Nearly 3 years ago I accepted a major on-site graphic design assignment for an NGO in … wait for it … Kabul, Afghanistan! My friend worked at that NGO – that’s how it came about. I embraced this astonishing turn of events impulsively and excitedly. In a matter of weeks, I got my visa, got my shots, flew into Dubai, and took a small plane (filled mostly with some of the biggest hugest Incredible Hulk types of men I’ve ever seen) to Kabul, where all told, I stayed for 5 weeks.
It was an adventure and an interesting experience. It was definitely sobering to see the reality of a place and people I’d only glimpsed through the TV news and media, and I met many great people — local Afghans of various walks in life, and also an eclectic group of expats hailing from all over the globe. But, it was also scary as hell and the LONGEST 30 some odd days of my life. I’m not exaggerating. I actually cried, nearly every night, and I counted days, literally, till it would be time for me to get on a plane back to New York. The harsh reality of being there was … harsh! I’d taken my friend’s word that everything was “totally fine and safe” and as it turned out, our definitions of “fine and safe” were … drastically different!
The surreal reality was that I found myself in a place where being killed by a bomb or getting hit by a missile or being abducted and held for ransom were not idle threats, the stuff of fiction, or a blip on the evening news. They were things that legitimately and plausibly could happen! It was surreal as in so real! Uber real. In retrospect: DUH! I should’ve known all these before heading over there.
I didn’t fully document the trip, alas. I did hint about the impending trip here, and I alluded to my relief at leaving Kabul here, but this is the only somewhat detailed blog post about my trip to Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts from it:
June 11, 2011 | A is for Afghanistan
It’s watermelon season here. The streets are sprinkled with vendors pushing carts topped with pyramids of watermelons. The fruits are smaller here. A plum is smaller than a ping pong ball and a lime is absurdly small – almost cocquestishly delicate in size – a slice of it perhaps larger in diameter than a quarter sized coin! It makes me smile. The watermelon is BIG as it is elsewhere.
Wherever you are, you see the mountains. The city is surrounded by “koh.” It reminds me of the snowy peaks of Damavand and I wax nostalgic at the sight.
We go everywhere with a driver and there are lots of places we are simply not allowed to go to, because: those are the rules. But I WANT to go out and walk in the streets and talk to people and peek inside the stores.
There are guns. Lots of guns. As prevalent as the dust that is everywhere and seeps into the clothes. The city has no pretense of normalcy and yet: life is normal. People shop. Get married. Go out. Work. Live. Get their hair done. Watch TV. Children play in the streets.
Kabul is a city where flowers grow in the shadow of ruins.
There are shacks and hovels and then there are gigantic super ornate mansions that would put any McMansion to shame. My friend calls them “Narcitecture!” Architecture made possible via proceeds of trafficking in narcotics! Shahpour Khan, one of the drivers, said: “Sometimes people get to live their dreams. These houses are like dreams.”
I wish I’d posted more often! Anyhow, sticking to what seems to have become the de-facto theme of Friday blog posts I present you with a pictorial tour of my brief and unforgettable time in the sadly ravaged by wars and power struggles city of Kabul, Afghanistan. Less words, more pix! Berim, berim!
I whiled away the 7 hour layover in Dubai by gawking at everything at the airport.
I don’t recall much about the flight to Kabul. Just that I was tired. Nervous. Hungry.
This was the very first photo I took when in Kabul. It was just as we’d lined up inching our way towards the arrival department of the airport.
I loved seeing the mountains. It reminded me of Tehran and the Alborz mountains. Originally, I had hoped to go visit Iran while I was on this assignment in Afghanistan, but my paperwork was not completed in time and I couldn’t go. Maybe it was the mountains, maybe it was listening to Googoosh on my iPod while I worked, maybe it was because I had gotten my hopes high that I was going to finally return yet it didn’t happen, or maybe it was because geographically I was so close to Iran, closest that I’d been in years, but was yet so far away. Whatever it was, I was nostalgic for Iran with a palpable, tangible heartsickness throughout my stay in Kabul.
