No Bugles... (now with photos!)
March 9, 2007

It's my day off! Hurrah!

First, thanks again to everyone who has written. I hope I've replied to everyone. And thanks for your questions - I included some additional information here because of such.

In a few neighborhoods in town, there are street signs of a bugle in a red circle with a red slash through it. And the first time I saw it, I thought, no bugles?! Then I realized: no car horns. Duh. At least not at that particular part of the neighborhood. Apparently, one cannot drive in Afghanistan without using the car horn. In Jordan or Egypt, it's used for everything, from "get out of my way" to "hey, how ya doin'" to "I'm in a good mood"). Here, it means "you are in my way." I really would love to take a photo of one of the no bugles signs, but they are always in neighborhoods where I probably wouldn't be allowed out of the SUV. Though, I have to say, I see women out walking *everywhere* (I'm not saying there are a lot, but I've seen women everywhere on the street), and not always in the burka - some in jeans, a long long shirt (butt cover) and a huge shawl that covers their head and top half of their body, but you can still see their hair. And, no, they aren't prostitutes. Afghanis can't afford prostitutes. Those are at some of the hotels and restaurants UN staff are NOT allowed to go to, as well as the nicest hotels in town. Their customers are the male aid workers, diplomatic staff, contractors and soldiers of fortune. And they are mostly women forced into it, from China, for instance.

I've been working! I've actually been working! I've started compiling a database of press contacts, written several ministry officials to introduce myself (once I finally got my ministry email address - still don't have one for the UN), made a list of things I'd like to do on the web site, started writing a work plan, and created a press release writing test to screen candidates for the communications and reporting associate - all before I've even met my boss! (he's on leave - has been since I arrived). Wow, that sounds like a lot. And it's so not. Not for as many hours I've been in the office.

It's been hard to get going, because Internet access is not consistent (it goes down for minutes or hours, at work or here at the guest house), and because of the lack of a UN or ministry email account for almost a full week -- I didn't want to write everyone and introduce myself using my personal email account, because I don't want them to use that. I'm glad I got my computer and cell phone the very first day, but there's still so much to get done (like getting PAID), getting a bank account, getting my passport back from my UN employer (they are getting me an Afghan visa), etc. I do have a UN ID card now, and everyone says that's best to show when anyone asks for ID (although I look AWFUL - my nose and cheeks are very pink for some reason). I wish I had remembered to get my passport photos for visas with a loose headscarf, just as a sign of respect, even though I freaking hate it (it mashes down your hair completely, even if you wear it loosely, and no matter how little time you have it on, and no matter how much post-head-scarf fluffing you do, your hair is matted down for the rest of the day).

As I said earlier, at work and in the guest house, I don't wear it, other than draped around my neck. Inside the grocery story, since Anne took hers off, I did too. I had a LOT of scarves already - 30 pounds ago, I used to wear them as wrap-around skirts. But I may buy some here as well, because they are so much bigger and because they would make great souvineurs. I've posted photos of me in my head garb on my Flickr site, among some other photos of where I live and work - nothing much. Be sure to click on DETAIL VIEW so you can read my descriptions! I'm maintaining my sense of humor about the headscarf here, but I can't lie - I resent standing there putting on my headscarf, making sure my hair is covered, in order to just walk outside to a car, while my male colleagues just stroll in and out as they please. I think that, no matter where they are from, it creates a separation between us, and the image of me having to dress in this way subconsciously creates in their mind superiority to me and other women. If they also had to wear something, I'd feel differently. I also hate having to always make sure my butt is covered. At least it's not as bad as The Handmaid's Tale . Not yet.

I feel weird coming to and from work every day in a UN SUV. I feel so conspicuous and separate from people, from this entire world that is Kabul. I stare out the window during the entire 20 - 30 minute drive - I'm still trying to take the sights all in. There are cars, SUVs, and bicycles everywhere. There aren't as many animals pulling carts as I was expecting - it's too dangerous, truly, inside Kabul for such. Wouldn't it be amazing if, when they really start putting in roads everywhere, they put in sidewalks and bicycle lanes? If they focused the city on pedestrians and bikers instead of four lanes for SUVs? The SUVs drive all over the roads to avoid pot holes. 'Tis a scary sight to be staring at another SUV barreling down on you head on, and you're hoping someone is going to swerve the other way soon...

