Sweat and peroxide

I need a haircut. Badly. My hair hangs almost half-way down my back and is ragged at the ends. My once Betty Page-esque bangs are comically uneven, having been cut first by me, and then by Max –and then by me again. My boss asks JP, a young researcher from Ghazni, to take me to a local salon during our lunch break, before I can do more damage.

I feel bad for JP. She looks tired and I tell her I’m sorry for being a helpless screw-up. JP rolls her eyes and mumbles something about it not being a problem. Still, my cheeks burn as we get into the car.

Noor Agha drops us off in front of a beauty salon just a few blocks from my house. Without JP’s company, I never would have ventured inside. The salon’s sign features a heavily made-up bride and its front window and door are covered completely by a gold curtain.

Upon entering, I am greeted by the eyes of at least ten women, patrons and stylists. JP explains, briefly, that I am her colleague, a foreigner, and did a hack job on my hair that now must be fixed. Well-groomed eyebrows go up.  A teenage stylist tells me her name is Ferozan.  She asks me in English to take my scarf off so she can see my hair. I oblige and women in curlers struggle to suppress giggles.

A matronly older woman with a blond bob sits me down on a red stool and Ferozan wraps a plastic cover over my shoulders. She and Ferozan set to work. The blond woman begins aggressively untangling my mess of dark hair and remarks at how weird it is that a foreigner of means let her appearance go so far, and wonders aloud to her colleagues why I don’t at least brush my hair.

From my handbag I produce a sketch of what I want my hair to look like and hand it to Ferozan. She looks at it and says, “Ok, this is easy.”

With astonishing speed and skill, the two women even out my bangs and cut four inches off the bottom of my hair. Then, they angle it forward so it is longer in the front than the back. When they are done, Ferozan blows my hair straight using a dryer and a wide round brush.

“You have hair like us,” she sighs, “Hard hair, too much hair. You should make it soft and straight like this.”

I’m tempted to tell her there’s nothing wrong with my natural hair, or hers, but I just smile.

The girl at the station next to mine is no older than 18, and startlingly beautiful with the symmetrical face and large eyes of a high-fashion model. A stylist biting bobby pins is diligently fashioning the girl’s light brown hair into the elaborate updo of a bride.

This is the most I’ve ever seen of Afghan women in Afghanistan. Literally. The women in the salon are in short sleeves, low-cut blouses, and tight jeans. One stylist even bares a sliver of skin between her shirt and pants. All of this has a calming effect one me. I drink it in.

Since I left the United States, I have lived in men’s spaces, in houses of men and offices of mostly men. I have been told, gently and apologetically, to pull my scarf tighter and not make eye contact when I’m in the car or walking the streets. I have come to take comfort in my loose garments during daily stops ordered by a leering young police officer who works the checkpoint near my house. My coat has become a wearable security blanket. But here, in this crowded room that smells of sweat and peroxide, I can relax. My skin isn’t an insult, rebellion, or invitation. It’s just flesh.

The safe space of the Afghan women’s beauty salon is a worn-out cliche of Western journalism. It’s also true.

Ferozan measures the front of my hair once more to be sure it’s perfectly even and then pronounces me done. I look in the mirror and clasp my hands together. In a salon in Share Naw, Kabul, Afghanistan, I’ve been given the best haircut I can remember. JP nods approvingly.

When I pay, I tip Ferozan the equivalent of two American dollars. She hands this back, telling me I overpaid. No, I tell her, that’s your tip. She says it’s a lot of money. I tell her to accept it because she had to go to the extra trouble of interpreting for me and promise to come back when I need a touch-up.


I search for Max’s facbook profile, so I can post a news article on his wall, and find it gone. Later, I ask him about it.

“I took it down because I was getting threats,” he tells me, frowning, “And weird questions about why I changed my religion.”

“But you didn’t change your religion –and I don’t remember you even listing it on your profile.”

Max leans back in his chair and looks me in the eyes. “Una, this is Afghanistan.”

I take a sip of tea and leave the room. The temperature is dropping and I need to switch on my heater.

Keep your head down and the volume up

My Afghan-American friend Asma sends me an email. An email about a rock concert. In Kabul. Afghanistan’s first indie band, Kabul Dreams, is playing the American University of Afghanistan this weekend. I reply immediately, with lots of exclamation points. I’m going, and I’m absurdly excited.  Last weekend went in with a bombing and out with an earthquake. I can use some fun; we all can. It’s for a good cause anyway. Proceeds from ticket sales will purchase much-needed supplies for the children who wallow in mud and hunger in the IDP camp on the outskirts of the city, just minutes from the gleaming AUAF campus.

And I don’t even care that security reports are warning that this could be another bloody weekend. Well, ok, I care, but I won’t be staying home. I’m going to dance, and as I do, I’m going to remember what Lejla Hadzimesic told me in a Sarajevo office building bathroom three years ago: “The best parties of my life were the ones we had as the shells fell.”

Defy the fuckers. Life goes on.

An update

I just realized my journal entries won’t make much sense without clarifying my living situation: I moved from the guesthouse I was initially staying at. Now, I live a few streets away in a regular house house, with Afghan housemates.

Morning police visit

I’m awoken by the sound of men’s voices. Max opens my door and crouches next to my bed. I can see police officers in the hallway. My head is swimming and my lungs are full of needles.

“I’m sick,” I whisper.

“They want to see our documents.”

I tell Max to unzip the inside pocket of my handbag and give the police officers my passport.

The police leave a few minutes later, and I drift off again.

When I get up later, my passport is lying on my laptop keyboard. My whole body aches and my hands and feet are like ice. I make some tea and Max tells me that the police demanded to know why a foreigner was living with him and warned that if anything happens to me, he’ll pay.

“But there’s nothing illegal about me living here,” I say.

Max shrugs. “I know. They know that too.”


The Zuhaak taxi drops me off in front of the restaurant. It’s hard to tell it’s a restaurant from the outside; it just looks like another well-fortified guesthouse, complete with high walls, concertina wire, and a guard house surrounded by sandbags. I pay the driver and make my way in. The guard takes my passport and starts searching my bag.

“No knives?” he asks.

“No knives.”

“No guns?”


“No RPG.”

“Well, yes, I’ve got one of those.”

He chuckles and then says, seriously, “No joking.”

The life in your years

Jamila is a beautiful woman with  porcelain skin, shiny black hair and delicate features she frames with a cream-colored hijab. One day, while we are having lunch together, Jamila tells me to avoid tightly-packed bazaars, because boys and young men like to grab women’s breasts and behinds in dense crowds. “They even do it to me — and I am very old!” she exclaims.

Jamila just turned 36. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years.


I need a phone card . The vendor is only one block away, but the sun has dropped behind the mountains, and the guards at my guesthouse don’t want me to stray even a single block on my own at this hour. The quiet, scowling Mr. Habib grudgingly puts on his shoes and opens the gate. We start walking down the street –in the middle of the road, as Mr. Habib prefers. A passing car suddenly screeches to a halt. For a split second, I wonder if we’re about to be bundled inside by kidnappers.

That doesn’t happen.

The driver rolls down his window, shouts to Mr. Habib, and points at something on the ground. It’s one of Kabul’s little brown pigeons, inches from the front wheel. The pigeon looks stunned, but not hurt. Mr. Habib reaches down and scoops up the bird with both hands, cradling it as the car drives away.  Gently, Mr. Habib places the pigeon on a ledge nearby and we walk on in silence to the phone card vendor.