Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Leaving the Afghanistan I've Come to Love

I’m sitting on a plane as I write this, looking out at the landscapes passing below us. It’s the last leg of my journey, the last hour and a half flight that pales in comparison to the thirty-six hours I’ve already been traveling. Within in an hour, my plane will land, my family will meet me, and real life will start again.

Honestly, I’m not ready for that to happen.

I’ve never felt this connected to a place before, never felt this homesick on a journey home. By rights, I should have hated Afghan culture, which doesn’t really support my religion, my independence, my outspokenness. I should have chafed under the restrictions of dress and comportment and opportunity, and I should have been annoyed by the smells of the open sewers, the beggars constantly tapping on my window, the lack of safe food and the never-ending stomachaches. I should have been counting down the days until I could leave.

Instead, I fell in love.

I met a man on the plane from Kabul who saw that I was reading a book in Spanish and started a conversation with me in that language. He asked me about Afghanistan, since he was only there for two days, and when I told him how much the country me encanta (enchants me), he looked mildly surprised. When I told him that I really want to come back someday, he looked like he thought I was crazy. Why would I, a woman, a foreigner, a lover of learning, want to come back to such a backwards place?

I don’t have a good explanation, not really, but I want to try to show you some of the reasons that I love this place and why I will be back.

The people: I have never met a people so hospitable or kind or willing to assist people they hardly know. I’ve told you about their hospitality when we come to eat dinner with them, and it was the same in every situation. When I asked to interview them about their experiences in the last ten years and under the Taliban, when we had a break during workshops and they offered to buy us water or tea or lunch, when I accidentally said a cuss word in Dari when I was trying to say “I want to do debate.” The media tells us that Afghans hate us and want us to leave Afghanistan, but every single person I met was so kind and wonderful to me. They love Americans, even when we want to abandon them.

The hope: I love the U.S. but I hate the attitude we have toward it. Our country is going to you-know-where in a hand basket, and if you listen to the average American whine about it, it sounds as though there’s nothing we can do but give up and go along for the ride. I’m a terrible idealist, I know, but I’m realistic enough to know that things can change if we make them change. In Afghanistan, change is happening slowly, but the people have such an incredible capacity for hope. All of the students I met told me that they know about the corruption in their government and the problems facing their country, but they believe that their generation, my generation, has the potential to change that. They have

so much hope for their future, and it’s incredible to see.

The potential for development: With its open sewers and unpaved streets and tiny wooden shops, Kabul isn’t exactly New York City. But change in New York City means little and does little to advance the city’s development. Change in Kabul, however, is visible and makes an incredible difference. It was a great to talk to Ken and Debbie Esser, the owners of our guesthouse, and to Josh and Aref about the differences they have seen in the time they’ve lived here; they tell me about roads getting paved and military checkpoints becoming unnecessary and giant wedding halls being constructed. Infrastructure. Economy. Even culture is changing- although burkas are still a common sight, the younger generation has flatly refused them. Afghanistan has so much potential for development, and I can’t wait to see where it will go.

The language: I’m a language person in general, but there’s something about Dari that
excites me. It is so different from every language I know, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to master new sounds and new grammatical structures. Everyone I met was very patient about teaching me words and putting up with my constant questions; I really want to continue to study Dari and learn more.

The learning: Every student I met had a love for learning and a desire to get an education that is unparalleled in the United States. The students work so hard- they work for eight hours and then go to school for four, boy and girls. They are debating not to boost their resume or get prizes; they are debating because they recognize the uses of debate in Afghanistan and they want to be a part of it.

There is more to it than that, but it’s hard to put into words. Suffice it to say, I love this country, and I know that I’ll be back, Maybe next summer, to stay for a year and teach debate. Maybe later, maybe not for years. But I’ll be back eventually. Afghanistan, ba’dan mebinem!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Real Afghanistan

One of the reasons I came to Afghanistan was to break stereotypes: my stereotypes about Afghans, and their stereotypes about me. I’ve been talking about this country and pretending I know what’s going on over here for so many years, but I really had no idea. It’s easy for us to act informed because we’ve read BBC News and written a few debate briefs, but as I’m sure you’ve seen from my previous entries, Afghanistan is nothing like the country that we see in the news. In the past few days, during dinners at the home of an Afghan friend and through volunteer work with Operation Christmas Child, I’ve gotten to see a new side to the country, a side that BBC probably hasn’t seen.

