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On being a human guest house

Friday, May 4, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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This week has been very intense in the western region of Afghanistan, where I am based. A little over a week ago the Iranian government began implementing their previously announced policy of deporting all undocumented Afghans in Iran. Since 21 April about 40,000 people (predominantly family groups, including women and children) have been deported. They have mostly come through the border crossing at Zaranj in the province of Nimruz, although a smaller number have arrived at Islam Qala border crossing in Herat province.

The majority of these people are originally from Farah province. Farah is the most unstable province in the western region, and there are large areas of the province where Taleban elements are operating openly. The security situation is unstable and unpredictable and perhaps even more importantly the province in poor, under-developed and sorely lacking in basic services and infrastructure. The mass arrival of deported families, most of whom will arrive with very little money or resources, will put a huge and almost certainly unsustainable burden on this already struggling province.

In the same week Coalition Forces (mostly US Special Forces) carried out operations in Shindand district of Herat province, less than two hours drive from Herat city. Major fighting broke out between Coalition Forces and locals on Sunday morning. It remains unclear how the major fighting started (it may have been a planned CF operation or it may have begun after local residents took up arms against the Special Forces who had been carrying out house searches and arrest in their village for over three days (including at one point calling in air support which dropped several bombs on the villages destroying residences, including the residence of the tribal leader whose house was reportedly hosting anti-government elements).

The reports from the Coalition Forces vary massively from reports of local communities and we (i.e. human rights monitors and other independent international representatives like the International Committee of the Red Cross) are struggling to verify the real situation. It does seem almost certain, however, that civilians were killed by the bombing, including women and children.

Local communities are furious about both these developments, with protests against both the Iranian and the US governments taking place this week.

In my corner of the world this all adds up to lots and lots of work, very frazzled colleagues, frayed tempers, increased security risks and the challenge of coming up with a reliable and credible position on what actually happened this week.

I've been in a strangely calm state throughout the week.

Admittedly I was spared the trauma of actually going to the village in Shindand to do the first hand interviews, my colleague did that as I was in Kabul for the day. This all happened in the same place where the tribal fighting broke out last October. That was the incident (that and the fact that I had been completely abandoned by all my colleagues at the time and had to handle the whole thing alone) which triggered the emotionally dark and difficult months of my winter. So I was glad not to have to go back this time.

But all the same, I'm very much in the midst of the chaos and under pressure to get things done, including covering some of the responsibilities of our Boss as he keeps on top of the rapidly developing security situation, and generally try to get through a few too many things each day.

In the midst of it all I feel calm, slightly removed, I have a strong sense of the truth of the Buddhist mind training slogan I have been focusing on this week: "regard all dharmas as dreams" which I interpret as "regard every situation as a passing moment, contemplate the possibility that things are not as solid as they seem". It is initially an uncomfortable slogan for an intense and earnest human rights activist. I've made a life out of taking things seriously and at first glance this slogan could be seen as a little bit frivolous or escapist. But for the past two weeks I have been contemplating it, allowing it to permeate me, letting it sink below the surface of my thoughts. This week I feel the truth of it.

Last night I let my book of Rumi poetry fall open to any page in order to choose a line from which to write for 20 minutes. It fell open on the page with this poem:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

For some new delight.

The dark though, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

I don't put it here to suggest that the women whose children were killed by the bombs that fell on Shindand this week should be grateful for the excrutiating pain that has arrived on the doorstep of their homes. I can't be clear enough about that. This poem is a message only for me this week. It spoke to me so strongly and with such beautiful clarity when I saw it on the page last night and it has been following me about all day, whispering in my ear as I watch the tensions rise around me.


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8 Responses to "On being a human guest house"

  1. susannah says:

    The perfect words to carry with you, angel. as always, i look around my flat and my life and shake my head, marvelling at the reality you are looking at around you over there. i wish i could bring you panzanella and wine and help you untangle some of the thoughts. keep hold of that quiet attentive place inside of you – it will help you get through. love you sweetie xxoo

  2. [a} says:

    ~Thank you for your v. nice compliment on my blog!!~
    Reading about all you guys have to deal with makes me feel frazzled & stressed. Honestly, the poor Afghans. & poor you-guys. Everyone must have learned to be so strong just living there; whether they were born into it all, or went to help out, like you.
    & as for that poem!!!!! It’s perfect! I am printing it out to put up on my board!! Thank you for sharing.

  3. tiny noises says:

    there was one small blurb in the paper today that mentioned around 44-55 casualties in Harat province, with not much more for details. thank you for filling us in (as best you can at the moment).
    i really like your thoughts on time. you recognize the trigger that happened in october and hold it, yet you can now see beyond (in a sense). you “regard every situation as a passing moment.” beautiful in the face of such chaos and loss, and so necessary in the challenging work you are doing. sending strengthening thoughts to your entire post. . .

  4. homeinkabul says:

    He may be clearing you out
    For some new delight.
    That’s my favorite part of the poem. You always come up with a new insight for me – thank you. I am praying and sending you good vibes.

  5. What a journey you have set your foot on, Frida. I am amazed… and honored to know such a person as you. You bless everyone you touch, I know this…
    Rumi really does seem to speak to us when we especially need to hear things… thanks for posting the poem as I can learn something from it today as well…
    Take care, sweetheart…

  6. Mardougrrl says:

    Oh, my Godness Frida. How nervewracking, and yet…peace rings out from every word. You must be extraordinary at what you do. I’m praying for you, and for all of the people displaced in that area.
    You open me up. Thank you for that.
    xoxo, M

  7. Alexandra says:

    You are a constant reminder of a life being lived with such astonishing courage and integrity, simply amazing. And I am wishing you a magnificent birthday. I pray the day and upcoming year will be filled with much love and joy, health, and goodness for you. I wish I could bring you a cupcake- would you mind emailing me your mailing address once more? (I won’t send a cupcake but want to send a card!) xoxo

  8. Anil says:

    Come they will from many a mile,
    For, beyond the door-step welcoming them
    Are cowering shadows separated from those
    They once followed diligently,
    And bereft of company
    They now seek all those who come to the doorstep,
    In the hope that they may once again follow diligently a human foot
    That will take them to their promised land.

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