Blairey eyed, we weaved through the madness of what was Kabul traffic. Cars, lorries, humans, carts, horns tooting non stop, loudspeakers blasting over the lot and totally insane Taliban pickups racing through, atop everything else if they could, sirens blaring. Talibs were being flung around the back of the utes, rifles still firmly held in place. There were neither traffic lights nor road signs, actually I should say traffic rules as there were a couple of lights from the days of the republic government, just completely ignored. Everything simply intermingled and worked, chaotically and surprisingly seamlessly through what were imaginary roundabouts and hook turns! “A free country” my fixer termed it. We laughed. A rather conflicting thought as I was thrown around in the back seat, processing that concept in the backdrop of what was considered one of the most dangerous places in the world.
It was January 2023, winter in Afghanistan. Kabul was particularly cold that day at around 1°c though the sun was out. I looked up towards it, allowing it to warm my face as I stilled myself for a few minutes, soaking it all in. I was in Kabul. I was actually in Kabul. I had just been interrogated by the Taliban at the airport, narrowly escaped being blasted to bits… I am in Afghanistan! Wow! It was like a soul out of body experience for a good few minutes I must admit.
We’ve arrived at yet another checkpoint. “Good thing you are in the back seat, or we might get stopped. They don’t like it.” I wondered why that was. Was it that women weren’t allowed to sit in the front seats, that are reserved solely for men? Or was it that women should be protected as in the backseats they are deemed safer? I was adamant the next time I got in that car, I would test that logic.
I must admit that despite my bravado, I was a little apprehensive in the beginning. Not because of the suicide bomber or Taliban. It was more an overall uneasiness about how I would be received culturally and personally - a female photographer pointing my camera in people’s faces. Well in this case I guess I should perhaps take the political situation into account too. I could be regarded as a spy. I could be deemed unholy being a lone woman in a foreign country without a mahram. I could be so many things wrong.
As I contemplated, my fixer asked if I'd like to stop to check out the city. "Sure! I said" as the car swerved responsively to the side of the road, dodging numerous moving things at once! I’m not sure if I’ll ever be used to driving around Kabul, watching as a vehicle come hurling in the opposite direction towards us, coming to a stand still just in time before we collided head on! Being a pedestrian was worse, trying to put my first foot forward and walking myself into oncoming cars, carts, bicycles, bikes and whatever else that almost touched the sway in my kamiz. The car stopped, almost in the middle of the road, traffic still flowing at pace… we got out.
We stood watching Mandawi Market from the top of the bridge. I was keen to work it out all then and there. What is the situation in Afghanistan right now, just over a year of Taliban rule. Are women fearful? Are they curbed? Were they even allowed on the streets, out of their homes? I knew I needed time to ascertain the truth. It was only day one after all.
I stood, my body adjusting to the chill in the air. I watched groups of women as they strolled in pairs or threes or fours, veiled but not in burqas, weaving through the crowds. Some were dressed beautifully in their winter coats with ornate Afghan embroidery along the hems or waistline, still veiled, giggling amongst themselves. There were women in burqas, without their mahram. There were women, veiled and holding hands with their husbands. Some wore heavy makeup with simple scarves over their heads. Oh and the stunning footwear on some! I must say I felt completely dark and broody in my black kamiz, black pants, black runners and black head scarf! I felt like a bit of a misnomer.
Kabul was bustling at first sight