Our green Ford Ranger stopped quickly in the middle of the muddy, half-frozen street and three female American Soldiers in full gear exited the vehicle. I scurried to the back of the truck and reached blindly for my assault pack as I quickly glanced up and down the street and at the tops of the buildings around me. I had never been this deep into the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif (MES) and my training taught me to be cognizant of my surroundings. My heart was beating quickly with anticipation of the day’s events, the thrill of the Ranger ride I had just taken, and my heightened sense of awareness. I could feel that several eyes were on us. Female Soldiers in the heart of MES with Afghan Border Police (ABP) escorts… this wasn’t something Afghans saw everyday.
Walking away from the truck bed, I quickly removed my hard, camouflaged helmet and wrapped a long purple scarf up over my hair and around my neck. The light breeze blew little bellows in the draped scarf like the wind in the sails of a boat thus causing it to slide off the top of my head and rest across my shoulders. The camera I had in-hand was passed off to another female Soldier so I could get myself situated. I fidgeted one-handed to re-drape the scarf while attempting to throw my bag up over my shoulder with my other hand all the while hurriedly walking toward the entrance gate with the rest of my female engagement team (FET). I retrieved my camera just as our paces slowed as we approached the iron gate.
The slightly rusted iron gate, positioned between a long cement wall to one side and a three-story building at the other, could be opened for vehicles but also had a pedestrian door. My team members and I shuffled through the door one by one.
Our heads swiveled as we scanned our new environment. The woman-side of us took an effeminate account of the venue: the people in their Afghan outfits, the store fronts with their foreign signs and bars on the windows, a large tented area with rugs and folding chairs, and a bazaar with colorful trinkets and clothing. The Soldier-side in us, simultaneously, looked more deeply: for quick exits, who had weapons, and potential threats. Most female Soldiers I know have developed a peculiar ability to view situations from both perspectives at the same time.
All eyes seemed to shift toward us as we came through the gate. We were greeted by a row of young Afghan girls adorned in beautiful colorful dresses. Their eyes grew large as they looked us up and down. A few of them shyly generated smiles while a couple of them cupped their hands to their mouths to whisper to each other. Our team, impressed to see the girls, approached the receiving line and shook the hand of each little girl, greeting them with one of the few Dari words I knew at the time: ”Salaam!”
Once past the line of girls, our six FET members regrouped to decide where to position ourselves for the upcoming presentations. As the women stepped off in the direction of the chairs, I lagged behind and started searching out potential photo opportunities. My team leader, a former Army photographer herself, showed little concern for my whereabouts when she glanced back over her shoulder to make sure the team was staying with her. My divergence from the group was typical and she knew I would never put myself in danger so allowing me to roam around the confines of the area was usually fine with her.
To my immediate right was a table area that lead to another area behind a row of stores and into a bazaar. Afghan women, with their heads wrapped in colorful shamaughs, tended to their wares and chatted amongst themselves and with their customers. Not understanding any of what was being said, I stood there, watching in awe, as the women pointed at this item or that. Their gibberish intrigued me as they spoke to each other in what I could only imagine was terms of quality and cost in attempts of purchase and sale. Perhaps their conversation was about who the item would be for, what other colors were available, or what the object was made of…. I would never know.
On the table nearest me were little boxes and baskets made of white, blue, and green beads. The display reminded me of the wares at a Christmas bazaar back home, usually made by some senior citizens group or church lady organization. Past those items, further down the table, were stacks of scarves wrapped in clear plastic. Hanging on the front of the awning overhead were jackets and long shirts of all colors and patterns. Each article was unlike any other hanging beside it.
I regained focus on my mission when I heard a deep voice say my name. It was one of the Afghan civilian photographers that I had met a month earlier during my brigade’s Transfer of Authority ceremony. I didn’t remember his name but his face was familiar. He spoke a bit of English so I greeted him with a “hello” and shook his hand. He wasn’t looking to have a conversation with me, just an acknowledgement that we were both there working, and he continued his foreign chat with his group of men as they walked away.
Turning away from the bazaar area, I gazed up at the large umbrella tent that canopied over the majority of the fenced in space. The brilliant sections of yellow and red were intensified by the luminescent sun overhead. Red, patterned Afghan rugs had been laid side by side to create a decorative floor and rows of folding chairs were dotted with occupants waiting for the start of the ceremonies.
I sauntered over to the tent and began to snap photographs of the scene as it rolled out before me. I felt very in-the-way and obstructive as I stood at the end of the rows of chairs but I wanted to capture pictures of individual women as well as groups of women. I looked for any unique angle I could get in order to possibly get my “Wow!” photo of the event.
