By **Rebecca Bates**
Stop. Before you keep going, you need to read “Bed 18” by J. Malcolm Garcia, one of our features this issue. Garcia was in Afghanistan to report on the practice of self-immolation among women who are desperate to protest their social status. Some of these women, like the two featured in Garcia’s piece, don’t even know their ages, had never left their homes before coming to the burn unit, and are completely unaccustomed to being asked to speak openly about their private lives. Below, Garcia talks about reporting in a country where years of war and poverty have made grief and suffering “so common that loss no longer evokes shock.”
—Rebecca Bates for Guernica
Guernica: How often did you encounter other men like Aziz, your translator—men with families who exemplify both “old school” and “new school”? Is there a greater movement toward Khalid’s mentality when it comes to fatherhood: “[G]irls are not for sale, they should not be forced into marriage, they can hold jobs, they are as good as boys”?
J. Malcolm Garcia: I met quite a few men whose attitudes toward women were similar to those of Aziz. Certainly, in northern Afghanistan where western mores have penetrated, men by Afghan standards seemed more open to women participating more fully in the community. That in my experience is not the case in the traditionally conservative south. Also, in villages where old attitudes hold sway, a woman’s role is very circumscribed by her husband and his family. Some of these villages are so isolated that the villagers have mistaken American troops for Russian soldiers of the nineteen eighties Soviet occupation.
Khalid’s attitude I think is prevalent among young educated men who see opportunities for themselves and therefore engage in new western-based ideas. But anger at the U.S. presence in the region is strong and I have met young, well educated Afghan men who in their anger toward the west and its perceived wrongs have adopted conservative attitudes that in my view among other things oppress women.
Guernica: Obviously, there is a huge difference in how Dr. Nikzad and Shagufa, the burn victim in bed 18, or Balanaz, her sister-in-law, were raised, considering that Dr. Nikzad is highly educated and the two girls whose story you follow are not even sure of their ages, were not even allowed to step outside their homes until they were married. Do you think this also has to do with the regions of the country in which the women were raised?
J. Malcolm Garcia: I think it does have to do with what part of the country a woman is born. Dr. Nikzad was born and educated in Kabul and had progressive parents and an inner drive this environment allowed her to act on.
Some [Afghan] villages are so isolated that the villagers have mistaken American troops for Russian soldiers of the nineteen eighties Soviet occupation.
Guernica: Aside from family upbringing, what else contributes to such an extreme disparity in how much power Afghan women have in their own lives?
J. Malcolm Garcia: Poverty and isolation and wealth. Poor women in isolated villages or who might live in Kabul in the equivalent of ghettos have little chance for education even if their parents want them to attend schools. I think also the values of the community you are raised in. The progressive areas are pockets that develop within themselves but take a long time to spread outward and influence those areas that live life like characters out of the Bible.
Guernica: Both Aziz and Dr. Nikzad refer to the plight of Afghanistan women as simply “sad,” embodying the idea that “more than thirty years of war and suffering has reduced grieving in Afghanistan to the bare minimum of expression.” Do you think these acts of self-immolation are a consequence of this stifled grieving? That these women, and in some cases, young men, are subsequently pushed to a breaking point? In what other ways do you think this “bare minimum of expression” take a toll on the young people of Afghanistan?
J. Malcolm Garcia: I think self-immolation is a desperate act to escape an untenable position. Not seeing any way out would push most people to the breaking point. Certainly, stifling one’s feelings adds to the sense of hopelessness. You have to express yourself somehow. Fire is one way and carries with it all sorts of imagery connected with outrage. We should also consider that more than thirty years of ongoing warfare must make one somewhat punch drunk to endless loss and horrors. That kind of numbing takes away motivation, energy, a sense of hope in the future. It must render a person a kind of perpetual sleepwalker. A skewed kind of thinking I imagine results. If someone thinks opportunities do not exist, why not join the resistance to the western presence? War and violence is what you know. You’d have a gun, something to give you a sense of power, authority. Control. All those things missing in your life. What would look better? A jobless future or a machine gun and the power and prestige that comes with it?
[Balanaz’s] opinion about anything had never mattered. Her life’s experiences had not mattered.
Guernica: Throughout your piece, you try to establish a rapport with Balanaz but are treated with suspicion. Balanaz even tells Aziz, “I don’t know about his life.” How did a difficulty in connecting with Balanaz or Shagufa affect your reporting?
J. Malcolm Garcia: The difficulty in connecting with Balanaz just became part of the story and in that way she did not present any difficulties. I just went in the direction the narrative was leading. Her behavior highlighted how limited her world had been at that point and will likely continue to be. But because she had been so isolated, she, I think, was intrigued by me. Almost like meeting someone from another planet. So her curiosity helped our interactions. And of course Aziz as an Afghan was someone she was familiar with. He was my conduit to her. Also, she was young and I think young people generally, even indoctrinated ones, still contain inquisitive natures. My questions intrigued her; not too many people—men especially I presume—had asked her what she thought about this, that, and the other. Her opinion about anything had never mattered. Her life’s experiences had not mattered. So that helped too.
Guernica: You say Balanaz approached you with a kind of curiosity, but how do you think she views someone like Dr. Nikzad, a woman with a much broader world view than her own and completely different life experiences?
J. Malcolm Garcia: I think she was very impressed by Dr. Nikzad but was aware of the vast gulf between them. She did not see Dr. Nikzad’s world as accesible to her. Dr. Nikzad was one thing, Balanaz another. Balanaz is very intelligent and was eager to learn. Were she to stay in this environment she would thrive. But she knew she would not stay. I don’t think she allowed herself to daydream. It never occurred to her that Dr. Nikzad’s world should be available to her as much as anyone else. Similar in a way to us thinking it would be nice to be Bill Gates but never seriously considering that such a thing would happen.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Bates
J. Malcolm Garcia is a contributing writer for Guernica and has written about the drug war in Mexico, race relations in Jena, Louisiana, and the poor of Buenos Aires, among other topics. He is the author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading.