Deport, deport! Screams the immigration officer from behind the glass divider. Where is your work permit for Afghanistan? He keeps asking. I try explaining that I am in Afghanistan to visit a friend, but my plea is ignored by overdone exasperation and threats of deportation. So while I ponder on the thought of being sent off within thirty minutes of having landed in Kabul, the immigration officer realizes my confusion and offers me a wink - this could mean either of two things; he likes me or maybe he likes Benjamin Franklin; I wasn't in the mood to let go of either. So I stand there smiling at him, expecting to be escorted to the departures terminal for a quick return to Dubai; he stamps my passport instead and throws it at me and yells, Go Afghanistan!
For those who do not know me, my name is Amirali Somji and I am Ali Yusufali's (AY) nephew. I had the pleasure and good fortune of accompanying AY, Dr. Afzal Yusufali (DAY) and uncle Aliakber Ratansi (AR) to Afghanistan for an eight-day expedition through what I will remember as the un-friendliest terrain on earth. We visited seven cities / villages, took six external / internal flights, drove endless hours and slept very little during the eight-day escapade. The following is my version of the experience:
I won't bore you with explicit details of every place we visited; mind you, every village was packed with pleasant individuals, tormenting drives from one site to another, the wonderful people I met and got to know, and the sad situation of Afghan people - this entire experience is something that I will cherish forever, taking it with me to my grave. I will, however, highlight the more significant and candid events as I feel those are the ones that will make you want to do what I did; visit Afghanistan to see very real changes being done by CAI for those destitute in abject poverty.
A wonderful gentleman by the name of Wasi receives us at Kabul airport. Those who follow AY's blogs, may already know of Wasi as the local representative for CAI and a civil engineer by profession. To me, he is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He hosts us at his beautiful house where we pray, talk, indulge in mockery and banter, then finally feast on a wonderful meal. Kabul, with all its grime is spring bloom, full of beautiful roses of various colors and fragrances.
Later that night I find out we have a flight to catch early in the morning to Nili. Waking up early isn't an issue normally, but the amount of snoring that transpires in the room the first night is incredible! I feel trapped in the middle of elderly men who can simply not control their vocal cords all night long. My sympathies to all their spouses :).
Early next morning, with wobbly feet and droopy eyes due to lack of sleep, and many, many security checkpoints later, we arrive at Kabul's domestic departures terminal. As I gaze at our mode of transport, the world collapses around me. It is a KODIAK six-seater aircraft, no larger than an American SUV; looks like a toy I would buy for Hadi, my son. I have a fear of flying you see, and while I am able to control my fear on 747's and A340's, I am absolutely terrified of small aircrafts. I am convinced today is my last day on earth and start texting my wife while trying to maintain a straight face in front of my fellow travel mates. I cross my fingers, toes, legs, everything...and pray. Gulp.
After what seemed like an eternity (60 minutes of shut eyes with my jacket covering my face), we arrive at Nili airport (no tar, no tower, no fencing) and everyone is excited to drive up to our first site visit. Instead, we're told 'someone' would like to meet us; the Governor of Dykoondi Province office has summoned us all for a meeting. Hmmmm... We drive up to a reasonably large concrete structure and are asked to enter the 'main office'. Yup, the governor himself wants to see us. We exchange pleasantries via translators, sip tea, exchange more pleasantries, leave.
After a grueling 5 hours drive on the most treacherous roads known to man (seriously!) we reach a valley with what looks like a sea of people gathered around a fairly new mud-made building which I am told is the clinic we are to inaugurate. These people have walked for miles and miles along the same terrain our 4x4's were finding difficult to handle. We are welcomed to a loud salawaat as we walk in; the official opening of its first and only medical clinic overjoys, overwhelms the villagers. Can you imagine? These people are so poor and secluded from normal life, they had no idea what a medical clinic looked like until CAI builds them one. Sad, no?
After several ceremonial procedures at the facility, meeting management, its employees and processes, we are ready to retire for the night and are treated to some Pakistani chai-patti made by AR who refuses to sleep without it. After lights-out, sure enough, like zombies in heat, the orchestra of snoring begins.
Personal lessons learned so far:
1. The Afghan dust is so fine; it finds itself everywhere... yes, there too.
2. Balancing on an Asian toilet isn't an easy task, especially if you carry a belly. Either get rid of the belly or properly practice squatting.
3. Bring earplugs.
(Very) early next morning, we quickly set off for our next site that is in a little village called Diaroos (loosely translated in English as The Devil and his Bride) for the opening of another CAI sponsored medical clinic. En-route, we are asked to pass by the "White House" of Nili again as our friend, the Governor is to accompany us. As we wait for him to arrive, we quickly look for some garam naan to keep our bellies from rumbling like rain clouds. The Governor arrives; so does half the Afghan army (okay, so I exaggerate). There are so many guns, grenades and armor, it would make any grown man feel woozy. We are told the security is necessary as we were to pass through a Taliban controlled territory. My bowels start their mischief.
