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I’ve come to realise that this project is a thought provoking one – if that is not a complete understatement. It is fascinating to hear the women’s stories, and so many of those that I have interviewed have told me how important they think it is that the voices of Afghan women are heard across the world. But many of the experiences the women document are inevitably tragic and difficult to listen to. And I’ve realised, that by disseminating this material, there is a danger that I just reinforce the stereotypes of Afghans. Many in the west already believe that this country is full of animals, who beat their women and abuse their children.

Of course, these things do happen –as they happen in the UK and Ireland as well. But that is not the whole story of Afghanistan. So let me try to tell you more about this fascinating country and its amazing people.

There is a saying here – if you come to my country as my guest, I will fight to the death to protect you; if you come as my enemy, I will kill you. And that effectively sums up the contrasts between my experience of being here, and the experience of the soldiers stationed in Helmand. In the last two centuries the Afghan people have already expelled two of the world’s super powers from their borders – the British Empire and the Soviet Union.

But of course this time it’s different. This time the ISAF troops were not invaders, but liberators. Well, that’s a distinction which may now have been lost, ten years after they arrived, in the same way it was lost in Northern Ireland.

But the other side of that coin is also true. I have always believed, all the times I have been here, that if anyone had attacked me, Afghans would have come to my aid.

The first time I was here, when the security situation was calmer and I had been here for some months, I decided to take a taxi home from Kabul city. I was confident I had enough words of Dari to explain where I was going, and I didn’t want to wait for our driver. I’d been in taxis before, but only with a western male colleague. But that made me all the more determined to do it on my own.

So I stood on the street and tried to flag a taxi down, but none would stop. Eventually a young Afghan man came up to me, and introduced himself in perfect English, explaining that he worked with the international community here, and asked could he help. I explained and he said he would get me a taxi and tell the driver where I was going. This he did and I thanked him, and we set off.

By this time I knew the route to our house, but the traffic was very bad that night and the driver took me s different way down street I didn’t know. It was by now dark, and I started to get very worried. But the driver kept turning to me and talking, and I could see by his expression there was no malice there. Eventually we got home and my Afghan colleagues explained that he had tried to find a better route to bring me home more quickly and avoid the jams. He was obviously worried that I had been frightened, and I began to understand why none of taxis had wanted to stop for me in the first place.

It was a very foolish thing for me to have done. But it also demonstrated to me the incredible care with which most Afghans treat the international community here. Yes, of course we come with money, and the power to offer jobs and change things, but it’s not just about that.

This visit I can see how the security situation has changed. I would never even consider trying to take a taxi alone. But the welcome I have received from my friends, most of whom I haven’t had much contact with for at least 7 years, has been humbling. They have helped with the things I need for the project, they have taken me to dinner and refused to let me pay, they have organised their week around my visit, and, the main Afghan trait, they have fed me to bursting. We used to joke, when the issue of kidnapping westerners first became an issue, that the worst that would happen to you if you were kidnapped by Afghans is that you would put on weight. Again, sadly, there are now more kidnappings happening. But the excess weight is a far more likely scenario!

The other thing you notice about Afghan society is the resourceful way people continue to live and make a living. Every business you pass on the streets, even if it is selling car parts, is beautifully laid out. The goods will all be stacked in an attractive pattern, the path in front of the shop will be brushed free from dust, or wet with hoses to keep the dust down – and when I say shop, generally I mean container. After decades of war and poverty, nothing is wasted here; so many businesses are housed in old shipping containers.

 

And this is a country, where, after decades of war and neglect, no family is free from tragedy. Conservative estimates suggest that 90 per cent of people are suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress, and yet with no mental health services available, life just has to go on.

So, my plea is, even if you listen to the harrowing stories the women have told me, don’t take that as the whole picture of Afghanistan. This country is one of the most vibrant and astonishing I have spent time in – and I have been to more than a dozen around the world.

