Archive for March, 2009

Finding Sahera

Sahera holds a copy of Beyond Belief. Her picture became the movie poster and DVD cover for the film. Three years ago, I had one of the most powerful filming experiences of my career. Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, the two September 11th widows featured in my film Beyond Belief met Sahera Naznia, an Afghan war widow. On the surface, they had absolutely nothing in common–Susan and Patti lived in Boston’s wealthy suburbs and enjoy women’s rights to their fullest. Sahera was struggling to feed her children and was not permitted to leave the house without wearing a burqa. But the women connected–as widows, as mothers, as women. When Susan found out I was heading back to Afghanistan she asked me if I would deliver a video message. The idea of reconnecting with Sahera was almost too good to be true. Despite the fact that she’s illiterate (90% of the… LEARN MORE

The Problem with American Men

We’ve visited one family at home since we’ve been here, and had no trouble filming because the two girls are orphans and the aunt they live with is a widow. So, that means there is no man in the family to tell them that they can’t be filmed. Free to make up their own minds, they are excited to participate. But today was different. We were invited into the home of Hameida, a first grader at the Zabuli Girls’ School, who lives with seven women and two men (her father and grandfather). And there was no way these men were going to allow Kevin, a foreign man–and worse an American man–intimate access to their home where he would see their women’s faces. Disappointed, he handed the camera over to me. “This is what happens here,” our translator said as Kevin graciously accepted a cup of coffee from the school administrator…. LEARN MORE

Afghanistan the new Vietnam?

A former North Vietnamese army officer thinks so. Read this GlobalPost dispatch. And don’t miss the Reporter Notebook – great read.

First Day of School

When 18-year-old Raila Wafa took her seat in fifth grade class this morning, she officially became the oldest student at the Zabuli Girls’ School. “I’d like to put her in Grade 6,” said school founder Razia Jan. “But we don’t have a sixth grade yet because of funding.” What will happen when fifth graders graduate? “We’ll add one then,” she says, just like they added a fifth grade class this year for all the fourth graders who graduated last year. Raila was one of three students for whom today was the very first day of school here. For the other two students, today was their very first day of school–period. (Majida at recess on her first day of school.) Although eleven-year-old Majida and eight-year-old Baso had repeatedly asked to go to school, their father would never allow it. Instead, he insisted the girls stay home and work in the family’s… LEARN MORE

As praise is coming in from Afghanistan’s president for Obama’s new war plan, the Afghans we talk with say they’re cautiously optimistic. “I don’t want to focus on then negative,” one person told us. “But you see on people’s faces here that they are anxious. They are just waiting for what’s next. No one really knows.” While calling the growth of radical forces here the greatest threat to America and the world, Obama laid out a plan that will put more American troops here (4,000 now are added to the 17,000 already announced), do more to train Afghan forces, and (if Congress approved it) hand over $1.5 billion to Pakistan to help fight terrorism. I’m no terrorism expert, but I’ve been re-reading Ghost Wars, and Pakistan has a long and troubling history with the Taliban, and there is still evidence that the Pakistani Intelligence Service is largely responsible for supplying… LEARN MORE

Meeting the Mullah

Across the street from the Zabuli Girls’ School is a mosque with a madrassa, an Islamic religious school where boys study and memorize the Koran. Madrassas have earned a bad reputation of late—associated with producing militant Islamists who interpret religion in violent ways. In Pakistan especially, Taliban fighters are known to have been educated at Saudi-backed madrassas teaching Wahhabism, a particularly fiery brand of Islam. But there are still madrassas, like this one in Deh Subz, where boys come not to be Taliban, but to become Talibs or teachers. “The word Talib can be somewhat misleading here because Talibs are an important part of life in Afghanistan.” says Razia Jan, founder of the Zabuli School. Razia remembers Talibs coming to her home as a child after a death in the family. “There can be as many as 30 Talibs associated with a mosque, and after someone dies they come to… LEARN MORE

Kabul at Night

The last time I was here, I didn’t venture out after dark, so I’d never really seen Kabul’s nightlife. But last night we were invited to dinner and a fire pit party at the U.S. Embassy compound, and Razia Jan and I were excited for a night out. Given that Friday is the weekend, Thursday night is a big night for weddings, and the Kabul Dubai Wedding Hall was lit up like a Las Vegas hotel. In Afghanistan men and women are separated during the wedding celebration—this way the women can wear slinky dresses and gyrate on the dance floor to their heart’s content. Live music is played on the groom’s side, and the sound eventually makes its way to the women. “They pay $10-15,000 for these weddings,” Razia Jan says, “and then they are in debt the rest of their lives.” When we arrive at the ISAF entrance of… LEARN MORE

Green City

Deh Subz means Green City, and it’s named so for all the grape vineyards that grow here. The best green grapes and raisins in Afghanistan come from here, and our driver was in the middle of a sentence about the excellent soil quality when we noticed military police lining Pacha Sahib Street, the main road east out of Kabul center. When we turned right onto Deh Subz Road, the line of force kept going–MPs perched in the back of Toyota pickup trucks, mounted machine guns at the ready. In a city where ISAF, Operation Freedom, and Afghan forces (and all the tanks, military vehicles and guns that go with them) are such a constant presence, this might not seem like a big deal. But this was different, and we could all sense it. “Today there is much security,” our driver said. “There is danger.” The danger is Tarakhel, the village… LEARN MORE

