The Gilded Serpent

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The children of Guldara, a village an hour north of Kabul, attend classes outdoors as their school building is destroyed. The men of Guldara sided with the Northern Alliance, so the Taliban decimated the village. Now, the people have returned to rebuild.

Most women still wear the burqa, but freely venture out into the marketplace for the first time in quite awhile. Just a few months ago, not a woman could be seen on the streets of Kabul.

The women and children of this extended Guldara family gather in the kitchen of their newly renovated home. The women are making nan, Afghanistan's staple bread, and the children have just come home from school.

A mother and daughter out shopping in Karte Se, a neighborhood in Kabul. Most women, afraid the Taliban might return any day, still wear the burqa.

Some women, like this Hazara woman from Karte Se, test the waters and wear their burqa pulled back to show their face.

Kuchis making camp in Jalalabad.

Kuchis on the move on the treacherous road from Kabul to Jalalabad.

A Kuchi camp with their livestock grazing freely near Jalalabad.

These girls in Guldara have begun their first full school year since the Taliban lost power. Many parents in Afghanistan broke the law and educated their girls in secret. One Jalalabad girl who was not so fortunate, however, said she was too shy to go back to school. At 13, she would only be in the third grade and was afraid the other girls would make fun of her. Besides, said her mother, the girl would be married in a couple of years.

As part of their curriculum, the children of Guldara are taught how to recognized and avoid landmines, which are strewn all over their land, just a stone's throw from where they study and play.

A sampling of Kuchi jewelry purchased on Chicken Street in Kabul.

Gilded Serpent presents..
Dancing again in Afghanistan
By Qan-Tuppim

Kabul, Afghanistan - Most of the women at the birthday party kept their chadors* on, although only one man was in the room, and they all were related to him. The man was the father of the birthday boy, whose mother threw on some bhangra* and began to dance for her one-year-old son.

Two weeks after this party, a rocket meant for the American Embassy would fly off course through another apartment building in this same area and near where I was staying. The explosion was loud enough to cause alarm, but not so close as to rattle our windows.

At the party, however, the only loud noise was the music pumped to an ear-pounding volume, accompanied by clapping and laughing.

As I had suspected, Afghan women belly dance. Since this is Central Asia (not the Middle East), and since Afghan women do not dance in public (making the chance to see them rare), my theory could only remain just a theory until I saw it for myself.

As a journalist, I took a month-long working vacation to travel to Afghanistan this fall. I visited my friend Karen who works there for a Christian human service NGO,* having returned this spring after the Taliban put her under house arrest and kicked her NGO out of the country just prior to September 11, 2001. She is renovating a new home whose previous inhabitant suffered a rocket through its roof. Karen speaks fluent Pashto* and can get by in Dari.*

The proud parents of the birthday boy invited us because Karen is a family friend. Locals are excited to mix freely with foreigners; the Taliban used to severely punish them for this. Music and dancing also are legal now, but dancing is culturally restricted. Afghan women may watch men dance at weddings, but men may not watch women dance.

We sat on toshaks* eating pilau* and ground meat that sizzled with oil and was served with extremely fermented local yogurt. Before they cut the cake, the mother of the birthday boy turned on her boom box and egged on her sister, a doctor now re-employed since women can work again, to dance with her.

When the mother pulled me up to dance, I eagerly attempted to mimic her style of belly dance. All the women exhibited horizontal hip shimmies and twists, with some dancers making each hip twist more staccato than others, almost stomping their feet to obtain the desired affect.

Hip lifts of any kind were noticeably absent. An eight-year-old girl, however, started doing a move common to belly dancers everywhere: She slanted back, dropped her hip and kicked with every other drop. I quickly realized the little girls were mimicking what their mothers felt free to let loose and do at home, but weren’t willing to do in a group where a man was present.

With their elbows bent, the women’s hands did not raise above their heads. Their wrist circles were light and hands remained cupped, fingers together at all times. The mother also would do a forward hopping move that I’ve seen before: Left foot flat on the ground, the ball of her right foot planted behind her, she propelled herself forward and bounced up and down the room.

The younger women at the party began taking off their chadors as they relaxed. Most Afghan women still wear the burqa although they are not legally required to. Some women test the waters by pulling the burqa back over their heads to reveal their face. With most burqas being blue, the style produces a Virgin Mary statue effect. Fewer women wear a chador, and a handful wear small head-scarves.

