Kabul Days (3)


Hossein Shahidi
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

Wednesday, 19 February 2003
Today, I attended a ‘gender training’ session funded by the BBC World Service Trust, run by Afghan trainers at Afghanistan’s national radio and television headquarters, about ten minutes’ drive from our office, attended by 17 women and 3 men. The discussion was aimed at highlighting that promoting women’s rights was in men’s interest too and that by sharing the responsibilities they would both be better off. A young Afghan woman who had lived in Iran for many years said she had had a great time there. She said she believed Iranian women had achieved their rights and had ‘sometimes exceeded them, in the context of an Islamic society’.

The day was bright, clear and cool. At the Green Coast cafeteria, where we have asked for yoghurt for several days, the manager has now promised it for tomorrow. Such is the scale of our desires here! My friends say Kabul had had abundant and excellent dairy products before the fighting began all those years ago, but much of the stock of sheep and cattle has been destroyed since then. Still, they say you get good dairy products in the countryside. We may visit one such area soon.

There then came a stream of visitors interested in working with UNIFEM. Two were Afghan ladies who had spent many years in Iran. Up to now, most of the women coming to our office have been those who had spent the years of exile in Pakistan. Now that I am here, a number of Iran-based women have contacted us, introduced by my friend, Dr Askar Mousavi, who himself lived in Iran for many years. Incidentally, he explained the other day that the name of Maranjan Hill is probably of Hindi origin, or may have its roots in Buddhism which was prevalent in old Afghanistan. So it does not seem to have anything to do with ranjidan.

One of the visitors campaigning for women’s rights was in fact a man, a doctor who has spent many years in community and social work and has been compiling data on violence against women in Afghanistan. We had an interesting discussion about patriarchy and matriarchy, with him recalling that matriarchy had had a much longer history than patriarchy and could now be making a comeback.

Friday, 21 February 2003

Thursday was a big day. In the morning we drove to the town of Charikar, capital of Parwan province, about 70kms north of Kabul. On our way out we passed by a lot of construction sites with multi-storey buildings going up. There were also long stretches of the main road, as well as stretches of many streets inside Kabul, walled with tiny shops selling car spare parts. Given the state of the roads, of course you need huge amounts of spare parts. On the edge of Kabul, there is a big piece of empty land to which, according to our driver, the government is planning to move all car repair and spare parts shops and similar businesses.

Also on the outskirts of Kabul you will find Zoorabad, or ‘Force-land’, just like an area of the same name on some hills near the Iranian city of Karaj, and with the same background to the name: the mud-brick houses here, and fire-brick houses in Karaj, were built by homeless people without construction permits. The homeless people in both countries had been uprooted from their small towns or villages. In Iran, it was the attraction of a better life in the city, compared to the poverty of rural life. In Afghanistan, it was mostly the war that did it.

Further up the road, there are other houses, made of stronger material, built without permission on the snow-covered mountain slopes. These, said our driver, were the houses of refugees from the mountainous northern area of Salang, who are used to living in such terrain.

A few kilometers on, there were the ruins of a fairly big village that was said to have been destroyed by the Taliban. Some villagers had fled north, to areas outside the Taliban’s reach; others had been housed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR, in the former Soviet Embassy compound – up to twenty people in one room. There are families split apart who have not yet been reunited.

Onwards and upwards, we were shown the remains of a farm and an orchard in the distance, covered under snow, which is said to have belonged to the King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. This, said our friends, had been the source of dairy products for the whole of Kabul, but had been destroyed in the wars. On both sides of the road, there had been mulberry tree plantations all the way up to the mountains several kilometers away. Now, there was nothing, the trees having been cut down by the Soviet and Afghan government troops in the 1980s, to deprive the Mojahedin of cover.

Further on, huge vineyards had been cut down by the Taliban in the 1990s, to deprive their opponents of a livelihood. Our driver said the vineyards, the source of huge exports of raisins, used to employ 60,000 people, with an average wage of $600 per month. Today the average income per head in Afghanistan is around $60 per month. A few vines have reappeared, but they are in a sorry state and more a testament to death than life.

The Taliban did manage to put an end to the factional wars of 1992-6, but at the cost of huge loss of life and massive destruction. So when they were pushed out of power by the Americans following 11 September 2001, their former victims had a chance to take revenge. In a village on our route, a bit further on from the extinct mulberry tree orchards and the all but extinct vineyards, there was a long, narrow black object, a bit like a folded parasol. It was explained to me that the object was in fact the body of a member of the Taliban, killed and stuck up there on a spike by the villagers who had been persecuted by the man and his colleagues.

The anger had a lot do to with the fact that the Talib (student) had himself been from the village, had gone to Pakistan as a refugee, studied at a theology school, like tens of thousands of other young Afghans, away from relatives and without any contact with women or girls, and had come back in 1996 to establish the rule of ‘pure Islam’ on his land. To really understand this phenomenon, you need to read Ahmed Rashid’s book, The Taliban.

During the rest of the journey, we passed through areas that had been fought over several times during the previous twenty-three years and whose names had become familiar because of news coverage. On both sides of the road there were corpses of tanks and armored personnel carriers, and small rock formations covered in red paint, indicating active mines underneath. There are one or two mine explosions in Afghanistan every day, causing loss of limb or life.

