Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Day After Thanksgiving

I think we were laughing at my Dari skills, or lack thereof.
The "day after Thanksgiving" feast. Can you find the pizza?
Chapatis, oshaq, and little meat burgers...
The family. I have about five pictures before this one. After each picture we took, they called another family member to join. I think this is almost everyone...
One of the classrooms at the little English school.

Noticeably devoid of Black Friday, football, beer, and leftovers, the day after Thanksgiving in Kabul was interesting. No, no, it wasn't apocalyptic like The Day After Tomorrow. There was no global warming, tidal waves, or ensuing ice age...just a nice afternoon eating lunch and discussing the future of Afghanistan with my students.

In the late morning, I traveled to western Kabul, home to three of my students, and shared a feast with one student's family. Upon arriving at the home, I was ushered into the sitting room to have tea and candy with all of the men; the women were in the kitchen cooking, but because I was a guest and a foreigner, I was an honorary man.

Waiting for lunch to arrive, I worried about how to sit on the mats on the ground without offending anyone. I thought, "Should I sit crossed legged or put my legs to the side?" "Is it bad to face the soles of my feet towards anyone?" I looked around the room at everyone, but because there were no women, I didn't know who to copy. I settled with sitting crossed legged and immediately regretted not being more flexible as my feet promptly fell asleep.

Lunch was overwhelming, delicious, and interesting all at once. First the mother brought out chapatis; huge flat, round pieces of bread. If I weren't there, everyone would have used this bread to eat with. They would tear a piece off and use their right hand lined with a piece of chapati to grab the rest of the food. But because they wanted me to feel comfortable, they brought out spoons and forks. After the bread came the oshaq, shallot filled dumplings in sour cream sauce. There was also a bowl of cooked wheat with oil on top, fruit, cookies, and meat. Uncharacteristic of a typical meal, I gathered, was the pizza placed in front of me. In addition to the utensils, they thought the pizza may make me feel more comfortable.

After we had sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we took some pictures and headed for the school where my students teach.

At the school, we met the other teachers. We all sat gathered around an ancient wood-burning stove, talking about music, professional teaching organizations, running a business and graduating from high school. I admired the smooth mud-brick walls and realized that most of the teachers in the room were still high school students themselves, save for the three teachers who were currently students at my university.

Unlike American high school and college students who have time to study, play sports, socialize, and be teenagers; these Afghan high school and college students are trying to make life better for their own people. Each day they attend school as students, then spend a great majority of the afternoon teaching English to people of all ages. After they finish teaching for the night, they go home and study their own lessons to prepare for the next day. Instead of worrying about fashion, pop culture, social life, or entertainment, these high school and college kids are concerned with how to re-build their country and educate their people after decades of war. And they don't just theorize and discuss ideas on how to solve their problems; they take action.

When asked if it is difficult to be both a student and a teacher, one of the boys said, "Teaching the English language to my people is important. English is an international language and having the skill [to speak] in the language will solve many problems for them. It may be difficult to work a lot, but I like to do it because of the result."

The other two boys who help run the school told me that they love teaching; that it is challenging and interesting. They believe that not only are they teaching language, but they are also teaching about the cultures in which English is spoken. "Learning to think in a different language is like becoming a new person," one of the boys said. And as they teach people to think in new ways, they are breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding. They believe that as they break down these barriers, life will get better for everyone.

Fortunately, the day after Thanksgiving I was reminded of a couple of things that I can give thanks for this year. Although I am thousands of miles away from all of the people whom I love, I have this amazing chance to learn about a culture that we, as Americans, know little about. For these ten months of my life, I am lucky enough to be able to eat oshaq with Afghans in their homes, talk about education with the future leaders of Afghanistan, and actually have a direct impact on their impressions of Americans. I get to live the reality of Kabul and see the truth with my own eyes. If I do nothing here besides drink tea and make friends, I have succeeded in building a bridge between Afghans and Americans. And that is something to be thankful for.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Heading out to dinner in my Eid finest.
The blue mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. People will perform Eid prayers en-mass here today.
A potential sacrifice? Most likely.

A low damp heaving sound pulled me out of my afternoon slumber. The bronze light of dusk was fading, but when I opened my eyes I could see my breath intermingling with the thousands of dust particles clinging to the air. I followed the sound to my kitchen. With each wheeze, the noise became slower, less intense. Trying to get closer to outside without being seen, I climbed onto my cold marble counter top and pressed my ear to the fan vent above my stove which opened into the courtyard. Heaving and wheezing turned to a soft, drawn-out whimper. Then there was silence. In my building, on the dying breath of a cow, the Eid-al-Qurban celebration had commenced.

