Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Special Deliveries” #26

I don’t know if I made choices during my deployment to Afghanistan based on my past deployment experiences to Saudi, Bosnia, or Kuwait (all of which usually consisted of being trapped on a base for several months, then rushing through Germany or Spain, sampling the liquid fare on my way back home, arriving hung over and none the wiser) or if my ongoing heartbreak removed layers of protection that had been in place for as long as I could remember.  Whatever the impulsion, I made choices during this deployment that I’m not sure I would have made at other times in my life.  I wasn’t taking unnecessary risks so much as I was refusing to be held back from fully experiencing things.   That is probably why I did what I did when the helicopter approached.  Or it could have been the Australian accents.  Yep.  That was probably it.  There’s something about an Australian accent that just makes me go all soft inside.  Listening to all those Aussies, so rugged and masculine, combined with the jarring ride in the Bushmaster, must have scrambled my ability to logically think through causes to their effects.

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The Bushmaster.

When we arrived, there was a buzz in the air around the camp.  I experienced some excitement earlier in the trip when we had to make a quick stop in an open field situated in a valley between two Afghan hills.  The back of our he-lo dropped open and a security team scrambled out into the grass just in time to greet the heads popping up all around them, like groundhogs sniffing springtime air.  Almost before I realized what was happening in the middle of this nowhere, the security team grabbed a couple wooden chests containing foodstuffs and supplies for the Aussies we would see at their remote location.  The moments on the ground were tense and everyone was very alert; I learned later the drop zone was a place known for its Taliban activity.  The General was a high value target, and no one wanted to have to report that they allowed him to be harmed, but every opportunity to get much-needed supplies had to be fully exploited.  In less than two-minutes the gear was loaded and we were hoisted away by the whipping blades above us.

The gang

The gang

Now, finally reaching the location, I could see why the supplies were so important.  There was nothing here but some plywood sheds, cots, camo-netting and sandbag bunkers.   We traveled back in time to Vietnam or Korea.  The dedication of these men, to live completely unprotected and exposed in order to hold this position was truly inspiring.  And now, something more wonderful than getting supplies was happening.  They were finally getting some protection.  Yellow smoke was popped, denoting the drop position for the incoming he-lo.  As it approached, the large gun was attached to the belly of the machine like a young monkey clinging to her mother.  Wanting to get as close as I could for the video I was shooting with my camera, I stood just a few feet away from the expected delivery point.  I was pushed forward by the invisible excitement of the men, mesmerized by the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the giant, scissor-like blades whipping, whipping, whipping around the hairline of the machine.

No one cautioned me.  No one suggested I stay back.  I didn’t notice when the Chief and General, along with nearly everyone else, positioned themselves well-behind the blasting walls several feet behind where I was standing.  How could they not want to see this?  I decided my brothers in the Army were desensitized by the absolute awesomeness of watching a helicopter drop a giant gun down in the middle of nowhere in the same way I was desensitized to seeing F-16s on a runway.  But I was determined not to miss this, possibly, once in a lifetime experience.  I wanted to see everything, and to feel the wind whirling around, trying to push me over.  I got my wish.  With a steady hand, I recorded the magisterial entrance, in fact, I was right underneath the passageway of the incoming he-lo and its cargo…like an idiot.  The blades did what the blades do, picking the air up, and grabbing handfuls of debris with it.  Before I could compute the physics of the situation, I was overcome by a tidal wave of rocks and dirt.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt.  I guess it was.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt. I guess it was.

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“Helicopters” #25

Sometimes, the locations we traveled to were far enough away that the hum and rocking of the helicopter, combined with my limited three or four hours of sleep each night, was enough to lull me off to sleep. My vest made a sufficient pillow if I let it creep up a little over my shoulders, and I tucked my chin down into the newly formed pocket, folded my arms over my chest and dozed. I had been “resting my eyes” for about fifteen or twenty minutes when I was yanked awake by the “rat tat tat tat tat, rat tat tat tat tat” of the gunner and his M-60 machine gun firing into the mountain tops a few hundred feet below the bird.

