Afghanistan and the world have changed a lot since then, but what has remained the same is the humanity of the people of Afghanistan. I was enthused with their wisdom, generosity and sense of humor and tried to record as much of it as I could.
My UNIFEM project, which ended in September 2004, was aimed at supporting women journalists and promoting gender equity through the media in Afghanistan. The greatest achievement of the project was the formation of the Afghan Women Journalists’ Forum (AWJF), founded by four of the most prominent members of Afghanistan’s women’s movement, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude: Jamila Mujahid, editor of the monthly, Malalai, and broadcaster on Afghanistan television; Najiba Muram, editor of the monthly, Effat (Virtue), and Deputy Director of Afghanistan’s Bakhtar news agency; Shukria Barakzai, editor of the weekly, Aina-ye Zan (Woman’s Mirror), and director of the Asia Women Organisation; and Suraya Parlika, editor of the weekly Faryad-e Zan (Woman’s Shout), and director of All Afghan Women’s Association.
I owe another debt to the late Iranian feminist scholar and the founding Director of UNIFEM-Afghanistan, Dr Parvin Paidar. Parvin and I had known each other for years before I began working with her in Kabul. Sadly, that experience was soon terminated by Parvin’s illness and then passing away. Nonetheless, strong memories of our friendship and professional association continue to guide me.
The first part of the diaries was published on Iranian.com in October 2004, 'Kabul days, Part 1', and the rest will appear over the coming weeks. Helped by Roya Jahanbin, Solmaz Dabiri, Ermie Valdeavilla, Homa Sabri, and Akram Gizabi, I have removed whatever inaccuracies or infelicities I have been able to find in the text. I alone am responsible for any remaining flaws and would be grateful for comments and/or corrections, either here, or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, 13 February 2003
This morning I woke up with the sound of the generator– the size of a big fridge - in our garden. There are regular power cuts here and anyone who can afford it has a generator. There are signs on the roads advertising the big, noisy diesel machines.
One newspaper said last week the government is providing the citizens with electricity round the clock, as long as they have enough money and a generator. Power is one of the many areas that need improvement and for the time being there is a lot of interest from abroad in doing something about it. Last week, the German electrical engineering and communications company, Siemens, celebrated its return to Afghanistan.
Another interesting development has been the opening of a beauty salon at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs by an American cosmetics company. Beauty salons and public baths for women were among the demands raised by the ladies who gathered at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel last week to discuss women’s issues.
Tomorrow will be my second Friday in Kabul. We’ll probably go to the same UN compound, UNICA, with the barbeque. Maybe for another walk downtown – Koucheh Morgh-Foroushi (Chicken Street) and Koucheh Gol-Foroushi (Flower Street) - where you can find handicrafts and antiques shops. There are still some florists’ shops on Flower Street, but virtually no sign of a poultry market on Chicken Street.
Friday, 14 February 2003
We’ve just come in to the office because we have to make sure that the new budget being prepared in Afghanistan is ‘engendered’, i.e. women’s issues are included in it explicitly. Also, for the foreigners here there is little to do but the work that brought them to Afghanistan in the first place. And anyway, my colleagues and house-mates seem to be like me – happy to carry on with their work all the time.
The house in which we live is a fairly new, two storey building, the type that people were making in Tehran before borj sazi, or tower building, became profitable. It’s in one of Kabul’s best neighbourhoods, Wazir Akbar Khan, in the north of the city, a bit like Tehran’s Saltanatabad, with a similar style of architecture, although much smaller in area and much more modest in every respect.
The house has four bedrooms, one of them fairly small. Three of the rooms open up to a narrow balcony that goes along two sides of the building; it should be nice for sitting and drinking tea on a good day. The upstairs landing is pretty wide, with a big kerosene heater, the type we used to have in Iran before piped gas, and an ironing board which the cleaning lady, Latifa Khanom, uses to iron our clothes. She did a very good job with mine.
Downstairs, there is a large sitting room with nice sofas and a television with two satellite receivers, one for films, Fox and Sky TV and so on, and the other for BBC World, CNN and lots of Persian, Arabic and European channels. Next door, there’s a spacious dining room where Agha Sarwar serves us a wide range of delicious meals. Last night he made pizza; the night before it was lasagna. He also cooks Afghan and Iranian dishes.
Agha Sarwar is a sweet old man from Afghanistan’s Hazara community, Persian speaking Shia Moslems, with East Asian features, who have had the worst treatment in Afghanistan. His family live in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where he worked as a cook for more than twenty years. He himself lives in West Kabul, home to a large Hazara community. Agha Sarwar says that part of the city has suffered more destruction than anywhere else and insists that I should go and see it. I will.
The house has a courtyard/garden, with lawn that is yellow now but one hopes to see it green in warmer season; a couple of naked trees; and a little hut that houses the generator.
I learned today that ninety per cent of the cars here use diesel fuel, which causes the fumes and the yellowish smug that hangs over Kabul most of the time.
