An Afghan Diary: A monumental meeting with Malalai Joya and
reminders of 1994 Sarajevo where amazing women overcame the wartime despairs
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ By Carol Mann, Founder and President of FemAid, a non-profit charity based in Paris, working in the NWFP (Pakistan) and Afghanistan since 2001. Read MORE
Some names have been changed to safeguard privacy
Kabul, summer 2006 Kabul is still is the sprawling ugly city it was on my last visit a year ago. Instead of the slithering mud flying all over the place, clouds of dust seep into your eyes, ears and nostrils from the unpaved roads covered with litter of every kind. As does the stench of the open sewers. “Progress” may be summarized in the following poster, espied in the Kabul Bank: two women are clad in blue burqas; one holds out a credit card to other saying ‘Tut tut, don't you use the Kabul Bank?’ Feudalistic patriarchy remains undisturbed, but capitalism rolls on… There may be a new commercial centre, absurd glass fronted buildings and luxury hotels but the municipality still hasn't organized garbage collection, it’s everyone for themselves trying to make money as fast as possible. The hideous new commercial centre sports boutiques boasts the same made-in-China clothes one finds in any European market, overpriced for the local would-be clientele. The $200 + a night rooms in the new-fangled hotels are for the well paid NGO members, entrepreneurs and drug-dealers. Anybody with half a brain tries to work for an NGO, so the universities and schools are badly understaffed and rarely paid. One can't blame them really. The head of the English department in the teacher training department can barely align three words in coherent English, his students despair, especially those who spent years in Pakistan and who would be well equipped to teach in his stead but don't have the official diplomas or the kind of pull this pretentious fellow has. The school in housed in a resplendent building built by the French, but the contrast with the level of teaching is alarming and bodes ill for the next generation of teachers, not to mention their future students.
Of course the city is filled with admirable projects, especially those empowering women in rural areas run by UN Habitat which I saw in action; but overall they hardly seem unified and express more donors’ charitable fantasies than anything practical. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with the girl sponsored by France to take her troupe of clowns to entertain kids in hospitals- but what about the state of hospitals themselves, the level of the care and nursing, not to mention the sheer misery of this kids once they return to some form of health and probable begging in the street? In many ways a hateful city, the wild east, so to speak of Asia.
Meeting Malalai Joya was momentous. This is the famous young dissident parliamentary representative who never ceases to express her opposition to the warlords in the government, at the risk of her life. And as much as a committed feminist as any woman could be in this most patriarchal of feudal societies. A moving, tiny woman with blazing eyes- I realized how charismatic she was when I went to the welcome party at the airport where we waited for a couple of hours under the meagre shadow of a tree for her delayed plane to show up. She has to fight physically and morally against every kind of enemy, from bag-bashing fellow female deputies or crutch - wielding veterans during parliamentary sessions, to death threats by war lords. Talking to people everywhere, I have come to understand to what extent she expresses the by now barely suppressed anger of the Afghan people everywhere, outraged at being governed by the self-same warlords (now clean-shaven) who brought civil war to the country. The streets of Kabul are filled with men in jackets and women in burqas, yet slightly less of the latter than a year ago. Curiously, it is the memory of those years of civil strife after the fall of the Communist regime (of which the last Najibullah era is generally seen as a golden age) that remain more painful to the population itself, not the Taliban. The destruction of Kabul led by the savage hordes of Rabbani and Massoud led to the Taliban, initially welcomed for their law and order policies which even to the eradication of much of the poppy fields. Today, many Afghans feel betrayed by what was a promise of democracy and is turning into a rewriting of history best symbolised by the way the warlord Massoud has been turned into a national hero through Western pressure, giving his name to the airport, a main square etc. Feirouzeh, a physiotherapist from Kabul hospital told me that with the Taliban « Women were admittedly locked-up, stopped from going to school but at least safe, not threatened by rape and killing by roving bands of Mudjhaddin ». Having said all this, the situation in the capital city at least holds more promise today than in the recent past and Afghanistan reflects and perhaps concentrates the chaos and contradictions of what is indeed a global situation. President Karzai’s job is a phenomenally difficult one.