 

The internet set up in our house is fantastic – but only when it works – hence the rather sporadic nature of these posts!

So finally I have come to meet the women writers here in Afghanistan – and I have been blown away by their stories

 

I left for the offices of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project http://awwproject.org/our-writers/ and sped through the packed streets of Kabul, our car, as usual, missing every other vehicle by inches. I watched the streets go by, and was so delighted to see very few women wearing the burka . Instead, there seemed to be groups of giggling school girls everywhere, smart in their black uniforms and white head scarves, carrying satchels and rucksacks.

Finding anywhere in Kabul is never easy. The streets generally don’t have names, and although they have numbers, it will depend on which direction you approach them from, whether you want the right street or the left. So addresses tend to be things like: House 5, Street 9, Kart-i-parwan, just across from the Good Rest Guesthouse. But even then you will generally still need a mobile phone conversation with whoever you are going to meet before you can find the place – or in my case, you will need to find someone to speak to the driver for you!

Although many of the streets have been tarmaced, the road we were going to was still a rocky, dusty track where the waste from each house empties into the street, like many of the smaller roads in the city. In winter, when the ever prevalent dust becomes mud, these roads are almost impassable on foot.

I gingerly stepped out of the car, avoiding a puddle of filth, but then a metal door in the side of one of the buildings opened and there stood my host, the AWWP’s representative in Kabul. She is a tall slim young woman, and she tells me the first amazing story of many I am to hear over the next few days.

When she left school at 18 she decided she wanted to a journalist. At that time she was living in Fayrab province, in the North-west of Afghanistan, and there was no further education available for women there. She perservered and joined an ISAF project to write (in English) for a magazine. But the Taliban came to hear about her work, and she and her family were threatened. Men visited her home and took the names of her mother and her uncle’s. But she refused to be stopped, and simply began wearing a burka to do her work.

Now her family live in Herat, in the west of Afghanistan, and she lives with her journalist husband and an adorable one-year-old son here in Kabul.

Next I interviewed a 22 year old woman who works at an NGO here and is studying at university. Her salary supports her family.

She tells me how writing literally changed her life.

She was engaged to a cousin at the age of 13, but longed to continue her education. She began writing anonymously for the AWWP website and received support from women all over the world. Eventually she felt strong enough to tell her family she didn’t want to get married. They told her she would have to support herself if she didn’t marry. Now, these few years later, she is a successful young career woman who has won a scholarship to a prestigious Canadian university.

But the story is not over, even for her. One of her pieces of writing talks about the constant pressure on women in Afghanistan not to work, the gossip and snide comments that follow them everywhere, and she calls on women to ignore it and stand up for themselves.

I am frankly humbled by all of this.

Someone said to me before I left that I was very brave to come here. But this is real bravery – standing up to the Taliban, challenging society. And there’s more, much more to come…

The new Kabul

I am back on Afghan soil!

I am so excited to be here – and yet, I still can’t quite believe it.

I sat on the plane from Dubai with my laptop on my knee, furiously typing in my impressions of the journey, and the next minute the stewardess was announcing that we were to make our descent into Kabul. And as I looked down and felt my heartbeat pick up I began to wish I had got chatting to someone at the airport – there were a handful of westerners on board  – because I so wanted to share my excitement with someone.

Instead, I pressed my nose to the window and stared at Kabul below me – in the same way I first saw the city in 2004 – the memories of which I used to write the start of my novel:

 

“Natasha leaned forward towards the scratched plastic and looked down. Far below her a brown landscape revolved; an earthenware bowl of hills; a shiny tape of river spooling away; and everywhere, tumbling down the hillsides, what looked like hundreds of tiny boxes.”

 

But now I was looking at a very different city. Before we reached the “tiny boxes”, the compounds, houses surrounded by walls, we flew over what seemed like acres of industrial development – huge warehouses; gas silos; scrap yards. Some of this was here in 2006, the last time I was here, but the development has grown and grown.

