I should have raised hell

A trio of recent essays published in The Nation, The American Prospect, and Campus Progress attempt to explain why the United States has not experienced the same kind of student demonstrations that have been shaking Quebec for the past six months. After all, American students face a debt burden twice that of their Quebecois counterparts and graduate into a far more unequal society, with higher youth unemployment and a weaker social safety net. The authors’ explanations –cultural differences between Anglophone and Francophone organizing, elite student apathy, the fact that working class students literally can’t afford to take time off for activism– all strike me as correct. Our passivity does not have a single cause, nor a single cure. To the explanations already given, I would add another: fear.

The United States has the harshest criminal justice system in the democratic world and the life opportunities of anyone arrested and convicted of a crime –any crime, really– are drastically truncated. Contrary to its popular myths, America is a country of neither boundless opportunities for upward social mobility nor second chances for people who screw up, with exceptions made only for the most privileged. Among the reasons I never protested against local injustices while I was a college student, the most powerful, the one I couldn’t argue myself out of, the one that my roiling anger could not override, was my fear of being arrested and jailed. How would my family pay for my legal expenses? If I were convicted of a crime, how would I ever get a job? The tens of thousands of dollars I borrowed to obtain an elite education (in essence, to buy my way into middle class adulthood) would have been wasted, and I’d have no way of repaying my debt. My life wouldn’t be worth living.

So I kept my head down. I was a tame liberal. I volunteered. I blogged. I took to the streets only once, in 2005, to oppose what at the time appeared to be an imminent U.S. military strike against Iran. Somehow, I ended up at the front of a crowd surge, unable to do anything but move forward. When I came to be wedged between the crowd and a barricade erected in front of the Capitol Building, a Washington, D.C. cop in riot gear shoved me so hard in the chest that he knocked the wind out of me. The bruise on my sternum faded away after a few weeks, but the lesson stuck for years. If I wanted to do better than my endlessly broke and indebted parents –and I did, more than anything– I’d have to leave street activism to the kids who could afford mistakes.

Looking back, I had less to lose than I thought, and I should have raised hell.

This is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power

My little sister, via facebook:

As a woman in America, I have had a lot of reasons to be angry lately, and the controversy over contraception, and the unacceptable statements made by Rush Limbaugh, are only the most recent example. But the fact is, this is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power, and the refusal of a certain subset of the population to relinquish even a bit of it.

There is no point in reasoning with these Old White Men. Men who separate women into wives, whores and harpies. Men who hate the poor, the brown, the black. Men who are terrified of the future. Men who can never be allies, who can never see women, queer people, and people of colour as friends, colleagues, and equals. Men like Rush Limbaugh rage against the immorality – the selfishness! – of every person who does not fit the hierarchy they bought as truth, because without that system there are no excuses, no justifications, and no solace for the self-inflicted misery of their lives. They will not change, and they will not willingly relinquish their privilege, because they know that their time is over, the world is changing and we are joyfully counting the hours, waiting for them to die.

The New York Times reports on slavery in Afghanistan, actually uses the s-word.

Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are too often wrapped in euphemisms and exoticism. Think: “opium brides.” The term conjures images of dark-eyed women sensually smoking from opium pipes while sitting on silk cushions, but it actually refers to little girls who are handed over to drug lords (who subsequently rape, traffic and sometimes kill them) by their indigent families as “repayment” for poppy crop debts.  Most international media outlets are guilty of using terms like “opium bride” for people who, were they not South/Central Asian, would simply, bluntly, accurately be called victims of human trafficking. Because that’s what they are.

Given the prevalence of this double standard, I was surprised today when I read the New York Times article ‘For Punishment of Elder’s Misdeeds, Afghan Girl Pays the Price.’ In describing one of the most violent and heinous violations of women’s human rights in Afghanistan today, the NYT calls the practice of baad what it actually is: the enslavement of young girls and women for purposes of sexual exploitation and manual labor. It even used the s-word!

Read the rest of my guest post at Wronging Rights.

Sympathy for the White Land Rover Mafia

It's a little too easy to blame the expat mafia.

It’s been a while since someone wrote an essay-length comment on one of my posts to scold me for things I never actually wrote, so I’m going to reply in full-post form to the comment Farah from Steal This Hijab left on ‘Is it safe?’ (You might want to read my  original post now, if you haven’t already.)

Here’s what Farah wrote:

Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers.

Has Farah read anything else on my blog? Both here and at UN Dispatch, I have written extensively about the dangers faced by ordinary Afghan civilians and by Afghan aid workers. And how does dispensing common sense safety advice to other expats demean the sacrifices or diminish the suffering of Afghans? This type of comment falls into category of: ‘You wrote about one thing. I wanted you to write about this other thing. I demand gratification.’

Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan.

Farah is either reading lines I never wrote (my post doesn’t discuss motivations for working in Afghanistan), or she’s implying that we’re all so mercenary that, hey, maybe those of us who return home in coffins are getting what we deserve for being greedy careerists. If it’s the latter case, she needs to seriously re-examine her own moral code.

Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid.

Not every expat lives like this. Many do, sure, but many others do not –or didn’t until recently. I spent my first full year in Afghanistan living in mud houses with only intermittent water and electricity, sleeping on a taushak, cooking my own food and walking to the bazaar by myself. None of my expenses were paid by my employer. I supported myself on a salary roughly equivalent to what I would have made back in the United States. My housemates and most of my expat friends shared in that lifestyle. We refused to live within the Archipelago of Fear.

During my second year in Kabul, walking the streets became more difficult. Men threw large stones at me when I refused to answer their catcalls. Teenage boys surrounded me, groped me, and called me vulgar names in Dari. The police began stopping me more and more often just to stare at my passport picture and pass it around to their buddies, humiliating me in front of my Afghan friends and drawing unwanted attention from passersby.

Then came the Taliban’s summer offensive, with its midnight gunfire symphonies and suicide bombing assassination campaign. My Afghan friends worried I would be kidnapped, so they advised me to take a taxi whenever I needed to leave my home. I still didn’t have a guard or driver, but I began planning my movements more carefully and carrying a switchblade.

There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people. I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.

No, I really don’t think Farah has read much of my blog, because I have addressed these issues and Farah and I are generally on the same page when it comes to security theater and the odiousness of ‘Afghan-Free Zones.’

That said, the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere is very bad now, and worsening by the week. That’s not Chicken Little squawking — that’s an irrefutable fact.

2012 will be my third year in Afghanistan, and almost certainly my last. I won’t be able to live my freewheeling lifestyle anymore. My days of picnics in Kapisa and damboora nights at Qargha are over. This year, I will have to live in a formal guesthouse with a guard, or in a hotel. I won’t be doing much walking outside, if any at all, and I certainly won’t go strolling alone, even in the Kabul neighborhoods I’ve come to know so well I could navigate them with my eyes closed.

I’ll continue taking the roads in civilian vehicles as long as I can, because the fear I feel clawing into my ribs when I’m winding my way through the narrow valley highway between Kabul and Jalalabad keeps me honest, connects me to my colleagues, and saves thousands of dollars that could be –and are– better spent on project beneficiaries.

But going “low profile” and eschewing the typical security measures of armored cars and chartered flights between cities is not risk-free, cost-free or always the more ethical choice. If I take the roads, even while hidden under a burqa, I risk the lives of the Afghans traveling with me. If we are stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and my identity is revealed, I’ll mostly likely be kidnapped, but the Afghans with me will be summarily executed. If I live in an ordinary house in an Afghan neighborhood, instead of an expat compound, I plant a target in my innocent neighbors’ midst. With my mere presence, I knowingly run the chance of drawing evil men onto the streets where their children fly kites.

In a morally muddled conflict like Afghanistan’s, the ‘right thing’ is seldom obvious, and, in my experience, expats –aid workers and others– are usually left with no truly good options.

You know you’ve been in Afghanistan too long without R&R when…

...your default facial expression is this one.

…you start using Afghan insults against other expats.

…you know the pricing scale for contract killings in your city.

…you don’t scream when you find a toenail in your bread, you just pick it out.

…your phonebook includes “stalker #5” and “harasser #9.”

…you find it kind of gross but not at all weird that the hotel reception clerk is staring at full-screen photos of dismembered corpses on his computer when you check in.

…you know how to walk in a burqa like an Afghan woman.

…you refuse to let anyone put a flash drive in your computer for fear of porn download viruses.

…you’ve been accused of running a brothel and of being employed at a separate supposed brothel.

…you get hit in the face by a malfunctioning semi-manual washing machine on the spin cycle and fall on the floor laughing madly while clutching pairs of underwear to your chest.

…you look at this A Softer World and think, ‘that’s a plausible scenario.’

…you have a list of people to whom you’d love to send phony Taliban night letters, and that list is four whole pages long. Single-spaced.

(Because this list needed to be updated.)


Back to Bamiyan, and Hameed’s first plane ride

My colleague Hameed and I headed back to Bamiyan to implement an ICT project with Bamiyan University.

Hameed was staring at a poster in the Pactec container. Yes, container.
Small charter planes at Kabul International Airport.
Some disheveled lady who was waiting for a Pactec flight.
The charter flight waiting container where passengers drink tea and…wait.
Hameed smiling before his first ride on an airplane.
In wartime Afghanistan, hotel make charge on you!