The youth library project which was the reason of this trip had been launched last autumn in Toronto by my friend Carol Mark and myself. The idea of a play centre had added itself on as something new and essential as the very notion of playing is alien to Afghan childhood. We had written to Malalai Joya and she had responded favourably. The Western area of Afghanistan, on the Iranian side has a long literary and artistic tradition and learning has a special status. For women, getting an education means accessing a hallowed privilege- which may also be the reason why on the other side of the frontier, women have been flocking to universities, even encouraged by the government, especially in the days of Khatami.
Malalai Joya is keen on the youth library project, but is worried that this may be another empty promise, the kind which she has heard more than once. In a city like Farah, with no facilities but a growing school population, this would mean so much. Properly managed, it could change even the self-perception of the citizens of this forlorn city. During our meetings, I realized that it would be heart-breaking to let Malalai down : I did not want to over-promise, but such a project does indeed seem possible…
Leaving Kabul for Herat in the nick of time The French embassy was under orange alert on Sunday (turned red on the Monday when the riots started. The consul had been against going West, informed me that Afghanistan, like Liberia was officially off-limits for French citizens and refused to facilitate the visa for Iran which I wanted, as I was travelling near the border. «We can’t stop you but… », the consular administrator said, taking a photocopy of my passport ‘just in case’. Just as I got to Herat, I found out that all non-Afghan personnel in any NGO or representation had been evacuated, so I was the only Western person in the whole of that frontier area.
By a stroke of incredible luck Feryal my friend, assistant and interpreter and myself were on the early plane to Herat at exactly the moment the riots in Kabul were beginning - in Kheir Khana where I had been staying. On a rickety previously South American Kam Air plane (blacklisted after a fatal air crash earlier this year) rattling every screw and bolt all the way, women in burqas held their tightly swaddled babies. In an emergency, do they put the oxygen mask under or on top of the burqa ? You may well ask….
As for going to Farah by road, everyone thought I was insane, but Malalai assured me of her protection, I feel that these people know the ins and out of the area better than anyone else- I am writing the first part of this report from Farah, we still have to get back from this place and go through the Taliban danger zone once again, so let’s hope they’re right or otherwise no-one will ever get to read these lines…
Herat is a truly beautiful city, the breathtaking blue-tiled mosque which was to influence all of Moghul India architecture. A feeling of near opulence even, shops filled with goods from Iran, down to freezers and cookers. Yet at night you hear donkeys braying and at dawn the call to prayer with the mosques competing in this heavily religious city. Which means that the women are shrouded in black veils of sweaty synthetic material from head to toe, contrary to the free-wheeling men dressed in white cottons. Because of the local tensions following the Kabul riots, I had one such veil made, the cut is complex with a circular peace at the bottom sweeping the floor and some kind of elastic band that needs to be attached in front one’s ears, then the fabric pulled over the side of one’s face. It keeps on sliding off and ideally one needs another scarf underneath to keep it on- which is great at 40°C in the shade. This is indeed a major form of oppression and must rate as the most unflattering costume ever inflicted against women. I now get the hang of how to keep the wretched thing on, but I always have tell-tale wisps of hair showing and anyway the way I stride (rather than a demure mincing walk) gives me away- not to mention the time when the thing was practically blown off (as well as most of what I was wearing) as we came out of the mosque, revealing the tattoo on my shin. I am not sure the religious scholars in big turbans, walking hand in hand out of the madrassa as is their wont were particularly delighted. Feryal was falling apart with laughter, I wasn't. Rural Pashtun women often have little tattoos on their forehead and chin - so they always admire mine!
