Journal


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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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?

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

View from my Guest House window

View from my Guest House window

The first day of the working week here is Sunday (Shambe) and so despite not sleeping for more than an hour or max 2 at any one time, I was ready and outside to be taken to the office with the van going in at about 7.30 am. The offices are also in a compound: cars drive in through a closed gate, and there are two buildings with a narrow lane between them. I was told they are apartment buildings that have been converted into office space. Once there, I first went to get internet access on my computer and iPhone and iPad, then off to see Rajesh at HR to get my photo taken for an id, then driven to town to get a Foreign Registration Card, which I will need to leave Afghanistan, and then a cup of tea in what has temporarily been set up for that purpose for non-fasting workers. Umm, another volunteer from Calgary, Canada, who is working on developing tools for monitoring and evaluation (M&E), took me to the office I share with her.

Then I got to meet with Garry , who after some initial small talk, talked to me about gender mainstreaming as a feature in their programs. I am not always sure I pick up on the nuances of what he is saying. He wanted me to meet Saleh, who wants to work with mullahs in order to address gender inequities, and I took notes of that conversation. Garry was present, and as we talked, what he has in mind for me to do here become a little clearer:

About to land

About to land

I cannot seem to be able to sleep for more than an hour at a time. This has been the way it has been since Tuesday July 30th and I can only now catch a glimmer of what sleep deprivation feels like. Of course I continue to remain cogent, but I do ask myself for how long! It was a terrible idea to try and quit at this time; the replacement pills do no good, I am hungry all the time but not satiated; and cannot calm down sufficiently to sleep—indeed, the effect of the pills, no matter how small or large a piece/dose I take, is to get me totally wired.

I am trying to get through it by keeping myself as calm as possible, and attending to work. Reading. One-hour naps. Eating. Exercising. Perspiring. The heat and humidity are insane. Knowing that I am here a week too early is not great either—it is like showing up expecting to work four days before Christmas. Why no one said this was not a good idea beats me. So staying calm and centered amidst all of this is … like … the easiest thing to do.

Approaching Kabul

Mountainous Terrain

It is about 4 pm Thurs Aug 1 in Cali, and roughly 12 hours later where I am. I have slept fitfully in the night here because my body thinks it is day; when it is night for my body, the world says it is day and one can sleep again only fitfully. Now, this has been going on since Tuesday night, when I boarded the flight to Dubai.

So many things to do to ready oneself for a 2-month-long trip in foreign parts.
Now that I am here, I understand why over time I developed the “travel light” slogan. Two-thirds of what I brought will not be needed. And of the one-third that will be, it is going to have to do. It is unbearably (for me) hot and humid, just like Mombasa (and we all know how well I do in heat). There is no a/c; a fan that doesn’t help unless you are standing two feet from it. I needed to pack the lightest, lightest of body-covering cotton, with nothing hugging the body, and to have brought my threadbare worn-out pajamas as these are too tight and the top too close-fitting (and hot!). Why don’t I go with my gut—but then that is the point of this whole venture, isn’t it, to help and in doing so, discover (or recover?) what my raison d’être is in the larger scheme. Find my voice. Follow my heart.

Quitting cold turkey was another extremely stupid idea. The nicotine pills have me wired and unable to sleep, even though I am taking the tiniest amounts possible. It was hard when I quit 5-6 years ago before a fight with Peter undid the 3 days of watching my life pass before my eyes as I tried to quit, and it is hard now. Others have written about the grief that ensues as you give up a “friend” who has been with you through thick and thin, and who allows you to retain composure and a sense of dignity in challenging situations.

And for me, it is so indelibly connected with Nicholas, whom I think of everyday for what was, could have been, the loss, the betrayal, the hurt, the anger, the final dissolution, the not making peace, being told on the last time I talked to him that I would not be forgiven: WAIT A MINUTE! who needs to forgive whom? So I am still angry, but also completely ready to let go and have forgiven a million times, but then some little thing comes back. I forgot the 2nd anniversary of his death on July 29th as I was so upset over the birthday situation and so frenzied about being ready to depart July 30th. And then something came up about Yves in France and his betrayal, and it all came flooding back, and I had to get myself to the place of forgiveness yet again, goodness, quitting is the stupidest thing I could have tried to lay on this trip. But for 35 years if not more, that is how I have tried to get through rejection, and N’s constant rejection in ways small and large. I tell you, loyalty is highly overrated. The first time he walked was one thing, but what did it take—14, 15 walkouts before the final one? And I am still loyal, and have lost 3 decades of my life with no partner? What is the matter with me?

The internet is not working.

The food is delicious. All cooked in oil and spices and totally not the way to lose any weight. I got a meal at 2.30 am here, the meal before the day’s fast (it is Ramadan). My body thought it was lunchtime and was sending distress signals, so this was a good thing.

At the guesthouse I met a Nepali who works on micro hydropower and in the projects he works on in Badakhshan, villages have electricity where cities don’t, and nets are made for the fish to get through, while the dams are small and cleaned often to prevent algae takeover.

It’s now 4.40 am and I am going to try to sleep again. Sigh.

Finally, I caved in, found courage, and made the birthday greetings call. When I asked N if he’d enjoyed his birthday surprise, he said, “What surprise?” Imagine my shock. The “surprise” was meant to arrive at 10.00 am and this was now 2 pm EST! Finally, he got around to telling me he knew T was coming, but the flight had been delayed for several hours and he’d be arriving 5.30 pm EST. The call ended abruptly as he had to leave for the airport.

A couple of hours later my cell phone rang. This was T, calling to tell me that one of the twin engines on the plane had caught fire and the pilot brought the plane into an emergency landing in Nebraska. Hence the delay. Luckily, the plane was able to land safely, everyone disembarked intact, and the fire department doused the engine fire, which had now spread to the wing, and luckily, the fire had not yet spread to the fuel tank. And here’s the classic: “I didn’t call to tell you because I didn’t want you to worry or FREAK OUT.”

Well, I’ll tell you what freaks me out: when you don’t tell me. That’s what I thought. What I said was, calmly, “oh, next time, just tell me. Your parents should know.”

Gah.

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