Alison Long (Afghanistan)

Alison Long (Omid, Afghanistan): In 2000, Alison earned her B.A. in Anthropology from Princeton. She spent a year in rural Vietnam teaching English. Alison returned to the U.S. and taught at a small school in New Jersey before relocating to DC. At the time of her fellowship, Alison was pursuing her master’s at School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs, with a concentration in women's rights and gender issues. While at American University, Alison interned at Disabled Persons International (DPI) and served as a research assistant for human rights professor Julie Mertus. Alison is also the 2006 recipient of the School of International Service's Brady Tyson Award for Excellence in the Area of Human Rights.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the bazaar…

27 Jun

Since I left the United States three weeks ago, I’ve certainly gone through my share of ups and downs. I would like to share some of the most frustrating and absurd experiences I’ve had in Kabul… for posterity.

— The discovery of “Afghan Time.” This phenomenon did not utterly surprise me, but it nevertheless took some time to acclimate to the fact that a 9 am meeting in Kabul will never, ever begin before 9:30 am.

— The Two Main Food Groups in the Afghan Diet. I want to begin by saying that Afghan food is absolutely delicious. I haven’t eaten one meal here that was not utterly scrumptious. However, that being said, I have one small grievance. The main food groups used in these dishes (combined in various ways and mixed with other minor ingredients) are grease/oil and carbohydrates. For example, my lunch every day almost always consists of a large piece of nan (bread), smothered in a “sauce” of kachalu (potatos), makaroni (pasta), and a tasty, orange-coloured grease. If I don’t return to the U.S. weighing 10 kilos more than when I arrived, I will be shocked.

— Getting used to getting lost in Kabul. Despite hiring a driver who was born and raised in Kabul, and whose English language skills are adequate, we still find ourselves constantly driving in circles, passing the same store three times—no matter where we are going. Our driver often stops and asks for directions, but that is of little help for two reasons. First, many streets are missing their street signs or are no more than spontaneously formed alleyways. And second, Afghans never want to disappoint you—even if you are a stranger—so even when they don’t know where something is, they’ll craft fictitious directions, recount them as if they were gospel, and send you on your (erroneous) way.

— Shopping is an ordeal by fire. Buying even one thing—a set of 15 hangers, for example—in Kabul could take over an hour. As a foreign woman, I realize that I cannot simply walk around the marketplace. However, navigating through Kabul traffic, just to sit in the scorching heat of a locked car, with all the windows rolled up, while my driver searches for the perfect version of the item and then haggles the price down… that is not the most fun way to spend my mid-day break.

— The “It’s never there when you need it” phenomenon. Nan (bread) vendors are everywhere in Kabul. So are fabric stores and tailors. And stores or individuals who sell phone cards? They’re a dime a dozen. That is, until you’re actually looking to buy one of those objects. If I were to decide to eat nan for dinner, without a doubt, we would drive around for 30 minutes, in any given neighborhood, without seeing a single nan shop.

–Tea, anyone? Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan have been suffering from a drought for over half a decade, so plain ol’ water ought to be this country’s most cherished commodity. But for some reason it’s not. Instead of chugging cold water by the liter, Afghans imbibe a ridiculous amount of a steaming hot diuretic: chai (tea). In Kabul, the people drink more tea every day than I have drunk in my whole life. I try to keep up with my colleagues and friends, but I only end up spending a great deal of my day running to/from the WC and feeling faint from dehydration.

— The Dust. My god, the Dust! After one day in Kabul, I turned to my roommates and asked, “What is this dust? Is it limestone? I just want to know what I’ll be covered in for the rest of the summer?” In Kabul, every object—whether alive or inanimate, big or small, inside a building or outside on the street—is blanketed in a thick layer of grayish brown dust… at all times. I could get out of the shower and within seconds, every inch of my body—my limbs, my neck, in between my toes, under my nails, every strand of hair and even the inside of my mouth, nose, and ears—is covered in this ubiquitous powdery substance. It’s inescapable, so one can do nothing but surrender to it.

— Cabin Fever. This phenomenon may affect most foreigners, but I believe it’s particularly acute for foreign women. I actually didn’t know I was suffering from this condition until a few mornings ago. We recently moved into a new apartment, one that is less than 2 blocks away from my daftar (office) in the very safe neighborhood of Karte Char. Walking to work, door-to-door, takes less than 2.5 minutes. However, as I stepped into the cool, dark entryway of Oruj’s building after walking to work for the first time, it hit me: without a doubt, that is the farthest I’ve walked outside since I arrived in Kabul three and a half weeks ago. A small part of me desperately wants to throw off the yoke of being house- or car-bound; but of course, I know how unwise such a decision would be… especially for a foreign woman. So I have chosen to accept these constraints and endure my cabin fever, but not without some bitterness at being deprived of things I had always taken for granted—like being able to take a walk around the block.

— Who really needs electricity at night anyway? I understand that electric current is a precious commodity here in Kabul, as it is hydro-powered and water, especially running water, is rare in this province. We do have electricity every day, from morning until dusk. Unfortunately, in Karte Char, the power is on a grid system; our grid happens to lose power from 5pm -12pm… which is exactly when electricity (i.e. lighting, a refrigerator, etc.) might be most useful and enjoyable. But not seeing the person with whom you are speaking, tripping and falling down the stairs, bumping into walls, and drinking warm soda—those are all fun too.

Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)

Posted Jun 27th, 2006

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