Meanwhile, my friend, despite my refutations, repeatedly insisted to me that “you must feel so much at home in kabul” and that “this must remind you of Tehran or Iran.” In fact, nothing about the city of Kabul, save for the familiar sight of the fortress companionship of the mountains, reminded me of Tehran. Kabul is, sadly, a city ravaged by war and it is … in a really bad shape. Tehran was and by all accounts remains a beautiful, modern and very sophisticated metropolis. There is: very little comparison. As they say in Persian:
میان ماه من تا ماهگردون تفاوت از زمین تا آسمان است
The main building in the housing compound I stayed. I did not live in this section.
This was my humble abode while in Kabul. Adjacent to the main building. It was awful.
For the record: I’m not a princess. While admittedly I love shiny and pretty things and definitely have a preference for luxury given the choice, I’ve roughed it plenty. Plenty! I like hiking and camping; I solo drove cross country in America twice, making an unofficial tour of the least desirable motels on each trip; and I did my fair share of Eurailpassing through Europe on a $20 a day budget and all that that entails. But this … this accommodation was on an entirely different level. And lest you think I’m biyatching about the decor or such, let’s just mention two things: a nest of scorpions was discovered under my bed and had to be exterminated. Scorpions! And oh yeah, the other thing, the bathroom situation … which was … how do I say this delicately? Actually, there is no way I could describe it accurately and be delicate so let’s just say that it was … horrifyingly deplorable. I got used to it. I had to. So I made do. But it didn’t make it any less horrifying. Thankfully, elsewhere during my stay in Kabul (at the office, hotels, restaurants, other people’s homes) the facilities were decidedly non-horrifying.
Like a fool, I hadn’t even leafed through a guidebook prior to embarking on this trip. But on my second night there, I innocently read the Lonely Planet Guide to Afghanistan that my friend thoughtfully lent me and read the “Dangers While There” section. Big mistake! I was jolted into the reality of the potential consequences of my adventure and I was basically scared to death for the remainder of my stay. It did not help at all that at the orientation I was given the next day, I was extensively and flourishingly warned of the myriad dangers facing us at every corner and turn. It turns out that just a few days prior to my arrival a supermarket used mostly by expats and trendy Afghans had been bombed. My friend said: I didn’t want to tell you before and scare you. Uh … too late! And halfway through my stay, a major hotel was bombed – leaving many casualties. It certainly did not boost my morals either when everyday at work we got a parade of horrifying emails from the NGO’s security Operating Room.
Emails with subjects like:
UPDATE 4: THREAT WARNING – ANSO CENTRAL – SAF ON-GOING (KABUL)
the contents of which contained info like this:
As per the information currently available, a group of at least 6 well-armed attackers equipped with at least 3 BBIED-vests assaulted the hotel from the Gardane Bala park, which stretches on the Karte Parwan side of the hotel compound.
I basically shook in my boots the whole time i was there. And prayed to make it out intact. And pledged that if so, to be forever grateful that I live not under the daily stress of threats to limb, liberty, and life. And I marveled at the constitution of the NGO staff and the people of Afghanistan who managed to endure the situation and this life style with far more grace and courage than I was capable.
My sanity was maintained entirely thanks to Skype! My nightly calls to family kept me going. Before this trip, I’d totally mocked and judged the Survivor TV show contestants who would get all mopey and turn on the waterworks during the family visit segment some 20 days into their reality show island stint. Thinking: PAHLEASE! It’s been 3 weeks! How could you possibly have had time to miss anyone or get so pitifully weepy? And then, I experienced it myself. When placed in a situation that is for whatever reason starkly challenging in comparison to the normalcy of our day to day life, your mind declutters and your priorities become crystal clear and those priorities are the people you love. They become all that matter and you see very clearly how they are the only things that matter. And so you miss them. With an unbelievable intensity. I’ve never more longed to hear the voices of people I love than then – and their voices were the life vests that kept my spirit afloat.
