“Come to dinner,” says my housemate over the phone. “We’ll go to that Italian place. It’s supposed to be good.”
“Well, you know, Kabul-good.”
Kabul-good. One of those strange expressions that I’ve come to use a lot since I moved to Afghanistan with my partner a year ago. Every town has its quirks, and this one is no different.
‘Kabul good’ generally translates to “anywhere else in the world, it would suck.” But this is Kabul, Afghanistan. Tastes change. The prospect of having Italian food (how long has it been at this point? Nine months?) makes my mouth water. The prospect of not having to cook makes the “Kabul good” appear much tastier (I cook every night).
“Okay. Alright. I’m in.”
As a multimedia and TV journalist in Afghanistan, I often wish I could just tape long, rolling shots of my life in Kabul. Most people conjure up images of tanks and blasts and machine guns when they think of Kabul. And yes, while those all exist, there is also the challenge of dealing with the complicated veil of Afghan culture (or cultures), and living in a society and city that for over 30 years has watched itself crumble from war.
Going out to dinner is always an interesting experience. Fully covered from head to toe and always paranoid about forgetting a headscarf (or having it slip off your head in the car) generally make the experience more worrisome than enjoyable. Add checkpoints and Afghan police to the mix, along with bone-shaking car rides (no paved roads) and you get the picture.
In New York and New Delhi, I savored going out; dressing up, wearing new jewelry, getting to try new restaurants before meeting friends at a local bar for a drink. I don’t miss these things in Afghanistan – I came here knowing full well that my social life would change drastically (after all, I could’ve just stayed in NYC or Delhi if that’s all I wanted). But what I didn’t expect to change was the very vocabulary of my behavior.
In other cities, I have never thought twice about the fact that I couldn’t enter places without ensuring that I wouldn’t mistakenly brush past a man, that I had to give all men the right of way, and that I wasn’t allowed to speak to strangers or look at other men in the face. In Kabul, I do.
My first weeks here were the most painful – having to unlearn everything I had picked up in rambunctious, loud Delhi. In Kabul, I felt like as if I was a captive – wrapped around the head with a scarf that acted as a leash that instructed me to behave in a certain way. My first week was a string of commands from my male, Afghan co-workers and crew, who for my sake taught me how to behave on the streets – “don’t laugh too loud,” “keep your hands hidden,” “don’t say things too loud,” “try and keep your chin down,” “stop walking like you own the street!” And the ever familiar, “wear your headscarf tighter, Anita-jaan, it is falling off!”
My housemate picks me up. She has a car and driver at her disposal for the evening, thanks to her employer. She’s wearing new trousers and boots having just returned from a trip to New York. She shares stories of dining out, drinking wine on rooftops and shopping for boots. In quiet, dark Kabul, New York seems like another galaxy, and culturally it is.
But even New Delhi is culturally a different galaxy altogether. Just an hour and half away by flight, it resembles a futuristic version of Kabul city even with its water problems and pothole spotted roads.
I remember walking down a street towards a restaurant with a friend in Delhi – the uneven street causes me to slip, so I grab his arm for support. As we enter the restaurant, he takes my hand to ensure I don’t get lost in the crowd. We sit face-to-face, occasionally stealing bites from each other’s plates, while sipping cocktails. Around us, the laughter of other men and women waft over our heads, mixing with the aroma of cigarette smoke and spices.
Last year, in the rural south of Afghanistan, a woman took her son out to get medicines. Wearing the traditional powder-blue burqa, she tripped (unpaved roads) and reached out to stop herself from falling. Instead of a wall or her son, she accidentally touched a male passerby. She apologized immediately, withdrew her hand, steadied herself and went on her way. The young son tattled on her once they reached home. Her male relatives cut off her fingers to set an example.
My housemate comments that it’s getting harder to come back each time. She like myself came here to see and experience Afghanistan and challenge herself. But there are nights like this one where we wish it wasn’t so hard.
On the way to the restaurant, we are stopped at a checkpoint. The driver gets out to be searched, while Afghan police check the vehicle. None of them ask for permission or say “excuse me” – they simply open the doors and begin to pull the mats from under my feet and run their hands over the back of the seats. None of them even look at me in the face. I have stopped trying to gesture to them to slow down. It doesn’t matter. They don’t see me.
A couple months before, I had the opportunity to observe the same checkpoint stop a taxi with its trunk filled with goats. Cracking a joke with the driver, the young Afghan policeman in formal, polite Dari asked the goats to excuse him as he searched the trunk. They bleated in response, causing more laughter. I point them out to my husband – “Look,” I said, “I don’t even get the same treatment as a trunk full of lunchmeat in this country.”
Then again, my husband endures longer searches than I do before we enter restaurants or government offices. His pockets are emptied, his jacket taken off and his body thoroughly searched. His first emails from Kabul were filled with references to being “man-handled” every time he needed to enter a restaurant.
I am sometimes patted down if a female staff member is available. But mostly it’s just a quick glance in my purse and I’m ushered through.
At the restaurant, we choose and table and wait for another friend – a colleague of my housemate – visiting from the US. My housemate wonders if maybe she should have invited more people from her office to join us – specifically other men from her department.
Even if there were men, unless they were expats, we would still each only speak with those of our gender most of the time. I have never sat across from an Afghan man – even if I end up in a chair opposite to him, his chair turns – angling towards the next available male.