About 4,000 years ago today, Abraham and his son Ishmael walked towards a stone platform atop a hill and prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. Having had re-occurring dreams of sacrificing his son for God, Abraham believed that this was a message and the action must be carried out to show his obedience and submission to the higher power.

Asking the consent of his son (who was a teenager at the time), Abraham hoped that his boy would have the maturity to also submit to the will of God. When the question was posed, Ishmael did not hesitate; he immediately accepted his fate and said he would lay patiently under his father's knife.

When the two men arrived at the place of sacrifice, and were preparing for the ceremony, God intervened. Instead of taking Abraham's son, a ram would be sacrificed. Because Abraham and Ishmael were willing to submit to God's will, they were spared.

In Kabul today, and in all other Muslim countries, it is officially Eid-al-Qurban (Eid-al-Adha in Arabic-speaking countries), the celebration of sacrifice. Like the family in the courtyard behind my house, after the Eid prayer, many more families will slaughter lambs, sheep, cows, and some camels in order to honor the memory of Abraham and Ishmael.

The practice of slaughtering animals is only one way that Muslims celebrate sacrifice on this special day. Mullahs will give sermons about being kind and accepting of all humans; they will talk about the importance of spreading wealth among the poor and sharing food with the hungry (if families slaughter a sheep or lamb it is divided into three parts; 1/3 for the slaughterer, 1/3 for their family and friends, and 1/3 for the poor. In the case of a cow, the meat is distributed to seven families). People will also exchange sweets and buy gifts, particularly new clothes, to show their appreciation for those close to them. They will gather with their loved ones and remember how and why they sacrifice in life; they will tell each other, "Eid mubarek," (Happy Eid)!

Although we do not have a particular holiday in the United States to celebrate sacrifice (although lent is pretty close), each one of us makes sacrifices everyday. We give up things or go without comforts with the intention of gaining something for that sacrifice in the end. In American culture, we have come to know sacrifice as a bloodless example of self-discipline. In sacrificing some things, we become better people. And in becoming better people, we hope that we can make society a better place in which to exist. Whether you make a small sacrifice, like giving up candy to spare your teeth and save your health, or you make a large sacrifice like leaving your family and friends to serve in the Military in a volatile country, all of the sacrifices we make are important and interrelated.

So, later this week, as I tip-toe through the blood and carcasses of the sacrificed animals of Kabul, I will remember all of my friends and family who make sacrifices everyday. You all make the world a better place. Thank you!

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Friday, November 12, 2010

I Heart Herat

A tiled tower at the tomb of Queen Goharshad.
A wonderful mix of old and new; a bombed-out Russian tank, Jaala and Fatema in chador, and a new, shiny apartment building.
Standing on the edge of the tomb of Queen Goharshad; Aqila and Jaala clowning in front of the ancient minarets.
Alexander the Great's Citadel.
Looking out of the Citadel into the old city.
Local Heratis using the taxi to its fullest.
Lovely, clean, tree-lined road in Herat.

I love Herat too much.

I love it so much that I would drop everything to return to its blend of old and new; ancient and contemporary. I would don a chador and sell all of my belongings to walk along its clean wide avenues, munching on Iranian candy and cream puffs. I love it so much, my heart skips a beat when I think about the juicy secrets that could be revealed in the crumbling minarets, the damp, dark tombs, the restored Citadel of Alexander the Great, and the intricately tiled Friday mosque. I would return to the city just to inhale the smell of the well-stocked book stores and to wander through the stylish mall. I find myself out of breath thinking about the smooth, kind Persian the locals speak there; it soothes my ears like warm honey coating a sore throat. I lose my head recalling the temperate, crisp air and the softness of twilight shining through the sturdy branches of thousands of pine trees. I can't imagine anything more comforting than a Herati smile. It is embarrassing trying to write about the place; I feel as though I am revealing the details of a sordid romantic affair. Suffice to say it is my new favorite place in Afghanistan. Before I left, I was already making plans to return. No wonder my computer tries to change Herat to Heart each time I type the name of this magical city...

I do, I do... Herat!

