Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part VII)

Friday, March 12, 2004

Bamyan, Afghanistan

Upon returning to Bamyan, I quickly asked Homa to check around and see whether AIHCR was angry with us. True enough, they were pissed off but still try to keep their pride by rejecting our offer to help them out with other stuff. We received an invitation card from AIHRC to attend the IWD on 8th March and everyone asked whether we should attend after what happened.

I had no doubt that I had to attend just to indicate to them that we would still support their event no matter what. Most importantly, I just wanted to take the opportunity to distribute some posters on women’s rights to vote on that day. Yep, these are crucial strategies for us and whether I like it or not, I need to seize every such opportunity. Thankfully, AIHCR was gracious enough to allow us to do that which was very admirable of them.

Anyway, I attended the event and was bored to death. They made me a VIP by asking me to sit on the front row, right in front of the podium with the rest of the “International Community”. I wanted to sit right at the back on the aisle so that I could sneak out whenever I wanted to. I have attended one too many Afghan official ceremonies and know how long winded they can get because they love long speeches and never make any attempt to translate for us. This is one of the most annoying parts of being in Afghanistan.

As hospitable as they may be, they never bother translating anything for foreign guests, which is really illogical. What’s the point of making us VIPs if they don’t expect us to understand or participate in their events? The whole morning was wasted on long and may I add, mostly uninspiring speeches to express their gratitude and showcase what they had done.

Peter Maxwell, our UNAMA Head of Office, gave a speech on behalf of UNAMA, and a female Kiwi soldier gave another on behalf of the Provincial Rehabilitation Team (PRT – military-based humanitarian team). The rest was in Dari. So, anyway, I really did sneak out at the end of one of the speeches because it was really a waste of time for me to be there and I just didn’t care if anyone was offended. If anyone thought I was being rude, I was just going to tell him/her that if they didn’t bother translating for me, it probably meant it wasn’t important for me to listen.

So, later on in the afternoon, I received a call from Peter Maxwell summoning me into his office. When I entered his office, he wasn’t alone. Sitting there was Mr. Mahmoody, the Regional Director of AIHCR. Earlier on in the morning, Mr. Mahmoody had greeted me with pleasantries and such a sweet smile which surprised me. Now, sitting on that chair in Peter’s office, he had the most patronizing smile on his face that crept me out.

I did not know what to expect. Well, I found out that he had come to complain to Peter about how the Electoral team abandoned them and how we did not support their event by not presenting anything about the election to the women. He said that in the beginning, we were supportive of everything and decided to have the event on 8th March but suddenly everything changed. They were left to bear the cost of the event which was such a burden.

Then, to "slap the icing on the cake", he started saying how UNAMA and AIHCR have always been in such a good relationship and now why did we abandon them? Then, as if it was totally his own wisdom, he started telling Peter that if there is another IWD event on 14th, there would be duplication of programme, etc. What a f***ing double twisting #@%*!!! I was the one who had forewarned AIHCR that.

I was really shocked with his accusations and was of course fuming by then. He really did put me on the spot in front of Peter. Peter is an elderly British man with hair and beard as white as snow. The Afghans speculate him to be more than 100 years old!!! But I think he’s just close to 70 years old.

He’s well respected by the locals mainly because he would be considered as an Elder here. The elders are older men with white hair and beard (just like Peter) and are considered to be wise and influential in the community. Because of his mature “aura” and the position he holds in UNAMA, he stands out as a figure of authority especially with his typical British “dignified” style. Hence, it was intimidating to be questioned like that in front of him.

(I always found Peter to be an intriguing and interesting person from the amount of stories I heard from other colleagues. There was one particular story which tickles my heart. According to Hari, one day while he was travelling on a car with Peter to Kabul for a meeting, they came across a traffic jam on Jalalabad Road, in Kabul. After travelling for more than 6 hours, they were understandably tired and irritable. The thought of being held back another hour in a traffic jam was too much for Peter to bear. He walked out from the car to investigate what was causing the massive jam. As soon as he identified the problem, he immediately took to the task of directing the traffic right in the middle of Jalalabad Road!

Hari said that he was speechless as he watched this distinguished elderly white man, waving around madly but of course, it worked. He managed to take control of the situation. We just couldn’t stop laughing as we heard this story.)

So, anyway, I let Mr. Mahmoody, the drama king, poured out his grief without any comments from me. In such a culture, whether you like it or not, being a woman, it’s best not to interrupt a man when he is speaking. But, I swear to God, while he was speaking, I was loading my own machine gun waiting to retaliate as soon as he stopped to breathe.

So, when he finished, as calmly as I could, I told Peter in brief points, 1st – this event was not organized by us, JEMB Secretariat alone – it was a joint effort. 2nd - the decision to postpone it was not made unilaterally. The only party that disagreed was AIHCR; having told us that they would be able to carry it out on their own without anyone’s help. 3rd – We had offered help and support but they insisted that they did not need our help. They did not send us any notice or invitation to present a speech on the election. Because this was their own event, we could not possibly butt in and say that we want to speak. They need to initiate, not us. 4th – I disagree that there would be a duplication of programme because when I attended the event in the morning, I believe it was just speeches with no activities; role-play, etc. The event on the 14th would have a more interactive and entertaining flavour.

Yes, I think I really need training in diplomacy but those were my explanations to Peter, in the presence of Mr. Mahmoody. I figured, screw diplomacy when I could give a straightforward answer without all the melodrama.

After saying all this, Peter, intervened and concluded things in my favour. I was relieved and glad that Peter could understand my position. He told Mr. Mahmoody that the next time, he needs Electoral’s support, he would need to send an invitation. He also said that for IWD, the DOWA would take priority in the event rather than AIHCR. If it were International Human Rights Day, then AIHCR would be a priority. THAT WAS EXACTLY WHAT I THOUGHT!!

