Hello Sippi and welcome to our conservation! As you know, for Action for Development’s ten-year anniversary, we are interviewing people who have a special connection with Afghanistan. So, can you tell us a little bit about your background and your connection to Afghanistan?
Okay! My name is Sippi, I was born in Iran, and moved to the United Kingdom at some point, but before my family left Iran, my father actually went to Afghanistan at the height of the “hippie” trail. He thoroughly fell in love with Afghanistan and talked about it so much that I just thought “Oh my god, it sounds amazing, I absolutely need to go there” and I was very little, six or seven at the time! It just stuck with me.
Then, in 1978, it was on the news that there had been this coup and although my father was in the UK at that time, he was extremely upset. When I asked what had happened, he said that it was a very sad time for the people in Afghanistan and I started following the news, tracking what was happening with the Soviet invasion. Of course, at the time we didn’t have internet, so most of my information came from the news, the newspapers, and so on. This continued for a while, I went to the University of Oxford to pursue Medieval history and ancient Iranian languages, but I was still trying to go to Afghanistan, writing to different organisations trying to go there and they mostly responded with something like “oh no! you’re a young woman, it will be very difficult for you!”. Then, in 1993 I got to Tajikistan, and it was quite a rough place at the time, I went to visit the Afghan consulate. The Consul was very nice, he gave me a visa, but just before I was supposed to leave, there was an intense battle between the Mujahidin and the border forces in Tajikistan, so while I was stuck in Tajikistan I thought that I really wanted to join an organisation like the Red Cross that worked there. I went back to work with NGOs, telling them “Well, now you can’t reject me!” and they finally gave in, provided that I covered my own expenses. I found the money and I finally headed off to Afghanistan as a volunteer in 1995, with the amazing budget of approximately one dollar a day, and that’s basically how I started.
I was in a really remote part of Afghanistan at the beginning, I toured the country quite a bit and just… never left. Now, it’s been 27 years of engagement in Afghanistan, and I’m waiting to go back there to work with the UN.
So you’ve been in the country – well, in and out of the country – for the past 30 years?
Yes! Almost 30 years. I know the country very well.
Can you share with us stories or anecdotes to illustrate what it was like, for the people who’ve never been there?
You know, I’ve got so many stories! It was not an easy place to be, so it is difficult to think of experiences that were only positive. It is a beautiful country, the people are beautiful, but it is a war zone and it has been from the day I got there. The people are survivors, so wherever you go, you’ll encounter a different facet of the conflict – past, ongoing and anticipated. It was never an easy place to be in, especially as a young woman.
Another aspect of Afghanistan was also the poverty. You could see in some parts that they have had little to no recent development: there were no roads where there should have been roads, there were no clinics, no schools. It was nice to be working with an organisation that was building these first roads, these first clinics, the first schools. We even took a first car in some remote villages, you don’t expect to take the first car anywhere in the 21st century. People were amazed, standing next to these things, looking at the car, and some old ladies came and said to us “you know, we’ll never see one of these again until we die, can you put us at the back of this thing and take us around for a bit?” and we did! We drove around the village green and the kids were coming to touch it like it was a weird animal that was going to bite them. It was a happy memory but also such a sad one, in the 21st century you don’t want to have places on the planet that have just never seen a car. There were always strange situations like that happening, and while I think there was always some warmth and humor, there were many unexpected moments like that too.
At one point, we were in 1996 in Badakhshan and needed to go to a particular site. I was with two health colleagues, so they could do an assessment. We set off, and partway through, our car broke down, and we had to get donkeys from a local carrier. We got the donkeys from the handlers, it was around three in the morning, with a biting cold outside, and while we handled the fees in the stable we could hear thirty, forty other people breathing around us in the dark. The donkey handler approached me and nudged me with his foot and told me “listen, lady. You need to give us more money, or we’re going home. If you want to get to this place, you need to leave right now”. It’s three in the morning, pitch black, in the middle of nowhere, and I now have to negotiate with these guys as I was often doing the interpreting. We get out, we get next to this massive mountain lake, the stars are shining, and it’s beautiful but so bitterly cold! I was frozen to the core, walking along and climbing up this mountain, I was so tired, so cold, and I thought to myself “I want to roll to the side of this path, sleep and never wake up again”. Fortunately, at that moment, we saw travelers coming down that mountain, it was cold so they all had their faces wrapped up, and as we passed them one of them just literally pressed a pastry into my hand. I don’t know what was in that pastry, but I ate it and felt so warmed up and happy! To this day I bless this man, I was able to power through and get to where we needed to go, where I enjoyed the best cup of tea. Moments like that felt really powerful.
That’s a great example of what we cannot picture from the outside! And what do you feel most connects Afghanistan to the West?
