Category Archives: English

Woven into a documenta carpet

M: You’re on a carpet in the documenta!

Me: What?

M: Did you know that you’re on a carpet in the documenta?

Me: No. What?!

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Two years back when they told me, I thought this was a joke. An odd one, but a joke. I laughed it away, until I saw the pictures. That was indeed me, and the folks from the circus in Afghanistan with whom I worked. But how did we get there, into an art piece, an uber-dimensional wall-hanging carpet in one of the biggest contemporary art exhibitions in Germany? And how did somebody find and identify me on that?!

The situation must have been quite comical indeed. An old friend of mine, walking with his family through the Kassel documenta, wandering from room to room, tired after seeing one art piece after the next and nearly deciding to go home, when my friend’s sister suddenly screamed out: “That’s A.! That’s her on the carpet!” To say the least, her eye sight and memory must have been really darn good, as we hadn’t seen each other for some time, I wore a headscarf on the picture and even the others had to take a second or third guess before believing that it was me. Baffled, they took pictures of the carpet and sent them to my parents, who skyped me as I was in Kabul at that time.

Imagine, your face woven into a carpet, a piece of art. It’s rather something you’d expect of a king, I guess. At least I didn’t plan for my life to be portrayed in a carpet and hung in an art exhibition. Especially while not knowing that I would be woven and hung…in a way. I felt ambivalent about it, partly because I initially didn’t know where the photo came from and who used it in that way. I called up the others from the circus, and none of them was aware of their involvement in an art project in Germany. Once I saw the picture of the carpet, I remembered. Snow, cold, a group of artists traveling through and visiting the circus, me staying for courtesy for a tea, them asking to take a photo of us in the snow while they were walking out to catch their next appointment. None of us knew where this photo would end up, digitally collaged with other people’s photos in a different setting.

Now, two years later, it is an odd and beautiful reminder of that day that I might have otherwise forgotten. A day when the good-natured dog in the picture still lived, when the snow piled up in one of Kabul’s coldest winters, when I volunteered for the circus on weekends and Shirkhan still worked there, when I stayed for green tea and buiscuits, when I wished to quit my job and do my own projects. A day, woven into a carpet. So in the future, when civilization has broken down, and digital records have crashed in some future internet catastrophe, I will still be found on a carpet, smiling about in Goshka Macuga’s ‘Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that is not'[dOCUMENTA (13), 2012]

Here’s a German article on the documenta with the carpet on:!96101/
Here’s the artist’s website:


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Filed under beautiful coincidence, connections, English, Kabulistan, Memory

We don’t know where we are until we remember

IMG_0876The world turns in circles. Our own little life worlds run in circling movements forward.

Experiences are connected to things we read or hear or get lectured in. The ah-ha moment of seeing something in front of us that we have read about. The understanding that comes with Captain Hindsight. But not only in a way of “If I had known”, but also in “wow, I know now and how special makes that, what has been”.

Sitting in a morning lecture on the influence of Timurid architecture, scribbling notes while glancing views on the power point. Ten people in a room, one talking, me listening. I write down something about octagonal shapes and eight minarets, as I glance at a picture from the corner of my eyes that seems familiar. I see light garlands pendling in the wind.  

I re-adjust my view.

It’s just a domed building. No garlands, no movement on the picture. But I still see it.

Pink, green, yellow, white. No light emanating from them as it was daytime when we visited. IMG_0891The light garlands must have been there for a celebration. And we were there to pass the day. Sa’s turquoise scarf, her observing eyes, our scarce words speaking of the language barrier, our smiles of overcoming it. As we were walking along the excavation site, I tried to make sense of the building, tried to connect it to something. But my total ignorance of Iranian history and Islamic art and architecture back then, showed me a beautiful building. And through the lack of a common language between my hosts and me, and the absence of any guidebook (yes, there are people travelling without guidebooks, which makes it much more interesting to explore!), I was left with admiration alone.

