The Women of Kabul: A Shakesperean Tragedy

I’ve become obsessed with Afghanistan, lately. Actually, it’s been going on probably since sometime in high school, when I wrote a sad little short story about how a Soviet soldier got killed in the mountains, all alone, without his friends there to back him up (I was a pretty intense kid.) It escalated, first when I read The Kite Runner, then The Bookseller of Kabul, and was watching these videos of the Soviet invasion. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that Afghanistan was always “far away” and “out there,” but an issue very close to the heart of my parents’ generation in Russia, especially since 11/10 boys sent there didn’t come back and it was this war that really bought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself really drawn to finding out everything I can about Afghanistan. I’m not sure exactly why, but it’s probably the same reason I wanted to go to North Israel during the war of 2006 with Lebanon (but ended up being too chicken) , and the same reason I’m drawn to the fact that Iraq is experiencing its first tourists. That’s why the movie we saw a couple days ago really touched me. It’s about a doctor who escaped from Afghanistan in his 30s, but keeps going back, through the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and now the no man’s land that exists, just to provide training and healthcare to regular Afghanis. His daughter makes a film about him. That film is called Motherland Afghanistan.

He keeps going back. Through all sorts of hardships, and even though he’s getting older and clearly has a comfortable life in the United States, he keeps going back. It’s hard to understand exactly how torn apart Afghanistan is, even though the movie documents some of the poverty, really, it’s mind-boggling that people could live like this. And I come from a country where everyone we knew washed their clothes by hand because washing machines were too expensive. As they go through the movie, it’s sad and important and really reminds you that when you complain about work, you’re really not complaining about anything too significant compared to what these women go through, just to get treated or to give birth.

What’s most incomprehensible to me is the complete deconstruction of society, in a Heart of Darkness-type style,a descent from a country that used to be a tourist attraction in the 1960s, to one where, today women are beaten senseless by imams because they are having seizures and their family thinks they are possessed by the devil. It doesn’t make sense to me how a society can completely revert to anarchy, and it’s something that Hosseini delves into in The Kite Runner, as well. And the worst part is I imagine it could be me or my daughters or relatives, in the same situation. And it’s horrifying, because there is literally no way out for these women, all because of societal patriarchal structure. The women of Afghanistan are often the discussion of a group of popular books that have cropped up lately:

Three Cups of Tea; The Bookseller of Kabul; The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban; Zoya’s Story; Kabul Beauty school; etc.

I’m not saying that these aren’t great books. But often, I think we have the tendency to fetishize far away and exotic places. “Oh, wow, you’re from Afghanistan? Or Iran? How is the world over there? ” And the element of human understanding, particularly for women, goes away. I think that we (including me) tend to see the Afghan women as just shapeless burqas, doing whatever their men tell them, suffering quietly, and being used to living a medieval lifestyle. This is the impression I got when I saw Osama, a very, very hard movie from post-Taliban Afghanistan about a girl who poses as a boy during the Taliban era , just not to get caught:

The documentary about the doctor, Motherland Afghanistan, removed a lot of this for me as I got to see the faces of Afghan women. And guess what? They’re just like us. Professional doctors, writers, designers, etc. What really put it into perspective for me is some pictures I was looking at from before the Soviet invasion, before the Taliban, etc.

The University of Wisconsin has a great archive of photos from Afghanistan in the 1960s. There are also thankfully other historical pictures of Afghanistan in the 1960s. I think this one in particular says it all:

afghanistan1A modern, thriving country. Gone to hell because of political machinations. And now, where is the way back? I hope this family doesn’t mind me using their picture, but it’s just so beautiful:

1971This picture is from 1971. There is so much hope. I think that is what really attracts me to the whole situation in Afghanistan, as a writer, someone who observes human emotion and interaction from their antisocial sidelines. That there was so much hope and promise, and then everything went wrong. And these people were exactly the same immigrants as us. But for some reason, Americans see Afghanistan now as one huge, dim, blurry cave next to Pakistan where the only people fumbling for a light are Osama bin Laden and Hamid Karzai, which, no one is really sure what he represents. We know nothing of the real Afghanistan, slumbering under the layers of dust of radicalism. And that’s what intrigues me so much.

How did we go from these pictures, to this:


I don’t know any of the answers. I’m just feeling useless and reflecting. By the way, if you want to help the women of Afghanistan, even with a drop in the ocean, here are some links to help.

