July 30, 2012 by Xenogirl
Everyone experiences culture shock in different ways, and no one is immune. Even for the bravest and most adventurous traveler, feelings of discomfort and anxiety become all too familiar. For me, the shock of life in Afghanistan is not really a matter of adjusting to new landscapes, food, language, sights, smells, and sounds… although this is certainly part of it; such differences seem exciting, novel, and exotic, all characteristics that I consider to be positive. What has been the most disturbing, however, is the horrendous poverty and the manner in which women and children are treated. I have experienced this social anxiety of sorts while out on the streets of Kabul, an anxiety that is based first on my gender and second on my status as a western, Christian minority.
Living in a country where women are covered and objectified by the burqa and essentially survive as a sub-human entity has begun to chisel away at my normally confident attitude. At times, I have found myself understanding why so many Afghan women continue to hide under the burqa. Transforming into an anonymous and faceless figure provides a sense of security. A woman on the street with an exposed face is considered by some to be an open target for all sorts of offenses. Some of the female Afghan staff still wear a burqa while traveling to and from work. When I inquired as to why they continue, even though other women are beginning to cast the burqa aside, their response was that they just wouldn’t feel safe in the streets without it.
Late in the afternoon at the end of today’s distribution project, we realized that lunch time had long passed. My colleague, Tanya, and one of the Afghan field staff suggested that we eat at the bazaar. As you can imagine, my thoughts were conflicted… here was a rare opportunity to step into the reality of an Afghan social environment, and also an opportunity to suffer in the bathroom for the next three days. With visions of salmonella dancing in my head, my sense of adventure trumped my protesting logic. I agreed… really, how could I pass up the chance to explore the bazaar? So after struggling through the insane traffic, our driver deposited us in front of an extremely crowded market. We scurried into the dust and chaos and snaked our way along the hodgepodge of vehicles, searching the dilapidated metal fence for the opening from street to sidewalk. Soon we crossed over the streetside ditch, which is used throughout the city to collect sewage, garbage and every other sort of imaginable bio-hazard known to humanity. This archaic sanitary system thus transforms even the most leisurely of walks into a violent assault on the olfactory system.
Once on the sidewalk, I began to feel uneasy. There were throngs of people around me, with men blatantly staring and jostling too close for my comfort. Instinctively, I grasped at my scarf to secure it tightly around my head and face. At the same time, I attempted to avoid dragging my sandaled feet and long skirt through the toxic green puddles lining the pathway. It was far too crowded. The thick, harsh smoke from the shish-kebob vendors stung my eyes and burned my throat. I struggled to breathe and see and failed to control my growing anxiety. The ruthless 98 degree sun was causing sweat to drip down my face, and the excessively long clothes were tripping me and sticking to my skin. Fighting the crowd, I realized that my group was moving farther and farther ahead. My eyes again darted downwards to avoid stepping in more disgusting muck, and it was at that instant I saw an image that will forever haunt me. There in the midst of the pedestrian mob was a lone young boy, maybe four or five years old. His lame legs were curled up unnaturally under his contorted body. He was pulling himself along the ground with his arms and hands, dragging his torso through the filth and sea of legs. My stomach lurched in horror as the crowd pulled me along, while this little boy clawed his way in the opposite direction. No one stopped to offer assistance; no one else even noticed him. The mass of bodies swept me forward, and the child’s tiny body was absorbed among the throng of muddy feet and trailing burqas. My brain cried out in panic and shock; but I was helpless. I struggled forward, intent on keeping my group in sight and to not become lost in the crowd.
To my relief, we soon turned into the entrance of a dark restaurant. Inside I abruptly halted, anxiously scanning the dim room to assess my new environment. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Tanya and I were the only women in the entire restaurant. As all masculine eyes turned to stare at the two intruding western women, I pulled my scarf over most of my face in nauseated anxiety. We clearly did not belong. The concerned owner ushered us to the back corner, where we ascended a steep, spiraling stone staircase. With my heart pounding, we reached the second floor and ducked through a stained curtain to emerge into a smaller back room. Squinting, my eyes adjusted to the light and then focused on the surprising scene before me. Hidden away in this upper room were a multitude of women, with blue burqas pulled back to expose their faces. Conversation and laughter filled the air as the women enjoyed dinner with their children and the occasional husband. Weaving through the crowded tables, the owner seated us at the very back of the room. With a deep breath, I focused my energy on calming my shattered nerves and regaining my confidence.
My colleagues ordered and soon enough dishes of food appeared… flatbread, some raw vegetables, and our main entrée. The dish consisted of rice with some bits of vegetables and a giant slab of mystery meat which wobbled and glistened in the center of the platter. When I spied the dirty pitcher of water at the end of the table, my attempts to momentarily forget all standards of hygiene and sanitation became futile. In desperation, I asked the server for a 7-Up, which to my relief arrived in an unopened can. I cautiously ate bread and bits of rice residing along the edge of the entrée, while trying to avoid the hunk of meat and its juices that had undoubtedly soaked in. Tanya, who will eat anything, laughed at my caution and told me I could join in reciting her daily mealtime prayer: “Lord, bless this food… and please may it not make me sick. Amen!” Amen indeed. At the end of the meal, the server handed us a towel which is customarily passed around the entire table. This particular cloth, however, appeared to be the same towel everyone in the restaurant had been using. For the entire day. With a sigh of resignation, I dabbed my hands with the filthy rag while longing for my forgotten antibacterial lotion.
Later that night before falling asleep, I couldn’t help but remember the deformed little boy crawling through the muck. I thought about how demeaning it felt to be escorted out of sight because it was inappropriate for the men to eat in my presence. I recalled the animated faces of the women upstairs whose lives would normally be hidden away from my view. That night I cried, not only to cope with my own culture shock, but also for the suffering of the impoverished people whose country has been destroyed by decades of war. I cried for the families who faced hunger, disease, and death as a daily reality. I cried while thinking about the extreme oppression and silencing of the beautiful and persevering women of Afghanistan. In the midst of my tears, I knew one belief to be true: even if my work here only improved the life of one woman or one child, I was convinced that my moments of shock, fear, anxiety, and discomfort would be a preposterously cheap price to pay — and I was willing to pay it. As I fell asleep in the comfort of my bed, I knew that I was ready for the challenge ahead and would readily embrace everything the extraordinary country of Afghanistan had in store for me.
This journal was originally written on July 16, 2004 after one of my earliest days in Kabul, during my first of three trips to Afghanistan. That summer, I worked in Kabul for two months as a grant writer with Shelter For Life International www.shelter.org.