First impressions… surprisingly perhaps, there is a strange kind of beauty amidst all the barbed wire, road blocks, pollution, head scarves, military trucks and machine guns. I guess somehow it takes life back to basics -> the whole place is one big reminder that being alive must not be taken for granted, and the resulting simplicity in everything is very refreshing. Where we live (supposedly the „posh“ end of Kabul) is not beautiful, devoid of anything not essential for comfortable survival, but is very secure. Values shift a lot – security is the paramount value, then perhaps safe water, and all else is unnecessary (and mostly unavailable). We have a safe („panic“) room, bulletproof vests and helmets in each bedroom, thick metals walls with guarded entrances and three road blocks to even get into the compound. Which gives this place an air of luxury, regardless of the motel furnishings. If this country could invest in infrastructure what it invests in security…. ! There are 4 (read four) places outside the compound where I am allowed to go – one being a ‚high-end‘, but more importantly high security (three sets of bullet proof doors) supermarket. In reality – very much like Asda (or Lidl) – with oreo biscuits and earl grey but no local produce. The whole place is but mildly surreal…Take the headscarf issue. Dressing too european is an obvious problem, but today I managed to look „too“ local apparently (guards addressed me in Dari) – so that when I tripped and caught George’s hand in public, that was a much greater faux pas. Overall so far, it feels like a scarred kind of place, but one where basic values jump back into place – safety, and love because what it does give freely is, devoid of distraction and entertainment, is time to really talk, think, feel, sleep (planning to compensate for all my 3 years of maternal sleep deprivation) and be present with each other, which brings about love & gratitude in a beautifully acute kind of way.
„Second thoughts“ on Kabul. What came second is the increasingly uncomfortable confrontation with limits. Limits as a woman – apart from indoors with curtains shut, so many of the „normal“ things are off limit. Like smiling at people, shaking hands or wearing 90% of the clothes i thought i’d carefully selected as appropriate. Mind you, wearing a hijab is a perfectly legitimate choice, when it is a choice, but even two days into it being compulsory – feels irritating. Even more so though – limits as a foreigner. I’ve already visited 3 of the 4 places on the „authorized places“ list, and its starting to feel a little claustrophobic. There is so much more the city has to offer i’m sure, but in the absence of blast proof doors and safe rooms, it’s off limits. The ‚security‘ issue is a tricky one per se – we are limited to high security locations, which are also however primary targets. And the ‚high‘ in the security… to cut the long story short – as we went through at least 5 sets of blast proof doors with AK47 equipped guards, George was searched twice, i wasnt even asked to place my valuable into the xray machine, although it was i who set off the metal detectors. In fact, the guards protested in visible horror when i offered to remove my belt (it would not have affected my modest look in any way, just for the record)… question: how much explosives/arms can you fit under a long black loose cloak? Underestimating the „lesser“ gender is sure to backfire one day (as it has many times before). Just by the way – the fact that the proportion of civilian vs military/police on the street is certainly in favour of the latter makes the whole place feel strangely „on alert“, where the sound of sirens feels like a real threat for the first time. And of course – i could just walk out into the street and explore, thus breaching security protocol… but for the very reasons above, it doesnt feel like a particulary smart move. Then of course there are the happy highlights – like the tortoise in our garden, kept by chief of (guess what?) security of course or the breastfeeding – promoting advert just off the main roundabout. Or the really lovely housekeeping ladies, and the driver who spoke better english than most europeans & was keen to share his life story. Hence, so far, against all logic – i’m actually starting to see why my husband is in love with this place.
Third wave of impressions:) ISAF – international security assistance force (read „giant international military base in the center of Kabul“ – ever wanted to see tens of different styles of uniform on display?) holds a crafts market on Fridays. The only market that is classified as safe enough to go to.. though as non military we needed to be escorted every step of the way.. (poor guy, watching me shop is not a fun game). Did I forget to mention that „weekend“ here is thursday & friday?:) the ISAF market is perhaps most surreal, with women walking around dressed in european outfits whilst de facto being on a bazaar. More sureal only the paintings of love-making couples & naked women (the one I bought was among the most decent!) And of course the searches and blast proof layers that have simply become a fact of life. I have now been searched by women of all ages, restoring my faith in security. The french mints in the ISAF ridiculously overiced supermarket kind of blew my mind:) and so did the windmill that decorates the Dutch quarters (note how they all live in containers – though with aircon). It got more surreal the same evening, as one of our houses hosted a charity poker night with disco lights… actually that particular compound is very cosy with a little garden, which creates the illusion of staying in a big afghan family house. One of the greatest blessings that I am increasingly discovering is that this country attracts really special people (from the west) – very intelligent (as a necessity for their jobs), but also immensely adventurous and inevitably a little bit crazy… so far everyone I met with few exceptions was pretty amazing, eccentric and great fun. The only real sadness creeping up on me is that I wish I could share this part of George’s life on a more permanent basis… P.s. to my surprise i’ve discovered that if you wear a bullet proof vest long enough, you stop feeling the (otherwise pretty depressingly heavy) weight.
