I think I’ve made some conditional decisions. Depending on what the outcome is in December, I’ll either remain status quo for two or three more years … Or Not.


You prepare yourself for it. The colors in the mountains—seemingly made of granite and sand—are a palette you could not have imagined. Photographs taken from the UNHAS plane past the propeller blades do not do the variations justice.

And then you see it. A massive rock face, dotted with openings for caves that remind you of Dunhuang. And there, in the center, in the shape of those Russian dolls, a carving into rock that ascends through the rock to almost three-quarters of the way to the top.

And it is vacant.

The Bamyan of the Destroyed Buddhas.

I still cannot comprehend how the human breast carries within it at times such fiery disregard for and soulless destruction of the heights to which humans can ascend.

Now that a few hours over a week are left for me to begin my long trek home, I think, shaking my head, of the heavy (for me) suitcase that awaits me in Kabul. Why on earth did I bring all that stuff? All that I pulled out from it for my use in the seven weeks I have been here could have fit into one of my roomier carry-ons. I lived in two pairs of pants and six tops, jeans, t-shirt and scarf for Saturdays, toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, a very few toiletries, creams, and cosmetics, CIPRO and vitamins, a pair of sandals, and Toms-like loafers. A small hand towel and a facecloth. Then: computer, iPhone, iPad, camera, cords. A bangle and a pair of earrings.

Anything else?


Even the gifts I brought are not needed.

Next time, I will not pack my fears.

I’ve been thinking all day about how the fateful events of September 11th, 2001, changed the world as we know it. And recalling the tragedies not just of that horrible day that shook the nation, and perhaps the world, but of all the trauma and wars that have followed.

And tonight, Kabul is celebrating with fireworks and partying in the streets because Afghanistan won the football match in Nepal against India. We can see the fireworks and hear the whoops of delight, but of course, cannot go out.

It is good to see that for a nation that has come through decades of war, people have something to celebrate. Almost feels normal, whatever that is.

Finally, the day arrived: Saturday, August 17th, with a 7.30 am pickup. I was breakfasted, ready, a little nervous about living conditions in the province that figured so largely during my years studying Nāṣir-i Khusraw, and more than a little excited!

Nasir Khusraw's shrine in Yumgan--Photo taken by Romin Fararoon

Nasir Khusraw’s shrine in Yumgan–Photo taken by Romin Fararoon

The car came, we picked up the director, and headed on down to the airport, where after numerous security checks, we finally had to get down from the car for good with our luggage, head through another security zone, through an unmarked gate, another security check, and finally wait in the boarding lounge for an UNHAS plane to take us to Fayzabad. An eight-seater, with no room for carry on luggage but mightily comfortable. Breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys that were difficult to capture from the plane as I was seated over a wing.


Upon descent we took a car to the guest house, and after settling in, met with the director of the regional office, who kindly set up interviews for the next day. I had a comfortable room the size of a postage stamp, and a shared bathroom that made me want to gag, but one somehow finds a way to stay clean. The weather was impossibly hot and humid, and I survived with the fan stuck to my hip whenever the electricity came on. Almost no internet signal, but enough time left in the day that I begged to go outside and so Garry obliged with a walk through the town’s main street. Small shops lining the sides of the road, with about two feet of sidewalk as one sidestepped this and that. We walked for an hour past shops selling every conceivable household good and fresh produce and dry goods and canned stuff. I wanted to take photographs but felt shy given the curious looks and press of people.  Almost all the women wear the signature blue chador with netting; colorful clothing peeking through as here the style is that the front of the chador stops just below the waist. The main road is paved, the side roads are dirt, often potholed and uneven. I could immediately see the value in having a garment that keeps all the dust out, just about. There’s practical value to it, not just a means to keep out the male gaze. It was good to walk freely again!

Three Girls and River

Three Girls and River

The next day, Sunday, which is a working day here and the beginning of the work week, took us a short walk from the guesthouse to the offices, where I interviewed several staff members and learned about the myriad efforts that went into getting girls to school and the innovative ways in which challenges were handled. For instance, some villagers hired a young man to serve as the mahram (relative) to walk girls to school; another village was concerned about the lack of toilets so built them; a third staved off prying eyes by raising the school walls a few feet higher. Clinics were brought to women and children; classes offered on care during pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy; drug rehabilitation programs introduced. I learned about the difficulties of getting women staff into the remotest villages due to inaccessibility, and the growing fears over safety amidst the impending elections and pullout. Indeed, our field trips to Jurum and beyond were cancelled for reasons of security, and at dinner someone mentioned that two of the roads out of Fayzabad were unsafe, one having been the site of a 3-person beheading the week prior.