Gunner.

Gunner.

For a second upon waking, I thought of what impending death would entail: disorientation as the helicopter started its unplanned dizzying descent into the valleys of whatever mountain range we were flying over, pain and fear as we most likely bounced from one peak to the next, and possibly the hot metal of a rocket slicing through the floor where my feet rested. In the initial moment when my eyes flew open, before I could shake the webs from my brain, I thought of how to conduct myself if these were my final moments. Be calm. Don’t scream. Brace for impact. Don’t scream. A few seconds after my eyes were opened, my mind caught up and I took note that none of my fellow passengers seemed concerned about the gunner and his persistent “rat tat tat tat tat.”

I mouthed the words to the Soldier strapped in next to me, “what’s he doing,” and jerked my head towards the gunner. Yelling loud enough to be heard over the whirling wings, he replied, “He’s sighting the gun.” I nodded back with a flippant lift of my chin as if to say, “Ah, yes. Of course he is.” My heart, angrily pumping blood through my body at a rate and speed that Lance Armstrong would envy, began to settle slightly. He was only sighting the weapon to be certain it shot straight. He wasn’t firing at Al Qaeda hidden in the sides of the landscape. He wasn’t defending the bird from someone lifting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher up to his shoulder, and taking aim at a slow-moving, low flying target. He was simply making sure the cross hairs were plumb and could deliver a bullet to its intended target. Good. After another minute or two of watching the gunner finish his work, I tucked my chin back into its nest and continued my nap.

Traveling.

Traveling.

We finally landed in a remote location in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the location was so remote that the he-lo couldn’t drop us there, so we had to hitch a ride with our Australian allies for the last leg of our trip. G’day, mate. The Australians had their own brand of up-armored military vehicles called “Bushmasters,” and they loved to show what they could do. We piled into the back of the ride and the metal door sealed us in. It felt like being a single kernel of corn in a large, sand-colored tin can. There were no windows, no air holes, and apparently, no shocks in the Bushmaster. Every bump (and there were nothing but bumps) sent the occupants sailing into the air before banging them back down again with a painful and padding-free thump. It was the longest ten minute ride I’d ever experienced. When we finally arrived at their base camp, we exited just in time to watch the CH-47 Chinook approach the drop point and deliver her cargo: a new weapons system dangling underneath the belly of the beast. I hurried from the Bushmaster to get a ringside seat for this once in a lifetime experience.

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“More Traveling” #24

The holidays are difficult to handle, as a rule, for everyone when deployed. It is never ideal to be away from friends and family. I hated missing out on my boys’ lives for long periods of time, but it had a special hurt when it was a national holiday and I knew they would be celebrating without me, making memories without me. Luckily, the pace of my job kept my mind focused on something else. Unlike carrying out our everyday mission in the States, the end-of-year holiday season didn’t come with a lull and a yawn in Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite happened in the Command Section where I worked. Top leadership had many responsibilities when leading troops, and one of the most important responsibilities was to keep morale from plummeting too low. The holiday season posed a direct adversary to that goal, so many leaders (like the general and the Chief) made sure to get “eyes on” their men and women in the field. This required time spent traveling in Army and Marine Corps helicopters to remote locations and checking on their people. I loaded up my backpack with schedules, a notebook, recognition coins, hand sanitizer, sunblock and a toothbrush and prepared to roll.

Getting ready to run.

Getting ready to run.

When the general was going on a trip, an Army helicopter, or he-lo, would descend into the landing zone by our compound and we would race out to meet it through a small metal door hidden in the perimeter wall. It was important to be on time, watch your step over the chunky rocks in the landing zone, keep your head low (not really a problem for me), and haul yourself up into the jump seat with a quickness born of near panic before the pilot skedaddled back to the safety of the skies. In theory, it was all very exciting and badass. In practice, I hated loading and unloading the he-lo. For everyone else, the ingress seemed to go smoothly as they athletically swung into the bed of the helicopter, hopped to their feet with barely a hesitation under the weight of their gear, and settled into the cot-like jump seats. It did not go that well for me the first few times I tried to get into the bird.