Josh, Rachal, and I went with the Banyan Tree Network’s Executive Director (Aref Dostyar) to his hometown of Mazar-e Sharif to conduct some exhibition debates and teach a workshop this weekend, and Aref invited us to his family‘s house for dinner on Friday and again on Sunday. He comes from a large family- his father, mother, two younger brothers, and four younger sisters all live in Mazar. From the beginning, it was clear that it was a house full of laughter and family time and close friendships; watching them interact and hug their visiting brother/son and joke in Dari that I couldn’t understand made me more homesick than I’ve been in months.

When we arrived, they greeted us the Afghan way- handshakes when men met men, three kisses when women met women, and a hand over the heart and murmured Salam when men and women intermingled. Immediately, Aref’s mom and sisters pulled Rachal and me into the house and took us to a room that was, like most Afghan rooms, empty of furniture. The edges of the room sported cushions on the floor and against the wall called toshaks. We reclined against them, trying to communicate with our limited Dari and their limited English. The fifteen-year-old sister (I feel terrible, but I’ve forgotten her name!) translated for us, but she did so between fits of giggles. I tried to help with the words I’ve learned in Dari, asking their names and their ages, but my pronunciation made them giggle all the harder.

They had intended to sit us in that room to eat, but it was just too hot (remember I told you Kabul is hot? Mazar is SO much worse!!), so we went outside. However, this meant that the sisters couldn’t sit with us, so they ate inside while we sat on the toshaks on the porch with Aref, his parents, and his brothers. It was a lot of fun. We talked about families and laughed at Josh’s facial expressions and heard about the brother’s work. They kept asking us to eat more- more nan, more rice, more meat and beans and tea and watermelon and candies… Afghans are nothing if not hospitable!

Some of the cultural bits were less comfortable. We sat on toshaks with the adults, and the two youngest kids brought a tablecloth, a bowl of candies, tea cups and saucers and a jug of green tea, a little tree to hold silverware, plates and glasses of water, plates of rice, a bowl of yogurt, a bigger bowl of beans, a plate of nan, smaller bowls of meat and sauce, plates with a mix of onions and other vegetables for spice, a plate of watermelon for desert. The youngest brother even brought a bowl and a jug before the meal began and poured water over our hands.

He at least sat with us after our hands were washed and ate with us, as did Aref’s mother, which surprised me. The youngest sister brought load after load of food, but after she dropped each one off, she went back inside. I’m not trying to be judgmental, and I hope it doesn’t sound that way, but it was so strange and contrary to everything I’m used to. At home, us kids set and clear the table just as these kids did, but we get to eat with the family. I know it’s the culture and I know that young girls don’t get to eat in the company of male strangers, but it’s still so hard to accept. It’s so hard to hear Aref tell me that his sisters aren’t strong like I am and not want to ask why he thinks that is.

I didn’t intend to write this entry as a rant about gender stereotypes, but in writing about the lovely dinner we had with Aref’s family and the hospitability his parents showed and the giggles from his sisters as we took photos and the silly expressions on his brother’s face as he mimicked Josh’s smile, it’s hard to avoid. It is impossible to celebrate the culture without expressing its downfalls (through my admittedly limited and Western point of view) at the same time. Even as I reveled in the love and the laughter that was ingrained in every moment that Aref’s family spent together, I was reminded constantly how different this culture is and how far I am from home.

