Surprising things about Kabul*

So, I’ve been trying to think of how to blog about this new transition.  It’s hard because I’m surrounded by so many Afghanistan experts, from natives to long-term expats to know-it-all short term expats.  Sparks, who often instigates blog posts from me when I feel social pressure to avoid it, asked me to write about what has surprised me about Kabul.  And a lot has surprised me.  I don’t know what I expected really, but here’s what’s caught me off guard so far:


Kabul is beautiful.  And it’s not just the places I’ve been that have trees and rose gardens, but even the dusty side streets with the 12 year old fruit vendor on the corner.  Bear in mind, I also think Cleveland is beautiful.  But the roses, the pinpoints of light over the city as the sun sets and the mountains that double as protective neighbors and skyline generators create a site to behold, especially in evening.  During the day, the hustle and bustle of Kabul entices me to get out of my work vehicle and walk around (which I am not able to do on most occasions).  And I blend in to boot!  Assuming that I’m a deaf mute.


Brought to you by US tax dollars (and some other money too), Kabul is electrified.  Kampala, for instance, is not.  I’m once again living in a space of privilege with a generator, but normal people don’t need electricity when it’s daylight, just sayin’.  The only problem is that these mountains of lights don’t have running water.  And as far as I’ve heard, no one has come up with exactly what to do about that.  Gravity is cruel.

Thoughts while getting around

I don’t mind wearing a scarf, I think scarves are pretty.  What I mind is not being able to walk freely.  The parts I’ve seen in the city have few women walking alone, and almost no women walking with men.  Women walk with men if they are related.  Otherwise, they walk with other women or children.  Well that just doesn’t work for me.  As an expat, it also doesn’t entirely apply to me.  Though due to a variety of concerns, my movement is limited.

The men, on the other hand, enact the stereotypes of a population whose physical bearings are repressed.  There’s a lot of touching and playfulness between the men.  What looks to my western eye as flirting.  Of course, they can’t all be gay, right?  But then, how do we construct gayness here? This is nothing new for me, Ramadan in Egypt opened my eyes to the way other men, not stereotypically defined heterosexual American men, sometimes play.


Amongst my colleagues, socializing is easy.  The expats are generally approachable and the Afghans are polite and an appropriate amount of curious.  No one has asked me to marry them this week and I don’t foresee that issue coming up.  Otherwise, the nightlife scene, because there is one, is pretty interesting.  There are a few restaurants to go to and while I haven’t really seen it, I’ve been told there are even places to dance.  There are places where Afghans and expats interact, there are places off limits to one or the other group, the idea that you have to stay in your compound and never leave is still here, but there are obvious exceptions.  I feel that where I am now offers a good balance of security and freedom, though like any velociraptor, I need to throw myself at the electric fence a few times to find the weaknesses through which I can escape when needed.


For those who know me, you’ll know I’ve never exactly fit the classic view of femininity in the States.  When my peers were wearing short shorts in my hometown, I tried it out, didn’t really suit me.  In Cleveland, I dressed more as a pseudo punk academic (think bright colors, chokers, sweaters and t-shirts with long sleeves, influenced by the Honey sisters) than anything else.  Then in DC, I donned the awkward black on black outfits of the NGO sector inside the beltway, investing in my power suits when I had the money to do it.  Kampala let me explore skinny jeans and workplace appropriate sundresses.  And now, all of this combines into long thigh length tops and pants, occasional long skirts, and lots of scarves.  While I don’t think I’m always wearing the most flattering clothes I do feel a sense of relief.  I’m able to wear things that are comfortable (albeit a bit warm), that fit clearly defined social norms, and that don’t make me worry if I’m fitting into someone else’s view of femininity.  It’s oddly freeing.  It’s odd because I am fitting into someone else’s view of femininity, but it doesn’t feel so restrictive because this view was never supposed to be mine.

Which leads me to a realization that I have known for a long time, my interest in international work, in anthropology, stems from a feeling of anomie at home.  Listening to the call to prayer as I finish up this rant, reminds me that I’m not at home here, but that the more I learn about the space around me, the more I will understand my home and how I construct “home.”


*If anything offends a reader in this post, remember that my personal thoughts are my own and that I have my own sense of humor.



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