What I didn’t know -and wouldn’t know fIMG_0909or some years- is that I was standing in the former capital of the Mongol Il-Khanid rulers of Persia (Iran), who built this master piece in the 14th century (1302 to 1312 AD). The dome that I tried to get onto a photo -my problems illustrate how huge it was or how inapt I was in photography- would turn out to be one of the largest brick domes in the world, just at the theoretical engineering limit for a brick dome. I couldn’t decipher the inscriptions back then, nor could I understand how the patterns were constructed out of names (Allah, Muhammad and Aliin this picture). IMG_0898For me it was a day-tour to interesting old buildings whose history I didn’t know. I walked away from the others, into one of the buildings. In a niche I come to sit and overlook the area, contemplating how I got here and what this all means.IMG_0902 Nothing made sense back then yet, despite the immediate tales we tell ourselves – we travel, we explore, we learn, we make connections. Stranded in a couchsurfing adventure in a home of an Iranian family, communicating, but rather guessing on the implications of words and phrases, gestures and courtesy, I couldn’t possibly know that four years, – crazy travels including living in Afghanistan and driving a Rickshaw through Iran – later, I would sit in a classroom in the Netherlands and see a picture that explains where I had been in the first days in Iran, back then, when I forgot to note down where I had been and was never able to reconstruct it. Until today.IMG_0894

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Filed under architecture, beautiful coincidence, English, Memory

Transient Town

Sometimes it takes a while to see.

If you are in the middle of something, you’re focused on the immediate, the things happening, the ever evolving and changing. To see the patterns while unfolding is a difficult one. It needs distance. Timewise or geographically, but mainly inner. For months I didn’t want to write, or rather, it didn’t occur me even to sit down and write. Too many other projects, work, people were surrounding me. And there was a major disappointment in me, which I didn’t want to give space, but which was always present and shaping my perception.

Kabul is not a city to stay. I can just speak about this particular and peculiar place in Afghanistan, as it is here where most of my experience and interaction has centred (another reason for being depressed as of not being able in my current setting to go out and explore beyond the capital). Expats come and go, put the ‘experience’ on their resume, they leave without leaving an institutional memory behind to others. No lessons learned from one generation of expats to the others. Just desperation of not knowing what to do, gets handed over. And if they do come back, the city is just the backdrop for their sheltered bubble-life in which they live. I don’t blame them solely, it is a structural issue of security and insurance companies telling you where you can go and where you can’t, companies giving you a life behind high walls and organizations kicking you out if you don’t follow the strict rules of when to be back –and how to get back- into your compound. There are the exceptions, the freelance journalists, the rare couchsurfers, the people with dual citizenship and the ones that came for idealistically building something else. But they are the rare exception.

And the phenomenon of the transient is not only bound to the expats that describe themselves romantically as the new generation of nomads, it can also be found in the dreams of many Afghans. Most young and middle aged people try to leave the country. And thereby I don’t mean for travel or business, I mean for good. The US offers special immigration visas for Afghan Nationals who have worked for / on behalf of the US Government. All you have to proof is that you’re being persecuted against in your home country and that it would be dangerous for you to stay.

‘But what happens, if everyone leaves?’ My work colleague asked me the other day. ‘Who is left and who will build up a sort of civil society?’

In fact, I rarely encounter people who want to stay in the coming years, if the situation doesn’t improve magically. The passport office that issues the new Afghan passports has long lines in front of it. Some young boys ask Adnan in the shops, whether he knows a way to emigrate to Canada.

Not all and everyone wants to go of course. But the ones who could go (as it is not so easy to get visas, permissions or immigration cards), are being pressured by their families. As Fareed told me:   “I don’t want to leave Afghanistan. I have travelled, that was ok. But I like it here and we should build a better Afghanistan. But because I have worked for the Americans, I have good chances to get a visa and go. Every time I talk with my family it is the topic number one. And if I tell them that I don’t want to leave, they pressure me and tell me, that if I don’t want to leave for myself, then I should consider to leave for my family.”

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Filed under English, Kabulistan, Out of Kabul, people, Surrounding

Afghan Tourist Photos (Kabul to Sorubi)

Testing the edge

Close to Sorubi

Streets in between Kabul and Jalalabad

Towards Sorubi

Then we discovered the old russian tank...

...and started taking tourist pictures for our future grandchildren...

Not sure why they said I shouldn't show these to my parents...


The dam reservoir in Sorubi

Down at the reservoir

These little pashtun boys always amaze me. They're more like miniature men.

Our sandal seller in Sorubi

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Filed under Deutsch, English, Memory, Out of Kabul, people, Surrounding

Nearly Expired

Everyone is talking about global warming. On both ends it gets more extreme: blazing winters and damn hot summers. In a little side-discussion I say resignated to my colleague Marwa:

“That’s what we did to our planet.”

