Salaam Afghanistan

Health and Ethnic Conflict.

My first visit to the Heart of Asia -- Reflections and Photos.

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Location: Mbarara, Uganda

Internist and Pediatrician with a passion for international health.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Studying at university and evening family walks: Our Afghan Counterparts

Today after work I met up with two relatives of a man I know from the Afghan Community of Massachusetts named Habib.  They are his young cousins (one girl who is 18, and one young man who is 21), and speak a little bit of English, although most of our conversation is quite limited.

They came by my work this afternoon as I was finishing and invited me to walk with them.  We started walking in the direction of downtown Kabul, and figured out that they had understood that I wanted them to take me to Malalay Hospital to interview women there.  When we all understood that I was all set with work, we talked about what we might do together.  They didn't really have any ideas.  I suggested we might go to Chicken Street, but they had never heard of it.  I suggested we go out to eat somewhere, but the idea seemed pretty foreign to them.  Finally, we decided to go to this place that looks like a mosque but is really a hotel and restaurant.  It is a popular picnic spot among people from Kabul -- it overlooks the city from the hill on which the Intercontinental sits.  We took a taxi there, and walked up the hill.  There were a few vendors open -- they have sodas, and fruit, and water, all stacked up on these little wooden circus carts that all the street vendors use.  I bought us three Pepsis.  We stood around a little bit, and then walked back down the hill. 

Habib's cousins. Posted by Hello

Looking down on Kabul. Posted by Hello

"Now what?"  I didn't have any more suggestions.  I kept saying, "You know the city better than I do.  Let's do whatever you want."  I realized that they don't really go out into the city to do anything for entertainment.  They go to school when school is in session, and work, and buy food, and maybe every now and again buy clothing; but they do not really look at the city as a place for going out for enjoyment.  Enjoyment is getting together for weddings, or having dinner with a family, or going for a picnic outside of Kabul.  We didn't have the opportunity to do any of those things, so we were basically left to walk around.

"Would you like to meet some University girls?"  That sounded fine to me.  It sounded like we would go to meet with some friends of the young girl I was with, and maybe sit somewhere and talk and visit.  We walked toward the university.  Most Afghans walk everywhere in the city.  I found it hot and dusty, and my back hurt from carrying my backpack.  These people walk everywhere, often using their chadri or turban ends to cover their faces just as much for keeping the dust out as for modesty, and often carrying heavy loads of water or food from the bazaar.  Lots of women carry huge sacks of vegetables on their heads, and small children in their arms, all while wearing a burqa over long sleeves and long pants and a large headscarf and plastic sandals.  I am such a wimp.

We walked for about 20 minutes, and I realized that that was the most time I have spent outside in the city, and the farthest distance I have traversed on foot since I have been here.  It felt so much more real than the way I am used to experiencing the city -- carried everywhere in the (usually) air conditioned comfort of a brand new SUV. 

We arrived to the university.  Like most buildings, it is set back behind tall concrete walls, and guarded at the front gate.  The concrete is broken into potholes on the sidewalks, and weeds grow tall through the cracks and invade the grounds.   

The university is basically four large concrete buildings.  In the middle of this quadrangle is a sort of patio.  One of the buildings is much smaller than the others, and I understood it to be the place where the girls eat.  The gardens are not groomed, and the grass struggles to grow in the dry, dusty earth.  To one side of the dormitory building, there is a huge pile of rusting metal chairs and tables and who knows what else.  Behind the university there is just an open swath of dusty earth, stretching back to the foot of the mountains beyond.  A few sheep (or are they goats?) wander about.

Several girls are sitting outside on the grass, studying.  Here two sit together.  Here one sits alone.  They are just like us.  I imagine their friendships, I imagine that they must walk down the hallways to each others' dorm rooms in the evenings, asking each other questions about the homework, or talking about their boyfriends.  But here they all wear long headscarves and fully cover their arms and legs, even in the comfort of their private university.  And here, their boyfriends, for the most part, are fiances that have been selected for them by their families, often many years ago when they were 13 or 14.  Here, they are part of the extremely small percentage of Afghan women who are allowed to and can afford to study at university.  Many of them have traveled here from the countryside.  Their families make a great sacrifice for them to leave home and study. 