The friend arrives and over dinner gushes over how polite and sweet everyone is to her always, and how we must love working with such hospitable people here.
I wonder if she realizes that if she wasn’t a foreigner, they may not have been very sweet at all. Being white and blonde, she’s treated as what we call “the third gender” in Afghanistan – placed outside the local hierarchy. She isn’t the same as a local woman. However her gender would never allow her to be treated the same as a man. Afghan men still angle their chair when facing her, but there is a politeness and patience they use with her, that is missing when they talk to local women. Or to me. I’m brown and often placed in the local hierarchy.
Like all local women in the neighborhood, I can’t leave the house alone. People outside of Afghanistan are shocked to hear this – “but the Taliban have left, no?” Yes indeed, but the Taliban did not make these rules. Many of these rules were actually enforced and created during the time before the Taliban by warlords who, bloated with arms and cash from Pakistan and the US (in order to defeat the Russians), fractured the country.
After the Taliban were defeated, those same warlords were brought back into power by the US. The Karzai government resumes must read like a list charges at an international tribunal. The human rights’ violations are endless. And it is thanks to them (and not the Taliban) that I have to live in a capital city shuttered by extreme conservatism.
A male partner must accompany me at all times outside the house. This ranges from the chowkidor to my husband to friends. Sometimes my husband’s translator comes along, humming as he walks ahead expecting me to follow blindly. When I want to stop, I ask the shopkeeper a question – usually the price of something – making sure I’m extra loud to ensure he has heard me, and will stop humming and hurry over to where I am.
He carries everything after I’m done shopping. Per his instructions, I shouldn’t carry anything since I’m a woman. By month three, I have learned to walk behind him, lift nothing and simply head home as quickly as I can. He is a Pashtun from the south and older than I am.
The same translator is puzzled when my husband asks me what I want for dinner or lunch. He looks at our exchanges quizzically. We look Indian to him, and yet behave so differently from the Indians he sees in the soap operas he and his family watch at home. In that world men and women are often just as conservative as the Afghans, with each gender culturally filling very different roles. The women are meant to be docile, devoted wives, while the female evildoers are the ones who break the mould and wreak havoc among the orderly. My husband and I don’t seem to even understand that we’re different genders. We speak as equals. This is clearly confusing.
In the end, we finish dinner and make our way home through the dark and quiet streets. We paid the bill in dollars. Price-wise it would amount to the same if I had dined out in New York City. “Restaurants for expats charge expat prices,” explained a friend when I first arrived, “make sure you always have enough cash.” On the way home, my housemate reminds me that we are paying for more than just plates of pasta – we pay for the experience of normalcy. Or the closest thing to normal at least. We both agree it wasn’t for the food at any rate. It wouldn’t survive a New Yorker or New Delhi-ite’s expectations of a good meal (for the price we paid). But tastes change once you’re living in Kabul.
The only meals I have coveted here have been home-cooked Afghan vegetarian dishes prepared by a friend’s mother. Seated on their living room floor, with huge slabs of naan to catch the oil and juices dripping from our fingers, I have devoured bowls of red kidney beans steamed with onions and tomatoes and spices with plates of eggplant slices sautéed with tomatoes and topped with a tangy yoghurt sauce.
Usually nestled between aunts, cousins and sisters, these meals are a welcome distraction for me. The younger sisters and I trade gossip about the latest on Bollywood actors and actresses – will Salman Khan marry Katrina Kaif? Isn’t Shah Rukh Khan going overboard by getting Deepika Padukone for his latest movie? For a few moments I get a glimpse of what Kabul may have become – another bustling city like Delhi, with its own teenagers sighing over Bollywood heartthrobs.
Instead, these girls rarely ever venture out. Apart from school or the occasional wedding, their entertainment and exposure to the outside world is all from TV, heavily edited by the Afghan government. All exposed body parts, except for the face, are painstakingly blurred out – arms, ankles, necks and especially bosoms – leaving only a head floating on a strange mosaic of blurs and clothing.
Occasionally they’ll watch a Hollywood movie or TV show with their brother – a pirated copy pilfered from a friend or bought at a bazaar. These movies are odd to them. The women look fake with their western outfits, the dialogues are strange and as one cousin put it, “when do they ever cook or take care of their families?”
Indian soap operas and movies do well here for a good reason. It doesn’t require too much imagination to understand their world, and often, it’s the same world many of these women inhabit emotionally; family politics, misunderstandings among brothers and sisters, financial turmoil that leads to a family’s downfall.
A few weeks earlier, I had sat down to watch an episode of a particularly popular show called “Tulsi,” a re-make of “Kyun Ki Saas Kabhi Bahu Thi” (loosely translated as “Because once, the mother-in-law was a daughter-in-law too”). This chapter in the ongoing saga of the women in a wealthy family (and their politics), dealt mostly with how a good daughter-in-law always behaves piously and righteous no matter how badly she was treated by other family members.
The seriousness with which these women took the show was unnerving to me when I first arrived in Kabul. I was used to watching bits of the show at friends’ homes in Delhi – yes it was a fun show to watch, but that was all.At one point, one of the aunts says to me, “See? How good she is? That is how we are too in Afghanistan. It is such a good show isn’t it?” I nodded in response.
It is a good show. Well, Kabul-good at least.