Coming back from lunch offsite one day (I usually eat at my desk), my office mate got the bright idea of telling the driver to let us out down the road and to go on without us. We were on the oh-so-secure wall-lined long driveway that leads to our building, and there's nothing along the way, no stalls, just walls. It was a gorgeous day, and I guess she knew I'm rarely getting to be outside. The driver thought he had offended us, and kept asking her in Dari, "What's wrong? What did I do? Please tell me!" Afghans can't understand the concept of *wanting* to walk, nor of sitting in the sun on purpose. But maybe that's because they have to walk everywhere and often have to be outside, want to or not.

Here's a great blog about Afghanistan, with pictures I would love to have taken. The Assa guest house this person describes, however, is, I think, the Assa I, not this one (the Assa II). I'm not sure when this blog was written, but I think it was a couple of years ago, maybe more.

I've been asked to fill out the same forms two and sometimes three times by the UN. I'm glad I made scanned copies of everything - I just download what I've already done and submitted and give them out again and again. Each time, the person asking me for a form looks uncomfortable that, obviously, they are asking me for something I've already done at least once. I learned long ago while working with the UN that you keep a copy of EVERYTHING, and have things dated for when you send them. Particularly when dealing with UN HR. The Kenyan woman in Finance told me that when she gives something to the UN HR office, she makes a copy and then *makes the HR person sign it*. I LOVE this Kenyan woman. She's teaching me so much. She doesn't get angry, but she just pushes and pushes and pushes, firmly but calmly, in a quiet voice. And she will NOT be moved if she doesn't want to move.

After I had already blawged to you all about International Women's Day, I went schlepping over to the guest house dining room for supper. I had taken off my snazzy work clothes and was wearing work out pants and a big ugly sweater (that provides a proper butt curtain). I walk across the courtyard and look through the glass door, and see that the lights are all off, and candles are everywhere. I hear music. I walk in and there are two guys on the floor, one with a combination sitar and balalaika, and the other playing Near East- style drums. The dining room is packed. The food is extra good. And it's all in honor of IWD. Ofcourse, women don't get to do anything as part of the celebrations but watch, but that was fine. The manager, a Pashto, a short man, always in a Western suit and tie, took off his coat and began to dance and sing, and it was amazing. I wish I had known he was going to do this - I would have not only stayed in my work clothes, I would have also invited Sonia, at least (although, with it being Thursday, I would bet she was at l'Atmosphere). He even danced with a glass of water on his head. And always with a cigarette in hand. He got a couple of the hotel workers and even one of the hotel guests to dance just a bit. They were each so sincere, so passionate. They danced around so carefree, like they were floating, the way I think most Western men would never dare. It reminded me of the magical nights I've had in the Aldstadt in Bonn at any of Omar's three restaurants there. I wouldn't have traded that night for any place else in Kabul. What a precious gift that was to be a witness to that. A Pakistani woman who is staying here with her husband - he's doing some work for someone, not sure who or what - explained what various songs meant, and why people circled the owner's head with dollar bills or the local currency before putting it before the musicians (because it guards against the evil eye). And her husband kept asking her, in their language, "Does she like this? What does she think of this?" And ofcourse I told her to tell him I absolutely loved it all.

Wouldn't it be great if International Women's Day continues to grow in importance here in Afghanistan? Kabul, at least, already celebrates it more than any city in the USA. I'm just bummed that I couldn't get to the Women's Garden in time to see what they did - that's a women's-only garden somewhere in Kabul, well guarded, and where you don't have to wear your headscarf or burka, though many women still do.

Speaking of IWD yet again (I'm sorry, but I just am so thrilled that that was such a big deal here), I wrote the Twix-throwing Iranian woman at the end of that day, saying:

"Nika thanks so much for organizing the event today. I so enjoyed being a part of it. On Monday, I'm going to walk around and gather any photos people may have taken at the event. I took photos and video as well, and I will try to splice a short video together to share with you soon, in case you want to use it for something. It would be great to share something on the Internet. Again, thanks so much."
This was her response. I got to the last line and nearly burst into tears. I'm really glad I wasn't in the office when I read it:
"Hi Jayne,

Wonderful idea please let us now how we can be of assistance.