For starters, the lip of the he-lo floor came up almost to my armpits, as I stood next to her. I needed a running start, which wasn’t going to happen with giant boulders posing as a walkway. The engineer who designed this whirling contraption before the Korean War did not think to include a lift-step to assist the vertically challenged (everybody must have been giant then, or at least not female). To top it off, I had slacked off on my Arnold Schwarzenegger-time in the gym by sitting at a desk for 16 hours a day, and I had difficulty lifting my weight plus the additional 30 pounds of gear (which now felt completely unnecessary) high into the bird.

Noticing my plight before I had to draw attention to it, the Chief, after his gazelle-like leap into the he-lo, turned to offer me a hand. Someone else grabbed the back of my Kevlar vest, and a third person grabbed my other arm. Clearly under-estimating their combined strength, the three of them hurtled me into the helicopter like a half-empty sack of potatoes and sent me skimming across the metal-plated floor of our ride. Regaining my bearings, but not my dignity, I maneuvered my legs back underneath my body and dragged myself into an open jump seat. It wasn’t magisterial, to be certain, but I was in and the bird was lifting away.

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“Joyful Noise” #23

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Ready to sing.

Teaching the students songs became more difficult than just breaking through their barriers of meekness. There were fundamental differences in how willing we were, as native English speakers, to simply read a word and not worry about understanding it. Non-native English learners were very concerned about understanding the words. Every single word. And they were not willing to let us off the hook in explaining them. We were asked to explain terms and phrases that we had never really questioned at all. After traversing through the complexities of “itsy bitsy” meaning “smaller than small,” we leapt headfirst into “Jingle Bells.” Even more difficult than the dreaded spider’s journey, “Jingle Bells” led to questions about horses with open sleighs, o’re fields (oh ree fields, as they pronounced it), and clarification on just what it meant to “dash” through something. When we finally navigated through their definition clarity requests, the ladies were ready to sing.

There is a scene in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” where a typical American family (father, mother, and two young sons) has Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant after their home-cooked meal suffered a terrible fate. To bring some of the holiday cheer to the unusual experience, some of the staff sang, “Deck the Halls” to the family, in heavily accented English. Without intending to, we re-created that scene at the crowded picnic table inside the Zarghona English Department, minus the crispy duck and MSG.

Our students joyfully sang with us, “Daahshing through the snoweh, in a one-harse open sly; oh ree the feelds we go-eh, laughing all thee way: hawh-har-hawh.” The moment was hypnagogic, dreamlike, in its details. We were surrounded by beautiful women, no longer self-effacing, who were giggling and tapping their feet while laughter crinkled the corners of their eyes. Some of their hijabs had slipped from the tops of their heads to rest in folds around their shoulders, leaving their hair bare and unapologetic, but they didn’t notice. Their eyes were directly meeting our own, not casting downward unwilling to hold our stare. And I sat singing children’s songs with arms draped over my shoulders, pressed on both sides between warm bodies. I felt valued and seen, just as I valued and saw the totality of them in that moment, a created sisterhood. Each one of us healed soul fractures in the woman next to her. Big Bertha, Nazaneen, Sergeant B, all of us were like new shoots breaking through the hard ground of past experiences. As Nazaneen stood up to perform a solo of “Where Is Thumbkin,” complete with dance steps, I felt safe and happy in Afghanistan.

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“Singing” #22

Sergeant B quickly turned into my right-hand woman when it came to nurturing our budding relationship with our students, and by the American holiday season she thought they were ready for some singing. Sergeant B thought sharing nursery rhymes and non-secular carols would strengthen our ties with the Afghan women. I thought she was nuts. These women would not sing Ring-Around-the-Rosie and recite Wee-Willie-Winkie with us. But she was passionate about her idea, and I wouldn’t stand in her way.