Apart from the library project, I wanted to pursue my research on self-immolation by fire of young women which has become endemic in the West- this is related to a research project I am presenting at a conference at the Sorbonne in September. My earlier hunch was right : much of this is caused by exposure to the media and the ensuing feeling of powerlessness. A number of educated girls having lived in Iran are amongst the victims, they had spent refugee years there , which so many tell me was so progressive, rich and open (in comparison with Afghanistan) – one pretty girl (fashionably clad in a figure-hugging pink denim affair outfit bought in Iran) in the Journalism Faculty told me returning here had made her positively stupid- the Iranian deal is simple and utterly hypocritical : as long as you play the game, appear covered in public, everything else is your own business. The girl is much envied in her faculty for another reason. As her school mates told me « She made a love marriage with another student. » This indeed is exceptional here, as all marriages are arranged when not actually enforced which is more the case in rural areas. Yet of love, these girls indeed dream, doubtless the boys as well under their rugged manner, more and more so as they discover other norms through the media. The sense of deprivation is become increasingly intolerable as the soaring rates of suicides show.
Women as burn victims We visited Herat hospital which according to articles had been lavishly renovated. Where and how remains a mystery. The sick lie on the floor lining the passages, babies covered in burn wounds are placed atop their mother’s burqas on the rickety beds, the filth and the stench are nauseating. In the burns wards, the girls whimper pitifully on filthy sheets, or directly on plastic-covered mattresses, they are tended by their mothers and mothers-in-law. The sole nurse on guard assures me they are given pain-killers, I found that hard to believe. Apart from suicides, the border between murder and accident is hard to define. Two girls had fallen in the fire as a result of epileptic fits, and had been left in the flames for hours! The mother-in-law of one such girl fifteen and pregnant (but probably no older than twelve) was indignant and all she had to say was «We spent 40,000 afghanis ($800) on her, we didn’t know she was sick ». In brief, cheated on the goods. I held the poor girl’s emaciated hand until she stopped shaking and weeping, so she drifted into asleep, I wish I could have taken her back to Paris to care for her. No love or tenderness is expended on girls in this most brutal society. What indeed happens to these girls when they finally return home? The survival rates must be low as their lives are incredibly harsh, something which I have been able to observe at close quarters across the years. Up from four in the morning to fetch water and make bread, these young women never get to sleep before eleven at night, when the chores are finally done. And they give birth to about eight children on average. In these clanic extended families, only the mother-in-laws (i.e. the mothers of sons) actually manage to rest and be waited upon by the dutiful wives of those sons. And as yet, I have never heard of a kind-hearted mother-in-law.
At the hospital, they claim that suicide figures are going down in the city- how far that is true remains to be seen - what about the cases that never get to the hospital? Furthermore, according to Angeles of Medica Mondiale whom I met in Kabul, girls often believe that a hospital will never treat attempted suicide cases. Awareness programmes and workshops may well have had an effect in the larger cities. This is not the case for the rough city of Farah, south of Herat and closer to Kandahar where things are getting worse and suicides are on the increase. In a remote village in the area I asked women about this. One summarized the situation « In the old days, we were not happy but we accepted our lot : I was a slave to twenty people and tended to my five children. My mother in law was cruel, my husband didn't care about me but that was the way life was. Today girls know that all lives are not like that, and they just can't take it »
One remarkable woman has been fighting nearly single-handed against this : the attorney Maria Bachir. At the Kafkaesque law court of Herat, women come to see her to ask for help against violent husbands and mothers-in-law. Maria tries to get them jailed, but they usually buy their way out. Judges, hospital authorities, the police, officials, anybody can be bought in this country, murderers go free, she confirmed. She has refused to work for any NGO « Otherwise, who would defend these women? They'd be left even more wretchedly alone ». In her pitiful office, writing on scraps of paper (while her superiors loll about in plush premises), the Shirin Ebadi of Afghanistan has to face death threats and goes about with a gun in her handbag
