I did finally make to Herat. Sorry there was a gap in the emails. I wrote them but wasn’t able to send them- so this is an amalgamation of them all. Heart had its ups and downs. We landed in the evening and I was surprised at how green it seemed with its tree lined straight roads and numerous parks. It is about 130 km from the Iranian border and Neer says that it has more of an Iranian feel to it than Mazaar and Kabul.
Looking out the window I noticed that many of the women were showing their faces! What liberation. … instead of the Burka they were wearing the more traditionally Iranian dress that is more like a big black sheet.
My initial impression may have been a bit premature …. it turned out that you were either of the Burka wearing camp or the Iranian Sheet wearing camp (sure that has a name) and very few women were in between. This made it difficult for us to go out without quite a lot of problems.
The next morning we were only 5 minutes out of the house before the police pulled us over, unhappy at our tinted windows (a new law). They then thought I was filming them (wish I had been). They become increasingly rude- waving their guns and called the Afghan Intelligence (FBI equivalent) who rocked up 5 minutes later in a 4 by 4 with a machine gun on the back. Khalid took it all in his stride and a few calls later we were in the clear. I wasn’t scared during the experience, only as I was with Khalid, but it made me realise how vulnerable the average Afghan is. If you don’t have connections to help you those with guns can demand what they want. I saw them openly taking bribes from other driver who they were harassing. Who are they accountable to?
The rest of the day we spent visiting historical sites around the city. The most famous being the Minarets of Herat, one of which has the remains of an old Russian tank sitting next to it.
During the Majahideen/War Lord years 1992-1995/6 Ismael Khan, who received arms from Iran, controlled the city. When the Taliban came he fled to Iran but he has now returned and again has a major control on the city. He’s views on women are less than progressive ….and he is involved in lots of corruption. I don’t know much about him- but I’m not a big fan.
I was quite pleased to get back to Kabul on Thursday. Had a lovely meal that night with Rupert my Dads friend, picked up some last gifts and headed to the airport as the snow was beginning to settle.
To end an adrenaline provoking trip I had my first nightmare experience of being the “Doctor on Board” on the plane. :-s!!! If you are a doctor, especially a junior one then you know the cold swear that the call “Is there a doctor on board?” can give. Luckily it was a child with a febrile convulsion but when your thousands of feet high in the air even that is petrifying.
That’s the end of the trip now. I SURVIVED. Just one more flight from Dubai to London. Hope you enjoyed reading my mails. I loved writing them.
Ill be back in Brighton now- no annual leave till July so come visit.
Plane cancelled again... something about bad weather.
Nice and sunny hear though and instead we had a trip almost to the Uzbeck border in search of some hot springs and a sulphur Gizer. Impressively smelly ! :-)
It was nice to have a bit of time to chill out today. I had a good chat with Shafika, Khalids older sister. She's had a hard life, married at 14, 7 children, difficulties with in-laws, displaced by war and violence and never had the chance for a formal education, . She doesn't leave the house much but says she's a lot happier these days.
One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to meet Afghan women and hear their stories. In the west we often here that Islamic countries give no rights to women, the worst example of this being the Taliban rule. Why on earth would my free and liberal friend Zahra possibly want to go and live in a society like this? I think even she admits that if the work she was doing here did not give her so much satisfaction she wouldn't be able to stay. (That ....and she feel in love! )
So whats the reality like? From what I've seen the ideal Afghan woman today is one who covers her face, averts her gaze and maintains a silence. This wasn't always the case, 40 years ago a women's status in Afghan society was approaching equal to a man but more than 30 years of war have had a huge cost on women's liberties.
Since coming here I haven't been out alone. This isn't just because I am a security risk but there just aren't many women out walking alone on the streets. Men don't approach but you feel their gaze and comments. This is obviously less so in the more cosmopolitan areas but this is definitely a mans world. Women have less educational and employment opportunities and even though many more girls are going to school, acid attacks have happened to girls as young as 6. All the women in the hospital wanted baby boys and Zahra said their husbands and inlaws would treat them badly and possibly even beat them if they.
