Dinner in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Diane LeBow won the 2015 Solas Travelers' Tales award for Adventure Travel (Bronze award) for this story. The story describes the amazing experience of meeting with several hundred Afghan women exiles on the border of Afghanistan/Tajikistan, in 2000, while the Taliban were still in control, thinking she may be about to be kidnapped, and instead being invited to dinner with an Afghan family with whom she's still in contact. “Please, speak out about these crimes. But tell not just about the suffering, but also about the successes, how we are resisting,” said Halida, a math professor from Kabul, who ran secret schools for girls inside Afghanistan all during the Taliban repression. Dressed in a gun-metal grey long dress, her resolute features contrasted with her delicately embroidered white head scarf. She was one of several hundred Afghan women with whom I spent a week in Tajikistan, not far from the Afghan border. Getting to know them and hear their stories taught me a lot about our shared humanity and the human ability, not only to survive, but to continue to savor life. Family Tajikistan It was June 2000. The Taliban were still in power in Afghanistan. Their treatment of women seemed to me the ultimate in man’s inhumanity to women--imprisoned in their houses, denied education or ability to work, forced marriages, beaten and even stoned to death-- and I wanted to do something to help. While I was living and teaching college in France, I met a group of Afghan women who were political refugees. One of them said, “We’re organizing a conference for Afghan women in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just on the Afghan border. Can you assist us?” Paris was in the full glorious bloom of early summer, all around me were color and flowers, women in their summer dresses, leisurely meals at sidewalk cafes. I’d be swapping this for a Soviet style grey cinder block experience. None of us were quite sure what awaited us there. Along with some French women, we worked out the complex details of visas and flight routes, stopping overnight in Moscow en route to Dushanbe. I was apprehensive about entering an area of the world that was very much a war zone but my colleagues assured me that if things seemed to be going awry we would leave quickly. Once there we were to meet with over 300 Afghan women who had escaped across the Afghan-Tajik border. Our goal was to help them write up “A Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women,” based on United Nations’ documents. We hoped that major elements of our work would eventually be incorporated into the soon to be created Afghan Constitution and that our Declaration would be signed by world leaders, including Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton. Upon our arrival from Paris, via Moscow, at the tiny Dushanbe airport, several hundred Afghan school children in red, gold, and purple traditional embroidered clothing, as well as women and men, greeted my friends and me with roses and floods of tears. One woman threw her arms around me. “We are so happy to see you. We thought no one knew this was happening, that no one cared about us.” For the next five days, we met in a large conference room, jammed with hundreds of women and a sprinkling of men, in our simple cement block hotel. “Persecution of women is a method to install terrorism in order to paralyze society, to create a submissive society,” Khalida Messaoudi, Deputy from the Algerian government opened the conference with these words. A charismatic woman, in her early forties, her slight build belied the power of her on-going work for women’s rights. Proceedings moved slowly as all speeches and statements had to be translated from Dari, the North Afghanistan language, to French and vice versa. A tiny air-conditioning unit in one corner of the room made no impression on the more than one hundred degree humid air. I sat steaming in my dark yellow tunic top and long skirt. The Afghan women in patterned grey, black and brown long dresses with contrasting red and gold headscarves didn’t even seem to perspire. These women who were attending the conference were of sufficient education and economic backgrounds that they had been able to escape across the border. We learned later that hundreds of their less fortunate sisters inside Afghanistan had received word of our conference and met secretly to sign the petition, organize, and plan further rebellion. The burqa, the total body and head drape prescribed by the Taliban, makes an excellent covering for transporting secret messages within the women’s community, as well as food and ammunition to their men at the front. After a short speech I gave as an American educator and writer concerned about the Afghan situation, people lined up to speak with me. As one of the three Americans at the conference, people expected that I could work miracles. Their desperation made me wish that I could. “Please, help us; my family in Afghanistan is starving.” “My brother needs eye surgery. Can you help us get him to a hospital in France or the U.S.?” “My sisters and mother have been taken prisoner by the Taliban. Please help me find them.” “ Why can’t America stop Pakistan from continuing to fund the Taliban?” I met almost round the clock with women professors, doctors, engineers and computer scientists. Their stories revealed to me what the civil society of Afghanistan has been and can be once again. Western news coverage of Afghanistan generally presents a picture of illiterate warlords and draped women which makes it easy for us to dismiss their situation as hopeless. However, earlier, into the sixties, Afghanistan was a progressive society. Women’s equal rights were guaranteed by the Afghan