Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.
1. Into Afghanistan
“Afghanistan. Shit!” between the two words a bump is heard and the next minute consists only the roaring sound of an old truck braking with the engine, supplemented from time to time by a whining sound, when the normal brakes were engaged shortly. Then the recording was interrupted and the next one started playing “Afghanistan 2016. April 14 Monday. I Martha Miller, U.S. citizen, left the boarder from Pakistan at the Khyber Pass at 8:30 a.m. Now I’m driving towards Kabul. This is the first of my reports from my search for Ellen Jasper. I have crossed the boarder as Nadira, first wife of Nur Muhammad, a tradesman working with import / export from Pakistan.” Martha finds the recording ok. This will explain to Senator Jasper how far she had got, if he ever receives it, and it will identify her to rescuers, if something happens to her. Due to occasional fighting, little international support and natural causes the road conditions in Afghanistan especially in the mountains are extremely dangerous on their own. Added to this she is driving in an old truck left by the Russians before 1990, and driven by a man, who believe Allah has decided when he is going to die, which means taking some chances doesn’t make any difference. Her back still hurts from the blow she got, being thrown into the side of the truck, when they made that large bump that spoiled the first recording. She considers shortly erasing this recording, but there is no need to. A minute compared with the recording capacity of the device is nothing. But except for being used as base of her report or only documentation, if she fail to do a report, the primary purpose of the recorder is to have Ellen talk to her parents, if she finds her alive, and she doesn’t want to come with her back to the States. She has a very small camera as well, camouflaged as a lighter, but it is stowed away at the bottom of a pocket in her bag. She will only use it to document to Senator Jasper that she has found Ellen by photographing her with a new paper or magazine. Mr. Jasper has demanded an old-fashioned film camera, where he will get a negative, which is difficult to manipulate. The camera must only be used at the right moment, because image recording devices are completely forbidden to posses in Afghanistan. She won’t advertise her voice recorder either. But if someone sees it and asks about it, it’s a portable player to strengthen her faith, as it contains some speeches by conservative American Muslims, that corresponds well with the attitude of most Afghans.
She has shown it to Nur Muhammad and Sultana, formally his second wife, but in reality his only wife, who is sitting next to her on top of the bags, which is the cargo of this truck. She had simply asked the receptionist at her hotel in Peshawar, if he could find someone that could take her into Afghanistan. Nur Muhammad was the ideal business partner. They had met in the hotel lobby and he had told about his businesses. The trade company was a completely legal reason for often crossing the boarder, and made a little surplus as well. But his major income had started two years ago, when Nadira sadly died of pneumonia during the winter. She was buried in silence and without informing the authorities. Now Nur Muhammad on each of his boarder crossings could bring a woman, or man if they paid extremely well, who for some reason couldn’t cross the boarder legally, because he had papers showing that he had two wives, who each time were travelling with him. It didn’t matter that the customer didn’t look like Nadira at all, even had the wrong sex, because all women around here, and especially in Afghanistan where it was obligatory, were completely covered in a burqa, which no one controlling papers would ask to be lifted. In case of a very strict inspection, where female officials questioned the women, Sultana would answer and could tell everything about the family, their origin and destination, nearly without lying. Martha had immediately realised, that she will be completely safe with Nur Muhammad regarding authorities. Further he speaks excellent English and Sultana was quite good as well. Of course when they came to the payment Nur Muhammad stated he had hundreds of potential customers, which was probably not far from the truth, and being American Martha presented a greater risk than most, because everybody still remembered the American occupation, which only ended six years ago. But Martha could afford to be generous. Travel expenses, which Senator Jasper would pay and had made an account she could draw from, were nothing compared to her own salary, where she had demanded and got ten million dollars.
After the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan American business had suffered as well, and it wasn’t more than five to six million euro, but it was enough for her to live happily for the rest of her life, or to ensure that her parents could stop worrying about money, and get the help they needed, when they got really old. Senator Jasper had accepted without hesitation. He was well into international affairs, and because of his daughter, followed the situation in Afghanistan especially close. It is extremely dangerous travelling in Afghanistan. The risk of natural deadly accidents is much higher than most other countries. Added to this is the risk of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, when a tribal conflict brakes out or a warlord will demonstrate his power. Then there are mines and other explosives from decades of war scattered all over. Further even minor violations of the strict laws could result in severe penalties, and then most Afghans don’t like foreigners, or ferenghis as they call them. And even with an Afghan identity, as she has now, she could meet hostile people, who doesn’t like the ethnic group or tribe, she pretends to be part of. Knowing how well Senator Jasper knew the situation, and his immediate acceptance, had made Martha worry, if she herself had understood the risk she had accepted. But she has a few good sides to counteract all the dangers. First of all she is Muslim, which means she can participate at prayers on equal terms and speak a little Arabic. Then she is black. If she has to show her face, she doesn’t look like the stereotype white businessman or politician, or his wife, who wants to dominate everywhere with money and technology. Hopefully everybody has forgot out here that Condoleeza Rice ever existed. And then of course she is a woman. That was why Senator Jasper had selected her. A woman will have a chance of getting access to other women, a man is completely ruled out. This might be necessary both to confirm information she got from others, and if Ellen is held prisoner among women living in purdah, only a woman might be able to get to her. But of course there are problems being a woman as well. Women can’t travel alone or with strange men. They can’t meet or make appointments with men on their own. She has to trust men like Nur Muhammad, who are willing to break the strict moral laws, and hope he only arrange meetings with others, who think likewise. But as only very few Americans get a visa for Afghanistan, any American looking for Ellen, would have to enter and stay illegally. Martha looks at Sultana through the mesh of her burqa. It’s close to noon and it’s getting hot sitting directly in the sun, even if they are up in the mountains, covered in this tent of thick clothes. Further she is completely covered under the burqa, because at close range some features and the colour of the skin can be seen through the mesh. And because Martha doesn’t look like a typical Afghan, which some claim are the origin of the Caucasian race, Sultana had suggested that they should dress like strict women covering their hands, feet and face beneath the burqa. Many women, although without burqa, are completely veiled indoors in women-only company as well, she was told. So to avoid showing non-Afghan features they both wear socks and gloves and a thin see-through scarf veil, which can be pulled over their entire face, when close to men. Right now Martha’s scarf is just folded around her neck, but it all prevents her sweat from evaporating. Of course Martha as a Muslim knows that complete veiling is a good thing, but apart from being hot, it makes most kinds of work impossible. Martha comes from a society, where women work just as much as men. Martha has worn a headscarf since she was eighteen, but she has never veiled her face before. All the clothes she is wearing now, except her underwear, comes from Sultana. If she has borrowed it or bought it, isn’t really clear. When she has to depart with Nur Muhammad, she will have to wait and see what mood he is in, if he wants extra pay for the clothes or not. Martha will like to keep it. She has to wear Afghan clothes for the rest of her stay here, both because it’s more or less a requirement, and next because it makes her as unobtrusive as possible. And if she comes back to Pakistan, it’s a nice souvenir from the job that made her rich. But she considers hiring Nur Muhammad and Sultana for her investigations as well. They have made it their business helping illegal travellers, which means that they won’t give her in to the authorities. She needs a husband to do anything in this country, an interpreter, a local to make inquiries and a female interpreter as well. They can take all roles, and the fewer people she needs to contact, and she has to tell, who she real is, the better are her chances of not getting caught. Ellen Jasper has not contacted her parents for nearly a year. At 21, four years ago, she met an Afghan, Nazrullah, at college. Three month later he had got an engineering degree, they got married and moved to Afghanistan. Her parents had done anything to persuade them to stay in the U.S, but in vain. Ellen wanted to get away from boring towns, boring salesmen and a boring middle-class future. Nazrullah was a very charming internationally oriented young man, and his home country was an exotic place, as far from typical American life as possible. Ellen had written enthusiastic letters, as internet access is only possible in a few government offices. Living was basic down to earth without dependency on television and a lot of electronic gadgets. People were friendly, happy and satisfied with their conditions, even though they were poor compared to the average American. Ellen knew before she left America, that she would be Nazrullah’s second wife, as young men always are married by their parents before being sent out of the country to take an education and experience other cultures. She and her co-wife, Karima, had similar age and liked each other. Karima had taught her the local language, Pashto, and about Islam, to which she had converted after a year. Six month later they had got a letter with a photo showing her in local dress, where only hands and face were seen. She wrote it would be her last photo, as cameras for private use were prohibited, because photographing people were against Islam. But Nazrullah didn’t care. He liked making photos, and had a special license to photograph his constructions. But from time to time he brought the camera home, and photographed other things and people. When being photographed Ellen had objected, but as the damage had been done, she might as well send the photo. In the first two and a half years in Afghanistan Ellen had not spend so much time with Nazrullah, as he always was travelling around the country inspecting construction sites. But then eighteen months ago they got a letter saying she was looking forward to spending much more time with Nazrullah from now on, because nearly all his work was at sites in Kabul. And then her last letter was very short just saying that all is well. So short and different from the other letters, that it had to mean that something was wrong. Because of that Senator Jasper had decided he wanted someone from his own country out there investigating and documenting what had happened to Ellen. He wouldn’t trust results coming from an Afghan or even Pakistani investigation bureau. Nazrullah and his family were rich influential people, who could buy any sort of result they wanted.
Martha had a simple plan: Find Nazrullah and ask him. But in case Nazrullah had done something to Ellen, and didn’t want to tell the truth, she wouldn’t meet him in person from the start. She would send someone, who couldn’t be linked to her, not even Nur Muhammad, if he agreed to stay as her ‘husband’ and assistant. Then the answer Nazrullah gave would decide her next step.
The clock has just passed noon. The truck stops in the middle of nowhere. It’s time for prayer and lunch. Martha haven’t got used to eating inside a burqa. She declines the sandwiches, and just drinks a can of orange juice with a straw. As soon as they are back on top of the load driving on, Sultana, who has travelled here many times, stretches out on her back and falls asleep. As they have been up early, it seems a good idea. When Martha wakes they are only one hour from Kabul. As part of the transportation Nur Muhammad has agreed, that Martha can stay in his home for some days, until she has found someone to help her. They arrive at his house late in the evening. After praying Nur Muhammad goes out to buy some ready-to-eat food, Martha is shown the guest room, and soon after eating they are sleeping.
The next morning after prayer and breakfast Nur Muhammad leaves the house to find a new cargo to take to Pakistan. Martha says to Sultana “Can we go out and see the town? Do you know where the central market square is? I’ve been promised there is a Pakistani bank there, where I have an account, and where women are tolerated as customers.” Sultana says “Yes, this is Kabul, the most liberal town in the country, and perhaps the only one where women can walk around without a male escort, as long as we are at least two women. Don’t worry about distances and finding places. We hire a horse cart.” They dress like the previous day with veil and gloves beneath the burqa. Sultana says as they are ready to leave the house “I hope we don’t need to have a detailed look at something, because it is not possible through these veils. And don’t remove your veil under the burqa, while we ride, like yesterday. It’s a busy place, and people will pass close by all the time. Kabul is liberal, but even then women don’t speak in public, when there are men close by. Many women don’t speak at all in public. If you want to say something tap me, then I’ll find somewhere, where it’s appropriate to speak.”
After walking for a few minutes they reach a main road, where they after a few more minutes are able to stop a two-wheeled horse drawn cart. They get up on the board at the back made for passengers, and Sultana says a few words to the driver. Then they start moving, and Martha can get a dark blurred view of the road they have just travelled, as they sit facing opposite the direction they are moving. But there are other advantages of being covered, than avoiding male stares and complying with the religious rules. Most of the ground including the roads are covered by a thick layer of dirty brown dust, that fills the air as well, and is blown towards them by the slightest wind. A thick burqa keeps the body free from dust, but for the next trip you either need a large wardrobe, to wash frequently, or as it seems most people do, wear dirty clothes from the beginning.
After twenty minutes the cart stops. Sultana pays the driver, and they get off. Turning round Martha sees they are at the edge of a large square with market stalls covering the major part of it. Martha looks at the buildings surrounding the square, but is only able to see the signs directly at the corners of the road they arrived by. Martha taps Sultana. Sultana walks up to the wall of the nearest building and sits down as far from doors as possible. Martha sits next to her saying “How do we find the bank? I can’t see signs more than ten yards away.” Sultana says “Do you have a brochure or receipt showing the bank’s name and logo?” Martha looks in her bag for a minute, and then produces a receipt. Sultana folds it, so the large number cashed are hidden, and says “We find a boy.” They get up and look out over the square. Just twenty yards in front of them walks a boy with a box selling cigarettes. Sultana walks over to him and shows him the receipt. He starts pointing across the square. Sultana hands him some coins, and as he sees the amount, he smiles and it is evident to Martha he asks, if he should take them there. Sultana nods, and skilled he finds an open path across the square. It is evident he often guides women with reduced sight. In less than five minutes he points to a large sign above a typical bank entrance with double doors, that won’t open simultaneously. Sultana makes a light bow and they enter.
