03 November 2011

Break on Through

"In the name of Allah, my topic today is Women's Rights..."
                                                    -- Julia (the bravest woman in Afghanistan)

Julia is approaching the end of her first semester at the Kardan Institute of Higher Learning, the best English-language school in Kabul. Yesterday was her third day of exams. Her assignment: give a 10 minute oral presentation in English on a topic of her choice to her 30 classmates. She wanted to practice her presentation with me, and I tried in vane to disguise my look of astonishment at her selected topic (which I did not influence in any way!)

I spend five days a week with this incredible woman, and by now I've figured out how to read her non-verbal cues. I know when our conversation is about to get serious. First, she'll walk toward my office, peeping cautiously through the door. Then she'll place her two hands in a V on the corner of my desk, lean forward toward me just a tiny little bit and with her head tilted ever so slightly she'll ask "Ma'am, do you have time to talk?"

It's impossible to resist - I don't even try. And I know things are really getting serious when she then spins around, pushes the door closed, and pulls a chair up next to me. Then I watch her let her scarf slide down her beautiful brown hair until it's resting gently on the back of her neck. The whole process takes maybe three minutes, and it's captivating simple, yet incredibly complex. For the next 90 minutes, she looked directly into my eyes and told me why she thinks women have so few rights in her country.

"Ma'am, the biggest problem here is that women are shy."

Julia and I are alike in ways that Eastern and Western girls rarely are - we're spunky, unafraid to speak our minds, and we embrace challenges...particularly those that deter others. Her worldview is unexpectedly profound given her life's circumstances. Despite the many challenges she's faced, she understands that the the cultural notion of shyness is a fundamental barrier to women's rights in Afghanistan. That shyness manifests itself here as subservience. From the day they are born, Afghan women tend to be reminded of the many things they can't do (true or not) based solely on their gender. As she explains it, Afghan girls learn subservience the way children pick up their native language...they've constantly exposed to it, and then one day, they naturally adopt the role. The notion of "shy" in this case is really Afghan girls internalizing the can'ts, don'ts and won'ts and training themselves to live up to those low expectations without rocking the boat...all while never questioning (male) authority.

"We need to stop being shy. And it doesn't mean we fight with someone. We will fight by improving ourselves by good education."

That one stopped me dead in my tracks. When Julia returned to her family after her divorce (at age 17), she had to convince her father that the only way she could guarantee a better future for her daughter is if he would allow her to get an education. She'd been taken out of school at age 14 to be engaged. It's almost impossible to say no to Julia...she's charmingly persistent, remarkably composed, and absolutely gorgeous. She worked on her father for a few weeks until he finally relented. When I asked her whether she thought other Afghan girls could be equally fearless, she couldn't answer definitively. I'm sure they can, but I'm much less sure whether they are willing.

We didn't have time to get to the part of the conversation where Julia offered solutions to the lack of women's rights in Afghanistan, but I'm sure she has then, in due time we'll get there.

As she left for the afternoon, heading to Kardan to give her presentation, I asked her to call me when she was done to tell me how it went.

My phone didn't ring until this morning, and on the other end of the line was Julia, bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"Ma'am," she started, as she always does. "Good morning! How are you? How's your husband?"

"He's well. I got to see him and talk to him for two hours last night on the computer. It was perfect. How's your daughter?"

"She's good. She misses you." And of course, I miss her daughter terribly as well. I got to meet her a few weeks ago, and we spent 6 hours together blowing bubbles, playing soccer, and figuring out how to communicate when we don't have a language in common. It comes as no surprise that her daughter is stunning in every possible way.

"Julia, you have to tell me about your exam. How did it go?"

"Ma'am, I forgot to call you last night. It was good. It was so good."

I was glowing, I'm sure of it. And really, I don't think she has any idea just how good it was. Or how brave she is. And that makes me love and respect her even more. She's going to break through for sure, and I can only hope that she inspires other Afghan women to do the same.

01 November 2011

We'll Meet Again

Today I pulled my weapon out of the holster for the first time. There was a loud bang in a big public space and next thing I knew, I had pushed Julia behind me, drawn my M9, pointed it at the floor and was carefully assessing the commotion about 50 feet in front of me. I knew the sound I'd heard wasn't a gunshot, but a deafening BANG followed by the sheer pandemonium of about 300 Afghans scrambling around trying to figure out what just happened when I was the only American in the room kept me on my toes.

I guess I always thought I'd be terrified when one of my weapons went from accessory to self-protection device, but it wasn't like that at all. Today the Army's 10-week training plan in the armpit of Louisiana paid huge dividends. My body and my brain know how to respond in a dangerous situation without even a second of hesitation. My adrenaline, on the other hand, is still in the early stages of maturation. I was a little more jittery than I would like to admit for the rest of the day.

As it turned out, I pulled my weapon (aimed at the floor and never flipped to fire) on a gigantic tray full of 20-odd metal soup bowls crashing onto a concrete floor, amidst significant yelling (in Dari) in a cafeteria full of about 300 men and maybe 15 women. Given the events of the past week in Kabul, I have zero regrets. I did the right thing. I thought someone might be trying to hurt me (and Julia) and I was mentally and physically prepared to respond if necessary.

A response wasn't necessary today, and thank God for that. I was significantly rattled, I'd already gone running this morning (standard stress relief), it was about 4pm in Afghanistan (best Stateside mentors still sleeping)...and my instinct to seek a human connection comes as a surprise to absolutely no one.

