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.

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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

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