Monday, October 25, 2010

Barf and Limericks

I was observing this KEU graduate teach English at a high school in Kabul. Future limerick writers? I think so!

In my office preparing for the limerick serious face soon turned to a giggly one, don't worry!

This is a very un-poetic post, but it is information that needs to be divulged because it is just too good to be kept to myself...

A few weeks ago my driver mentioned that winter was coming. He told me that with winter we would have a bunch of "barf." I tried not to giggle too much and asked him what barf was.
He said, "snow!" "Don't you love barf Jaala zhan (dearest Jaala)?"
I told him that I loved snow, but not barf. He laughed and said, "Snow is barf!"
I decided to explain that barf, in English, is something entirely different. I made gagging noises and mimicked barfing. He looked at me in the rear view mirror like I was crazy. I figured he didn't understand what I was saying, so I stopped my fake barfing and shifted my attention to the one-legged beggar outside my window.

Fast forward to today, a few weeks later.
On our way home from school, traffic was thick with afternoon commuters. The usual beggars roamed through the parked cars; homeless children offered burning vats of incense to ward off the evil eye, and workers sat atop a ton of apples on the truck in front of us. As traffic started to move more quickly, a different truck, packed with a family in the back, cut us off. My driver started to yell things in Dari at the truck when suddenly, a girl in the back started to vomit what looked like a pound of rice over the side.

As the puke hit our windshield, my driver ever so eloquently yelled, "She is BARFING on my car!" "Who is going to pay for this?"

He did understand my gagging and mimicking vocabulary lesson after all. God bless.

Because my students mostly teach children, and limericks are an easy and fun form of poetry, I decided to teach my students about limericks today. Turns out that limericks are really hard, even for almost fluent teachers of English as a foreign language. Here is the best limerick of all that my students wrote today:

I had a nice bag.
It was black like part of our flag.
I lost it in the bazaar,
Near Kandahar.
What a silly gag!

Once again, God bless.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Roaming Gazelle

Villagers in Paghman.
No scarf, no shoes, no problem (!) at the Kabul River in Paghman Mountains.

Silly mountain sheep blocking my way to Paghman.
Clear air at 8000 feet in Paghman.
The road to Paghman.
Qargha Lake and a lonely jet ski.

My wish came true.

I am no longer a caged bird, but a roaming gazelle. Okay, I am not really a gazelle. I am just a simple (dramatic) American girl in Afghan clothes who has been admitted to a little-known world; the world of Afghanistan, circa now.

Initially, I thought I would be stuck in my house too much. Now, when I get home after a long day I feel like pressing my hot body to the concrete walls and melting in to their forgiving coolness. My apartment has become my home, and I like it. Now back to the roaming...

Two days ago I showed up at school and my department chair said, "Lets go on a trip!"

I didn't quite understand what he meant so I asked him, with much sophistication,"Uh, when?"

He smiled and said, "Today, now!"

I asked him where we were going and he told me that first we would go to Paghman Mountains, then to Qargha Lake. He might as well have told me we were going to Mars, because I had no idea where either of these places were. I felt a tinge of adrenaline at the prospect of getting out into the wilderness, so I agreed to go on the mini field trip.

As we gathered our things in the office and made our way towards the car, I hurriedly called my security people and told them I was going on a day trip to the mountains with some teachers and students from my school. They gave me their blessing and said, "Have fun, beware of land mines!" Great advice.

A few minutes later, three teachers, two students, and about twenty pounds of apples piled into the car. We sped through the late morning dust and thick pollution of the Kabul Valley and into the clear air of Paghman Mountains.

On the outskirts of Kabul, we passed a huge refugee camp. There were tents and homes made from cloth, cardboard, remnants of building materials, and mud-brick. Thousands of refugees from Helmand province made this acre or so of land their new place of dwelling. I rolled down my window, looked at the camp and asked my students if the refugees may be able to return to Helmand soon. One of the girls said, "It is not likely, the situation is not good there." I mentioned that the poverty was so sad, I wished it didn't have to be like this. My department head said, "You can't blame the people for their poverty. They have lived through 30 years of war." I didn't know how to respond to his statement, so I just looked out the window and tried to hold myself together.

After passing the refugee camp, my department chair slammed on the brakes rather suddenly and stopped the car on the highway. He declared that we were running low on gas and proceeded to lay on his horn for a good 15 seconds. There were no buildings or signs in sight, so I wondered what he was doing. Then from nowhere, a man came running towards us with a 5 gallon jug of petrol. Hoping he also didn't have a match in his pocket, I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes. A few minutes later, the side of the car and the "gas guy" soaked in stinky fuel, we were on the road again, cruising towards nature still in one piece.

About 45 minutes later, now northwest of the city, we ambled along a rocky, tree-lined road towards higher ground. I liked everything about being in the wilderness. People on the road walked with a little less purpose and smiled more. The goats and sheep were happier and seemed not to be stressed about our little dirty Toyota Corolla invading their space. I didn't miss the sounds we had left behind, the merchants yelling, cars honking, the drum of construction, helicopters constantly cutting through the air interrupting the rhythm of the day. The wind blew in my face and my scarf fell off. My students told me to leave it alone, so I freed my hair as well and let the breeze carry me away.