On Monday, I spent several hours breaking gender stereotypes as I helped load giant boxes filled with shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child. OCC is a program that my family has participated in for years, in which we fill a box with gifts at Christmas time and send it to another country to help provide Christmas for another kid. Usually, I fill my boxes and turn them in and forget about them. This week, I’ve spent an awful lot of time remembering. On Monday, we unloaded, sorted, and then loaded about a thousand big boxes of shoeboxes onto trucks that would deliver them to individual schools and distribution sites. The boxes weren’t heavy, but they were big and very awkward to carry- I’ve got some impressive bruises on my arms and legs from trying to balance them as I moved them.

The Afghan workers who were hired to help us for the day weren’t happy about me helping. I was the only girl on site, and in the beginning, I didn’t really notice. The boxes weren’t any heavier than a hay bale, and I’ve moved a lot of those in my life. But when the trucks arrived with more workers in the afternoon, I kept finding an Afghan politely but firmly taking my box out of my hands before I could take a step. He would smile at me and oh so carefully ease the box away from me and carry it away. It drove me crazy. I know that most Afghan women don’t do manual labor, and that’s fine. But I wasn’t about to spend the afternoon sitting around looking pretty; I’d rather help and get done faster. The next time that Zamir tried to take a box from me, I jerked it back from him and told him I could do it. His jaw dropped as I stepped around him and lifted the box onto the fourth row, which was taller than I am. I felt a little guilty for shattering his world like that, but I’ve done so much conforming since I got here. I thought they would survive a little shock like that.

This is getting long, but I want to tell you about the distribution of Operation Christmas Child that we helped with on Sunday. We went to a school and a hospital in Mazar and passed out gifts to the kids there. The school, Seeds of Hope, serves children in a very poor community, most of whom are orphans or half-orphans. Hearing their stories was heartbreaking- one little girl, Sara, told us that her father died/was killed at the market one day because he owed people money, and her mother just up and left. She lives with her uncle, who is thinking about pulling her out of school because he wants her to work. She’s nine years old, and has the sweetest smile you ever saw. She showed us her box of gifts, and as we were leaving a few minutes later, I saw her and a friend walking hand in hand with lollipop’s from Sara’s Christmas gift in their mouths.

It’s amazing to see the resilience of these kids, their desire to learn, their capacity to love despite all that they’ve lost. The more time I spend abroad, the more I love traveling and meeting these people, but also the more I love my country and the more blessed I feel to have grown up in the US.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Most Amazing Tournament Ever

There is no feeling in the world quite as amazing as standing in the middle of a dirty, littered, empty tab room, watching the sunset through the window (and the dust), seeing a slight breeze send one last, unclaimed “Certificate of Achievement” fluttering to the floor, knowing that we just concluded the largest debate tournament that (we think) Afghanistan has ever seen… and we rocked it.

Today has been a fabulous day.

Debate tournaments are always hectic, and today was no different. I was coaching, judging four of the six rounds, training judges, and running the “tab” room (tab is the process of tracking all of the results- wins and losses, speaker points- and deciding who breaks to semifinals, etc.). At most tournaments, I do one of those. I hit the ground running at 6:30 am this morning, and we didn’t get a break until after 7:30 tonight- which isn’t a big deal for tournaments for us (I’ve had tournaments that were MUCH worse), but for Afghans, it seemed like a really long day.

We told the kids to be there by 8 am. 8 am normal time, not Afghan time. We thought they would be late, but about 20 of the 36 debaters actually showed up at 7 am to practice before the rounds began. I was at the guest house so I could use the online tab program, and the tournament director, Josh McCormick, called me from the university at 8:30 to tell me that everyone had arrived and I could print and bring the pairings- the list of which team would face which team.

We had three rounds in the morning, and then a break for lunch. By lunchtime, we had two (of the eighteen) teams who had won all three rounds, and five other teams who had won two and had really high speaker points- meaning they had a shot at going to semi-finals. I didn’t judge the fourth round, so I was sitting in front of the ballot computer (using the spreadsheet program that I created because we couldn’t access the Internet and use our online software- pretty fun!) as ballots came back with judges’ decisions. The four other debaters from the US- Josh, Clayton, Rachal, and Nick- and the executive director, Aref, were standing over me with hungry looks on their faces. Every time a ballot came in, they all leaned closer- who won? who won? who won??