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Safe in Mazar

ISAF troops walking by our plane, probably admiring my cute pink carry-on bag, at the Mazar airport.
A guy hanging by his house in the mountains outside of Mazar.
In my typical hiking gear; a walk in the mountains outside of Mazar.
A lady standing outside of her house in Mazar.
Friday market in Mazar.
Traffic jam in Mazar. The donkey cart cut us off. What an ass.

Mazar-e-Sharif is a couple hundred miles northwest of Kabul but seems like a world away. Five days ago, I squeezed myself and my cute pink carry-on into a Balmoral Beech 1900c, also known as the smallest passenger plane in the history of mankind, and flew over the Hindu Kush mountain range to one of the safest places in Afghanistan. You see, although Mazar was one of the first cities to fall to the Taliban, it was also the first city to kick the Taliban out in 2001. It was the center of Ahmed Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance, the good guys in the fight against the Taliban. Because they have suffered so much tumult (seemingly more than the rest of the country) at the hands of invaders, they refuse to allow the Taliban to gain control of the area again. This makes for a really safe neighborhood. I was looking forward to enjoying the security of this city.

But first I had to get there.

Landing in Mazar-e-Sharif was an eye-opener. There is one airstrip in all of the city, so Embassy Air, commercial airlines, and military all use the same airport. As our tiny plane landed, so did a couple of C-130s and another really big plane (sorry dad, don't know the name of the big one). My colleague Tara and I disembarked in our fancy, "Afghan city girl" work clothes with our stylish luggage and handbags. Needless to say, we were out of place. We were standing in the dust among hundreds of ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) troops, being buzzed by F-16s and bombarded with questions by private security people patrolling the airport.

I quickly scanned the area for the civilian car which should have been waiting for us. My inspection turned up...nothing. Not knowing where to go, what to do, or who to look for, I deployed my Dari.

I walked towards a security guard and said, "Ma motorwan nadarum." "I don't have a driver."
He said, "Motorwan kuj as?" "Where is your driver?"
I said, "Na me famum." "I don't know."
He pointed at an embassy vehicle and said, "Un jos." "There."
I said, "Tashakor." "Thanks."

I knew it wasn't my car, but I had used up all of my Dari so I walked over to the embassy guy. I explained to him my situation and he kindly offered to drive me to the front gate. At the front gate he deposited me and Tara in a United Nations (UN) vehicle to take us to our guest house.

Halfway into the city we realized we were in the wrong car. The driver kept on asking us question about our UN project (you all know I am not with the UN), so we asked him who he was. When we didn't recognize his name, we decided to call our guest house to tell them about our plight. When we got someone on the line, we gave the phone to the UN driver. Turns out that the owner of our guest house and the UN driver were old buddies, so the UN driver dropped us at our guest house, no problem. After talking with the guest house owner, the driver laughed and said, "Mazar is a safe place. Everyone knows each other here." Apparently true.

The rest of our trip went swimmingly. Thankfully, all of our contacts were in the right place at the right time.

The first day in town, we took a trip into the mountains with a local American teacher. We drove along bumpy gravel roads until we couldn't drive anymore. Then, we parked and started walking along a dryish river bed. After a few minutes, we arrived at an idyllic mountain village. Glancing around, we decided we had had enough walking and headed back to the car. On the way back down the river, I took time to look up. I couldn't believe that people lived in these mountains. Not only was the terrain unforgiving, but the rock faces in this little canyon put El Capitan in Yosemite to shame. It was a rock-climber's dream. Beautiful, craggy, untouched. I thanked the Gods for letting me exist in this canyon, at this time, in the Northern most corner of Afghanistan and hoped that there were no landmines (as always).

The next few days were full of meetings and tours of the city. Besides being a very safe place, Mazar is also a bit more conservative than Kabul. Burqas and traditional clothes abound. It is rare to see an uncovered woman (one in normal clothes and a head scarf). As an exception to this rule though, we did see a more liberal style of dress at the University. The city is poorer and less crowded than Kabul too. Most of the buildings were made of mud brick and there were only a few buildings that were taller than two stories. The roads were wider and less congested. Kids played soccer in the streets as the sun set. It felt like summer...except for the biting cold at night.

All in all, Mazar was beautiful and friendly. But I am glad that I live in Kabul. Being surrounded by the mountains, honking horns, and people from everywhere, makes my heart race. When I was away from Kabul I missed it; I felt lonely in the solitude and calmness of Mazar's plateau.

