From Ohio to Afghanistan

Meredith Leal is a senior majoring in Middle East Studies. She visited Afghanistan over the summer. Here is her story.

"Write a story about my trip to Afghanistan, they told me. It would be easy, they told me. To be honest, capturing one of the most life‐changing three weeks of my 25 years with words has been anything but easy. The sights, the sounds, the smells of Kabul and Herat are ingrained in me now. My perspectives on things are more developed, and my heart is more sensitive to the struggles and the victories of the Afghan people. I see pictures and I read stories from countries all over the Middle East‐all over the world‐and I "get it" better now. So, what drew me to Afghanistan in the first place? It's not just that it's a world away and foreign to me in more ways than I can count. It’s also because very few other people want to go. Very few other people care to know about the country, its history and its people. Several years ago I read a book that changed my life. I have been captivated by Afghanistan ever since, and always sadly had to say "no" when people asked if I had been over there. That all began to change this past February. Friends moved back to Kabul, and we began to discuss a visit. Finally, tickets were purchased, packing lists were written, and details on how to navigate the Afghan consulate in Dubai and the Kabul airport were in my hands. On May 31, my adventure to Central Asia began.

I quickly learned a little bit of the layout of Kabul on our way home from the airport. The city is split in half by a mountain. Embassies, ISAF HQ, NATO HQ, Afghan government buildings and the airport are all located in the northern region. Parliament is on the south side with many neighborhoods, and several NGOs. Driving the streets of downtown Kabul my friend, Ken*, who has been living in country for over 10 years, would give little history lessons. Before 2002 there were very few buildings that were over two stories tall, he mentioned once. Lack of structural security, and bombs kept them from being able to sustain more construction. Now, if you look around at Kabul, there are a plethora of buildings over two stories tall‐some even with 12 stories! We would turn down streets and his wife and my best friend, Kim*, would say excitedly, "Oh! They paved this road!" Having not been back to Afghanistan for several years, she was seeing some things new for the first time. Their stories helped me connect with the city. Having them with me was incredibly special.

Afghan village.

I remember my first weekend there quite clearly. Saturday was a normal workday for Afghans. My friends, two of their Afghan friends and I ran errands in central Kabul. To the bank we went. I could feel everyone's eyes on me, despite my headscarf, long pants and long sleeved shirt. This was one of my first experiences not being able to hold eye contact with men, and being sidelined from being in the thick of things. While bank accounts were attempted to be opened, I stood quietly and drank it all in. One of the Afghan guys with us quizzed me on my Dari reading skills‐which I impressed him with, I might add! But, I didn't understand much unless someone translated for me. Kim apologized after our two and a half hour visit because she felt like I must have been bored. I was quick to reassure her that "mundane errands" were still exciting to me, having never attempted anything in Kabul before! Later, we did something I wouldn't be excited for typically: refrigerator shopping! I learned that stores are grouped by the type(s) of good(s) they sell. Appliance stores were together, as hardware stores are near one another. So, I found myself following my friends and our Afghan counterparts into one appliance store after another to look for the ideal refrigerator. Once again, the men talked price, quality, warranties and I accepted not being in the middle of everything‐a reality I do not typically live in. The walk to the car after our search was extremely crowded. Every man in Kabul seemed to be on Electric Street with us. I walked arm in arm with Kim, navigating our way through the throngs of men, boys and carts on dusty sidewalks, in the heat of Kabul at midday.

During the drive home I sat back and watched from under my hijab and behind my sunglasses as we drove from north Kabul to the other side of TV Hill to south Kabul. Women in blue burqas, boys on bikes, girls holding hands and men piled into cars and "buses," and onto motorbikes were close by. At times I could have reached my arm out of the car and into the one next to me to tap someone's shoulder. I never would have done that, but I could have, we were that close. The traffic in Kabul can be quite impressive. There is no such thing as a proper lane; crossing a street is a feat in and of itself, as there are no lights or stop signs. Basically, you just go whenever it seems like you have time, and you just assume no one will hit you. It seemed like a jumbled mess, but somehow it made enough sense to the drivers. Experiencing Kabul traffic never ceased to amaze me.

One night, on the way to dinner at the Kabul Health Club, we passed the house of General Rashid Dostum. Last semester I took a class on the rise of the Taliban and for a few weeks we focused on the men in Afghanistan who opposed the Soviets, who became warlords and who have led the different ethnicities in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. Seeing the house of a man I have only read about in books or on the news was one of those moments when I thought to myself, "What the heck, is this real life?! Mindblown."

