[OUT OF OFFICE PART I – of a III part series]
‘The time is 3.45 – it’s time to wake up.’ My pre-set alarm announced something only an electronic device would be able to muster at that time, jolting me into action. Drowsy, I know that I am on my way out of Kabul and onto my first field visit to the Central Highlands. We left the compound before the first call to prayer, before the rooster next door announced the morning had officially started and at a time of day that requires extra awareness and caution as it is well-known the Taliban and similar groups prefer to act before breakfast.
From the backseat my eyes made out shadows of construction sites and men riding bicycles in the dark along main roads decorated with towering streetlights that no one ever recalls actually working. Some cars were stopped at a police checkpoint while we were waved through. A stretch further down the road, between a petrol station and standard Afghan wedding hall, it was noted as the place where the first female suicide bomber killed nearly a dozen internationals a few weeks previously – coincidently the first morning I woke up in Kabul after arriving the night before. The incident was discussed in a series of incomplete sentence while I am sure we all had various thoughts running through our heads as to the how and what if. Eventually barbwire and metal barrels were rolled back at the entry to Kabul International Airport and the first of many body searches ensued – the initial pat-down was a non-event as the women’s booth stood empty of any guards, others were half hearted after waking the women whose job it was to do so.
Even I was suffering from sleep deprivation, confusing my Dari ‘hello’ (salam) with ‘thank you’ (tashakor) when greeting them. Flashing our ‘humanitarian aid worker’ IDs at check-in we were directed through to an empty waiting lounge and after a short bus ride made it to the 5-seater plane that would take us over mountains to the relatively safe Bamyan Province. As bags were being lifted onto a portable scale near the runway, I was still laughing about the earlier x-ray guard official who accused me of hitting the emergency stop button when I was blatantly no where near. Weight restrictions and proportional distribution of cargo is very important in small aircrafts – to the extent, and to my horror, that we were next individually weighed and recorded. The cumulative figure determines if we are good to go, or if baggage needs to be reduced. My one change of clothes and sleeping bag were loaded and once onboard ‘frequent flier’ co-workers and pilots alike identified my available sick bag, being the only newbie passenger, before we taxied the runway to be met by a stunning orange sunrise.
My purpose of going into the field was as an introduction to the projects, beneficiaries and orientation of ongoing assessments. It was to be an exposure to the other side of Afghanistan: the rural existence and vulnerable communities whose risks are not from terrorism and war in a country commonly misunderstood and such things are associated with need-based responses. Due in part to narrow media reports being broadcast internationally. Instead dangers steamed from a lack of clean water, poor crops yields and natural disasters. I was exposed. But what I initially thought were the most important factors of this exercise: getting the interview questions right, producing photos while remaining sensitive to context and culture, and leaving with a notebook of project numbers and statistics, became less relevant to the actual, influential details of my observations. A series of unrelated and even relatively unimportant events narrated a human understanding and way into the many layers this country has yet to unravel before me.
There are many things one learns about oneself on these journeys of life. My first lesson became evident before I even managed to get off the plane; I am headscarf incompetent. Small, large, silk or cotton makes no difference to my inability to remain covered in a feminine manner. If I do manage to keep it on, it is through nearly choking myself with a python-like wrapping technique, tying it in a knot below my chin or wrapping it in a fashion with more resemblance to a turban than an adorned modesty.
After ripping free my green tassel-edged scarf from the top velcro strip of my North Face jacket, bought months ago in London and what now feels like another life, I made my way down three small, fold-out airplane steps onto a dusty runway and was met by children with faces of hostile suspicion. Perhaps it was that I was a foreigner, a woman. It is said in Afghanistan there are three sexes: men, women and foreign-women. The latter are seen as something more resembling a man, existing in a grey zone of cultural customs and practice. So, perhaps it was instead that our landing interrupted their game of football (soccer) on a pitch that the community decided was most appropriate to locate and accommodate in the middle of the airstrip (complete with white chalk lines and timber goal posts). Or, perhaps it was that our airplane meant young herders had to re-route their cows, sheep and goats around the inconveniently unwieldy 50’ wingspan. Whatever it was, I have now come to suspect my incorrect interpretation of their hostile suspicion was instead curious disapproval as to my abrupt arrival, draped in an over conservative dress code inappropriate for this region. My ill-fitting traditional black chapan only reinforced my awkward existence in this culture I am desperately trying not only to understand but also fit into. I must have looked like a trailer park version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch in a shiny, oversized elastic-spandex black chapan that hid my sneakers and the ground around them, let alone ankles as required in Muslim dress. I soon came to find the robe was dual-purpose and doubled as a horticulture magnet when I so much as looked at dried thorns and foliage. Leave me to walk through a field and you could extract a Christmas wreath from my hemline.
I cursed my Dari vocabulary progress for failing to add words such as ‘smile’, ‘game’ and ‘name’, my effort to win the hearts and minds of the kids, and the babies on the backs of kids, worked almost as well as the Western forces political strategy. I momentarily broke through when tickling a baby’s belly but that soon subsided. I took the dignity I had left, gathered my heavy chapan in my hand to prevent further tripping and public humiliation, straightened my headscarf while creating as little static afro as possible, and left to make friends with the cows.