Category Archives: people

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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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...

Sorubi

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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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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Frau UND Auslaenderin sein in Kabul

Das ist einer der frustrierenden Aspekte des Lebens in Kabul: eine Frau zu sein und eine Auslaenderin. Es ist ein wenig wie eine Doppel-Behinderung – Entschuldigung fuer diesen Vergleich an alle Menschen mit geistiger und/oder koerperlicher Behinderung!

Ein_e Auslaender_in zu sein bedeutet zunaechst einmal immer sichtbar zu sein. Zumindest wenn Du nicht in die vorherrschenden Hautfarbenpalette passt oder mit dunklem Haar und braunen Augen in der Masse verschwinden kannst (gleiches gilt natuerlich fuer Menschen anderen Aussehens auch in Europa und wahrscheinlich jedem anderen Ort der Welt. Nichts allzu neues also…). Es bedeutet beobachtet, bewertet, kritisch beaeugt zu werden und selbst wenn man positive willkommen geheissen wird: Du bist sichtbar. Es ist beinahe unmoeglich sich einfach durch einen Bazaar treiben zu lassen und den Gespraechen der Einheimischen zu lauschen, da der Smalltalk abstirbt sobald Du vorbei gehst oder Du selbst zum Thema wirst. Auf der einen Seite kann das etwas Gutes sein, da es einen in Kontakt mit anderen Menschen bringt. Die Kehrseite davon ist allerdings das Sicherheitsrisiko gekidnapped, ausgeraubt oder getoetet zu werden (waehrend es hier wichtig ist zu sagen, dass diejenigen, die wirklich Gefahr laufen, fuer Geld gekidnappt zu werden, die Afghanen selbst sind. Kidnapping von Einheimischen ist weit verbreitet).

Zweites Querschnittsthema: Frau sein. Waehrend ich zunaechst darauf hinweisen will und es mir bewusst ist, dass auslaendische Frauen nicht das Gewicht der Erwartungen, Gefahren, Restriktionen und dem Druck ausgesetzt sind wie einheimische Frauen (was eine GANZ andere Kategorie und Dimension fuer sich ist!), so geht es doch auch nicht ohne zu erwaehnen, das seine auslaendische Frau in Kabul zu sein seine ganz eigenen Herausforderungen mit sich bringt.

Waehrend auslaendische Maenner manchmal hinauswandern um auf einheimischen Bazaren etwas einzukaufen oder ein gelbes, einheimisches Taxi von A nach B nehmen –was natuerlich den Anweisungen von Sicherheitsfirmen, Arbeitsgebern und den Vorstellungen der meisten Expats nicht entspricht- so ist es noch etwas schwieriger als Frau allein. Und oft ist es wegen der Sicherheitslage und der Einschaetzung aller Beteiligten nicht drin ald Frau alleine spazieren/von einem Ort zum anderen oder etwas einkaufen zu gehen (nebst der Tatsache, dass es natuerlich hilft, der Sprache maechtig zu sein und es schon die ein oder andere Tuere oeffnet). Da Frauen im oeffentlichen Raum rarer gesaeht sind als Maenner und ihnen so die Blicke eher folgen, ist man gleich doppelt sichtbarer als Frau und Auslaenderin, die auch noch von einem zum anderen Ort geht. Exotisch und merkwuerdig. Waehrend andere Frauen  ein Laecheln mit mir teilen wie um zu sagen ‘hey, wir sind im gleichen Club!’ –vor allem einheimische, da mir auslaendische Frauen noch nicht draussen spazierend begegnet sind- so verlangsamen Maenner neben einem das Auto um mit einem zu reden. Die nervige Erfahrung entweder auf auslaendische Maenner oder Einheimische (auch meist maennlich, da Frauen draussen weniger unterwegs sind) angewiesen zu sein, ist ein taeglicher Begleiter, im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes.

Aber eine Behinderung kann auch eine Moeglichkeit und Chance sein.

Geschminkt von Pashtunischen Frauen auf einer Verlobungsfeier

Geschminkt von Pashtunischen Frauen auf einer Verlobungsfeier

Da die afghanische Gesellschaft zu grossen Teilen in einen maennlichen und einen weiblichen Part aufgeteilt ist, so ist auslaendischen Maennern nicht viel, wenn ueberhaupt Kontakt mit einheimischer weiblicher Bevoelkerung beschieden. Es mag sein, dass sie niemals eine traditionelle Kueche sehen, oder die Frauenseite auf einer Nikah (einer traditionellen islamischen Hochzeit) oder dass sie kaum mit afghanischen Frauen reden (mit Ausnahme von hoeher gebildeten oder westlich ausgerichteten Schichten der Bevoelkerung oder Hazara Frauen). Mein Partner Adnan, der seit 10 ahren als Journalist und Photograph in Afghanistan arbeitet, hat nie die Ehefrau seiner Kontaktperson gesehen. Er ist mit ihm gereist, sein Leben wurde mehrfach durch ihn gerettet, er hat in seinem Haus fuer laengere Zeit gelebt, aber nie seine Frau getroffen.

