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.



The Heat of Dubai

02 Jun

Quote of the Day: Carrie, in a failed attempt to calm Alison after she heard about the rioters chanting Death to Americans, Death to Karzai, “don’t worry, at least they don’t want only the Americans dead.”

It is 2AM and I am sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Dubai. There are no stars in the sky and even at this time of morning the heat is oppressive. Below cars race along neon lit streets that put Times Square and Vegas to shame. Men dressed in thobes (the local long white shirts worn over pants) sit in circles on the grass surrounding the fountain in Nassar Square. A few dangle their feet in the water. The laughter and goodbyes of friends parting ways after a night out drifts six floors up to where I sit. Just like my hometown, Dubai feels like a city that never sleeps.

I met Alison (American University grad student working for Oruj, a girl’s education NGO) and Carrie (close friend from NYU who worked in Afghanistan last summer and is moving to Kabul for work) in the airport in London. After leaving my passport in the shop where I bought water (everyone be nice and remember, I could have left this detail out) and getting paged to secure its return, we boarded the plane.

We arrived in Dubai at 7:30AM. A short taxi ride later and we were on the packed streets of the city. We have all taken turns trying to describe the heat but nothing we came up with really did it justice. The combination of temperature and humidity is relentless.

Nonetheless, we felt ourselves pulled into the chaotic streets and souks of the city. As we walked through miles of shops selling everything from fabric to bicycle parts, we were, as Alison remarked, “literally sweating from every crevice of our bodies.” The heat forces you to wander more than walk and it was at this rhythmic pace that the three of us prepared for Kabul – and each other.

Even the smallest stalls on the narrowest back alleys are air-conditioned and in the moments we felt we couldn’t take the heat for another second, we would pop into these oases and surround ourselves with the bright colors and magnificent patterns of headscarves, pillow covers, skirts and carpets.

We decided to get our hands painted with henna in celebration of our time in Dubai. Soriya, the concierge at our hotel, made a few calls and within thirty minutes a statuesque African woman named Heba was sitting with us in the hotel cafe. Her hands were magnificent – strong and dry with fingertips dyed blue. A sharp contrast to the intricate, flowing designs she would soon paint on us.

She took Alison’s arm and prepared to begin when we asked how much this endeavor would cost. Thus began the first, of what will surely be many, heated exchanges over money, time and perception. We wrote amounts on napkins, we counted our hands trying to clarify what and where we wanted the henna but finally had to wrangle Soriya to negotiate our deal. As soon as Heba began working all thoughts of money quickly faded away. She fluidly moved over both of Alison’s arms using her pastry bag full of henna to decorate her hands and forearms with a winding, delicate pattern. Then Carrie went. Then me. We waited for our henna to dry before braving the heat. When we felt our sweat would not jeopardize our arms we once again took on the streets of Dubai. As we walked Carrie removed the hardened henna shell immediately,with bravado. She never once worried that her design would be anything but perfect. I couldn’t resist picking but cautiously peered under the hardened layer to ensure it was time. I meticulously tore off my henna scabs aiming to remove each peace whole. Alison waited for her design to dry and properly flake before sitting on the stoop of a camera shop to intensely remove the residue to reveal her magnificent patterned arms.

We returned to the hotel to prepare for dinner. We were giddy with our purchases, enamored by our respective arms and ready to pack our things for Kabul. We needed to call Tom, our Kabul contact who was both picking us up at the airport and renting us an apartment. Alison called him. From the moment she reached him we knew something was wrong. He told her that American military vehicles ran into a crowd of Afghan civilians. As a result a riot broke out leaving six areas of the city on fire. We turned on CNN and ran to the lobby to check our email. While the death count was different on every channel, the tagline the worst violence in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 played over and over again. Footage of protestors chanting Death to Americans, Death to Karzai aired on what felt like a continuous loop.

Carrie never hesitated. The news never made her question whether she would go. Alison and I were less sure. As we sat on our hotel balcony Carrie said that we are professional and dedicated women and this is what we want to do and we can do it.

Somewhere between Tom’s call, Carrie’s words and eating dinner, Alison and I each reached the decision to go. While I had no desire to kick-off my time in Kabul amidst violent civil unrest, the work I do often has conflict as its backdrop. Part of me may even be drawn to the stakes, and risk, involved with communities complicated by instability. I sat and watched the news repeat its hateful, violent footage and knew that there was a bigger Afghanistan waiting for us.

In thirty minutes the alarm clock will go off and the girls w

Posted By Erica Isaac (Afghanistan)

Posted Jun 2nd, 2006

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