After consulting with our cultural advisor, Dr. J, we carefully chose nursery rhymes and carols that were not offensive to the Muslim religion practiced by the Afghans. While Dr J didn’t object to Sergeant B’s idea, our translator, Salar, thought we were crazy for suggesting it, not because it went against any religious laws, but because he didn’t think the women would ever sing in front of each other. “They are way too shy to do this,” he adamantly stated. “But you can certainly try it.” Although we didn’t need Salar’s permission, the mindset of the males in Afghanistan requires they give consent to an idea, even if you didn’t ask for it. I accepted this part of his personality, but I didn’t love it. He wouldn’t be in the room anyway, so no harm could come of trying to prove him wrong.

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Nazaneen (not her real name) and some of our other students.

Finding songs was pretty easy. It turned out that there were a lot of nursery rhymes and carols that didn’t cross any invisible lines of propriety, as long as we didn’t look too closely into the meaning. And since the women couldn’t really understand English all that well, what did we have to lose? We settled on “Jingle Bells,” “Where is Thumbkin,” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Sergeant B and I walked into the tiny English “department” (consisting of a picnic table and two small bookshelves), armed with our songs, and excitedly greeted our students.

“Today we have a special treat for you. Today we are going to sing songs!”

I tried to sound upbeat and positive, even though I thought this would be an exercise in ridiculousness. Maybe Salar was right. These were women who kept their eyes averted and their heads covered in conversation. When men were around they melted into the scenery as if by some illusionist’s spell. It took weeks to get most of them to open their mouths to speak to us because they were embarrassed of their English speaking skills. But, they were proud, too. They wouldn’t do something they thought made them look foolish. How would we convince them that singing songs would help them with their English? We’d have to demonstrate, a part I hadn’t really thought about when my right-hand-woman was planning this lesson.

Sergeant B and I stood in front of the room of twenty Afghan women, their eyes trained on our every movement, their heads tilted curiously, their hands placed demurely in their laps. When the room had settled, we opened our mouths and began singing, high-pitched and slightly off key, “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout; down came the rain and washed the spider out.” With each verse we touched the fingers of our hands together and, side-by-side in our military uniforms in front of a raptured audience, pretended our hands were spiders. They climbed up waterspouts, slid down waterspouts, became rays of sunshine drying up rain and restarted the entire process because the spider just refused to give up. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”

Sergeant B was highly animated. Maybe she was nuts. She was singing as if she had the house spotlight beaming down on her–center stage. As the mother of four, she was probably used to these impromptu performances; I certainly did them a time or two with my boys at home, but her excitement couldn’t be faked. She was digging it. Before I realized it, feeding off her enthusiasm, I was digging it, too. But more important than the apparent good time we were having standing in an indefensible school in the middle of a war torn nation, vulnerable in every way, singing these nursery rhymes was the joy on our students’ faces. They were like little children, unselfconscious about their happiness. We finished our performance, goofy grins on our faces. “Teach me! Teach me, Miss Naancy,” they asked in their elongated way, and they gave us a round of applause.

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“Books” #21

The children on the streets of Kabul hoarded the candy we handed out in the same way the librarian at the girls’ school hoarded the books we brought. Living under the heavy hammer of war for thirty years had born some strange habits from the locals. When resources came, whether they were in the form of food, clothing, water bottles, books, candy, pencils, or electricity, the natural instinct of the Afghans seemed to be either to store it away for safe keeping, dole it out carefully, if ever, or never let anyone know what you have, if you can help it.

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Eager students. Photo by SGT K Threat

We would often bring school supplies to the teachers (pads of paper, boxes of pencils, markers, erasers, chalk, notebooks) when we would conduct our weekly visits to Zarghona, and as quickly as we would hand them out, they were tucked away in the their purses, locked in desk drawers (if the locks worked) or kept in a locked supply closet until who knows when. In the beginning, we would try to explain to them that the supplies were for them to use, like, right now—not later. Or better yet, they could disseminate the supplies to the students in their classes, many who did not have an abundance of paper or pencils at their disposal. In a very American way, we had an expectation for how our gifts would be used, and when they weren’t immediately put to work, we assumed there was a communication barrier that we needed to teach around. We were wrong. The women were not confused about our intentions; they just had other plans. Actually, they learned not to make plans.

