6:00am in Kabul. A light rain was falling, but Georgian photographer, Mikhail Galustov and I agreed, rain or no rain, let’s go for a bike ride. Our destination? Kabul’s historic Darulamon Palace.
On October 3rd this year, my birthday coincidentally, I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan. The irony of accomplishing something like this was that it started out so simply….each trip I’ve spent in Afghanistan I’ve longed for my bike. The goat trails, the dirt roads, and the incredible mountains scream out to me to get pedalling!
The non profit I founded, Mountain to Mountain, is focused on women and children’s education and empowerment in remote mountain communities, in particularly in Afghanistan. Yet a large part of our ethos is connecting communities and cultures. I have come to realize that being the founder of a non profit and a mountain biker is not necessarily mutually exclusive.
So this trip, I made the decision to lug my trusted steed on the arduous journey from Colorado to Kabul. Mountain to Mountain becoming quite literal as my Niner biked its way through Singlespeed World Championships in Durango, Colorado on a Saturday, only to be packed up, still dirty, to join me on a series of flights to Afghanistan the following week.
It wasn’t intended to be any sort of record creating, being the first at something, kind of excursion. It’s simply a way for me to do what I do, in a country that I love, and perhaps change a few perceptions about what women can and can’t do in the process. After some googling and researching, we discovered that no other woman had done this. Not really surprising as this is Afghanistan we’re talking about. Women don’t ride bikes here. Foreign women try to stay relatively low key. For good reason. Between the land mines, suicide bombers, the Taliban, and the usual crap against women that exists in many Islamic countries, mountain biking isn’t high on anyone’s (male or female) priority list.
I decided to ride my bike in two provinces of Afghanistan, which happen to be two of the provinces that Mountain to Mountain is working in…connecting our mission with our ethos. Education and cultural exchange. Couple that with my desire to break barriers and crack open the long held stereotypes that pigeon hole women in many regions of the world, it was a no brainer. The long term vision being that this trip I challenge perceptions and stereotypes on both sides of the coin.
Westerners assume Afghan men won’t accept women on bikes, because no women do it. Truth, many won’t and don’t. But the majority we encountered not only tolerated it, but chatted with us, joked and supported it.
Afghans expect that Westerners are too scared and too closed off to come out of their NGO and military compounds to interact with them and their country. Westerners (including many that live and work in Afghanistan) assume you’ll be shot dead or kidnapped the moment you leave the confines of your secure car or compound. I try to do my errands on my own whenever possible via walking or motorbike. I walk in the markets, stay in residential neighborhoods, and often conduct my daily errands alone so that I can take the time to connect with shopkeepers and security guards. I buy my naan bread from a local baker round the block, have learned where to buy fresh yogurt measured out into a plastic bag and sold by the weight.
Mountain biking is just another extension of that desire to interact with Afghans more fully by doing what comes naturally.
Now this is not to say, it is without danger, or that all men would tolerate this. There are men, especially in other, more conservative provinces, that wouldn’t. I am fully aware of security concerns and am not ignorant of the risks I take by exposing myself on a bike. I chose and discussed my location choices carefully. Baby steps were taken on remote mountain paths and dirt roads before riding my bike through a village. There are still areas of this country where I couldn’t step out of my car without a burqa on. Areas where foreigners of either sex, are at risk, simply by trying to do their work. Assassinations and kidnappings still occur and foreigners are not trusted. But there are areas where genuine human interaction and cultural exchange are not only possible but desired.
Yet as I’ve said many times before, if no one ever does it, it will never change. Its my own version of: “Just because that’s the way things are, doesn’t mean its the way they should be.”
photo by Travis Beard
We arrive at Faheem Dashty’s family home, by way of a narrow alleyway off the side of the road surrounded on both sides by steep rock walls. Shah Mohammad confidently steers the car through while Tony reaches out the window and touches the wall.
Faheem welcomes us and directs us to the lawn where a table and chairs is set in the garden. Surrounded on both sides by mountains, with the garden overlooking the river – it’s hard to believe this was the stronghold of Massoud’s resistance against the Taliban. Its too peaceful.
Soon Faheem’s father comes out to the join us. The General. A larger man, with a kind, grandfatherly face greets us and warmly shakes my hand, welcoming us to his home.
We all sit and a servant brings out freshly squeezed apple juice from their own trees. Thick and pulpy, the juice is the first I’ve had in days and it tastes as though I’ve just bitten into a sweet yellow apple. A refreshing break from the constant stream of watery green tea.
Faheem and The General shared many stories of the family home, Panjshir valley, life during the Soviet occupation, and their relationship with Massoud. Massoud played a leading role in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan, but is famous for his stronghold in Panjshir keeping the Taliban from moving in from Kabul.
The General told stories of how Massoud asked him to blow up the road at the beginning of the valley entrance to keep out the Taliban. The road sunk to the valley floor, level with the river and Taliban where they were either captured, killed, or fled back to Kabul. The ironic thing is that the General’s job with the government was road building.
