Christmas in Kabul

by Maya Evans

cakeChristmas in Kabul is probably the least Christmasy experience on the planet, other than a mini icing rich christmas cake which got cracked out after lunch there were no signs of seasonal festivity. We’re having a stay at home day as some of our good friends have advised us not to be out on Christmas day. We’re taking ultra cautious security measures to safeguard our young friends and ourselves. The only walking we do is from our front door to the door of a waiting taxi. We only take short journeys and usually to the peace centre. When in the taxi we say nothing and usually cover our faces with scarves. What a curious group we must be, 3 women in the back of a taxi with covered faces being escorted by young men, usually wearing a Martin Luther King T Shirt. It’s definitely to our advantage that culturally women are not expected to speak, and being buried under scarves is also fairly normal. We speak in a whisper in the hall area of our home which adjoins our neighbours. It makes me think about Anne Frank and her life.

yardAt the moment there’s something of a Christmas scene. Henrietta is patiently knitting in the corner, I’m feeling snoozy after a very carb heavy lunch of rice, potatoes and bread. Golden sunlight pours through our south facing windows, some sparrow type birds roost in an apricot tree in our yard chirping a cheerful tune. The call to prayer booms out over the rooftops, children play football in the lane on the other side of the wall to our yard, a man somewhere near beats a piece of metal, the children upstairs run up and down their balcony squealing with delight. Someone lights a fire and smoke belches out of a mud chimney opposite. In the bubble of our compound the Persian charm of the city almost makes you forget that we’re in a war zone and one of the most desperate countries in the world.

Latifa
Latifa in the OPAWC office

Yesterday we visited OPAWC, Organisation to Promote Afghan Women’s Capabilities, a grassroots organisation who teach women in Kabul basic literacy, numeracy and handicraft so that they have an opportunity to gain economic independence and education. The office is located in district 5, very close to the notorious Chara Kumba refugee camp, the largest in Kabul and a no go zone for foreigners where, it’s said, gangs working for the Taliban (whoever they are these days) are currently operating. The area was also decimated by a local war lord during the civil war when hundreds of people were massacred, as a result the neighbourhood now has many widows, many of whom attend the centre for free teaching. The director of OPAWC is Latifa Ahmadi, she formed the group with some of her friends when they were teenagers living in Pakistan. Latifa and her friends were moved by the plight of Afghan refugees so initially set up a school and then a health clinic, the organisation expanded to establish orphanages around the country, but due to the economic recession and a drying up in funding the organisation has slimmed down to just a health clinic for women in Farah province and their centre of education in Kabul. Without a doubt Latifa is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met, her political analysis is alongside that of Malalai Joya, who was once part of OPAWC, and has a conviction equal to Angela Davis. She paints a grim picture of what life is like for Afghan women today, “billions of dollars spent on basic security for women and still the majority of women in Afghanistan are without access to education, healthcare and the right to not be abused”. She describes the women in government as being symbolic and the country being driven by a car which has 2 steering wheels installed by American John Kerry who steamed over from the US to decide that Abdullah Abdullah would be President, while Ashraf Afghani was Prime Minister; that’s “independent democracy” for you, she almost starts to laugh at the ridiculousness of the political situation. Despite her feelings of desperateness she still has hope in the Afghan people, the majority of which are young and clued up about the endemic corruption which grips the country.

As we leave Latifa she warns us that travelling around the city isn’t safe, and as foreigners we shouldn’t be making such trips.

The three of us had actually made a risk assessment the night before and concluded it would just be bad luck if we got caught up in an attack, and the most likely thing to happen was the taxi breaking down or getting lost. Much to our amusement, though slight alarm, both of those things actually happened. Thankfully the taxi driver managed to resuscitate the passenger laden car after we pulled to a halt on a busy road not far from the Chara Kumba camp. Our driver nonchalantly stepped out the car, in the middle of a busy highway, pulled up the bonnet, tightened something and restarted the car. Then the inevitable getting lost moment came, our pre emptying of the event meant I had Latifa’s number to hand.

These cauliflowers have not been photoshopped

The way home was wildly exciting as we inched slowly through traffic which paralleled a busy bazaar. The hustle bustle of an Afghan market is one of the most exciting sights to behold, old beaten up carts with carefully arranged towers of the sweetest oranges from Jalalabad, pomegranates from Kandahar, giant Gulpees (cauliflowers) perhaps 4 times the size of a standard British colly, potatoes from Bamiyan, apples from Wardak, piles of pine nuts still in their husks, a man cracks open some almonds piled on his cart, another Hazarra man with handsome mountain weathered Mongol feathers walks past in labourers clothes. Men sitting on the side of the road drinking tea from fine Persian style teacups, horses pulling carts, greasy bolany stalls (like a fried pancake with a potato and leek filling), people weaving in and out of traffic. The sky is bright blue, crisp sharp sunshine, a spectacular picture postcard view of the reclining Hindu Kush in the background, quite unaffected by the sprawl below.

The throng is thrilling.