„I’m not afraid on my own driving through Kabul“, said my driver, „but when I am with you, I am afraid“. Security assesment in one sentence. „But with you it’s not so bad, you wear a „chadra“ (headscarf) and you look muslim“. I’ve actually been asked several times whether I am really muslim, and my effort to dress local have been rewarded with both praise from drivers and guards (well, apart from the guards in our „home“ compound, who perhaps, we figured, find my moans – our windows face the guard room – somewhat difficult to digest), but also numerous people attempting conversation in Dari. I REALLY WISH I COULD SPEAK IT! I’d especially love to be able to understand the particular female guard who tries to start a conversation every time as she searches me regularly at the Serena (the „Ritz“ of Kabul – and one of the two restaurants we are allowed to go to, despite a recent bloody attack. Mind you, the second one feels like a 90s post-communist Russian buffet doubling as a brothel). Security paramount yet again as a general was wounded today… though having be to and seen what the restrictions are for British embassy personnel, we almost feel like free people! On the other hand – we visited a party at a British archeologist’s house (in a secure compound that by a stroke of luck happened to be authorized!).. who lives under no restriction at all, and tells the most amazing tales of the hidden gems of old kabul… his own apartment was a gem:) with lots of carved local furniture and a geniune colonial feel to the place, in the best sense of the word! The carvings, laquer work, carpets, lapis and tribal jewelry are amazing here… the near-extinct animal skins and skinny stuffed goats really are not. I really wish there was a way I could have more exposure to local people – they are such lovely people actually, from the limited interactions I do have… and there is so much under the surface that we as „secure“ foreigners cannot access.. i can feel it!! p.s. the couple of stories unsuitable for the public domain that I will be delighted to share in person over a cup of mint tea
Last episodes. As we speed down the dusty roads to the airport, I’m on tears – I dont want to leave… this place put a spell on me. It’s illogical, as pollution & limitations on personal freedom of are not my thing. I may be biased in my impressions, as it became the nest of my love-story. I may be doubly biased, because I so badly needed this carefree freedom that only limitations bring – when everything is prohibited I dont have to rush anywhere, do anything, i can just slow down, rest, look inwards… (this was by the way, the most restful holiday I have ever had…) – all of this is true, and yet, I insist that the place itself has an undeniable, though incomprehensible, magic!! It really left a mark in my heart. The marriage of beauty and danger makes every moment somehow deeper and more meaningful… makes me present. Makes me feel, live – fuller.
Yesterday I was woken in the early hours of darkness by a call to prayer. Several hours later – again, by an explosion. Funny how you know it’s an explosion even when you’ve never heard one before. Without realising, i crawled tighter into George’s embrace, and for eternal moments, every breathe felt precious. Lying in bed together under a ridiculous mirror-decorated ceiling felt like an immense stroke of luck. There was no fear – just endless gratitude.
And minutes later – text msg on my old local nokia: complete security lockdown – hence you know the explosion was bad. There was one yesterday, and the day before, but no restrictions were imposed. This one was worse. Strange smell lingered in the air until dusk when the hills came alive with lights from shanty towns of dubious legitimacy. Yet, if I didnt have a child – I would move here. To enjoy for once being in love and in the same place together, mainly, but also – to get an opportunity to feel under the skin of this war-scarred place, which for 10 days so surprisingly became my paradise far more enchanting than the beaches of Koh Tao.
In the face of my intrinsic feminism-its a paradox.
As a woman-Kabul is a strange place of exposed invisibility… you stare down to avoid accidently looking at someone, yet physically feel being stared at from all sides. And yes – we have been questioned at check points many times on our relationship, marital status and most importantly – my origin, thanks to my (much complimented at other times) „local“ dress.
Then there are the blue burqas – less intimidating than the black variety, but which dont really allow you to see very much.
The rape cases that have been punished by death penatly, and simultaneously, the legitimacy of abuse within the family.
Allegedly, women will commonly dress up daughters (pre-puberty) as boys, to provide them with greater freedom & safety, a chance to work, and themselves with elevated social status (has „sons“!).
It’s inevitably depressing at times, although fiesty female officials and really kind-hearted housekeepers provide living proof that it takes more to crush the female spirit.
My cause for optimisn is that 100yrs back Europe was actually worse for women’s freedoms… so hopefully it might take less than that here, with more role models on the scene.
So i bid farewell, wishing i could come back soon to this strange place, with its amazing traffic system which goes both ways (randomly) on a roundabout, body searches, which feel like a thorough breast massage, the immigration booth, where one of the guards had a photo of his beloved (?) without a headscarf and the 9? 10? 35? I literally lost count, security checks at the airport.
I take as souvenirs precious memories, a handicraft-charity-massively-overpriced bear in a local beret for Leo, a suitcase full of new colourful dresses (many of which may not survive the first wash!), and a whole selection of coloured contact lenses which are of zero use to me. Ah, i didnt tell you this story… I broke a lense, and with no spares I embarked on a mission of finding contact lenses in Kabul. A mission I had to direct from a distance, as I was not allowed to go near a pharmacy or optician myself. It turns out – coloured lenses are sold on every corner, ones with dioptres are, well, yet to be found. So every day, another driver would triumphantly bring me another pack – disregarding my long morning explanation and clearly written instructions – of useless (to me) 0.0 lenses, until I collected the whole damn colour spectrum and decided to give in to seeing Kabul with just one eye.