What to wear in Kabul

The updated guide is here.


A lot of expats stress over dressing for their first stint in Kabul. Well, fear no more, first-timers! I’m here to take the stress out of putting together your wardrobe.

For the womenz


Tell yourself:

A) “It’s Afghanistan. They don’t care about fashion. I can just pile on some baggy old things and be good to go.”

Um, no. Afghans, even poor Afghans, care about fashion as much as people of any other nationality. And Kabul, being the capital, is actually pretty fashion-conscious.

B) “It’s Afghanistan. I will be wearing a burqa or a niqab or a chador over an abaya all day.”

No, you won’t. And you definitely, seriously, really do not need to wear a burqa i Kabul. Probably ever. If you even try, you’ll never live it down. Unless your office is unusually conservative and difficult (in which case, attire will be the least of your concerns), your Afghan colleagues will make fun of you if you overdo covering.


Cover your hair. A hijab will suffice just fine, and it can be styled a number of different ways.

I generally go with the look on the right while moving about the city during the day, the style on the left while traveling at night, through checkpoints and in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

A lot of the time, though, I end up with this.

Cover your butt. Your shirts and jackets should be at least long enough to reach mid-thigh. Knee-length or calf-length is even better.

Cover your arms and chest. Shirts, tunics and jackets should not be low-cut and sleeves should reach your wrists.

Cover your legs completely. Skinny jeans are in fashion right now among young Kabuli women. Wide-leg trouser jeans are popular with female expats. You can also pair a maxi skirt with a long top and a jacket.

Other stuff

Shoes are also your call, but keep in mind that Kabul’s streets are rutted, unpaved, and dusty. And when they aren’t dusty, they’re muddy.  If you won’t be doing much walking, just bring the shoes you would wear at home. Strappy heels, flip flops, platforms, pumps, boots and sneakers are all permissible.  If you will be walking, make sure your shoes are sturdy and have enough of a heel to keep your skin above the mud, broken glass and polluted water. Bring rainboots!

Office Attire

Most offices are casual, but you will need at least one dressy outfit for formal meetings. A pair of dress pants and a dark sweater dress over a white tunic is a pretty standard coordination/donors/diplomatic meeting outfit.

The woman in the photo below is an American designer, but her outfit is the kind of thing younger women professionals wear in Kabul.

Winter (December, January and February)

Kabul rarely dips below freezing during the winter, but few offices and houses are well-heated.


  • Lined, waterproof boots
  • Wool tights or thick leggings to go under pants
  • A knee-length winter coat

Dressy coat.

  • Fleece pajamas
  • Warm sweater dresses

Wear this over a long-sleeve top and pants, with a pair of ankle boots and a warm pashmina. Ta-da! Your Monday morning outfit

  • A fleece bath robe for around the house

Spring (March and April ) and Fall (October and November)

Muddy, clammy, unpredictable.


  • Rainboots
  • A lighter coat

Summer (May, June, July, August and September)

Hot, dry, dusty.


  • A woman’s shalwar kameez is your best friend

You can buy a shalwar kameez in any of the bazaars in Kabul, or at shops in the malls, Roshan Plaza, The Gulbahar Center, and City Centre. Or, you can pick one up at an Indian or Pakistani shop at home before you leave. These outfits are light enough to be comfortable during the hot months, but you will need to get them tailored to fit you. Kabul is full of tailors.

  • Light tunics and manteaus

These women are Iranian, but the same style is popular in Kabul. A light manteau is a summer wardrobe staple.

  • Cotton pants
  • Sandals
  • A light cotton robe for around the house and over pajamas

Beyond Kabul

If you are heading out int rural areas, consult your Afghan colleagues about what to wear. They will give you helpful tips, and might even offer to take you shopping or let you borrow something from their own closets. In general, rural areas are more conservative, but different rules apply in different areas of the country. For example, you might need to wear a burqa (some of the time) or an abaya, or at least a bigger, longer scarf,  if you are traveling in the rural south, but you don’t even need to cover your hair in the far northeastern Wakhan.

For the menz

Guys, you will have an easy time dressing for Kabul.

For formal meetings, a regular business suit or a pair of dress pants and a button-down shirt will do.

For the rest of your stay, go with jeans and long-sleeve t-shirts. Shorts aren’t socially accepted and few Afghan men wear t-shirts in public. That said, t-shirts won’t get you into any kind of trouble in Kabul, while shorts will ensure you are the center of attention –in a bad way.

Bring a pair of flip-flops, a pair of study sandals, and a pair of sneakers.

If you are heading into the countryside, you may need to dress differently. Always, always, always consult your Afghan colleagues about local and regional dress codes.  If you do need to wear something you didn’t bring, ask an Afghan friend or colleague to help you shop for it in Kabul.  There are many shops in the Shar-e Naw area where you can find what you need, and Chicken Street is a reliable place to find a low quality, overpriced shalwar kameez and accessories in the pinch.

