Yesterday I returned to Herat. I haven’t been here in four years.
I’m staying in the guesthouse where I lived when I first moved here in 2006. I was met at the door by the same house manager and cook who took care of me when I first landed. Two of the current house occupants were also here when I lived in Herat. After lunch yesterday the cook said to me, ‘I think you like vegetables more than meat.’
I told him he has a very good memory.
He said all the women who come from abroad prefer vegetables to meat. He must seem think us very strange creatures.
After lunch, which was so much like many lunches I’ve had in this guesthouse it was hard to believe it had been more than four years since the last one, I did a characteristically dreadful job of negotiating a price for a car and driver for the next few days. Basically, I paid him the first amount he asked for. I’m not sure that even counts as negotiation. But he was happy, and thanks to donations from many of you, I could afford it.
With my newly hired (happy) driver and a car, I was able to head over to Suraya Pakzad’s office. If you’ve been reading here for a while you may remember Suraya. Last year, we raised US$8000 for the women’s shelter Suraya founded.
Suraya’s father died last week, so we began our conversation with my condolences, and her memories of her father. It comes as no surprise to me that he was an independently-minded man, a poet who was given the name ‘Pakzad’, which means honourable, by his peers.
Our conversation about Suraya’s father led into a conversation about my father, which led into a conversation about the role supportive fathers can play in raising confident, independent women. Which led into a conversation about the role mothers can play in raising men who respect women.
Which led, in turn, into a conversation about certain men in Herat. Men holding positions of significant power in the city who Suraya and her male deputy commended to me by describing them as ‘sensitive’.
When I asked what they meant, exactly, by ‘sensitive’, they explained that it meant that these men clearly actually felt something, experienced real emotion in response to the plight of women in their community. One man was praised for having cried in response to a story of a young girl who fled a violent home.
As they spoke, I remembered 2006, when most Afghans I spoke to thought it spoke well of President Karzai that he broke down and cried while giving a speech about Afghan children killed in Taleban attacks and NATO airstrikes.
‘You have to feel it’, Suraya said. That’s what really matters in this work, she insisted, that you feel something strong in response to these cases.
All at once I remembered why:
a) I felt so at home working with Afghan human rights colleagues (finally a group of people who encouraged me in my sensitivity rather than telling me to grow a thicker skin); and
b) I had such a hard time here. Because I did feel it. And I didn’t know how to let it go once I’d felt it.
From day one, I’ve been convinced that empathy is the foundation of human rights work done with dignity.
What I’m learning is how to balance my empathy with equanimity.
I’m a bit too tired to say anything more intelligent than that on the subject. And tomorrow I fly to Ghor, so I’m going to sign off and get some sleep. Perhaps I’ll work out what I’m trying to say in Ghor. I’ve always found the open spaces good for thinking.
PS: I also met a Pakistan-educated Afghan who’s been a die-hard Australian cricket fan for 24 years who told me that “cricket teaches us all we need to know about life.” He wasn’t very explicit on what exactly that might be. But apparently it includes coping with different kinds of weather, and taking tea breaks during play.