Heart-Achingly Young in a Heartbreaking Place

The New Quarterly, Jul. 22, 2014

TNQ131 Cover Front_1

When the new quarterly first asked me to contribute an essay about “risks incurred by women writers in war zones,” I marked the email as unread and avoided it for a while, before responding with a yes. In part, I wasn’t sure how I felt about foreigners highlighting the dangers of their situation— when you have a foreign passport, and the option to leave, then staying becomes an intellectual exercise.

It was also that I didn’t want to be ghettoized as a woman writer. What little I had learned about journalism told me that you would be better served playing down the fact that you have a uterus.

In candour, I should mention that I do not cover war. I report on the detritus of war, and write about a society whose drama happens to be unfolding just as a war rages on in the background. Which is to say, my day-to-day life is not dangerous by any measure (Hi, mom!). I wake up in the morning. I make myself eggs, tea, and retreat to a study that is equipped with fast-ish Internet. In the afternoon, I might set out with a translator to do some reporting, attend a press conference. Then perhaps yoga. Some foreigners have stopped, but I still go grocery shopping—at a local grocer for fresh produce and a supermarket for processed goods, some of which we assume have fallen off the back of NATO trucks. At night, the dwindling mass of expats gets together for drinks. Someone makes a toast. There may not be ice or lemon for your gin-and-tonic, but for the most part, life in the Afghan capital is like life in any other capital. Sure, bombs go off, and gunfights ensue. Many who have stayed say that it’s only a matter of time, a fact of probability, before you have a near miss. And yet, being on the ground is different from what the news leads you to believe. At times, yes I am seized by fear, but I certainly don’t live mired in it.

The orbit I inhabit in Kabul is galaxies apart from the world of most Afghan women, many of whom lead lives that do not go beyond the mud walls of their villages. For these women, their days will begin before the predawn prayer, usually before four. They will knead dough for fresh naan bread, and prepare chai before the rest of the family wakes up. They will send the menfolk off to work, care for their children, then the elderly, do the dishes, tend to their goats or chickens, prepare lunch, sweep the yard, mend clothes, wash clothes, cook dinner, rest their heads for a while before starting all over again. Those are the fortunate ones. Many if not most have lost beloveds to the past thirty years of uninterrupted conflict. Some endure fates worse than death, becoming free only by setting themselves on fire. Of course not all Afghan women are victims. As there are Canadians who are schoolteachers, fishermen, activists, or bankers, so, too, are the varieties of Afghan womanhood. But it’s also fair to say that there would be many other things you’d rather be in this world than a housewife in Uruzgan.

The West came to Afghanistan to liberate its women, and yet thirteen years later, the lives of most girls and women have not changed in any meaningful way. Their lives have continued much as they always had. The nominal progress that is celebrated exists only in certain parts of certain cities, and applies to a few female residents of these urban areas. Meanwhile, the rest suffer. If we are serious about bringing women’s rights to this country, we have to end the war first, a fact lost on many decision makers. Instead, countries support a half a dozen feel-good projects that empower as many women. They do it for themselves as much as they do it for the women they purport to be saving. All this is to say that whatever injustices I may face in Afghanistan, pale—pale—in comparison to the daily suffering of Afghans, for whom quitting is not an option.

(But because I am no saint of course there are things I complain about. I have complained about the rubbernecking that happens when I sprint the short distance to the market to buy milk. The cars that slow down to see if I’ll hop in, since who else but a loose woman would be walking down the street without a mahrem (male chaperon)? The billowing blue burqa that I don when I travel outside of Kabul, which makes me invisible, great, but also interferes with my reporting, an inherently aggressive exercise that gets hampered by the passive mannerisms that burqa-wearing engenders. And because I am of Korean descent, many Afghans assume I am Hazara, a Shiite ethnic minority, which can be a good thing when you are trying to blend in, but a terrible curse when they treat you like their own, which is to say, not very well. People assume it is pollution or violence that must get to me the most, but in truth, it’s the patriarchy.)

The other day, I got out of the shower midday—a freelancer’s prerogative—piled up my hair, sat down at my writing desk, and learned that Camille Lepage had died. The French photojournalist had been killed while making pictures in the Central Africa Republic. The Washington Post called her “heart-achingly young,” and I recoiled to learn that she was my coeval. For a moment, I was thrown into a kind of mild mourning. I felt a chill down my spine before realizing that it was water dripping from my still-wet hair.

As I began reconciling myself to the news, I noticed that my brain was miles ahead of me, already rationalizing. It reminded me that photographers lead far riskier existences than writers, and that the Central African Republic is far more volatile than Afghanistan. Such rationalizing was, I suppose, the thing that all sane minds do to avoid being untethered.

A month ago, a few reporters gathered at the Associated Press bureau in Kabul to remember Anja Niedringhaus, the AP photographer who was killed on assignment in the southeastern province of Khost in Afghanistan. All of us—Khala the cleaning lady and Aimal Faizi the presidential palace spokesperson—watched a live feed from Hoexter, Germany, where Anja’s memorial was being held. What was so beautiful about this very grim occasion was knowing that Anja had died doing what she so manifestly loved. I know that is a counterfactual, but it felt so true at the time, and it rang true again, as I thought of Lepage, who also died doing what she most loved.

