[Extract] An Afghan Journey by Roger Willemsen

An Afghan Journey

Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible


 A large open space on the edge of the city, dotted with football goals among which cows are grazing. Whimpering music from somewhere. Rolled in dust, the street children’s hair sticks up in spikes, each strand turned grey with dust. Some are carrying high-heeled sandals, half-eaten flat bread or an empty canister.
   I’ve never seen children’s faces like these. They’re at once childish, getting swept up in bouts of wild excitement, and at the same time old, with dark rings under their eyes and wrinkles around their mouth. Old women in children’s bodies – their eyelashes mascaraed with dust. In this area of about half a square mile, they pounce on each new visitor with their shoeblack boxes and the water canisters from which they refill people’s drinking bottles. Sometimes they’re just curious or hoping to bag something. They might be eight years old, often younger, but they already know all about pity, shoe repairs and the art of survival.
   Kabul’s big stadium is hidden behind a concrete building on the other side of the field. To earn a few pennies, the children are allowed to bring water for the athletes. They bought their bread from foreign soldiers for five afghani. It’s enough to ward off their own hunger for now.
   These children live far away, but they see their best chance of survival in the seething city. Every morning they take the minibus for two afghani. If they can’t pay they get two slaps round the face and are left behind.
   ‘Do you know the football women who train here?’
   ‘We’ve even been in their offices.’
   The leader looks boldly at us. He knows all the women’s and men’s teams’ results, he’d liked to have played himself, ‘but my dad’s dead, and I have to help support my family.’
   We let him take us into the stadium, a ramshackle place. He watches us. ‘It looks dirty to you,’ he says, ‘but it’s paradise to me.’
   In the training building two men are running circuits in a room of 25 square feet that’s laid out with mats.
   ‘They’re boxers,’ the little boy says, awe-struck.
   Upstairs, a warm welcome from the Afghan trainer of the women’s team and the German supervisor. The German is ‘football crazy’, his black moustache and Adidas jacket make him look like he’s straight out of
Germany’s football scene in the Seventies. The Afghan trainer is just as enthusiastic, his friendliness floats on a deeper mourning. He travels all around the country scouting out talent, making an effort to coach in other
regions too. He’s just returned from the north where only half a year ago a woman was stoned. Football is an answer too.
   We’re led into a room that is surrounded on two sides by closed curtains, almost giving the effect of standing in a tent. It’s hung with posters of the three times Women’s World Footballer of the Year, Birgit Prinz, who recently led a training course for the women here. She quickly won their friendship and respect. Physically she looks like a fighting machine in comparison to the three petite, perhaps undernourished women players who now enter the room. The first has sweaty hands and an east Asian face largely covered by a veil; the second has the raw skin and red face of those who sleep outside; the third is a porcelain-fragile lady with finely drawn features and turquoise make-up, her veil has slipped and she flirts innocently. These are three of the leading women footballers, picked from the eleven clubs in Kabul who will soon be fighting it out against teams from three other Afghan provinces.
   It’s hoped that one day an Afghan women’s national team will be formed from the group of 14-18-year-olds who are being trained together. The girls’ most important quality is their ability to assert their passion for
football against the doubts of society and their families. And how difficult conditions are! It’s almost impossible to train at home, there’s no room. In public spaces, where men can gape, they aren’t allowed to play. As a result, until now none of the games have been open to the public. The girls train in full-length tracksuit trousers, but with short-sleeved shirts and without their veils.
   This is a success. A few months ago they were still training in their veils, and more freedom just wouldn’t be accepted yet. Now part of the burden of having women’s sports accepted in public rests on the narrow shoulders of these women, in a society where women have been hidden for so long.
   One of the girls trained with her brothers before registering. Now her heading skills are better than her footwork.
   ‘And do you play hard, do you ever foul?’
   ‘I’ve been fouled a lot, but never been sent off myself. Others have. They’re always getting yellow cards, and sometimes red.’ Every little thing that makes the game normal is a cause for celebration.
   ‘We prefer players who have great personalities,’ the trainer adds. ‘A good player needs to set a good example, particularly in this unusual sport. Also, a good player has to give her all, doing just what her trainer says.’ One of the players learnt to play in a Pakistani refugee camp. She had been watching a game, getting really annoyed at the players, and wanted to play herself.
   ‘So we all chipped in for a ball, and it went from there. Two girls had really good skills, and that spurred others on. They started playing too and gradually we had a whole team.’ She concludes like an expert: ‘Because one was good, the others got interested.’
