Chapter One: Men, Boys and Dust
Men, boys and dust. That was my initial impression when I first went to the
Afghan border area in 1982, an expert in project design sent to assess the
efficiency with which aid was being delivered to Afghan refugees by the
international community. I had lived, traveled and studied in other countries,
including Islamic ones, but even there, my contacts had been limited to people
like me--modern, educated, urban people. This was not the group that populated
the border area or lived in the refugee camps.
Reviewing the aid projects consisted of two activities. I toured the camps, visited the health clinics and distribution centers and surveyed the other services Western agencies were providing. I took part in the meetings where these agencies discussed how things were going and decided what to do next.
The camps were in desolate areas half an hour to an hour from the nearest Pakistani town. You took an unpaved road into what seemed like nowhere and bounced along until the drab silhouette of tents or mud huts appeared before you. Your driver stopped at a polite distance, and you got out. Within seconds, a crowd of men and boys materialized, apparently out of nowhere. They must have seen you coming, then emerged from their dwellings and approached, but it never seemed that way. They always seemed to just appear, and in large numbers, too.
They would form a circle around you and stare at you intently, though not threateningly. There were no women in their midst, never, and no girls. Their society was highly segregated, you knew that much already, and here you could plainly see it for yourself. However, they seemed to take your presence completely in stride. After a while, children would be dispatched to run into the camp and fetch a person of authority. If someone had some knowledge of English, that person would also arrive. The reason for your visit would be elicited through a combination of the driver's explanations and your own communication with the powers that be.
In the tedium of camp life, your arrival was a major ceremonial occasion. If the camp featured a school, the children would be exhibited, the little girls peeping out from their many-layered wrappings while the boys were made to perform their military drills for you. Tea would be brought. Chairs would be fetched, two or three of them, whatever number the camp owned, and set up right there on the middle of the plain, and you would be urged to sit down while the important people of the campthe elders, the school-teacher, the person who spoke some Englishdrank tea with you, sitting on chairs if there were enough, or squatting on the ground if there weren't. Everyone else would remain standing in a circle, still watching and staring. You would feel a little bit like the French kings, who took their meals in public while select groups of their subjects paraded past the table to watch them eat. Your gender never seemed to make the slightest bit of difference. These tribal Afghan men were completely willing to negotiate, debate, interact with you in a neutral and solemn manner. Even their body language indicated that they weren't perceiving you as female. They neither kept an awkward distance nor did they seek an uncomfortable proximity. For photo opportunities, they would stand shoulder to shoulder with you, fixing the camera with a grimly somber gaze. You could feel like "one of the guys."
I also took part in the meetings where the resident Western helpers discussed their work. There were quite a few women among the aid workers, but as an issue, Afghan women went as unremarked in these meetings as they were physically invisible in the camps. Occasionally, someone would bring up the horrific mortality rates for women and newborns during childbirth, as well as for children under the age of five. Someone who had just compiled clinic statistics would mention the extremely high rates of domestic violence, the many women whose arm had been broken, who had been severely beaten by a husband or a male in-law or whose life-threatening health problem had been neglected until the matter was hopeless, even though the free clinic was a stone's throw away and the men of that family visited the clinic constantly to complain of a headache or to demand vitamins.
Excerpted from Veiled Courage by Cheryl Benard Copyright 2002 by Cheryl Benard. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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