And then we were bumping down – onto a new runway, a second runway by the looks of it – and in true Afghan style everyone was un-buckling their seat belts and standing up as we taxied along, despite the frantic pleas of the stewardess.

And that’s where I began to really feel how long it is since I’ve been here.

We left the airplane via a fixed walkway into a new building, a part of the airport I didn’t recognise – passengers no longer climb down steps directly onto the tarmac and walk into the airport.

Then we queued at immigration, and had our fingerprints taken! (I’m guessing the Americans have helped with setting up that system) – definitely no being waved to the front of the queue because you are western (not that I agreed with that) but I’m still not sure that the officer even looked at that visa that took three days in London to get!

Then we collected our baggage from a moving carousel!

I know none of this is revolutionary, but when we lived here, we carried out training courses all over the country, so I spent a lot of time at Kabul airport – once for three days on the trot while we waited for weather to clear to fly to Jalalabad – so its inadequacies were etched on my mind.

Now it’s as functional as many other airports. (Although this comes at a price – someone was telling me today that when you go into the airport from Kabul you have to pay 50 Afghanis just to enter – shades of Belfast International Airport? However, 50 Afghanis is just 56 pence…)

But then things got a bit complicated. I had spent so long imagining meeting up with my friends, and so long worrying about being too conspicuous, that I was a little daunted to find no one to meet me. Then a ‘helpful’ young man who could speak English told me I had to walk to the correct car park – you can no longer come into the airport to pick people up, or park anywhere near it – not a bad precaution in a place where car bombs still explode – but it meant I needed to know which cark to go to. After much to-ing and fro-ing, in the mercifully not too bad heat, the guy phoned my friends for me and they came to collect me.

I had by now realised that this ‘helpfulness’ was the way he made his living and so I offered him five dollars, which is still a fairly large amount in Kabul. But he began wailing he needed 20 dollars. I didn’t have 10 and I had entered that head zone where foreign currency doesn’t seem like real money – plus he really had helped me – so I gave him 20. It was only when I calculated that that was £15 that I began to kick myself.

So the drive through Kabul was a heady mix of me exclaiming at the things that had changed as we hurtled through the bustle of the city, and trying to catch up on 7 years of life with my friends. But one of the questions for me was very familiar – No, I’m still not married!

The city is bigger and busier; many of the half destroyed buildings now gone; new high-rises in their place.

 

The shops are still doing a brisk trade.

There are definitely more cars and fewer carts on the road, and many of the streets that were tracks have now been tarmaced. But the traffic jams are particularly bad in front of the Traffic Department!

 

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the house we used to live in. Inside the compound, the garden is flourishing and the house interior has been beautifully redecorated; but outside is now bristling with security, fortified walls, security cameras, steel shutters, and an armed guard!

With all the excitement and the lack of sleep, when I was presented with a traditionally enormous Afghan meal of dal, chicken, bread,salad and a delicious soup, that was enough to finish me off.

I skyped Mutley and then fell into bed.

My head is awash with thoughts and ideas -partly due to the fact that I’ve only had about 6 hours sleep in the last 48 hours, but partly due to being back in the mad melting pot of Dubai.

The journey from hell actually turned out to be not so bad – as in nothing went disasterously wrong. But blimey it was long.

I left Belfast at 5.30am and arrived (in real time) in Dubai at, I think around 11pm – but I’m not really sure to be honest. I had gone through two times zones, eaten a breakfast in Dublin, a lunch in Amsterdam and had dinner somewhere over Saudi Arabia. Flights were delayed and time began to concertina up and down in that way it does when you are exhausted, and when clocks cannot be relied apon. To complete the cultural overload, I watched The Great Gatsby on the plane. I was disappointed in the film, but it’s portrayal of times of excess and huge wealth – and the winners and losers – made me see another angle to my novel, The Game. In the post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan of 2003/4, the booming economy generated by aid and contract wealth contrasted sharply with the searing poverty faced by everyday Iraqis and Afghans.