Don’t rescue me

Today, kidnapped British aid worker and DAI employee Linda Norgrove was killed by her captors during a rescue attempt by international forces.

While I agree with British foreign secretary William Hague that “Responsibility for this tragic outcome rests squarely with the hostage-takers,” Norgrove’s death is a good illustration of one reason why, if I’m ever kidnapped here, I do not want to be rescued.

Afghanistan isn’t Hollywood; hostages are likely to be killed in armed rescue attempts.

The other reason I don’t want to be rescued is the sad fact that rescue attempts, even when they succeed, can and often do result in collateral damage.

The cost of rescuing New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell last year was the lives of at least three innocent Afghans, Farrell’s Times colleague Sultan Munadi, a civilian Afghan woman and child (members of one kidnapper’s family, but surely blameless in the kidnapping), and a young British commando.

Farrell will have to carry that burden for the rest of his life.

I don’t want that.

So, no rescue. And no ransom payment. If I am unlucky enough to fall into the hands of people who intend to harm me or use me for political ends as a captive, by all means engage them in dialogue. Please, try to talk them down, but pay them no money and raise no weapons in defense of my life.

Those are my wishes, now in writing.

I love my colleagues

From an ongoing, spirited email exchange about Paul Farmer and the future of our agency overlord:

I can see the rationale being handed down now… “No, no, no…Mr. Farmer, due to his excessive involvement with the citizenry over the past 20 years, knows far too many diverse types of people, indicating a lack of focus.”

The reasons Farmer was nixed are the same reasons he was the right person for the job. Sad.

Governance is…

My employer wants me to come up with names for the organization’s new quarterly newsletter. I suck at naming things (believe me, the name for this blog was a fluke), so I decided to use my Gen Y dorky, web-obsessed, concentration-deficient, “out of the box,” completely obnoxious tech savvy to get some ideas.  I typed “Governance” into Googlism. This is what came out.

Continue reading

The national staffer’s revenge

Sanjar Qiam wallops his former employer, IRD. Qiam was fired by his hot-headed American boss after he sent a pointed but generally innocuous email objecting to the segregation of expat and national employees during the lunch hour.

It is great that you are celebrating 4th of July; it is a great cultural exchange for Afghans and third country nationals. I had a suggestion on a separate issue – lunch. I have been in IRD but I have rarely been to lunch; the quality of food, service and environment is poor and in some ways degrading. The food is served in basement packed with hundreds of IRD staff, white plastic chairs and tables and flies. The food is poorly cooked; most often super greasy. It is only one course and one item.
Segregation of Afghans is unpleasant. Working for Afghans and segregation – a system based on phobia – doesn’t go hand in hand; this raises questions about motives of IRD management.

My suggestion is to mix Afghans and foreigners lunch. Obviously, that would mean foreigners would lose some privileges but that is for a good cause – improvement of afghans lunch. It won’t be possible to have lunch in one location so staff has to be divided between several buildings and food should be cooked in each building with different menu so people can have a choice.
Looking forward to changes,

Qiam’s description of how American managers treat their Afghan employees at IRD is  upsetting. For a while I’ve heard rumors of stuff like this, but nothing as explicit as what Sanjar described until today. I’m not sure how much of what Qiam describes in the rest of his post (which I probably shouldn’t excerpt) actually happened, or was said, but even if Qiam stretched the truth a little, the overall impression is still nasty. Stuff like this makes my American cheeks burn with embarrassment. Again, there’s probably more here than meets the eye, but Qiam’s summary dismissal speaks to a lack of respect for national staff in the organizational culture of IRD.

Anyone out there have more information? Perhaps a different version of events?


Here’s something I’ve wondered about for a while: is it better to use buzzwords (“capacity-building,” “leadership development,” “procurement,” “partnership-strengthening,” “good governance,” “rights-based approach,” etc, etc) or to just come out and say exactly what you mean?

Your project trained MPs to give radio and TV interviews so they’d stop embarrassing themselves. You got your lawyer ex-boyfriend to threaten legal action to stop a landlord from illegally evicting asylees from his building. You bought something at a low price, had it shipped fast, and saved your organization a bunch of money. Your boss stood in front of a bulldozer and shouted down a municipal official and his developer buddy who wanted to raze the local shantytown.

I once joked with a colleague that I needed to figure out what buzzword to use to obfuscate unclogging the plumbing in the home of a Burmese refugee family.

In all seriousness, when are buzzwords appropriate?

When are they helpful?

Are they ever appropriate or helpful

Do they make you sound like  a professional, or a pompous loser with something to hide?

Everything you need to know about DC

A friend’s former professor writes:

Washington, D.C. is a great place for people who really loved high school — the Post is the school paper; the Washingtonian the yearbook; Congress is the SGA by any other name; the White House is for anyone who got elected to something in high school and never got over it; the bureaucracies are the nerds’ revenge . . . maybe they weren’t cool enough to get elected to the homecoming court in high school or invited to join a fraternity in college, but they are smart enough to extract their revenge on the cool kids; and the Supreme Court? That is for National Honor Society members, the kind of kids who aced every class in high school, but couldn’t make through a sleepover or summer camp without coming home early. I have lived in Washington almost eighteen years. People still ask me why I don’t get involved in politics or try to latch on to someone’s candidacy so that I can “use my skills.” Leaving aside for the moment that I don’t have any skills that could possibly benefit anyone in politics, the question for me is not why I am not involved, but why would anybody want to do this?