Faheem’s daughter and son played in the garden, his daughter occasionally coming over to make Faheem give the teddy bear a hug, or flirt with the guests, especially the one with the camera!
After a couple of hours of chatting, sharing stories, and making pictures, The General guides to a little outbuilding on the other side of the garden for lunch. We enter a tiny foyer with a red afghan rug just large enough to slide out of our shoes and walk into a small rectangular room with cobalt blue pillows lining the four walls. We sit down, cross legged (it is considered rude to show the soles of your feet to others) and a tablecloth is spread in the middle of the empty space. Food and water is brought in from the kitchen and Faheem passes along plates, and platters of food. I sit next to the General and he gestures that I should serve myself first. Reminding myself to only eat with my right hand, I follow his directions not wishing to make a faux pas.
Let me just insert how much I adore Afghan food. Truly. It is a great joy to have been invited to a private home and have a homemade meal made in our honor, doubly so given our host’s stature. A platter heaped with rice with raisins and carrots covers tender hunks of lamb. Another platter is stacked with fresh naan bread. A bowl is filled with quorma, a slightly spicy Afghan stew of lamb chunks and potatoes. A tiny condiment bowl of spicy green peppers crushed with garlic, and another bowl of tomatoes, onions, and fresh basil. Lastly, a bowl of yogurt, freshly made that day. Everything from meat to veg to naan bread has been produced on the family land, and then cooked by Faheem’s mother, the General’s wife.
I am in heaven as the General keeps gesturing to “eat more, eat more”! Tony jokes with Faheem that his mother’s cooking will be famous tomorrow as I will be sure to write about it. He’s not wrong!
After a post-lunch walk around the garden, we say goodbye to the General who insists firmly but with a wide smile that I must return to see him. We walk through the inner courtyard and pile into The General’s Toyota 4×4 and Faheem drives up the valley to visit Massoud’s grave and his home. The car is fairly quiet, despite the brain jarring roads, and as we get closer we can see the construction in progress of the tomb that is to encase Massoud’s grave. Faheem stops to say hello a group of contractors working on the tomb and I press my right hand to my heart and say, “Salaam” to each of them. We follow Faheem and I hang back in respect as he bows his head, while Najibullah and Shah Mohammed pray silently on his other side. The mood is somber as we walk slowly back to the car.
On the drive back I ask Faheem if I can ask him some questions about the current situation in Afghanistan and he opens up quite readily. This is his forte and we pick up from a conversation we had the day before in Kabul. He speaks frankly of his analysis of what will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, as I sit next to him thinking, I’m hearing the thoughts of a great mind, and it makes the trip out of Kabul all the more fulfilling.
Today, we spent the day in Panjshir province – yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to leave Kabul, but you all know me too well to realize that that was never going to happen.
Security situation on the road was checked the last night and again this morning and it was determined, that yes, we could make the drive. I was keen to make the trip after our meetings yesterday at AINA Photo Agency. The reason being that we were invited by Faheem Dashty, the founder of Kabul Weekly. Faheem was with Afghanistan’s beloved resistance leader, Massoud, when he was assassinated just days before 9/11. He himself was gravely injured but he survived and resurrected the Kabul Weekly as Afghanistan’s largest independent newspaper. He has a keen political mind and is passionate about the future of Afghanistan. He and I spoke at length after the meeting at AINA, and warmly invited us to come to visit his family’s home. An offer I couldn’t refuse.
We set off at 8am, myself, Tony, Najibullah, Najibullah’s small son Serat, and of course, our faithful and daring driver, Shah Mohammed. One of the rules we were given for photography in Afghanistan was you are not allowed to shoot women, and try not to be seen photographing in the car. Its okay to photograph in general, but the police will stop you if you are shooting ‘secretively’ and will take your film if they catch you. Tony is pretty adept discreetly from the car, and has got some great shots of women. Unfortunately, we are leaving town, and had just drove around a burqa clad women sitting in the middle of the street with her child (which Tony got a great shot of), when I mentioned that I would love a shot of the road itself (which would require serious 4×4 capabilities in any other country). He quickly obliged and raised his camera right as we passed a policeman who immediately flagged us down. Fearing the worst we handed over our passports and papers, which he quickly handed back and wished us safe travels. Big oops and I vowed not to ask for split second photos again!
Leaving Kabul the view opens up to a wide expanse of varying shades of brown. The landscape is devoid of green other than fields of grapes on the right, with mountains to the far left with mud huts and buildings scattered across the foreground. Periodically, markets fill in the gaps and the hustle and bustle of the bluebird colored burqas, bejeweled trucks, and children scampering throughout the traffic add bursts of color to the scene. Najibullah is a constant source of historical tidbits and local information and keeps up a steady stream or running commentary throughout the drive.
