Thursday, December 21, 2006

Come sit in this circle...

I love this photo of two tribal elders talking at a meeting I went to in Paktia, South East, Afghanistan. I started this blog as a way to tell my friends and family in New Zealand what I was getting up to here in Afghanistan, and to share photos that are sometimes difficult to email from here. But I discovered a whole world of blogs, and amongst that big wide world I discovered some women who inspire me to search for more creative and authentic ways to live my life. I’ve mostly just been visiting them for inspiration and warmth when life here is too lonely, too harsh, or just too constrained. But very recently, inspired by Rumi’s poem “There is a community of the spirit” I started making tentative moves towards these women. I left a comment here and there. Guess what? They responded! I feel like a schoolgirl who shyly asked if she could sit at the table with the girls who were laughing and telling great stories only to find they were ready to slide along and make room for her. Anyway, Susanna - whose photographs are really beautiful and whose interest in my work was humbling and touching - asked me a few questions in an email. She probably had no idea what she was triggering. Her first question was perfectly innocent - How did you get started? But this is a question that has a short and a long answer. I’ve decided to go for the long answer this time. At the moment I’m keeping company with some questions about why I am here and whether this is really the kind of life I want. I am also (with some excitement and anticipation) entering a process of imaging how I might want my life to be different, so this seems as good an opportunity as any to reflect on what brought me here. I always had a strong interest in justice, including in the sense of social justice. My parents are committed Christians who believe in social justice and social service. They were on mission to Papua New Guinea when I was a small child. Back home in New Zealand my father gives a lot of his time to a charitable organisation focused on prisoners and their families. My mother is a teacher specialized in children with learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia. They live their lives with integrity, generosity, kindness and a sense of justice. As a child I sometimes got in trouble at school for confronting teachers if I felt they had dealt with a fellow student unjustly. I think I was on the right track about the injustice, but I had a lot to learn about constructive ways to address that injustice. So I studied law, focusing my honours thesis on international human rights law. But my first job out of law school was with a big corporate firm in New Zealand where I worked on the ‘large scale litigation’ team. One of my first cases was between our client (Coca Cola) and the largest brewery in New Zealand over sale of a bottling plant. I paid off my student debts and learned a lot about legal practice and professional standards, but never planned to make a career in corporate law. I had my first “life crisis” at the ripe age of 24 years. I had married at twenty, to a wonderful man who I still love and admire. Less than four years later my husband and I separated and I was left wondering why following what I thought were the ‘rules’ hadn’t worked. I had a crisis in faith, quit the law firm, packed up and went backpacking around East Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East for nearly 10 months. As well as starting over again from the foundations of my belief system and discovering that I could cope on my own with much more difficult situations than I would have predicted, I also saw injustice first-hand. Perhaps the most shocking to me, given the quite different view of Israel I had grown up with, were the injustices I witnessed in the Israeli-occupation in the Palestinian territories. More on this later. Back in New Zealand, several years passed during which I studied again. During this time I also worked as a “story-teller” for The Fairy Shop (now my sister’s business) and rediscovered a sense of fun, magic, intellectual curiosity and creativity. This was a pretty fantastic time in my life, but after a few years I hit another “crisis”. I was working full-time and at the same time trying to get going on my thesis, looking at the human rights impacts of World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes. I had just broken up with my first post-divorce boyfriend, and had recently been through the harrowing experience of being a friend and housemate to a woman with anorexia. Our other housemate responded by developing her own eating disorder. I had to sit on my bed every night repeating to myself that I wasn’t fat, that food was good and healthy. I can tell you that nothing spoils your appetite like having two excruciatingly thin women stand over you while you cook and eat, exclaiming how good it looks but refusing to eat the food themselves. Eventually even our cat stopped eating! I found my way out of this painful time thanks to the support of some very dear friends and two wonderful advisors. One was a fantastic therapist who, amongst other things, helped me free myself from my fear that ‘quitting’ the master’s programme would mean failing. The other was my academic supervisor, Paul Hunt, who saw my need to get out and do the work that I felt drawn to. He found me a job opportunity in the Gaza Strip. I applied and within a few weeks I was winging my way to York for a job interview with the British NGO who was funding the position, a legal advisor and capacity-building role with a Palestinian human rights organization. I got the job and left almost immediately for Gaza. I lived for an amazing 18 months in Gaza, from May 1999 until the end of 2000. More on this time in future posts. But it is fair to say that my time in Gaza changed my life profoundly and led me to the place I am in now. During the time I lived in Gaza I made the most amazing friends (Palestinian, Israeli and international), witnessed horrors and wonders, cried and raged and laughed and danced. I learned what may be one of the most important lessons of my life, what it feels like to be the ‘outsider’ in a culture which is deeply foreign to your own. I got a taste of how it feels to be mistreated by men in uniform with guns. I will never again be the person I was before I lived in Gaza and I still surprise myself by the strength of my feelings about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve responded to the impact that feeling the conflict and injustice so deeply while I was in Gaza seems to have had on me by holding much more of myself back here, and to a lesser degree also when I was in Timor-Leste. Maybe that’s okay, perhaps I’ve learned how to care enough – but not too much… Wow, that sounds very odd to me. What does it mean to care “enough”? I’m going to go away and think about it more. In coming posts: great stories from Gaza, and how I got from Palestine to Afghanistan. Also answers to Susanna’s other questions: What is life like for you in Afghanistan? and What is it like for you as a Western woman in Afghanistan? But one of her questions can be answered in one paragraph – she asked: “Do you get to go home very often?” – the answer is twice this year, the first time in the middle of the Southern winter,
the second time just recently, to my sister’s wedding,
This year I also had a holiday in Thailand with my boyfriend, a visit to my lovely friend Imogen while she was working on the earthquake response in Pakistan,
and a visit to my boyfriend’s hometown, Portland, Oregon – which I absolutely loved and thought was a bit like home (New Zealand).
Yes, I know I get to travel much more than most people and I do know how lucky I am for that. It’s part of the trade-off for not being able to go for my runs outside, wear a skirt in public, read the paper, meet my friends for coffee or go to the cinema.

1 comment:

K-Oh said...

What a fresh lovely candid post-- usually I can't get through ones that are that long. I look forward to reading about how you got to Afghanistan!