Although I was often anxious before a trip to the school, this time my excitement outweighed my nerves. A few weeks earlier I ordered several children’s books from Amazon, and they had finally arrived. Careful to choose books without any religious overtones (or subtle undertones), without pork or any mention of pigs (I don’t even know if they had a word for pig in the Pashto or Dari languages), and with no pictures of females without full and appropriate clothing (sorry, Barbie, not this time), we set off on our trip across town. On this visit, it was only me and one of my great friends, Sergeant B, an Army Sergeant by day, mother of four and badass derby chick by night, to meet with the teachers.

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Sgt B and her fans.

On a previous visit we had finally convinced them to let us see their library. We couldn’t believe they had such a place, and the “librarian,” a relation of either the principal or vice principal—but without any formal training, was the only person with a key, which she wasn’t handing over to anyone. She was not one of our students, which meant she spoke no English at all. Through one of the other teachers, we were able to convince her we were not going to steal her books, or even remove any from the shelf. We just wanted to see this mythical place. In a school were indoor plumbing was not a priority, the idea of a library was miraculous.

We were not disappointed. The library was actually a spacious room with large tables and sturdy wooden chairs lined up in the center and flanked by suitably stocked shelves of books. There were books of all languages and topics: encyclopedias, world atlases, dictionaries, math books, the Qur’an and some children’s picture books. Most of the shelves were filled with resource material, but they were there. Beautiful bound books. We were in disbelief that this resource had been here for months and we were just now visiting the library. It was akin to finding out the desert had a huge, clearwater lake in the middle of it, but people were dying of thirst. Why would they not use this space for teaching? When did the students check out books? How often did the teachers check out the books? And they had English language tapes? And tape recorders? Why weren’t they using them? We peppered our students with these questions for translation to the librarian. She started to panic and become visibly agitated. Her hands started flailing and her voice, demure and shy before, grew louder and more barking with each word out of her mouth. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I knew exasperation, no matter by what language it showed itself.

Finally, Nazaneen turned to us to explain. “What happen if someone steals a book? Or a tape recorder? Librarian would be punished. They are under her keep.” We were in shock and unable to hide it on our faces. Nazaneen continued, “When we would get more books? Never. Americans leave here soon. Soldiers leave here soon. No. It is better to keep them safe. No. We keep them safe.”

Sergeant B and I looked at each other with tears welling in our eyes. There was so much knowledge just sitting here, uneaten, while the students were starving for it. I swallowed hard and realized we had so much more work to do than simply teach these students English.

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“Zarghona Part 4” #20

Despite tiptoeing through the feces drops, I was very excited to get started with my new pupils. I didn’t really know how we were going to communicate, what materials I was going to use to teach them English, or if I was going to be blown up along the route or at the schoolhouse, but I was excited. After the day of initial introductions in the English Department, Salar was displaced to hang out with the principal and vice principal in their shared office space, drinking chai. Although this move would not make it easier for the Americans and the Afghans to communicate with each other, it was important for the Afghans to practice English without the temptation to fall back into their native tongue. No safety nets. And we wanted the women to be comfortable with us; we wanted them to trust us, and we wanted to prove ourselves trustworthy. Although Salar had been effectively neutered through his familial ties, he was still an Afghan male in a room of Afghan women. He had to go.

Students--Photo by SGT K Threat

Students–Photo by SGT K Threat

On this day, our convoy traveled through the streets of Kabul again, entered the tin gate again, and we were enveloped with joyful children in the courtyard again. There were only three of us working with the women on this visit, two Colonels and me, a Captain. The introductions took longer without Salar there to translate, but the women were also much more talkative and demanding without him around. The demure attitudes were just an act. After the initial ritual of cheek kissing and head nodding, we got down to serious business with phonic flashcards. While looking at pictures of white faces with orange hair holding things like apples or pears and cards of pigs with curly cue tails that none of the Afghan women could identify, the woman who was introduced as the head of the English department called me over to her group.