Saturday, 15 February 2003
On the way to the office this morning, I had another look at the sign that asks people to help keep the country clean, as a mark of patriotism. Alas, there are not many takers, simply because there are no resources and the standards of public cleanliness have been lowered by war and destruction.
I said I would tell you about the UNDP compound today. All I can say now is that it is a big plot of land with high walls all around it and at least half a dozen buildings, ours being the smallest. It’s a small house – a dolls’ house, if you will – with six rooms, a reception/waiting room and a cellar.
The compound has been used by the UN for a long time and houses UNESCO, UNICEF and a few other UN organisations. We have a nice little restaurant called Sahel-e Sabz, the Green Coast, where you get a range of good Afghan and other dishes, including Chinese soups, at very low prices – from around 30 cents for soup, to around a dollar for a big plate of rice and meat. The place is nice and cozy, with friendly staff.
Yesterday, we went to the barbeque at the other compound, UNICA, which stands for the United Nations International Community Association. It is a big complex, with a dining area plus several residential blocks where some of our colleagues live. I was told that the complex used to belong to a family related to the former King of Afghanistan and has been used by the UN for more than fifty years. Some of the UNICA employees have been there nearly as long.
UNICA also has a well equipped gym, one big and one small swimming pool, and a squash court. So far, I have only enjoyed the food, because getting there on a regular basis during the week is difficult. The place also houses a few well-fed cats. (UNICA was closed down in 2010, after sixty years of operation, to be replaced with a high rise shopping center and residential towers.)
Yesterday morning, I worked on the UNIFEM flyer which has some nice Afghan pictures. We will also be using a couple of slogans on 8 March: ‘When women are safe, so are nations’; ‘When women feel safe, peace is possible’. These are from the very good UNIFEM book which I mentioned before, Women, War and Peace, a detailed study of what women have suffered because of wars around the world, only in the past ten years or so.
In the evening, we were glued to the TV, watching the Security Council debate which was very encouraging, considering that it seems to have made it less likely that there will be a war on Iraq in the immediate future. Let’s hope there never will be one.
Sunday, 16 February 2003
It’s been snowing since last night. It’s also a bit colder than the other day when it snowed, so the snow might stay longer. The past few days have been wet, but our Afghan friends say there’s been such a draught here that it takes more than a couple of snowfalls and a few overnight drizzles to get anything growing.
Snow has already covered our sloping European satellite dish, blocking all its channels - the Asian one is more vertical and continues to receive the TV signals. If there’s no thaw, we’ll have only Sky and Fox for news. For most people in Afghanistan, of course, the problems of coping with snow are more severe than the loss of satellite television.
Last evening we all had a great time watching the anti-war demonstrations across the world. Apart from anything else, a war against Iraq would mean less attention to Afghanistan, with the people who have just come out of one fire falling into another one.
Yesterday, I forgot to write about another visit to the Intercontinental Hotel, where my friends wanted to buy postcards from the hotel bookshops. The shop had lots of interesting books on Afghanistan, including the one I bought at Heathrow, Afghanistan, the land where God only comes to weep, as well as books on Islam. There were also many posters and pictures and my friends bought a lot more than they had planned. The young man running the shop spoke Persian, Pashto, English, as well as Hindi and Urdu (which are really very close). He now wants to go to India to study computer science, Chinese and Japanese.
In the morning, I met an Afghan lady who had been a refugee in Iran, where she and some twenty of her friends had set up a community group and run it for about eight years. Back in Afghanistan, they have started a group to work for equal rights for women. They run various classes – computer skills, English language, and healthcare – for men and women, and want to start literacy classes for women across Afghanistan.
Later on, we drove to a south-west district of Kabul to drop a colleague home at a Soviet-style housing estate built some thirty-five years ago. It was rather crude and externally in disrepair. But at least the blocks of flats have power and running water, some of the time, and are relatively secure. All over the buildings there were bullet- and shell-holes from the mid-‘90s fighting over Kabul.
On the way back, we drove by a hill called Tappeh Maranjan, an important archaeological site dating back to Kusahno-Sassanian period. Some say the name of the hill is rooted in the Persian verb ranjidan, or being upset, with Maranjan meaning ‘don’t upset me’ or ‘don’t break my heart’ [this is wrong, as it will be explained later in the diaries]. During the Battle for Kabul, this hill was the base for rocket attacks by one faction against the forces of the other factions in the centre of the city.
The whole area had been divided up among various factions who kept making and breaking alliances with each other. People would be easily kidnapped and, if lucky, exchanged for a ransom. Our driver, a man in his mid-thirties, told me that he had been kidnapped, along with his car – he was a taxi driver at the time - by one faction who thought he had belonged to another faction, but had been released in exchange for his car.
Monday, 17 February 2003
It stopped snowing last night. The weather report says the massive clouds over Afghanistan have been moving east. In the evening, the night guard at our house went up to the roof of the garage and cleaned the snow off the satellite dish. We could then watch the news, including Condoleezza Rice saying it would be unfair to the Iraqi people not to attack Iraq immediately, and Osama Ben Laden saying the Taliban had only withdrawn from Afghanistan tactically.
