My best friend, Flip has been working on some tunes with an ex-band member’s girlfriend and they’ve turned out just beautiful. Even if this is a bit soppy, it’s attracted the repeat button loop in my brain.
And what a girl. Playing pool in one of Kabul’s bars last night, I ran into this fascinating creature. Half Polish, half Afghan, she’s been coming to Afghanistan yearly since 2002 - five months after the fall of the Taliban. A freelance journalist, she also works as an interpreter and has a unique Afghan-European perspective, which enables her to get closer than many to her stories.
Out of many anecdotes, these are the ones that stuck in my mind, so sorry for the brain-spunk:
* Kabul has Afghanistan’s only women’s driving school. It’s extremely rare to see a woman drive in this country. Those who do often get stared at or even rammed and tailgated as a result of pure male astonishment.
* Kabul has a zoo and a women’s only park (er.. not related). Apparently there aren’t many animals and China halted their aid after a bear and a deer died.
* Coffee shops are very popular, with a ‘Starbucks-style’ modern cafe opening in the next month. Women do go in by themselves occasionally, but mostly wear burqas for their safety. If they order a milkshake, they’ll join three straws together and feed the resulting mega-straw through the burqa-grill. Imagine the photo…if you were allowed to take it, that is.
*The ANP have about 200 women police officers, and the ANP have two women generals. One is about 60 and refused to wear a burqa during the Taliban regime. When they tried to beat her for it, she hit them back. The other one used to be a sky-diver.
* Near Adriana TV (one of the biggest television stations) in central Kabul, there’s a ‘reconcillation centre’, where Taliban can come and hand in their weapons. In return, the government will help them find work.
* Kabul hospital is full of burns victims, but not as a result of explosions. It is becoming more and more common for women with a degree of education or some experience of more liberal lives to try and commit suicide through self-immolation rather than live in, what they see as, a family-run prison.
“My freedom will be taken away.” There was I thinking that same sex marriage was about giving gay people the same legal rights as everyone else. Then I saw this ad and realised that gays are actually storm-bringing harbingers of the apocalypse out to enslave us in their salt mines.”
Having asked for an armoured car, so we don’t always have to rely to taxis, we were amazed to learn it had arrived in Kabul. Only problem was, no-one seemed to know where it was. After a week or so, we heard a rumour it was at the civilian airport, my editor and I went to pick it up.
Our regular taxi driver and thoroughly top bloke, drove us there through a foot of mud and slosh that had evolved from Kabul’s ‘roads’ during the last five days of heavy rain. After several wild goose chases around the area, we finally got the right office and with the minimum of fuss were directed to our brand new armoured vehicle.
It was a spanky new Toyota Landcruiser - very Pimp My Ride. After the obligatory pulling out of drawers, fiddling with the ignition button and indicator lights/windscreen wipers identification, we were ready to drive out. I got the plastic off the dash, tuned in the radio to offensively pumping music, and shoved our now giggling taxi driver in the back.
We’d so very nearly got out before the Afghan bureaucrats came running after us, slipping in the mud, shouting we hadn’t got the right paperwork from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Finance and every last Kafka-esque pencilpusher.
Dammit, we nearly got away with it. The ANP (Afghan National Police) blokes guarding the compound were in hysterics at the sight of officials chasing two western women in the front of the car with no licence plates and the Afghan man in the back. Perhaps it best we didn’t obey our first instinct and floor it. Bye bye Land Cruiser, see you soon.
Hamid Karzai seems to have rush-signed off a law pertaining to the Shia minority of muslims in Afghanistan that, amongst other things, requires a woman to satisfy her husband’s sexual desires every four days. The newspapers are calling it legalised rape, and when I spoke to a member of the ISAF media team, her line was ‘it’s really bad’. And that’s not even off the record.
The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan troubles me greatly. First, the widespread control, bartering and abuse of women disgusts me as an affront to the freedoms I take for granted. Islamic law says it is a sin for a husband to use force to make his wife have sex, but I have no doubt, cultural traditions will not abide by this, putting greater weight on the wife’s sin of refusing her husband.
Second, the issue of women’s rights troubles me because I see a country that is being forced to make cultural progressive leaps in a few years what took western women (and men) hundreds of years to achieve. And as a result, you get this kind of repressive backlash from some traditionalists (not a great word - makes them sound like a minority, whereas they’re in the majority), which election-hungry presidents like Karzai are more than happy to appease for a few votes.
I am a dogged believer in equal rights for women: to education, to medical care, to access to their children, to suffrage and to freedom from abuse. But I also know that women’s rights are not and cannot be top of the agenda in Afghanistan. Security and infrastructure must be stabilised before anyone can think about human rights. People have to eat and have to feel safe from harm.
It’s hard, I know, for nations who are sending their troops to die here to understand why the ISAF nations aren’t openly condemning Karzai. In their opinion, they didn’t send their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to fight for women to be raped by their husbands. I can’t really see how this is going to pan out: all I can hope for is a successful and (relatively) peaceful election to calm the widespread sensitivity and knee-jerk reactions to the ongoing occupation.
Disclaimer: I chose the Independent’s article for link, not as indicative of my political leanings, but as it’s the longest.
It seems that the main purpose of the westerners here is to act as if they’re not in Afghanistan. In a way, it’s natural as much of your life you’re on base, in a military compound often as not. You’re surrounded by naff little shops selling Haribo and Lays and herds of nationalities clumping together, so a gut instinct is to assert your stereotype. For many this involves drinking.
Drinking on base is intense and serious in its revelrie. Like a holiday camp, a scruffy Pontins, perhaps, you lurch from bar to bar, playing pool, smuggling beers under your coat and end up at a mate’s, dancing to bad music until you hobble home, avoiding the police. Just like school camp, but with guns.
Outside in Kabul, you go to a bar within a compound. The Lounge and the Gandamak Lodge are popular with westerners: especially journos, NGO workers and mercenaries. At night, you feel less exposed in the taxi until you get out. Then you really feel you’re not in Kansas anymore. Away from the main shopping roads, the streets are empty apart from loitering ANP members looking daggers. Houses are walled compounds in the traditional Afghan way so it looks like you’re in an industrial area. You’re patted down before being allowed into the central courtyard.
Suddenly everything changes. The open space in a high wall square feels Mediterranean. You smell charcoal fires and sheesha pipes. The Lodge has two bars both up and down from the main courtyard in a kind of maisonette effect. They serve from a small bar upstairs and mix Long Island Ice Teas randomly with three spirits.
The Gandamak Lodge feels more serious. The guard at the front clearly doesn’t approve of us as we buy tokens for the bar. The bar is like walking back into England. It’s downstairs, small and snug and smokey. Thick, black wooden beams lie in wait for your head at the end of the night. The bar itself looks like it should have toby jugs and horse bronzes hanging over it. There’s an extermely drunk English Al-Jazeera journo in the corner. You can’t make out what he’s saying.
When you finally leave and get into the taxi, you’re drunk. There are four women in the back, one sitting on another’s lap. The women are loud and one shouts ‘sex!’. The driver is liberal, used to western ways, but you wonder… this isn’t your country and you are far from home. Suddenly the car stops at a police checkpoint. The ANP member demands the window is wound down. The westerner in the front tries basic Pashto, while the driver talks over him. The ANP wants to see into the car and the inside lights are switched on. You wonder how you look: white face, mascara probably smudged, headscarf lopsided. The driver stares for a long time then waves us on. ‘He wanted water’, says the driver.
The next night you hear your first gunfire. It sounds like it’s coming from the gate. Regular bursts of one to two seconds. Hopefully it’s a jumpy guard. You wonder again just where you are.