We reach a checkpoint with a large sign that arches across the road. It is a sign from the Ministry of Health, Najibullah tells me, its refers to family planning and that space between children is good for both the mother and child. In other words, don’t try to knock up your wife a couple days after she gave birth.
We see landmine clearing on the left and stop to buy some grapes from one of twenty men selling them all in a line at the side of the road on the right with more grape vines spreading out behind them…hopefully land mine free. The mountains close in as the valley narrows to follow the river and we come to the entrance to Panjshir valley. The road winds through and we come to a little checkpoint manned by an older fellow who waves us along as we drive by, less of a checkpoint and more of a greeter it seems. Five minutes further along we come to a proper checkpoint and the only one of the entire valley. Manned by many of Massoud’s men, a serious looking bunch who peer in through the driver’s window and ask a few questions. Upon seeing me, I put my right hand on my heart, nod, and say Saleem. He responds in kind and smiles, allowing Tony to take his photo. He was a commander under Massoud and now works this checkpoint. They invite us to join them for tea, but Najibullah explains that we do not have time to stop. I’m a bit disappointed, how often is one invited for a roadside cup of tea by ex-mujahhadin fighters?
A little further along, munching, slightly wrinkled, anemic looking grapes out of a pink plastic bag, we come to a village that screams, “You’re not in Kansas anymore”.
The road narrows to a one dirt road. Market stalls press in tightly. A cow is getting butchered on the street in front of the butcher shop, can’t ask for fresher than that! We snake our way through the crowds of animals and people and all I can think is what I would give to get out of this damn car. I’m aching to stretch my legs and get closer to this experience. Coca cola stands, fresh fruit, several more butcher shops, and clothing shops all have their wares simply hanging by strings and ropes off the low roofs of the shacks.
As we drive further, over a bridge, precariously perched above the river – looking as though it would hardly support a small donkey, much less a carload of five, we see several graves periodically dotting the landscape. Many have green flags blowing in the breeze that mark them as martyrs for the resistance.
Slowly the landscape adds some color as trees with golden yellow leaves appear in great clusters along the sides of the mountain across the river. We’ve caught the last few days of autumn in Panjshar before the winter comes in. The colored foliage is a welcome sight and makes me realize how little color we’ve seen. Even in the local park of Shara-nau there is no green in sight. Only dirt and rows of barren trees.
a little over two hours later we arrive at Faheem’s family home and the story continues…..
We arrived a couple days ago in Kabul and it hasn’t let us down. Its a thriving, bustling, war torn city that assaults your senses every second until you crash exhausted into bed.
It has all the images you would expect, bluebird colored burqa clad women, beggars, bullet riddled buildings, and busy streets filled with cars, bicycles, people, police, and the occasional tank or two. Our driver, Shah Mohammed, tenses and speeds up whenever we pass one – because THOSE are the targets and you don’t want to be near one if it blows up.
Its a heady lesson for tailgaters.
Our driver is an ex military commander, ironically he was in the transportation department, and I feel completely comfortable in his capable hands as he steers between buses, around donkey carts and pedestrians, in the complete and utter chaos of the Kabul streets. Its a complete free for all in all directions with bodies crossing in between cars and buses like a speed game of chicken. Drivers don’t yield for anyone. Human, donkey, bicycle, tank, or bus – the littlest car will confidently pull out into oncoming traffic, the wrong way, and calmly beep his horn and somehow melt into the six lanes of miscellaneous traffic.
What I didn’t expect was the complete and total destruction of the infrastructure of a city. One hundred times worse than what I saw in Beirut. Buildings completely gutted out and crumbling with people and businesses still occupying them in some fashion. Only one road we’ve been us thus far, the newly fixed one from the airport is ‘driveable’, a few main thoroughfares are rutted and bumpy, but every side street requires serious off road driving skills.
Everything is done on the streets. Need to change money? There’s a guy at the roundabout that we stop at to change $200 dollars into local currency. Need to buy a phone card for the cellphone? There’s a ‘shop’ on the side of a busy intersection with a cart full of whichever phone card needed. The markets are streetside and carts pulling apples, bananas, construction materials, and pretty much anything else you could need, set up each morning inches from the traffic.
Our translator and driver offer great advice and direction, and err on the side of security to the point I get a little claustrophobic. You can’t just go walk out for a cup of tea or get a bottle of water. There are security guards and barriers at each end of our alleyway, as well as a night guard. While the meetings we are taking and the activities we are doing far exceed my initial wish list…there are a few items that will probably get scratched off. The bird market is out – for security reasons. Too crowded and too visible to be safe. Local music at a restaurant or teahouse at night is also out, we are back at the guesthouse before dark each night and have our dinner here.
Yet, unexpectedly, I feel quite comfortable here. I wake each morning to the local Iman’s call to prayer, and find myself with a content smile on my face. I’m not looking at buying real estate, but despite the chaos, stress, and security threats…I’m where I want to be.