It was a ridiculously close break for semifinals. Two teams had a 4-0 record (they won four and lost zero), and we had to choose from the five 3-1 teams based on speaker points. Remember Razia? She and her partner had a 3-1 record and 277 speaker points. The last two semi-final teams had 3-1 records and 286 and 278 speaker points. We were so disappointed- Razia and Hotak missed the semi-finals by one point. Later, when we calculated speaker awards, Razia missed by two points and Hotak missed by one. So frustrating- but still an incredible achievement for their first tournament.

The final four semi-final teams came from three different universities and included, completely by accident, four female and four male debaters. We were so excited- it’s been difficult to convince the girls to try debate and difficult to convince their professors to let them be on the teams. One team tried to send eight guys, arguing that their girls didn’t have much experience. Two of those girls took second place overall.

One of my teams won the tournament. They were from Tabesh University, which has only been open for two years and which offers limited English classes. The two debaters, Shirzai and Ahmed, did a great job. They went 4-0 in rounds and had high speaker points. The two other teams from their school, Suliaman/Abuzar and Musa/Moosawi, picked up one win during the entire tournament, but when results were announced, it was as though the entire team had won. No bitterness, no rivalry- just pure excitement and genuine happiness for the success of their teammates.

It was a hectic, busy day. I ran from tab room to topic draw to prep room to judging to tab room. Most of us didn’t have time for the sit-down lunch that was provided, and by the end, we looked like we’d been rolling in the dirt because the building was so dusty and we were so hot. Some teams were upset- the team of girls who lost in semi-finals had tears running down their cheeks, and Razia spent fifteen minutes telling me why the judge who gave her a loss didn’t deserve to be judging. Others were ecstatic- the look on Ahmed’s face when they announced the winners was priceless.

Watching them debate these controversial, semi-political topics was priceless. “Afghanistan should develop nuclear weapons.”
“Freedom of expression is necessary for the development of a society.”
“Pakistan is the biggest threat to Afghanistan.”
“The U.S. should establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan.”
“The security situation in Afghanistan is improving.”
These aren’t topics that most Afghans talk about, yet there we were. Watching students who have been learning debate for two weeks give claims, give impacts, give rebuttal, say in the semi-final round that their points were “damn clear.” Watching students who, two weeks ago, couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of “cross-examination,” couldn’t figure out how to respond to their opponent’s arguments without just repeating them, couldn’t give a speech in English to save their lives, had no idea how to argue something that they didn’t necessarily believe.

Yet there we were.

If I weren’t heading home to spend only a few weeks with my family before I start work, I would definitely change my ticket and stay longer. If I could, I would stay here indefinitely, host another tournament, get these debate clubs going long-term. The kids kept asking when they could do this again, when they could debate again. We had to tell them we didn’t know. This was such an experimental program, but judging by the success, I think it’s safe to say that the Kabul Invitational may just become an annual event. There is nothing I would like better than to come back next year and help host it again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Debating in Afghanistan

The Kabul Invitational Tournament, a tournament to which I’ve dedicated the last three weeks and a lot of others have dedicated much longer, will take place “tomorrow.” Hopefully.

Running a debate tournament in Kabul is nothing like running a tournament in the States. If you’ve ever been to a tournament at home, you know that they are chaotic to say the least. There are a lot of coaches and students and pieces of paper floating around, and it’s tough to keep track of it all. But at tournaments in the States, you work with kids who have been taught to think critically, most of whom have at least some debate experience. You have a location reserved months in advance. You have Internet that works, and you don’t have random power outages that sometimes last two minutes and sometimes last two hours. You know ahead of time how many students are coming and how many judges will be there. You don’t have military checkpoints at the entrance to the university, and you aren’t expected to schedule a full hour for a complete sit-down lunch. Your tournament can start early, and most participants know that it will run until well after dark.

None of that is true in Kabul.