During the day, we drew up more plans for the 8 March celebrations and then went to visit a non-governmental organisation, or NGO, in West Kabul, an area totally - and I mean totally - destroyed during the clashes between the various Mojahedin groups. Not a single building seems to have been spared, including the Kabul zoo. It is difficult to imagine the place or to believe what you see when you’re there. My friends say that even some six months ago there was not a soul to be seen in the neighbuorhood. Only a few families have now gone back to the area which is still thought to be unsafe.
Because of the image, or the reality, of insecurity, rents there are very low. Our house goes for about $3,000 a month. A much bigger house in West Kabul, rebuilt and redecorated, would cost you about $200 per month. It was in one such house that we met a Hazara group to hear their plans for the International Women’s Day.
To my surprise, the group had at least one female member, an Iran-educated doctor, who shyly told us she was late for the meeting because she had gone to buy a bottle of perfume and had been stuck in the crowd and the traffic. She said it was the first time she had bought perfume, not having found it possible to do so either as a young girl in Afghanistan or as a university student in Iran. But she said she had had a good time in Iran, which she left about a year ago, and was missing her Afghan and Iranian friends.
It turned out the group had so far been much more concerned with civil society and a new constitution for Afghanistan, but was now looking at women’s rights as well. The group, represented by the people at the house, was said to have about sixty members, only about six or seven of them women.
One of the men at the meeting spoke at length about women’s rights, but in very general terms, and the young doctor then asked for my views. I made it clear that I had joined UNIFEM for my journalistic experience, not as a specialist on women’s rights, but said that I thought there were two points to keep in mind when promoting women’s equality: firstly, that equal rights for women would make men stronger, because it would make the community stronger; and secondly that for the idea of equality to be integrated into the community, it would have to be rooted in the indigenous culture, rather than imposed on it as a foreign import.
During our tour of West Kabul, my friend, Dr Askar Mousavi, told us how green the city had been before the fighting. Back at the office, I saw a UN report on the environment in Afghanistan,
which shows the extent of devastation. Aerial photographs taken in 1977 and 2002 show large parts of country, almost the entire area of some provinces, having turned from green to . The pictures are frightening and you wonder how the people who had to leave those areas could be encouraged to go back.
Tuesday, 18 February 2003
Yesterday, last night and this morning, it went on snowing. The sloping satellite dish was once again blocked, but I thought it would be unfair to send anyone up a ladder in that weather to clean it. So last night we spent an hour or so watching the bizarre items on Fox that are called news. One was about the ‘good news’ that Saddam’s overthrow would turn Iraq into a land of investment opportunities. The reporter began by saying that ‘to many people the Middle East is a land with nothing but shifting sands, Islam and oil.’ He then went on to interview a number of men in Arab head-gear who were introduced as Kuwaitis, but looked and talked very much like badly directed actors.
On a happier note, I went to the Aina Media and Culture Center that publishes eight newspapers, including three for women and one for children, called Parvaz, or Flight, which is said to be more popular with students than school textbooks. I got a copy and it looks great. Beautiful layout and pictures, bright colours and good writing, in both of Afghanistan’s main languages, Dari (Persian) and Pashto.
Of the three women’s papers, one is edited by a man and is Afghanistan’s version of glossy magazines with some celebrities, cooking, fashion and so on. The other two, edited by women, are more political and one of them, Malalai, is named after a heroic female character in Afghanistan’s history.
At Aina, I went to visit the editor of the satirical paper, Znabel-e Gham, the Basket of Sorrows, but he was not in. I asked another gentleman at the office why the paper was called Zanbel-e Gham. He said it was because the paper would put all the readers’ sorrows in a basket and take them away.
Aina Center also produces general newspapers with reports in Persian, Pashto, English and French. Much of the Center is in fact run by several French journalists who come across as very enthusiastic and friendly. There is a Citoren 2CV in the courtyard, with ‘Paris-Kabul-Paris’ written on it. It has in fact collapsed in a corner now and must be in need of repair before it can complete the return journey.
Other activities at Aina include radio training by a Canadian group and television training for women by a team of French and British TV journalists. Fourteen Afghan women have been on a one-year TV course since last July and have so far produced four news reports and one documentary that is nearly finished. They are also planning another documentary. I suggested the trainees could cover the Women’s Day events that UNIFEM is organising with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The trainers liked the idea. It would be great if we manage that.
At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, we had a three-hour meeting about 8 March with lots of discussions in a very friendly atmosphere. There were about twenty women and two men - myself and the new member of our media team - both of us quiet most of the time. A fairly detailed plan was worked out and the event could be a big success. The meeting was held at the Ministry’s library which has more than 2,000 books, most of them published in Iran. [I heard later on that the much of the library’s books had been donated by the Iranian film-maker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who himself spent a long time in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.] >>> See photos
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