In 102 degree heat, I wore a culturally-appropriate long skirt over pants, sleeves past the elbows, and the chador, which kept slipping off my head because I wasn’t used to it. While shooting photographs, I finally whipped it off because it kept getting in the way

Birthday parties are rare among Afghans. Preceding miscarriages and the longing for a son, now finally born to our hosts, had inspired this unusual, elaborate event. The women even wore their dowry jewelry for the occasion, donning intricately sculpted, orange-gold Indian-design necklaces, earrings and bangles. The women prefer their gold dowry jewelry to old silver Kuchi and Turkoman jewelry coveted by American Tribal Style belly dancers.

Most Kuchi items we see in the U.S. have been imported from Pakistan. I bought most of my Kuchi items, however, on Chicken Street in Kabul. Only a few souvenir shops exist in the city, and Chicken Street is the place to go. My only fellow customers were ISAF* soldiers.

Besides bargaining for a good price, the real test became finding jewelry that needed the least repair. One of my favorite finds, a pair of bracelets encrusted with colored glass, left an unidentified rubbery slime on my hands as I examined it. I nicknamed this muck I found on most jewelry “Kuchi goo.” Karen and her coworkers were amused I was buying so much, and that I actually had a practical use for six-inch wrist cuffs!

To get into Afghanistan, I first had to get an Afghan visa in Peshawar (always a crapshoot), then drive to Kabul. As we trekked across the desert, the Kuchis came at us heading the opposite direction, on the move from Kabul toward Jalalabad seeking yet even warmer weather (!) for the winter.

“Everyone has their story of a Kuchi woman walking along, then stopping to squat and give birth right then and there, then catching up with her caravan,’’ Karen told me. “So many people tell a story about it, it probably does happen just like that.”

Their reputation for toughness went far. The Kuchis also are strongly patriarchal, but the Taliban never dared to force Kuchi women to wear a burqa and even allowed them to sell wares in the marketplace.

To get to Kabul, we drove three hours from Peshawar, Pakistan to Jalalabad, Afghanistan through tribal territory which belongs to neither country. The tribes assign travelers a tribal gunman, since this is a heavy heroin processing and arms dealing area. So, we headed through the Khyber Pass with our gunman in the front passenger seat, past endless shops with scales shamelessly displayed in the windows for measuring heroin.

From Jalalabad to Kabul, the drive is six-plus hours over treacherous unpaved road. Halfway there, we ran into U.S. Coalition forces who quickly realized the blonde girls waving at them from the van catching up to their convoy were American. Because we were vulnerable to bandits, our Afghan driver stuck with the troops for protection. The soldiers were happy to oblige. Later we found out those same soldiers were attacked after we left them.

Just before we headed up the Kabul Gorge into the city, someone tried to enter at the same checkpoint we were heading for with a fuel truck full of explosives. When we arrived, the military was out in force and an Afghan army commander ordered Karen and me out of our van to be searched, along with our luggage, right in the middle of the road.

As it so happened, I had woken up with food poisoning that morning. When the army commander demanded my passport, I responded by throwing up at his feet. Mortified, I started laughing and threw up again! Vomiting turned out to be the best thing I could have done - the army commander felt bad and decided not to search us.

When I left Afghanistan, I flew out on a 16-seater plane over the Hindu Kush. The flight took 40 minutes out, compared with 10 hours driving in. Because of a miniscule luggage limit, however, I abandoned most of my stuff in Kabul. I took only the clothes on my back, some borrowed chadors, my notes, camera, and my horde of Kuchi jewelry. The jewelry got me searched at every airline security checkpoint on the way back to the U.S.

Pounds of strange-shaped metal will set off an X-ray machine every time. A couple of female airline security guards even tried on my Kuchi wrist cuffs.

Bhangra: Indian, Punjabi pop music
Chador: A large, light-weight, semi-sheer veil that women wear in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The veil covers the hair and wraps around the shoulders and upper torso.
Dari: Afghanistan’s main language
ISAF: International Security Assistance Force
NGO: Non-governmental organization
Pashto: Afghanistan’s second main language
Pilau: A staple Afghan dish consisting of rice with raisons, carrots and lamb. The lamb usually is buried at the bottom and you have to dig for it.
Toshak: Floor mats and pillows which serve as couches in Afghan culture.
Kuchis: Nomads who are ethnic Pashtuns, from the same tribe as the Taliban and former Afghan king Mohammed Zaher Shah, who was overthrown in the early 70’s and who returned to Kabul this year as a cultural figurehead, but not a governmental leader.

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The Gilded Serpent