Today is my 59th birthday. I don’t feel one day older, much less one year older, but older I am. And I never thought I would be spending ANY birthday in a place called Afghanistan, but here I am. I suppose the lesson is that we should try not to expect anything. Things have a way of working out unexpectedly.
For instance, today, I thought I would be sitting at my desk, editing and re-writing reports, but instead, my team leader asked at breakfast whether I wanted to go to a Prosecutor’s Association meeting instead. Well, let’s see. I could sit at a desk, or I could put on my body armor and ride in an armored truck to see the wandering goats and sheep, the motorcycles and the covered motorcycles (called “toc tocs,” I have discovered), the pedestrians who occasionally wander through traffic as though there are walkways and traffic cops to guide them, the dirty watermelons and potatoes – well, you get the idea. I chose what would probably be a boring meeting – equal to a seminar about the commercial code (the UCC, for those in the know, and if you are not in the know, trust me, you don’t care) – over life at a desk. And boy, was it worth it in more ways than one!
We climbed into the truck, this time driven by an older man, and Huge, rather than Ferocious, was the security guy. We followed a different route to the hall, and saw more of the open air strip shopping centers, more people wading through traffic, and more dirty watermelons, but no parades of goats or sheep. The driver was not quite sure of himself sometimes, because rather than just bluster his way down the thoroughfare, he actually paid attention to the people he might hit if he were not careful.
We arrived at the meeting, which was held at the same hall I had visited last week, or the week before. The days are running together now. This was the beautiful hall with a curved glass wall, marble floors, and open windows instead of air conditioning. Unbeknownst to me, we had previously been in only a small room in the building; the room we visited today was huge and had red theater seating, and all the seats were full. We still had no air conditioning, but the very tall windows were open, the overhead fans whirred loudly, producing a nice breeze, and the wind started blowing more steadily; really, except for my hot flashes, the temperature was pretty comfortable.
Not surprisingly, most of the people in the room were men, and most of them were in western dress: suit and tie. A couple of hold-outs wore the traditional male Afghan dress, and a couple of reprobates showed up in jeans and t-shirts. The provincial governor attended, and he, too, was dressed in western style, in a very nice gray suit and dark tie. He looked very gubernatorial, and with his silver hair and glasses, could have come from any of our United States.
The women, few though they were, wore traditional dress, although most wore black gowns over skinny jeans and very sophisticated, simply embroidered head coverings. A few wore the head coverings that look more like burkhas, those that actually reach the floor. Their faces are visible, though. Unfortunately, in the style department, those wraps fail a very important test: Does this (dress, pair of pants, skirt, full body wrap) make me look fat? When these young ladies, and they were all young, draped themselves with the coverings, they also covered their huge, full, cross-body bags, which made each and every one of them look as if she had some sort of weird growth on the side of her body.
The women who were at the podium, however, and there were three of them, were dressed much more nattily. One had on a subtle gold and tan print suit with a long skirt, heels, and matching head cover; another wore basic black and wore an animal print head cover; and Maria Bashir, the head prosecutor, one of Time’s most powerful women of 2011, wore a beautiful black long jacket with accents of different colors, making her look both traditional and yet progressive, stylish, and smart. Okay, enough of the fashion show.
Though we are in country that has many connections to the 13th century, the room today was filled with gadgets from the 21st century, including a computer and power point screen that were never used, media out the wazoo, and microphones everywhere. In a nod to combining centuries, all the guests in the room, including me, were served room-temperature bottled water by manservants carrying trays. None of this “Go grab your own water out of the ice chest and be quick about it!” that we see at our lawyer meetings!
The meeting was to start at 9:00 a.m., but (and apologies to Jim and his family), the governor was on Buckley time and didn’t show up until about 9:40.
Then the real show began, and I didn’t understand a word of it. I don’t think that made any difference, though, because I loved the ceremony of it all. Additionally, one of the nationals who works in our office, a woman, was there, and, feeling sorry for me, dragged a young man over to me and told him to interpret for me. He didn’t know what to do, and to his credit, he struck up a quiet conversation and tried to clue me in on what was happening.
