Welcome to Afghanistan
Story and Photos by Erika Dunmire ’94
It was fortunate that Ariana Airlines never departed on time. They were more likely to leave twelve hours late than to be on schedule. Each connection on my flight itinerary was delayed, and I panicked that I’d miss this once-a-week flight from Dubai to Kabul. A sense of relief enveloped me when I saw my plane at the departure gate in the Dubai airport; I was one step closer to Afghanistan. Kabul was my final destination during a weeklong vacation. Sarah, an American friend working in the city, had invited me to visit. I feared encountering hostility as an American woman traveling in this war-torn country, but wanted to see the country firsthand and to explore job possibilities within the economic development sector.
I self-consciously entered the departure gate in Dubai. Long sleeves covered the entire length of my arms; only my shoes stuck out from under my long skirt; I had a scarf to wrap around my hair should I need it. Groups of five or six men were gathered around the periphery of the waiting room, and within these groups, I could see the Afghanistan I’d read about. Men wore Pakols and Shalwar Khamises, the tan hats that roll up around the edges and comfortable outfits of baggy pants with loosely fitting long shirts. The distinct pale blue eyes and aquiline noses of many of the men left an impression: Dignity and fierceness were etched deeply into many of these faces, part of a culture completely new to me.
While we waited to find out when our plane would depart, a remarkable sense of community began to develop among this most unlikely group. At hour six during our prolonged wait, a bus pulled up outside the sliding glass door. We quickly jumped up and jostled toward the exit. Not your turn, we were told. Laughing at our mistake, we milled back to our seats.
Where you from? asked a man in very broken English. I decided to tell him the truth. Am-ree-kah, I replied in Arabic, and thus began a conversation peppered with Arabic, English, Pashto and hand gestures. Slowly Salman told me about his many years spent away from Afghanistan and his family due to ongoing wars and instability. This was his first homecoming in years, as it was for many on my flight from Dubai to Kabul. In returning to their homeland, they, like me, were seeing a new country.
The chaos was heightened as we finally boarded the plane for the flight into Kabul. Each of us was given a boarding pass, but there was no aisle or seat assignment. It was first come, first served, and the plane was packed. Soon we were high above the infamous Hindukush Mountains. Passengers pressed two or three deep to peer out the small, oval windows, hoping for a glimpse of the familiar, jagged, snow-covered mountains below. They eagerly talked during the two-and-a-half-hour flight about their return to their families and homeland. It has been 10 years since I was here, one man told me in flawless English. Another, via translation, said, I will go back home and be with my family now. Everyone applauded when the plane landed, and those seated around me welcomed me graciously: Welcome to Kabul! Welcome to my home! Welcome to Afghanistan! You are welcome!
I spent my days traveling throughout the capital city with a driver and a translator named Mahmoon. A full-time medical student, Mahmoon taught Pashto to English-speaking foreigners to make extra money. Together we explored the few remaining tourist areas of Kabul and met with NGOs. Over a cup of strong Arabic coffee one afternoon, Mahmoon explained to me why he was studying medicine. Erika, I want to help people in my country. I want to be a part of Afghanistan’s future.
Life was remarkably normal in Kabul—far more so than I expected. During my week there, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, went to a party, played soccer with Sarah and some friends, visited the Zoo and the National Gallery. But there were times when I felt the foreignness of living in a high-security environment. At Sarah’s home, we ate dinner in the “lock-down room,” reinforced with steel bars and stocked with military rations in the event of an attack. Each evening, we had to be back by 10 p.m., and when we got there, Sarah radioed in to her office that we were safely at home.
Throughout the city I caught glimpses of women shopping or walking down the street together. Some were still wearing the burka, a full-length blue covering mandated for all women during the harsh Taliban rule. Others were brazenly exercising their new freedoms, like a woman who wore dark red lipstick as she waited with a large group of people at a bus stop. We locked eyes as my car drove past.
Kabul itself was a dusty mix of bombed-out, half-standing buildings and significant areas of reconstruction. In the latter places stood brightly painted concrete buildings. Downtown, busy streets were lined with merchants who used every inch of space to sell a variety of goods: tangerines next to flip-flops, blankets next to tires. Business bustled and a sense of a brighter future was in the air.
My short visit to Afghanistan confirmed my commitment to working within the economic development arena in the Kabul region. The scope of projects required to support a country after nearly 23 years of war is immense. Every type of expertise is required. So much of what we in the West take for granted in our daily lives simply does not exist within a country like Afghanistan and must be created from scratch. I plan to work there and do what I can to help its people navigate toward a new and hopeful future. I suspect, though, that there will be more to learn than to teach.
Erika Dunmire is a global nomad. Born in Zambia, she spent her childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Lake Placid, New York. She has worked in Amman, Jordan, and Warsaw, Poland. In 2000, Erika received an M.B.A. from Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management in Phoenix, Arizona. She is currently in Lake Placid, working on a project with her grandmother to capture life stories of octogenarian women—and is considering her own next step.