I arrived in Kabul only one day after the riots, which were ignited by an incident involving a US military convoy driving into a crowd of Afghans. Consequently, I spent my first few days in Afghanistan inside the building in which I’ll be living this summer. Indeed, my only knowledge of Kabul at this point comes from what I can observe from my fourth floor window.
One of the first things I noticed—and I cannot say if this is either usual or ubiquitous, given the frightening and singular events of the other day—was that there were no women to be seen. None that I could see from where I stood, that is.
In truth, I first noticed this phenomenon on the flight from Dubai to Kabul, as I sat and watched the cabin fill up with passengers. I was one of only a handful women on a plane that was carrying more than one hundred people. I was also one of the only Westerners on the plane—not surprising given the morning’s reports of a rising wave of anti-American and anti-foreign sentiment in Kabul.
Walking to the lavatory, I became aware that every eye was upon me. A foreign woman, traveling unaccompanied by a male chaperone, one day after “the worst violence in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001,” caught the attention of most everyone on Ariana flight #401. I recognized that this was due, in part, to my “white eyes,” despite being shouded by a chador (a large piece of fabric used as a shawl and headscarf). However, I now wonder how much of their staring was triggered by my sex, not my ethnicity.
During my first outing into the city, accompanied by several men, both American and Pashtun, I couldn’t help but be aware of my minority status on the streets of Karte Ariana. This was not my first experience as an outsider, but being aware of my status as ‘the other’ felt like a heavy weight, which I had no choice but to carry. Ultimately, however, I believe that the experience of being a relatively disenfranchised minority within this community—as I do not speak the language, I have not gained the trust of any Afghans, nor do I hold a position of influence—is a valuable one. It counteracts the narrowing of perspective and empathy that occurs when one is constantly nestled in the comfort of the empowered majority, as I am in the United States.
I know that the experience of living in Kabul for three months will change me. More importantly, though, I know that I will bring that change back to the States with me, even if that means I will feel somewhat alienated. The feeling of not being totally “at home” with myself and my life is, I believe, the foundation on which I may build a greater capacity for empathy.
Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)
Posted Jun 2nd, 2006