In the three weeks that we’ve been here, we’ve put a lot of time into this tournament, the exhibition debates at the universities, and the debate workshops we’ve been teaching. And we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve gotten trophies purchased, teams trained, certificates made, ballots written, judges recruited. We’ve even gotten the sanction from the International Public Debate Association, which is pretty cool. (If you go to www.ipdadebate.info you can see it!)

Unfortunately, Afghans don’t believe in making To Do lists and checking things off. We paid for our trophies, but the company just told us they are sorry for the delay and they’ll try to get them to us tomorrow morning. We don’t have a location; Kabul University initially agreed, but the president told us last night that he has changed his mind. We have to provide lunch for all of them, and we haven’t yet figured out how to do that. We have to reimburse students for the transportation costs (400 Afghanis each, which is about $8), and all the money we exchanged is in 500 Afghani notes. We have tentative lists of students, but we don’t know who will show up or if they’ll be on time or if the high security will let them on campus.

It’s a little stressful, but we are trying to teach ourselves to go with the flow. This is a very new concept here, and we have to remember that these students and professors and judges aren’t seasoned debaters who have been doing this for six or seven years, as the rest of us have. So we are just crossing our fingers and praying that it will all work out!

Despite all of the frustration, I have to tell you how much I am loving this job. There are busy days and boring days, but my favorites are the workshop days. Last Saturday, my partner Clayton Goss and I went to Kateb University to teach the second of two four-hour workshops. We met these students three weeks ago when we did our first exhibition debate at their university, two days after we arrived. Clayton and I interviewed them all, chose eight students (four men and four women) for the workshop, and wrestled with their schedules until we could plan for two Saturday afternoon workshops.

Five students showed up that first Saturday.

One of the missing students was my favorite, Razia. I wrote about her once before. She’s an amazing student, a political science major, who dreams of becoming the first female president of Afghanistan. She is very progressive, and wears a chadar that starts at the bun at the nape of her neck instead of at her forehead like most girls’ do. Gasp!

We were really disappointed when she missed last week, but she called to apologize and asked if we could train her later. So last Saturday, she showed up at 12:30 and sat through a one-hour crash course on resolutions and claim/warrant/impact. We had taken over two hours to teach that to the entire class, so I didn’t think she would be able to pick it up quickly enough. But she did. We were finished in under forty minutes, and she had such a firm grasp on the concepts that I joked that she should be teaching me.

We also did our first practice debate round that afternoon at Kateb, and Razia and her classmates did awesome. Most rounds we’ve seen so far have included little to no rebuttal, definitions, actual questioning during cross-examination, or anything else we’ve been teaching them for three weeks. Most rounds consist of four speakers who stand up and make claim after claim after claim after claim. Which isn’t exactly a debate round.

The debate at Kateb was different. Razia paired with Hotak, another promising debater, on the negative, and Farzana and Qadir were on affirmative. They made claims, but they backed them up with evidence and then they challenged their opponents’ claims. The first time I heard Razia say “My opponent said…” I wanted to stand up and cheer!

Watching these students improve and learn and take an interest in debate makes the frustrations worth it. These are smart students who want to change their country. They see the issues of security, of education, of corruption, of ineptitude, and they want to fix them. They’ve never been taught how to listen respectfully to someone else’s arguments, and they don’t know how to create questions based on what they heard. These ideas are so normal so me, and so foreign to them, but I love watching them figure it out and learn. These kids are going to change the world someday, and it’s so cool to be a part of it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What's It Like In Kabul?

In the last ten years, we’ve heard a lot about Afghanistan, and if you are anything like me, you’ve built up quite a mental image of the place. I want to describe Kabul for you and see if it is as different from your image as it was from mine. (I’ve also taken about a billion pictures, which are all on Facebook and show the city better than I could!)

First of all, Kabul is hot. Really hot. I know that I’ve lost some of my tolerance for heat since moving to Oregon, but that loss is only augmented by the lack of air conditioning. During the middle of the day, not much gets done. People sit around their fans and try to absorb every ounce of air possible. The liveliest times of day are from about five o’clock, when a breeze usually starts and the air begins to cool, to sundown, which comes as early as 7:30. Most social life ends around 8 pm, since it’s still rather dangerous to be out after dark.