I think about how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities I have had.  Even in the U.S., I know I am extremely lucky, but when I consider the experience and perspective of the entire world, I am ashamed that I ever take it for granted and fail to recognize the privileges I have.

And just as I am contemplating all of our differences, and how disparate are the worlds we come from, I look over and see the signs, written in English and in Farsi -- Chemistry Lab; Math Level II; Biology.  Learning connects us all.  We study the same subjects, we learn the same principles of science and math.  They know the same things I know about the body, the Earth.   It's awesome.

Anyway, we meet one of the girls and walk back to the dorm rooms.   But then we just sit there.  Another few girls come and go and we greet each other in the customary way, but that's all we do.  We just greet.  And then they leave.  And then we leave.

"Now what?"  Back to that.  The two of them live close by, and invite me to come to their home with them.  I agree to go home with them so that I can have a comfortable place to wait for our drivers to come pick me up.  We take a taxi with a woman in a burqa, and direct the driver to their village.  There are no street signs, and no major land marks.  On the way, we stop so that the taxi driver can take some water from a little girl walking by carrying two large pitchers, probably back to her home for dinner.  We arrive to their home, and I am greeted warmly.  They live in a fairly large concrete house.  The first room we walk into is large and open, but it looks to me like the house is in the midst of construction.  It isn't really.  It has been finished for years.  But the concrete walls and floors are bare, and there is no furniture.  This is the way that Afghan people live.  This same house would be tiled, with hand-woven Afghan carpets laid down, and tables and chairs and lamps and decorations if it were owned by an American.  We walk upstairs, to another room that looks much like this one.  We walk through this room to a back room that has two machine-made Afghan carpets laid down, and several cushions on the floor.  There are some drapes on the windows and in the doorway.  This is thier main sitting room.  I meet Mom and Dad and the other six children.  They are ten altogether.  I am determined not to stay for dinner -- how many mouths can they possibly feed?  We sit together, all of us, in that room.  I feel like a television set -- the whole family just sitting around me watching.  They bring me some chai, which I drink despite being sweaty and uncomfortable in the late afternoon heat.  I take their photo, and they are very happy.  We talk as much as we are able.  We laugh a few times at my misunderstandings.  They smile at me, and nod in encouragement.  I am not sure what they are encouraging me to do.  Before my car arrives, the mother has one of the younger children bring out two hand-stitched napkins, made in Gazni, where they are from.  They are gifts that they insist I accept.  I never know what to do in those situations.  I know that if I don't accept they will be offended, but I also know that they do not have much and I hate to take from them.  They did, however, seem very pleased with my embarrassed gratitude for their gift.

Just the ten of them. Posted by Hello

The car arrived and I gave hugs and thanks all around, touching my chest, saying "Tashakur. Besyar tashakur.  Bomaane khuda.  Khuda hofez."  As we drove out of the little village of new houses and old abandoned bombed out and destroyed houses, we passed a young man carrying a little girl and holding the hand of a little boy, both in little-kid-sized shalwar kameez.  The kids were about the same ages as my niece and nephew, and the dad was probably about my brother Rene's age.  I thought of what their life here must be like, and tried to imagine their home-life based on the template of Rene's family.  They walk in their plastic sandals to the bazaar together, where they ask for a cut of meat from the freshly slaughtered goat hanging from the butcher hooks.  They'll negotiate over the price.  Rene might drive Michael and Sarah to the grocery store in their family van, and select a few pounds of meat neatly packaged in styrofoam and celophane, the price clearly printed on a sticker on the front.  At home, these young Afghan children might walk down the mountain-side, through the dust and rocks, to the public well, where they will wait their turn to pump water into whatever old containers they could find at home, and then climb back up with their heavy loads to bring water to their mother to cook with.  Jessie and Rene will turn on the faucet for clean, safe, flourinated water, and prepare a fresh dinner together while Michael and Sarah play with some of their many toys in the next room.  So many life things are so different here from there, but the whole reason I thought of my brother's family is because of the tenderness with which the father carried his little girl on their evening walk, and the way that the children relate to each other and their environments -- skipping over the rocks, teasing their siblings, pointing out the curiosities around them and asking for explanation from their parents.  A loving family is the same everywhere.  I am so glad I was able to finally have an experience in Kabul as my young Afghan counterparts experience it.  I hope to visit with them again soon.


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