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Carrying on in Kabul
by Meg Swanson
Life offers strange opportunities. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2006, my husband, Steve, came home with an odd glint in his eye. He had been offered a job training judges in Kabul, Afghanistan, and wondered what I thought. Six weeks later, Steve had resigned his job and was headed for Kabul. Six months later, I had taken a leave of absence from UWRF and was on my way to join him. By the time this sojourn is over, Steve will have resided in Kabul for eighteen months and I will have been here for ten.
What were we thinking? Have we lost our Midwestern minds? Our friends certainly think we have. But although they consider us starry-eyed idealists, this is not the case. While we hope to contribute to a better Afghanistan, both of us realize that the democratic experiment here is fragile and our abilities to influence its future modest at best.
But opportunity–strange or not–doesn't knock every day. We are fairly certain that the same chance will not be available to us next month or next year. Beyond that, although there are always good reasons to pass up a challenge, we were both at a place in our lives when it was possible to say “yes.” We had few personal responsibilities that required our attention. Our daughter is an adult. Our pensions are secure. Our cat was spending lots of his time with the neighbors. Maybe for the first time in our adult lives, we had the freedom to leave.
And although our Midwestern life was rich in innumerable ways, it had become predictable. Whatever else Afghanistan represents, it requires that we adapt to change–not an easy thing for middle-aged people to do, I might add. We have traded our comfy bungalow for a room in a guesthouse, our predictable jobs for unpredictable employment, and an understandable and predictable environment for one which we do not always understand and can only occasionally control. Habit is not enough to get us through a day. We tell each other that this is good for us.
It is good for us. Steve works with the Afghan Supreme Court. I head up a training unit in a legal project run by Italians. Our new jobs have given us the chance to apply our professional experience in a context where specific skills matter less than what we know about problem-solving and interpersonal communication. Both of us have learned to ask different questions than would have occurred to us at home. Is it OK to print a brochure with a photo of two Afghan women on the cover or is such a photo culturally insensitive? What kinds of examples can we use in a legal research book that will resonate with Afghan judges? How can we help Afghan legal trainers gather course materials in a place where there are no textbooks? Where is the Dari (Persian) alphabet font on the computer?
We work with people from different countries who come with different ideologies and belief systems. Our assumptions are often tested. Steve, for his part, works primarily with Afghans and Americans. Among my colleagues are an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Pakistani, an Englishman, and many Afghans. Mostly we communicate in English but Arabic, French, and Dari occasionally break out at the lunch table. The Tunisian/Egyptian soccer competition for the African Cup generated as much enthusiasm as any Vikings game. Occasionally a debate breaks out over some tenet of Islam and I listen to my Muslim colleagues. Turns out there are many ways to be a Muslim. My Afghan co-worker instructs me in aspects of Afghan history and culture and tells me stories about the days of the Taliban.
Our new living situation–like some weird reality show–gives us a chance to observe human behaviour up close and personal. Everyone tries hard to get along and mostly manages to do so. Like a large dysfunctional family, we try to gossip only about people who have left and to be charitable about those who are still hanging around. This means that it is an act of real courage not to turn up for dinner. We eat good meals prepared by a terrific Afghan cook who will try his hand at anything we ask for. We planoccasional movie nights gathering around the DVD player with our pillows to eat chocolate chip cookies and watch copies of first run films acquired from who knows where. We watch American Idol. We work out in the makeshift gym. We play an occasional game of pool. We sit on the rooftop terrace and watch the changing light on the barren mountains that surround Kabul. This might be life in a UWRF college residence hall.
Life in Kabul is not a romp in the park–in fact, the parks are off limits. Although we thought we had signed on to work in a post-conflict environment, turns out there is still a war going on here. Kabul itself experiences acts of violence on a regular basis. Outside of Kabul, factions continue to fight one another throughout the countryside. If we don't fear for our safety it is because we take few risks. We live behind metal gates in a guarded building. My office compound is protected by armed guards. We drive to work in armoured cars and avoid public places. We read the daily safety reports and keep our heads down. Our pleasure over the arrival of spring is tempered by the fact that the violence typically increases when the weather improves.
Oddly enough, we have gotten accustomed to all of this. We strain to pay attention to those things that we can see from the window of our passing car but do not permit ourselves to roll down the window and stick our heads out into the warm spring breeze. So, here we are! Turns out there are lots of other people like us. Some are grizzled ex-patriots making careers of development work. Some are starry-eyed young people exploring the world and working on their resumes. Some are hyphenated Afghans returning to the place of their birth. Others, like us, are mature adults able to say “yes” to this most unlikely of adventures.
We are lucky. In the end we know we can return to our Midwestern lives. I look forward to sitting in my back yard and watching the birds, to walking to the coffee shop on Sunday morning, to returning to our local gym. I look forward to driving a car again. I can't wait to return to the North Shore to commune with Lake Superior. Our house will still be there. We know that meaningful work will come our way. Our friends and family will welcome us back—and may even be willing to listen to our stories.
Professor Meg Swanson has taught theatre arts courses at UWRF since 1980. She shared some of her Afghanistan stories in the Jan. 31 Community Voices column of MinnPost.com and contributed these reflections for Falcon Features at the beginning of May. She and husband Steve are nearing the end of their Afghanistan adventure.
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