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