I am smug to say I figured all of that out by my sophomore year of undergrad.  Of course, I figured it all out while hopped up on caffeine pills and sitting in the freezing rain trying to feel something, ANYTHING!

..but, uh, that is another story.


So the refugee resettlement office is wringing its development people for connections in high places –potential “big money” donors from the local business community, in other words.

I have no connections, and that’s terribly frustrating. I’ve spent 14 months in this town, and I’ve been broke nearly the entire time. Thus, I have eaten out on only a handful of occasions, thrice at the local diner, once at a crummy Thai place, and once at a decent Indian restaurant. Occasional takeout and work lunches don’t count. I’ve also never been to the local movie theatre, or any other entertainment establishment. I have zero connections to local business leaders.

Need connections at local NGOs?  Trainers for any sort of law-related training? Journalists to cover your event? Social media know-how? Bing0, you’ve come to the right woman.

Wealthy people? Uh, I don’t really know any.

I feel pretty useless right now.

A Conversation with Resettled Refugees (Alternate Title: ‘Yes, You Can Make a Difference’)

I did another interview this Saturday afternoon, this time of a family of Burmese refugees. The kids were beyond cute, and I wanted to squeeze and nom the littlest one, with her chubby cheeks and gap-toothed grin. (Good grief, I was not always like this. Cursed biological clock!)

R, a genial man in his early forties, took part in the 1988 student uprising against the Burmese junta. When the uprising was bloodily put down by the regime,  R was forced to flee to Thailand to avoid being hunted down and killed by the Burmese Government, the fate that met thousands of other young pro-democracy activists.

In Thailand, R met M, a fellow Burmese refugee and live-in domestic worker who had been living in Thailand since adolescence. The two fell in love and married. In close succession, they had three daughters on whom they doted. But life was hard without legal status, and corrupt Thai police extorted from them much of what little money they made selling jewelry and knickknacks in a major tourist city. If they didn’t hand over their meager earnings, they were threatened with violence and deportation.  “I could not walk outside without thinking, ‘will the police catch me today? I am not safe’,” R told me.

Finally, R and M decided their family’s best and perhaps only hope was to start over in another country, so they went to the nearest UNHCR office and registered as refugees. For the next two years, they lived in a single-room house in the Nu Po refugee camp, unable to work, their children out of school, and reliant on UN rations for food. Dependency took a psychological toll on R and M, who had always worked, M from childhood. Both parents fretted over their children’s education. For the UNHCR, however, they offered unqualified praise, which honestly surprised me (and I’m a UNHCR supporter).*

Last June, R, M and their three daughters were resettled in the United States, in a sparsely furnished apartment in a neighborhood already home to many other refugees from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the DRC.

Over the nine months following their initial resettlement, M and R set to work turning their apartment into a home. When I visited them, their children’s drawings and school art projects were prominently displayed, and the living room was filled with a hodgepodge of sofas and chairs, a 70’s-style coffee table, and a donated computer. A Hindu altar stood in one corner, surrounded by Buddhist wall hangings and photographs of monks.  (Like many Burmese, M and R don’t see a conflict in practicing and self-identifying with multiple religions. They are Buddhist and Hindu, and own a Christian Bible, translated into Nepalese, which is mutually intelligible with their dialect.)

“Now life is good,” M told me, “I have a good job at the hospital, and it is just a seven-minute walk. My children go to school and study English. We do better every day.” R doesn’t have a job yet, but hopes he’ll find one soon, even though jobs are scarce in this city, and R’s English isn’t fluent yet.

H, the youngest of R and M’s daughters, hammed it up for the camera with a range of adorable facial expressions as I interviewed her parents. When I gave her a bag of candy, she thanked me in American-accented English, bowed Thai-style, and ran off giggling.  M and R’s oldest daughter, N, told me her favourite subject in school is math. “If she learns math, she can do many good things,” he father chimed in, beaming. “She can be an engineer, a doctor, anything.”

For a while, we chatted about higher education in the United States, the availability of financial aid (I told R and M their kids will be eligible for scholarships and need-based aid when it comes time for them to fill out college applications), and the process of obtaining a Green Card.

Before I left, I saw a small Afghan face peek around the doorframe. R and M’s girls are friends with the little Afghan girls from down the street, refugees resettled around the same time. Together, the kids ran through the house and into the back yard and the bright sunshine of the first real day of spring.

*I’ve come across this attitude in a few interviews, with one refugee interviewee even going as far as to offer an unprompted on-camera “thank you” to the UNHCR.  Not kidding. I guess that’s…uh…good? Yes, that’s good.