Shuhada (The Charity in the documentary..they’re hard to get in touch with, though…I’m still waiting for an answer)
Women for Women Internationa


A pox on the people that bought subprime mortgages

So, there’s been a lot of media coverage recently about what this crisis means, and how to explain it to the common man.  Terry Gross recently did an interview with Gretchen Morgenson looking at AIG spending and how it’s tied to mortgage-backed securities, and all that fun financial terminology that eventually led to America ending up in the toilet, swirling slowly around the bowl.  And NBC’s Dateline is also looking at how Wall Street and Main Street are linked together.  If I have to hear that phrase one more time, by the way, I’ll scream.  I’m glad that all of this investigative media is going on after the fact. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20 (but only if you still have a vision coverage plan. )

The more I hear and learn about this, the more sleazy I feel. I am looking inside Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, only about asset-backed securities and the nooks and hideous crannies of capitalism.  I don’t mind capitalism at all.  What I do mind, is the morons who decided to purchase sub-prime loans. A lot of shows treat them like they are the victims of all of this. Oh no, Countrywide gave them too much money and they couldn’t afford the payments on the house.  Well, guess what, dipwad. It’s YOUR responsibility to know how much house you are able to afford.  It should be the first thing you look at. It’s actually something I am looking at right now as my husband and I are beginning to look for a house that we will buy sometime in the fall or spring of 2010.  Do I want this house?


You bet your sweet biddy, I do.  I want to park my fine whip in that two-car garage and relax with a mojito on the second…or third floor while my maid asks me if it’s time to take out the spring Wedgewood china yet. Maybe if I’m feeling bored, I can go out onto the mini-sea that’s behind that house.  Or play polo with the horse I buy to match the siding.  I could do all of that. But, I’m not retarded.  I know, as much as I yearn for open foyers and Pella tempered windows, I cannot afford that house.  Apparently, the owners couldn’t either, because it was one of the houses my husband, mother-in-law, and I saw this weekend as part of our foray into foreclosed homes as a possibility for our first house.  My mother-in-law (and later my mom, online), took one look at the house and said, “But how are you going to wash all those windows?”  That’s because they’re not retarded.  They understand that if we buy that house, no matter the price (because now the bank owns it), we will go into DEBT.  We are not ballin’ as hotshot DC corporate types.  In fact, we are ballin’ on a budget.  If I buy grapes for more than $1.49 a pound, I cry for a couple days softly into my pillow.

So if we can understand it (via our immigrant parents), why can’t Americans that were born in this country?  I don’t mean to completely harangue against all Americans.  But the Americans that bought houses and didn’t understand their obligations are ruining my country for me.  If you are buying a house for $600,000 and you are making $10/hour, it is totally not the company’s responsibility to babysit you and make sure that you are living within your limits.  Maybe in Finland.  But definitely not here.  And now, I am screwed, because of people that failed to do their own homework.  And the government is now bailing out those companies who didn’t do their homework as well and check out these shady borrowers, but instead resold it to Lehman Brothers, AIG, etc, and crashed the economy.  Thanks, fellow subprime Americans.  Now not only will I not be having my mojito, I’ll probably have to grow the mint for it in my new-age Victory Garden in the future, if the government keeps bailing out the companies right and left.  I, for one, am jubilant about the prospect of paying off billions of dollars way into the future.


GRE Preparation

The time has come,
The walrus said,
To talk of many things
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings

Lewis Carroll was totally not talking about the GREs. He might as well have been, because, as everyone in my Twitter feed is well aware, it is GRE time around these here parts. I’ve finally decided to take the exam so I can do part-time in any Master’s program that will take me. While I’ve been studying, I’ve been thinking about a number of issues. How many cubic feet are in a liter? What is the synonym for lethargy? And, most importantly, the essay. Because, you see, in the GRE, they don’t like to simply torture you with 2+ hours of math problems about how trains of different speeds will catch up with each other, or why the antithesis of the postmodern theory of reconstructionist thought has had a significant impact on how weird Salvador Dali is. No, they also like you write two different, open-ended essays, on two different topics. For someone as indecisive as me (I once spent 20 minutes in front of 5 Ben & Jerry’s Flavors in the grocery store and ended up begging for the good old days of communism, when we had NO ice cream to choose from,) the essays are a MINEFIELD.

Granted, I am good at writing (also extraordinarily humble.) Even if I’m not, it’s something I enjoy very much, somewhere between the enjoyment some people have when they watch the Office and when they get a root canal. It’s a love/hate relationship between me and writing. I’ve been writing stories since I was 4 and my mom taught me the alphabet, partly so I wouldn’t fall behind, and partly so that she wouldn’t go insane staying at home with me and do something rash, like beat herself over the head with a meat tenderizer. Anyway, I always get really torn about the direction they want me to go on the essay. Here is an example:

Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.

  • “It is easy to welcome innovation and accept new ideas. What most people find difficult, however, is accepting the way these new ideas are put into practice.”

