The Mysterious UN Tree
Saturday, 5 April 2003
The first image that grabbed my eyes this morning was the sight of albalou [sour cherries] and almond blossoms in the neighbour’s garden. Only two trees, but with enough colour to brighten up the otherwise cloudy morning.
The clouds remained in place the whole day. The unhappy atmosphere they produced was compounded by the news that Ehsan, our gentle driver from the Shamali plains, had lost another of his relatives – the second death in the family in about a month. The relative, a 35-yeard old member of Afghanistan’s handball team, had been taken to the doctor complaining of a pain in his chest and had died while under treatment, apparently because he had been given the wrong injection. Ehsan was devastated, saying he and his deceased relative had been very close since childhood. This death, like many others in Afghanistan, does not seem to have been inevitable.
In the evening, Parvin told me of a young boy she had met some six months ago, when he was unable to walk, suffering from a form of rheumatism. The boy’s sister came to meet Parvin by accident one day and cried her heart out about her brother. Parvin arranged for the boy to be taken to the German hospital where he was given some simple medication and recovered fully. It turned out that he had become really ill because of the medicines he had been given earlier, which he had not been able to use fully anyway, because his family could not afford their cost.
The young boy, who had lost his father, had lived with his mother and sisters as refugees in Pakistan. There, the women had worked in a laundry and they had all ended up suffering from rheumatism because of contact with water, though apparently not as severely as the young boy. To help the family, Parvin arranged for the mother and the young boy to work at our office as cleaners. I came across the young boy during my first days in the office and we are now quite friendly. He’s often the first person to get to the office, unlock the doors, clean up and give us our first cups of tea.
The office was quiet today. Saturday is a day off for our Afghan colleagues, although they come in when something big or urgent is to be done – such as the International Women’s Day celebrations. In fact, for most of March, they would also come in on Friday, which is a day off across Afghanistan. What’s more remarkable than their commitment to their work is the fact that because of the nature of their contracts, some of our Afghan colleagues do not get paid for overtime work, nor do they get time off to make up for the days off that they spend at the office. I hope this last one can be sorted out.
Now, with the big events behind us, we should be able to set up a more regular working pattern which allows people at least to enjoy their weekends with their families.
At lunchtime, again benefiting from the quiet Saturday, we were able to sit at one of the best tables at Sahel-e Sabz. The restaurant too was more colourful, thanks to the lively patterns on the new tablecloths.
In the afternoon, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. Del Agha called me, saying ‘Khalil wants to see you’. Knowing that it could not possibly be my friend from Tehran, I wondered who it could be. This Khalil was a staff member at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs whom I had met one at the Ministry, and twice later in other places, without being able to recognise him. He was understandably upset because I had not been able to remember his name, especially as he had lived in Iran for fourteen years and perhaps expected more recognition from an Iranian.
Thinking about the possible reasons for my unusual forgetfulness, I figured that this was partly due to the fact that each time I had seen him in a different place, wearing something different. But the main reason seemed to be his passivity and the relatively depressed look on his face, especially his very sad eyes. I suggested to him that although he was justified in criticising me for not remembering him, perhaps he too could do a little more by adopting a more cheerful attitude – one which would leave a more powerful impression on others.
He agreed that he was depressed, saying he was not happy with his low-paid and undemanding job. He said although he had worked as a tailor in Iran, he also had computer skills, knew some English and wanted to work with foreign organisations who pay more. A few days later, I came across a UN job ad which seemed to suit my friend and sent it on to him the day before I left Kabul.
This ad was the reason Khalil had come to our office, for a change with a smile on his face and a little bit more light in his eyes. He said he had told his family about me and they now loved me so much that they wanted me to visit their house and have dinner with them – if I ‘considered them to be worthy’ of my station. You can imagine the embarrassment I felt upon hearing this last bit. I did promise Khalil that I would visit his family whenever possible, but stressed that I considered myself to be ‘in their house’ all the time anyway.
I am aware that this story may sound like self-appreciation, but I can assure you that many other visitors in Afghanistan have had similar experiences. Just as it is easy to prevent lots of illnesses here with a little, appropriate, care and medication, it is also easy to make people happy by giving them a little advice and encouragement and they themselves would do the rest. It is at one and the same time sad that suffering should be so widespread, and promising that much of it could be overcome fairly easily.
The experiences of this single day could be put in perspective by reflecting on the fact that the US-British war on Iraq has so far cost more than fifty billion dollars. The Afghan government, which is backed by the US and Britain, has an annual budget of 2.2 billion dollars – if it can get that much from the dozen governments that have promised it help.
The evening was spent on reading and watching the 17th day’s installment of the war reports, which have now turned into something similar to a television series – perhaps the BBC soap-opera, East Enders – with two lots of thugs fighting over a neighbourhood, at the cost of the lives and property of the powerless people who live there. After several hours of news conferences, reports and commentaries – on the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and Fox — about whether or not Baghdad airport had been taken by the Americans, the one thing that seemed clear was that in the past 24 hours, more than 1,000 Iraqis had been killed and much more of Iraq’s infrastructure had been destroyed.
An equally sad picture was being displayed on about 15 Arab and Iranian television channels. Most had entertainment programmes, religious sermons, old films and old music, including some really out of date patriotic songs which I don’t think would encourage anyone to give his/her blood for the mother/fatherland. The best channels ended up with broadcasts which were as clear, or as confused, as those on the BBC and CNN. The worst ones would simply keep the audiences ignorant of what is happening to their fellow Moslems/Arabs.
