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Why I Went to Afghanistan

I’m passionate about my kids.
But I’m passionate about other things, too.

By Masha Hamilton

My neighbor Jessie was giving in to guilt during our morning jog. “I adore this kid,” she said of her one-year-old. “But we spent a couple hours in the park yesterday and I was bored enough to cry. Today I couldn’t wait to hand him off to the sitter.” Jessie felt safe revealing to me what some might regard as a moment of maternal shortcoming because I am— ta dah— the reigning local Queen Of Maternal Shortcomings.

How’d I get the title? It began when I left my three wonderful children, ages nine to fifteen, to spend a month cloistered at an artists’ colony— no visitors, and phone calls only during mealtimes. Maybe that could be forgiven. But then I left them again, several months later, to spend two weeks traveling in Afghanistan.

That’s right, Afghanistan. Where foreign aide workers and American football heroes and election volunteers and average Afghans keep getting shot at and sometimes killed. Where I couldn’t even bring back one of those “My Mom went To Kabul And All I Got …” T-shirts, because of course they don’t make those T-shirts for Kabul yet.

While I was preparing for the trip, I came in for my share of criticism— most of it friendly, some not-so. A couple fathers said outright that I, as a mother, should not venture to a place considered unstable at best. My own husband balked at first, though he eventually came around. (Maybe it was when I began humming Cat Steven’s “I’m looking for a hard-headed woman.”)

When I told my daughter not to do anything foolish while I was gone, like walking in the park after dark, she began jabbing her finger at me, swinging her hips and speaking with emphasis. “You are going to Afghanistan, and you are telling me not to do anything dangerous?” Even Jessie urged me to write a note to my kids explaining why I’d done it, in case I never came back.

I didn’t write the note. But I did think carefully about what it meant to me to be a mom once the days of Play Dough and finger-paint are past, and in these times of terror alerts and video-taped beheadings and war.

First, I’m a normal mom: I love my kids. I know their teachers and their friends. I home-schooled two of them in the early grades, and taught all three how to read. I’ve baked bread with them, read to them and taken them to museums. When they were small, I was constantly pulling out the construction paper and scissors. Sometimes, watching them sleeping, I cried a little over the parts of their lives that I would miss, once they grew up.

I’m passionate about them, actually. But I’m passionate about other things, too. The Middle East, and Russia, and war and journalism and the stories we make up out of whole cloth and the ones that have some basis in reality. Women’s issues and shiatsu and reading. Friendships.

My desire to go to Afghanistan was fueled by a longing to know, as much as possible, what it means to be an Afghan woman today. My interest stemmed in part from that infamous footage I saw several years ago of the woman in the blue burqua shot in the head in the Kabul football stadium during Taliban times, which came to represent the cruelty to which Afghan women were subjected. I was further drawn to the country after reading Jason Elliot’s wonderful An Unexpected Light: Travels In Afghanistan, published in 2000. Finally, I was curious to know whether we have, as the Bush administration insists, substantially improved the situation for the country’s women.

I wanted to go for personal, geopolitical reasons. The world our kids are growing into is more threatening that the one we inhabited at their age. Increasingly, people— not just Americans, of course— view their global neighbors through a lens of “us” versus “them.” This seems to me as wrong as it is dangerous. Links between women and mothers from various cultures can be a crucial step in dispelling this limited way of thinking.

Occasionally I felt a jolt of fear as I prepared for the journey. So much was unknown, and so much of the news from there was bad. But I’ve lived overseas and ventured into unfamiliar places as a journalist. I knew I could make contacts and find help when needed. Plus, I arranged to meet a friend, a photographer who is also a mother. It would be her first visit to Afghanistan as well.

My trip was all I’d hoped for. I interviewed women in prison, child brides, those who’d been jailed in Taliban times, and those who’d been refugees in Pakistan. I talked to a twelve-year-old girl who was in jail for refusing to marry the man her father had chosen, a man who was nearly 40. I sat on the dusty ground with an elderly matriarch and her extended family of 25 as she showed me her box full of wishes: what she will put in her room if she ever gets a room of her own. I practiced shiatsu on women who’d never experienced massage before. I learned about those who live in the country where some 18,000 of our soldiers are now based, and where we are likely to remain involved for some time.

On a personal level, I learned more about myself as a mother, and about how I hope to send my children off into young adulthood. It’s important to me that they know the world is not so scary that we should avoid it. I want them to understand that women— and mothers— must live their lives as fully as they can, and as much according to their beliefs as possible. And I want them to recognize that some risks, once measured, are worth taking.

mmo : October 2004

Masha Hamilton has reported from the Middle East, Russia and Afghanistan, among other places. Her second novel, The Distance Between Us, will be published next month. Find out more at www.mashahamilton.com
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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