Erica Isaac (Afghanistan)

Erica Issac (Afghan Women’s Network – AWN): Erica is a native New Yorker and passionate photographer. After graduating summa cum laude from New York University in 1998, Erica went on to complete her MSc. in Gender and Economic Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a specialization in women and children’s welfare. She then traveled and worked as a researcher on the media installations for the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town and for a feature length documentary called “Crossing the Bride”. She also worked in India and Nepal as a program assistant at safe houses for Tibetan refugees, in Pakistan with an underground domestic violence organization, and in Uganda with a repatriation organization for child soldiers. At the time of her fellowship, Erica was studying for an MPA in International Policy and Management at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.


18 Jul

I have often wished that there were more hours in the day. My wish has finally been answered. Kabul time. Fast, furious and clearly operating at warp speed. There is simply no way to blog about daily life. From the moment the day begins something is happening. Sometimes it is a surprise meeting with a government official other times it is getting caught in a herd of leashed sheep on the way to work. Today, for example, my driver tried to drive between two US tanks policing a demonstration. Underground karaoke joints, hidden swimming pools, burqa, engagement parties, family stories, prayer, armored cars, shelled buildings, Dari lessons, dust storms, military markets – my Kabul is in the details. I am in love with this place. Here are a few vignettes dedicated to the everyday.

OUR HOUSE, July 2006, Kabul – A huge part of my life in Kabul centers around my house. Living in a country where you can’t walk up the block or go shopping or sit in a park or run to the market makes you very dependent on a full range of people you never dreamed of having in your life – a personal driver, a choceador (servant), a maid, a day guard, a night guard, an in-the-car guard. I am never alone yet I am rarely comfortable, almost never relaxed and often feel as if there simply isn’t enough air to share with all of these strangers. The only place I can be myself is at home. I can wear a tank top. I can play music. I can cook. I can have a glass of wine. I can sit in the sun. I can play cards, I can talk to men. I can nap and lounge and read and write. I can play and laugh and joke. I can vent and cry and sulk and yell.

My roommates – Tom, Carrie and Alison – have become my family. We all come from different places and are here to inhabit different spaces but somehow we found each other. I have come to realize that chance meetings do not apply to Afghanistan. Everyone is a little nuts. Everyone makes everyone else more than a little nuts. But we have lived a lifetime in a month. It is through their eyes that I will always be able to relive this part of my life. It is with their support and strength that I have adjusted to, and and fallen in love with, Kabul. They are the safety and sanity in my everyday world. They are my piece of home in Kabul. They are my rhythm. They are my reality in a city, and country, that makes you question everything you know and doubt everything you trust. They are my faith in a place where, without believing in something bigger than myself, I could not exist.

DUST, July 2006, Kabul – I know that people often describe locations based on the status of the weather. Sunshine State. Windy City. Dry heat. Fog. Smog. In Kabul it is all about the dust. I don’t mean to be dramatic but I have honestly never experienced anything quite as overwhelming. Each afternoon, around rush hour, the dust gods remind us of their lurking power. Small hurricane-esque swirls of dust wash over the streets coating everything in their path. There is something quite nice about watching these brief, angry surges of extreme weather from inside. Like the infamous noon day gun (Daddy, this reference is for you) the dust storms are predictable – the secular persons call to prayer. Getting caught outside is wretched. Besides being uncomfortable you feel as if you have just bathed in the soul of Kabul.

I am always – and I mean always – covered in a layer of filth. My finger nails are never clean. My shoes always look as if I have been hiking in brush. My white computer is now a strange shade of tan. When I wash my face the sink water turns murky brown. I am pretty sure I will never stop coughing. I am also pretty sure that washing my clothing is pointless seeing that it hangs outside to dry. All of this is frustrating but then, there are my feet. I am not fully sure what has happened to them. First, let me say that it is not just me. While Carrie clearly has a genetic pre-disposition towards good foot skin, Alison’s are just as bad as mine. Clearly our feet have dried out. The cracking and bleeding has proven that. But the real problem is the caked in dust. We wash them. We pumice them. At their cleanest they look as if we have been playing in the sewer. Our feet look like the streets of Kabul. Still functioning despite having a somewhat contaminated underbelly.

PLEASE MADAME, July 2006, Kabul (Alison & Erica) – There is nothing unique about children in developing nations begging for money from foreigners. Small hands reaching inside the car window repeating “please madame” over and over. Some gesture towards their mouths to indicate that they are hungry. Some attack the car with dirty rags and begin to clean the windows, not letting go until the vehicle is fully moving. Some descend on you touting phone cards, used books, gum and other random items. I have made the common mistake of handing out dollar bills. Before you know it the car is surrounded by hands and eyes and voices. I am painfully aware that even if I handed out every dollar bill in my wallet, the impact would be superficial. I reach into my purse out of anguish and guilt even though my actions only produce more of both. The burqa-clad women clutching their children are impossible to ignore. Seeing a woman and child on the dusty, dark streets of Kabul – knowing that they are violating every cultural norm and risking their lives – is to witness indescribable desperation. When I reach into my wallet, pull out money and slip it into the hand reaching out from under the burqa I am fully aware that I am providing only the most temporary of relief. I know that I am neither fixing nor protecting. I know that I am neither solving nor preventing. It is however, the only way I know how to communicate that I see her. That I recognize her sacrifice.

THE SHELTER, June 2006, Kabul – I work with an amazing woman named Wazhma. I have never seen her wear anything twice. She spent many years in Peshawar as a refugee and brings the bright colors of Pakistan to work everyday. She fills the office with warmth and laughter and loves to hear stories about dates and weddings and boys any of us think are cute. One afternoon she asked me to come meet her sister Shukria and see where she works. Shukria runs the first shelter for widows in Afghanistan. Usually subjected to a life of servitude, widows in Afghanistan are legal property of their departed husband’s family. With the help of UNHCR and MoWA the shelter has taken in its first five families. The women are learning to read. The children are in school. Each family has their own room, cooking is communal and there is a backyard eden full of winding trees, ivy trails and overgrown plants. Though these families have been marked by death, the house is full of life.

Posted By Erica Isaac (Afghanistan)

Posted Jul 18th, 2006

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