***

This year has been a particularly bloody one for our little band of foreigners in Afghanistan. Before Anja, there was the bombing at a popular Lebanese restaurant that killed twenty-one diners, most of them foreigners. Nils Horner, a Swedish-British radio reporter, was gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, while conducting an interview. The shooting at the Serena Hotel killed nine, including AFP reporter Sardar Ahmad and his family.

Since Anja, there has been a shooting at Cure Hospital that killed three Americans. As we enter the second round of the presidential elections, more violence is expected. The Taliban, who did not deliver on their promise to disrupt the last election, will surely make use of this second chance.

Because no one knows who perpetrated the crimes that killed Anja, or Horner, or Sardar, it is not possible to write meaningfully about how these tragedies shape our lives. A Taliban splinter group, Mahaz-e-Fedayin, has claimed responsibility for Horner’s death, as has the Taliban, for the Serena attack. Anja’s death was perpetrated by a madman, who may have been unwell from the beginning, or driven to the edge of reason by the torture he likely endured while in custody after his arrest. There may be a tenuous strand running through the Lebanese restaurant attack and Horner’s assassination, which may also be connected to the Serena shooting. Everything might be true. Or nothing.

For now, I assume that I am not at any special danger because I am a woman or a reporter. I just go about my day.

But, of course journalism suffers. The very essence of reporting—striking up conversations with strangers, hanging around—is a logistical nightmare. We don’t go to restaurants anymore. Some have given up walking. Others have put up higher walls. Kabul as an archipelago of refuge and safety is long over. Those who used to travel to rugged corners of the country, knowing they could always come back to the relative security of Kabul, say that sense of home is gone now.

Most of the foreigners I have spoken to about security concerns seem to have set personal, that is to say arbitrary, markers for when it might be time to leave. Another attack. An attack on a private home. We all know that these are pointless measures we erect to keep ourselves from giving up entirely.

***

The fall before I moved to Kabul, I spent much of my time thinking about how we measure the worth of things. I read two things that autumn that helped me to arrange my feelings.

One was Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In the author’s note, Boo explains her journey from initial reticence—stemming from health conditions and lack of language skills—to deciding to document life in a Bombay slum. I won’t try to paraphrase, as she writes about it so luminously here:
I made the decision to try in the course of an absurdly long night at home alone in Washington, D.C. Tripping over an unabridged dictionary, I found myself on the floor with a punctured lung and three broken ribs in a spreading pool of Diet Dr Pepper, unable to slither to a phone. In the hours that passed, I arrived at a certain clarity. Having proved myself ill-suited to safe cohabitation with an unabridged dictionary, I had little to lose by pursuing my interests in another quarter—a place beyond my so-called expertise, where the risk of failure would be great but the interactions somewhat more meaningful.
Her point seemed to be clear enough: you can die doing anything.

The second thing was this quote from an article about Austin Tice, the freelance reporter who has been missing in Syria since August 2012: “No, I don’t have a death wish. I have a life wish,” he wrote. “So I am living in a place, at a time, and with people where life means more than anywhere I have ever been, because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others.” What Tice described was something that most of us who have experienced it know well. My phenomenal girlfriends who live in and report from Johannesburg, Istanbul, Karachi, and Beijing know what I am talking about. You see life as more than a succession of transactions. There is the ineluctable thrill of being in a country where the story is still unfolding, and for a moment, you even catch a glimpse of how tenuous our foothold in this world can be. In places where matters of life and death play out on the streets daily, you are freed from the tyranny of small talk. You no longer have to spend another evening discussing condo prices.

Tice’s quote got me thinking about externalities. What are the externalities of my moving to Kabul? It is subjecting my parents to a certain vigilance, keeping their TV turned to BBC at all times, and I come from a culture that has a specific word to describe a daughter who does not give occasion for her parents to grieve. Taking risks, even calculated ones, means being okay with besieging those you love with worries. It is ultimately a selfish decision, and there needs to be acknowledgement of that, too.

When I shared the article with my friend Farnam, a person of lambent wit and beauty, she wrote back, “sometimes you are compelled and that you should always listen to. never take risks unless you feel com-pletely compelled.”

Another emailed followed: “and those who love you will always accept, in the end, that you were compelled.”

In the end, we all go towards things that make us feel.

***

One last thing. When I visited my motherland for the first time in over ten years last spring, the Seoul ferry disaster was unfolding. The boat had long capsized, but the country had refused to accept the grisly truth that all passengers were likely dead, and so the fiction of rescue was ongoing. That was all the news on all the TV channels. It would have felt like Groundhog Day had it not been for the ticker on the top right hand corner that kept track of the rescued, the still missing, and the dead. When I arrived, those numbers were: 174, 237, and 65. Watching these figures surge and drop was like watching some kind of macabre reality TV show.

I knew I had grown callous when the looped images of mothers collapsing in grief and fathers wailing—a rare occurrence in a culture where stoicism and manhood are intrinsically linked—stirred no emotion in me. I couldn’t help but think about the hundreds of civilian casualties that will go unnamed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the fact that in Afghanistan, everyone I had met was a survivor of calamity. Here, you witness what comes after disasters. You realize that life goes on, and with this aperçu, your innocence is punctured. (Sure enough, a few days after I flew out of Seoul, a landslide engulfed over two thousand lives in Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan. The government declared the site a mass grave.)

So perhaps that is the real risk of being here. You lose something you didn’t even know you could lose. Boats capsize, families disappear into the great maw of silt, and the carapace hardens.

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