Her Afghan name began with a B, but I never learned to pronounce it properly, so I asked her if I could call her Big Bertha. Big Bertha was the hardest one to win over and the most demanding and unrelenting in her requests and expectations. She once asked me if something was a gerund, and I had no idea. After that, she barely tolerated me for weeks. Luckily for me, she liked the nickname Big Bertha.

“Naaanceee,” she began, drawing out the letter “A” in my name, “I ask you to write me the names for things. Do you do that?”

“Of course I can write the names down for you, B. Which names do you want?”

“I ask names of this,” she states as she points to her mid-section.

Easy. Give me a hard one, Big B. “Stomach,” I say matter-of-factly.

“No!” She ordered and rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes! Did that do that in Afghanistan, and does it mean the same thing as it does when I do it in America?

“Not this,” she jabs at my stomach. “This!” She kept pointing at what I refused to acknowledge was anything other than her midsection. I looked around helplessly for Nazaneen. Where was Nazaneen?! She will know what Big B wants from me. I will even allow them to break our rule of “English only” so that Big B will be pleased and I will stop sweating. After several minutes of Dari or Pashtu, Nazaneen translates, “She wants you to write the parts under your clothes.” No safety nets.

If I could have a picture of my face in that second, I imagine it looked like those reveal moments when it’s dawning on someone that she is on a hidden camera show. I was paralyzed and still in total denial of what she was asking me to do. Write down the names for “the parts under our clothes.” How do I make sense of this? Just last week I was witness to the principal of the school lecturing a young Afghan girl for not wearing socks under her black Mary Jane’s. Even though the student had on floor length pants under her long shirt, she was showing about a half an inch of bare skin on her feet. The principal was concerned because girls at another school not far from Zarghona had acid thrown on them for showing bare skin. She warned the young girl that she was putting the entire school in jeopardy with her racy exposure. Where did Big B’s request fit into that world? I wanted to make sure she was asking me to name what I now realized she was asking me to name.

“The parts under our clothes? Stomach and back?” I asked, pointing to my stomach and then turning around and showing her my back. She signed with deep disgust.

“No! Pens. You know, pens. Forget it. You cannot unnerstan me.”

We had worked very hard to establish trust with the women, and we had worked hard to build relationships with them as equals in a society where they were not treated equally at all. We worked diligently to empower them. Why would I not give this 40-something year old woman the names for her private parts? Doesn’t she have the right to own those things by naming them? But I didn’t want to give them to her because I was afraid. I was scared that someone in her household, a male, would find the piece of paper with the words written on them and she would be harmed; or worse, the school would be attacked because of what we were teaching them. The two Colonels had gathered around me now and I looked to them for help. They looked back at me, blink, blink, blink, blink. You’re the English teacher, their expressions read. I took a deep breath and felt like I was stepping out into the street again.

I slowly put my pen to a scrap piece of paper and wrote down penis and vagina in clear, legible, careful handwriting.

“Yes! Yes! Thank you,” she giggled behind her hand.

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“Zarghona Part 3” #19

The grounds.

The grounds.