A youth library project for Farah Farah was the aim of this trip. Now that I'm back, I can write about it. An ancient city with a ruined fortress purportedly built by Alexander the Great (in my opinion, a later tyrant who may have used him as role model), today it is wretchedly poor and isolated. This forlorn area is a furnace, set in a desert, surrounded by ominous black mountains, with temperatures reaching the 50°C. I was told that I was lucky with the weather, only the early 40s, with me practically comatose under my black shroud. A year ago it had been ten degrees more at the same period… Plus the most voracious mosquitoes in the world, as starved as the rest of the population, they were feasting themselves on my pampered Western body as we slept outside by bright moonlight. The poverty is extreme, people live from the opium harvest. An average garden yields about $150 a month which is what families of about ten to twelve live from here. Poppies here are what geraniums are on Austrian or Swiss chalets windowsills, i.e. ubiquitous. A little girl handed me some dried husks which had been slashed to extract the juice that leads to heroin. A souvenir which I smuggled in the sleeve of a jacket to show my son in Paris. What seems obvious, that with the American pressure, drug abuse eradication seems to be limited to arresting the small fry on the road from here to Herat with a little bag of opium, whereas the four-wheel drives with official number plates sail past, stuffed with heroin according to articles and vocal rumour Because of the Taliban on the road from Herat and Farah, I travelled « sotto burqa », between desert and jagged mountains that resembled rotting teeth. Each time some soldier or other stopped our car and peered through the window, I tried to sit demurely. We were joined by Malalai’s armed guard afterwards, and I had three cheerful Kalashnikov-wielding guards following me around hereafter- so everyone in town knew there was a foreign woman in town, continually buying ice-cream for her retinue…. It is only afterwards that I found out about a suicide bomber and a killing whilst I was there - no wonder the guys looked nervous each time I stepped out of the car…
I had come to check out the possibility of building a library or acquiring a building for this purpose. We had bought about 50 books from Herat to start it off- mainly Iranian publications, encyclopaedias, poetry, novels, English-language manuals. This is the just the beginning: we plan to buy many more. Illustrated encyclopaedias type books from abroad will be sent as well. Why a library in one of the most illiterate countries in the world? Since the fall of the Taliban, girls have been increasingly attending schools, they see education as a mode of salvation and self-advancement. School may be compulsory, but families can refrain their daughters from going. Nevertheless, some 3000 girls attend on a shift system, for 4000 boys, this indeed is promising. Furthermore, there is a tradition of folk poetry as well, as Pashtun women spontaneously compose 'landays', a local version of haikus. In Herat, next to the imposing public library, I had encountered a group of girls who met weekly to write poetry and they told me this kind of pastime was not unusual in the city. Let’s hope this custom persists, at least alongside MTV’s Afghan look-alike, namely Tolo TV…
From France, I had carried educational games and toys. The project includes a library area for school kids, computers and room for young children with toys. Half the pupils in the Melman Nazo are married and mothers, so the idea is that they could come with their children. Playing does not exist, because the concept of childhood as a period of discovery, learning and development is inexistent. Just as in pre-Enlightenment Europe, a child is considered just an incomplete, immature non-sexual adult who has to train for future hardship, especially girls. Cheerful Nilofar, aged eight but looking no older than six, spends the day lugging her baby brother and /or heavy ‘toshak’, the mattresses people sit and sleep on, drawing water from the well and assisting her heavily pregnant mother ( in her early thirties, expecting number seven). When I taught her how to put a puzzle together, she was thrilled, but naturally the household chores were forgotten, something her mother promptly reminded her of. An area devoted to playing will certainly advance the cause of childhood here, but it seems essential that we train someone who can work in this way with children.
We toured the aid agencies, lethargic in comparison to the buzz in Kabul. People are waiting for money to materialize as they fan themselves with brochures, bemoaning the absence of funds. Much of the latter seems to have been sunk into carpeting and outsize armchairs of which the same species is visible in most of these offices anywhere in the country. The American PRT, the reconstruction team sits in cement bunkers behind miles of barbed wire- my black veil kept on getting caught in its barbs as a strong wind, like a burning hair dryer, was blowing continuously. The ambiance is very Dino Buzatti ‘Desert of the Tartars’, on permanent alert, as if expecting an imminent attack. Huge Marines in combat uniform parade about, even a surprising young female military all blonde hair and dimples. Totally surreal.
