I spent 10 days in Afghanistan for work. I’m supporting a team there planning a large education programme. They bring knowledge, I bring post it notes and flipchart pens. Together, we can. But hope. Please nice donors, fund us!
Before I left, I faffed with my packing. Evening upon evening, my husband came home to find me rummaging through my clothes, muttering vengefully about moths. The way to get round the modest clothing issue with a Western wardrobe, I had discovered, was a long shirt or dress over trousers. But it doesn’t stop there, the ‘cultural awareness’ photocopy lets you know. The trousers must be wide legged, and the sleeves of the dress must come below your elbow. Nothing must be sheer. It’s so obvious that the neckline should be high that they don’t even mention it. Fortunately I’m a fan of wide-legged pants (Fenn Wright Manson or just Top Shop) but I have literally one long shirt that meets all those criteria, and (since a great shopping trip in Islamabad) one beautiful shalwar kameez. But that wasn’t going to get me through 10 days in Kabul. So the answer is – layering. Trousers, a dress worn back to front so that the low neckline is hidden, and a strange black coat that my best friend was getting rid of because it was too shapeless, and I, squirrel-like, hoarded. For this day, it turns out. This day of 35 degree heat.
I took my Kindle with me of course, and started reading Moby Dick. Even there, Afghanistan was ready to meet me. Herman Melville uses a reference to this desperately important land as an ironic comment on the long repeating cycles in the news, and casts his narrator Ishmael’s boat journey as part of a global epic by this reference which could have been as pointed in 2001 as 1851:
‘And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
“Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael”
“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan”‘
Then there’s the business with the headscarf. I love hats and fascinators, so I was fascinated by the idea of covering my head. My colleagues were quite clear: whenever you go outside, cover your head. When you arrive at the airport, have your head covered. If anything goes wrong and you need help, people will not respect you if you do not have your head covered. I was concerned about the details. ‘Do I have to pin it, or is it okay to wear swathed loosely about my head? I don’t know how to pin it. ‘ I asked one of my new male colleagues. There was a pause at the other end of the line. ‘just wear one, it’s better.’ But then what kind, and what to do with my hair? I have fine blonde flyaway hair, and if the whole point is that my bare head is offensive then the straggling strands around my face would be an insult both to my host country and the patient efforts of my hairdresser. I decided I would wear a headband to keep the flimsy strands discreetly hidden.
I planned some outfits, but could not figure out how to appear as anything other than an eccentric British lady who, for reasons of her own, prefers to wear all her clothes at once. I hummed and hawed over the choice of headscarf with which to make my respectable debut at Kabul airport. The pretty ones from Pakistan would have to wait until I’d sized up the prevailing attitude to decoration, and I packed a plain grey wool scarf. A floor length full skirt borrowed from my best friend, my long black longsleeved shirt, and a shapeless macintosh completed the look. Sitting at gate 5, terminal 2 in Dubai (very much the Stansted of Dubai, a hot 20 min bus ride from glittering terminal 1) I tried to gain a sense of dress culture. Standing in queue to board, I thought there were relatively few women at all, but of those there, only two or three seemed bareheaded. So I bowed to the majority, raised my scarf over my head, and lowered my eyes.