I dont think this is all down to Islamic fundamentalism. Nor is it just the men themselves, the women are some of the biggest mysogenists according to Zahra. During the Mujahideen and Taliban times the violence against women was barbaric. Khalid was an undercover activist during the time and photographed many abuses, some of his photos can be seen at www.rawa.org.
Enought of this serious email. Hopefully we will be going to Herat tomorrow or Im going to start getting Cabin Fever!
Still alive. Getting fat on all this amazing Afghan food. We all eat sitting on th floor with masses of bread, rice and lots of dishes. Glad I didn't go to Egypt hey. lol
Balkh, were we went yesterday, is possibly my favourite place so far in the North.
Also known as Bactria, it is one of the oldest cities in the world and claims a long list of famous events. It is the home of the ancient religion Zoroastrianism, birthplace of the Sufi Poet Rumi and where Alexander the Great met his wife and lover Roxanne. Pretty impressive really. But what is even more amazing is that no professional archeologists have ever been able to work there, so you literally feel like your the first people to walk around the site. Ancient artifacts are strewn all over and you don't need to dig to find the brightly coloured shards of pottery, probably dating to the 1500 centruary, which are found all around. I picked up a few and maybe i'll make them into something one day. It was magical walking up on the old walls of the city and seeing sheep being hearded across the ruins.
Today is Friday and the holiest day of the week for Muslims. A day off and time for a well earned break, no? What better way to spend the holy day then with a game of Goat Pulling (Boz Kashi)? The popular Uzbeck game is a violent and bloody adaptation of polo. As far as I could work out, there are no teams and everyone is out for themselves. The players ride their elaborately decorated horses at high speeds, bend down and pluck up the carcass of a dead goat from one end of the pitch and try to drop it in a specific circle at the other end. If they do they recieve 100 dollars!
Although its completely against Islam there is a lot of gambelling that goes on. The police warned us to stay well away from the crowds as they sometimes become violent. When they all rush together on their horses you cant see much and they are all hitting each other with whips. These guys have amazing control on their horses. I was so impressed to see a 5 year old child riding a huge horse one handed.
Then the snow really started to come down. It might mean we can't get out of here to Herat tomorrow but will have to see.
We arrived here yesterday morning. Again a dodgy plane and this time not even a terminal at the airport- just a gate and plenty of armed men to greet us. Friendly enough though- especially when they saw we were with Khalid.
I realised that not all of you know why I came to end up here. Its all down to my friend Zahra who I met whilst at University. She studied physiotherapy and graduated the same time as I did last year. But instead of joining the NHS she fell in love with a Afghan man called Khalid. She is also Afghan but came to the UK as a child. They were married last year and Zahra moved to Kabul to be with Khalid. They invited me to come here and learn about what is happening here and the work they do. An opportunity which I felt I couldn't say no to.
Khalid comes from a family of unique people. His father was a Marxist and as such he is not religious- quite exceptional in the "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan". Most of his education was in a modern school in Pakistan. Every member of his family who I have met so far is exceptionally friendly and kind. His sister Andeshia runs many orphanages/ foster homes http://joomtest.afceco.org/around the country and is working hard to build a better future for Afghanistan. We met her in Kabul before we left and visited one of the foster homes where 45 children live. They have a real home there and a Doctor who visits three times a week happened to be there whilst I was so we saw the children together. He turned out to be not a paediatrician but an Infectious Diseases specialist and when I return to Kabul Ill try to visit the hospital.
Since coming to Mazaar we have visited the Blue Masjiid (Mosque), so called for his beautiful blue tiling. I was surprised how many women and children there were around, sharing food and chatting. I think I will remember it as the blue masjiid as there were so many blue burquas! I didnt see many burquees in Kabul (not sure if that's a real word) but there are more here. I tried one on today- as expected its horrible. Can't imagine wearing one in the heat.
