a couple of movies with me. We left work both days at around 4, and since the Internet pretty much didn't work... true, I did get some offline work done (that needed to get done), and did a lot of reading, which I always love. But I so rarely have time to watch movies in Kabul.

I really needed this trip. I needed to get out of Kabul. Inshallah, I will come back in 20 years and will be able to walk the streets of Kandahar for myself. It could happen. The potential is everywhere - don't let the media tell you otherwise. Iraq is a lost cause - Afghanistan is a country that really could make it.

Okay, I need to pull myself together to get to the clinic. Hope I have enough money because I STILL HAVEN'T BEEN PAID.

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