Writing off the entire country of Afghanistan is all too easy this week, but if I did that, I could never forgive myself. So to counter that temptation, I walked to my favorite shop, run by an Afghan man might be 28 years old, just to say hello and remind myself (again) that the East and West have humanity in common.

We sat down together over a cup of tea for at least 45 minutes, and lingering over tea somehow made him feel comfortable enough to share his life story with me. He's been working 7 days a week since he was 8 years old. His family, like so many others, left Afghanistan for 15 years during the Taliban rule. He supports his parents and two younger siblings by selling handicrafts created by widowed women in downtown Kabul. For every $10 in merchandise he sells, he takes home 50 cents. It was the most heartfelt conversation I've had yet - he is just so human. He wanted me to understand what it feels like to be poor in Afghanistan with little hope for his own future, and I wanted to listen.

He sees himself in the children who desperately sell trinkets along the Kabul streets to pay for food for their families...that was him, many years ago...and those memories flooded his eyes with tears as the words tumbled from his mouth in amazingly eloquent English. It was touching, and the perfect peaceful contradiction to the afternoon's chaotic events.

On days like today, it's easy to remember why I'm here, and why my mission here is so important to me that I am willing to put my comfortable American reality on hold for another eight months for people I don't yet know and for a culture I'm just beginning to understand. People talk to me. People trust me. And through my conversations with people, I will leave a mark that to me is worth every dicey cafeteria lunch, every menacing drive down the streets of Kabul, and every remarkable opportunity to share tea and a great conversation with another human being.

I've never been in more danger than I am right now, nor have I ever felt more alive. And in this moment, I cannot imagine my life any other way.

31 October 2011

World on Fire

I know that I'm American. There's never a doubt in my mind, nor are there a lack of reminders while I'm out here proudly wearing an American flag on my right shoulder everywhere I go. And even though many days out here feel like Groundhog Day, sometimes the sacrifices we make to support Afghanistan make perfect sense...other days, the sacrifices the insurgents force us to make for our countries feel overwhelming.

I've been working on a blog about the trip I led to the orphanage 10 days ago...the orphanage that is probably 100 meters from where the vehicle-borne IED killed way too many innocent people this past Saturday. I led 13 people (my own team and people from three other teams) to the other side of Kabul where we delivered shoes, blankets, clothes and medical supplies to the 200-odd children who call that place home.

Orphanages here aren't like the ones we know in the States...here they are more like boarding schools. Afghanistan's violent history has created an entire culture of female war widows, whose dead husbands have left behind 6 or 7 children, no money, no home and no viable future. A majority of the Afghan population has no savings, no bank account and no concept of insurance of any type...so places like the orphanage we visited become a form of social insurance for Afghan families (particularly women) in need.

We hyped the kids up on Pixi Stix, Fun Dip and Dum Dums, played a quick game of soccer, drank some tea with the principal of all Kabul-area public orphanages, scooted right out of their home, donned our protective gear and re-entered the city streets. Almost fearlessly, which in retrospect seems insane...but out here, we can't live our lives in the rearview mirror.

It's a strange collection of things that keeps me human out here. Finding similarities that transcend Eastern and Western cultures is certainly one of them. Last week, during our visit to the orphanage, it was easy to bridge the gap between the East and West...we humans have so much in common.

Today, on the first day we've been officially authorized to interact with the world following Saturday's attack, that gap seems insurmountable. I'm trying hard to remind myself of the hundreds of thousands of genuinely good people who live in Afghanistan and of the great dreams they have for their children's future. These parents want to see their country succeed. Independently. But incredibly terrible, wildly dangerous people also live here...and they're lurking, awaiting targets of opportunity, and seeking to do harm to those of us here to help the Afghans rebuild their country.

In a few more days there will be a memorial for the many people from my base who lost their lives this past weekend. And I can only hope that when I stand in the main square to pay my respects, I can imagine the faces of the beautiful children at the orphanage and I can focus on the hopes and dreams of the Afghan parents...and not focus on the very evil people who hope to continue to force the Coalition to make the ultimate, untimely sacrifice.

30 October 2011

Another Day in Paradise

Today is a tough day in Kabul. I'm fine. My team is fine. Others from the base where I am stationed were not so lucky. The attack happened almost directly across the street from the orphanage where we've done two humanitarian aid drops, including one about 10 days ago. Now, I understand this whole matter of fate, and I get that when my number comes up, it's time. A vehicle full of 1,500 pounds of explosives will quickly change a bright sunny day into one we will not soon forget. And it did exactly that yesterday.

But out here it's all too easy to forget that we're at war. I spend my days with a beautiful, brave young Afghan woman talking about problems that could occur anywhere in the world...women's equality, human resources concerns, training agendas, and complicated families. The ride to and from work is harrowing at best. Once we arrive, we walk around with two loaded weapons and pretend, to some avail, for just a few hours to be human.

We're all in some kind of stupor today. The command has turned off our phone and internet services on base, awaiting notification of the families of those we lost yesterday. It's an isolating feeling unlike anything I've experienced since I've been here.

Right now I'm sitting on the Afghan base where I work, using the USB internet stick that one of our interpreters helped me buy a few weeks ago. Sadly that USB stick also doesn't work on the base. I want to hear a familiar voice or see a familiar face. The voice or face of someone who is not in Afghanistan. But right now, that's just not possible.

And I guess it's only fair. Across many oceans, there are more than a dozen families who are receiving the ultimate bad news. And in the grand scheme of things, knowing at least that everyone I love is safe is worth the feeling of isolation out here for a few more days.