There seems to be more women in Burquas here in Mazaar, yet it is one of the most secure cities in Afghanistan with very little Taliban support. Yesterday Khalids older sister, who lives here, told me some terrible stories about genocide and torture that happened in Hazaara and Uzbeck villages around Mazaar during the Taliban. The signs of war are less obvious here than in Kabul but the oppression of women seems more apparent.
That's why the work that Khalid and Zahra are doing is so important. They run many different businesses; catering, import/export even road building. The ethos behind them all is that they employ women and give them equal rights and pay as men as well as insisting that all their employs children go to school. We visited the Afghan Police Academy today where they provide the catering services. The academy is funded by Germans and was an insight into the "rebuilding" process that is happening here.
This is turning into a bit of a book and I havent even written about the Ancient City of Balkh which we visited today.
Im going to play scrabble with Neer- not much to do in the evenings here as its not safe to go out. Haven't found any bars open either!
Yesterday afternoon we drove around the city- its strange as it doesnt feel like a city in parts, more like lots of villiages together. Its spread out amongst mountains and there are houses all around the hills. The roads are variable and mostly potholed and strewed with various rubble. Driving is suitably scary particularly as no seat belts are allowed. No seriously.. they actually dont allow you to put them on as it makes you look like a forgeiner. Khalid (Zahra's husband) has a big 4 by 4 and it beeps unless your belt is on but they have cut the strap and permenantly plugged it in to fool it!!
Im sure my white face and blue eyes give away my westerner status and the seatbelt isnt going to save that.
We went to see Kabul Golf Course- which is the saddest looking golf course I have ever seen. Thats not saying much as Im not a big golfer but the only sign that it is a golf course is a big sign saying so and bright yellow flags surrounded by mud, not a blade of grass in site. I even saw some brave golfers trying to hit a ball around this mess. The whole place is a bit of a joke really amongst both westerners and locals but it seems sad to me.
We had a quick trip up the telephone mast mountain to watch to sunset. Absolutely stunning. Its very cold here and there is snow on some of the hills.
John and Neer- are enjoying themselves too. John really liked the bombed out old Kings Palace which we went to see today. Its a shell of a palace really. Its been shoot at so many times its more of a seive. Whole floors were destroyed by the bombs. It must have been grand in its day as it sits on a hill and overlooks the city with its four floors and huge pillars.
The remaining walls have graffati - some farsi, some arabic, some english and even some spanish. "Estuvo Aqui 2001"- a reminder of the invasion/liveration/occupation nearly 10 years ago.
As we were being given a tour by a soldier we heard mortars in the distance. We all looked worried for a second. It was the Afghan army practising but gave a tragic realism to the situation.
Right opposite this desolate palace is the Afghan National Museum. It was ransacked during the Taliban time and the majority of the articfacts are now overseas. It was interesting though and I especially enjoyed the old lady who frisked/tickled me on the way in and out.. hehe.
Theres much more to tell. But im going now. Im heading to a northern city- Maazar-e-Sharif with John, Neer, Ramin, Zahra and Khalid tomorrow.
I finally arrived in Kabul. A slightly dodgy (?ex-russian) airline brought us in at 5 am to the airport. I had a few moments of "What on earth am I doing here?" when all the people on the plane looked as if we were crazy but since arriving everyone I have met has been absolutely lovely.
The airport has lots of security but little else. There is a guy who gives driving instructions to the pilot to help him park his plane by running around the runway with a bright yellow jacket whilst waving what look like bike lights! I was just glad to be on the ground.
The first smell of a place means a lot to me. I love the smell of India- its mix of spice, sweat, heat and so much more. Here the air is dry, cold and dusty. Kabul is exactly that at the moment but Zahra say in the summer its warm and has lovely balmy evenings.
Ill write more soon. Tell you more about what i have been up to.