Nazaneen’s outgoing personality and confidence weren’t mirrored in all the women. In fact, many of the women, both Afghan and American, were hanging on the fringes of the tiny room smiling at each other, but saying nothing. Our translator, Salar, finally made his way next to me and I asked him to speak for us. “We are very pleased to meet you all.” That’s what I asked him to say, but he talked for what seemed 15 minutes, so I think he might have ad-libbed a bit. “My name is Nancy,” 15 more minutes later, “I teach English writing in America.” The women smiled, cooed and nodded their heads demurely. Many of them had questions for these American women, and Salar was busy listening and translating, buzzing around the groups of women like a bee amongst flowers. Having a male in the room with all of us was not according to custom in Afghanistan. But Salar had several relatives who attended the school, and that, apparently, neutered him enough to breathe the same air in such a small space—if you dared to breathe the air.  The smell was almost too much to bear. I played a lot of sports in high school and had to endure many locker rooms, but those experiences didn’t compare to the smell of the Zarghona English Department. Traveling around the world in the military, you learn that each group of people in each land does have a particular odor, usually from the “hygiene” products used, foods they ate and water they drank. Afghanistan was no exception. I’m certain we smelled to them, too, with our unique stench of deodorants, hair care products, perfumes (which I didn’t smell on the Afghan women) and our love of French fries and hamburgers. Our pores probably reeked of cow and pork mixed with mustard and ketchup. We all needed some fresh air. After another 20 minutes of translating things like, “I’m from Seattle; have you ever heard of it,” and “I love your head scarf; did you make it,” we decided enough ice had been broken, and we were ready for a tour of the grounds.

New desks.

New desks.

We entered the courtyard that was lush with green grass and flowers everywhere. Not, quite. There were a few sad and pitiful stems struggling to take root in the caked, dusty earth that surrounded the schoolhouses, but no grass—not a blade–anywhere. Under one large tree in the center of the space was their sole water source: a hand-pump well that all 11,000 of the students used throughout the day. The buildings had received a nice coat of garden green paint, courtesy of the French or the Germans, the Japanese or the Australians. And some of the classrooms had even received new desks and chairs for the girls.

The restroom.

The restroom.

What were they lacking? Everything else. The school had no “environmental controls” (translation: heating or air conditioning), which explained the stagnation of the air, and they had no indoor plumbing. The children used a row of toilets that looked amazingly like holes dug into the ground and buried behind a concrete wall in the back of the school grounds. As we made our way around to that area, our guide kindly warned us to “watch your steps” as there were little piles of excrement sprinkled around the yard. The area was too retched for anyone to use, and they would rather expose themselves in the open yard than squat in the smell.

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The restroom.

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“Zarghona Part 2” #18

The streets of Kabul have a depressing hum. The machine of daily life trudges along, but there is no joy out here. On the drive through the city, I could watch the happenings from a distance, but here on the street, I could not pretend I wasn’t a contributing note to the sadness.  What did I look like, stepping out of the misplaced SUV in my American military uniform, buried under Kevlar, with weapons strapped to my legs? I looked like oppression, like trickery, like limited-resources, like a target worth several thousand dollars. The locals ignored me with a hyper-alertness that I returned. There were few women on the street, but so many children everywhere. They walked in bunches, holding hands, male to male and female to female, the girls covered head to toe in cloth. They laughed and whispered together, but there was an invisible sheet of glass between the male groups and the female groups. They did not talk to one another, did not giggle or flirt, did not notice each other at all. Just like they didn’t notice me. I walked up to the guard’s door, and pounded with my fist—careful not to knock too quickly or too loudly. Be confident, Nancy. Don’t let them see your nerves, your fear, your wish to get the damn gate opened so we can move into safety of the courtyard.

Inner Sanctum

Inner Sanctum

 

The old man opened the wood a crack and peered out. Seeing the black SUVs, he gave us a quick nod and his weathered face disappeared. We stood on the street, heads on pivots, until the thin aluminum gate was swung inward. Walking ahead of the vehicles, I entered the courtyard of the girls’ school, and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of youthful, curious and lively faces. I’m overwhelmed with chattering, sing-song voices chirping, “hello, miss.” My face, stony only moments earlier, cannot help but break into a smile in response to their joy. “Hellos” float between the Americans and the Afghan girls.

