Having lived in the grown-up world for more than ten years, I thought I knew the definition of dignity. I was wrong.
As the plane moved closer to Islamabad, Pakistan, I pondered the last three days. The admonitions of the professionals and the diplomats still rang in my ears. Blend in with the men; don’t look like a woman. Don’t walk anywhere unaccompanied by a male. Don’t speak to anyone unless it is pre-arranged. So many don’t do’s. While I am a rules girl, I have never been strangled by them and have always been able to wiggle when necessary to make them fit. None of the warnings would change that. A question by one of my co-workers brought me out of my reverie, and after some idle chitchat, I decided to stretch my legs.
I hardly recognized the woman staring back at me from the mirror in the lavatory. Baseball cap hiding lots of hair, undetectable make-up, and sensible shoes, khaki jacket and slacks, and my own go against the grain blue button down oxford shirt. At home in my bed, it would have been a nightmare, but it seemed somehow fine in this place at this time. The only remnant of my Texas by way of New York life was a small crystal which hung around my neck on a black silk cord.
As I fondled the crystal, I was taken to a day last week in Manhattan where I was sitting on a bench in Battery Park. Both excited and nervous about starting this journey, I was clueless about what to expect but still felt a little like Albert Schweitzer because of this departure from my world. It was mid-morning so the park had a respectable walking population. I was looking at the place where the towers of the World Trade Center had loomed, remembering that morning, when I felt the presence of another person.
As I looked up, I was faced with the image of a woman of indiscernible age who stood by my bench with her shopping cart. She seemed to be digging in her accumulated treasures for something. Finally, she made eye contact with me and held something out for me to see. It was a small, scarred crystal in the shape of a lovely but cloudy prism. Unsure of the expected response, and uncomfortable that she continued to hold it out to me, I took it in my hand and said “very pretty.” She continued her unwavering stare and said “it keeps you safe”.
Aha! That gave me a clue! I finally realized that perhaps she was offering to sell it to me or barter for something I had, so I fumbled with the zipper on the fanny pack around my waist and dug for money (which I am negligent in carrying). Blessedly, I found a couple of bills folded up. I pulled them out, but when I looked back, she was gone. I scanned in all directions, but she was nowhere. The lady and her basket had disappeared. I looked suspiciously at my latte as though I had been taken on a trip for which I didn’t buy a ticket, but the crystal was still in my hand, evidence that I wasn’t completely hallucinatory. I dropped the crystal in my pouch, and started the eight-block walk back to my hotel.
As fate would have it, of course, I passed a small jewelry store. Yes, yes, I did. Mr. Abramson, the proprietor, was kind enough to attach a bail to the crystal so that I could wear it. No, I’m not superstitious, but I figured that I would not be able to wear any jewelry of value where I was going, so this would be an ornament, a piece of New York, that I could take with me.
As I walked back to my seat, I gazed upon a sea of khaki. We were khaki clones. Was that by design or did it just work out that way? Ensconced in my seat, seatbelt firmly fastened, I escaped the realities of the final hour of the flight with the familiar. Happily listening to the comforting strains of Motown, Nashville, New York and London, I could breathe normally. Such powerful music, and a heart and soul with which I had complete connection. My feet were momentarily grounded in the places where I was equipped to function. But an elbow in the ribs, the removal of headphones, and the advice that we would be landing shortly interrupted that brief respite.
We had to stay onboard for a few minutes longer than usual, and then deplaned to an area where the traveling public was not permitted. Our passports were stamped and a young man led us to an area where several vehicles waited to take us to what would be two nights in Islamabad before continuing to Afghanistan. On the way to our destination, the young man explained that he would be our interpreter for the duration of our stay in this part of the world. and for two nights we would be staying with his relatives.
I must interject here. I can dress like a man, I can follow direction, and I can even be subservient when I need to be. I can’t be quiet. This was a once in my lifetime opportunity to learn of a place that was so foreign to my world that I felt compelled to take advantage of the experience by asking every question that came to my mind. It was, after all, the only way I could learn. And ask questions I did much to the dismay of the BBC liaison that accompanied me and the amusement of the film crew I traveled with. When queried as to the necessity of my questions, I had a ready answer. How can I write the narrative for a documentary on human rights if I don’t have insight into the human beings about whom I will be writing? I basically told them to get off my back, and to their credit, they did…at least temporarily.
I am cursed or blessed to be able to see things as they should be or as they once were. Kabul is indescribably beautiful and so rife with history and heritage that it creates an aching unlike anything I have ever known. After ten days in Afghanistan, I am bombarded with such a plethora of emotion that sorting it out is difficult. All the things which surround me, in all their now or once glory, cannot compare to the people on whose faces history is etched.