As I stood there with my eye up to my camera view finder, I could feel that someone was standing near me and watching me. I lowered my camera and turned my head to my left… and down. There stood an adorable young Afghan boy with big dark eyes and a streak of sunlight through his dark hair. He couldn’t have been more than three years old. The collar on his winter coat was much like that of an airmen’s jacket and his little gloveless fingertips poked out from the bottom of the sleeves. He looked up at me and stood motionless. I smiled at him but he continued to stand there with an emotionless face. As if I were about to pet a wild animal, I slowly knelt down and raised my camera. His reaction, like a fawn sensing he was being preyed upon, was to quickly glance up at a women standing near me as if he was seeking her approval to have his picture taken. Slowly, the corners of his mouth started to turn upward and he looked right at me and my camera. (The final photo can be seen in the Children of International Women’s Day gallery post)
I took a couple of photos and then turned the camera around so that he could see the display screen with his own picture on it. His big saucered eyes grew wider and his little cheeks rounded at the ends of the smile on his face. Not a word was said between that little guy and I but those moments with my camera bridged a language barrier in a way I never knew photography could.
That mesmerizing moment ended when I heard a speaker’s announcement and there was a more directed movement of people flowing past me and under the tent. I stood back up, smiled once more at the little boy, and headed toward the back of the tent.
The group of young girls that first greeted us upon our arrival sat a row in front and to the right of where I stood. Once in a while, I would catch one or two of them looking over their shoulder at me. When I raised my camera to take their picture, though, they would quickly turn around and face to the front of the tent. The young lady on the end closest to me played this little hide-and-go-seek game a couple of times but then settled in to the thought of allowing me to take her picture. At first, she showed no smile or emotion, much like the little boy earlier had. I smiled, but that didn’t spark her smile. She looked out past me as if she wasnt sure what to do when I raised my camera. I took a couple of shots of her looking very madonna-like with her reddish-orange scarf draped over her shoulders. She would glance at me once she heard my shutter click and then would give me a little shy smile. I advanced my pawn in our little game by peeking out from behind my camera and wrinkling my nose to make a funny face. This caused her to smile and I quickly snapped the shot. (The final photo can be seen on the Children of International Women’s gallery post)
The rows of chairs in front of me were nearly full. A large sign, written in both Dari and English, hung behind the podium at the front of the tent, blocking the doorway to one of the small shops. Scarves of every color and pattern on the heads of the women danced like bobbers on a fishing line with a nibble. The murmurs of voices slowly began to fade as a speaker settled in behind the podium.
The first speaker was a middle-aged woman who spoke without any nervousness or quiver. I had seen her before at the announcement of Afghanistan’s participation in International Women’s Day just a couple of days prior at a different location. Her voice, both at the announcement and now, was dominant. She did not speak with a giddy, girlish excitement but, instead, with command, passion, and drive. The area was quiet and all eyes were on her as she glanced at her notes only briefly, looked out to her captive audience, and spoke.
None of the ceremony was in English, nor were our programs. In order to take pictures, I did not sit with my team so I did not have an interpreter near me to let me know what was being said. From the inflection of the speaker’s tones, I could tell there were senses of pride, optimism, gratitude, and concern in what was being said.
After the first three speakers, four young Afghan children, two boys and two girls, with matching outfits respectively, sang a short song. They did not show much feeling during the song and their quiet voices only carried throughout the tent because of the microphone the one girl held in front of her. It was still a warming feeling to see the future of Afghanistan participate in the momentous event.
For the rest of the ceremony, the agenda was repetitive: three speakers and a children’s singing group. Most of the speakers were passionate and their speeches were fervent. Two speakers, however, monotonously dictated their speeches as if they were reading pre-scripted congratulatory letters after having just lost an election. I don’t know if they didn’t write their own speeches and were being cautious or if they didn’t believe in what they were saying, but their presentations were quite contrasting to those of the other orators.
I wandered from one side of the tent and back as each speaker or children’s group went to the stage. Watching their performances and the reactions of the audience, I continued to photograph the occasion.
I hadn’t lost interest in the ceremony… I just didn’t understand what was being said. Near the end of the event, I noticed that my attention began to shift to the meandering of people outside the tent as much as on the festivities inside of the tent. Without drawing attention to myself and during the last speaker, I stealthily made my way back to the entrance side of the tent and began taking pictures again of the general population and not those in attendance of the event who had began to wander in from the streets to go to the bazaar.
As I made my way through the crowd of people, I found myself face to face with another beautiful set of eyes. Looking at the grandfather, I pointed to my camera and then to his granddaughter. He nodded and then stood there so I could take the photo, even trying to help get her attention so the little one would look at my camera. The child never smiled but the grandfather did when I showed him the picture that I took of the two of them. He kissed her on the side of the head, nodded at me, then turned and walked away.
For three hours that day, I listened to a language I did not understand. I listened to the tones of people voices, not their words. I studied the curvature of their smiles, not the words coming out of their mouths. A nod, a handshake, a kiss… each avenue was universally effective in communication. Furthermore, despite not speaking the local language, I still managed to find a way to communicate on my own… through my photographs.