8th September 2021
By Farzana Ali
Aaj TV Peshawar Bureau Chief Farzana Ali recounts her journey from Torkham to Kabul, and makes startling revelations regarding the “face” the Afghan Taliban want to show to the world. After being detained for hours for being a brown, Muslim female reporter without a valid “permit” and sans a mehram, Ali observes that the Taliban seem to have an unspoken rule to permit female correspondents from the West to show Afghanistan under Taliban rule from Kabul.
After crossing around 13 kilometers from Torkham, and on seeing a never-ending line of trucks and containers, we asked our driver to stop the car. We got out and walked up to the truck drivers, wanting to find out the reason behind the long, snaking queue of vehicles. We asked them if they would like to be interviewed. A couple of them agreed, and we took out our phones and began recording.
We quickly put together a story on the problems plaguing trade routes, sent it over to the head office and departed for our next destination.
Next stop: Marco Bazaar, where we planned to talk to taxi drivers en route to Jalalabad and Kabul from Torkham who were frazzled by the partial closure of the border. Having recorded interviews and clips in Marco Bazaar, it was now our fellow reporter’s turn to tape the beeper. He and the cameraman had just stepped out of the car when, scarcely a couple of minutes later, the latter came back.
“Finished already?” I asked.
“No, ma’am,” he replied. “The Taliban are here and they’re really angry. They want to know who gave us permission to come here and report on things.”
“So?” I prodded.
“They’re taking us with them.”
“To the Emir.”
“And what about me…?”
“Wait here in the car, the driver will stay with you. We’ll keep in touch with our phones,” he said and went on ahead, leaving me, a female head, with the difficult responsibility of ensuring the safety of my team. In the half hour that followed, our driver climbed into the car three times and kicked up a fuss. He told me that it was the Taliban’s world now and anything they did not agree with had no place in that world. Why did we even need to come here, of all places?
He had his reasons to be this afraid. He was an Afghan national, after all, and therefore far more aware of how things were over there. I reassured him that everything would work out once the Emir received full disclosure about our work, and that we would soon get permission to go ahead.
The driver nodded in agreement, but the uncertainty so apparent in his eyes told me he did not believe a word I just said. Another half an hour ticked by and our cameraman finally returned. Hopping in, he told the driver to start driving.
“Where’s the reporter?” I demanded and I was told that he was with the Taliban in their car, and that they were taking us somewhere.
“I don’t know. They said they’re taking us to the Emir.”
After a 10 minute drive, we approached a hujra already swarming with people. The driver and cameraman parked our car to the side to keep me out of the crowd’s sight. A few moments later, I heard a knock on the window pane and looked out to see a girl. I rolled down the window and she promptly asked me what I was doing here. I gave her my answer and she too told me she had come there with her friends.
“Where are you heading?” she inquired.
I told her we were on our way to Kabul.
“Why did these people bring you here?”
“I don’t know.”
I then asked her name and what she was doing here. She told me her name was Muzdalfa and that this was her hujra.
“Why is there such a crowd here?” I queried and she said that a jirga was taking place. The whole while that we talked, she kept ducking from time to time as if she wanted to remain hidden.
“How old are you? Who are you hiding from?”
“Twelve…” little Muzdalfa replied. “From my uncle and his men. They don’t like girls coming to the hujra.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Brother came home and spoke of you, so I wanted to come over and see you. Are you educated?”
“I went to university.”
“I want to study too, but uncle won’t let me.”
I asked her if she was in school and she replied with “Yeah, I’m in fourth grade but I want to read a whole lot more. But I don’t know if that’ll be possible.”
“When things get better, you’ll get to read as much as you want. Don’t worry,” I tried to comfort her but was met with a strange stare.
“You think things will get better?”
“I hope so.”
“But I don’t.”
“Why do you say that?”
“My mother told me to stop dreaming. She said I should learn how to do housework because in two to three years I’ll be married off.”
As we talked, Muzdalfa’s cousin Ayesha, who looked to be around the same age as her, joined us. She, however, kept quiet. I saw her hands had been decorated with henna and I asked to take a picture of their hands. They gleefully agreed and smiled brightly when I snapped the photo. Muzdalfa then recounted that she once went to Peshawar with her aunt, and she loved it.
A young man approached our car and the girls bounded away back to their home, leaving me all alone once again. An entire hour passed by in isolation before the cameraman and driver returned. We were off again. I inquired after our reporter and was told a second time that he was with the Taliban in their car.
“Because they are now taking us to a senior Emir.”
The drive lasted about 20 minutes, following which we were taken to a dilapidated building on a mountain. We had been brought before the court of an Emir. Surrounding us were young Taliban men armed with heavy guns and rifles, while some of them wore jackets strapped with grenades. They disembarked me and escorted me to a small room. The room was furnished with an old, incredibly filthy mattress, a mat and an ancient fan cooler that looked to be running on a miracle and a prayer. It was probably being used as a normal fan because it did not contain even a drop of water.
Boots of varying sizes were lined up under the window, while a large number of military uniforms and jackets were strung up along the wall adjacent to the window. A pile of uniforms had been dumped on a rudimentary brick shelf. The ceiling fan swung far too much to effectively blow any air.
It is difficult to recall how much time I spent in that room – it felt like hours passed by. Every now and then I would stand up and take a peek out of the window, but I would immediately plop down on the foul mattress whenever I spotted a young man with a gun pass by.
I was afforded some degree of relief when I finally saw the cameraman approaching an hour or so later.
“Ma’am, they want your identity and office cards.”
“They said they have to send them to Jalalabad with WhatsApp.”
I surrendered both cards and the cameraman went away with them. He returned once again after another long wait to let me know that we were allowed to leave.
“Kabul, because they said we’re going there.”
We were on the road once again, and our destination was Kabul. For the longest time, no one uttered a single word until I mustered enough courage to ask what was wrong. My colleague told me they were asked two questions: one, why did we come here without permission and two, why was there a woman without a mehram with them?
“So what did you tell them?”
He told me that he quietly listened to what the Emir was saying to him. What could he possibly tell him? Whenever he tried to give his side of the argument, the Emir would repudiate him, saying that he is trying to argue with (Quranic) verses on the veil and that our arguments held absolutely no weight. The Emir told him that he should accept that what we are doing was not permitted to Muslims.
This feature was originally published by Aaj TV in Urdu and comprises three parts. The remaining two parts will be published soon.