constitution. In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, women, at least in the urban centers, were educated and active participants in the society. They comprised fifty percent of the civil administration, seventy percent of the teachers, forty percent of the physicians, and had fifteen percent representation in the highest legislative body in Afghanistan—a larger number than the United States. One afternoon outside the meeting hall, the face of one woman especially intrigued me. As I looked at her on that sweltering day, Sophia formed a slight figure, probably in her twenties, in a black dress and coat, her gaunt face and dark hair peeping out from under her black and tan headscarf. Her large eyes had a tragic, almost hypnotic stare. I introduced myself with simple French and English. As we talked a bit, Sophia explained her situation: “My sister died three months ago. My husband is in southern Tajikistan trying to find work. I am living with my brother-in-law and taking care of his three children.” Before we parted, she invited me to dinner that evening at her family’s home. Not thinking about possible risks, the opportunity to spend time with a family and get away from the hotel where we were staying appealed to me and I accepted. About 8 p.m., her brother-in-law, Mohammed picked me up at my hotel. Dressed in tan slacks and a white shirt, he explained that his business, exporting flour and sugar, enabled him to support his family and escape from Afghanistan over the border into Tajikistan. Making our way along the dimly lit, empty streets, as we neared each intersection, Mohammed flattened the gas pedal to the floor and we flew past the police who were stationed on each of the four corners. “They are out each evening and stop anyone they feel might give them a good bribe.” A breakaway state from the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan’s supposed democracy is at best corrupt and at worst very much a police state. After about ten minutes, we parked beside a Soviet block-style cement apartment house. We walked up three flights of uneven and broken stairs in the pitch black. Sophia, who met us out front, held fast to my hand and guided me up one step at a time. “No, there are no lights,” they apologized. The sweat was running off me in the heat. It occurred to me that I hadn’t told anyone from our group where I was going. We’d been warned not to wander around in the town at night. People were living under desperate conditions here. Was I about to be kidnapped? I thought about turning and running back down the stairs. But where would I go? I had no idea how to get back to the hotel. Instead the door opened to a brightly lit and spacious apartment, clean but sparsely furnished with several pieces of overstuffed black velvet chairs and a couch. A tiny elderly woman, hunched over with osteoporosis but still spry and cheerful, whom they introduced as “Apa,” or Grandma, planted kisses on both my cheeks. They all ushered me in, the children kissing and hugging me. We sat in the living room and talked. For a moment, now and then, a wave of intense grief would cover one face or another. Then that person would rejoin us in the moment, hospitable toward this new friend, eager to enjoy some momentary pleasure. “Apa” brought out platters of her special chicken kebobs, along with the ubiquitous and delicious Afghan rice dish, a mixture of raisins, lamb, nuts, and local spices, accompanied by fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, and watermelon. No one bothered about the flies crawling on the chicken nor the ants on the watermelon. These people have been through so much, as refugees of war, bereft of their sister, wife, and mother, yet they relish moments of love and happiness, perhaps more than many of us remember to do. After our meal, “Apa” settled onto a couch and with strong arms and hands pulled her twelve-year-old grandchild, Leda, into her lap. The grandmother wore a gauzy white head covering and was dressed in a neat black and white patterned dress. Her body was strong and wiry, her skin smooth, her eyes surrounded by dark circles. She seemed ancient, and I was surprised to learn that she was only seventy. For more than twenty years, she had lived under war: first Soviet attacks, then anarchy, now totalitarianism and exile. The children were very bright, cheerful, self-confident and enjoyed showing off their English to me. They wore the typical jeans or pedal pushers and teeshirts like any child in the USA or Europe. Sophia’s dark hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a simple black dress. The twelve year old, Leda and I seemed to feel comfortable with each other, exchanging little winks and smiles. Our conversation flowed easily, talking about their current life and the lives they left behind as well as some of their pleasures like music and reading. They asked about my life and family. When they learned my family had been dead for some years, that I was single and had no children, their eyes misted over with sadness. “You must be lonely,” they said. After a few minutes, Leda took my hand. “Take me home with you. Please adopt me.” I smiled, thinking she was teasing, but when I looked up at her family’s faces I could see that they all approved of the idea. “Then you won’t be alone,” Sophia said. I told them I was very touched but didn’t know if I could do this. As I was leaving, they pressed various gifts into my hands, including a beautiful woven blue and brown scarf. “To remember us.” "I’ll send you gifts from the States,” I promised. “Sometimes packages get through,” they said. As I flew back to Paris and the following year returned to the United States, I continued to carry with me not only the scarf but a memory of how love and human fortitude exist all over the globe in areas we barely know exist.