Then, he ended by saying, “And as usual, I agree that UNAMA and AIHCR should maintain good relationship” as a sign that it was the end of the conversation.

I hope Mr. Mahmoody has learnt his lesson not to mess with foreign women. I think that he thought he could get away with his malicious and juvenile act because I am a woman. I am beginning to feel the pressure and frustration of working in Afghanistan simply because I am regarded as a second-class gender. It has been a constant battle trying to work with our national male trainer, Aliase and language assistant, Zafar. Both Aliase and Zafar can be a huge challenge as both are quite proud and chauvinistic. They hate receiving instruction from me and would just ignore me when they are not happy with it. By right, I should not even have to deal with them but because Phillip is completely opposite from me; i.e. he is easy going and laid back, I have to do the pushing. He does not push them to do things. I am the bitch from hell and he is Mr. Nice Guy.

What I could not stand is the way how these men treat the women here. I cannot change the patriarchal culture here but I certainly cannot tolerate such behaviour in my office. Aliase constantly manipulates Homa into doing trivial stuff thinking that it is a woman’s job. Aliase hates translating things for me because he thinks being a translator is a second-grade job. Zafar treats our female Civic Educator, Halima, whom he is completely and utterly in lust with, like dirt.

Once Zafar was angry with me simply because I said that I did not want unrelated people in the office while we were doing the shortlisting of candidates. Nepotism is rampant in Afghanistan and I take the recruitment process very seriously. Many of the national staffs have been helping their friends in the applications, etc. I don’t care how my other colleagues are handling the recruitment of their national staffs, but I want to make sure mine is done in a fair and just manner.

So, I insisted that the shortlisting was done in complete privacy and no intervention from unrelated people. Zafar got angry that I had refused to let him stay in the office. When I asked him a question, he refused to look at me and he mumbled bitterly; simply trying to make my life difficult. I asked him who were in the shortlisting panel the day before; he mumbled something. I was very angry but at the same time, stubborn as well. So, I would ask him the same question again and again until I could hear him coherently. This was done in front of everyone. I was thinking that if he was going to behave like a child, I would treat him like one.

He finally provided me with some names but proceeded to wave his hand limply around trying to point at someone in the room indicating the last person in the shortlisting panel. I started asking him whom he was pointing at. He refused to mention the name but continuously pointing. Again, I did the same, asking him repeatedly until I could get a satisfactory answer. He finally pointed at Halima and said, “She”. During all that time, Halima was standing right next to him. I just looked at him in the eyes and said, “Next time, please refer to her by her name.”

He stormed out the office and slammed the door. There was complete silence in the room. That was the first time I had such a confrontation with someone publicly. It’s a wonder that I ever survived Afghanistan unharmed.

I just don’t get it. He was upset with me but why was Halima getting the brunt of it? Why must life be so difficult here? I really want to tell Zafar that he is fired because I have every single reason to do so. He has been rude to me, completely lazy and disappears half of the time without informing Phillip. The only reason that stops me from firing him is that ultimately it would have to be Phillip who could “chastise” him.

This is Afghanistan. A woman does not tell a man what to do but then again, what do I really know about that anyway?

I don’t know how long I can endure this kind of behaviour. I have constantly asked our Logistics Officer to provide the women with a separate office. If I cannot work with the men simply because they refuse to cooperate with me, why should I share an office with them and tolerate their misogynistic behaviour? I cannot close a blind eye when they are sitting on their chair doing nothing or treating their women colleagues with no respect.

So, things have been stressful and I just cannot wait to be re-deployed to the Province.

At the moment, I am back to organizing the IWD for 14th. It is stress-city again working with the women. It has been a trying effort to try to make the women understand the importance of planning and budgeting. Being uneducated, they have no organization skills at all including the Director of DOWA, whom I believe is not more than 26 years old. Female teachers here can be 15 or 16 years old.

I was the one asking them to form an Organising Committee for IWD and urged them to elect a Chairwoman; thinking that this is early exposure for them on the idea of election through absolute majority, etc. But none of them wanted to because they kept saying that everyone should be equal, etc. I tried to explain that it is important to have a Chairwoman who can lead discussions and meetings and follow-up on things. But, the idea was never accepted.

Then, I tried to tell them that they need to delegate tasks to different people and each person should honour the task they are delegated to. These women spend most of their time in meetings gossiping or catching up on each other’s daily news. They also have a tendency to be very tardy. Michael (the head of IOM office in Bamyan) and I really had our patience tested when we sat through hours and hours of meetings with these women. Although we both constantly share the same thought of why the hell are we doing this? Why are we wasting our time and energy here? But deep down, we know that we need to be patient and understanding if we want the event to happen.

Sometimes, these women really drive us insane by just being irrational. I am more sympathetic towards the women but Michael, being a typical American (“I’m American, I am smarter than you. Let me tell you what to do” – attitude) can get really sarcastic and sometimes pissed the women off by his bluntness.

So, anyway, just spent my Friday supervising and inspecting the site for IWD for Sunday. I have borrowed a huge tent which could store about 400 tonnes of food from World Food Programme (WFP). This tent is going to accommodate about 250 guests for IWD. I have hired about 16 men to set up the whole tent and it would take 2 days to put it up.

I don’t know whether my involvement and presence at the site would somehow tell the Afghan men that women can perform any job as well as any man but with me, clad in my black pants, hooded vest and a cap, with a shovel on each hand, definitely provided an imposing sight.

Gee, 14 pages! I hope you have enjoyed the stories I tell. I suppose in a place like this, putting thoughts into writing is about the only therapy anyone can get.

I wish you all well, my friends.

Ka Ea

….to be continued in Part VIII…..

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