At the NGO office where I worked, everyday we broke for lunch on the premise. In the house and on the house! A most wonderful perk. A lunch cooked fresh and from scratch earlier that day by this lovely lady – let’s call her Nargess Khanoom. This was before my food blogging days and I sigh each time I recall what a golden opportunity I had to record and photograph all the simple yet wonderful and seasonal lunch spreads Nargess Khanoom made every weekday. All that awesome and authentic Afghan recipes I could have collected. Sigh!
Some people in Afghanistan speak a dialect of Persian that I could half understand but Nargess Khanoom conversed in a different one which I could hardly understand. Even so, I learned a few things about her. She said she had lost her husband and son in one war, and then a few other sons since to other wars. It was hard to comprehend that she lived a life where she’d had to endure such things. Even so, she always wore a smile. Always. And she was the kindest woman. And her food was delicious. Knowing her and tasting her lovely homemade meals were the privilege and highlights of the entire trip.
While working on this post I was happily surprised to find this photo in my archives. It is a snapshot of my desk at work – which brings back such vivid memories. I love it. In retrospect, wish had more photos like this one too as keepsake. I sat at this desk, toiling, while having Googoosh songs on repeat in my ears.
While in Kabul, a friend overseas tasked me with the fun assignment of finding fashion designers in Kabul. Reason was that my friend was about to start a fashion commerce where she hoped designers in parts of the globe not accessible to the world at large could offer to sell their clothing. The beauty of accepting this task was that its fulfillment took me to Zardozi – a little but very pretty shopping compound where there were little boutiques selling handmade clothing and other artisanal artifacts. I saw this gorgeous dress there. (I’ve posted a Vine-type video of it fluttering on YouTube if you want to go and have a look-see.)
By the way, I’m happy to report that my friend since went on and started her fashion website which pretty much rocks! It is called Rtister and you should go and check out the cool & gorgeous stuff they carry!
I emailed the fashion designer of that beautiful calligraphy dress so that I could discuss putting her in touch with my friend. It turned out the designer was in New York while I was in Kabul but she emailed me back with an invitation to get a guided tour of her atelier in Kabul where most of the fabric and all the clothing were made.
And that’s how I ended up meeting this dignified and nice woman, the manager of Zarif Design’s atelier, who kindly gave me a tour of the atelier and facilities. Again, I can kick myself that I has this experience prior to becoming a blogger. I saw such pretty and interesting things and can only sigh over the lost opportunity to record it for posterity.
I’m including this photo, because basically this was how I mostly saw Kabul. While being driven from one place to another. For safety purposes, were warned not to mingle. So I pretty much experienced the city by looking out the window while inside a car.
This is one such of those back and forth car ride videos. You can clearly see all the watermelons and fruit carts.
One of my last days in Kabul, however, I requested and got the green-light to visit the bird market at Kabul. Accompanied by a chaperone, I actually got to walk outside and talk to people. I bought “shalvar jaffi” for my father and brother and I actually conversed with some people. It was a sight to see those birds. I love birds but I don’t like to see them caged. This is one of the many videos I took that day. I hope to post a bunch more later when I get a chance.
And finally the day I’d been counting minutes towards arrived. I was going to fly home to New York! I was giddy happy! There was a glitch and I almost didn’t get to leave but God was rahim and I did get on that plane. I’ve never been more grateful nor more relieved than when that plane lifted off the ground – leaving Afghanistan. I sighed a sigh of sweet relief. And I thanked God. I really was most grateful.
I took this photo the day I returned to the U.S. The book, Kabul Disco by Nicolas Wild, is a wonderful graphic novel I bought at Zardozi – that arts & crafts compound mentioned above. I found it to be a wonderful, funny and very accurate depiction of a foreigner’s life in Kabul. I loved it and if you can find a copy, I totally recommend it.
The USA Today’s headline attests that the Anthony Weiner thing was still all the rage in the news. That and a murder trial. All the talk shows and all the papers and what everyone were talking about were the court case and Anthony Weiner’s … errr.
Welcome Home! Ha ha.
You may be thinking to yourself, interesting to share this with us Azita but a) way too long and b) what a weird choice of topic for a post on February 14th, the day of love. Huh? As for a) I have no defense re b) this post is related to love. You will see! 😉
Happy Valentine’s Day & Happy Weekend!