A couple of days later, Ken took me to Lake Qargha, with our Afghan driver and friend. It's a man‐made lake a bit north‐west of the city. On our drive, the guys pointed out that we were passing a former Al‐Qaeda training camp. The land is now used by the Afghan military. Another moment of having absolutely nothing to say. Books and news stories were running through my head as I tried to process the reality of what I was seeing‐what had been there and who had been there. I was driving on a road that Osama bin Laden had driven on, probably multiple times. I just stared out of the window trying to comprehend what I was seeing. When we arrived at the lake we drove around it, past the hotel/restaurant that had been attacked by the Taliban a year earlier, past boys selling cold treats and lunch, as well as men who were just staring at the two westerners in the car. When my friend saw Lake Qargha the first time, years ago, it was puddles, he said. Today it is at least five stories deep. On one end there is a Ferris wheel, a merry‐go‐round, food tents and paddle boats. I never would have expected to see any of this in Afghanistan. It was beautiful and helped to make the city, and the country, a place that was easier to relate to. I love water and beaches. They calm me down, they bring me peace and considering I was in a landlocked country, I really had not been prepared for the beauty that is Lake Qargha. I count that as a really special day with my friends.

One of the really interesting things I was able to do while in Kabul was volunteer with an NGO, Hagar International**, which works with women and children who are victims of human rights abuses. This organization rescues these women and children, houses them, helps to educate them and eventually aids in assimilating them back into their societies. I worked several days in the office with the Afghan employees educating them on group activities they could do with their Afghan clients to help build and develop personal values and life skills. The value of relationships, self‐worth, communication, honesty and conflict resolution were among our topics. These things are very important to me and I feel very strongly about them. Being able to share with the Afghan women the significance of those lessons and how they can affect lives was incredibly special. I was also given the task of interviewing some of the women who live in the shelter, writing up stories that describe their lives and maybe their futures.

Meredith Leal sits in a decommissioned artillery cannons operator's seat.There are so many great things about Afghanistan, but there are also many hard things, as well. There were several moments of wondering how people live in this reality, and do I really want to take on that responsibility. One of those moments came my last week in Kabul. I went with a translator to a women's shelter and heard three women share about their lives. Lives I cannot even imagine. They were some of the most emotionally difficult hours of my time there. "Beauty in the midst of pain," is a phrase that comes to mind when I remember that morning. I would not trade it for anything.

One of the stories I heard was from a girl, several years younger than me, who was raped by a man who said he loved her, and whose family no longer accepts her. She talked about feeling intense shame from what happened, as if it had been her fault. She continues to deal with the scars of being saved from death just to be sent to prison, with that man, by her family as punishment. In order to lessen their sentence, they married. Yet, when he was released, he returned to a wife and children she did not know existed. Her family does not acknowledge or accept her, so she came to Kabul, to the shelter, and has been there for over a year. At 19 years old, she is trying to get a divorce, and prays every day that she will meet and marry a good man; a man who will treat her well. She knows if she does not then she will have to learn how to support herself. She told me that she would do absolutely anything‐even sitting inside her parent's home and never leaving‐if it meant her family would talk to her again. She had a really hard time accurately expressing how she was feeling. By the end, she had tears in her eyes. I was overcome with emotions but tried not to show them too much. Her face was beautiful and innocent, except she knows too much pain to be innocent. Her features reminded me of a very dear friend of mine, and her story of rape brought to my mind a friend from college who also experienced this abuse. My heart was being torn in so many directions as I listened to her, and watched her struggle to share her aching heart with me. I was trying to hold back my tears, but I could not stop them from spilling over. Desiring nothing more than to hug her, I asked the translator if I was allowed; permission was granted. We both stood up and the girl wrapped her arms around me so tightly, and I hugged her back. We stood and cried together for several minutes. I asked the translator to tell her that she is beautiful, that she is important, that she is extremely valuable. Through the translator, she thanked me for listening to her and crying with her. She said being able to share her story with someone who showed compassion towards her made it easier for her to talk with me. My time with this precious girl is impossible to forget. Since returning home I have emailed with the translator and asked about my sweet friend. She said the girl asks about me all the time; she is doing well and taking classes. Listening to the stories she and the other women shared that day was incredibly heartbreaking. But, if I had to choose to do it all over again I would always choose to hear about their lives. Their stories are too important to miss.

My final contribution was also a huge joy for me‐and the other women, too. I am a massage therapist here in the US. My friends have always joked about me doing massage in Afghanistan because it does not seem like something people are clamoring for. However, I was able to do just that. For most of the women I met with, none of them had ever been touched with much care, especially not a touch that was meant also to heal and restore. Being a massage therapist is my job, and I love it, but giving these women massages was rewarding in ways I had not expected. When the only words you can catch are "thank you" but you are able to understand the emotion behind them because of the awe in their voice that they are being given such special attention, you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Giving my time to do something I always do might not seem like a lot, but for them, it was an enormous blessing. The smiles on their faces I will not soon forget.