There are three empty manned desks, but a line of three women at another desk. Sultana line up with the women. Martha quickly notes that blue burqas come in very different qualities. And those in front of them are the cheapest. It is probably widows or divorced women, who gets a small amount regularly from some distant family members or perhaps the state. And of course women living with a guardian close by would probably have him to control their money. As the next in line shows her papers, Martha sees why all the women are here. The clerk turns his back to the customer and a girl, who has been sitting hidden behind the desk, appears. The woman at the desk lifts her burqa, and the girl compares her with her identity card. While the woman puts her burqa down again, the girl taps the clerk on the shoulder and sits down again. At the desk Martha shows her American passport along with her account information. The clerk says a few words in Pashto and leaves. After a minute he is back and gestures her to come to an office at the back. A senior employee, perhaps the head of the department, comes out and says in English “Please enter Miss Miller.” As Martha hears English, she lifts her burqa enough to get an arm free and gestures Sultana to take a seat at the entrance. Inside the office Martha flips the front of her burqa back and pulls the scarf over her face down. The man says “Our headquarters in Pakistan has informed us, that we could expect a single American woman coming here. This hasn’t passed unnoticed. I’m the head of our activities in Afghanistan. How may I serve you?” Martha says “It’s very simple. I want some cash.” A quarter, a cup of tea and some conversation about the latest news from American entertainment later, Martha gets up from her chair in the office with an amount corresponding to one years salary of an average Afghan worker saying “Thank you very much. It was a lovely tea. I will certainly report your excellent service, when I return to Pakistan. But it is very likely, that I’ll come back here before that. Goodbye.” Martha pulls her burqa down, while the manager says “In case you return just whisper my name to the guard at the entrance, then you don’t have to wait in line.” The manager calls for a clerk, who escorts Martha to the entrance and opens the doors. Sultana has kept her eyes on the office and follows her out.
Outside Martha immediately pads Sultana’s arm through her burqa. Sultana starts walking further round the square. After a few minutes walking they turn away from the square and are suddenly surrounded by more women than men. They pass an opening in a wall, where a woman is sitting in an empty stall. After passing the woman Sultana starts talking “We are now in the Women’s Park, a walled area where no men are allowed. Did you get what you wanted in the bank? And what do you want to ask?” Martha looks around at all the women, perhaps as many as hundred. She sees many women with burqas lifted, and even some sitting on benches with their burqa over their lap. There are small children of both sexes, and young girls wrapped in white scarves from the waist and up, only leaving sparkling eyes to be seen. Only a few women show their faces. Most having their burqa flipped back are covered in scarves with a small eye slit or a thin cloth covering the entire face. There are even some wearing a niqab under their burqa. And quite many wear their burqa down like among the men. Martha notes that the vast majority of burqas are blue, then white is a clear second and many other colours can be seen, but only a few of each.
Martha first asks “Why don’t we flip our burqas back?” Sultana says “You don’t want to attract attention, do you? Many people with unobstructed sight pass close by here, and your veil is too thin to hide that you look different. But as you can see many wear their burqas down, and like us come here only to talk. Besides some of them, who lifts their burqa, do it to actually see a little of the world outside their house, and perhaps those who are with them. Many pious and conservative women are blind, when walking among men. In the south of the country all women in towns except the poorest and maids and servants are blind in public. It is very likely that we see some of them visiting family up here. Look!” Sultana nods towards two women moving in a close line behind a girl of perhaps ten. Their arms are stretched forward under their burqa touching the person in front of them. Soon they disappear out in the male world. Martha says “Well, I guess I can’t complain about the poor sight we have anymore. But yes, there were no problems in the bank, but I had to come up with some scandals from Hollywood to turn the manager around my finger. Now I want to get back to ask your husband, if he wants to help me further. I thought if we might be able to drive past the house of Nazrullah, just passing by would let me get an idea of how big he is compared to the houses we’ve seen so far. Is it possible?” Sultana says “I would think it is possible. He sounds to me as a man important enough to be known by all cart drivers. But first I suppose his house is in the rich quarter of town, where someone in a cart might stir just as much attention, as a car will do, where we live. Second if Nazrullah wants to find out, who make inquiries about him, he will soon find out a cart has been at his house and find the driver, who will tell where he took us. We’ll have to walk for a long time, if it won’t lead to our house. The streets are full of beggars, widows and boys having nothing else to do than observing, who comes and goes. If you do not want to be connected to Nazrullah, I suggest we go directly back and discuss with Nur Muhammad, how to get the information you want.” Martha turns towards the entrance saying “You have learned something from all those unofficial activities I think. I like that. Let’s get back to your house.” Half an hour later they are at Sultana’s home.
Only an hour after lunch Nur Muhammad comes home. Sultana is surprised, as men are normally out all day. “I didn’t succeed in finding a new cargo for Pakistan today. Afghanistan produces very little wanted in the outside world,” Nur Muhammad says in a sad voice. Martha says “What a shame. But perhaps I can offer you a little money, if you put aside your export business for some days, and helps me in my search for Ellen Jasper. In this society I will probably need a man doing some of my inquiries. A Pashto speaking man. And the identity of your late wife has worked so well until now. I would like to rent it a little longer. And as a woman can only be accompanied by her husband, or needs his approval, it means I needs you to accompany me. And I need Sultana. I need a native woman to speak with Pashto speaking women. Sultana speaks good English as well, and has flair for investigations. I offer you twice your normal income paid on a weekly basis in advance.” Nur Muhammad’s sadness is completely gone, but he says “Well, but you see I did have a talk with a man, who had a large cargo for Pakistan, but those owning the merchandise wasn’t sure, if it was the right time for selling. If my contact can convince the sellers, I might have to pay to get out of my part of the deal. And having you staying here puts us in danger, if your true identity is revealed. And we will have to buy extra food every day. But for four weeks pay for a week, I will consider your proposal.” Sultana is outraged by her husbands wild demands, but says nothing. Martha says “Well I can raise my offer, if you only work for me for as long as I stay in Afghanistan, and accept to start immediately. Then it’s three for one, and I pay travel expenses, which I fear might be needed.” Nur Muhammad says “It is admirable that you are willing to extent your offer, but there might be factors I haven’t thought about. Is it ok, if you get my answer by noon tomorrow?” But now Sultana says something very loud very fast in Pashto. After a minute Nur Muhammad continues in English “My wife is willing to take the risk. She thinks we can get a new house in a better part of town, if you stay here for a few weeks. Sometimes it’s vice to follow the intuition of women, even if they can’t think of all the consequences. I am your employee. What can I do for you?” Martha puts up a big smile, and puts her right hand forward saying “Deal! But I would like to see you and Sultana more as partners than as employees. First it would be nice with coffee. Then I would like to know how we get information about Ellen from Nazrullah without letting him know, it’s her father, who has started an investigation?” While talking she has shaken hands with Sultana as well. Sultana starts making coffee.
Martha walks over to her bag, and takes up some money. She hands them to Nur Muhammad saying “The start of our partnership.” Nur Muhammad flick through the bundle and says “I know the responsible for the mail at the Swedish embassy. How about saying you’re that female journalist, who wrote about Afghan women just after the American invasion, and now have returned to write about Western women living in Afghanistan today? You have heard Nazrullah is married to an American and want to talk with her. When it comes from an embassy, I think he will have to answer and come up with some explanation. If he says, she is not with him anymore, you answer you would like to meet him to hear about her story. Then we arrange a meeting in a hotel lobby, where he can’t play tricks with us without a lot of attention probably from foreigners.” Martha says “It might work. I’ve read ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’. I rely on your knowledge of the character of Afghan men. I can’t think of anything better, and we have to confront Nazrullah somehow to get the truth about why Ellen has stopped corresponding with her parents. Can we get started today?” Nur Muhammad says “In some ways things work fast here. Official mail isn’t reliable, which means everyone who can afford it use delivery boys, which for the rich are cheap. Embassies of course do like that. And Nazrullah. I talk with my friend at the embassy and get the paper right away. If we are lucky, we have a response today.” Martha says “Please get going.” After an hour Nur Muhammad is back. Handing some sheets of official embassy paper to Martha he says “My contact luckily needs extra money for his wedding and is working both this evening and tomorrow.” Martha has soon composed a letter and hands it to Nur Muhammad, who leaves once more to find a delivery boy. Forty minutes later the door bell rings. Nur Muhammad answers, and a minute later says to Martha “We might have been lucky. The delivery boy talked with Nuzrallah’s maid, who said Nuzrallah was out of town for the moment, but she would hand it to his wife immediately. Does this mean we have reached Ellen?” Martha says “I’m afraid not. I told you Nazrullah has an Afghan wife, he married before he went to America. But it might be even better talking with her than with Nazrullah. Let’s hope she answers.”
She does. It’s half past nine in the evening, when Nur Muhammad answers the door. Sultana listening to his conversation with the delivery boy says to Martha “He comes from the Swedish embassy. He says he was told we would pay him. Nur Muhammad pays him double, and tells him not to talk about this delivery to anyone.” Nur Muhammad hands the letter to Martha, who reads ‘Dear Anna Sorensen. I Karima, the first wife of Nazrullah, write to you because my husband is out of town, and won’t come back in a week. It is true my husband married an American woman, but she is not part of our family anymore. As I understand your letter you are interested in both happy and unhappy stories about foreign women in Afghanistan. I will be happy to tell you about my co-wife, but I can’t invite a foreigner into my house without my husband’s approval. But as we are both women, I can meet you in the Women’s Park in the centre of town tomorrow. I will be at the far end between ten and eleven in the morning dressed entirely in pink beneath a white burqa. If you are unable to come, please send someone to make another appointment. Yours sincerely Karima.’ Martha hands the letter to Nur Muhammad, and says to Sultana “We’re going to the Park again tomorrow.”
3. Meeting a friendly wife
The next morning at a quarter to ten Sultana and Martha enter the Park dressed as the days before. Martha wonders about how many variations there can be of a blue burqa. “Is that how women recognize each other?” she asks Sultana. “No it’s only necessary with conservative women, who never let their burqa off the ground. Most women are identified by their shoes. From the shoes you can often tell, if the wearer is young or old, and first of all they tell about the position in society. I can tell you a lot about the women that surrounds us, even if I don’t know them.” Five minutes past ten Sultana says “Look over there to the right. Don’t you think that’s Karima?” Martha turns her head and sees a white silk burqa of the finest quality, but what catches the eye is that the front is flipped back and all that shows is pink. A pink dress with a little gold embroidery down to a pair of white shoes. And a pink scarf covering the entire head and neck. Next to her is a woman in a black dress and black scarves showing her eyes. And down her back an average blue burqa.
Martha walks directly over in front of the pink woman and bows her head a little saying in English “I presume you are Karima, wife of Nazrullah?” The pink face turns directly towards Martha saying “I am. But who are you? I have a copy of ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ and it is not written by Anna Sorensen from Sweden, but by a Norwegian. Are you searching for Ellen?” Martha says “You are right. My name is Martha Miller from United States. And yes I’m send here by Senator Jasper. Do you know where Ellen is?” Karima says “I’m not in contact with her. But I know where she went, and I believe she is still there. But now that I know what it’s about, I think it’s ok to invite you home, where we perhaps can see each other. As wife of a man at the top of our society, I can’t show my face in many places outside our home, as this could question my husband’s reputation and honour. And you and your friend are covered in here as well.” Martha says “It’s Sultana my female Afghan partner. We both cover to avoid that I as a foreigner would attract unwanted attention. We would be happy to come to your home and hear about Ellen. When will it be convenient?” Karima says “Now. I have a car waiting outside. Is it ok with you?” Martha says “It couldn’t be better. Let’s walk.” Karima says “Wonderful. My maid will handle everything, until we’re at my home.”
Karima and her maid both flips their burqas down. Martha immediately notes it’s the ground touching conservative style, that Sultana talked about as they entered the park. Karima walks very carefully following right behind her maid. Martha guesses she can’t see much through the combined burqa mesh and the thick pink scarf. Just to the right of the park entrance a driver is waiting in an expensive car. As the maid comes up to him, he gets out and opens the back seat door. Karima gets in and moves to the opposite door. Martha and Sultana follow her. While the driver closes the door, the maid enters the front passenger seat. After less than a quarter they drive through a large gate opening automatically after the driver has pushed a button in the car.
After crossing a couple of large rooms they enter an inner yard with a large roof opening. An area the size of a large living room is covered and as such in shadow. Here the maid lifts her burqa, gestures the guests to do likewise and sit down on cushions at a low table. Karima has flipped back her burqa as well, but continues through a door to their left. The maid says in an accented English “Coffee or tea?” Martha says “Coffee please.” Sultana says something in Pashto, and the maid leaves. Sultana says “I told her I would translate, if she wanted to say something to you.”
After five minutes both Karima and the coffee arrives. Martha and Sultana has kept their gloves on and the thin scarves over their heads, but Karima now shows her hands and her head is covered in thin white scarves showing her eyes. She says “Welcome to my home. I’m always covered like this to be prepared for everything. But I only cover, when it doesn’t interfere too much with what I’m doing. So if you don’t mind, I think we shall show our faces now while drinking coffee.” Martha says while she and Sultana flips their see-through scarves back “Fine with me. Covering is not my usual way of dressing, as you might have guessed.” Karima pulls the scarf covering her nose and mouth down around her neck, and both her and Martha looks surprised at each other. Karima says “Now I understand why you cover your face beneath a burqa. There are not many women in Afghanistan with that skin colour.” Martha says “I’ve been told, but have forgotten, that you are no older than Ellen. But nobody has told me that you are extremely beautiful.” Karima says “Thank you. Westerners are often surprised at our combination of youth and maturity. But don’t forget that when you fool around in high school, an Afghan woman has often been married and running a house for a number of years, besides having several children.”