Our crew had interviewed many who described what it was like to live under the Taliban. Their fear of the Taliban is palpable. People who, even now, are sometimes hesitant to speak because they cannot clearly see the future. There is a depth and intensity in their feelings that many westerners have never felt. And the one constant thread which allows me to continue is that they are universally grateful for their deliverance, regardless of the future, to a world which holds choices.
I have a secret weapon. McDonald’s Corporation filled my backpack with an endless stream of “kid’s meal” toys, which are a huge hit with the children here. They paw through my backpack as though it holds gold. and the smiles on their faces are all the delight that a person could possibly want in a lifetime. They are how I met Abdul and Nasrin. They hung back while one of my colleagues was talking to their father, until I opened my backpack. The unspeakable joy on their faces brought tears to my eyes. How many of these insignificant toys had I thrown away with double cheeseburger wrappers without even thinking? Ultimately we were all invited to take a meal with the family.
I am telling you that as a westerner, you can’t conceive it. A hovel by our standards, it was, nonetheless, a home filled with love and hope and little else. There was a rudimentary pen constructed at the side of the home that held the treasure of this family. A goat and her recent offspring foraged there to sustain themselves. As we sat in the home, I was struck by the dignity of the wife. She was robed in the traditional Afghani clothing, but her eyes were lasers. Through our interpreter I learned that she had actually been educated and wanted education for her children. She seemed to know it was the only way they could make their way in a changing world. My own education taunted me and my study of literature and philosophy made me ashamed. I was awestruck by this woman who had nothing, but who knew the key to everything.
The farmer father went out to the pen. I quickly asked the interpreter what he was doing. He intended to offer us, honored strangers in his home, the best he had. His intention was to kill the goat. I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t care about the many admonitions, the sage advice of those who trod this ground before. Dammit, he wasn’t going to kill that goat so that I could have dinner……
When my protest started, I was physically removed from the premises by the protective arms of two of my compatriots. I’m short, but I’m a fighter. All the while hearing their admonitions to respect local custom, my only thought was of that goat and her babies. They left me far enough away from the home that I could walk, kick rocks, and curse to myself. It was almost dark when I returned and I probably would not have returned then, but the prospect of being caught in the dark by unfriendlies made the decision easy.
When I reappeared at our host’s abode, the wife motioned me to sit, which I did. She brought me rice, some unidentifiable other things, tea….but no goat. I was very grateful. Abdul and Nasrin wanted another shot at my backpack, and they were delighted by what they found. My laptop computer which was, blessedly, not connected, delighted them with its bright images and pictures of home, which they seemed to understand without much explanation. They loved my pets, and they smiled at my nieces. I didn’t care if I was ever connected to the internet again because I suspected that my behavior had not gone unreported to the higher-ups. I was right, but for now, it was silent.
One of the things that struck me funny was how quickly Nasrin and Abdul picked up on the premise of the games. Abdul was fascinated by that game where you mark off X‘s around landmines or submarines or something (a game I have never mastered), and Nasrin loved the game of “hearts”. The interpreter explained it to her, and she was quickly selecting the discards and playing from the hand against the computer generated table. I was amazed. I saw Nasrin eyeing a tablet I had in my backpack, and then the interpreter’s question… could she have a page from it to draw? Of course, she could have the whole tablet, and every marker and pen I could find. One of the pictures she drew brought me to tears. It was a woman with her hands over her face, and a goat. I still cry at the thought of that one, and I have the picture framed in my home.
I knew it was inevitable. One of the BBC people had duly reported (which was his responsibility), my fit over the goat. When I next uplinked to receive mails, I certainly had some. “You must respect the local custom and show no dismay or emotion at what was obviously an attempt to be hospitable.”
Well, I am a rules girl as I have said before, but the rules were chafing me like a chastity belt. During the remainder of our stay in Afghanistan, we took some heart wrenching footage, had some wonderful conversations, and took amazing pictures. My hair was filthy, I had a mark around my head from the baseball cap hiding my hair, my clothes were grimy, I had gotten lots of hugs. After having seen everything I wanted to see, prayed in a mosque, and shared all my McDonalds toys, we were headed back to Islamabad. It was a strangely silent trip as we reflected on the horrors as well as the honor that we had absorbed.
I suppose it is just human nature, and the warnings of my fellows and higher fellows were ringing in my ears.
But sometimes, you just have to break loose. On the first night back in Islamabad, I was determined to be myself and not be the expected clone of the interlopers. I put on a short black skirt, a red silk blouse, some decadent shoes, and slipped out to stroll the streets. I was not ashamed that I was an American….and I was less than prudent in thinking no danger could come to me because I had an angel’s crystal or because I was just a nice person.