I mean, I guess I could write something about both of these issues. But the real problem, if you haven’t noticed yet, is that I am sarcastic. And cynical. And generally unpleasant to everyone except people who love Oscar Wilde, and my husband (and the latter is because I cook for him. It’s a bribe.) So, my essays would probably sound something like this:

New ideas generally are great.  Like you know, Sarbanes-Oxley finance reform, which totally didn’t hamper the legislative process.  Or transfat-free restaurants.  Because those really mean something.  And what’s the deal with all these new Obamariffic ideas?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, getting the man elected was a landmark decision, but Mommy, I don’t want to pay high taxes even after I die.”

So, until I come up with a better way to structure my sentences, I am screwed on this section, as with the GRE in general.


Uzbek Guest Workers in Russia

I love Russia. I say this with mixed patriotism and cynicism. There is nothing that makes me prouder than telling people I’m Russian, which is immediately followed by an apology of what a messed up country we are. Even Israel, I think, is less messed up than Russia on a scale from one to Stalin. The types of stories that come out of that country are amazing. Like the time when I was almost chased by a pack of hungry dogs that were once domesticated, but now organized and roamed in the wild. Or the time I got my tonsils taken out without Novicane (this was still in the Soviet Union days…I’m sure there’s Novicane now for the children of oligarchs.

Anyway, here is another story coming out of Russia, and one that hasn’t been new for a while: the plight of guest workers, particularly from countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. To understand this story, you have to understand that all Russians are racist. Hell, we’re even racist against Russians who are from different parts of the country. We’re racist against Ukranians, but the pretty much only difference between Russians and Ukranians is that Ukranians use the Roman letter “i” instead of the Slavic “и” in their words, a fact for which we will never forgive them and continue to cut off their supply of natural gas. So, obviously, we are RIDICULOUSLY racist against people that don’t look like us, people that possibly look like they’re from Iran or China, like many people of the Caucus/Asian former Soviet states are.

We are even more racist about the fact that they continue to do menial jobs, and that the only place they can do them in is Moscow, where there is a lot of work, kind of like the Mexicans in the United States. Except, while Americans may discriminate against Mexicans with ethnic slurs, Russians usually kill people. That’s where this Diary of an Uzbek Guest Worker comes into play. It’s a very powerful piece about what it’s like to be discriminated against in Russia, a fact that my mom’ side of the family, as Jews, knows only all too well.

Everything changed after 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared and the former Muslim colony of Uzbekistan became independent. If life in the Uzbek provinces was bearable in the early years of independence, by the mid-1990s everything had collapsed, from industry to agriculture. Destitution forced millions of peasants to leave the republic. The majority went to Russia.Among them was Shukhrat Berdyev. He began writing a diary in August 1998, when he came to Russia for the first time after the collapse of the USSR. What follows are highlights from that diary.

I feel bad for Shukhrat already. If you’re going to Russia to get some help with your problems, things are not looking up for you

Almost 20 years have gone by, and I am in Moscow once more. For the third day running I’ve been sleeping under an enormous, filthy KAMAZ lorry. I made a bed out of wooden boxes, and bedding out of pieces of cardboard.

This diary is a pretty heartbreaking read. Here’s some more on the situation.

Russia hosts 1 million Tajik migrant workers, according to authorities there; unofficial figures are much higher. Any significant cut in the number of Tajiks allowed to work in Russia could have disastrous economic repercussions for the Tajik economy, as 98 percent of remittances currently sent home by Tajiks originate in Russia, according to Asian Development Bank figures. Last year, $1.8 billion was transferred into the country through official banking systems, more than twice the size of Dushanbe’s national budget.

Here is a video on the issue


The Iranian Threat: Isn’t

I’ve really been getting into podcasts lately.  I have the GRE coming up, and God knows I need to brush up on both my logical thinking and my vocabulary (the math is in a whole different circle of Hell for me.)  Podcasts fulfill several purposes for me: A) They get me through the morning commute; B) They help me internalize world news to use for the logic essay on the GRE and C) They catch me up on industry news (economics, international trade, etc) so I can sound semi-reasonable when talking to clients.

I was really happy to find this podcast, EconTalk, which does nothing but discuss the issues of the day.  Granted, it’s not something you can put on in the background; you really have to listen. Especially if you don’t understand stuff, like me.  I just listened to this one today

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and New York University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about threats to U.S. security, particularly Iran. Bueno de Mesquita argues that Iran is of little danger to the United States and that Ahmadinejad is an unimportant player in Iran’s political system, more of a stalking horse for provocative ideas rather than a wielder of power. Bueno de Mesquita then looks at what Iran has to gain and to lose by appearing to build a nuclear weapons program and actually using a nuclear weapon. He then goes on to examine the nature of other threats to the United States. The closing topic of the conversation is the peculiar incentives facing U.S. Presidents as their terms expire

It is really a different perspective from what I’ve been hearing on the news, and I’d like to discuss with someone who’s also listened to it.