So finally I arrived at Dubai and handed my hotel booking sheet (with map) to an uncomprehending taxi driver, who shook his head and said he did not know it. Is it just me, or is it not the job of a taxi drivers to find the places you want to go? (Although because I’d booked the hotel dirt cheap on the internet, part of me was worried it actually didn’t exist.)

Eventually we got there and it became apparent why it was so cheap. The lobby, at 12.30am Dubai time, was throbbing with music and full of single men. It’s clearly not the place single western women stay.

But the staff were so sweet.

When I begged for a room away from the nightclub the receptionist gave me one on the 7th floor and said “I give you a very good room. I think you will find it the best room in the hotel, insh’allah.”

And it was fine, and I did get some sleep.

But in the morning things nearly went wrong, when I hit the wrong button on my mobile and silenced the alarm. My exhausted body lost consciousness until I resurfaced at  7.30am, time I was supposed to be leaving the hotel. So I missed breakfast and had to throw on my clothes, but I arrived at the airport with time enough for a cup of tea.

 

And there I sat and people-watched and marvelled anew at the differences and similarities in our multi-cultural world. Next to me sat a woman, clad from head to foot in black – the hijab (head covering), the full black cloak/dress, called an abaya, and a face-veil – niqab. She had with her two small children – a boy of about 5 and a girl of about 3. Both had been given huge sticky lollies to occupy them, while she sat engrossed in her ipad. Eventually a bit of the boy’s lolly broke off and fell on the floor and he picked it up, ready to put it back in his mouth.

“La! La! La! La!” she barked in Arabic – “No!” – and pointed at the bin. He then stood, out of her reach, and held the piece up to his mouth, sticking his tongue out, almost touching the piece of lolly,  watching her face as she grimaced and called “La!” again. It could have been any airport, anywhere in the world.

But as she sat, swathed in black, her little girl scampered around, dressed in the disturbingly sexualised clothes of a western child – a tiny flounced skirt, short enough to reveal a glimpse of her matching nappy knickers underneath. Eventually she wanted her mother’s attention and stood next to her saying:  ”Mama? Mama?”

When she got no response she stamped her foot – “Mama!” until her mother looked up.  On another seat a tiny girl began to have a tantrum, screaming, until her father pulled her onto his knee and began comforting her. And I wondered when do the lives of these girl children change, when do they cease to be able to express how they feel, and what they want.

And then I marvelled at the arrogance of that thought – as if in my culture women are not constrained.

Last night when I arrived at that hotel, I looked every inch the exhausted 45 year old woman. I was wearing my oldest most shapeless jeans and a loose t-shirt. I had no make-up on and my lank hair was pinned up.  Yet why do I even feel the need to be attractive? Because even in my culture, one of the most liberal in the world, women are still required to be decorative.

This morning I got up and chose carefully my Afghan dress – loose trousers, a new shalwar and matching headscarf. The hotel staff admired my outfit, and at the airport, as he checked my ticket, one of the security staff smiled and said: “You are very Asian dress.” Was that a compliment or not? I wasn’t sure. While in the queue to put our baggage through the scanner a woman with her hair bound under her head-scarf openly looked me up and down.

As a white woman wearing Asian or Middle-eastern dress you are in quandary; you don’t know whether people think you look ridiculous, or attractive, or too showy  and the whole experience took me right back. I spent most of the time when I lived in Afghanistan before having a constant internal debate about whether I should or should not be wearing a headscarf.  This morning brought all that back. I don’t have to dress like this, but I do out of respect for the country I am going to. Yet I don’t agree with the way that country treats women. And I don’t agree with women having to cover their hair, so why don’t I challenge that?