Monday was a holiday so we were taken by the local director to see a couple of projects. We drove from New Fayzabad, where the guesthouse is located, to Old Fayzabad, with its local bazaar enjoying its last few months before it is cleared out for a new road.

Bazaar to be cleared

Bazaar to be cleared

New road being built

New road being built

Narrow alleyways lead to residences; one bazaar only sells women’s clothing; the hustle and bustle of commerce is very much evident.

Women's Bazaar

Women’s Bazaar

We visited the new provincial building being built with fine woodwork inside, having passed a billboard with a picture of Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Billboard of Ahmed Shah Massoud

Billboard of Ahmed Shah Massoud

We went to the Fayzabad Provincial Hospital to which a two-storey wing is being added—it is located by the side of the river.

Riverfront part of two-storey medical annex

Riverfront part of two-storey medical annex

Billboard showing the partners involved in building the medical annex

Billboard showing the partners involved in building the medical annex

We saw Dahani Tang, the “Narrow Mouth” along which the river runs and which leads to Baharak. Via Google I discovered that our host takes stunning photographs, and here is one he took of Dahani Tang.

Sunset at Dahani Tang, taken by Romin Fararoon

Sunset at Dahani Tang, taken by Romin Fararoon

Along the way he told us that Fayzabad was established in the 16th century with a shroud that ostensibly belonged to the Prophet and was housed in a building with a green roof/dome?–I couldn’t get a clear picture–and the shroud apparently was handed over to the government when Fayzabad joined the province of Badakshan.

Roof of mosque at which the Prophet's shroud was kept, giving the town its name, Fayzabad, "the place of blessing"

Roof of mosque at which the Prophet’s shroud was kept, giving the town its name, Fayzabad, “the place of blessing”

Another legend has it that the architect of the many bridges that cross the river wanted water, clay and hair to construct the bridge, and so all the women of the town shaved their heads to produce the much-needed hair!

The next day, Tuesday, I managed to interview two interns, both women, who had finished high school and two years at a teacher training college and were preparing for exams that they hoped would get them into university. They doubted they would get in; not only do they think the exams are terribly challenging, but also corruption, they said, makes it difficult to get a place in the university. I met a female civil engineer who said she put up with her provincial classmates’ doubts that she could handle engineering classes. She is one of the pioneers of a new generation of women who, when they have the means, the support, the education, the dedication and discipline, and the brains to go to university do not shy away from what are considered male fields of learning—she was the only female student in her class.

We left Wednesday morning. Our flight was delayed, so we barely got back into Kabul at 2 pm. Unbeknownst to us all traveling back, the CEO of the organization and one of his senior staff had been kidnapped on their way back from one of the provinces. I found out that evening over supper. A sober mood prevailed at the guest house that evening and at the office in the days following, before news reached us Friday evening that they had been released.

From the air back to Kabul

So I’ve had all these reports thrown at me—the most recent being The Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People, and my eyes are glazing over at all the data presented in narrative and in tabular form, and the humanist in me cries out for qualitative analysis. I’ve been reading grant proposals and concept papers that try to get at how to engage in community based development that will cut across various sectors such as human and infrastructure development, natural resource management, market development, gender mainstreaming, poverty alleviation—and I see how cross-cutting an enterprise development is—no wonder they talk about MIAD (Multi Input Area Development) and SLA (Sustainable Livelihoods Approach) and M4P (Making Markets Work For the Poor), etc. in preparing people to lead their own development. And everyone seems to use the words indicators and disaggregate. Hunh?

It is a very steep learning curve.

And I am terrified about how on earth I will produce a report that will certainly not be written in development jargon. Or be intelligible even to myself. Talk about feeling like one is in over one’s head.

Well, 4-day field trip coming up!

