Women Tell Dirty Jokes, Rely on Opium, and Other Insights From Afghanistan

What was your daily life like?

I just stood and took notes, sketched in my sketchbook. My day was uneventful. The women would wake up and have breakfast with her family, make sure her children are clothed and fed and she would adjust her headscarf to the nape of her neck and squat on top of the loom and start weaving. Break for lunch, then weave again until it got dark. Because there's no electricity her weaving hours are very much tied to the hours of daylight available. It would've been way too costly to spend kerosene for a lamp to weave. So weaving takes place during the day. And her friends would come in, start weaving with her, tell jokes, gossip, and sometimes there would be a wedding she would go to for a couple of weeks in a different village. It would be wrong to portray this as excruciating slavery, because it is not. It's the way of life. The weaver knows how to protect herself from self-destruction, but it's very hard work. It's extraordinarily taxing on your body because you're squatting all day. You develop muscle aches, and in the absence of any medicine, most women take tiny bits of opium and dissolve it in their morning tea to alleviate those aches. The woman whose carpet I watched being created, her father-in-law wouldn't allow her to take opium, he thought it was bad for you. So she just suffered her pain.

What was your relationship like with the women you wrote about?

You try to not stand out as much as possible, not draw attention to yourself, but it's impossible -- I'm an oddity. I'm a foreigner who does strange things. It's hard, for example, to explain, "I'm here to write a book" to people who can't read and have never seen a book. But I think we became friends and somehow I managed to gain my hosts' trust, which never ceases to amaze me. I've been doing this for 17 years, walking into people's lives, intruding, saying "I'm going to impose myself on your life here, and you will tell me everything," and most people say "okay." It has always blown me away, and is extremely moving and reassuring -- it gives me the sense that there is such a thing as human connectedness.

You write that the people in Oqa are "a timeless people in a timeless landscape keeping alive a timeless craft." Can you explain this sense of time?

It's really a book about timelessness, because this is how it feels in Afghanistan. The western concept of time is very superficial there. People in the west see Afghanistan as the site of America's longest foreign war. The Afghans don't care about that. They have been at war since the beginning of recorded history pretty much nonstop. To them, this is the latest iteration of that conflict. There's a sense of seasonal time, season of cold and season of hot, season to plant and season where mulberries ripen. But time is measured differently. A lot of life in Afghanistan today happens in the same way it happened 2300 years ago. It's very palpable. You're on the Grand Canyon of time. You have people walking barefoot around you to collect kindling in the desert that they would then barter for rice, and at the same time they have cellphones, and at the same time there's an F/A-18 bomber flying overhead.

Were the people in Oqa afraid of invasions? What were their greatest fears?

It's hard to say. I think there wasn't so much fear as survival. Day to day survival. There was a resignation that violence will continue and will wash over again and again. I don't know if it would be described as fear. Violence doesn't exist in a vacuum. Violence is when you're walking with a bag of rice that you've managed to barter and some bandits stop you on the road and take your rice. Or an American plane accidentally drops a bomb nearby. You can't control those things flying in the sky. Everybody has heard stories of one neighbor reporting another neighbor to Afghan security forces or to the Americans, saying "he's Taliban" and the next thing you know there's a raid and the neighbor's taken away. So fear is not an acute sense, but there's underlying apprehension. You know that one way or another violence will affect you.

Did you feel safe? Was there anything you were afraid of?

My concern was, first and foremost, for my hosts. I was very aware that my presence could jeopardize my hosts and the people working for me -- I was working with translators and working with drivers, and I lived in people's homes. So I knew that I was a potential source of very big trouble. That was my primary concern. Of course, I was careful in my travel. But I can't say that I was afraid. I was cautious.

One thing that struck me was how much opium addiction seemed to pervade people's lives. Can you talk about this?

Opium is the main medicine in Northern Afghanistan. Most people are introduced prenatally--pregnant women take opium as a palliative when they're pregnant and continue to give tiny bits of opium to newborn babies to keep them from crying and as medicine to their children whenever their children are sick, and children are sick all the time because of the water, and there's no other health care.

There's a scene in your book where women are sharing very crude sex jokes, which surprised me. I would have thought those would be more taboo.

No culture is more uptight about sex than the American culture. You and I are talking in the most uptight culture I've ever seen. Nothing was taboo. They told sex jokes all the time.

That's one of the things that I felt was important to tell in the book. I have never been made blush as many times as I was made blush in Afghanistan. The conversations that women would have in their kitchen were so obscene -- and I don't blush very easily -- but my host mother would come into my room and ask me why my breasts were so small.

They told sex jokes all the time.

With everybody watching. I think the reason people in the States think Afghanistan is sexually repressed is because we have the rule we're not supposed to talk about sex in the media. So there you have it. Some of the most sexually charged conversations I've ever taken part in were in Afghanistan.

A recent bid to add protections to the "Elimination of Violence Against Women Act," issued in 2009, failed to get Parliamentary approval. How does this fit in with the picture you've seen, especially as someone who's spent a lot of time with women? Did any of this filter down to Oqa?

None of it filters down. I will risk sounding cold -- and I'm not; I feel that women's rights are extremely important -- but in Afghanistan, one in eight women dies in childbirth. And watches her infant die at the rate of one out of four. So when we talk about basic rights for women, why don't we start with talking about the right to watch their children grow up and not die? The right to clean water. The right to sanitation. The right to electricity. The right to have enough to eat. These are the rights that women in the provinces are concerned about. They're not concerned about going outside without a burka because they don't need to go outside. They don't have anywhere to go. Education is extremely important, but on the scale of Afghanistan, what's much more important is basic survival. There needs to be a conversation about how to help not just the educated, select women of big cities, but every woman in Afghanistan. We need to build roads. We need to create mobile clinics. Every woman in Afghanistan faces a Sophie's choice every day. That is something that we rarely talk about.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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