In Case You’re Wondering…

I want to provide some updates to past blog entries: Today we met Khodjia (pictured left), the younger sister of Khudaja, the 11-year-old bride. She is a sweet girl who sat in the back of her class and wandered through the playground alone as the other girls twirled around singing and laughing. Later, we went back to her home, and saw Khudaja and the aunt, their guardian. I can’t get one part of the conversation out of my head: “I don’t want to hit them,” the aunt told me, “but sometimes they drive me to it. Sometimes they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, so I hit them.” Why was she telling me this? I didn’t even ask. “I can’t hide it from God,” she said. “So why should I hide it from you.” I also found out that Khudaja’s wedding will most likely happen in three years—when she is… LEARN MORE

Pajamas to Dinner

You know how we have curbs on the side of the road? You go a little too far and your tires hit, a nice gentle tap reminding you to stop, and protecting you from what’s beyond? Well, here there are wide, deep ditches lining the streets. Go a little too far, and you’re stuck. And that’s what life is like in Afghanistan. It’s like everyone has fallen in a deep ditch, and is trying to escape. Some are climbing, some are clawing, some are content getting high and sitting at the bottom, waiting for the walls to cave in. Few ever actually make it out. Things are so difficult and take so long here it’s mind-boggling. We went to the Ministry of Interior General Directorate of Foreigners Affairs Consideration Recording of Population Data Foreigners Registration Office (try turning that into an acronym) to make ourselves “official.” The first time we… LEARN MORE

11-Year-Old Girl Engaged to 9-Year-Old Boy

Pictured are 11-yr-old Khudaja (left) who is engaged, and her 9-year-old sister.Today, we met Khudaja, a thin, shivering 11-year-old girl with big white teeth and bright dark eyes. “Salaam,” I say to her. “My name is Beth.” With a wide grin, she says right back to me, “My name is Khudaja.” Khudaja learned some English last year in 3rd grade, her first and only year in school. “I like school a lot. I like to learn.” But three months ago, during school winter break, she became the victim of a fiancé swap. Khudaja’s 18-year-old cousin needed a wife, so her guardian—an aunt—traded her to get a girl for her own son. Khudaja’s fiancé is the 9-year-old younger brother of her cousin’s fiancé. And her future father-in-law is forbidding her to go back to school. “Maybe you could talk to the boy’s family,” Zia Jan, school administrator, pleaded with the aunt… LEARN MORE

The Power of Potential

First thing this morning we headed west out of Kabul for Deh Subz. It’s only 8 miles outside Afghanistan’s capital, but the roads and traffic are so bad that it takes 45-minutes. Still, it’s a big improvement from three years ago when the Zabuli School was being built. Then, there were no roads here at all – and none of the many vegetable shops and homes we now see lining this new street. “Sometimes when there was three feet of snow, we’d get stuck,” Razia Jan reminisced on her first trip back to her school since winter break. “People would have to come and literally lift the car up to rescue us.” The new road, the shops, the houses – they are all, Razia says, a sign of progress—a sign that although Afghanistan is a land of broken systems, somehow these systems work. Another sign that the system is working… LEARN MORE

The Weather Outside is Frightful

It’s damn cold in Kabul. And it’s the rainy season. Not a great combination when you’re silly enough not to check the weather forecast before coming and expect balmy, dry 70s. As I’m shivering and trying to wiggle my numbing toes despite three pairs of socks, I notice the young girls at the school wearing nothing but sandals over their bare feet. And they have big smiles on their faces.

Brush, Bowels, and Becoming Gender Neutral

The Brush We are experiencing a brush with royalty in Kabul. The 5-bedroom home where we are staying also has visitors from Afghanistan’s royal family. The daughter-in-law and father-in-law of Mohammed Daoud, the country’s first President, came in from the United States and Sweden for Daoud’s funeral last week. Daoud had staged a coup against his own cousin, King Zahir Shah in order to take power in 1973, and then himself was killed in a bloody coup in 1978 that sent the country into decades of bloodshed and turmoil. “If you ask any Afghan when did it all start, they will say it is because of that, the assassination of Daoud, this was the turning point,” said Nadir Naeem, Daoud’s grandson who left behind a white shirt on the coat rack in the room where I’m now staying. “The last day that Afghanistan was independent was 27th April, 1978.” (Quoted… LEARN MORE

Return to Afghanistan

I’m excited to be back in Afghanistan to film at the Zabuli School, an all-girls’ school in the village of Deh Subz, about 8 miles outside Kabul. There has never been a girls’ school in this village before and founder Razia Jan is a true force of nature. Despite lots of pressure from the Ministry of Education to turn the school over to the government, she maintains control. “If they got their hands on it,” she tells me, “they’d destroy it. In one month there would be boys there, and soon there would be no girls at all.” Kevin Belli and I arrived yesterday – on Nawrooz, the Afghan New Year. We flew in on Ariana Airlines from Istanbul. (I’d spent a week in Turkey with my husband, Dennis, and daughter, Isabelle. It was an incredibly special vacation, and Dennis is such an incredible Dad – spending 21 hours traveling… LEARN MORE