But my overriding feeling,  as I regarded the women of Dubai, was joy – joy at seeing the impossibility of disguising women’s beauty, no matter how hard repressive regimes try. As I waited in the queue at passport control, the only parts of the woman clerk examining my passport showing were her hands and her face. She was dark-skinned, almost African looking – maybe a Somali Muslim. I watched as she looked down at my passport, and her long eyelashes lay on her cheeks. She was wearing no makeup, she had no adornment on her abaya, but she was beautiful.

So, here I am, trying to fit everything I need, or might possibly need, into a suitcase I can still carry! It’s never an easy task, and I find that the dozens of soaps, pens etc I have bought as presents for the women actually weigh a tonne when all put together.

I finally got myAfghan visa – after three days in London; I have edited the recordings from the women writers from Northern Ireland, mixing them with their interviews to create (hopefully) understandable recordings for the women in Afghanistan to listen to.

I have bought my insurance – covering me for various forms of dismemberment in a war zone – and maxed my credit card paying for everything. (I am eternally grateful to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for their contribution to this trip.)

And alongside all this I have also submitted my dissertation and had an interview.

I am tired, and, I confess it, a little scared.

But this trip to carry out the Women Spread the Word project will be the fullfillment of a lot of work and nervous energy, expended over the course of much of this year, so now is not the time to give up.

So, wish me bon voyage – and watch this space for how things go!

I’m in London – always stressful at the best of times I find – but I have (almost) finally got my Afghan visa. Today I trekked from the farthest reaches of the Northern Line to the grand residences of South Kensington and the Afghan embassy. It may be one of the most prestigious areas of one of the planet’s wealthiest cities, but the the peeling paintwork and scuffed walls of the embassy were a reminder that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. There I met the industrious woman who has been helping me apply for the visa, and handed over my passport. Now I have to go back on Thursday and then I am legal to go.

But even though I may not yet be physically on the road,  I am already feeling the culture lag. Last week I sat waiting for my appointment with the nurse at my doctor’s, in order for her to update my injections, and protect me against polio, tetanus, Hepititus A and Typhoid.  All of these injections were entirely free, despite the fact I have chosen to make this trip. And of course, they were all just topping up protection that I have already had all my life.

In Afghanistan, which still has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, one in 10 children dies before the age of five.

As I waited I flicked through the usual women’s magazines in the waiting room. My eye was caught by an article about a new beauty treatment – for your vagina. Apparently now you can have your labia ‘polished’ after waxing – for a handsome price of course.

In Afghanistan,  1 in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every 2 hours – more than almost any other country in the world. Nine out of ten women are illiterate, and life expectancy is 44, one of the lowest in the world.  Some of the women I will be meeting for the writing project will be lying to their families about what they are doing – because to write, for a woman, is shameful.

But somehow, in looking at the contrasts between their lives and ours, I’m more shocked by ours. The hedonism of spending the equivalent of a month’s salary in Kabul to make your vagina look like that of a child’s is, on so many levels, outrageous.

Of course, many women in the Uk and Ireland do not have the money for such luxuries. But I am starting to remember, when you visit places where the basic necessities of life, and basic rights we enjoy in the west, do not exist, just how much it teaches you about your own culture.

 

 

 