Kabul sits in the middle of a valley and is completely surrounded by mountains. The air is dry and dusty, devoid of all humidity. The streets are mostly unpaved, but the cars fly up and down them as if they were driving on asphalt, so the air is always full of dust. When we are walking or driving, we pull our scarves over our mouths and noses (yet another use for the chadar!) to protect our lungs.

The buildings are unlike anything I’d imagined. Many are built into the hillside, clay buildings that remind me of the dwellings in Mesa Verde. The main streets look like any other city, characterized by tiny stores and restaurants that are packed into every square inch of roadside space. Even the most well-kept are a little bit dirty, but in a normal sort of way that doesn’t look out of place. The stores aren’t the typical Main Street stores at home; they are butcher shops with cuts of meat hanging from the ceiling, bread stores with giant loaves of naan, clothing stores with traditional garments hanging next to prom dresses (for guests to wear to wedding) and blue jeans. Street vendors are everywhere, selling everything from food (lamb kebabs and pulao are two of the city’s specialties) to scarves to bottles of shampoo and conditioner with labels in both English and Dari. I’m tempted to buy more conditioner that I don’t need just because I love the look of the label written in the gorgeous Arabic script.

There are fruit stands every six inches, it seems, and fifty percent of them are selling watermelon, stacked ten melons high and thirty wide. (Funny story- the word in Dari for “watermelon” is one letter away from the word for “fart.” Yesterday, I tried to say “thank you for the watermelon,” but I messed up. Guess what I actually said?) Other vendors peddle ice cream trucks that play Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday, or carry giant inflatable toys and swimming pools on a contraption that rests on their shoulders and looks heavy but probably isn’t.

In driving through Kabul, it’s easy to remember that Afghanistan is a Third World country. I see it in the uneven and bumpy sidewalks that are littered with trash, running parallel to the open sewers that give the city its, um, distinctive smell. I see it in the military convoys that drive past and the roundabouts that have men with machine guns and helmets. I see it in the streets full of beggars, mostly women in burqas and children with dirt streaked faces, and in those who might have begged for money but instead are trying to support themselves by cleaning car windows at intersections or by selling tiny purses for “one dollar, ma’am. Just one dollar.” I feel it when I pass a uniformed policeman and experience the tiniest sensation of fear, of wariness, of uneasiness, that I’ve never felt before, and I feel it whenever I hear about bombings in Herat or a general killed in a northern province. These moments remind me how far I am from home.

But in driving through Kabul and meeting its people, it’s easy to see that Afghanistan won’t be a Third World country forever. I see this in the young mothers with market booths to support themselves and the schoolchildren walking down the street who wave to us and call to us in English, thrilled to see foreigners with whom they can show off their command of the language. I hear it in the university students who study law or political science or economics and tell me that they want to leave to get a Master’s degree that isn’t offered here, but that they want to come back because this is their country and they want to make it better. I see it in the growing number of businesses, the newly arrived Dumpsters on the streets, the military checkpoints that my friends tell me were manned last year but are no longer necessary.

These moments prove to me that Afghanistan may be far from home, different and strange, a far cry from the Afghanistan I’ve always pictured but that it is a wonderful place nonetheless. These moments prove to me that Afghanistan is coming back. These moments remind me why I am here and why I am so happy that I came.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Women in Afghanistan

I know that you are probably very curious about the women in Afghan society and the stereotypes surrounding them, and since that’s been on my mind lately, I wanted to share some thoughts.

Women definitely don’t enjoy the same status in Afghanistan that they do in most countries I’ve lived in, nor are they given the freedom that American women are used to. All women must wear long pants and long sleeve shirts when going out in public, along with a chadar, a head scarf, that covers the top of the head and neck. Our shirts should go down to our knees, tunic style, to cover our backsides. We follow the “95% rule,” meaning that only 5% of our skin (faces, hands, and tops of the feet) can show. We aren’t supposed to laugh loudly in public, play sports, stay out after dark, etc. When we meet men for the first time, they shake hands with all the guys in our group and either ignore or simply mutter “salam” to the women. We aren’t supposed to stick our hands out and initiate the handshake either. Men and women don’t touch each other in public, and women aren’t really supposed to make eye contact with men on the street, particularly strangers. A man and a woman cannot be alone in the same room unless the door is open.