Our destination was the recently established women’s centre of Charikar, a town whose location on the road to northern Afghanistan gives it enormous military significance. To get there, we traveled through the Shamali (northern) plains, a huge area of flat, fertile land surrounded by mountains. The climate was very temperate and there was vegetation everywhere. In peaceful times, Shamali used to be a holiday resort.

Charikar is a busy town in an economic and social state which reminded me of small towns in Iran forty years ago, especially in Khorassan. At the women’s centre, local women had gathered to collect blankets donated by a Norwegian charity. A female Western colleague who embraced and kissed several of the Afghan women said their bodies were so cold and emaciated that they must have lost a lot of their resistance to infections. The women were happy to have the blankets, which they wrapped up in big sheets and carried away on their heads, some of them taking along their small children at the same time.

Back at the office, we continued our work in preparation for the International Women’s Day celebrations which we plan to have recorded in a television documentary by the Afghan women being trained at the Aina Media and Cultural Centre. There will be several activities, spread over a week. This means a lot of preparation, which is why we are in the office on a Friday. But it’s meant to be a short day.

Saturday, 22 February 2003

Yesterday, a colleague and I walked to downtown Kabul to look for a tape recorder. We passed by a heap of what looked like mud and mud-brick houses. This was the centre of old Kabul. A bit further down, there was the electronics goods market – dozens of small shops crammed to the ceiling with mobile phones, TVs, radios and so on. Many of the sets are second hand, said to have be imported from Japan. One shop also stocked electronic keyboards, but not the ‘digital’ type that a young man with long hair was looking for. He probably meant the looks, rather the function of the device.

I did find an inexpensive Sony tape recorder for about $50, but my colleague advised against buying it, saying such goods in Kabul were often low quality Chinese products that would soon break down. Instead, he said, I should order the tape recorder from abroad. Considering that my colleague is going to work on women’s economic empowerment, I teased him, saying he was not helping Afghanistan’s economy very much.

At another shop, I saw a video clip being shown of young girls dancing to what sounded like Iranian music. The girls too looked Iranian, and appeared to be at party in someone’s house. The shop-keeper confirmed that the recording had come from Iran. It was obviously one example of the copies that unscrupulous video business people make of private tapes that their customers bring in for duplication. It was sad to see a group of girls’ private party on display in another land, especially when we’re discussing women’s rights. Maybe we could follow this up through the media here.

We then walked around an area called Plaza, with dozens of stalls selling food, clothes and all sorts of goods. Both sellers and buyers were poorly dressed. Considering how much damage the war has done to Afghanistan, I asked my colleague if that area had seen better days. No, he said. It had always been like that.

Earlier I had asked him about life under Afghanistan’s communist party in the 1980s. For the most part, he said, the government would leave people alone and they could live their lives. The main problem was being drafted into the army and going to fight the Mojahedin. The communist government was backed by the Soviet Union and was eventually overthrown by the Mojahedin, who were backed by the US, Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Walking back to the office, we passed by the remains of Bagh-e Zarnegar (The Garden with Gold Inscriptions) one of the six gardens or parks for which Kabul had been famous in the distant past. The other five were: Bagh-e Bala (The Upper Garden), Bagh-e Babor (named after the Moghul King), Bagh-e Zanana (Women’s Garden), Bagh-e Shahr-ara (The Garden that Ornaments the City) and Bagh-e Jahan-ara (The Garden that Ornaments the World). The last two are believed to have existed a long time ago because they are mentioned in books, though no trace of them remains. Three have survived only partially, just like Bagh-e Zarnegar, but there are plans for their revival, in particular Bagh-e Zanana, in which the women’s movement is very interested. [I recently learned that there are two other gardens in Kabul: Bagh-e Darulaman, in the Darulaman (House of Safety) Palace, which used to be open for public picnics, and Bagh-e Chelsetoon (Forty Columns Garden), which is much older than Bagh-e Babur. Both are located in the southern part of Kabul.]

Back at the guest-house, I watched the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, explaining that it was necessary to save the Iraqi people by bombing their country. There was also the report of a rock concert with fireworks in a US night-club which caused a fire, killing tens of people, and a fire at a New York fuel depot which led many people to think the US had been attacked again.

The contrast between life in Kabul and New York cannot be greater. Yet, my colleagues and I are working on a women’s rights project which may never have made it to this country had it not been for the tragedy in New York, which had its roots in Afghanistan. And now, there are worries here that if there’s an attack on Iraq, Afghanistan will once again be left to its own devices and all the good work that’s been done over the past 18 months will go to waste. Let’s hope it does not.

Sunday, 23 February 2003

I have arranged for the purchase of one copy of as many Afghan newspapers as possible so that we can make a list of their names and addresses and use it for our communications purposes. Having asked several organisations for information, we still have nothing like a proper directory of the Afghan media. If and when we do compile one, we’ll have done something useful, and not just for ourselves.

Then a former BBC colleague, an Afghan journalist, came over to discuss his request that I run a series of training workshops for Afghan TV presenters on conducting discussions. A great chance for us at UNIFEM to contact mainstream journalists and discuss with them the subject of women’s rights – or gender, as I should call it. The Afghan colleagues use the word gender, but call it jandar. I tried a little bit to see if we could find a Persian substitute for it, but gave up, seeing jandar was so widely used. Still, we might do something about it later.



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