They drink coffee and eat biscuits in silence for a while. Then Karima says “Are you ready to hear about Ellen?” Martha says “Yes please. But if you don’t mind I’d like to record your story to be able to review any information in case my investigation gets stuck.” Karima says “I don’t mind. I assume you have read Ellen’s letters to her parents. Although I haven’t directly read them, I am sure they tell the truth, except perhaps for the last one, because Ellen and I were very close right from the moment Nazrullah brought her to this house. She was from the beginning very interested in Afghan life and culture, and very fast in learning Pashto, I would say, even if I don’t know how other foreigners manage. We were all very happy, when she converted to Islam, which she in fact had read much more about than Nazrullah and I. In a way it’s because of me she left. We had visited all sorts of family and friends, with whom we often discussed religion, because none of us were much interested in fashion. Nazrullah can afford to let us buy anything we want. We do not cook and have no personal experience with children. The only subject left to discuss, in which Afghan women have some sort of education, is Islam. It often proved that Ellen had the most modest, pious and strict views among the women present. When I think back the first sign was, that she started wearing gloves nearly always, in stead of only in public as I do. And then she never removed her scarf over mouth and nose, only lifting it to eat or drink. Shortly after she started wearing a see-through cloth over her entire head like you do, but not only to be completely unseen in public, but to closely follow the writings of some strict Mullahs. It was about a month before Nazrullah ended his endless travelling that Ellen said to me ‘We have visited almost everyone you know around Kabul and even further away, but none of them seem to live the way the Mullahs and scholars tell us to do. You and Nazrullah are formed by a liberal Western influenced upbringing, and do not take religion very serious. I’ve heard that down south around Kandahar it’s much more strict. But when we had your brother-in-law and his family from Kandahar visiting, there wasn’t much time for serious discussions, and it seemed that they had adopted the more relaxed dress-code of Kabul, when coming here. Don’t you know a strict pious family, who try to follow the Mullahs as close as possible?’
It was then I said I’ve heard sheik Rashid al Abdul from Kandahar is staying in Kabul for the moment, because he was mentioned as a major contributor to a local madrasa, and he was praised for his generous support to strict scholars and religious institutions for many years. From the madrasa I got his address here in Kabul, and Ellen and I visited his wives. It was evident from the first minutes that Ellen had found someone sharing her views, and she was extremely excited because these were Afghans, not claiming they were strict, but only living according to century old traditions and religious values. The first visit lasted more than four hours and many followed. When I think back, I never saw the wives of sheik Rashid al Abdul without burqa, even in their own home. We had to keep our burqas on as well, and when they visited here Ellen put on a burqa, and said it would be offending, if I showed myself without, so I put it on as well. The meetings with the sheik’s wives lasted more than a month, then his business here was over, and they went home to Kandahar. Meanwhile Nazrullah was home much more than previously, and Ellen spend a lot of time trying to convince him and me, that we should read the scriptures, and start living a more pious life. The break came because of two close incidents. Ellen got extremely mad one day Nazrullah surprised her with his camera taking a picture in a private moment, when she for some reason had neither hands nor face covered. And Nazrullah became mad a few days later, when Ellen for a picnic showed up in a Kandahar burqa, which removes all senses, claiming she had decided never to look at or speak or listen to men in public anymore. Her husband was the only male existing to her. And she would prefer only to meet women from respectable families individually approved by Nazrullah. After arguing for an hour the picnic was dropped and Nazrullah ended saying, that if she wished a life so extreme, she had to find another husband. A week later Nazrullah entered this room extremely angry and waving a paper. He dropped the paper, found a burqa and pulled Ellen out to the entrance, while she put the burqa on. Out there was our driver and another man to be witnesses, and Nazrullah just said three times ‘I divorce you.’ Back here I picked up the paper, which was a letter from sheik Rashid al Abdul saying, that he would gladly accept Ellen as his wife, as she wished, if Nazrullah would divorce her, so everything was completely legal. Ellen was relieved, the arguing was over. She hugged me and said that even if we had different opinions especially regarding religion, she loved me, and hoped we would stay friends. I said yes, and she asked me to contact the sheik, so she could be married again. It wasn’t necessary. Nazrullah cared so much for Ellen, that he would help her start her new life. But Ellen stayed in her room the few times Nazrullah entered the female section, while she was still here. I had to forward Nazrullah’s messages. Ellen said to me, she couldn’t see Nazrullah now, that she wasn’t his wife anymore. Fortunately she had not been divorced for 48 hours, when the sheik arrived, and took her with him. But although Ellen and I separated as friends, I haven’t been in contact with her since she left.”
After a minute of silence, where they all think about what Karima has said, Sultana breaks the silence “I think we can rule out that Nazrullah has killed her. In fact there are very good chances, that she is still alive.” “Killed her!” Karima says in an upset voice, continuing “Why should he had killed her. I would never live with a husband, who kills wives or daughters, that don’t do as he wishes.” Martha says “Sultana is referring to a theory of Senator Jasper. A possible reason why Ellen had stopped writing, was that she was dead. And if she had died in an accident, Nazrullah would have informed her parents. There exist many cases, where foreign women have been killed by their husbands, because they couldn’t submit to his will.” Karima says “Yes it’s a tough country. One of few countries with more guns per inhabitant than United States. But I assure you, Nazrullah is not like that. And neither sheik Rashid al Abdul for the little I know about him. But I’ve been talking for so long. We all need some refreshment. Would you like to stay for lunch?” Martha says “I believe you have told the truth. We have come a large step further in finding Ellen. But as it seems we have to leave Kabul to find her, it won’t be today, and then we have plenty of time for lunch. Thank you very much.”
After a few moments in the kitchen door Karima says “The maid has expected you to stay. Lunch is ready. But even if my story about Ellen show me as moderate Muslim, I do like to pray five times a day. I hope you’ll excuse us for some minutes Martha.” Martha says “No I won’t. I will join you. We are Muslim sisters.” Karima says “What a wonderful surprise. Senator Jasper is a wise man hiring a black Muslim woman. Come let’s wash!” Karima leads the prayer, which Martha feels lasts longer than Karima would have done on her own, because it’s now an act of unification and Muslim sisterhood. But Martha can’t pray enough. If she should make up for all the prayers, she has skipped, she would have to pray continuously for several years. During the lovely lunch Ellen isn’t a subject. It’s mostly Karima asking. She wants to hear about the new soaps running in the States. They have a TV, a satellite receiver and a video player, but the government blocks signals from non-Muslim stations, resulting in Karima watching pirate discs from Pakistan with old American soaps. Martha has difficulties remembering what happened, even in a series she has seen, when Karima asks her to follow up on a short resume of a few episodes of a more than five year old show.
After lunch they are served coffee again. Martha says “It has been a wonderful day, but we must get back to Sultana’s husband, and start planning how to get to Kandahar.”
Karima says “I don’t think you’ll be able to meet Ellen just by coming to her house and say you represent her parents. But I think, if I come with some friends, we will be received. After all we lived very close for some years, and separated as friends. If you can wait a week, and I can persuade Nazrullah to travel to Kandahar with me, I’ll take you to Ellen’s home.” Martha says after a pause thinking “How kind of you. If we can have you with us, it’s worth waiting. First of all I think you’re right. If her purdah life is so strict, as your story suggest, it may be right that only a person already known to her will be received. Second we probably need some days to make the necessary arrangements anyway, so we won’t waste much. But would you like to travel with us, and where do you stay?” Karima says “No we travel separately. Non-related mixed sexes travelling together can cause a lot of problems and unwanted questions. Nazrullah is used to driving down there, but I have never visited my brother-in-law and his wives, whom I like very much. They have been here several times, but I have always resented going to Kandahar, because all but the poorest women and maids are completely senseless in public, and there are no places you can go except other women’s home. I think both Nazrullah and his brother and family would be happy meeting each other. So if we go, I will stay at their house, and I’ll give you a day where we meet there.” Sultana not having said much now says “I’m sure we can stay at my sister’s house. I’ve been there several times. They are not as well off as we are. They only have a small house, but it’s nice and they are a nice liberal couple, who will welcome Martha.” Martha says “It seems everything is possible even in Afghanistan. Karima please send a delivery boy, as soon as Nazrullah is back. I’m very happy that we found out it’s probably not goodbye, but only see you later. Can you get us a cart in this rich part of town?” Karima says “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Maid!” As the maid appears, Karima speaks a few words in Pashto, and then Sultana puts up a big smile saying “Nazrullah’s car will take us home.” They hug, cover up and the maid takes them out to the waiting car. Back at Nur Muhammad’s house Martha asks him how they will get to Kandahar. They hire a car. How long before leaving does it take to get a car, Martha asks. At least one day, better two to find a good car at the right price. Then they won’t do anything until hearing from Karima, Martha decides.
But already late the next afternoon a message is delivered. Martha reads loud ‘Dear Martha and Sultana. I went to Nazrullah’s office here in Kabul and was able to contact him. We go to Kandahar, and you can meet me next Saturday at the house of his brother Amin Hafizullah, which all boys know where is. But as I guess Martha like me does not have clothes appropriate for Kandahar, we can perhaps go shopping together tomorrow? I’ll pick you up at 10 a.m. unless you say otherwise. Yours sincerely Karima.’ Nur Muhammad says “Good we got the date this early. We have to be in Kandahar Friday. And as everything is closed on Fridays, we can’t travel on a Friday. We’ll start Wednesday and spend the night at the usual village arriving Thursday. The road is very bad, and we will not be driving a truck with big rugged tires. I’ll only drive in daylight.” Martha says “I’m glad you’re cautious. I didn’t think it could be worse than the drive from Peshawar, when I arrived here. But let us get a message delivered to Karima saying we are ready tomorrow.”
4. Shopping for strict clothing
Next morning a little past ten a boy is at the door. “Why?” asks Martha while they put their burqas on. Sultana says “First no one in the car knows exactly where we live. The driver just let us off at the main road the other day. Second we can’t walk in the company of a strange adult male, if he would follow the boy. But he wouldn’t because he won’t leave the car with only women inside. Third the maid can’t follow the boy, because she is chaperoning Karima. The boy has to find us, and lead us back to the car.” Outside the yard they walk in silence. Inside the car Karima just leans towards them. No talking when the driver is present. But the maid says a few words in Pashto. Apparently where Karima wants to go. They stop in the centre of town, and Martha immediately sees, they don’t have to walk more than a few steps. The open store front is completely covered with blue burqas except for a small passage into the shop. But at first floor height there is an opening in the wall making the inside just a little darker than the street a long way in. Inside the walls are packed with burqas as well, which are hanging in several layers from floor to ceiling. Nearly everything is blue, but here and there a small number of burqas in a different colour sticks out. In the dark at the back of the store, it even seems there is a wide variety of different designs and colours in very small quantities. They pass two women in the standard blue browsing the right wall. Martha notes a black gloved hand pulling an item out from a tightly packed row.
Just where the last light from the opening gives a good view in the room is a low bench, where a woman in an above average quality burqa is seated. Next to her is an 8-10 year old girl, and opposite them the male shop assistant, telling about a blue burqa quite similar to the one the woman is wearing. The shop assistant has a long beard, but looks neat and well-groomed in plain but clean clothes. Although he points to several details on the dress, while talking, the woman sits facing the floor. The demonstration is very visual. Even without understanding a word of Pashto Martha understands the inside of the mesh is covered with a layer of black fabric, as the shop assistant puts his hands inside the head part and demonstrates no hand is seen through the mesh. The mesh is mostly to give the burqa a normal appearance. Probably the fabric means the wearer can’t see. Pulling his hands out he asks a question turned to the girl. She looks at the woman, who nods without really lifting her head. The shop assistant folds the burqa and hands it to the girl. Then he walks the five yards to the back wall of the shop followed by the girl and the woman close behind her. He opens a door shouting a few words to someone on the other side, and lets the girl and woman pass through before closing the door. While he is at the door Sultana pushes Martha in her side through her own burqa. As Martha looks at her, Sultana with her hand under her burqa points towards Karima and bows her own head down. Karima stands motionless with her head facing directly down. Martha understands she should look down, when the shop assistant take interest in them. He does so immediately stopping a yard from Karima, but facing the entrance. Then the maid says a few words, and he continues to the two women closer to the entrance. Sultana whispers to Martha “Karima has told her maid that we will wait, as they came first, and our case is probably more complicated.”
Fortunately the shop assistant handle the two women with his back to Martha and her companions. Martha can follow how he serves the women. He pulls at a number of burqas, while talking. One woman standing directly next to the same row of burqas moves her head from facing his hands to facing the floor and shakes or nods from time to time, while the other woman just stands at the opposite wall with her head down. He then pulls a burqa completely off its rack and the woman communicating nods several times. From behind Martha the woman with the girl passes. The woman has put on the burqa, they carried out back. She is walking close behind the girl stretching her burqa forward with a hand on the inside to touch the back of the girl. Entering the shop may have been her last glimpse of the male world. Meanwhile the shop assistant has walked a little towards the entrance, and pulled out a long pole with a support from behind some burqas. Then both women in turn walks up facing and touching the pole. The shop assistant reads the number on the pole above each woman’s head. Then he pulls out another similar burqa and walks towards the entrance with the women some steps behind him. The burqas are put in a plastic bag and placed on the floor. While the woman communicating with a gloved hand puts some money on a small table, the other lifts her burqa over the bag and picks it up to carry it inside her burqa. The shop assistant, who has meanwhile produced a purse from his jacket, takes the money and in the same movement puts change on the table and turns around walking towards the back of the shop.
Martha bows her head. Karima’s maid explains what they want. Martha from viewing the shop assistant’s feet knows he is looking at her. He walks down near the back wall and takes a blue burqa, which at first sight looks completely ordinary and cheap. Meanwhile Sultana whispers to Martha “You can look up to his hands, when he is showing something, but don’t lift your face towards his. And when he is just talking or searching in the racks face down.” Martha is about to gasp, as he turns the burqa inside out, to show the part covering the head has a long cylinder sticking out of a thick pad, where the mouth will be. The areas of the ears and the eyes are padded as well. Martha is happy, when she understands Sultana has shook her head, and the shop assistant takes a new burqa. This has ‘just’ a pad at the mouth area, but now Sultana actually shows a gloved hand to hold the fabric of the burqa between her fingers. She whispers something to the maid, who says it loud to the shop assistant. Martha has had her head too high, as she gets a glimpse of a pleased look on the shop assistants face, because they have rejected the burqa just shown. He finds a new one. Even Martha can see it is better quality than the previous one. The inside of the head area is a complete black hood with built-in pads over mouth, ears and eyes. Only around the nose there is a hole in the black fabric having breathing only restricted by the thick blue material. This opening might be necessary, because not much air will flow up to the nose from below, as the lower rim of the black hood contains a wide elastic band that holds it tight around the neck. The shop assistant shows the outside. Not much air will flow in at the eyes either, because where ordinary burqas have a mesh, there is just embroidery to crudely outline an eye region probably to give a more human touch to the look. This is a dress designed for modest women with less embroidery than normal, and generally looking cheaper than it actually is. It is looking much like Sultana’s burqas, which she and Martha are wearing now, and as such is just what they want, but it is probably more expensive. As Sultana doesn’t have to pay herself, she will probably take it. Sultana whispers something to the maid, who repeats for the shop assistant. This makes him turn to the racks again. Meanwhile Sultana whispers to Martha “We buy this one, but he is looking for one for me too. He will probably ask us to be measured at the pole. If I start walking follow immediately.” After browsing through the racks for some time he succeeds in finding a copy. Martha wonders why Sultana suddenly wants a Kandahar style burqa, when she has said she had one from previous visits. Her best guess is, that it’s someone else paying. The shop assistant says something, but there is no measuring. He has started walking towards the back door, when the maid saying something stops him. He puts the two new burqas down at the other end of the bench, where Karima has been sitting facing the floor all the time the burqas for Martha and Sultana has been the subject.