The restrictions aren’t easy to remember. I’m a rather independent girl (you might have noticed…), and for the last two weeks, I’ve been chafing under the many rules. But, I knew what I was getting into when I first came, so I’ve tried my best to follow them. I wear my long sleeved shirt and pants any time I leave my bedroom, and my scarf goes on any time I want to go outside the house. I’ve learned to eat with the scarf around my head, although that took some practice!, and I no longer spill food or water on it during lunch.

Some of the other rules are hard to remember. My chadar falls off on a regular basis, and I usually don’t notice, so my debate teaching partner is constantly saying “Rachel, your scarf is off.” I am accustomed to looking into people’s eyes, so I usually forget to look demurely at my feet. I try not to initiate handshakes, but sometimes I forget.

The funniest social blunder I make is purposeful- I play soccer every chance I get. Until today, I had only played in the yard of our guest house, which is hidden behind a thick compound wall, so nobody sees except the staff. After they saw me play, they told another guest that I played surprisingly well… for a girl! Today, we went to visit the gardens that belong to the man who worked in the government for many years, for the Ministry of Borders and for the Peace Corps, and now owns a beautiful peace of property he is turning into a guest house. We toured his gorgeous gardens, ate watermelon with our hands while seated cross-legged on a gazebo, and then played soccer on the lawn. For the first time, I played with some Afghan men, and my team won 5-2. I scored four times, even with my head scarf knotted around neck! Afterward, several of them told me that I played well, and they sounded so surprised. It was great.

The interesting part about these cultural rules is that I’m beginning to accept them and even appreciate some of them. I’ve heard that women who wear burqas are usually forced to do so by a family member, but some of them enjoy the anonymity that it provides. I wouldn’t like to wear a burqa, but I was thinking today how nice it is that I wear such loose clothing that I don’t have to worry about what I look like. You never see flesh between a girl’s shirt and pants, and the dress that covers the backside is so loose that guys don’t bother trying to check us out. It really is rather freeing. I put my hair in a French braid every day and forget about it, and although I’m not getting a tan, I also don’t have to worry about getting sunburned.

Although I can’t say that I like wearing the chadar, many girls have told me that they don’t mind it. One friend didn’t even take hers off at the wedding or in other places where she’s allowed to do so, and she says that she feels safer and more comfortable when she wears it. More progressive college students have pushed theirs so far back on their heads that it’s almost like they are wearing a scarf around their necks instead. Even I have gotten used to mine; we threw a surprise birthday party for Rachal the other day, and I wore my chadar all through dinner because I didn’t even notice that I was wearing it.

Honestly, being a woman here is annoying sometimes, but it’s not as bad as we think. The original culture warnings they sent before we came told us not to speak in public, to walk submissively behind our male co-workers, to never address a man if he didn’t speak first. None of that is enforced or realistic. Yes, fewer girls go to school here than boys, and yes, the girls are required to wear hot and heavy clothing out in public. But overall, this is a society like any other. I watched a little boy and girl push their brother down the street on a two-wheeled bike, one holding his seat and the other his handlebars, jogging alongside as he wobbled down the pavement, and I thought about the normalcy of it all. Some things are different, but Afghanistan is a country like any other, and its women and its culture have a beauty all their own.

Friday, June 3, 2011

$10,000 Wedding

Well, it’s been an eventful weekend. I know it sounds strange to say that on a post that I’m writing on a Friday night, but that’s because my weekend just ended. Afghanistan celebrates weekends on Thursday and Friday because Friday is the holy day, the equivalent of Sunday in the States. Some government and other agencies are campaigning to switch to Fri-Sat for global business stuff, but that hasn’t gotten much support from the people.

