On the plane, I went to sleep as soon as I sat down, exhausted already by the night flight from London, and woke up with two high school or student aged girls. They were both smartly dressed in narrow black pants, black tunics embellished with silver, and light black scarves; one chiffon embellished with silver threads, the other soft black cotton or viscose with silver, leopard like spots. We got chatting – they had left Aghanistan five years ago, had settled in Peterborough, and were returning to see family. They were as keen as I was to see Afghanistan from the air as we approached. Leaving the azure waters lapping the desert of the Gulf behind, nearer Kabul we saw endless rows of dry bleached yellow mountains, with what looked like chains of fields threading their way through the valleys. I asked if their family would think they had become too British ‘Yes, maybe,’ they replied together, laughing. The two girls and I shared a fear of aeroplane turbulence, and giggled nervously together at landing. They were part of a much larger family group, it turned out – my last glimpse of them was at the baggage carousel, where the elder one looked like someone born to lead orchestras or nations, with relations and porters following the rapid gestures of her arms to fetch copious volumes of baggage, while the smallest members of the family danced around her like a maypole, running off to the exciting carousel, and back again to safety.
At the border control, I was relieved when the guard laughed at the photos clipped inside my passport for various official forms. One of my colleagues had said that in my passport photos I look like a psychopath. Other things were funnier, but not suitable to be written here, to do with various types of criminality. All agreed they would not let me into their country. The guard was quite chivalrous, and said ‘is that really you? Maybe it’s your sister.’. I thought of my pretty sisters and laughed. He stamped my passport and I had entered the country. Would he have been friendly if I had not been wearing a headscarf? Probably, but why take the risk? Foreigner registration was slightly less easy, with a man barking at me that I should have brought a work permit, not a visa. I explained why I was here, his colleague looked at my passport, and then they stamped my registration form. It probably wouldn’t have been harder if I had been bareheaded, but again, I felt more confident arguing with them knowing that I had not possibly offended anyone before even opening my mouth.
The five minute walk to meet my greeter at the car park was almost unbearably hot. I began to hate my woollen scarf. I met another lady who was visiting the programme who had come in on the same flight. She’d had trouble finding the car park and asked for help. Her head was covered, but the airport men who jovially assisted her had told her that ‘people in Afghanistan don’t really like women who don’t wear the burka.’ I attribute half of that to the way some men like to frighten women almost as a form of flirtation (‘it’s ok lady, you’re in safe hands now,’ kind of thing). A casual glance at the streets told us that wasn’t true. Some women wore the burka for sure, but others wore smart black tunics and pants, others wore green and pink shalwar kameezes, there were as many ways for women to express themselves through fashion as there were in London. Except I was not making a fashion statement, I looked like a bag lady wearing badly assorted clothes, and I was ridiculously hot. We passed through traffic so hectic I nearly didn’t see the soldiers passing with a gun mounted on a flatbed truck. First impressions of Kabul: bustling traffic filled, shop-lined streets, houses that matched the bleached yellow brick of the encircling mountains. Then there was a side street, a metal wall, a man with a gun in a metal cubicle surrounded by sandbags. I had arrived at my hotel.
Between the office and the hotel, I was driven past a road with shops selling evening gowns and Western wedding dresses. ‘Who wears those?’ I asked a colleague. ‘Afghan brides,’ he replied drily. I puzzled over how a woman in this dress culture could wear a strapless, corseted Pronovias dress when the rest of the time they must be covered. Then a colleague explained, she will only be seen by other women. Men and women celebrate the wedding in different rooms. There is a ceremony between the groom and his father in law, and then a messenger will go to tell the bride that she’s married. At one point she will sit with the groom to receive guests – but the enormous neon lit wedding halls, for the massive and loud Afghan weddings I could hear nearly every night from my hotel in downtown Kabul, are separated inside for the parties for men, and parties for women. Having been married three months ago, it felt like a different way to do it. At the office, I had nearly made a gaffe on my first day by going to eat lunch at the men’s table, but caught myself just in time. At the hotel, I ate on my own every night. There was a male colleague staying there, but in addition to traveler reticence, offering a colleague ‘space’, I felt I didn’t want to expose myself to observation by brazenly walking up to him to suggest we eat together. After a few days there, my goal was invisibility.