In a way, I feel like the Afghanistan that I saw in 1995 is gone. That Afghanistan was quite alien to Western people, but now young people have had access to the internet, they’re on social media and they’re very active for those who have phones and computers. So they’re connected to this Western world, and yet poverty is keeping them from experiencing this world. Yet they’re young people! They have the same aspirations, they want the same lives, the same standard of living, and I think that’s what connects now Afghanistan to the rest of the World: the young people and the aspirations they have for their lives. And in a sense – I know I’m getting a bit risky here – we failed, we really failed with a big capital F, to provide a country that was fit for young people and for what they wanted. When I used to go around Kabul, and some miserable rural areas, I used to look around and I used to think “what the hell do children and young people have to do here?”. There was nothing, nothing for them. If you’re stinking rich, sure, there is, but if you’re not there’s absolutely nothing for you. But this is the bridge that should connect, the youth and their culture.
They’re the next generation! They better be equipped.
Yeah! And we failed them time and time again. And then we turn around and say “Oh but look Afghanistan is a place where people are constantly fighting” but that is because we don’t do anything for young people and children.
Let’s look more into the cultural aspect of Afghanistan. Have you ever been interested in Afghani literature, or arts?
I am completely knocked out by Afghanistan’s handicraft. If you could sit in my living room, it is a museum of Afghan handicrafts. Embroidery, carpets, embroidered carpets, the fabulously embroidered clothes, such a rich culture of textiles. It’s insane, there’s such a rich fabric culture that dates back a good 3000 years, it’s stunning. There’s blue Herat glass, which is famous, but also ceramics, Istalif pottery, different tribes and ethnic groups producing their own variations of these embroideries, weaving different types of cloths, shawls, and jewelry of course – let us not forget the incredible jewelry. These are people who adorned themselves back in the day – men and women – with fabulous colors, fabulously intricate and fine handicrafts. And then of course, when you go towards the Northern states, the culture around the wood and woodwork, all these carved figures. I have it all!
Do you have any memories about celebrating an event, or public holidays, religious festivities, in Afghanistan?
I’ve never joined public events, but the one thing I loved to go to in Afghanistan were these Buzkashi, the horse and goat shows. It’s in the center of a large field, and then two or more teams of riders who have to grab and hold onto a calf and bring it back to the center. At the same time you’ve got many other riders trying to come and grab that calf from you, so it requires both equestrian skills and tremendous strength! It’s wild, it’s really crazy, you’re sitting in the audience, and these guys have special hats to tell riders apart because the horses end up on top of each other, biting other horses and riders! You have to wear protective headwear, sometimes they even wear these old Russian tank helmets with very thick coats to protect themselves because they can accidentally whip each other at the same time, special boots so their feet don’t get stuck in the stirrups. The horses are really expensive because they’re specially trained, essentially like attack horses, so they have to be used to the scrum and back in the day it was said that a good Buzkashi horse, should its rider fall down, would stand on top of him to protect him. It’s a very dramatic game, sometimes you even feel like you’ve gone back a few hundred years, it’s very much a warrior game. And I love it! I love the feeling, I love how excited the crowd is. One year we went to see a show and at one point a pile of horses was sitting almost on top of us, we had to run out of the way! It’s a very exciting game to watch, and you give money and an announcer, who wore a really weird hat, places your bets on the riders, and he also does a commentary but more in the form of poetry for the audience. He’s also on a horse, he rides around the riders and he encourages the audience to applaud. When I went after the Taliban regime failed, I actually found that guys and invited him over for lunch, we asked him a lot of questions about Buzkashi, it was great fun.
And those games are organized on specific occasions?
Well it’s in Spring because in the Winter the horses cannot ride, and it’s too hot in the summer, but it varies according to what the weather looks like in your area, at a time that’s convenient for the horses and the riders. In the old days they had Buzkashi to celebrate a wedding, but it was rare since you’d need to pay the riders to perform, but it’s a really exciting game. It’s the thing that’s heavily associated to Afghanistan, for those who know Afghanistan.
To conclude and look at the future, do you have a dream, a hope, a vision for Afghanistan?
Wow, that is a complicated question! It’s just too complicated to be simplistic about this and say “Oh I hope this and I hope that” because when I think about it, I picture the 6000 conditions that’d have to be fixed to get to it. Nothing is easy, this is a complicated country. I’m going to sound a bit grumpy, but it’s not a miss World contest: “Peace and love upon the children”. Everything is complicated, mistakes have been made in that country for over 100 years, and we’re living with the consequences as are the afghans. There are no quick fixes, no quick solutions. But, of course, it would be wonderful one day to see some form of normality in that country, which again we do not have right now with the Taliban.
Normality is what we can wish to them. Normality is a terrifying thought unless you’re fighting everyday.
Well, normality is desirable, they have such huge economic problems that conflict is not the main issue, and the population suddenly having to get adjusted to the Taliban rule, which again is very difficult for the younger generations who had big hopes. What we saw in August was the wrong way, and parts of this younger generations who couldn’t get through the airports, couldn’t get on the planes, are stuck in the country.
I think your wish for normality ends this interview on a bright note, thank you so much!