Shoving my way around sweaty Afghan men and making my way to the customs counter at Kabul International Airport, I wondered what the hell I was doing there. Yes, it was by choice that I was spending my 10-day vacation in Kabul.
As I write this, and even during my March 2006 trip, the U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens against traveling to Afghanistan. They warn that U.S. citizens continue to be kidnapping and assassination targets.
During my visit, I experienced nothing but kindness and curiosity from the Afghan people. It was because I was welcomed as a guest rather than seen as a disrespectful occupier. As a woman, I respected the Afghan culture by wearing conservative clothing such as loose fitting pants, keeping the area between my waist and knees covered with a sweater or coat and covering my hair with a scarf. I learned, “salam,” for “hello,” and “ta-shar-koor,” for “thank you.”
Years of war and poverty drape the Kabul streets. Bombed out buildings and utility poles riddled with bullet holes can be seen at every turn. Beggars – women in dingy blue burquas, children wearing clothing a size too small and men injured by landmines – canvas the street. Open sewers run parallel to the streets and trash is tossed in roadways for children to pick through.
So why would anyone want to visit? Curiosity led me there. I was reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, “The Kite Runner,” when I heard about Global Exchange’s Reality Tours (www.globalexchange.org). The organization is a California-based human rights group. The book is about a boy who lived in a pre-Soviet Kabul and who returns as a man during the Taliban occupation.
The purpose behind Global Exchange’s tours is to provide education, fun and positively influence the international community through travel. This particular trip focused on women making change in a post-Taliban society. It included meeting with government and non-government agencies as well as touring Kabul’s tourist sites. This was the perfect trip for me – structure but freedom to mingle with the locals and experience the culture.
The Taliban reigned in terror between 1996 and 2001. During that time, women were required to be hidden and could not work. Girls could not attend school. In public, women needed to wear a burqa, a full-length covering hiding the body’s shape and face. [Note: Women are no longer required to wear burqas, but many still do]. Men could not shave. Artwork depicting human faces or animals, including photographs, were prohibited.
Fast forward to March 2006, about five years following the U.S-led invasion into Afghanistan. Twelve curious minds participated on this trip to Kabul. Global Exchange has an Afghan-based native organizing and coordinating logistics there.
The trip included meetings with organizations such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Afghan Human Rights Organization, Afghan National Gallery and other government officials. We met with a group that provides services to street working children (ASCHIANA) and several groups working to empower women financially and emotionally. These include Afghans4Tomorrow, focusing on educating girls and young women through building schools; PARWAZ, providing opportunities to build micro businesses; and Women for Women International: giving women vocational training.
Between meetings were visits to some of the attractions. Yes, tourists are returning to Kabul. In fact, the Afghanistan government has an active Ministry of Information, Culture & Tourism that has been exhibiting at international tourism fairs. In 2005, Afghanistan’s Tourism Office estimated that 2,200 tourists visited the country.
The Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) Mine Museum was informative. On display were 51 different kinds of explosives made in more than 25 countries used in Afghanistan over the years. There was also an overview on what OMAR is doing to increase mine awareness among the Afghan people. Due to a high illiteracy rate, (the Ministry of Women’s Affairs estimates an 86% illiteracy rate among Afghan women), the most effective education is training individuals to visit each village and educate as many people as possible. Also learned that all of the green flags I had seen in and around Kabul marked where civilians were killed in some violent way, such as by a suicide car bomb or knife.
The Afghan National Gallery re-opened in 2003 after it was closed during the Taliban. While in power, the Taliban destroyed anything with a human face or depicting animals. The gallery director, Sayed Abdul Fatah, realized precious artworks would be destroyed so he asked artists to paint landscape scenes in watercolor over the paintings, to save them. Those paintings not saved by the artists were destroyed, about 400 pieces. Today, the gallery contains a mix of artwork, primarily paintings, by Afghan artists and others donated by artists throughout the world. These are identified as “Foreigner” in the artist’s name field next to the painting’s title.
The Kabul Museum is a historical museum comprised of statues and artifacts from pre-twentieth century Central Asia. Seventy percent of the original collection is gone, due to looting over the years and the rest destroyed by the Taliban. Following a two-year renovation, the museum is open and a few displays are available for viewing. Seeing the museum staff working on restoring pieces was interesting. On tables, chunks of the stone statues are pieced together and cemented. It’s a long, tedious process, but these Museum caregivers are determined to restore what the Taliban smashed.
Across the street from the Kabul Museum is the Darulaman Palace. This magnificent mansion was probably glorious in its day. It was built in the 1920s by King Amanullah and royalty lived in it, then occupied by government agencies. But, like so many other buildings in Kabul, beginning in 1992, it fell victim to war. Today, it sits empty with bullet holes and bombed out sections. Pieces of the roof flap in the wind. A fence with loops of barbed wire circles the palace and photos can only be taken with permission of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials (which operates under the United Nations), who guard the facility.
Another must-see in Kabul is Babur Shah Gardens. Walking through the garden and seeing its lushness, it’s difficult to believe this is in Kabul. The six-hectare, walled garden is a sanctuary. Rows of shrubs, trees and flowers were beginning to bloom. A tiny greenhouse was full of geraniums. The tomb of Babur Shah, king when the gardens were built in the 16th century, rests at the top of the hill. A small, white marble mosque, also built in the 16th century, sits below the tomb.
