Monday, August 20, 2007
A visitor just left my office: Homa Sorouri, an Afghan woman from Herat who is studying international relations as a Fulbright Scholar at the New School University. She just returned from her first visit home in over a year.
Homa told me she was tired of the American (and other non-Afghan) students at her university asking her whether she was optimistic or pessimistic or if the glass is half full or half empty. She missed my Pessoptimist blogs because she had no internet access in Herat. When I showed them to her, she proclaimed that she too was a pessoptimist.
Here's what she told me. She was shocked at how the situation had deteriorated in Herat. Her parents would not let her leave the house, because it was so unsafe. This had nothing to do with the Taliban or al-Qaida. Her father told her that a man had been murdered in a nearby house. Her brother told her about a robbery. There are three main rumors about the causes of crime: (1) the followers of ousted governor Ismail Khan (the former commander who is now Minister of Energy and Water in Kabul), who burned the UN office (right) in September 2004 when their chief was removed, are staging crimes to show that Herat is not secure without Ismail Khan; (2) because the justice system is so corrupt and there is no rule of law, personal and family disputes frequently escalate into violence; and
(3) the police, who have become part of the same criminal network as drug traffickers and smugglers (oil smugglers at Islam Qala on the right), are responsible for most of the crime. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive.
Her father and all of her brothers and sisters are employed, mostly making decent salaries working for international organizations, but they know so many people who are in deep economic difficulties. Her brothers and sisters have made up a list -- apparently a rather long list -- of people they know personally who are in desperate straits. Next to each person's name is a percentage -- that is the percentage of the family's resources those people are given. Every month when their salary arrives, the brothers and sisters pool a portion of their money and give it to their mother, who distributes it to these needy people.
But the most shocking thing was her encounter with a neighbor. This woman, she told me, was beautiful! She was so young and so beautiful, and she had two daughters who were also so beautiful.
When Homa saw them on the street in the past, she felt happy. This woman came to visit to ask Homa what she should do. Homa was shocked at how this woman looked. She said she wanted to commit suicide. Her husband had become a heroin addict and had sold one daughter to pay for his drugs. I asked Homa what this meant. The daughter was 13 or 14 years old and very pretty, so the father married her to a rich man for a high brideprice. Now this educated young girl who grew up in Iran is more or less imprisoned in an extended family compound in a rural district of Herat in a "terrible situation." The mother had to work in order to earn money not only to support her family but also to pay for her husband's drug addiction -- but she was afraid to leave the house, because her husband might sell the other daughter as well. Homa's neighbor saw no way out but suicide, which many reports indicate is increasing in Afghan urban areas.
You decide: are you optimistic or pessimistic? Is the glass half full or half empty?
(All photos from Herat Province, Afghanistan, December 2004, by Barnett R. Rubin and Humayun Hamidzada)
Posted by Barnett R. Rubin at 4:39 PM