Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Sweetness of Pomegranates

Suddenly it’s November. The night air is colder. The days are shorter. There’s a morning chill in the air. Pomegranates are in season. I’ve been here a month and I’m finding myself wondering how the days have passed so quickly.

I would be telling a lie if I said it was easy to live here. There are many things that make it difficult, particularly for a Westerner and for a woman. I must constantly be careful of what I eat and avoid fresh vegetables and fruit when I eat out, for fear they have not been washed in “good” water. I had one serious intestinal upset and would really like to avoid another. When we drive around Kabul, the dust in the air is thick. Sometimes I can really feel it in my eyes and in my lungs. I’ve adjusted to a life of living within the compound walls except when I go out in the car. For me, a person who exercises fairly judiciously, this has, at times, not been easy. But I’ve come to accept the situation and know it is temporary. Oddly enough, I have less freedom than the young Afghan women I teach. This is due to the high security warnings for Americans. It is really highly recommended that we keep a low profile – and that means not roaming the bazaar, as much as I’m tempted to do so!

Each time we head into town in our old Russian jeep, we have to cross over a large section of the road that’s being repaired. It’s about 50 feet across. The first time we drove across it, it was soft dirt. For a newcomer like myself, I thought we’d never make it. But we did. We wobbled and slid around but by gunning it we could not only get across but gain enough speed to merge into the oncoming traffic and turn left, I might add. A few days later, the road became a large ditch which we then had to drive down into and up the other side. I was again quite sure we were done for, but no – we made it across. The next trip out the ditch was filled with large boulders of dirt, making the going down and coming up the other side even more challenging. Yesterday, the ditch was filled with large rocks. I wasn’t sure the jeep could make it, bouncing around on such an uneven surface. BUT….today it was smooth, level and paved.

It occurred to me today that this road repair is a perfect metaphor for living in Afghanistan. Every day presents a new challenge. And each time we manage to traverse this patch of road, we are pleased. We think we’ve mastered it. BUT…soon it’s changed and we are subjected to an entirely new challenge which we face and somehow, by some manner of miracles, we master. AND just when it seems everything is in place and we can breathe easily, it’s changed again.

A good example – the election! Just four days ago, all the talk was about the election. Everyone seemed resigned that even though Karzai would win there would be a runoff election. There were questions: Would there be demonstrations? Would people really be able or want to get out and vote a second time? Would the Taliban sabotage the process? Then suddenly, Abdullah Abdullah backed out. Then there was more speculation. Would the election be put off until spring? Would this surprise event cause other bad reactions and more demonstrations? Before we had much time to figure it out, two things happened. Karzai was suddenly approved to be President by the court (not a surprise since the head guy is his good friend) AND there was an announcement that Afghanistan was having a H1N1 flu epidemic and all schools were closed for 3 weeks! The advice the Peace Corps issued us long ago seems to hold true today – Be Flexible!

Some of us cynics wondered if the closure was an election closure or flu closure. Closing the University certainly kept any demonstrations from happening. And it is true, the flu, H1N1 or some other variety, seems to be rampant. Several students who come to SOLA are sick. I brought a large quantity of EmergenC with me, so we’ve been passing that out along with Ibuprofin and lots of advice on washing hands, covering your mouth when you cough, etc.. Just for the record, there doesn’t seem to be a thermometer in Kabul. We aren’t sure if that is because Afghans don’t use them OR everyone needed one and bought every last one. In any case, after great searching, none was found.

The University students I teach are actually quite upset about the forced school closure. They were all about to go into exams. Now it is unclear when their semester will end, if at all. Many of my students are claiming that the school closure is another example of how uninterested Karzai really is in strengthening education in this country. You can see that there is not much support for Karzai. When you ask the students if they thought he would win, they answer, “Of course.” If you then ask them, will things change, they quickly respond, “Of course not.”

I met with a small group of my women students today and asked them, if they could write Karzai a letter and ask for one thing, what would it be. The overwhelming response was education. Education and particularly education for women is on the top of their list. Educating girls in this country is, for them, essential and the only way they imagine the situation will improve for everyone. One student talked today about an image she recently witnessed on her last trip home to Mazar-e-Sharif, an image she says, she can’t get out of her mind. She noticed, as she walked down the street in front of the mosque, a line of about 15 women, all seated on the ground, covered in burqas, selling loaves of nan. All these women, most likely widows, were desperately trying to care for their families, keep their children fed, and guarantee a roof over their head, and were doing that by selling nan, nan they had most likely made themselves and sells for about .20/each. For Shugufa, these women are the symbol of what must change. The rights of women must be addressed. Young girls must be educated and their education needs to be seen as a valuable. . Girls must not reach puberty and be sold off in marriage. They must be treated as equals in Afghan society. Their voice must be heard.

After a lively and passionate discussion, we decided that their next assignment was not to write Karzai a letter but rather to create what in their mind would be the “ideal Afghan woman.” Who would she be? What qualities would she have? What would she care about? We all agreed that young Afghan girls have so few role models so they have decided to create that model, a model perhaps they can live into. That’s next weeks assignment. You’ll have to wait for the next blog to see what they come up with!

The sweetness of pomengranates. Ah…yes, I’ve never tasted pomegranates quite like these. The sweetness stays with you for a long while. And there is, indeed, a sweetness of being here. Despite the hardship, the worry of getting sick, the concern for security, and now an anxiousness of catching the flu bug, the Afghan people hold a sweetness like the pomengrantes here; one I’ve rarely experienced. There is something, almost intangible, that is so endearing. Maybe it’s a child holding on dearly to his father’s hand, or maybe it’s the soldier in the street that smiles and returns the Salaam Alekum that you’ve just offered him. Maybe it’s the bus full of people, that when you stop and let them turn left in front of you – which you actually can’t avoid anyway without being run over, they all wave and smile at you as if you’d done them the biggest favor ever. I know it’s that solider in Kunduz that decided he wasn’t going to inspect my luggage because I was helping the children in his village. And it most certainly was the excited, rambuctious greeting, accompanied by a large welcome home sign that I received upon returning home from Kunduz after being away only two days from my students here at SOLA. There is an appreciation and kindness, a graciousness and humbleness that tugs at your heartstrings. Perhaps it is why, even after 40 years of being away, I’m back. Whatever it is, I’m glad I’m here to remember how sweet it is. I’m sure it will stay with me a long time.

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