Tomorrow I will travel even farther west to Herat. I am looking forward to experiencing yet another, different city. What adventures lie ahead? Who knows, but I hear Herat is famous for its sweets. Uh oh.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Perfect Special Juice and the Invisible Hope

There is a good chance these students are writing poetry...
Post-mantou, greasy, chubby cheeks (at my school)

Being a language teacher, and a person who is generally titillated (yes, I know my life is almost too exciting) by language and culture, teaching and living in Afghanistan is more than interesting. In a place where learning and using English is the new trend, mistakes are bound to occur. In addition to encountering the occasional mistakes, each day I also experience comedic misunderstandings which can be attributed to both language and culture.

Waiting for Mantou

Today, one of my students was due to bring me and a few other professors lunch. She had promised that she would cook mantou, a traditional Afghan dish of beef-filled dumplings over sour cream, covered in tomato sauce, beans, and cilantro. Her arrival time would be 11:30 so that we would have plenty of time to enjoy its bounty before our afternoon classes started at 1:00.

Around 12:00, three other professors and myself gathered in the department head's office, waiting for the mantou. We stared at each other uncomfortably for a minute or two and then I (accidentally) broke the ice by making a mistake in Dari. I turned to the most senior professor in the room and, trying to impress him with my language skills, offered him water.

I said, "Shuma tambol astayn?" "Are you stupid?" Everyone else in the room looked over at me with wide eyes. I quickly realized that I had confused the words for stupid "tambol," and thirsty, "tushna." But it was too late. The other professors were already hysterically laughing at me and joking with the eldest.

They didn't stop giggling and snorting until the mantou arrived promptly at 12:55, almost an hour and a half late. The lateness of the mantou was no problem though, the professors stayed and enjoyed the feast leaving around 1:15, or so, for their classes. Here, food is more important than arriving on time...always.

Bumper Stickers, Signs, and an Address

Most of the cars in Kabul are high-mileage, old, used Toyotas. There are many reasons why bumper stickers grace the windows of most of these cars, one being that the owners would like to distinguish their car from all of the others. Another reason is that the car came to them via some other country that couldn't sell it, with the bumper sticker(s) already affixed to them.

Here are some of the bumper stickers that I saw tonight:

"Don I cry girl I will be back" (I have made no mistakes, this is what it said)
"Surf Danger" (written around an LA Raiders' logo)
"Into the nature"
"Mikkie in Car" (with a Micky Mouse character next to the words)
"My fifth grader is an Honors Student at Woodrow Wilson Elementary"
"My Toyota is Fabulous"

Signage is almost as absurd. You would think that with many near-fluent English speakers in Kabul that business owners would get someone to proof-read before posting their billboard. I asked a friend why people print signs that don't make sense and he kind of chuckled and said, "Nobody cares what it says. The owner just wants to give an impression that they know English as to show that they are [upper] class."

Here are some upper-class signs:
Beauty Puler
Hajib's Mechaniacal Place

And my favorite (with no mistakes, but it is awesome nonetheless):
Perfect Restaurant
Inside of Perfect Restaurant there were signs for Super Ice Cream and Perfect Special Juice.

And another piece of authentic language from my cabinet...this is the address printed on our kilo of flour (quiet your paleo minds friends, YES I have flour in my cabinet!):
[name of a square] opposite to city computer center
Near [name of a mosque]
Kabul, Afghanistan

The Invisible Boy

After reading Shel Silverstein's poem "Invisible Boy" to the class, I had the students write their own poems about something invisible. We had a discussion about metaphors and allusions and I encouraged the students to write a poem as if they were drawing a picture. They were to use words like a paintbrush. Here is a poem that a student gave to me today. To me, this is the picture of many young Afghans today; to the rest of the world they ARE invisible...

To my teacher Jaala

I'm an invisible boy
In an invisible ship
Sailing along the invisible sea
To find the invisible God

I'm an invisible student
With an invisible teacher
Who taught me this invisible poem
Now I thank her with an invisible gift

I'm an invisible person
In an invisible part of the world
Living with many invisible limitations
Having no invisible freedom
Ever the right of invisible living
I wish to the invisible God
To show me the invisible right way

I'm an invisible poor boy
Born in an invisible country
Suffering a lot of invisible sorrows
Stranded against life's invisible narrowness
I started working at invisible places
When I was an invisible eight year old
But I didn't lose my invisible hope
I believe in my invisible liberty
I believe in my invisible future

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