Afghanistan has begun its transition into a shaky independence. In just over a year it will have to take full responsibility for itself and work to resolve the consequences. The complications are never ending, perceptions ever changing and contradiction forever prevailing. Population diversity now revolves around the foreign influences, lifestyles and expectations being brought back into the country by thousands of returnees who found refuge for years, if not decades, outside of their naturalised borders. It is impossible for Afghans and foreigners not to operate under invisible boundaries.
Soon after arriving I attended a cultural awareness class as an induction into the country context. Looking back, a simple greeting makes me question whether this actually partly works against the progress I hoped to witness, if not be a part of. I am told that as a woman I should place my right hand over my heart when greeting a man, and avoid eye contact. Yet with so many now returning from foreign countries or having been over exposed to western tends, men are increasingly accustomed to initiating a handshake with me – especially as I am a westerner. I see it as selfless and accommodating on their part, rude to decline – but many others consider it culturally inappropriate to accept. In a country where every move is being observed it becomes a mental game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ – whose move beats the other. The wrong interpretation at a time that requires split second decisions can result in an awkward stalemate with negative first impressions that are almost impossible to shake off in Afghanistan. With a population fluctuating between wide ranges of conservative and more liberal lifestyles it becomes a complicated process to determine whose lead to follow.
The most common method of operation for international organisations is to approach with caution and play ‘safe’. Sometimes I think the foreigners are more critical of each other’s cultural integration and practices than the Afghans. In a short space of time I have seen the consequences are too often at the expense of sincere interaction with nationals of the opposite sex in the fear of how it will be interpreted. As humanitarian aid workers we address immediate needs, ensure communities can sustain themselves and then leave. I am challenged with the disconnection in day-to-day life, how we can effectively act as advocates for a country that we are so restricted from involving ourselves with in a personal, sustained way. At times this makes me question my own integrity. I wonder how many excuse the fact we intentionally or unintentionally remove ourselves from being active participants in the Afghan society with the excuse we ‘do good’ elsewhere and with others. Sometimes I feel we have a lot to learn from a profession that prides itself on being neutral. At a recent roundtable workshop we discussed access and community acceptance. The speaker made a point, “We are out of sync with Afghan mentality. They get on with it, we go into lockdown. We are locked in while we are here to help, as others face it.” It is not that we must expose ourselves with decreased physical proximity or levels of security, but through a freedom to embrace a certain cultural vulnerability.
In a country where lives play out in contrasts of total exposure and utter privacy, the cultural divides between males and females is obvious. Men laugh over cups of tea, consumed while squatted along roadsides. They push carts with all of their commercial goods for sale on show, drawing attention to themselves while shouting down residential streets the list of items on offer. Women are often silent shadows in public; their activities take place behind compound walls. Yet I have seen glimpses of the next Afghan generation emerging within society – expressing various identities as they explore new paths – even if it goes against conventional acceptance.
It summons the need and want in me to understand what drives this ‘rebellion’, expression – what influences it and what risks exist for them – if I am to really understand this fluctuating change of references and mindset. I do not see us as different, despite what circumstances may lead outsiders to believe. But my access to their playground is hindered with places off-limits. Over time I get frustrated simply looking at the world through car windows – a transparent and yet completely visible boundary between the world and me.
As a writer I have a platform and ability to express the good and bad. I recognize this as an opportunity to process my inner self in as much as I try to help give others the same freedom. It is more difficult to do so in Afghanistan, knowing the potential misinterpretation and endemic gossip. Within the close circles I live everything is quickly amplified and over analyzed. The danger is potential for both internal and external conflict when words stop expressing oneself and starts representing a nationality, country, religion, ethnicity or race – a decision made not by the speaker but those who disagree with the opinion. I dread the day where once my opinions and emotions are voiced are they are no longer mine.
As a humanitarian aid worker I chose to commit my skills, knowledge and life to Afghanistan – a country I am deeply devoted to being in. I accept the environment I must operate in to do a job I have been called to. However I fear should it require me to give everything in the end, namely my writing – sacrificing the ability to externalize my thoughts. I am here to serve the beneficiaries that our projects are funded to help. At the same time I find a passion to blog, photograph and process the remaining population and places that consume my daily life. I am not sure if this makes beneficiaries of a larger population through the indirect recognition. What ever they may be termed as, I see them as valued contributors nonetheless.
As a woman I debate with myself every time I put on a headscarf. I question if I cover myself out of cultural respect and solidarity if I am not also a hypocrite by supporting a religious practice of something I am not believer in, or a commonly seen form of repression. I am not ignorant to the importance of cultural adaptation when representing a part of its population, temporary or otherwise. Whatever conclusion I come to, I cannot deny that the scarf has become a protective shield at times against unwanted stares and glares. I accept that as a foreigner my perception – through becoming a duplication of a system or society – will always be tainted with moral, ethical or cultural conundrums derived from experiences ingrained elsewhere. This creates another threat in my quest to identify or determine a current identity baseline in a country so contaminated by conflicting influences.
Many say that even after years, if you know 20% of what is going on in this country it is quite an accomplishment. We will never know it all. Yet for the sake of humanity I hope I am not the only person actively seeking loopholes that lets me into this world without compromising safety, job security or myself – to at least try to understand, if not become, part of it.
I admit I lay on my bed sometimes, coping with disappointment after being denied permission to attend an event or travel with a friend to areas of Kabul due to security. In this time I am drawn back to the same question, wondering if the compound walls, company cars with drivers and comfortable living conditions cushion fear that would be at the surface otherwise.
The reality of living in Afghanistan is I become a potential target for motives far more serious than petty crime – especially as an American. My value, my opportunities, my perceived wealth and expectations are accelerated because I have the equivalent of Prada in my back pocket. There is no escaping it anywhere in the world. Passports have lost their value in serving as identification and somewhere transformed into the biggest brand on earth.
Yet I derive value from experience and attitude. Half of my life has been spent navigating internal and external boundaries through self-transformation, since leaving home and everything I knew, to start over time and time again. Afghanistan and myself have a lot in common. While I continue to look to the country and the people who inspire me to want to understand it more, I do hope my words do not offend and my actions do not disrespect should they look at me in the process.