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.
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.
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.