Girls School--Photo by SGT K Threat

Girls School–Photo by SGT K Threa

The “English Department” consisted of a picnic table and what looked to be one of the first prototypes for the computer pushed against a sidewall and covered with a flowered sheet. We had been to the school a few times before, observing the teachers in their classrooms, meeting with the principal and taking tours of the grounds. Now, we were scheduled to begin “teaching” the teachers of Zarghona School for Girls in Kabul, Afghanistan. Our students were approximately 17 English language teachers, ranging from their early 20s to their mid-40s. They were everyday women of Afghanistan, clad in fancifully colored scarves (hijabs), which covered their hair and neck. Each woman’s scarf illustrated what province she came from, if her family could support her comfortably, and even the fire in her personality. But I was illiterate, and I didn’t know how to read scarves, yet. I would learn what these women had to teach me, and they would learn what I had to teach them. On the same wall with the antiquated computer was a 4-shelf bookcase cradling worn tomes in Pashto and Dari. Again, I was illiterate. The room was closed in, despite the large picture window overlooking the school’s inner courtyard. The air in the room sat stagnant, unmoving but growing in the smell of unwashed fabric and body odor. We must have smelled to them, too, as we secreted sweat in our Air Battle Uniforms on the August day. My team did our best to appear natural in this setting. We huddled together while our students crowded around us, eagerly introducing themselves in broken English.

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The women of Zarghona. The computer is in the far right corner of the photo–behind the last teacher on the end. Photo by SGT K Threat

One woman was more outspoken and confident than the rest. She was the only person in the school to have visited the United States. She traveled to the exotic locales of Nebraska and Iowa in what must be the least exciting international exchange program ever created. “I am Nazaneen. I twice been to United States.” Out of all 17 women, Nazaneen spoke the most English. This was going to be difficult.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Zarghona Part 1” #17

I just wanted the Brigadier General-select to be quiet. And I wanted these motorcycles to get away from the vehicle. The SUV was equipped with bulletproof windows, but it was not explosion-proof, as demonstrated earlier in the week when a suicide bomber turned his motorcycle into a missile and attacked a convoy.  Now, the motorcyclists jutted in and out of my peripheral, sometimes even placing their hands on the chassis for leverage before pushing off and disappearing into traffic. Despite their vanishing, traffic didn’t seem to be moving in any sort of forward motion, and the Brigadier General-select in the backseat was getting more antsy and more vocal about her anxiety. What should have been a ten-minute drive through town was taking 45 minutes. I was very aware of the target spreading like a virus over my SUV.  It was my SUV because, on this particular day, I was the vehicle commander. I could almost feel the weight of my embroidered Captain bars resting on my collar bones. I was responsible for the lead SUV and the SUV behind us, following through the throng of white Toyota Corollas, Isuzu Pick-up trucks, donkey carts, bicycles, and Suzuki motorcycles, so many Suzuki motorcycles.

(This video was a “typical” traveling day; the traffic was very light.  I wasn’t the vehicle commander (he’s sitting in the front passenger seat), but the video does give a faint idea of what the streets looked like with pedestrians, mini-vans, motorcycles and difference compared to streets in the US.)

When I was practicing the position of vehicle commander in pre-deployment training six months earlier, I paid close attention to my duties: pre-plan the route, brief the vehicle occupants on their roles and responsibilities, take charge of the convoy with clear guidance, keep my head on a swivel to watch for nearby threats, don’t lose your cool…don’t show fear. I reminded myself, they are looking to you. That training was in the forefront of my mind as my SUV crawled forward through the herded groups of Afghans in their unlicensed autos and the Brigadier General-select complained in the backseat. I just wanted to see our destination come into view: the flimsy, pie-plated front gate of the girls’ school.

Finally, we rounded the corner and the greenish-colored aluminum of the front gate appeared. It was another 10 minutes before we were able to move down the street to the gate, which was normally opened for us immediately as we approached the school. Our drive had taken more than twice as long as expected, and the gate guard, a 60-year-old man with a large walking stick, was not out front to let us into the school’s courtyard. I would have to get out and knock on the plywood that was dressed up as a door. I took a quick breath, opened the bullet-proof door and stepped out into the street.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

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