Eventually, we couldn't drive up the mountain anymore. Huge boulders and the river blocked the road, so we parked, paid a local boy to watch the car, and walked towards the river. Remembering the security people's advice, I hesitantly took a few steps forward. I thought to myself, "How can I be aware of landmines? What should I look for?" As if he could read my mind, my department chair mentioned the he used to work for an organization that specialized in land mine awareness. Of course he did! I grinned and told him that he could go first; I would follow.

The rest of the afternoon was magical. Gradually feeling more comfortable in our surroundings, I bounded across the river and climbed up a scree face. I played on the rocks as if I were a five year old again. My department head joined me and we threw rocks at the river. The students took pictures and ate apples as the afternoon winds blew the turning leaves off their branches.

Parting WAS such sweet sorrow. I wanted to build a house on the river and stay there forever. But it was time to return to the city. On the way back, as if I wasn't happy enough standing in the river and running through the hills, we stopped at a lake for lunch! At Qargha Lake, usually busy with Friday picnickers, we sat in the rose garden and ate lamb kabobs. Some men paddled around in plastic boats, laughing and splashing each other. A lone jet ski waited to be taken out into the water.

Our return to the city came swiftly. Soon enough we were back in the traffic of Kabul. Thankful that my wish of getting outside came true so quickly, I smiled and put my scarf back on. On the outside I was covered again, but on the inside I was free.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Education is Peace...and You are our Grand Teacher!

Students at my University.
School girls walking through the hill-houses in Kabul. In the distance is a large cemetery.

It was a grain of sand in a mountainous dune, a drop of water in an ocean of pleasantries. But it was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity and quell my frustration.

During my second meeting with the Chancellor of my University, after hours of small talk and a truck load of raisins, chick peas, and tongue-scorching tea, I thought we would never talk about education. My prediction was that it would probably take ten of these meetings to begin talking about the business of educating teachers; of building training programs and developing the Master's of Teaching program at the University so that future generations of teachers could have access to higher education on their own soil. Frustrated, I thought that my time here may be over before I had the confidence of the Chancellor to go ahead with my project. Regardless of my fear, I was enjoying the chit chat when, ever so suddenly, the chancellor took in a labored breath and said the following:

"Peace depends on this University. With education, there is no war. The enemy knows this; they burn schools and kill teachers to take the foundations of peace away. But here we build our future everyday. Piece by piece we are re-building our nation from the ground up. Each teacher that works here knows this; each student who passes through these doors knows this. Peace depends on this University. We welcome you and hope you also realize this."

Suddenly my concerns didn't seem so urgent.

The remainder of our conversation was one of the best I have had since arriving in Afghanistan. We talked about how important education is in nation-building, and why this Teacher's College in particular was so important in this task. We discussed how educating women was the most important piece of this puzzle, because they would raise the future leaders, scholars, and politicians. At the Teacher's College, we were in the business of turning out the people who would teach the new generation how to be good people. Although most of our talk was lofty and wishful, it seemed to me that the Chancellor's heart was in the right place and that I had his blessing to go forth and teach. I was in good company. Thank Allah.

Our meeting ended because I had to go to introduce a guest from the United States (the English Language Specialist (ELS), a visiting scholar from University of Southern California who will conduct teacher-training workshops this week) to my students.

When we arrived at my class my students were off-the-wall excited to be meeting another American. I introduced the ELS as one of my teachers (for simplicity's sake). Immediately, a boy in my class raised his hand to speak. He said, rather enthusiastically to the guest, "So you are our grand teacher!"

I love Afghanistan.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mistaken Afghan

By now, this is a familiar refrain:
"Wow, you really look Afghan. You know, you are one of us. Just don't talk and no one will ever know you are American. Are you really American?"

Usually, this is a very good thing for me. At crowded intersections the beggar children walk right on by my car. Men never glance twice (unless I am feeling a little bold and look at them). The occasional shady character doesn't slow down when passing me on the sidewalk. Both teachers and students greet me in Dari at my University and treat me like any other professor. But today proved to be a little problematic...and comedic, of course.

At the gate to my University, the guards decided that my car couldn't drive inside to drop me off. So, I jumped out of my safe vehicle into the chaos that is the main thoroughfare outside of the entrance to my school. When I tried to walk through the pedestrian gate, one guard singled me out and stopped me.

He said, "Blah blah blah (in Dari)."
I said, "Shoma Ingleesi gap mezanayn?" (Do you speak English?)
He said, "Ne, blah blah blah." (No, a bunch of stuff in Dari)
I said, "Na me famam." (I don't understand)
He said, "Shoma Dari ro mezanayn." (You are speaking Dari.)
I said, "Bale, na me famam." (yes, I don't understand.)
He said, "Blah Blah blah!" (A bunch of stuff in Dari)
I said, "Sobh ba khayer." (Good morning.)