Marwa, Chanom Sadat and me at work

Marwa, Chanom Sadat and me at work

She looks at me, seriously thinking and says then:

“yes, it’s nearly expired, our earth”

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Being a woman AND a foreigner in Kabul, Afghanistan

This is one of the frustrating parts of being in Kabul. Being a woman and a foreigner. It feels like being doubly disabled  -no offence meant to physically or mentally challenged people!

Being a foreigner first off means being visible all the time. At least if you are not fitting in the skin colour scheme or if you can’t dive in with dark hair and brown eyes. It means being watched, assessed, critically viewed and even if positively welcomed: you are visible. You cannot just simply roam around in a bazaar and listen to the chit chatter of locals as the small talk might die down if you come along or might take you as  a subject to talk about. This can be a good thing to get in touch with people, but it is on the flipside a security risk that might get you kidnapped or killed (while admitting that Afghans are the ones running in danger to be kidnapped on the street for money as this happens frequently and is a constant threat for them).

Second cross cutting issue: being a woman. While stating from the beginning and being aware of the fact that foreign women don’t bear the weight of expectations, threats and pressure that local women bear or have to endure (which is a WHOLE different category!), it does not go without saying that being a foreigner woman in Afghanistan doesn’t have its challenging sides to it. While foreign men sometimes venture out to buy things at the bazaar or take local taxis –which is not advised by most of the security firms, restrictions and most foreigner’s idea about what to do best here- it is even more difficult as a woman and most of the time it is not easy or even possible to take a walk somewhere or go to buy things (besides the fact that speaking one of the local languages opens many doors and enables you to do so from time to time…). As women are rarer than men in the public realm and more followed with looks, being visibly a foreigner and a woman and walking outside is a triple marker for being exotic and strange. While other women –mainly local as I have not seen another foreigner woman on my walks- share smiles of being in the same club with you, men might slow down in their cars next to you to talk. The annoying fact of being dependent either on other foreign men to accompany you or other locals, who are mostly men as well, because women don’t go out much, is a daily experience.

But being challenged can also mean being given a chance.

being made up with make up by Pashtun women on an engagement ceremony

being made up with make up by Pashtun women on an engagement ceremony

As the Afghan society is to huge parts segregated into a male and a female realm, foreign men are not allowed much contact with the local female population, if any at all. They might never see a traditional kitchen, see the women’s side on a nikah (traditional Islamic wedding) or talk to Afghan women (with exception of higher or educated westernized classes or Hazara women). My partner Adnan who has worked for ten years as a journalist and photographer in Afghanistan has never seen his fixer’s/contact person’s wife. He has travelled with him, his life was saved several times by him, he has lived in his house for extended periods of time but he has never met his wife.

I, on the contrary, am a hybrid in these cases. As a woman I can enter the female part of society, gossip with women about their charming or incapable men, get tons of make up on and taste the food in the kitchens where the house politics are being made. As a foreigner though, I am kind of a third gender. The public spaces are male dominated but as a foreigner I can talk to men in their shops, sit in meetings with afghan men and talk with colleagues about their dreams and plans. I am not accepted as a man but as a foreign woman, I fall under another category which does not fit into the common male/female divide.  I’m somewhere in-between and thus am exposed to parts of both sides: being hampered, challenged and ambiguous.


Filed under connections, English, gender, Kabulistan, men, people, Surrounding, women


“Everyone is on lockdown”

I look around me. The café that usually sprawls over with expats around this time of the day looks back at me, bored and kind of deserted. As if left alone by lovers that didn’t  come to please the affluent mind with chit chatter and the usual NGO affairs that sink into the red sofas and web the carpet of the expat life.

Empty Flowerstreet Cafe

Empty Flowerstreet Cafe

Adam looks up from his laptop, shrugs his shoulders: “it can’t be that bad.”

“Why?” I had just gotten a text message telling me about the recent lockdown for the embassy and UN people, meaning that they were not allowed to move outside of their compound and no one who doesn’t work there is allowed in. The only people sitting in the café, is us. Us, who don’t have any security restrictions, no compound to crouch away into, no time limits when to be back home and no rules to break.

“If there was an attack expected then they might cut the phone lines so that the Taliban can’t communicate with each other…”

Mmh…all our mobile phones still work. We both nod and get back to work. A usual day in Kabul. In all its weirdness.

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Filed under danger, English, Kabulistan, security, Surrounding