Seagull Books

The Women of Kabul


I met the woman in the Kabul men’s hospital, in the spartan room of the Swiss head nurse, poorly heated by an antiquated electric stove. She had come in a gadi, one of the little two-wheeled hackneys that jauntily trotting horses somehow manage to pull through even the narrowest bazaar lanes of the Afghan capital. She wore the chador, the heavy grey veil that hugs the head like a bonnet and falls in loose folds over the shoulders to the ground—the garment that shrouds the Afghan woman. But she was no Afghan woman; she had grown up on the seacoast of Normandy, a happy child with blonde braids, friends with her brothers, with the yard dog and the heavy-hoofed horses and the languid brindled cows, with the babbling fountain, the cliffs, the beach, the bracing winds of her French homeland. She gave me her hand a bit shyly. Maybe I wasn’t nonchalant enough; watching the sad,spectral figure enter, I had felt a crippling sense of horror,almost aversion—and yet it was a long-familiar sight for me. For of course the Afghan women all look the same, in the bazaars, on the dusty streets of the cities and villages, in the walled gardens of private houses. I know only that the Jewish women wear a black chador, the Afghan women grey or light blue, and there may be other differences as well: the upturned shoe tips of the farm women, the worn heels of the poor, the rich ladies’ embroidered velvet sandals beneath the veil’s hem. But one wants to see a face—lively eyes, a pretty mouth, a smile—and all you ever encounter is the little face grille flitting past. And you know that these fearful, helpless creatures can barely see enough through this grille to avoid the swaying camels, the jingling little gadi horses, the men with their cheerful and vigorous stride—they live in constant fear.


Having satisfied herself that I was not a boy, the woman awkwardly doffed her chador. Underneath it she was dressed in the European fashion, but not very tastefully and somewhat sloppily. The three of us drank our tea, rather taciturn. And yet I could have asked a hundred questions: Why did you marry an Afghan? Certainly, he’s wellborn, related to a minister at the royal court, he studied in Paris and already has a high-ranking job in the postal administration. And he’s likeable; perhaps you were in love with him then, or you’re still fond of him, or of your child, this dark-skinned, unruly, insolent little boy who’s so unlike you—did this come as a surprise? What did the lovely name ‘Afghanistan’ evoke for you, this most foreign place, when, barely twenty, you plunged into a fate unknown—and perhaps for that reason so incredibly alluring—parting far too lightly from all the things you knew? I’d also have liked to learn how things work in an Afghan household where mother and daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, sisters and poor relatives all live together, feeding from idleness, embroidering a bit and drinking lots of tea, eating sweets, chatting and—that much I’d gathered— not even capable of looking after their children. Faced with the dismal disorder of such a household, the insubordination of lazy maidservants, the spoilt cheekiness of the little boys who soon scorn the women, the filth, the general squalor, the boredom, the women are helpless, not even aware that one can live differently. Was it conceivable that a girl raised in Europe put up with it all, even played along with it, accepted it and sank into the agony of creeping time, each moment lost beyond recall? That she shared this existence day after day, as sharp-tongued as the sisters in-law and neighbour women, party to the grandmother’s tyranny and the endless gossip-mongering, forgetting that outside, just a few steps past the courtyard walls, a bright sky arched over gardens and roofs and streets and fields, over a splendidly self-renewing, comforting, life-giving earth? Had she forgotten all that?


Our hostess, the nurse from Switzerland, did her best to keep the conversation going. She talked about her work: the only European, and the only woman, she supervised fifty male nurses and 120 patients, forced to fight the Ministry of Health for every thermometer, much less alcohol, as alcohol is prohibited in this devoutly Mohammedan country. Every day she herself had to inspect the food, prepared in a clay shed outside the hospital, had to intervene when a lamenting, praying clan gathered around the bed of a feverish relative, had to convince the nurses that beds must be made daily and the desperately ill undressed and washed; she assisted with every operation, gave every injection herself. At home, on Lake Biel, she had two boys being cared for by their grandparents; here, in Kabul, she was earning money for their future. While the nurse talked, as unassumingly as though it were only natural to live a decent life and see things through, duties once shouldered, a whole arduous existence, I observed the taciturn guest. She ate cake without stopping, dunking the pieces in her teacup; her face, puffy and strangely expressionless, might as well have been hidden behind the veil. ‘How is your little boy?’ the nurse asked her. And suddenly, silently, she burst into tears. Soon after that her husband came to pick her up. Hastily she donned her chador and left.


I didn’t even ask the nurse whether an Afghan woman could get a divorce. It was too obvious that the poor woman would lack the courage now to cast off the chador for good. The languor of her flat, rather pretty face was already oriental, aged or ageless; even when she wept, all that showed was misery, no real sorrow, no regret, no unbroken defiance. Later I had the opportunity to meet Afghan women— with and without the chador. Most of them were so alike that I can’t tell one from the other in my memory. But I also met children; that autumn, last year, the government opened the first girls’ school in Kabul and recruited several capable women—the wives of the professors at the French school—as teachers. If you wish to know the state of a people, turn to its youth: here, nothing is disfigured yet, they express themselves in ways unset by convention, undulled by habit, unswayed by external dependencies and existential conditions; here, ability and zest for life manifests itself with lovely unselfconsciousness. The little schoolgirls of Kabul were extremely gifted, lively, receptive creatures, a match for the boys, pretty and with such radiant eyes that it was impossible to imagine these slender little forms and delicate intent faces ever banished to the shadow of the harem walls, the sombre confinement of the chador. Today in Europe we may have grown sceptical towards the catchphrases of freedom, responsibility, equal rights for all and so forth. But it is enough to have seen at close hand the stifling servitude that makes God’s creatures into joyless, fearful beings—and you’ll cast off discouragement like a bad dream and listen to the voice of reason that exhorts us to believe in and fight for the simple goals of a humane existence.



This extract has been taken from: 

All the Roads are Open
An Afghan Journey 1939-1940
Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole


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