Tag Archive: Afghanistan

I have been living a low key life here in Kabul; being driven in a normal saloon car; not walking on the street; not really going out at night. I’m not under any illusions that I am really living like an Afghan, but I’ve been spending more time with Afghans than with westerners.

But I have also been invited into the ‘western zone’ – I’ve visited two embassy compounds and one of the main military camps here.

There is no doubt it’s tough living in Kabul – even if you are a cosseted visitor like me, living in a luxourious clean house, being cooked for and driven around. The air quality is abysmal and it has definitely got worse since I was last here. The years of drought meant soil erosion has affected much of the country so the air is always full of dust. During the civil war and Taliban time, people were so desperate for fuel, many of the trees in Kabul were cut down. And now there has been a huge jump in the number of vehicles on the road – up to 650,000 according to some estimates, many of them old and badly maintained. I’d been here just three days when my nose started bleeding.

The commute home, Kabul style

The water is still not safe to drink – or clean your teeth in – and eating local food is a game of Russian roulette – partly because of the water, partly because animals are slaughtered on the side of the road and then their carcasses hung up in non-frigerated shops to be sold, at the mercy of the heat, the flies and the dust. And as there is no real sewerage system, the dust is not just mud…

It’s still hard to find reliable statistics on Afghanistan but some estimates put 70 pc of the country, some 25 million people, living in poverty. Many of them will be in the rural areas, but the average national income per capita is just $410 a year – that’s about 256 quid – a year!

 And yet, it is expensive to live in Kabul. Rents can be astronomical – £300 a month for a flat; medical care is hard to come by and expensive; while the new private universities which have sprung up everywhere cost up $6000 a year to study at.

The new smart living in Kabul

But, go behind the ever increasing walls of the western zone and it’s a very different story. The food is flown in, so no chance of the Kabul Kraps for these people; the military hospitals are on hand if something does happen; and the air conditioning and plush furniture mean these buildings are literally a home from home.

It’s different again for those living on the military camps of course. There a woefully small container can be home to two men, for a year at a time. But they still have uninterrupted electricity, unlimited wi-fi, a range of restaurants and shops, and medical facilities.

So what’s my point? Well if you have come from Europe or America, and are working here for months on end, it would be hard to expect you to live like an Afghan – not to mention dangerous. And a lot of the closeting of westerners is partly about security.

But the fact that Afghans do still have to live without many of the basics of life, is, I believe, part of the problem when it comes to security. In Kabul many Afghans are employed by the NGOs and western organisations – so even if they don’t live like those people, they are at least receiving some of the money they bring in.

But in places like Kandahar, that pay off simply doesn’t exist. There, people living in rural villages, with no electricity, only see the huge city that is Camp Bastion, with its clean water, electricity, safe food and medical facilities. The military has of course also spent millions on ‘hearts and minds’ projects in these areas, but not all have been successful.

But perhaps the strangest thing is what happens to your own perception of where you are, when you step foot inside these compounds. After passing through checkpoint after checkpoint, staffed by armed guards, whose English becomes better and better the further in you go, you start to feel as if you are indeed in a war zone.

And yet,  as I drive around the city in the back of my driver’s white Toyota saloon, waving to kids and nodding ‘salam’ to adults, I don’t feel in danger at all.

I’m not sure which feeling is the right one – but it adds to the fascination of being here.

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.

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.




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