Now he turns to the opposite wall, where a selection of expensive white burqas are hanging. He takes three and places them on top of the blue burqas on the bench. Then he walks out in the opening to the street and lights a cigarette. Rich women are allowed to handle the clothes on their own, probably because most won’t or can’t look, while a man is present. While Karima gets up, the maid has flipped back her own burqa and holds the top burqa up in font of her. While Karima inspects it so close as possible through her mesh, Sultana whispers to Martha “We were not measured because we will go out back and try it on. The length has to be quite accurate to allow walking without tripping on one hand, and on the other avoid shoes being seen. But the maid said we would stay together going out back, when Karima has found something.” Meanwhile the maid has turned the inside out of the first burqa. This shows an internal hood in soft black leather with only holes at the nose. It is first closed with a zipper at the back, and then it can be further secured with a leather strap that buckles around the neck. The buckle includes a small padlock, which means the wearer can be prevented in taking it off herself. But the burqa is made of the finest silk with a lot of embroidery and heavy pleating. It might be hard to wear, but it’s very beautiful. Like the burqas for Martha and Sultana it has no mesh, but Martha notes two small holes in the embroidery that decorates the eye section. Perhaps it’s possible to wear it without the inner hood. The next burqa is very similar on the outside, perhaps even more beautiful. As it is turned inside out Karima immediately shakes her head, and the maid puts it away. Martha just has time to see, its because it contains not only a hood, but a sleeveless leather jacket as a continuation of the hood. It is easy to see the wearer’s arms will be locked inside without being able to free the arms. The third burqa seems very similar to the first. Perhaps the fabric is not coloured as completely white as the first one, and the hood seems to be made of thicker leather for some reason. Martha can’t see why, as both hoods are padded at the ears and the mouth, indicating one layer of leather alone is deemed inadequate to reduce sound. Karima nods to the maid and bows nodding towards the first burqa as well, and then takes a few steps towards the back door. She is ready for trying, and wants to try both burqas with only a hood. With the two burqas over her arm the maid opens the back door, and walks through followed by the others. Inside a woman without burqa and showing both hands and face receive them. As Karima takes her burqa off, the others do likewise. Martha has covered her face completely with her scarf, but Karima says in English “It will be difficult explaining you do not take part in the conversation anyway. You might as well show you are a foreigner. Then we pay her to keep quiet.” Martha pulls her scarf down, and the woman stares surprised. Karima tells her something in Pashto. Then they are offered a cup of tea to drink, while trying the burqas. Karima starts by saying something to the maid, and to Martha’s surprise the maid puts on one of Karima’s burqas. Sultana says to Martha “Karima wants to see her choices worn by a person, to see how they look and fold when walking.” Fortunately the maid is only a fraction taller than Karima, and after she has walked a little around the room in both burqas, it is clear to even Martha, that the first burqa has the best cut, and makes the wearer look more elegant when moving. But Karima puts on both burqas, and makes the maid close the hoods. She has tried them in reverse order, and in the end just flips the first burqa back, and lifts the hood to say something to the woman. Then she covers again. While the woman works at the floor with Karima’s burqa and needles, Sultana says “Karima has chosen the one she is wearing now, which I think even you could see looks best, but burqas can feel very different as well. Some looking good are impossible to breathe in and makes you feel hot immediately, but with these I think Karima found them about the same to wear. Now the woman put needles for marking, how the length should be adjusted to fit Karima. I’ll go next to let you see how our burqa looks on a person before you put yours on.”
As the woman gets up finished with Karima, Sultana puts on her burqa. Except when looking directly at the eye area, where it at close range is clear that there is only embroidery and no opening in the blue fabric, it looks essentially like the burqas they have been wearing so far. Of course Martha can see that this burqa has more fabric touching the ground, but it doesn’t stick out as overdone. Soon the woman has marked Sultana’s burqa, and Martha has to put her own on. Wearing this burqa is from the beginning very different. First the elastic hood has to be pulled open and over the head before the cap part can be fitted. Then no dimmed light or hazy view appears, it remains completely dark, as if it wasn’t correctly on. Then it immediately feels much warmer. Especially on the face, where a normal burqa is loose and widens directly from the cap. This one does as well, but the hood does not. It clings to the head to press the pads over the ears and mouth inwards. And it is completely silent. The weak sounds from the street, and even the small noises of people around her, has gone. She is in a world of her own, and has to concentrate to remember how much and in which direction she can move, trying to walk a few steps in this dress. As she moves she feels a hand on her shoulder guiding her. She actually walks a circle in the room with small steps, before the hand make her stand still. She feels her burqa is touched at the floor all way round. Then the burqa is lifted, as a sign to take it off. Martha is glad to be back in the world surrounding her. She has to practice to be able to walk in this thing for more than a few minutes, and even then she doubts, she will ever get used to wearing it. Karima says “The woman says, if we go buying gloves a little down the street, she will send the corrected burqas down there in about half an hour. She has a daughter to help with the work. Just pay with large notes and take no change, then she will keep our secret.” Karima pays her own burqa, and Martha pays for Sultana and herself. Even with a generous extra amount from Martha, Karima pays more for her expensive burqa, than Martha pays for two just above average. They put on the burqas they arrived in, which suddenly feels less restricting, and walks back into the shop. The shop assistant is serving new customers and doesn’t let show, he notes them pass.
They walk a hundred yards down the street, the maid leading and Karima following her closely. A very similar but much smaller shop sells gloves only for women. But then it’s all kinds of gloves from short thin ones to prevent skin colour or structure of the hands and wrists are seen, to long thick restricting ones made to make hands and arms useless. The maid explains to the male shop keeper their different needs. Of course he handles Karima’s request first. He finds three sets. All long mittens made of leather. Two are black and one white. One of the black pairs are much thicker and more tight fitting than the other pairs. This pair will obviously severely restrict any use of arms or hands. The maid knows this is not Karima, and first point to this pair, which immediately makes Karima shake her head. Then the maid points to the white pair, and Karima nods. The maid takes one glove and walks with Karima into the back of the shop, where a curtain allows them to lift their burqas without being seen by the shop keeper. Meanwhile the shop keeper has found an assortment of gloves for Sultana and Martha. They are all elbow long, black and with fingers. One pair is thin leather. Sultana puts her gloved hand on the counter keeping the opening of her burqa hidden by the front of the counter. She reaches for a plain satin pair. Martha notes some pairs are made to be shown perhaps in women-only company, because they have decorating embroidery. They are now interrupted by the maid, who wants a larger size for Karima. While the shop keeper looks for another pair, Sultana stretches a hand with one glove towards Martha below the counter. Martha lifts her burqa a little and takes the glove. Now they try a glove each. Unlike the leather gloves, which are laced up the arm and impossible to put on or take off by the wearer, these are made of stretch material and can just be rolled out on top of the sleeve after it has been put over the hand. But Martha finds the glove she is trying has to be stretched too much and is too tight on her fingers. She stretches the double gloved hand towards Sultana and shakes her head. Sultana whispers “Larger?” Martha nods. Sultana gestures to the shop keeper she wants exactly this pair and the same one size larger for her companion. He quickly finds the right size, and Martha tries it and nods. Now Karima and the maid is beside them again. The maid and the shop keeper handles the payment. Sultana whispers to Martha. “She has paid for our gloves as well. I don’t know why.” They haven’t spend more than twenty minutes buying gloves Martha guess without having a watch to look at. The maid or Karima has found out as well, Martha learns shortly. The maid says something to the shop keeper, and then whispers to Sultana, who whispers to Martha “We haven’t spend half an hour here, but Karima likes to go on after we get our burqas, so we have to wait here until they arrive.” Now they follow Karima and the maid, who has withdrawn down behind the curtain. In ten to fifteen minutes absolutely nothing happens, as both Karima and Sultana finds it inappropriate to talk or even whisper just to entertain themselves so close to a strange man. Martha tries to count how many gloves there are in each pile on the shelves within view. Karima and Sultana face the floor. The maid keeps an eye on the entrance to look for their burqas. Finally the maid moves. A boy has arrived with two plastic bags. The maid takes them both. As before Karima follows her very close, while they walk out of the shop.
After walking for five minutes Martha can see they are headed for the Women’s Park. But close to the entrance the maid puts the bags down, and gestures Sultana to take them. The maid walks to a stall selling cakes and gets a bag filled. Then she walks a few steps to a boy selling cans of soda. They will have a picnic Martha thinks, as they walk into the Women’s Park. They find a bench, where two can sit, and Martha as guest of the country is offered a seat, but refuses. She is in good shape and doesn’t need to rest. Then of course Karima and Sultana sit down. Only now they all flip their burqas back. “Serve yourself,” Karima says pointing to the cakes and cans placed between them on the bench, while pulling at the lower edge of the thin scarf covering her face to get access to her mouth. Today she is not in pink, but wears a yellow dress and white head scarves, Martha notes. Karima continues “You owe me for the gloves. Paying was not meant as a present, but to avoid Martha having to communicate with the shop keeper. Me paying for you looks completely normal to him, as women like me often go shopping with poor relatives visiting from the country, giving them gloves as a thanks for their visit.” Martha takes the bag of cakes and holds it towards the maid. The maid looks at Karima, who nods, before she takes one. “You can have some more and a can as well,” Martha says very slowly and gesturing. “Tank u,” it comes from the maid, as Martha sees her hungry and thirsty eyes turn into a smile. Martha then turns to Sultana saying “Why did you buy a burqa for yourself. You have a Kandahar style burqa?” Sultana says “Yes it’s true. But it doesn’t look like the one you bought. We have to dress identically to look like we are married to the same husband. You know Islam allows only more wives, if they are treated exactly equal. One of the best ways to show this is to buy identical clothes for all wives. Especially burqas of different value would attract suspicion immediately.” Martha says “Of course. Me who just thought, it was a chance for you to get a new burqa for free.” Sultana says “It has never crossed my mind,” in a voice that clearly shows it has. Martha is sure that she would see a blushing face, if Sultana wasn’t veiled enough to cover such an expression.
They continue talking about the weather and women passing by, while the maid eats cakes. After an hour talking they somehow find it is time to leave. Their gloves are put down in the bag with their burqas, and they say see you next week in Kandahar to each other. Then they put their burqas down and walks towards the exit. Martha whispers to Sultana, as they walk out. Outside Martha immediately spots Karima’s car. Obviously the driver has been told they would end their shopping in the Women’s Park. But Sultana passes the maid and takes the lead. She heads to the stall selling cakes, and the boy selling starts filling a bag much larger than the one the maid bought for Karima. Sultana pays and walks with the bag towards the car. Karima enters, while the maid puts Karima’s bags in the trunk. As the maid walks forward to wait to close the back seat door, Sultana hands her the bag of cakes, probably saying it’s a present for her. This makes her lift both her arms free of her burqa, and both Sultana and Martha gets a tight hug, which would have been a kiss as well, if both parts haven’t had their faces covered. While hugging they both are told a lot in Pashto, which Sultana finds it unnecessary to translate. Martha notes the driver has put up a big smile watching this scene. Eventually they get in, and the maid closes the door carefully. Out at Nur Muhammad’s house the maid is quickly out opening the door again, and she leans at their chins before closing the door and getting back in the front seat.
Nothing happens the following days, except Martha despite her dislike dresses in the Kandahar burqa a couple of times each day for longer and longer periods. The last day before they leave she wears it for an hour, walking in the streets near the house guided by Sultana. Learning to walk without senses is the strangest task, she has ever had to learn to accomplish a job. But she walks without stumbling, which is the most important. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as many women from the liberal Kabul are visiting Kandahar, making women walking blind without long practice a sight often seen. Sultana strengthen Martha’s confidence by saying, that she might even be taken as a local girl recently started wearing burqa.
5. The road to Kandahar
On Wednesday morning they walk to the car with only small bags with a little clothes. Sultana and Martha are both dressed in their usual gloves, veil and burqa. The Kandahar burqas are in the bags. Nur Muhammad has parked the rented car a few streets away at a friend with a yard large enough. Seeing the car Martha, even if she trusts Nur Muhammad’s judgment when renting the car, gets in doubt, if it will make it. It looks like something found at a junk yard. Scratches and dents are covered with ordinary paint in different shades, apparently as close to the original colour, as could be found that day. And although it’s clean inside the seats are stained and scratched. The women has brought some food, and Nur Muhammad has bought cans of soda and bottles of water. But they don’t drive directly out of town. They stop at a store selling bags of grain, where Nur Muhammad loads the trunk with two large 100 lb. bags of wheat and rice respectively. They drive for a while without any talking. There won’t be much talking during the drive, as the noise level inside the car makes it nearly impossible. But Martha can hear why Nur Muhammad has rented this car. The engine actually sound as it should, and gear and brakes seem to be well maintained as well. They are crossing a long plain and there is quite a lot of traffic. Often they have to go very slow, because they can’t pass a slow truck right away. During such a slow down it is easier to communicate, and Martha asks what the grain is for. Nur Muhammad says “It’s gifts or payment. We stay the night at a farmer I know. But because guests according to our traditions are always welcomed without asking for anything in return, he won’t accept we pay him for staying. But then we give them a very large present, which they can use themselves, or sell some of it to buy other things. Quality grain is always in demand, and they know how to store and use it properly. The farmer can have the bag he likes most, and then Sultana’s family get the other one, so they don’t loose anything by giving us food and drink, while we stay there. They are poor and may have some hard days, if having to feed three people more for several days.”
