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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.


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.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“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.


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.


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.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“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.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“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.


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: , ,

“Naked” #16


Me and the children of Kabul. The day after OBL was killed.

Why did the tiny woman get out of the bulletproof vehicle on the streets of Kabul the day after Bin Laden was killed? Because she was not going to make her sisters in uniform look bad. I knew the men were just as afraid as I was of the possibility of never stepping foot back into the vehicles in one piece. The few locals wandering around the dirt sidewalks seemed just as shocked as I was to see the general and his security personnel walking around with bags of candy. The vehicle commander of our SUV opened my door, and I felt a rush of air, not fresh air, but warm, stale, manure-tainted air, in my face. Taking quick measure of my options, I looked at my fellow military members mingling with the few locals present. With the exception of the security detail, who were expected to throw themselves in the line of fire to protect the general, everyone else was naked: no Kevlar vest, no helmet. Then there was me, suited up in the back seat, unmoving. But I was the only female in the group. And I was the only Airman in the group. It was not an option to stay in the vehicle. But I could have kept my clothes on. No one would have thought any less of me if I had stayed shielded in vest and headdress. I don’t know why I took them off. I think there was a moment of dare to the danger that could await. I dared myself to be brave. I dared myself to trust in my Lord; He would not lead me here to die on the side of the road. He had not tamed the scariest parts of my mind that wanted me to harm myself only to let death touch me in this dirt. I felt a great peace settle over my mind and heart. My boys would not lose their mother on this day. With a weightlessness born of shedding thirty pounds of plastic, I stepped into the street.


Like tiny moles sniffing the air for danger before fully uprooting from their holes, the children poked their heads out all along the storefronts. Candy was an unrelenting Siren. Soon, I was swarmed in a colony of tiny, dirtyhands buzzing around my face and hair. I handed out tootsie rolls, pencils, erasers, suckers and licorice. The children were not satisfied until they had everything, and just as quickly as I handed it out, it disappeared into their pockets:  magic.


Afghan boy. Photo by SGT C Threat

There were so many tiny people surrounding me that I became very aware of the M-9, with a full clip, loaded and strapped to my hip. What if they grabbed at it? Not this day. I would not die the day after Bin Laden. I turned my attention back to the children, protecting my right hip with its precious cargo, but focused on their curiosity and smallness. They were serious, diminutive versions of their adult counterparts in their long dresses, same-colored pants, and dourexpressions. Some wore the traditional takiyah, a small, brimless hat decorated with elaborate embroidery, and some were bareheaded now that the Taliban was banished. I ruffled the hair on one little boy’s head, and my hand came away with such a skin-penetrating grittiness that it made me both smile and want to sanitize. I was not going to die amongst the children of Afghanistan, these boys who looked like my boys playing dress up back home. Not this day.


Afghan boy and girl in Kabul.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“The Day After” 15

Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. I had been in Afghanistan for nearly four months and was settling into my duties. It turned out, there was quite a bit more to my job than stocking the mini-fridge with sodas. Once the Chief trusted that I wasn’t incompetent even though I didn’t graduate from West Point, I was given the responsibility of his daily schedule, which put me directly in the way of anyone who wanted to talk to him. Everybody had to go through the red-haired Captain with a bit of an attitude in order to see the Chief. While some assistants let this sort of “power” go to their heads, in my mind, it was just one more thing that prevented me from going to the bathroom when I wanted. I was at my beck-and-call-position outside the Chief’s office when the Provost Marshall (something like the Chief of Police) came to inform the Chief that Bin Laden had been killed. The news was delivered to me like a gift slid across the table at a dimly lit restaurant. I was supposed to unwrap the dainty package of this so simple statement. Perhaps, I was to clap my hands excitedly when I realized what was inside. In fact, it was difficult to stop the initial curl of the corners of my lips, but just as soon as the instinct began it stopped. Although Bin Laden was an enemy of the United States, and his death brought celebration and relief to the Americans cheering on the television screen, we weren’t in the United States. We were in Afghanistan, and I didn’t hear any celebration in the streets.

The day after Bin Laden was killed, the General had a meeting somewhere in Kabul, outside of the safety of the compound, and the Chief went along with him. Wherever the Chief went, I was sure to follow. The streets were still in depression and very nearly empty, with the exception of a man or two riding a bicycle or crossing a street. But there were no children anywhere. Children were sentinels against danger, like canaries in a coalmine. If children were present on the streets, a planned attack was less likely. If children were not around, we shouldn’t be either. I sat still in the back of the SUV with my hands clenched in my lap, my senses overly stimulated. The Chief snored next to me, catching a catnap on the ride back to the compound. The general’s SUV was in front of us and began to slow, then stopped. Our driver followed suit. There we sat, plump, sluggish game sitting in the streets of Kabul where there were no children anywhere. Craning my neck to see around the front seats and out the windshield, my eyes widened and my jaw went slack as the general’s personal security detail exited the vehicle. They were covered in their Kevlar vests and helmets, weapons cradled in their arms and strapped to their legs. Then, still in disbelief that this was happening the day after Bin Laden was killed, I watched the General step from the back seat without any armor or weapons, his Marine aide right behind him. As I turned towards the Chief to detect the proper reaction to this current situation, he lifted his head to take it in. “Looks like we’re handing out candy. There should be some in the back,” he said. Then, our driver opened the door for my boss to exit, leaving me alone in the vehicle.

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