Kabul’s rock festival in quotes

I was incredibly lucky to have attended this festival. It was an act of musical defiance that gave young people, including the hundreds who attended the history-making main event in Babur Gardens.

Kabul’s underground concert venue:

Late Tuesday night saw Hoodie’s kick off a week of jam sessions, starting with Tears of the Sun, one of a dozen bands from the U.S., Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and of course Afghanistan.

At first, the show brought in more photographers than audience members.  But before long, the room grew stuffier and smokier with more people trickling in.

“It’s the best night of my life,” one young man shouted.  He and his friends — Afghan men in t-shirts and skinny jeans and the odd hoodie — slam-danced to set after set.  They jumped, swayed, pointed their fingers into the air, flicked on their lighters.

Breaking into the Boy’s Club:

“There are not many girls who are brave enough to come to these parties,” admits Nagris. “There are many Afghan men at this party who think it’s wrong for a girl to come. But now we come and they can see it’s not something very bad. It’s only music, we’re just chilling.”

Farida says she’s determined to try her best to lead a normal life: “We know anything can happen. Everyday when you walk out of your house, you know you might not come home in the evening.

“But we can’t lock ourselves away and not enjoy our lives. We need to take the risks to live our lives like human beings.”

On authenticity:

Transgression was once central to rock and roll. Our iconic image of its genesis is Elvis Presley’s pelvis threatening to upend the staid social order of the 1950s. But we’ve come a long way since then. On the day of the show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there was a certain characteristic irony in young people — call us hipsters, if you like — that is in a sense actually a half-heartedness for life, an affected enthusiasm for things that we aren’t really committed to.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of a certain post-modern exhaustion, where, in a throbbing cornucopia of sensual and cultural delights, there’s nothing left to rebel against.

Musicians who play in societies where there is a serious danger from repressive governments or violent extremists are putting something real on the line. They tap into an uncomplicated notion of authenticity that’s not easy to find in the West anymore. And that’s fucking rock and roll.


The year Iran almost invaded Afghanistan. From the New York Times on September 17, 1998:

To American eyes, the clerical dictatorships of Iran and Afghanistan can seem variations on the same Islamic fundamentalist theme. But relations between the two neighboring countries are now at a flash point. Ethnic, political and religious tensions have been exacerbated by the recent killings of at least eight Iranian diplomats by Afghan Taliban fighters. Iran is now assembling some 250,000 troops along the Afghan border and threatens military action unless its demands for amends are met.

I wonder how the history of the past thirteen years would have been different if Iran had sent a quarter of a million soldiers into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban in the fall of 1998.

It’s time to ban Afghan-free zones in Kabul

Look! Afghans and expats sharing a back yard --and a hookah! Such things are possible. July 2010.

I will begin house-hunting when I return to Kabul later this week. Why? My housemates have declared my current house an Afghan-free zone.

It’s one of the dirty secrets of Kabul’s expatriate community: a significant number of expat house managers and tenants refuse to allow Afghans other than their guards and housekeepers into their houses and then fly into theatrical rages when an Afghan (an Unauthorized Afghan!) unknowingly crosses into their private Expatland. That so many aid workers are guilty of this is shameful. Afghan-free zones are an affront to the values of the humanitarian community. But more than that, they fly in the face of human decency.

Afghan-free zones are usually enforced by alliances of housemates. Think: Westerners of the sets that tend to forget that not everyone owns a holiday home and members of the Afghan diaspora’s most affluent and arrogant circles –the people who tell you, within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, that they’re descended from Amanullah’s bloodline or were “from the last of the good families to leave Herat” before the 32 Years War. These are groups of people so deeply uncomfortable coexisting with “local” (read: working class, uppity ethnic minority, self-educated and rags-to-middle-class) Afghans that they can’t bear life in Kabul unless their residences are free of Afghans besides the non-English-speaking hired help, who wouldn’t dare risk questioning the status quo for fear of endangering salaries that support whole extended families.

Usually announced with little or no warning, Afghan-free zones are enforced by bullying dissenting housemates into silence, acts of passive aggression against expats with close Afghan friends and communal “house talks” that entail brow-beating the resident local-lover into moving out.

The practice of imposing blanket bans on Afghan nationals entering private residences in their own capital city is stunningly offensive, racist and mean-spirited. (Back in July, my housemates refused to let one of my Afghan friends use our bathroom after a 5-hour drive.) It’s long past time for the Afghan-free zones to be eradicated and their expat supporters to be called out, publicly. Let’s go.