Also I would like to share my point of view in development and communication in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan has been concurred by the international forces as the first practice; all countries on their good will take an attempt to build this country, as we know there is a gap between good wills and good practice. But what is missing?

A flow of information, a communication, people talk all the time of what is not happening.....all negative talks. Turn on the TV is all about death and bad stories. On the other hand there is a lot happening outside.... Although many people are not performing as they should, but some are performing very well......Development could not achieve its goal, but it has changed something.....we need to show what has been achieved.

We need to talk about goods, we need to show the positive approach on things, see the beauties....while our eyes are open to positive criticizes.

We need to acknowledge what ever we find to be positive....acknowledge good efforts and progress made....acknowledge responsible initiatives and actions....

Today Jamila told me a story.....made me cry....we can take this story and elaborate it and share it with others....

I have been here for last 3 years; I believe the only way to overcome all problems and make progress is to take a positive approach.try to do as much as we can...

I believe you have the most important job to help (this program) help Afghanistan......

Yours truly,

I hope I don't let Nika, or this program, down. I hope I can promote their work as well as... well, as well as I've promoted myself.

I'm still trying to figure out what to do about my living situation. Other places are cheaper, but don't provide food or laundry, which means I'd have to shop at least once a week and cook every day (and I have no time for that except on Fridays). If I had two days off a week, I would feel differently. I'm definitely staying through April -- I've got too many other things to think about to try to move. One of my co-workers moves twice a year - she moves to a guest house for winter, because it's warmer, and she moves anywhere else she can find and that is approved for summer, because she wants a place to sit outside. This guest house does have a big courtyard, which is nice. I just wish I had a *private* balcony (I have a balcony, kind of, but really it's just the outside walkway to all the rooms). And I wish it felt more like a home.

I did go to a grocery at the end of my first week here, for lunch munchies like peanut butter (I eat at my desk most days), things to offer guests to my office (tea, cookies, etc.), and a few munchies for my room (crackers, peanuts, more peanut butter). The grocery, A One, or A 1, is terrific - small, but well-stocked, and very friendly staff. I went on my way home from work, which is allowed - the driver waited for myself and Anne as we spent about 10 minutes there, but he hurried us out - he doesn't want to be parked on the street for too long, particularly outside such a potential target. The drivers, all local, seem to really know their security measures. And I'm glad.

Everyone's been very friendly - and so far, just a couple of guys have been a bit overly friendly (asking me some questions and made some comments that made me realize they were "interested" - nothing threatening). I just keep making frequent references to my husband, to make sure it's clear where I stand.

People here take their R & R when such is due no matter WHAT is going on -- even the agency-wide audit that's going on right now didn't keep our program head, my boss, from leaving. But I understand why - there's never a good time to go, so you might as well just go. I'll be taking mine at the end of April, back to my husband and dog. Before I came, I thought R & R, on top of vacation, was stupid. Now - I totally understand it. I work six days a week, usually more than eight hours in the office, and the security situation keeps me in my guest house when I'm not in the office - I need this!

I'll end with this note: One day at work, I watched two Afghan men outside my window (I'm on the second floor) caress each others hair, kiss on the cheek repeatedly, speak warmly to each other with their faces close, walk holding each other close... but no one is gay here. That's what the locals would say if you asked. But I get the impression that, in some ways, affection and sex between men is almost more accepted here than such between a man and a woman -- 'cause women are dirty.

That's strange, but this is creepy: an accepted form of pehophilia in Afghanistan. I don't know how common it is, but it's not unusual for older men to "sponsor" young boys, all very young, and in return for food and maybe even school, the boys have sex with their sponsor. Not that you want to read more about child rape in Afghanistan (and not that it's something I should probably end this blog with) but in case you do:


If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me to keep writing --
without comments, I start to think I'm talking to cyberair.

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