Paula Goldstein

An hour to spare: How Mina Sharifi spends her downtime in Kabul.

Paula Goldstein
An hour to spare: How Mina Sharifi spends her downtime in Kabul.

As much as some of us try to squeeze as much productive time out of our city days as possible, there always ends up being that awkward hour... you know, when there isn't enough time to go home between meetings and dinner with friends, or to the office between a dentist appointment and getting the kids from school.

As I have made more and more international girlfriends, I've realized that asking them what they'd do with a spare hour in the city they live in is the best way to have them share their favorite places - the real ones - suggestions of spots given without censoring themselves by what they perceive as the coolest or most interesting.  I have also noticed something even more compelling: as they have shared these secret spots or past-times, universal themes have emerged - such as time with girlfriends, a love of gossip, perfect cakes, or where to get the best blowouts.

So, at a time when we are constantly being pushed to judge and fear those not like us, I'm hoping this series of interviews will show not just the local treasures and personalities of amazing women the world over, but also how we are so much more the same than we are different.

With this in mind, I felt that it was important to start this series by sharing Afghan-Canadian and Communications Director for Rumi Consultancy, Mina Sharif's, story from Kabul. Despite how much the city has suffered from terrorist atrocities in the recent months, the Afghan capital is full of magic and women with hopes and ambitions - just like us.

Firstly, Kabul is very different from the rest of the country. Although that can be said about any capital of any country, it's important to stress that the daily experiences of women in Kabul are often vastly different than those of women in the more rural areas of the country. Kabul is highly populated and incredibly fast paced. To see women and girls walking around is completely normal, and they certainly don't need a male companion to do so. On the open streets, it is clear that women are on their way somewhere, or running an errand - they walk fast and purposefully to get to where they need to be. It's a really nice shift from my arrival ten years ago, when I found it surprising and exciting to see women walking around. I love that it's not something I even notice anymore. Should you pass by a group of women or girls and say hello, as a woman of course, you will always get a response. If you are with a group of them inside of a shop, they'll help you pick out items, and tell you which outfit looks best on you. You will make immediate friends with women if you want to. The most surprising thing about Kabul is its normalcy. There is no panicked looks on anyone's faces, checking around for danger. They're simply carrying on with life, and that's shocking to anyone who knows what a risk it is to get those groceries from the market. To Afghans, it's normal. So they'll take their time picking out the best vegetables and haggling for them. They'll carry on attending their computer classes, and they'll walk a long distance to visit a friend to catch up. This surprises many inside and outside of Afghanistan who did not grow up here. The danger does not rule every day life. 

My favourite street in Kabul is Koh-eh-markaz. It's one of the only "old" Kabul streets left without a lot of new shiny homes and buildings. They make huge clay ovens for bread there, and the colour of that clay makes me happy. There are always little kids walking around, and people hard at work making these ovens in all kinds of sizes. Most of the work seems to be done by hand, and it means you see a lot of people with reddish-brown clay on their hands and feet. 

There are not a lot of options for leisure in Afghanistan, particularly for women. No going for a walk, no going to a movie. This is a combination of not wanting to be out for cultural reasons (also known as street harassment), safety, and simply that there are not a lot of facilities that cater to women. But that's changing. There are women's gyms opening up all over the place. There's a yoga and spa centre....and then my favourite, lots and lots of girls time in friends' homes. Any time that it can be squeezed in, Afghan women love to check in with each other- chatting over tea, bringing each other food, and having a laugh. Though restaurants are not a good idea right now, there is one that is run by women that is really comfortable. I like to shop around for my groceries, visit my friends, go to the local women's salons for a blow dry, or if the weather is good, I might go with some friends to the women's park. It has a bazaar and is full of laughing joyful women picnicking or simply chatting while their kids play. I also love to visit tailors and have clothing made at decent prices with beautiful fabrics. Street food is fun to grab on the way going anywhere, but not so much to stand around and eat. I think it will be a beautiful day when women can be out of a building and walking around leisurely. But in the meantime, the situation has definitely helped us to appreciate girl time perhaps even more. 

Visits to shops are pretty quick, unless I'm ordering something to be made. In outdoor markets, it has become habit to be strictly functional, and not linger for leisure. But once I'm with my friends, inside one of our homes, I enjoy hours of bonding time. 

As much of our social time is spent indoors, we tend to stop on the way to our loved ones to get treats or whatever we've prepared to bring with us. That could mean a great bakery in the city, or a fruit stand on the way. Much of our interaction is between homes. Errands in between are straightforward, but they are symbolic of so much more than what they are at face value anywhere else. In Kabul, going to carefully pick out your vegetables is brave. And this huge risk is often taken just to throw together a salad for girl time. That makes me sad about the reality, but really proud about the resilience.  

- Mina Sharifi