The longer they get from Kabul, the worse the road. The pavement is often missing. Small holes, strips of gravel and sometimes large holes, which they have to go around. This sometimes means driving in the opposite side of the road, or stopping if there is traffic in the opposite direction. And then there are the river beds. It is past the melting season, and there are few rivers with lots of water. But there are many dry or nearly dry river beds, where water just flows a week or so each year. But when this happens the water removes everything in the river bed including the roads crossing. In many river beds the task of maintaining a road has been abandoned. This means crossing involves driving down a steep bank, driving across the unpaved and rough river bed, and even sometimes through a stream of water, where it is impossible to see if there are holes to get stuck in, and finally driving up a steep rough track again. Such road conditions are the reason why Nur Muhammad won’t drive the 300 miles in one day. Martha notices quite many cars driving with the trunk open, where women are sitting. It doesn’t seem because the cabin is filled. Next time they slow down Martha asks “Why are there so many women in the trunk of cars?” Sultana says “Most men finds it inappropriate to have their wife, even if she is covered, sitting so close to a strange male, as a car cabin is, for an extended period of time. ” Martha says “That answers why Karima wanted to drive alone with Nazrullah.” The landscape is mostly deserted. Now and then they pass a small house, many of them could be called shacks. But they do pass small towns as well. Very few women are seen compared to Kabul, and Martha notices that of those seen perhaps a third seems to be in blinding burqas and guided.
At the middle of the afternoon they leave the main road crossing through the middle of a plain, to drive along a dirt track towards the mountain ridge bordering the plain. After twenty minutes on the small road they reach a cluster of small clay-plaster covered stone houses. Small streams from the mountains allows farming. The village is surrounded by fields, and close to the houses are fruit trees. They have reached the place to spend the night. Nur Muhammad parks along the wall of one of the first houses directly at the edge of a wheat field. The noise of the car has caused dogs barking from several places in the village, and before Nur Muhammad is out of the car, the small door in the wall around the house is opened, and a man around forty in typical peasant clothing comes out. Martha doesn’t get a closer look, because as Nur Muhammad steps out of the car Sultana whispers “Keep your head down and stay silent.” The two men talk for some minutes, then the trunk is opened, and after a little more talking the car rocks a little, as one of the bags is removed. The men leave. Sultana whispers “We have to stay with our heads down until someone opens the car door. It’s very likely that boys of the village or old men have come to look at the car.” Perhaps a quarter later the door is opened. It’s Nur Muhammad, but he doesn’t concentrate on them. While standing just behind the open door, he greets what sounds like an old man some yards away. Sultana with her head down walks towards the door in the wall, and Martha follows close behind. It sounds like boys are observing the car and them.
They enter a small yard containing a one room house, an oven and a water pump. Hens are heard cackling behind the house. In front of the door to the house a woman receives them. She silently greets first Sultana and then Martha by meeting cheek to cheek. As Sultana has raised her head, Martha do likewise and can now observe the woman. Even though she is a peasant woman in her own yard, she wears a burqa in the usual blue colour. But it’s very short at the front only reaching the waist, and then curving down along the sides to be ankle length at the back. The legs are covered by a thick mainly red flower patterned skirt reaching the ankles as well. Below the skirt the legs of bright green wide trousers cover the top of the brown leather shoes. The burqa mesh is quite large and thin, but only shows that the face is completely veiled in black beneath. They are gestured to sit down on cushions placed up against the wall of the house. The woman goes to the oven, where a pot is being heated on its top. Then Nur Muhammad enters the yard with some of their bags. He walks directly into the house. Through the open door Martha can hear he starts a conversation with the farmer. Then the woman with the boiling pot enters the house. After a few minutes she returns with a tray with three glasses of tea. Now black gloved hands and green sleeves are seen. Sultana moves to let her have her cushion between them. Before taking her own glass, the woman’s hands are lifted up under the burqa to the back of her head. A tightly rolled black scarf is placed on the tray. She has been gagged. With the men behind a thin door, and with a glass-less light opening in the wall a few yards away, the burqas have to stay on, and talking is out of the question. They have to take the glass up under the burqa to drink. Martha has pulled at the back of her veiling scarf to remove it from the mouth. The woman has much less problems drinking with her short burqa front. Nothing happens among the women. Martha and Sultana after a long time in a noisy, dusty and warm car just enjoys the silence and the cooler shadow, which the roof just manages to make a few feet out from the wall. With their glasses empty both Martha and Sultana refuse a refill. The men seems to keep talking for some more time. The woman reaches for her gag. Sultana takes her hand, touches her gag and points to Martha and herself. The woman nods and gags herself with the scarf. Then she takes the tray with glasses and goes into the house. Shortly after she returns with two black scarves. Martha watches how Sultana rolls it to a cord very thick at the centre. Then she takes it up under her burqa and ties it over the mouth around the head. Martha copies.
After half an hour the men leaves to take a look at the fields and the village and talk with other villagers. And the women can move freely around in the yard and house to cook. Martha points to her mouth gesturing, if they may talk. Both Sultana, who has been here before, and the woman shakes her head. Further the woman puts her hands to the front of her burqa and lifts her arms, like she would pull the burqa off, but she doesn’t lift it. She shakes her head. Uncovering is not permitted either. The woman points to the door in the wall less than ten yards away. Martha understands the men could enter at any time. They concentrate on the cooking. The woman hands Martha and Sultana some vegetables to clean at the pump. It’s not so easy in a long burqa and with gloves, but slow help is better than none. Meanwhile the woman has been behind the house. She returns with a hen held head down and wriggling in one hand, and a knife in the other. An experienced cut at the neck of the hen ends it life, and shortly after she begins to remove the feathers. Martha smiles behind her layers. Here is no doubt that the food ingredients are completely fresh. Soon a large pot filled with the result of their work is cooking on top of the oven. Now they can rest for at least half an hour.
Martha has stained one of her gloves a little, and gets inspired to test the woman’s curiosity. She very visibly shows she has noticed the stain, and pulls the glove off close to the pump. Then she lets water flow on it, while watching the woman. As she sees her dark skinned hand, she comes up close and grabs at Martha’s wrist. Martha turns her hand to show the light palm, and lets her inspect the skin. Then she points to her own face and pretends to lift the burqa. After some moments of hesitation the woman takes Martha’s hand and leads her into the house. Sultana has followed, and the woman gestures her to close the door and stay at the window opening to watch the door in the wall. Martha flips her burqa back, unties the gag and removes her veil. The woman has flipped her burqa back as well, and pulls down a narrow semi-transparent scarf just covering her eyes, to be able to clearly see the face of a black woman. Martha smiles to her, and says in a whispering voice “I’m Martha. Thank you for letting us spend the night at your house,” knowing that the woman doesn’t understand English. The woman’s eyes shows she doesn’t understand, and she turns towards Sultana. Now Sultana has to pull her gag down, and whispers to the woman in Pashto. This makes the woman feel she has to answer, and she pulls her gag down, and whispers. Sultana translates “My name is Asma. Your generous present makes sure we won’t starve during winter.” Martha whispers “Allah is great. I’m sure your harvest will be fine. The present is just to allow a little extravaganza. But won’t you remove your last veil to let me see your face?” During Sultana’s translation of the last line the woman looks down blushing. But as Martha is showing her face, she has to reciprocate. The black scarf covering the face from below the eyes is slowly pulled down. From what could be partly guessed from the eyes, she is young. Much younger than her husband. Martha guesses in her mid twenties. And very beautiful. Martha whispers “Thank you Asma. I appreciate you unveiled. You are extremely beautiful. Seeing your husband, I had expected you were much older.” Through Sultana Asma replies “I am his second wife. The first one died from a disease three years ago, and shortly after he married me. It was late for me. I had become eighteen, when I married. We can talk a little more, because this whispering can’t be heard across the yard, and it can’t be seen we’re ungagged with burqas, but please can we cover again? Just a glimpse indicating that we have been uncovered, could lead to trouble.” While translating Asma has begun covering again, because Sultana has answered her and nodded before speaking English. Now Martha starts covering as well while asking “If you are covered even in here and gagged except when eating or drinking, are you able to see and communicate with the other women in the village?” Asma says “There is a stream close to the village, where we go washing at a certain place. There no men will go, and we can both speak and show our faces, if screened inside a lifted burqa. We do not uncover our heads completely. Then, when we work in the fields women only, we are allowed to speak, if there is enough open view to secure no men are within listening range.” Martha says “Sultana tell her shortly why we are here.” Sultana talks in Pashto for a couple of minutes. Asma says “I hope you succeed in finding the American woman. But please let us stop now. The last preparations for the dinner has to me made.” Martha just nods, and they all gag themselves.
Soon dinner is ready, the men return and are served. The men eat inside the house, while the women wait for them outside, and then eat outside as well, while the men smoke. Martha gets sleepy early. The men keep talking and drinking tea inside the house. While this is going on the women have to stay out in the yard. Only Asma enters the house to serve the men and get things. The women after clearing the dinner can do nothing but listen to the men, and Martha doesn’t understand a word. Soon she can only watch the stars on the clear night sky, so much clearer than a lighted polluted American city. When it’s time for sleeping Martha and Sultana are let into the house to sleep beside Nur Muhammad. The guests are given the best and only room inside, while Asma and her husband sleep in the yard. The women just sleep as they are fully covered in burqa. A total new experience to Martha, but she’s too sleepy to think about it.
The sun has just come up, when Martha is waken by Sultana. They are guesting farmers, who rise with the sun. But soon home made bread and cheese is served with strong tea, and Martha is ready for a new day. They leave shortly after breakfast. Asma with her short burqa is able to hug them without revealing much more than normal. Martha, while the men is out of the yard, gestures they expect to be back in some days. Martha and Sultana takes the back seat of the car, as the day before. The men spend a long time talking down the village street before they say goodbye. Meanwhile Asma stands in the doorway of the wall, where she can’t be seen from the road. When Martha peeks out to find nobody there but Asma, she lifts an arm free of the burqa and waves. But eventually they go on. But only halfway between the village and the main road Nur Muhammad stops saying “We’re soon in the territory, where all city women wear Kandahar burqa. It’s only because showing yourself without burqa in the farmer’s house would have been improper, that I waited. Here we can see people minutes before they arrive, and now we’re alone. So ladies please, the rest of your journey is silent and dark.” Sultana finds their Kandahar burqas in a bag in the trunk. Then they both take off their normal burqas, which are put in the bag. The clear fresh morning disappears, as Martha puts the burqa on. It becomes completely dark, completely silent, warmer and stuffy. She senses the car door opening directly with her head, and gets back in.
When the engine starts and the car starts moving, it’s no longer completely silent. Vibrations, low frequency sounds and bumps keeps her awake, opposing the other factors that makes her drift off. Martha has no idea for how long they have been driving, when the car stops. After some minutes a hand at her feet places something. She puts a hand down and senses a can and a sandwich. Lunch. Martha feels it’s long after she has finished eating and drinking, that the car starts again. Then the car stops. Martha feels her body aching. She must have been sleeping in an awkward position. A hand shakes her shoulder. She is guided out. After a few minutes walk hands lift at the front of her burqa. She hurries to take it completely off. She’s in a small yard much like at the village. But the house is larger. And right in front of her are two women showing smiling faces. Sultana’s sister and her co-wife. And now Nur Muhammad and a man enters without the women covering. The women embrace Sultana and say greetings in Pashto. Martha is not greeted, until Sultana says “Martha, take your veil off. My brother-in-law is not strict.” The strange ride deaf, mute and blind, and the sudden change to unveiled women has completely made Martha forget her own veil. Removing it the two women of the house prepares to embrace Martha, but as they see her face, it’s their turn to be surprised. But after a short while, she is greeted as well. After receiving the generous present the brother-in-law tells his wives to make a really good meal and just ask, if he has to buy something to make it perfect. And when Martha participate in the short evening prayer, she is fully accepted. But they are not so liberal that men and women eat together. The four women have to squeeze down in the small kitchen, while the men occupy the small, but for two more than sufficiently large living room. But Martha enjoys the evening, even though it’s tiring, especially for Sultana, that everything has to be translated.