Having almost exhausted my Dari, the guard finally realized I was not Afghan. He gave me a confused look. I shrugged and took out my passport. He laughed and said, "Be bakshayn," (Sorry), and waved me through the entrance.

Besides the guard interrogation, on a "regular" day, my life looks like this:

I wake up and go down to the basement gym in my apartment to wrestle with the dumbbells, try not to smash my fingers in the process, and do some crossfit. After completing my workout, I return to my apartment to load up on protein; one hard boiled egg. Add some cucumbers and I feel 20% full. I clean myself up, throw on my chadar (head scarf) and eye-liner and it is off to work.

The ride to my University is always interesting. Depending on the morning, we could be stuck in the worst traffic ever, Office Space style, with donkey carts, motorcycles occupied by entire families, and one-legged men non-nonchalantly cruising by. Other mornings we are weaving in and out of boulders placed strategically in the road to slow people like us down, barely missing women in burqas fleeing taxis and buses speeding through the dawn. Arriving safely at the school is always a blessing.

At work, I observe teachers, work with them on teaching skills and lesson planning, team-teach a class, hold office hours, talk to students, and eat lunch with other professors. Lunch is usually some Afghan food; the most typical of which is a gigantic piece of naan bread and kobli palaw (rice with carrots and raisins). My paleo-fed body cries tears of grains as I smile, say "tashakor" (thank you), and eat the inflammation-inducing food (which actually tastes FANTASTIC).

Home is a welcome relief to a hot, sweaty day full of confusion, chaos, and language learning. First I let my hair down, take off many layers of clothes, and turn on some American music. I have a snack, check my e-mail (our Internet connection is pretty reliable) and relax. Sometimes I will go back down to the gym and run backwards on the treadmill (it only goes 5 miles an hour, so running backwards offers a little more of a challenge) or ride the bike.

Dinner is usually as paleo as I can make it with local veggies (soaked in bleach-water for 45 minutes so I don't get hepatitis) and some type of meat besides eggs.

At night I often drift quickly into a deep dreamless sleep...Last night though, I had my first dream.

What did I dream of?

The ocean.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Common...and Uncommon in Kabul

Another week has gone by. Last week I wrote about Kabul in hiding; this week I will write about Kabul unveiling itself. Little by little I am learning more about this place. I wonder when I will shed a tear for these people and their stories? I asked an Afghan friend of mine why she thinks it is that I haven't cried yet while gazing upon the remnants of a once thriving city; she whispered, as if someone was listening to us, "There aren't many tears left in Kabul. "


This is the story of one woman in Kabul during the Taliban regime, but it could easily be the story of thousands of women; unfortunately her situation was common among the population.


Last weekend, my dear friend* (DF) told me that during the reign of the Taliban, for six years, she had to stay inside of her home. Although she had just started teaching, her career would be put on hold indefinitely. The government paid her teaching salary so that she would not complain. Day-to-day, DF took care of the house with the other women in her family; she did the cleaning, cooking, and child rearing. When she ventured out to go shopping, she donned a burqa and took a male relative to accompany her in her business.


However, the walls of her home could not contain her determined mind. As soon as all of her daily home duties were completed, DF hit the books. She diligently studied the English language, hoping that when she was released from house arrest that she could catch up with the men at the University where she had once worked as a professor. While she was relegated to her home, most of her male colleagues remained in their teaching positions at the University. Although the men retained their jobs, they were all required to teach religious studies. While DF studied English, the men filled their time with teaching a subject that was not their expertise.


DF said, "When I returned to the University, most of the men were afraid that my English skills would now be better than their own." It is clear that the time DF spent studying has given her a leg up, but in a curious way. Was the six years inside, studying English worth the time that she was removed from a regular daily life? Upon asking DF, she grins at me and hands me more naan bread. This question remains unanswered.


Now, after the regime has fallen, women are experiencing a little more freedom. Women have gone back to work and are generally allowed to venture outside of the house. Don't be mistaken though; a majority of women are still at home most of the time, taking care of all of the duties endemic to running a household. All women cover their hair and continue to dress modestly. Many women still wear the burqa.


But once again, in a sea of difficult, heart-wrenching, common stories it is evident that none of these are truly common. Though the thread of house arrest runs stealthily through the lives of all women in Afghanistan during those years, each one dealt with their fate in uncommon ways.


A good example of the spirit of the Afghan women is exemplified in the featured documentary, Kabul at Work (Click on the title to be directed to the film, it is about 20 minutes long). This film features four people, two of which are women; one is a general in the Afghan Army, the other is a Taekwondo champion (the attached picture is of Sarah Jamal an Iranian champ, not the woman featured in the video). I found that in watching this documentary each person is uncommon within the common framework of war and hardship. This is yet another beautiful fact about the common in Kabul. Nothing is as it seems.


*Dear Friend, or DF, is a pseudonym. Actual names of people and places are not used to protect the identities and to ensure the safety of the locals whom I live and work with.