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.
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.
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.
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.