6. End of search
Friday in Kandahar. Martha had been warned, the only thing women did outside their own home, was being moved to other homes for visits. But not on Fridays. The men left mid morning to spend the time until the important Friday prayer at the mosque at some cafe, or just talking with those they met, because all men were out to do the same. And they would not be home before late afternoon, because after the prayers they would talk again. Now the starting subject was the speech of the Mullah, and depending on its penetration and the religious devotion of those discussing, they would sooner or later change to more profane subjects like business or politics. It was out of the question for the women to go anywhere. And it was not considered good manners to do more than the absolutely necessary house chores. Otherwise cleaning all day could make time for longer visits or breaks the following days. Martha and Sultana could have read, but doing something that excluded their hosts would not be polite. They can pray and talk. And talking has to be kept at a reasonably serious level. No gossip about other women, no fashion and no sex. But fortunately Martha comes from a totally different culture, and has practiced their religion totally different. There is enough to talk about. And it has to be translated. And they drink tea. Lots of tea. A little past eleven the wives usually start a long prayer session. Martha and Sultana won’t deviate from their habit, and of course join them. Women do not say their prayers loud, so Martha has to come up with everything inside her own head. She starts reciting the Quran to herself, and actually feels proud about, how much she is able to remember. But they pray for much longer. Time passes noon. And she starts feeling hungry. Finally the wives think it’s enough. It’s twenty to one. Martha doesn’t dare ask, if they have shortened the prayer because of their guests. They spend a long time eating lunch. And not long after it’s tea time again. Cake and candy are served. Mid afternoon they start preparing dinner. While working in the kitchen they frequently take a short break and eat a little snack or taste the dishes for the dinner. Martha doesn’t get hungry during the afternoon or the rest of the day. If she had to stay here for long, she would gain a lot of weight. But in this part of the world this is much more fashionable than in the West. The men arrives. Now they mainly have to stay in the kitchen. And one of the wives has to follow, if there’s something the men wants. But at the evening tea at half past eight the women are invited to join the men. They want to know, what Martha and Sultana will do the following day. This is all known to Nur Muhammad, but of course the brother-in-law should be informed as well. And when he hears they are going to Nazrullah’s brother to meet Karima, he says he knows who he is, and where he lives. If they can leave not too long after breakfast, he and Nur Muhammad can guide them there, before they start doing business. Sultana says it would be fine to start early, because they plan on visiting the house, where Ellen should be just after lunch, and it would be very impolite to enter the house of Karima’s family, and then leave shortly after.
Saturday morning Martha and Sultana get ready to put on the awful Kandahar burqa again. But first they have to think of how they present themselves, when the burqa is lifted. They find the elbow long gloves bought in Kabul for this, and puts them on top of their usual short gloves and the shirt sleeves. And then a see-through veil is not sufficient to cover the face. Below this they tie a black scarf over mouth and nose, so what is seen through the tulle is only black fabric and a thin eye slit. Now they are ready to lift the burqa over the head and pull down the inner hood to go blind, deaf and mute, moments before the entire body is covered in long thick blue pleated fabric. After more than thirty hours within the four walls of the small house a little exercise and fresh air would have been nice, but being woman in Kandahar is not like that. The air is always hot and dusty. The thick fabric of the burqa stops any breeze that might make it more pleasant. The heavy face covering do filter the dust, but then it collects on the outer surface making breathing even more restricted. And the hem sweeps the dust to ensure the wearer is modest, not showing she has legs, but quickly gets dirty. It’s hot and tiring, but it’s not the muscles that are fatigued. The long restricting dress and walking blind means they have to walk slow and carefully to avoid tripping, and to avoid getting away from the intended path, hitting something before their guide can react. Martha has no idea for how long or what distance they have made, when the loose rubble surface of the mostly unpaved streets change to a flat clean stone surface, and they stop. After a few minutes they are guided a little longer, and then a hand lifts at her burqa.
After completely lifting the burqa herself Martha through her veil sees three women in colourful dresses including coloured headscarves under a thin matching see-through veil covering both head and shoulders. One of them comes up close to her and says in English “I’m sorry you have to keep your face veiled Martha. They are not strict here, but being an influential family requires that the general dress-code has to be followed. We’ll not show our faces completely, but when we have tea the opaque scarf goes down, and then you can see just about everything.” Martha has immediately recognized the voice of Karima. Martha and Sultana are now greeted by Karima’s sisters-in-law. Then Martha, a little surprised by her own muffled voice, asks Karima, if she agrees they should go to Ellen’s house just after lunch. Karima expects Ellen and her co-wives might have a long prayer session around noon. Because of that they won’t be able to stay there for long, if they go immediately. This of course leads to an invitation for lunch, where they are now. But first tea. As Karima predicted the face veiling in this house is something of a formality to maintain a respectable reputation. When tea is served the scarf over mouth and nose is pulled down, and the faces are clearly seen through the thin tulle staying on. Both women are beautiful similarly aged around thirty. Being so much older than Karima, Martha guesses Nazrullah is the younger of the two brothers. Martha pulls her lower face scarf down as well, and is as usual met by surprised faces. Even if Karima has told about her skin colour, actually seeing it is something different. The wives are educated, being old enough to have had some years in school before the Taliban took over in 1996, but are not able to make a conversation in English.
Fortunately Sultana has to learn about their family and the house, which is almost comparable to the luxurious house of Nazrullah in Kabul. Her sister and the co-wife will want to know about one of the influential families of Kandahar, and a house way above their own. A sister visiting a fine family, is very close to being there yourself, when gossiping with women in the neighbourhood. So until lunch Martha can speak English with Karima. But Kandahar is stricter than Kabul. When tea is over they lift their scarves up to the eyes again. Talking can be done without seeing the facial expression, and then everybody is decently covered. Martha knows that Nazrullah and Karima talk about everything, and follow the news of the world. Martha gets updated, and Karima wants her opinion on the subjects, she has discussed with Nazrullah during their long drive to Kandahar. At noon they stop for a short ten minute prayer session. Then they all take part in preparing lunch. Despite their husband’s wealth, they have no maid like Karima. Martha is told they can just as well do the house chores themselves, because women in Kandahar have to spend most of their time at home. They have a boy of ten, who has to run some errands. But most of the shopping is done by the husband, who at the market finds a boy to follow him around, and then carry his buyings home. They don’t drag the meal more than politeness requires. They are eager to continue the task, that have sent them on this journey to Kandahar. The search for Ellen is continued.
On the outer wall next to the gate of the house is a red light, which is now flashing. Soon a delivery boy answers the light by ringing the bell. In the yard of the house Karima tells the boy, where they want to go, and what he should say at their arrival. Then they put their burqas on, and it becomes black and silent. Martha worries, if they can trust this boy. Does he really know where to take them or do they walk for a long time in vain? Or even worse is he in the pocket of the numerous bad guys, that just waits for an occasion like this to increase their number of slaves or get a ransom? But the others hadn’t worried, perhaps the wives knows him. Martha guesses they have been walking for twenty perhaps even thirty minutes, when there is a stop. Then they move away from the rough surface of the streets onto a flat stone surface. A hand lifts at Martha’s burqa, and she immediately lifts it herself. They are in the hall of another rich house and a completely black veiled woman says with Sultana whispering in English into Martha’s ear “You have reached the house of sheik Rashid al Abdul. As his wives has accepted receiving you, I’ve sent your boy away. But you are just out of the street. This is the male section of the house. Although there are no males in here at present, most women prefer to remain covered and silent, until in the women’s section. The wives of sheik Rashid al Abdul are not ready to receive visitors right now. Take a seat on the cushions here, until I’m back in about ten minutes.” Karima nods at the maid, turns her back to a cushion, pulls her burqa down and sits down. As Karima has reasoned, they should to do as the maid says, Sultana and Martha go back to the silent darkness as well. Perhaps Ellen has been bathing since they have to wait. But around ten minutes later Martha feels a hand on her shoulder and gets up. They walk for a couple of minutes with small breaks indicating doors are opened and closed by the maid. Then her burqa is lifted.
They are in a quite large completely empty room except for cushions on the floor. To their left is a door, probably where they entered. To the right the room is completely open towards a yard, which could just as well be described as a garden. Sitting on four cushions at the opposite wall are four identical white silk burqas, the wives of sheik Rashid al Abdul. After the guests have had a little time to seize their surroundings, the maid gestures them to sit at the cushions behind them, which they do. Martha has started her recorder to at least get the voice of Ellen, if she rejects to make a message to her parents. The wives are not sitting side by side in a line facing their guests, but are sitting in two pairs with their side to the wall and the two pairs back to back. Why becomes apparent, as the maid sits down in front of them facing the guests, and with her back against the square of wives. When the maid starts talking, the wives turn their heads against each other. The maid says “I’m acting as voice of the women behind me. We are Zakia, Azra, Ellen and Habiba, the wives of sheik Rashid al Abdul. Welcome. We only have full contact with women approved by our husband. What our maid now repeats may come from any of us, and we can’t see you. Ellen is happy to meet her former co-wife again. We like to know who her companions are?” Sultana has whispered a rough translation in Martha’s ear. Martha is disappointed, and feels like walking over and ripping the burqas off the four women, but controls herself and tries in stead to force a direct dialog with Ellen by saying in English “I’m Martha Miller hired by Senator Jasper to find his daughter Ellen. And next to me is my partner Sultana, wife of Nur Muhammad. Can I have a proof that I have found Ellen?” Now there is a talking in the wife group, too low to hear. The set-up is very effective in anonymising the women. Although probably only Ellen understands English, it’s impossible to see who is speaking, and if the translation has ended, and they are now discussing what to do. The maid says “I Ellen is very happy with my strict secluded life in purdah here in the house of sheik Rashid al Abdul. As you have been let into this house claiming you wanted to meet Ellen, you know you have met her. Because I doubt there are other women called Ellen in Afghanistan. But if you by proof means speaking with me in English or seeing my face, I have to disappoint you. At least today. As I said I’m happy here, and fully believes in the rules we follow to stay protected and pious in complete purdah. I will have to ask our husband, if he can approve you as a women I can talk to directly, and if he will allow you to see me, or to write to my parents. Perhaps my dad has sent you, because I stopped writing some time ago. I stopped when I found out, that a really pious woman should only please her husband, do housework and pray. If women needed to be able to write, Afghanistan would have had schools for girls. Can you come back tomorrow? All of you. I’m sure our husband will be more positive, when it involves my former co-wife as well, where he knows the family.” Martha looks at Karima, who nods. Karima then says “To help your husband reach a positive decision I think he should know, that Martha is a practicing Muslim, who was brought up in a Muslim family, and during her entire stay in Afghanistan has followed the local dress-code. Your maid can confirm, that she is covered beneath her burqa like most women in Kandahar.” The maid says “You must know that I Ellen would enjoy a direct conversation in English with both of you, but my life here means so much to me I will not break any rules just because my dad has sent someone from America. But it was wise of Karima mentioning Martha is a Muslim. A Christian American would have had much less chance. I hope he accepts a meeting. But if he doesn’t, it was nice meeting Karima again, and Martha can tell my parents I’m alive and happy here. But I have just remembered, I have a sort of proof that you have met me. I’ll go and find it, and then the maid will bring it to you when guiding you out. See you tomorrow I hope.” The four wives get up, and the maid moves them to form a line. Then she takes the lead, and Martha can see they each follow the woman in front of themselves by stretching their hands a little forward under the burqa to make contact with the back in front of them. They disappear in the yard. Sultana says “If we’re lucky we’re allowed to talk to them directly on an individual basis. I doubt women that strict will show themselves without burqa to non-family members.” Martha says “I’m afraid you’re right, but I’ll stay optimistic. But the possibility of getting a photo seems far away. The best I can hope for is a recording with an unmuffled voice.” The maid returns with a piece of cloth, which she hands to Martha. Martha unfolds it, and they all see it’s a t-shirt with the print ‘Bryn Mawr college 2011’. The maid says “You’ll have to wait at the entrance, while I go to the neighbours to find a dependable boy to guide you home. I would like the one, who will tell the boy where to go to be the last in line.” They pull their burqas down and are once again mute, deaf and blind. After being guided to the entrance they have to sit and wait for a long time. Martha thinks about how she can get her final proof. Now she is so close to accomplishing her assignment for the Senator, she might have to deviate from behaving like a modest complying woman like everybody else around her. Martha thinks half an hour has passed before she is padded on her shoulder and they start walking again. Karima has told the boy to guide them to the house of her brother-in-law. Now Sultana will have him to guide herself and Martha to her sister’s house. He will gladly do so, because they pay much more than normal for such a job. But all this is not directly experienced by Martha, who remain covered at the short stop at Karima’s family. For her it’s only walk and wait and walk, without for sure knowing what is going on.
Back at Sultana’s sister Martha asks “Is there a fashion magazine, which have a new issue every month or more frequently?” Sultana translates, and the three Afghan women starts a discussion lasting several minutes. Then Sultana says to Martha “We have agreed that there are no magazines showing clothes published in Afghanistan, but it is possible and legal to buy an Iranian fashion magazine, which the Iranian government use to demonstrate that modest clothing within the religious boundaries can be fashionable. It is in Farsi, but as most women can’t read, it doesn’t matter. But it is very expensive.” Martha says “It is good it is expensive, then it is a more extravagant gift. But ask our hosts here, if they think it is acceptable for Ellen and her co-wives to receive such a magazine. It must be acceptable to their husband as well?” Martha quickly understands it is. After some Pashto talking Sultana says “This Iranian magazine doesn’t show people. The most outrageous pictures show the clothes on headless mannequins, or if it’s head wear with featureless spheres. And then what the Iranians call an outdoor coat, may be only be shown in private family rooms here. But everywhere many fashion ideas are so daring, that nobody would wear them themselves, but they are still fun to look at and dream about. It would be very welcome in this house as well.” Martha says “When Nur Muhammad and your brother-in-law arrive, ask them to buy the ten most recent issues they can find. I want to be sure we can find four issues, which doesn’t offend the very sensitive minds of Ellen and her family. Then you can keep the rest here unless Sultana or I finds a dress to die for.” Martha notes the happy looks, when Sultana translates ‘you can keep the rest.’ The men are back less than an hour before normal dinner time, but immediately leave to fulfil Martha’s request. It’s twenty minutes overdue, when they return, but nobody grumbles, as they see the men have achieved their goal. Actually the women are very eager to pray and eat as fast as possible. Martha and Sultana offer to clear the table and do the dishes. Some hours later just before it’s time to go to sleep Martha asks Sultana “Can we conclude that none of these magazines contains anything inappropriate to watch for the fragile minds of Ellen and her co-wives?” Sultana nods. Martha continues “Then I would like the four most recent issues for them. And Ellen should receive the most recent.”
