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The Strange World of Kabul

Afghanistan, April 23, 2003

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    An Afghan woman learns to upholster furniture at Mercy Corps' Women's Center in Kabul. Photo: Rachel Lieber/Mercy Corps Photo:

April 23, 2003 - I’m back in Islamabad after almost 2 weeks in Kabul. It was cold and rainy much of the time I was in Kabul which makes the place a mud pit and even more dreary than usual. Back here in Islamabad, the weather is warm and my garden is full of roses and hibiscus. It’s good to be home.

Kabul is such a strange place. On my first night in town on this visit, I was sitting in our guesthouse watching a DVD with a friend. Around 11:00 pm, there was a huge explosion. The windows rattled and my colleagues already in bed said that they felt the bed shake. Out of instinct, I looked outside when I heard the ‘boom’ and saw the branches of the tree in the garden sweep violently in the direction away from the explosion. The next day, we found out that there had been a commercial dispute that involved an IED – Improvised Explosive Devise. These are little beauties that combine mines with other explosives to magnify the damage and increase the shrapnel. It’s a form of entrepreneurship that’s hard to appreciate.

The next night, however, I found myself doing yoga in the basement of the CARE residence. The night after that, I was sitting in the Irish pub listening to Molly, my colleague, playing the guitar and singing folk songs and harmonizing in her gorgeous alto until the wee hours. The next night, I was a guest at the Italian embassy, being fed pasta with shrimp, cheeses and cakes by the bodyguards of the Italian ambassador. Kabul is kind of like NGO camp, with a different activity every night. As my colleague, Rod, said, "Where do I sign up for canoeing!" There’s fun and levity until you get a phone call from the US Embassy warden saying that there are credible threats that the bad guys are going to get us that night at the public places where we congregate. If they don’t get us that night, they’ll try again the next night. Then no more Irish pub. We’re all confined to our homes until we feel like the threat has passed. It’s kind of like being a frog in boiling water. You don’t realize how hot the water is getting until it’s too late.

On this visit, I had some time to visit one of our projects in Kabul. We started a Women’s Center in town for poor women in a particular neighborhood. It gives them a place to be together and learn some skills. The women actually built the center from the ground up. It’s easy to get inspired, especially when you’re full of information about Afghan women from the perspective of Western media.

I visit a factory where some of the women are learning to upholster furniture and carve wood. I am really surprised by what I see. With their burqas hanging on nails in the wall behind them, women are working in rooms with men behind closed door. The women clearly feel empowered and proud of themselves. They joke about how they go home and fix stuff around the house for their husbands.

I barrage the factory owner with questions about the women. Are there really jobs for female carpenters in Afghanistan? Have any angry husbands shown up? What do your neighbors think about these women coming in here to work with men? The owner patiently tolerates my questions (clearly he’s heard them a million times before) and basically tells me that the only people who find what’s happening in his factory unusual are the foreigners who visit. Fair enough, I think, and I leave feeling optimistic about Afghanistan and the future of women there.

What I don’t realize at the time is that things are not as rosy as they seem. There are problems with the women. We insisted that they pay a nominal fee for the training they are receiving (a normal practice for these kinds of projects to ensure that the trainees are truly invested and take things seriously) and they refused so we will not allow them to participate in future business skills training programs and they won’t be eligible for loans from Mercy Corps to start their own businesses. There are problems with the instructors. They are only willing to pass on the very basics of upholstering and wood carving to their students, afraid that they’ll lose their own market edge if too many people have the skills they do. Without more than just the basics, these women – even if they are able to find the resources to start businesses without our help – will always be dependent on others to help them pick the right wood, join it, draw the designs for carving…

On the home front, I caught up with Tess tonight. She was just getting up for school when I called and she was sleepy. She was sweet and comfy in her half-awake state and we had a lovely chat about all kinds of things. She had just gotten her kindergarten report card for the term. She is already reading at a beginning 2nd grade level and her math skills are advanced as well. I tell her how proud I am of her and ask her if she realizes how amazing she is. She assures me that she does. May she hold onto that self-confidence for the rest of her life.