Not necessarily an attraction, but another must-do is visit the Kabul Beauty School and Oasis Salon. Following the incidents of September 11, 2001, Michigan hairdresser Debbie Rodriguez felt compelled to help with recovery efforts at Ground Zero. She worked alongside military personnel, who were later deployed to Afghanistan. She followed her newfound friends to Kabul, but they didn’t have use for a hairdresser. She did odd jobs to earn her keep but eventually, her friends realized she provided an invaluable service: a great haircut.
The Afghan hair salons were not familiar with cutting American hair, or that of other foreigners. Seeing a need, she and a few others put together the Kabul Beauty School. Women are trained a skill and upon graduation, receive a haircutting kit, all free.
Working in a beauty salon may seem frivolous, but consider this: the stylist receives cash tips so the husband, or other male figure in her life, does not know how much she brings home. She controls how much she gives her husband. Since Afghanistan is a male-dominated society, a woman cannot be controlled by a man when she has the financial upper-hand.
The stylists at the Oasis Salon are graduates of the Kabul Beauty School. Services available include haircutting, washing, pedicures and massages. Everyone is welcome except Afghan men. It’s believed that Afghan men gossip too much and they would ruin the reputation of the salon.
There is shopping in Kabul. A relaxed environment is the Women’s Garden. Only women and children are permitted beyond these walls. Shops sell items from hand-made jewelry to dresses to undergarments. Some of the jewelry is made by women trying to gain financial independence through the non-profit called Women to Women International.
Women feel comfortable in the garden. Most of the burqa-wearing ladies shed them to show their smiling faces. This is where I met with many women and children wanting to practice English. They also wanted their photos taken. They didn’t care that they didn’t get to keep the photos, they wanted the honor of someone wanting their photos taken.
Another shopping area, and probably the most “touristy” is called Chicken Street. Everything can be found here: Afghan rugs, traditional dresses, beautiful jewelry and other trinkets. The bookseller of Kabul, the inspiration for the book of the same name, is in the vicinity of Chicken Street.
Be prepared for aggressive beggars. I had three “begging burqas” following me, repeating their limited English. One carried a baby with her. They took turns following me into different shops and at times, pulled and tugged at my sleeves.
There is a quiet shopping area by the Embassy of Iran (great wi-fi access, too). No beggars and the shopkeepers are patient. Fine garments created by high-end designer Sara Rahmani can be found at Sara Afghan. The average Afghan probably couldn’t afford one of her pieces, and neither could this American! Most are women’s jackets and dresses made of fine silk.
Most signs are in English and merchants can speak enough English to get by. Always haggle with the shopkeeper and never accept the first offer. U.S. dollars are the preferred currency and are accepted in most restaurants, too.
There are a handful of restaurants in Kabul. I have to believe we ate at some of the finest ones: Shandiz-Kabol, Haji Baba, Marco Polo and Rose Restaurant. Meals were usually the same: lamb, rice, some cooked vegetables, yogurt and bottled water or canned soda. I stayed away from chicken products and non-cooked vegetables and ate only peeled fruit.
First-class hotels have made their way to Afghanistan. The Kabul Serena Hotel opened within the year, offering luxurious accommodations and services. There are multiple guesthouses fit for travelers, too. Our group stayed at a guesthouse managed by Afghans4Tomorrow, where breakfast and dinner were provided daily. Sleeping accommodations (and two bathrooms) were shared, yet comfortable. Bed linens and towels are provided, but I’d recommend bringing a sleeping bag and towel.
Electricity was shut off at night, which meant no hot water or heat. The upstairs bathroom was the warmest spot in the house, when the wood burning stove was lit. The stove provided hot water for creative bathing.
The guesthouse was fairly new, compared to the other houses in the neighborhood. Not far down the road, families lived in homes which were bombed out. Chickens ran around the mud floor of the living room. I woke up each morning to the Islamic call to prayer from the mosque down the road.
During the day, the streets of Kabul are crowded with overloaded cars and vans, honking horns at each other and disobeying the traffic cops. People randomly walked into traffic, hoping cars will stop for them. Sometimes the cars stopped, sometimes they didn’t. With a high unemployment rate, I often wondered where people were going.
When night fell, the streets went quiet. It was rare to see another car on the road at 8 p.m. It seemed as though the only ones out were check-point officials.
Getting to Kabul was relatively easy. I flew on one of the two airlines servicing Kabul from Dubai, Ariana Afghan Airlines. Kam Air is the other carrier. Ariana is sometimes called, “Scari-ana,” and the U.S. government prefers that their personnel do not fly the airline. I was a bit nervous at first, but Ariana safely delivered and returned me to Dubai and many contractors were on the flights. In fact, an international news crew were on the return flight.
It’s a good idea to be up to date on Hepatitis A & B shots, along with Tetanus. It’s also smart to take the doctor-prescribed antimalaria medicine and carry the antibiotic Cipro to ward off any diarrhea. I was careful with what I ate and kept hand sanitizer attached to my backpack. I didn’t get sick.
The trip to Kabul was an informative, yet exhaustive one. I’m not sure if I would return to Afghanistan on my own, or if it’s a smart thing to do for a solo, woman traveler. I usually felt safe during the time with my group and on my own. But the images and conversations with the Afghan people continue to haunt me. Somewhere down the road, I may be compelled to see how this country has changed.
-By JA Huber