Driving though the mountains is ridiculously uncomfortable, but it is a pleasant journey; I say 'pleasant' because we weren't being blown up to bits. We got to stretch our legs once in a while; just cause they carry AK47's and could probably eat you for breakfast doesn't mean they don't need to pee, right?
Diaroos is a depressingly poor town. The clinic is not up to AY's expectations; I can see the disappointment on his face. Wasi begs patience; the clinic got rehabilitated just two days ago out of nothing. Regardless of snags, just getting the clinic off the ground is an achievement in my books. The logistics behind the actual construction, materials, labor, supplies, etc. must be a nightmare - the closest town where these items may be available is mountains and miles away. The doctor has already seen over 160 sick people in 2 days, including a woman in labor who, in our presence, shielded by about 5 other women, staggers towards the clinic in agony, having walked about 3 miles. We find out later she gave birth to a baby boy.
We retire at the residence of Agha Hashemi where we feast on more rice and meat - again. I am told the toilet is outside the actual property so I pace myself accordingly. I sleep without peeing, changing, brushing...nothing...YUK! I am sure there is a lot of snoring that night but I am too tired for it to bother me this night.
We fly (again on another toy plane) to Yakawlang to check on more CAI projects - a beautiful mosque in Bamiyan and another medical clinic in Sachek. The mosque is massive and sits dangerously close to three massive rocks that look like they would tip if one pushed hard enough. But we are told they haven't moved in about a century. Phew! The Sachek clinic sits at the bottom of a scenic mountain area (obviously!). After a few hours of inspections and a LOT of medical checkups by DAY, AY and DAY drag AR and I into a climbing a rather steep scenic hill behind the clinic. We manage to climb halfway, then AR and I decide it's too much effort, so sit instead, smoke and enjoy a beautiful view of the village from high above. DAY, AY and Wasi carry on up.
Personal lessons learned so far:
1. No matter how tough you think you are, guns are scary.
2. Small aircrafts are not that bad after all
3. Garam naan is amazing!
We leave for Bamiyaan the next day. After a hot shower at a local hamaam there, we head off to another CAI funded project - a mass marriage ceremony. 100 poor, underprivileged couples are seated in perfect order, basking in 30C degrees plus heat for the speeches to end so they can feast and begin their journey of life as couples. One particular groom who catches all our attention is exceptionally uncomfortable. Every time any of our eyes land on him or his bride, he tightens his grip around her shoulder and adjusts her veil to a point where I am convinced she will suffocate. If you look at the pictures accompanying this Blog, you can clearly see all the brides covered in full hijab head to toe, so there isn't anything to see really; just an insecure young lad perhaps. We later learn that afternoon one of the brides had collapsed due to dehydration and / or fatigue; hmmmm, maybe the same lady?
Next stop is Char Bagh in Sarepol. We arrive at the airport an hour early because the charter company confuses us for another party. So we end up waiting at a small café, entertained by a young (and loud) Afghan-American who is convinced America is raping his rich country; I too have the same feeling. We reach Mazar-e-Sharif and immediately drive to Char Bagh where we are greeted to louder salawaats as we enter a CAI funded school for girls. As more speeches ensue, I drift off for a minute and am amazed at how CAI is able to accomplish so much in areas where even million-dollar NGO's find it difficult to operate.
There is a lot more we do; for example:
- Distribute sheep to 40 underprivileged widows of Sarepol.
- Visit a massive housing project where CAI is pretty much helping an entire village of refugees relocate from shoddy UN built shelter tents to livable mud-houses with rooms, doors, windows and in some homes even a small garden.
- Visit an area that was recently shattered by flash floods, killing a large number of residents.
- Meet an unprecedented number of individuals who would all have a sad story to tell, expecting CAI to help.
- Inaugurate 7 (out of 14 dug) water wells in various parts of Bamiyaan.
- Visit a brand new girl orphanage in Kabul funded by CAI.
So what does all this means and matter? Why did I bother visiting in the first place? Why does it matter to "know" what CAI does on the ground? Trust me, it matters. Many of you may already be active donors that makes CAI a wonderful organization; however, what y'all don't know is how wretchedly difficult it is to actually get things off the ground and materialize projects from design to completion, be it schools, clinics or water wells. I now understand where those hard earned (and donated) dollars are being used...and by God, they are being used in the best possible manner.
Thank you to Wasi, Bashir, Dr. Asif, Dr. Afzal, uncle Aliakbar for making this trip a wonderful experience. In case I have not mentioned anyone, please know that all of you there were instrumental in making my trip one amazing experience.
Finally, thank you uncle Yusuf, for encouraging me to tag along with you on this trip (and for bringing me back alive). It has changed the way I look at life around me; I now appreciate running water, electricity, food and even a Western toilet a whole lot more than I did before. May Allah give you a long life so you can keep serving him in your signature valor. Now if only all of you guys would please consult a professional for your snoring problems.
Amirali Somji - Dubai
Please click here to see some wonderful photos.