   In order to train, the girls need support from their families. Their parents need to be brave, face ill will and help their daughters to stay motivated. Not easy when the training is hours away – scary hours sometimes, the journey can be dangerous. The girl that cycled for two hours to get here today was pelted with stones and banana peel on her way.
   Aggression aimed at their sport? Symptoms of war trauma? Who can say? Everything here is watched closely – whether they wear make-up, put on lipstick, play in shorts, take off their veils, everything is commented on. For that reason alone the girls can only train indoors, their game improves slowly and they feel the lack of international competitions. As tender as they seem, they have to bear enormous psychological pressure to train. It’s good that this weekend there’s a friendly game in Turkmenistan.
   There’s a framed photo of the FIFA president Sepp Blatter, FIFA pennants and medals in a glass display cabinet, and a lapis lazuli globe beside them. In some way these trophies and decorations are the insignia of
their entry into world football. How they long for public appearances, trips, stadiums with full terraces, and yet it’s so far off. I turn to the red-faced girl. ‘Is your father a football fan?’
   ‘No, he’s dead. But my mother is proud. So I’m allowed to train at home with my cousins. They throw me balls.’ She has a deep, chesty cough.
   It’s impossible not to ask about their families, impossible to ask, knowing that the dead wait in every answer. As they’re always apologizing for their mistakes, I try a different tack, that of the admiring chronicler with an outsider’s view of things.
   ‘Just think,’ I say. ‘You’re pioneers. Everything starts with you. One day your photos will be in books. That’s where Afghan women’s football started, people will say, looking at a picture on the first page of you all as you are now. They’ll say: Look at their shoes, their shirts, they still wore veils then, and tracksuit trousers! You’re preparing the path.’
   They don’t understand the ‘path’. The future is somehow unimaginable.
   Less so for the trainer. Everything depends on him, on his ability to have his way in spite of male opposition, to enthuse people, and on his resourcefulness. He tours the city’s districts tirelessly, visiting families, looking out for talent and measuring the extent to which women’s football can be made public.
   He has a subversive strategy. Firstly the team trained in secret, then the first press releases went out. It’s only been a year now that the general public has known of the existence of women’s football in Afghanistan. It still needs to be convinced, just as the players’ families did before they gave their approval.
   ‘We’d do anything for our trainer,’ the girls say. ‘Anything. When he calls, we come, wherever we are.’
   He listens to them, shows them training videos to teach them heading and dribbling. He tries to appear strict.
   They get out pictures of the whole team. Pretty young women in blue and red whose faces show how much courage they need to represent this sport in public. They’re sometimes intimidated by the strong reactions to
what they are doing.
   I talk shop with the trainer, he likes that. ‘What formation do you play?’
   ‘4-4-2. We’re better attacking than in defence.’
   The girls look as if they’re surprised to already be part of a ‘formation’. Their footballing knowledge is partial. They don’t have a clear notion of the different strategies available to a team, but they look up to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Michael Ballack, too.
   ‘Who will win the World Cup?’
   Two say Brazil, one Germany. What does the trainer think?
   ‘If Germany carry on like they’re playing now, they haven’t got a chance.’
   Sometimes the girls play against young boys from the streets of Kabul. The boys are fast and have good stamina.
   ‘And you aren’t afraid of getting fat legs from all the football?’
   They giggle. ‘If we were, we wouldn’t have got this far. When we run onto the pitch we’re prepared to lose. But we always give our best. So we can’t worry about our legs.’
   ‘Do you have any special rituals before the games?’
   Do they ever. One reads certain verses of the Koran, another lights a candle and eats dried fruit, ‘because you forget your problems when you’re eating’. A third prays.
   ‘And your battle cry?’
   All together they shout, ‘We want to work together like the fingers of a hand!’
   Then they grab their handbags, proffer a friendly, if not insistent, invitation to a meal, and leave. Just 20 yards further on, at the main road, no one would suspect that the hope of Afghan football is found in these three teenagers.


From An Afghan Journey by Roger Willemsen

Translated from the German by Stefan Tobler (Haus Publishing 2007)

Roger Willemsen is a journalist and author of many books, including a collection of interviews with former detainees after their release from the camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and also works with several relief organisations including Amnesty International and Terre des Femmes. An Afghan Journey is the result of a visit he made accompanying a friend on her return to Afghanistan after decades in exile. His focus is the lives of ordinary Afghans – women teachers, nomads, businessmen and traders, children and returnees – and the portrayal of a people more complex and determined than most Western stereotypes suggest.

Stefan Tobler was born at Belém on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon, studied Portuguese and German language and literature at Oxford University and gained a PhD in Translation from the University of East Anglia. As well as literary translation, Tobler’s own writing includes cultural journalism, non-fiction and poetry.

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