As my stay in Kabul is drawing to a close (I am off Saturday to spend my last week in Islamabad in the hope of making some comparisons between the two countries), I feel like I should impart some major words of wisdom. Unsurprisingly, 8 weeks in Afghanistan have not made me an ‘Afghanistan Expert’ and while I was privileged to share and partake in many experiences, as with all travels, I think it important to remain aware of the limited insights that you gain. Nevertheless, a couple of things that I have noted:
Life in (Post-) Conflict: Interesting and recommended. Yes, it’s frightening at times, but in a place like Kabul, the privileges of safety and the knowledge that if things get really bad, you will be taken out, are an immense relief. Something that hardly any of the Afghans can count on... Yes, it’s difficult to find that balance between seeing things and living a life and trying to stick to basic safety rules, but it’s pretty easy to figure things out and everyone is keen to help.
Mixing with Afghans: Hard but possible. I was so lucky to have amazing Afghan co-workers who integrated me very well and always made me feel welcome. It strikes me as slightly odd that there are so many internationals here, who fail to make a true Afghan friend, and I must say, the blame is entirely on them. Yes, it’s hard because it’s difficult to find places where internationals and nationals can actually socialize, but it’s still very possible if you try. All Afghans have been very lovely, hospitable and inviting with me, so anyone who fails to build on this to try and get to know those people whom we are working for, well, such people might wanna go look for a new job.
Being here as a woman: Well, an experience… Never minded the head scarf, though after 8 weeks I guess I wouldn’t mind wearing something that’s not a shapeless sack. What I found hardest is that suddenly you find yourself in a setting where all the rules that you’ve acquired through traveling and living abroad no longer apply. I’ve always been getting along well by trying to be open and nice, but here it’s really hard to know when that is just being misinterpreted as being ‘loose’. Depending on others to get basic things done, is quite horrible – depending on men to escort you to do basic things like walking the streets, going shopping, the zoo, or anywhere, felt interesting at first, and then very quickly turned into a major annoyance. It is nice to have a bunch of protectors around, but fact is, they aren’t there all the time, and then it’s easy to end up feeling pretty helpless or abandoned. And I found myself mistrusting my instincts and losing some of the usual (taken for granted) confidence when walking the streets, for instance. Here, men and boys tend to just stare at you – no smiles, no hello, just a blank, continuous stare (some of the boys will make vulgar gestures). Cars don’t stop for you, guys don’t tend to move out of the way to let you get by… it’s bizarre sometimes. All the more I admire the Afghan women whom I’ve met here. Some of my female colleagues are truly inspirational. They do not only battle the typical sexist structures at work (senior posts covered by men, etc.), but have to fight them with much fewer tools than we tend to have available elsewhere. What qualifies as harassment at home is really hard to take on here, because you always have to watch out for your reputation. So, all the more respect to most of the women I’ve met. It’s ladies like them (and some men – not always the (Western) internationals I must add) who make me hopeful that anything anywhere can be changed for more equality.
Ethnic Stuff: As everywhere in the world, tricky stuff. Seeing how persisting the German East-West divide is, and continuing to be awe-struck that the US after centuries of battling for racial equality continue to be such a racially divided nation, I was not surprised that ethnicity is a major issue here. What did surprise me is that the level of ethnic division seemed to have little to do with whether people had been abroad, or educated. Some of the drivers were more open to mixing than some people who had lived and studied abroad. I was especially struck (and a little saddened) by the fact that these ethnic divisions seem to sometimes survive generations – even for people who were primarily born and raised abroad. Interestingly, the minority groups (some of whom have suffered tremendously) seemed more conciliatory in the talks I’ve had … Still, I have no doubt that a lot of money, time, energy (and sadly life) will be wasted over such questions, but then looking at the US, Germany or really anywhere else in the world, I guess that’s how it always goes. .. I shall remain hopeful.
Doing it again: Absolutely! The city/country is addictive! I knew I wanted to do post-conflict before this internship and this has been confirmed 100%. The lifestyle is exhausting but (can be) rewarding – at the very least with respect to the insights you gain. Having been here, the importance of security (something we absolutely take for granted – even to a large extent post 9/11) has received a completely new meaning. And now I’m excited to see what Islamabad (and Dubai) have in store for me. It will be very hard to top the Kabul experience, as weather, food, landscape, atmosphere and most of all the PEOPLE were wonderful.
This trip and internship would have never been possible without the very generous support of theNancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridges Fellowship from the Women in Public Policy Program (WAPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/wappp/students/internships/indexngk.htm