The next morning the blinding walk is repeated. After Karima has described how they were received at Ellen’s house to her sisters-in-law, they have found it right to dress a little more modest for the next visit, if allowed to meet Ellen and her co-wives directly. Because the sisters-in-law are both local women and at the same social level as Ellen, their opinion is valued by Sultana and Martha. They borrow what is needed. This means they on top of their gloves, loose shirt and loose trousers put on a long nearly floor touching plain dark coloured dress. And then they replace their tulle veil and face scarf with a niqab with a tiny slit maintained by a nose string and an outer layer covering the eyes much more than the tulle. Both sisters-in-law agree that they now are decently covered to be with any women in Kandahar, even the wives of Mullahs. Then follow another tedious walk in isolation before Karima, Sultana and Martha arrive at Ellen’s house a little past eleven. As expected they have been approved by the husband to talk with them, and this time they are immediately guided through the house.
As they lift their burqas, Martha immediately sees they are at the other end of the yard. The room is about the same size, but contains carpets and low tables besides a large number of cushions. And then there is a number of doors. But most important, right in front of them are Ellen and her co-wives, today individually identifiable, as their wear similar clothing, but show different colours. The maid even gestures to the guests to hand her their burqas, which they do. Their excessive covering with niqab is well received. The wives themselves seem to wear something similar, but except for the lower legs everything is additionally covered by a thin silk burqa. But this is clearly only for indoors use, as it is of the short type, where the front barely reaches the knees. Their burqas are identical in the traditional blue colour, but their dresses beneath are olive, burgundy, peach and beige respectively. As the wives see all their guests are ready, they great them by simultaneously putting a hand to the heart and bowing towards their guests. Karima, Sultana and Martha bow likewise. Martha starts her recorder. Then the burgundy wife says in Pashto with a voice muffled greatly “I’m Zakia, first wife of sheik Rashid al Abdul, welcome to our home. I always welcome our guests and normally lead the conversation, but today Ellen is allowed to speak on her own in English. Ellen please!” There is a break, while Karima is whispering a translation to Martha. Then the beige wife says in English in a similarly muffled voice “Hi! Ellen speaking. When our husband was told that a Muslim woman had travelled all the way from America to meet me, he accepted we meet like this, which is how we meet all non-family women approved by our husband. Martha you’ll not be allowed to see me, as we will not want to see you. I do not want to be photographed, not even dressed like this, and I can’t write you a letter to my parents, as we believe women should not write, because writing is just another way of expressing a personality, which is reserved for the husband. This is why we also speak with voices muffled. All this has nothing to do with my parents, we are like this to everybody. But today you can see for yourself a little about how we live, and I will tell you some. This you can pass on to my parents. And if you want to ask specific questions, please do. There are no taboos. I won’t be offended. But of course I may not answer.” During Ellen’s talk Karima has gathered the three wives, who listen to her low voiced translation. Martha says “Thank you very much for letting us visit. You must tell your husband, we’re very grateful he accepted us and especially me. I am Muslim and knows of course, that many of my Muslim sisters don’t like to have their personalities shown to unknown people through photographs or otherwise. As you said, I will report to your father what I see and hear today. That is it. The most important to your parents must be, that I found you alive and happy. To show that we really appreciate this meeting, I have done like we would do in the U.S. and brought a present. There was of course the possibility of chocolate or flowers, but I wanted something that lasted longer. Our hosts here in Kandahar, Sultana’s family, were enthusiastic about these fashion magazines. I hope you will enjoy them as well.” Saying this Martha brings forward her plastic bag with the magazines and hands the most recent to Ellen. Then she walks in front of Zakia, and with a bow hands her the next magazine. And then the other two wives get one as well. Now it shows their hands and arms are covered in long black satin gloves reaching above the elbows. After looking at the front page for half a minute Zakia says a short command and Ellen says “I’ve been ordered to translate.” Zakia says translated by Ellen “Martha these fine presents from you forces me to interrupt Ellen and say something on behalf of all of us. I’ve heard of this magazine, and even seen it when visiting a rich family. This is known to be a quality publication not violating our customs, unlike all the Western fashion magazines showing naked women. But we have never been able to spend so much on personal luxury, that we could afford to buy one. Now we got one each, and as they are different issues, I guess we will let them circulate after a while. We weren’t sure how long you would stay today, but now you have to accept to have lunch with us.” While Zakia has talked, Martha has noted how Azra and Habiba have browsed their magazines eagerly. And as hoped they seem not to be able to clearly see the pages, as they move the magazines close to and away from their faces searching for a distance where the eyes will focus through the burqa mesh and the veil that can be glimpsed behind. They have to look at the magazines before going to bed, where Martha expects they are unveiled. Martha says “Ellen please translate this. We haven’t discussed this. But I think none of us are in any particular hurry. And considering how long it takes to get back to where we stay, it will be a very late lunch, if we don’t eat here. Of course we will gladly accept. Perhaps I can even persuade Karima and Sultana to help you with the preparations, while we take a little walk around the house. I would like to see everything, so I can describe Ellen’s surroundings more precise. But as the rest of you probably all know how an Afghan house like this is laid out, I won’t bother all of you with my questions.” Karima and Sultana have nodded and follow the three Afghan wives to the kitchen.
Ellen says “Should we follow and have a look at the kitchen first?” “Yes please,” Martha answers. The kitchen is quite large. They could easily eat in there, if they wanted. The maid is of course already working on the lunch. There won’t be much to do for five women, but they’ll find something to chat about, Martha guesses. As they turn back to the living room Martha asks “Do you eat here with your husband, or do you carry all his food all the way to the male section on the other side of the yard?” Ellen says “Our husband rarely enters the female section, and then only after announcing it clearly. It means we can always have female guests, without them having to worry that a man suddenly enters the room. Our husband only enters, if something needs repair, or if he has to address us, while having visitors himself. Everything he and his guests eat or drink is carried out to him, but it is always done by the maid, as we rarely enter the male section without being further covered. And here we have the bathroom for our guests. The maid may use it as well. Now you know where to go before noon prayer. Then there are four identical bedrooms. Would you like to see all of them or just mine?” Martha says “If we don’t risk seeing someone unveiled, and your co-wives don’t mind, it would be interesting to see the differences. Then I can guess, which room belongs to you.” Ellen says “How considerate. Of course I will check they are all in the kitchen and ask if they mind. But normally we walk in and out of all rooms to borrow clothes from each other. When someone go into her room to unveil, she locks the door, so we couldn’t have opened a door to find someone uncovered.” After some moments in the kitchen doorway Ellen returns and opens the leftmost door. As expected from seeing the kitchen, the bedrooms are quite large as well. Each bedroom has its own bathroom and the bed is a normal double bed. Here around noon the room is brightly lid from a quite large opening without glass, but with shutters. The kitchen was similarly lid Martha now recalls. Through the opening part of a garden about five meters deep is seen before the premises end at the obligatory wall, that surround all houses, and ensures the women can see the sky without being viewed themselves. They walk into the next room, which is nearly identical, before Martha says “What lovely large rooms. And a large bed. Does this mean your husband spend his nights in each of these rooms in turn?” Ellen says “No, as I said he rarely enters the female section. There is a master bedroom, where we women go in turn. There is a small corridor between the male and the female section. The master bedroom is accessed from there, meaning both we and our husband can enter the master bedroom without entering the other section.” In the third room Martha says “There is such a lovely green area outside these rooms, but there are no doors. Is it part of a garden, where you can walk?” Ellen says “You can walk out there. There is a small door in the kitchen. But first of all it is not so lovely, because none of the plants are large enough to bring shadow. And then it is not allowed without checking and locking all the bedrooms, because as you can see, anyone out there would be able to see in here. The plants are there to give a nice view and to bring fresh oxygen. We have a lady cleaning, and she locks the bedrooms to work undisturbed and allow the floors to dry. When she is finished with all four rooms, she spend some time attending the garden. Of course you could close the shutters, when using the room, but then much of the idea of an opening giving a sun-lighted room is gone. Actually the shutters are only closed, when it gets really cold at night, a few months a year.” They continue to the last room. Except for a different subdued colour on the wall, slightly differently coloured tiles and different patterns on the carpets, all the rooms are identical, as if they were furnished and decorated before someone moved in. Martha says “It’s not easy guessing, which room belongs to you, as there are no personal items to be seen, and it doesn’t seem any of you have changed the original paint or furniture. And unlike any bedroom in the U.S. there are of course not any photographs here from your wedding or showing children. Which reminds me, how come there are four wives and no children?” Ellen says “But there are. Both Zakia and Azra have a boy each. But the boys are fourteen and fifteen and like their father have to stay out of the female section. They come home to sleep and often to have dinner, but are rarely home at lunch. Of course their mother’s meet them regularly, but Habiba and I only meet them, if our husband has something to say to all of us. And I can’t really decide, if I want a child, so I use pills. Habiba is still young. She haven’t been married for a year yet. But if you had looked in the bathrooms, or in the closets of course you would have found personal items. But now tell me, which room is mine?” Martha says “I’ll bet it was the previous room.” Ellen says “Fantastic! You’re right. Did you notice my old teddy bear peeping out under the bed cover? Him and the t-shirt you got yesterday, are the only things I brought with me, when I left my parents. Would you like to see him?” Martha says “Yes please. Maybe there is something particular, that your parents will recognize. But I didn’t notice the bear. I just guessed the first wife has the first room next to the kitchen, and as number three you have the third room.”
They go back to Ellen’s room, and Ellen brings forward the stuffed animal. Martha says “It’s lovely. I had one very similar, when I was a child. It certainly brings back memories. But Ellen, I hope you won’t report it, but I carry a small camera, because before we met I hoped I would be able to bring a photograph of you home to your parents. Now I know it’s against your beliefs, but perhaps you’ll allow me to make a picture of the teddy in stead. And then they can see your personal room as well?” Ellen is very hesitating. Martha continues “I know the camera is illegal according to Afghan law. But this is just a man made law. It is only photos of living creatures, which are not allowed, according to some Muslim scholars. We do not violate that. Please! It will make your parents so much more happy, that they can actually see a little of what I will describe in words.” Ellen says “Ok. You’re right, they’ll like it. But we don’t tell the others about this. I’ll lock the door, while the camera is visible.” Martha places the teddy in the middle of the bed facing the window, and then puts the fashion magazine on the bed in front of it saying “With this new magazine I can prove this is a new picture, and not something I took back in the States. If you stand in the doorway to the bathroom you are behind the lens, and will not be seen.” But Martha moves along the wall until the teddy is a little to the left in the picture, and the full length mirror to the right of the bed shows at the right side of the picture frame. And in the mirror a fine blue burqa with a beige dress beneath is seen partly from the side. Putting the camera away again Martha says “Thank you. I know you parents will value this small violation of Afghan law. But now I would like to see the male part of the house as well, if this is possible.” Ellen says unlocking the door “It is, because as I told you neither the boys nor my husband are often home for lunch. But I’ll ask the maid to be sure. Wait here.”
After a minute Ellen returns with what looks like to be Martha’s burqa saying “It’s ok, and lunch is ready in ten minutes. But we’ll just walk around having a quick look in each room. You’ll wear your burqa flipped back, and I will as always out there silence myself and wear the burqa you saw yesterday, but with the blinding flap lifted. If someone unexpectedly arrives pull your burqa down, and then we’ll have to wait for the maid to guide us back. Questions about the male section have to wait until we’re back here.” Martha has to put her burqa on completely to have it sit right, and is deaf and blind for some seconds, before she flips the front and the hood back. Meanwhile Ellen has gagged herself with a scarf, which lets Martha see she just puts her full length white silk burqa on top of her blue burqa. Even though she has lifted a blinding flap, she can’t have much sight left. They walk through the inner yard and through the female reception room, where they were sitting yesterday. Then, as Ellen had told, they enter a corridor, which they for now walk directly through. At the other end they enter the entrance hall. Except for the door leading to the street, the room has only one other door to their right. Through this door they enter the male reception room. This room is furnished like the female living room with carpets, low tables and lots of cushions. It is open towards another inner yard as least as big as the women’s. At the other end is only a wall with three doors. At the leftmost door Ellen grabs the handle through her burqa, like with the other doors she has opened, but this time the door is locked. She turns towards Martha and shakes her head. The next room is a bedroom with a large double bed and an adjoining bathroom much like the wives have, but perhaps a little larger. It is completely clean and tidy like it isn’t used. And there are no personal items visible here either. It makes Martha think of a hotel, and not a room in a private house. Definitely very different from an American teenage boys room. The next room, again like the rooms of the wives, differ only from the previous by slightly different colours. With that kind of rooms it doesn’t surprise Martha, they spend very little time at home. Or is it the other way around? The rooms have no personal touch, because they are not much at home. They walk back through the yard, and to show everything Ellen opens the last door in the male reception room shortly to reveal a bathroom for male guests of course. Then they walk back to the corridor to the female section, to see the room they skipped on their way out. The master bedroom is the reason why Martha wanted to see the entire house. It is of course larger than even the rooms of the boys. The bed doesn’t look larger, but perhaps it is, it just doesn’t look larger in a larger room. Of course there is an adjoining bathroom larger and more luxurious than any of the other. There is a large closet and a mirror like in the other bedrooms, but part of the additional floor space in the corner against the bathroom wall is occupied by a low table and a number of cushions. A place to talk, eat, wait or all of it, Martha wonders. And then like the other bedrooms it has an opening with shutters facing a piece of green before the outer wall blocks all horizontal view. Martha has noted the corridor was opposite the house entrance, and as this opening is opposite the bedroom door, it means the outer wall here is at right angles to the street. Could it be a side-street or an alley? They haven’t spend two minutes in the master bedroom, when Martha nods her head approvingly, and they go back to the women living room. Immediately the maid takes her burqa, while Ellen goes to her room to remove hers.