Me and some friends in Afghanistan in 2004

I am going back to Afghanistan!
It’s at least eight years since I was last there, and I can’t wait to catch up with all my friends, and see how things have changed.
But this is not just a holiday. I am making the trip in order to create links between women writers in Northern Ireland, and women writers in Afghanistan. I’ve called my project Women Spread the Word. It draws on my background as a broadcast journalist, and my newly acquired skills as a creative writer. And it is relying on the generosity and creativity of a lot of women.
I have been carrying out interviews and recordings with women writers here in Northern Ireland. When I asked them to take part in the project, I asked them to choose a selection of their creative writing. I then recorded them reading their work out loud, and interviewed them about their life and their writing.
Among the women who’ve agreed to take part are Belfast’s first Poet Laureate –  Dr Sinead Morrissey, a former women soldier who served in Afghanistan, a woman who grew up during the Troubles, and a young mum from America who’s studying and writing in Belfast.
But I have also spent months emailing women in Afghanistan to take part. I have been helped by some amazing organisations – most notably The Afghan Women’s Writing Project – who have already published a book, in English,  of work by Afghan women writers. You can read some of the work included in the book here http://awwproject.org/our-writers/
When I travel to Kabul early next month I will take the recordings from Northern Ireland and play them to the Afghan women I meet up with. Then I will record the Afghan women reading their work, and bring those recordings back to Belfast.
Once back here I hope to run some seminars to play the work I collect and hold discussions – so hopefully there will be a chance for more people to hear their work.
And on top of all this, I will also be doing research for my first novel – The Game, which is based loosely on my time working in Afghanistan as a journalism trainer.
But I have to also thank the organisations which have encouraged and supported me to keep pursuing this project, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have allocated me money to pay for my flights and Queen’s University in Belfast have also contributed money towards my costs.
All I need now is my visa!

The teaching has finished, the final assignments are in, and suddenly all that remains of the MA is the dissertation. (Admittedly, that’s 15 thousand words, so no small challenge). But, as if by magic, my brave new year is nearly complete!

So, when we met for an event to read some of our work and show the short film that I and five other students had made, I think we were all a bit shell-shocked.

The combined nerves of around 15 people, in a small space, is a powerful thing. The evening was so charged you could have lit your fag by waving it around a bit carelessly.

And then it was my turn to step onto the makeshift ‘stage’ and stand, clutching my photocopied bits of paper, and read ‘my novel’.

I had argued to everyone that it was imperative that we all took part. I felt that reading our work out would somehow cement the status of ‘writer’ that we had been learning how to adopt all year.

But when it came to it, I was terrified. I now see that reading your ‘creation’ to a live audience is not the same as reading a news script – however much that felt like a creation at the time.

Of course it was all grand. I didn’t lose my voice; people were interested and kind – and then we all went off and got horribly drunk! And briefly it felt again like we were ‘real’ students!

 

A wish for the city

I saw Belfast in a new light last night.

And it was all thanks to this http://www.primecutproductions.co.uk/

It was clear, and admittedly cold, but up above the night sky was a deep velvet blue. In contrast, at ground level the streets were glittering with light and life. The shops were relatively busy, there were plenty of people, and the new art in the city centre seemed to come to life – the pennants and lights in Royal Avenue, the multi-coloured flood-lighting on one of the domes of the city hall. And I saw newly opened shops and cafes. It may have been that the dark obscured the pound shops, but the whole city centre suddenly looked vibrant and cool again.

And why did I suddenly see all this anew? Well because I was walking the streets listening to a unique broadcast, featuring the voices and experiences of more than sixty people – every-day people, not actors – all of whom talked about their feelings about the city. The result was a mesmerising mix of music and speech, providing a snapshot of the city at this moment in time, a Kaleidoscope.

The ‘audience’ listened to the piece on MP3 players as we walked around the city centre, and every so often we were given instructions – ‘walk this way’; ‘smile at other people wearing headphones’; ‘just sit and watch’. So the whole experience meant I had time to sit on a bench, in the centre of the city that has been my home now and off now for more than a decade, and just look around.

I have been feeling so depressed about the future of Belfast, about the politics that isn’t working, about the seemingly unstoppable destruction of the built heritage, that when the voice asked me to ‘make a wish for the city’, I almost felt like crying. But as I sat on Arthur Street, looking up into the night sky, another part of the performance appeared. From the top of one building, a series of glowing wish lanterns were released, their flaming hearts fluttering as they sailed higher and higher on the night breeze.

It was magical.

 

 

 

Just a quickie – this story illustrates exactly why it’s so difficult to write what you want to. The more you learn about the ‘art’ of writing, the more you realise how ignorant you are!

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

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