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Monday, June 28, 2010

Fizzy pop and the prison commander

Today started much as they always do: hot. I am slow to rise, my head fuzzy, dehydrated. I meet hornyculturalist in the corridor as I stumble my way to the kitchen to make a coffee, he mumbles something apologetic about using the bathroom from the bathroom door of his own home and I marvel at the ridulous politeness that afflicts us. I register a flash of his paisley dressing gown as I boil the kettle but it's all still in slow motion.

By twelve O'clock I'm just about ready to head out - I'm going to the women's prison at Badambagh. Iqbal is my driver and already I feel bad having made him wait half the morning whilst I sent emails. I wonder why I find it so difficult to live a life with so many people waiting on me; I turn my back for a second and my delightful cleaning lady who wears floral prints and a neck brace has tidied everything away. My room looks tidy for once but still I can't find anything and run around in frustration trying to find things that she may or not have whisked away to be laundered or may or may not have secreted in a draw or cupboard. It was probably a step too far when I discovered that she'd emptied my grab bag and put everything away in various places - the equivalent of someone going through your handbag, into your purse, sorting your coins and putting your stash of rainy day condoms away safely in your sock draw, finding your vibrator and kindly cleaning it for you. Here they have a different sense of privacy - ie none. Behind closed doors, everything is fair game.

We get to the prison and in my mind I just want to get inside, see if Snook has made it in herself, and get some interview material. Instead I am treated to a very long meeting with the prison commander in which he repeatedly asks me to help him to build a new health clinic. I tell him I'm a doctor not an architect or engineer and it's really not my sphere of expertise, but he's convinced that last time I came I had promised to build a clinic. I'm loathe to disappoint him but I fear that somewhere along the line he's gotten the wrong end of the stick. I get that sense of collective guilt and collective responsibility - I am a foreigner and therefore I must be able to turn water in to wine. Although I say it to the commander, I feel bad to admit that I am only one person, pretty much working on my own and that, much as I would love to be able to deliver a brand new, five roomed clinic building to the commander and the women of the prison, I feel just a tad inadequate to do so. The meeting goes on and I am wishing that I'd just kept it simple. Snook and K, her photographer, arrive and luckily for me the conversation is punctuated by their arrrival and questions. Still, I am sat in the office and I know that time is ticking on. Snook and K get to the end of their questions and prepare to take their leave. As they go we resume our conversation and I can feel Sherparai urging us to finish up. I cut to the chase and ask if I can see the expat women inside the prison, there are five or them: two Ugandans, two Nepalese and a woman from South Africa. Aaah, the commander says, but now it is lunchtime... please would you join us. Since first arriving here in Afghanistan I have barely said no to the offer of a shared meal. Often, these meals eaten simply, have been the best and most tasty food I have had, and touch wood, I have never been made ill as a consequence of eating like this. I have found that the sharing of food is significant, it is the act that binds you to another, once a stranger, in the giving and receiving of the nourishment that they offer. Iqbal and I step out in to the next room with the commander. The lunch is two large plates of rice and two bowls of lamb stew, lumps of meat swimming in a soupy broth, chunks of bread are heaped on another plate and there are two large plates of water melon. A bottle of bright orange pop graces the table and cups are filled for each of us. I am so warmed by the generosity which comes so easily here; there may be many things wrong and difficult here in Afghanistan but by this act of eating together I cannot see the commander as different from me - this is the soft underbelly of the dog - we all eat. I am sure that they've brought spoons and forks for my benefit and Iqbal and I eat together from one plate of rice, he from one side, I from the other. He's been my driver now for three days and this kind of intimacy in the UK would be the domain of someone pretty damned close to you. I make an internal note of my own observations and feel grateful that in my own upbringing the sharing of ones food was considered a natural and positive thing to do for others. I contrasted this with the typical British way of serving food, with each individual's plate arranged with meat and two veg; isolated servings and isolated eating, none of the collective advantage of the shared plate.

Later, when I am stuffed full of rice, meat and fizzy orange pop, we go to the prison block. The commander walks us over there himself and immediately, as we come through the door i am greeted by the head of the guards, a woman who herself refuses to wear a head scarf. She recognises me and we greet each other warmly. She takes us first to one of the classrooms but as usual the women are reluctant to be photographed and I'm too tired today to try to convince them only to snap a few shots of the backs of their heads, so we leave and I ask to see the new baby. One of the inmates gave birth a couple of days ago and there we go to say hello; a small dark haired creature lies in a cradle on the floor. Wrapped entirely in swaddling clothes, this tiny bundle is obviously the pride of her mothers eye. The mother lies beside the cradle on the lower bunk of a bunk bed, she looks obviously tired. There are plenty of other women in the room with her but none of them wish to be photographed and so we head on out to the room where the expats stay. Room five, we knock and go inside. I see the two Nepalese women and ask where Margaret is. Margaret is one of the woman from Uganda, inside for seven years for drug smuggling, she and the other Ugandan (Sarah) had body packed heroin. I greet these women, who remember me from last time and we chat, catching up on what has happened since I last saw them a couple of months ago. Margaret has had her second appeal - she'd hoped that her sentence would be decreased in light of the fact that she is HIV positive, but it seems that she's lucky that her sentence wasn't increased at the second court - here in Afghanistan, they are very strict when it comes to drug trafficking and might well have given her additional years rather than less. Margaret tells me that her lawyer does not speak English and she has no idea whether her lawyer has argued for her release on health grounds. Inside the prison, these expat woman have no consular representation, they have no friends and family here. Sundays is visiting day but they will see noone. There are no phones, all of their personal possessions and passports were taken away when they were arrested, there is no internet and they cannot write letters; there is noone to send them for them (plus no decent postal service in Afghanistan). They have no books, no clothes of their own and no money - effectively they are completely cut off. I think about my friend Jammer and his close call with the drugs police at Kabul airport and swallow hard at the thought that he might have ended up in some really hot soup.

Interestingly the two Nepalese woman have apparently converted to Islam as has Sarah the Ugandan, Sarah tells me that she has changed her name to Maryam, she comments on the kindess that she has been shown by many of the women here and by the wardens of the prison, she complains however that because she is fat none of the donated clothes ever fit her. I don't really know what to say to these women, I don't have anything to offer them. I say that I don't want to promise anything that I can't deliver, but I listen to the list of the things that they don't have and in my head I wonder which of them I might be able to make an impact upon -maybe I can find Sarah a skirt that fits her, some novels to read. Sarah complains about the food that they are given saying that Ugandans don't eat rice but here it's bread and water for breakfast, rice and potatoes for lunch and again for dinner. I think of my lunch of lamb and orangeade. I resolve to stay out of prison.


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