LETTER HOME: Facing Reality in Afghanistan by Alexander Footman ’09

“She says you can film in her house,” Wida told me. The director of the Shor Bazaar center of the

Afghanistan Women Council [sic], Wida had found a student, Nouria, willing to be interviewed in her home for my documen- tary that I hoped would raise funds for the organization. An invitation into a home was a privilege I had learned not to expect, even from Afghans I had known for months.

Through a bevy of unofficial translators, Nouria informed me that her house was five minutes away by foot—or 20 by car. I looked to Reza, my driver (actually, I was more “his passenger”) with the question. Reza knew when to save me from myself. “We are driv- ing,” he said with finality.

Shor Bazaar is an ancient and crumbling district; clay and straw are the predominant building materials. Through these back alleys our Toyota Land Cruiser squeezed and maneuvered, searching for a house with no address. After passing the same ancient cemetery for a third time, Reza tapped into his uncanny street sense and found the house, which was in a neighborhood well off the road and down a steep rockslide.

We opened the doors of the vehicle and went through the delicate ritual of unpacking our equipment while pacifying curious street children, who had already been running alongside shouting, “Foreigner!”

Leaving Reza leaning against the car with cigarette and cell phone in hand, the crew and I carefully picked our way down the path cut into the rockslide. The interpreter, a young woman from Kabul University, was in high heels but unflappable. I had my bulky camera gear; our producer, Farhad, bounded ahead and found Nouria’s door.

We were admitted into a plain, clean courtyard, where we met Nouria’s husband and mother. The local greeting is a string of inquiries as to the health of one’s family and household, lasting much longer than any Western greeting. Daunting to first-time Dari speakers, once learned it allows foreigners to display their ear for the language and gives Afghans an opportunity to show off their effusive hospitality, even if they have little else to offer guests.

In her home, three generations lived off the earnings of a small poultry venture and a refurbished shoe business. To my sur- prise, we were shepherded directly into what appeared to be the family room. A faded photograph of a mustachioed cousin killed in battle was the sole adornment.

My hope was that Farhad and our inter- preter would explain the project and we would be all ready to go once the camera was roll- ing. However, my assumptions were based on different values from those of my hosts. It seemed bizarre to me that I would be invited by a family who didn’t really understand the purpose of my visit. After a few similar inci- dents, I finally wrapped my head around the truth: real hospitality means inviting people into your home, making them comfortable, and only then determining their business.

Now, to understand how these interviews work, you first have to imagine living in a neighborhood where any visitors cause a stir, and inviting an American with a camera might attract attention from anti-coalition forces. Then imagine reliving the most pain- ful moments of your life for strangers, admit- ting that the only way you were able to sur- vive was by accepting help from charity.

I began by asking Nouria about her fam- ily and her history. She and her husband patiently guided me through their lives: He had been wounded in war; she had never gone to school and had several children before deciding with her husband to start earning some income herself. Like many Afghans I interviewed, her story became haz- ier the farther along we went. As an American, I have been raised to believe that there is one answer to most questions; in Afghan culture, there is more room for uncertainty and even contradiction. For example, when I asked who the older woman with us was, Nouria said it was her mother. Later on, the husband referred to the same woman as his mother.

The same vagueness was apparent in their responses to questions about the aid they received from the AWC. Was it sufficient? “Yes.” Were they still impover- ished? “Yes.” It was not the pretty picture of unequivocal benefit I was hoping for, but it was the truth—even if it appeared contra- dictory. Eventually I got enough information to cut together a scene, and we wended our way back up to the road to find Reza just as we left him: smoking a cigarette by the Land Cruiser.

I was excited to have been in Shor Bazaar talking to a family, but I was frustrated by the lack of sound bites. This was a far cry from the success I’d imagined; if all my material looked like this, I worried, my film would be the worst fundraising tool ever, and might even damage viewers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of aid in Afghanistan.

Little did I know this was the first step in the long road to becoming a true documen- tarian: listening to people and being able to change your story when it doesn’t match the reality you uncover through them.

I heard many tales of death and loss during these interviews, often followed by stories of success and optimism. So, while Weep Like the Waterwheel might give view- ers the impression that Afghanistan is a land of great suffering, I hope that the over- riding impression is one of both progress and optimism, which these women—and others like them—have the power to bring to their homeland. UPFRONT