First, a mullah gave the invocation, which he actually sang. It sounded similar to a Jewish prayer sung by a cantor. Then someone from Mrs. Bashir’s office spoke and welcomed my colleague and me in very good English. Then the governor spoke and left. Then someone from the Attorney General’s office spoke. Then someone else spoke. And finally, a rustle in the audience indicated that Mrs. Bashir was ready to speak. I have no idea what she said, but everyone in the room was listening to her, so it must have been good. After that, we broke for tea.
I have never been a coffee drinker, and so when I attend most functions that have a morning break, I look around for hot water and a tea bag, or I take out my tin of French Vanilla Café to puzzled looks – and then there’s the messy part about getting rid of the tea bag and the sugar paper, and the stir stick. But today, I was in the majority. In fact, I don’t think coffee was even available. I had hot tea that had already been steeped, and THEN I had the most wonderful shortbread cookies. I ate two of them, and had to convince myself that a third would be either rude or ridiculous. The men sitting around the table, however, gestured and encouraged me to take as many as I wanted. Sometimes, language is no barrier at all.
After the break, I went up to Huge, who was standing by the wall with his AK-47, and asked if he knew where I could find the ladies’ room. He said he would take me, and we walked to the end of the hall, where there were two doors. He gestured, and I walked toward the door on the right, although neither indicated a gender. He said, “I don’t know if there’s a toilet. Maybe there is.” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right, and so I walked in, closed the door, and headed for a stall. I heard men talking, and I looked up and saw that the dividing wall ended about five feet over my head, and that both rooms were contained in the same space. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation, but at least I had chosen the correct door.
I am not going to go into excruciating detail here, but I looked in the stall and quickly left that stall and went to the other one; they were the same. In each stall was a hole in the beautiful marble floor. Above it was a tank and a chain flush mechanism. It was obvious that when this hall was built, obviously not in any century close to this one (!), no one expected a woman to ever go there. I stared and thought quickly. I was wearing trousers. I left and told Huge, “I am going to wait until all these people are seated, and then I am going to have to come back.” And I did just that. When I left the room, my clothes were fine. Huge said to me, “You’ve never been to Europe, have you?” I’m thinking I may not ever go.
Again, I will not go into picturesque detail here, but those of you who know me know that camping is simply out for a variety of reasons. This bathroom situation is one of the reasons. Some brilliant person invented toilets for a reason, and because they have been around for a long time, I think they should be everywhere, including in the bathrooms in 21st-century Afghanistan.
I will brag on Huge, though, who stood by the door, looking as if, I’m sure, he was daring anyone to come close.
After the meeting was over, after Huge held my scarf and my purse and my camera while I put my body armor back on, we hopped back in the truck to head back to our compound. This time, we passed a famous landmark: the Big Blue Mosque. That is its name. In fact, when I was trying to put together a list of resources and their addresses, I found out that in Herat, places do not have addresses. So when I asked where Legal Aid would pick up a package, my national colleagues told me to write, “By the Big Blue Mosque.” I thought they were kidding, but they were not.
Eventually, we arrived at the compound, after seeing not goats and sheep, but cows and horses, instead, being led through traffic by their owners. The desk was waiting for me, and I had chores to do. But I reveled in my experiences, and thought that they couldn’t have come on a better day than my 59th birthday, when I first was able to, and then HAD to, try something new.
Thanks to the people at the meeting who were kind and generous and accepting, and thanks to Huge for going with us, and for keeping us safe, and for standing by the door as Ferocious (and Max) had to do. I got a photo of Mrs. Bashir that I will share if I can figure out how, and I also have a photo of me in my gear. I look quite fetching, though lumpy.
Some comments on today’s happenings: I am safe, though many in the Middle East are not; as much as I castigated the men who convinced a young teen to take his own life in an attempt to kill others, I have the same disdainful feelings for one in our country who would make an incendiary film for his own purposes regardless of the danger to others, and for those who would react to the film in such an outrageous and vengeful manner. Today, I experienced a totally different reaction from those who are different from me, who do not speak my language – literal or figurative, and who do not look upon me as an equal because of my gender. I experienced openness and warmth, and I wish that those were the prevalent reactions between our people. I wish we could find a way to peace.