Prayer rugs have been placed in a line on the floor, which makes Martha go to the bathroom to wash for prayer. As soon as they are all assembled including the maid, they form a line along the rugs, and Zakia leads ten minutes of prayer. Next they sit down to eat. While the guest only have to lift their niqabs a little to get access to their mouth, the wives have to lean forward to make the front of their burqas hang out from their body. Then first their left hand has to lift the edge of the burqa a little to let the right hand with the food inside the burqa without touching it, and then they move their left hand up under the burqa to lift their inner veils. After they have been eating for some minutes in silence, Martha feels it’s ok to take a break. She says to Ellen sitting next to her “It was a very interesting tour. You have of course noticed as well, but I must say that the rooms of the boys are totally different from American teenagers.” Ellen, now with a much clearer voice than previously, says “Afghanistan in general is totally different from the U.S. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much here. But if American teenagers had a cleaning woman every day, and a maid to check the room, when they had left, some differences would not exist. By the way the third room, that is locked, is our husbands private room. What is in there or what he does in there, I do not know.” Martha says “Of course he doesn’t have to go into a bedroom, if he wants privacy. But speaking about bedrooms, do you have breakfast or candle light dinner with your husband at that cosy table arrangement in the master bedroom?” Ellen says “It is very rarely we have breakfast with our husband after a night together. But there are fruits, snacks and sodas on the table each night. If our husband wants to talk, we sit there for some time before going to bed. And if he needs a snack or refreshment, he sits down and we often talk meanwhile. And then we wait there. The woman to spend the night in the master bedroom has to be there at least half an hour before our husband is expected. It must not happen that he feels like going early to the bedroom, and then he has to wait for the wife. After bathing and beautifying ourselves for the night at our own room, we cover to be able to walk to the master bedroom. Then we uncover and spend a little time in the bathroom there, correcting what have been messed by the clothing, and perhaps making some finishing touches to the makeup. But apart from that there is only to wait.” Martha says “It sounds like your hair and perhaps more is uncovered in the bedroom?” Ellen says “Yes very much so. When sleeping alone we are very much covered, because there are no one awake, not even other women, to protect us against possible intruders. But with our husband we are protected, and he fully make use of, that he is the only one allowed to see how Allah has created us completely. We do not wear sleep-wear in the master bedroom.” Martha says “Yes Islam is very liberal, when it comes to the relationship between people, who are lawfully married.” The maid brings fresh dishes, and for a while they concentrate on eating once more. Martha says “But what do you think about only being with your husband every fourth night he is at home? If I had a husband, I would like him to be beside me every night. Not necessarily for sex, but just knowing you can reach him by rolling over must be nice, if you wake in the middle of the night after a bad dream.” Ellen says “I had some boyfriends I slept with every night for some time before I met Nazrullah. When it got serious between Nazrullah and me, we slept together each night for a while. But then it got really serious, and I married him and had to share him with Karima. Now it’s down to every fourth night. But then it’s more exiting, when it actually happens. And because there is a tradition of spending a lot of time preparing the meeting, you have much more time for yourself the other nights. The actual time alone in bed is no problem, as we are covered so heavily that we nearly faint asleep within minutes after laying down. And then you just surface, when the maid comes in the morning.” Martha says “Like so much else here it’s very different from what we are used to. But what do you actually do those long evenings, you are not with your husband. What are you thinking about doing tonight for instance?” Ellen says “We mostly do one of three things: Pray, read religious material or discuss religious matters. If one of us has read an answer from a Mullah, about how to behave in a given situation, and can’t understand his answer, we talk about the case with the two other wives sleeping alone. But Habiba is too young to take interest in that kind of discussions, so most discussions are on her night with our husband. It’s a while since our last discussion, and when thinking of it, it’s because it’s Habiba tonight. It means tonight we’ll pray for an hour, read for an hour and discuss for an hour. Fridays there’s more praying, and when Habiba is present, it’s less serious. You didn’t do religious discussions as a teenager, did you?” Martha says “No, I keep forgetting there is a large age difference, when all I see is a burqa. But I’m very happy about what you have just told me, because it means I can tell your parents, that you don’t waste your time on cheap novels, daydreaming, TV-soaps or even worse things such as booze, drugs or random men.” Ellen says “That’s right we only care about securing a good life for eternity, supporting our husband in keeping a family, and seeing a few female friends now and then. The last man I saw, except Rashid, was Nazrullah when he divorced me.”
They keep talking for another hour, but then Karima says she has to leave. She won’t be able to meet them again this time, because Nazrullah and her are going back to Kabul tomorrow. But how could they stay in touch? Ellen says “As you know we do not write. But you’re welcome to write to me. Just write our husband only on the envelope. I don’t know our address, but a man must be able to find out. But perhaps when all boys in town can guide us home, it’s enough writing: Sheik Rashid al Abdul, Kandahar. Then he will write a few lines, after talking with us, addressed to Nazrullah. We can’t bother him too often with this, but if big things happen like Habiba giving birth, or if we move, I promise I will remember you. Martha, perhaps my parents can do the same. After you have explained to them how I live, they might want a letter from time to time, even if it’s not from me personally. I don’t think our husband like to receive or send letters to America, but if it is send to Karima, she can put it in an envelope, which Nazrullah can send and the other way around.” Karima nods. Martha says “I think it’s goodbye for me and Sultana as well. Nur Muhammad has probably finished his business in Kandahar, while we have been here. And from Kabul I’ll go to Pakistan, and then back to your parents. But I’m very happy I can bring them the good news they hoped for. I’m sure they would have liked a picture as well, but they must respect you have different beliefs now. For several minutes they all hug each other. Then the maid is ready with their burqas. Within seconds the company of happy chatting women is replaced by silence and darkness for a long time. Martha has got such a good grip of walking blind and guided, that she is able to evaluate her assignment on their way back to Sultana’s sister. She is 99.9 percent sure she has met and talked with Ellen. She has recorded her muffled voice, which may have her characteristics extracted from the recording to uniquely identify her. But she’s not sure Senator Jasper has a recording to compare with. She has seen a video from her wedding, but she is not sure Ellen said more than a few words. She has to have the final proof, and she knows how it can be done. If there is an alley on the right side of the house. And if she involves Sultana’s brother-in-law the risk will be very small.
7. Ninety-nine won’t do
Back at the house of Sultana’s sister Martha asks Nur Muhammad to go to the sheik’s house and find out, if there is an alley along the right side of the house. Only half an hour later he is back with a positive answer. It seems to lead into a quarter of very poor houses. With this information Martha brings together everybody in the house asking Nur Muhammad to translate carefully. She says “I want you to help me in doing something, which will make Ellen’s parents very happy. It’s illegal, but it’s only a minor offence, and I don’t think you risk going to jail. But it’s also offending and respect-less, but if we succeed no one will find out. Because, I think it’s the only way we can give Ellen’s parents peace in mind, I think it’s justified. Besides I will reward you with a large sum of money, if we succeed, and cover your expenses, if we get caught.” Of course this makes Sultana’s sister, the co-wife and her husband gasp, but without understanding Pashto Martha is soon sure they will accept. The economic benefit would make most people accept many days in jail, even if Martha finds it unlikely in this case, without of course exactly knowing Afghan law. Martha has started smiling before Nur Muhammad has translated their acceptance. She says “Thank you. We have plenty of time I think. Because the incident has to take place late in the evening in three days. In the meantime I need some black clothes, some strong but thin black gloves, and twenty feet of thin strong rope. That’s all. If it’s possible to get food brought or fetch it somewhere, I’ll buy our dinner tonight as an extra bonus.” While Nur Muhammad translates, the brother-in-law gets up saying a few words, and they both leave. Sultana says “He said of course we can find a boy that will bring food, but if we want the best at the right price, it’s better to select it yourself.” They spend an enjoyable evening together, because now that they are accomplices, they all eat together. Martha forgets for a time, she is in the extremely strict Kandahar, and feels like home in a company of mixed sexes.
Getting the stuff poses no problems for inventive Afghan men like Nur Muhammad and the brother-in-law. They buy some suitable fabric, and the women make the clothes for Martha. The worst problem is that they have to wait for so long. All the items are soon ready, but they can only do rehearsals late in the evening. Martha is eager to get in action, but can’t do anything but wait in the house. Because it’s Kandahar, she can’t even go out jogging, or go somewhere where her mind is distracted. Both Sultana and she has to browse the Iranian fashion magazines to relax. And the last morning Martha wants so much to get out, that she asks Nur Muhammad to guide her around in the streets for half an hour. Martha is blind, deaf and mute, but she is outside the house. Then finally it’s the right time. Sultana dresses as usual for going out. Martha puts on the dress made for the occasion, and her own sneakers painted black. On top of that she puts the Kandahar burqa, which hides everything, as long as she doesn’t lift the hem or take large steps revealing the tips of the shoes. The brother-in-law carries the rope, because Nur Muhammad has to guide both the two women. In case they meet a patrol, it would cause trouble, if the brother-in-law is seen with his hands on a woman not his wife. And now is not the right time to cause a stir, or get delayed in any way. As usual Martha hates walking blind and deaf, but today her mind is occupied with what will take place, and then it’s much cooler at this time of the day. After what Martha finds is an eternity, but actually is less than half an hour they stop. A minute later her burqa is lifted. Quickly she pulls it off and puts it on Sultana on top of the one, she is already wearing. She will soon be suffocating and close to fainting, but they have found it better and faster to put it on her, than putting it in a large suspicious bag. And during their rehearsals Sultana didn’t faint. As soon as the second burqa on Sultana completely covers the first, the brother-in-law leans towards the wall, where they stand. Martha, now an agile completely black shadow, climbs up to stand on his shoulders. He straightens, and Martha can climb up on the wall, and jump down in the garden on the inside. It’s an evening with plenty of moonlight, and Martha can easily see the opening to the master bedroom thirty feet to her left, where a little light comes out. Fortunately there are no other openings on this side of the house. She looks down to avoid tripping or hitting something that could make noise, while slowly approaching the opening. Just before she is able to look into the room the light goes out. She has tested the moonlight as only light source the previous nights without problems, but the risk of being seen from a dark room is much greater than from a lighted, from which everything outside would have seem black. But Martha stays out of the direct moonlight in the shadow of the wall. And she doesn’t go directly in front of the opening. She stays at the side, where she has the best view of the bed. At her interrogation at the lunch Ellen had given her the right information. It is her spending the night with the sheik. She haven’t changed much from the photos Martha has seen. And they haven’t gone to sleep, when the lights were turned out. They are having fun. Martha clicks her camera a number of times to be sure she catches Ellen’s face. And hopefully the fashion magazine, but she can’t see what is on the bedside table. Martha is happy for Ellen, she’s having such a good time with her husband, but she doesn’t wait to see for how long they are having fun. Just as cautiously she walks back to where she jumped down. She finds a small piece of rock, and throws it close over the wall. Shortly after the end of a rope is thrown over on her side. She climbs the rope, and from the top of the wall jumps down in the alley. They are alone. While taking the few steps to Sultana, she makes a V-sign to the brother-in-law, still sitting on the ground from acting as counterweight for the rope. Nur Muhammad is down on the corner watching for by passers, and if someone should turn up he will be trying to delay them. After having pulled her own burqa off Sultana, her finger draws a V on her chest, before she puts the burqa on herself. Meanwhile the brother-in-law has curled up the rope, and walked to fetch Nur Muhammad. It’s a long walk back, but Martha is filled with joy by the successful event. She is confident that the pictures will come out well. She has to be, because Nur Muhammad has found it too risky to have the film developed in Kandahar. They go back to Kabul tomorrow. There is no second try.
For once Martha isn’t completely unhappy with having to dress in the Kandahar burqa. First of all, it will be the last time, and second after a late night high on adrenalin, she can sleep the day away. When she is shaken, they are close to the village, and change to the normal burqa before spending a pleasant evening and night there. Arriving in Kabul mid afternoon the following day, Martha has asked Nur Muhammad to drive directly to the photo lab. They pay for instant service, and Sultana and Martha eats sandwich and drinks cola under their burqas, while they wait in the car. Two hours later Nur Muhammad comes back saying “I don’t think the Senator and his wife will put these pictures in the family album, but one thing is sure: Ellen looks very happy.”
Copyright © 2006, Bo_Emp ; bo_emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com
This story has been greatly inspired by reading Caravans by James A. Michener. A story taking place in the late nineteen fifties about an American diplomat Mark Miller getting assigned to find the daughter of Senator Jasper, Ellen, who has married Afghan Nazrullah and moved with him to Afghanistan. Travelling through Afghanistan he finds that Ellen has left Nazrullah to follow a nomad tribe and has a love affair with it’s leader. Mark finds the tribe and Ellen, and travels with them until a diplomatic solution for Ellen is found.
Writing a story about veiling, I couldn’t follow Michener’s storyline, because Ellen moves from city high class life, where women veil, to a free and unveiled life with the tribe, where they pity the veiled women of towns and villages.
Second I have moved the story in time from the fifties to ten years out in the future, because then the trend was a slow Westernisation and less veiling, peaking during the Soviet rule in the eighties. From then till now has been war and occupation, which is not a good background for a happy story. So I assume a period of peace coming, where traditional stricter moral gains again. An inspiration for this has been ‘Making the Best of a Bad Job’ by Michelle, to be read at Tales of the Veils. Moving a story about Afghanistan some decades in time doesn’t make that much of a difference, because Michener describes Afghanistan in the fifties like a place, where a lot of things doesn’t seem to have changed since the time of Christ.
Last Michener tells about his research to find the right English spelling for Afghan words. He calls the outer garment of Afghan women ‘chadouri’ , which is a close approximation of what the Afghans say and resembling the Iranian ‘chador’. But because this word after the Iranian revolution has been linked to the open non-face covering black cape worn in Iran, I have chosen to use the word ‘burqa’ now commonly used in Western media.