Considering that most people in Asia and Africa do not have access to satellite television and that many local newspapers are also as confused or misleading as local radio and television, the only conclusion can be that most of the public in these lands do not really know what is going on. They do pour out onto the streets and demonstrate and they clearly know what they do not want. But – and we’re quite familiar with this – they may not know very clearly what they do want.
Sunday, 6 April 2003
Let me start today’s story from a few minutes ago, when I turned the TV off, having watched, again, the latest installment of what is perhaps closer to The Sopranos or Godfather, than to East Enders. On another satellite channel, the feature film, Bend it Like Beckham, was on. We had come back from work relatively early – at around 6pm. The combined effect could have made you feel like you were in any other big city. The big difference, of course, is that this make-believe world only exists in our UN environment. Out on the streets and in millions of other houses ‘normal’ life consists of all the difficulties that I have written about already, and you’ve seen on TV or read about in newspapers.
But even inside the UN-space there are reminders of the turbulent universe in which our little satellites are placed. Today we had ‘radio training’, in fact training on how to use our recently delivered walkie-talkies, a regulation piece of equipment which the security officer calls our ‘lifeline’. There are very few landline phones in Afghanistan. The mobile network is still too young and calls often break down. So, walkie-talkies are the most reliable means of long distance communication. The training took about 90 minutes and consisted of some technical instruction on how to turn the thing on and off, and use it as a transmitter or receiver.
We’re meant to use the radio if there is an ‘emergency’, such as an explosion or an outbreak of violence, in order to get help and get out of the area. In such a case, we need to access an open channel, call out someone we know and ask them for help. The trouble is that hundreds, maybe thousands, of non-UN people who have similar walkie-talkies use the same channel as a chat-line to talk about sex, or to attack their rival political or tribal factions.
Such conversations, that can get really obscene, can easily prevent the speedy transmission of a distress call unless, as the security official said, those filling the channel also have a conscience and stop their own entertainment so someone can get the help they need. I sure hope I won’t have to test the conscience of these people. I also appreciate their need to have some kind of entertainment in a land where there is precious little else.
At lunch-time, I got to know two new members of staff at Sahel-e-Sabz who had lived in Iran for 11 and 6 years. They both asked me to let them know whenever I was going to Iran so I could take along their letters to their friends, something I would love to do in the summer.
Going back in time a bit, I should tell you about our morning visit to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to which several of my colleagues who work closely with the Ministry have been relocated. A group of four UNIFEM women, from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nepal and Turkey, have turned what was a large, soulless room into a cheerful place, arranging the same furniture in such an imaginative way that the office actually looks like a reception room in a house.
Let me end with an amusing incident. As we were on our way home, I noticed a layer of small, very beautiful red and white flowers that had covered the surface of a flower-bed in front of the UNIFEM house. It was clear that the flowers had fallen from a tall tree in a corner of the flower-bed, near the office of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), one of whose staff members was standing a couple of meters away from me.
Unable to figure out the name of the tree, I turned to the FAO colleague and asked him what it was. Not only did he not know the name of that tree – which I thought was an acacia – but he also pointed to another tree, obviously not of the fruit-bearing variety, and asked me if it was mulberry! I just hope the rest of us are better informed about our areas of supposed expertise.
Monday, 7 April 2003
The FAO garden tree mystery has still not been resolved. My FAO friend who did not know what the tree was had promised to find out its name. When I met him at lunch-time, he still had not, but repeated his promise. On the way back from Sahel-e-Sabz, I asked a colleague of mine for the name of the tree. Apricot was his answer. I cannot wait for the FAO friend’s answer, which might confirm the apricot verdict. Otherwise I have to wait until early summer to see if apricots grow on the tree
Workwise, it’s been a slow but productive day. We had a team discussion of our needs, and then a further meeting to clarify our responsibilities. What we did in February and March has been met with approval. Over the next couple of months we should be able to start two training courses for Afghan TV presenters and the staff at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. We also aim to set up a forum for Afghan women journalists so they could exchange experiences and ideas and tell us how we can support them.
At the end of the day, I learned of a very nice story about the photo exhibition. The story is about an Afghan lady, 35 years old, who had been encouraged to visit the exhibition, the first time she had been anywhere without her husband. She turns up, with proper make-up applied in the car where her husband waited for her during her visit. Inside the exhibition, she lifts the burqa’ from her face and becomes an instant attraction for the media who photograph her all the time she’s there.
She leaves the exhibition with a changed character, feeling proud that she had been the star of the show. The friend who was telling me the story said the woman had felt like a woman for the first time. I suggested, and my friend agreed, that she might have felt like a person for the first time.
Back at home, we watched a little bit more news, then Frasier was on and I took the opportunity to come upstairs to write this letter. On the one hand, it’s nice to have such diversions from news, and I appreciate it when my house-mates’ viewing habits stop me from indulging in my news addiction. On the other hand, I cannot help feeling that to watch Frasier or Bend it Like Beckham in a war-torn country, when another country not too far away is being torn apart by war, cannot be a very ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ pastime.
On the one hand, this feeling might be a remnant of the guilt about enjoyment that used to be injected into our minds when we were kids. On the other hand, I might be right and we may one day lose something big simply because we did not watch every hour of the bombing of Iraq.
On that Guardian editorial-style observation, let me give you lots of love and hugs and kisses, especially since power has just been cut off and I have to go to bed.