Ich im Gegensatz dazu, bin ein Hybrid in diesem Fall. Als Frau kann ich den weiblichen Teil der Gesellschaft betreten, mit den Frauen ueber die charmanten oder unfaehigen Ehemaenner herziehen, einige Tonnen Make Up verpasst bekommen und das Essen in der Kueche vorkosten, wo die Hauspolitik gemacht wird. Als Auslaenderin bin ich soetwas wie ein drittes Geschlecht. Die offentlichen Raeume sind maennerdominiert, aber als  Auslaenderin   kann ich mit Maennern in Geschaeften reden, in Meetings mit Maennern sitzen und mit meinen Kollegen ueber ihre Traeume und Plaene schwatzen. Ich bin nicht als ‘Mann’ akzeptiert, aber als auslaendische Frau, da ich in eine andere Kategorie falle als die hier uebliche maennlich/weiblich Unterscheidung. Ich bin irgendwo dazwischen und so bekomme ich beide Seiten mit: Behinderungen und Herausforderungen mit all seinen mehrdeutig undeutigen Zwischentoenen.

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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.

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First women-only internet cafe in Afghanistan inaugurated!

Sometimes it is apparent that there are things missing in our lives. But we don’t see it until someone actually creates these ideas, opportunities or places and drags them into existence.

A couple of days ago, was women’s day. People post on facebook, put up posters or wear badges. But have you wondered what needs to change and what is missing in our midst? The group ‘young women for change’, a refreshing mix of energetic women and supportive young men, has understood the need of Afghan women and created

An internet cafe for women in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sahar Gul Internetcafe. Photo credit: Young women for change

Sahar Gul Internetcafe. Photo credit: Young women for change

In our current world, access to internet and information as well as communication with friends and family, is being taken more and more for granted, even in a place like Afghanistan, with a growing number of young people who use mobile phones and computers. But not everyone has internet access at home. Many people use internet cafes: for chatting, emailing, facebooking or doing their job and university application. Anyone who has been living in Afghanistan knows that the internet cafes are male dominated places, owned by men, used by men. Even if these places were less uncomfortable or shady, no respectable woman would ever enter one.

So where to gather information, connect with the world out there, understand more from its complexity or merely send off an application?

In Sahar Gul’s internet café!

The internet café has been named after Sahar Gul, a young Afghan woman who has become a symbol of suffering and strength, the combination that describes many Afghan women –despite being stereotyping it here- so well. Sahar Gul was married off when she was 15. Seven months later she was found in a prison cell, which was her in laws toilett. She had been imprisoned and tortured by her in laws because she refused to prostitute herself, which the in law family tried to force upon her. She was in a critical condition when she reached hospital, but she survived, despite the fact that her finger nails got ripped out of her fingers, for example. ‘Young women for change’ members visited Sahar Gul in hospital and became friends with her. They cheered her up and decided to name the internet café after her, to show the remarkable strength of women and to give a safe place for women in the future.The internet café is a safe place, indeed.

Tugged away in a side street in one of the more unassuming quarters of Afghanistan’s capital, it invites with a sign on the door, but shields the visitors with a clever window system with which you can look out but not in, cause the windows have a mirroring effect on the outside. Once inside you’re not being welcomed by the usual –less sterile than you might think- cabins for internet users, but by a warm atmosphere: a sitting area on the floor with comfortable cussions and small tables to put the internet café’s laptops. And in between the open laptops and tables, one can already see the seed that has been sown by this place: women are sitting together and talking, exchanging, getting to know each other. Women who might have never shared a word with each other in different circumstances. A place has been created not only for sharing of information and usage of internet, but also to share solidarity, dreams, ideas and maybe make connections that can grow into great new friendships or engagement in society. With this internet café, the first women’s internet café in Afghanistan, so much more has been given to this country than just another internet café. It has been given an opportunity, a potential, and a cell for change.

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Birds paint movement into the sky

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears and what they think”

(Rumi)

The first days after moving into the new apartment I caught myself standing at the huge windows, looking out onto the mountains and waiting for the birds.

They came frequently, sailing in a huge flock right across the piece of sky visible from our living room windows. They didn’t seem to be merely flying, but to be mounting the rough winds like sailors seizing the stormy waters of the unknown. Keen to dive down towards the streets and sail high aiming for the sun.

My steps lead me higher, onto the flat roof, on which laundry dries when the sun peaks out and on which little groups of chimneys hold their smoky conversations with each other. Towards the evening, they were flying again. The birds, which seemed to circle merely around our apartment block. I watched their path in the sky, their reckless formation flights. And suddenly, they landed. On the roof of the house next door. I walked towards the rim of the roof, wondering, and a young afghan men waved to me. He was the owner of the birds! He was the one to leave them out in the days. The one to feed them and to wait for them once they had enough from their air acrobatics.

He smiled at me and I smiled at the birds. Words unnecessary.

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