I had a day and a half long weekend, which is more than I’ve had since Christmas, I think. On Thursday morning, we had an exhibition debate at one of the universities, but after that ended, we were free until later that night when we were invited to attend a wedding for the daughter of the cook at the Partnership in Academics and Development office, where the Banyan Tree Network is located. The wedding started at 7, and I know it makes me sound like a girl, but I was really nervous about what to wear. My debate clothes are hardly appropriate, and the colorful things I brought are all too form-fitting or short sleeved. Hajar, my female Afghan friend from the office, finally told me to wear a short-sleeved pink top I’ve had for a long time- she said it was colorful enough to look good and that since it would be all women, we didn’t have to worry about having long sleeves or wearing a chadar, a scarf. That made it worth going right there!

Weddings in Afghanistan are a big deal. Eloping is unheard of, and it’s not uncommon for a wedding to cost upwards of $10,000. This is in a culture where people only have to pay income taxes if they make over $100/month. Weddings are expensive. Kabul boasts a whole neighborhood of wedding halls, giant buildings with neon lights worthy of Vegas. The couple has to rent two halls, one for men and one for women. The ceremony itself is conducted elsewhere and broadcast into the two halls via television screens in the corner. Then the bride and groom get into a decorated car (no words, just flowers) and drive to the wedding halls, where around 400 guests are waiting. They go first into the women’s hall and climb onto a dais and sit on a throne. After about 15 minutes of accepting congratulations and greeting people, the groom leaves for the men’s hall. I don’t know what he does there- as you can imagine, I wasn’t allowed in!

The insides of these halls are ridiculous. Each holds about 30-40 tables, and the guests filling those tables are SO colorful! Í saw some crazy outfits- long dresses of purple and fuchsia and gold. Everyone is covered in sequins and flowers and ribbon, and jewelry! Hajar told us that the more decorated girls are married, because Afghan men buy gold, especially gold bangles, to demonstrate their love. Some girls were wearing tiaras and gold bangles on both wrists and ankles. Their hair was done so elaborately that they must have used a can of hair spray apiece just to make it stay like that.

The dancing was the coolest part. Picture Bollywood style music, with a Middle Eastern twist. That’s what they dance to. It was really cool music, and I wanted so badly to go dance, but I didn’t know how. Hajar promised to teach Rachal and I, so we went into the little fitting room, and a bunch of kids followed us. Soon, a couple of the kids were showing off their moves and Rachal and I were just trying to keep up. They were so good, and although we could hardly communicate with them, we had a great time speaking through motion and smiles and giggle fits. Who needs a translator?

At about 9 pm, they started serving dinner. That part was crazy too. Each table had about twelve people sitting at it, so two-three waiters would come running up to the table carrying a loaded tray. No joke. They were sprinting from the kitchen to the table with a full tray balanced on one hand and the other hand out it front to part the crowd, football style. When they got to the table, one woman would start unloading plate after plate after plate after plate. Rice and rice with beans and naan (bread) and watermelon and meatballs and chicken and lamb something and pudding and green pudding and bananas and more rice and another chicken dish and salad and… the dishes just kept coming! They were stacked on top of each other in the middle of the table, leaning over or piled two high, just to fit them all on.

And then everybody dug in. They passed us the dishes first, since we are guests, but both Rachal and I had already eaten dinner at the guest house (lamb kabobs with naan and watermelon! Man, I love this place!), so we weren’t hungry as much as thirsty. My stomach was also a little upset, and we had to be careful about what we ate- a lot of meat dishes, vegetable dishes, and dairy dishes are dangerous for us foreigners with untested immune systems. So Rachal and I turned down a lot of dishes, and I think we actually insulted them a little bit. I felt bad, so we asked Hajar to explain that we’d eaten too much food already and had slightly upset stomachs. I think they understood. I hope so.

We ended up leaving fairly early, around 10, because our ride was leaving, but I’m really glad we got to go. Despite the clothing anxiety and being unable to dance and feeling odd because we were segregated, it was a LOT of fun. I’m so happy we went- when will we ever get to see an Afghan wedding again!? It was totally worth it.