I could share how safe and taken care of I felt there; I could try to explain how my life has changed forever because of my time there and what I saw and experienced. Maybe this will suffice; the family of one of our Afghan friends invited us to lunch one day. My friends have known this family for years and have a special bond with them. I was so excited to spend the day getting to know them. Once we arrived, we had all‐star treatment. Afghans are incredibly hospitable and generous. The food was absolutely delicious, and there was so much laughter. This family did not have a separate room for the men and a separate room for women while we were there. Instead, they included everyone in one room. The adult sons took turns showing off tricks, and I taught one of the girls how to make paper snowflakes. I was included as one of their own. The father, who reminded me a little of Rafiki from the Lion King, told me I was like another daughter and I now had many new brothers and sisters. I spent mere hours with this family and already I was being adopted. It was one of the most special moments in my life, to be welcomed and loved, so openly and so quickly. I think about that day and I still get warm fuzzies remembering how wonderful that day was.

The first question people asked me when I told them I was headed to Afghanistan was, "Is it safe?" Well, "safe" is a relative term; one tends to find that out the more they travel and experience different situations. I have touched on the fact that I felt safe and well taken care of. But there is a reality that there were three incidents that took place while I was in Kabul. The first two made major headlines, the third had less news coverage. The first was the attack by the Taliban on the military section of Kabul's international airport. Less than a week after arriving and I was reading news stories and looking at pictures on the BBC of what was happening only 40 minutes away and on the other side of the mountain from me. That might not necessarily sound like much, but it was. If I had not been reading news reports, I would have had no idea that anything was happening. The same thing happened with the suicide bomber at the Supreme Court building in Kabul. I was taking a nap when the attack happened. About thirty minutes later I was preparing to leave to meet with some friends of Kim's. We called a taxi, I got in and told them my destination and the driver's response was, "Are you sure you want to go there? There was an explosion there just recently." Well, I had never been asked a question like that. I had never been anywhere where my comings and goings had been hindered by explosions. I paid the driver for his time, and went back inside to talk to Kim and Ken. Several times throughout the rest of my time in Kabul we drove past the Supreme Court building, or at least within a couple of blocks. I remember sittng in the office at Kim's house and one of their Afghan friends walking in and showing Ken a picture of the scene at the courthouse. They refused to let me see it. I didn't even protest; and for me, that's saying a lot. I like to know and see everything. Knowing that I was in the same city as these events was another mind‐blowing realization that I did not know how to process. I flew in and out of the Kabul airport, I knew people whose flights were delayed because of the gunfire. I know where the courthouse is, and I know that where I was headed after it happened was an extremely short drive away. I was never afraid for my life, but coming to understand a small iota of what it means to grow up in a country where war, violence, and bombs is your baseline for existing felt very heavy. However, I do not wish to have come and gone from Afghanistan without experiencing these, and other, difficult moments. They may be hard to process, and understand, but they are real. People experience these moments day in and day out. I hope, one day, that there are generations of Afghans who do not have war as their baseline.

There are many random things I remember from my trip. How they use Kleenex for napkins, or the feeling of driving on roads that have never been touched with asphalt or concrete, for example. I remember the amazing beauty that is the mosque in Herat, and how much cleaner the air smelled in that city during my weekend there. I cannot forget how hard it was to not be able to hug some of the people I came to know well, because of our genders. And how puttng my hand on my heart when I greeted people became second nature, in lieu of handshakes and hugs. I will always remember how great I feel about chicken kebabs and how they might be my favorite food. And the joy my friends got when we discovered fro‐yo had arrived in Kabul! I can still recall the first time I heard the call to prayer my first night there. I was sitting on the back patio eating pizza from Pizza Brasil. I assumed it was the call to prayer, but I asked Kim and Ken just to be sure. They chuckled as they realized, yet again, what was second nature to them, was brand new for me. I will never be able to forget the sounds of the ice cream carts that are pushed all around the city. They played jingles of three songs, including "Happy Birthday" that I could never fully block out! I could regale you with tales of airports with five security checkpoints before you even get IN to the airport, and several more once you get inside. But that would take forever.

I brought back some beautiful pieces of Herat glass, scarves, lapis lazuli and of course, photos. But, even more than all of those things, I have this: the incredible privilege to know some of the country and people of Afghanistan personally. I know that, beyond militant attacks, despite the horrible treatment of some women, Afghanistan IS a beautiful place. There are men and women of courage, of strength, of good character, of deep moral convictions and with a genuine desire to make their country better than it is. They have hope and want to give hope to future Afghans. They are our brothers and sisters. My heart broke many times there, but even more often was I filled with joy and love for these people and this country. I hope to continue being a part of its growth.

I hope that as my senior year at The Ohio State University continues I will have more opportunities to share about my experiences, and one day, hopefully, make it back to Afghanistan!"

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