Every balcony is advertising some medical specialization

Every balcony is advertising some medical specialization

Yesterday, a colleague needed to go shopping at the local supermarket, and I jumped at the chance to get out. It feels most confining to go between the guest house and the offices in a vehicle, and then back again. So we went to the Finest Supermarket, if I heard the name correctly, and there I exchanged a $20 for the local currency. And immediately set myself to buying spicy dried chick peas, and 3-in-1 coffee packets (Néscafe, milk solids, sugar)–I got addicted to the stuff in China. Comfort food, eh?

Of course, totally forgot that I wanted a bedside lamp, despite the fact that the upper floor of the supermarket said furniture and cosmetics. My digs at the Guest House are spare, which is fine, but not terribly comfortable, and it would take so little to make them so. For instance, lamp lighting rather than the all-too-bright overhead and wall sconce lights. A chair in which to read or sit comfortably; the bed would be just fine if the headboard was higher or there were more pillows. Electrical sockets. Plug-in strips that actually held your plug in place rather than falling out. Hangers in the closet? I’m just being picky; the key issue is that my body just doesn’t cool down and the heat is difficult to bear, glued as I am to the stationary fan, now that I’ve figured out the angle at which I should position it so that I get air (sideways). And the withdrawal is still intense. I am still coughing, albeit a little less, and it is clear that the cough has as much to do with the sinus drip as it does with anything else. I seem to be getting less winded climbing the three flights of stairs to get to the coffee/tea room at the office or back to room from dinner at the guest house. We’ll see. At the moment I feel like a blimp, despite floor exercises in my room, and walking in the large foyer/hallway connecting all our rooms. I have to ask how to turn the treadmill on. But will I get on it in this heat?

It was also the last day of Ramadan yesterday. Even though I did not fast, not having food available until the evening, with the exception of the cookies in the tea room and the power bars I brought with me, I did and do get the sense of the internal discipline required—just as I am with quitting! The solidarity with those who have far less, who do not have options—whether you connect with that in a day or over a month, the important thing is to connect, viscerally, with every fibre of your being.

End of Ramadan, eh?

End of Ramadan, eh?

So, today is Eid! Perhaps this evening one other person staying at the guesthouse and myself will make it to JK for evening prayers, and we might also go to JK tomorrow, Friday.

Yesterday, I talked to someone from the Education dept about gender mainstreaming—a really interesting and articulate young person who is also from Calgary! I was sorry our conversation had to end because I had to take the shuttle back to the guesthouse, but perhaps I can reconnect with her on Sunday, when the offices reopen after the Eid holidays.

The day before, Tue, I had a chance to talk to the director of the health sector about his work on issues of women’s sanitation, etc. The documents he sent me are all in the local language, and I am still mystified as to where my little black grammar rules and vocabulary and conjugation lists as well as grammar and dictionary are. The point is, I need to find out from the office if they have any dictionaries or grammars or offer any help with learning the language.

I was also able to talk to the person in charge of evaluating all projects for their gender mainstreaming. She is local, and stressed the point about the need for local fieldworkers who understand the culture and the gender norms—I need to ask her why that is so important from her point of view. Is it because she feels that delivery is not being done in a sensitive manner, or that receptivity to the programming would be much higher?

I feel so privileged to be able to talk to all these people. And that the director of rural development is facilitating these conversations. I am not sure whether I’ll be able to produce what he needs me to deliver and of course I am terrified that I will disappoint or come up short. So I must, once again, rely on the knowledge and certitude and hope/faith that I am here for a purpose and will do the best I can given what I know and that it will be what it will be, just as it is what it is. Did I expect to be here four months ago on my birthday? Absolutely not. I didn’t even know this was on the horizon. And yet here I am.

Sufi Restaurant

Sufi Restaurant 

Yesterday, just before leaving the office, the director sent a note that I am to accompany him to Badakhshan for a very short, 4-day trip, so that I can meet the fieldworkers and ask them about gender mainstreaming in their projects. It is unlikely we will visit Yumgan, which is where Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1074 CE, on whom I wrote my MA thesis) spent the last years of his life in exile. I am over the moon at the possibility of seeing the province in which he hung out, so to speak. Was the Jāmi‘ al-Ḥikmatayn (his magnum opus, The Harmonization of the Two Wisdoms, i.e. Reason and Revelation), written there?