We finally located a possible building- I insisted that it had to be in the local style, with ‘gumbazi’, earth cupolas that absorb the heat. The architecture here is truly beautiful- the soft round pregnant shapes of the gumbazi providing a welcome contrast to the jaggedness of the rocks all round. Yet the population yearns for cement palaces in the gaudy Pakistani style which is what drug barons are building in the midst of the desert. The house we found is brick and earth, newly redecorated, with four well appointed rooms, a well and a series of rooms round the garden. The asking price is about $ 50 000 and we are hoping for solar energy, which the PRT said they were interested in. It is obvious that this would be an ideal solution for energy in this part of the world, where electricity is mainly (and sporadically) available through private generators which means that most people are deprived of it. We also want to provide the furniture, computers and a steady supply of appropriate books, which means another $30,000 on top of that. This is destined to become the municipal library, geared towards the youth of the city- after all, they would be the only ones in fact truly interested by such a project. English classes for girls need to be part of it, but they would have to be free, because otherwise families would be reluctant to invest even the tiniest sum for their daughters, even if they might do so for their sons. What a challenge! In the meantime, we are housing the library in temporary premises nearby to launch the project, and we indeed need all the help we can get
In conclusion This trip was a high intensity adventure- to say the least. I'll need some time to recover. All the more after a harrowing trip which had me sitting about in Kabul Airport in a filthy and uncomfortable lounge for ten hours, not knowing if this or any plane would ever take off again. The Afghan company, Ariana Airways is blacklisted and they hire a different carrier company each week- this time round the stewards needed training and Frankfurt airport was reticent to OK the landing of this particular plane - which is why my flight out, officially due the previous day had been cancelled. With a few other women, I ended up curling on a bit of carpet on the airport lounge floor normally reserved to prayer. Coming took home three days instead of one. I also damaged my ear-drums by flying in too many ramshackle, badly pressurized planes.
All in all I must admit that I got more than bargained for. In these circumstances, I could simply rely on Malalai’s safety schemes and pray to whatever deity might be presiding. But in view of all the killings, suicide bombs and Taliban attacks, no arrangement is really foolproof. Accidents happen, I realize how lucky I have been. Afghanistan has once more become war zone - not that it has ever ceased to be one in the last quarter of a century. Women remain the victims of patriarchal tradition and fundamentalism- but men, in their own way toil under the consequences : enforced marriages, the obligation to submit to (and hand over earnings) to paternal authority all their lives and the continuous pressure of extended families contribute to frustration and rage. So the suffering and misery remain intense everywhere in a context of increasing insecurity. Yet whereas I chose to challenge fate by coming here, they are landed with daily violence and hardship they haven't asked for. One woman in a remote village said to me « Thank-you for coming, you’re kinder than our own people: you left your family in a distant land to come and help us, that’s really something ». On that scorching day the sun beating down on my shroud-like black tchador namaz, having gone through a rocky desert track preyed upon, as I found out later, by notorious highway killers, in a mud village that felt like walking into Old Testament times, those words went straight to my heart.
Why fight on under such difficult circumstances? The intensity of the voyage reminded me of my initiatory trip to wartime Sarajevo in the summer of 1994, I had encountered, for the first time this particular mixture of despair and hope. With Azra, an amazing woman from the city who had reorganized the education system in her neighbourhood, we dreamt of rebuilding their school. In those days, the siege felt interminable and the return to a normal life seemed beyond the scope of imagination. But somehow it happened and the Skender Kulenovic school in Dobrinja is the most beautiful one in the Balkans- see www.os-sk.edu.ba/historijat.htm. Likewise, the seemingly improbable library project remains emblematic of a future for the new generation of Afghans as well as our own kids. Their fates are intertwined : what affects women in Afghanistan ends up having consequences in our own world, as the rise of reactionary politics all over the world ominously demonstrates. Sharing literacy, literature and games, creating a common set of references through dreams and ideals may create bonds that wars and politics might have otherwise irretrievably destroyed. The fight goes on, for them, for us.
If you feel like donating for the library project, you can use PayPal on www.femaid.org
If you want to send books (from the US) please contact me, but bear in mind that they should be illustrated, non-controversial (geography, geology, basic biology etc) designed for a youth public that does not read English
We are also looking for books in Persian and Pashto : the latter are difficult to find and really essential.
More details (budgets etc) will be on the site or otherwise available by mailing me at