In Print : Barbara Bick: Eyewitness in Afghanistan
"Walking the Precipice: Witness to the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan," The Feminist Press, 2009. $14.99
The timing for Vineyard Haven resident Barbara Bick's new book, "Walking the Precipice" could not be better. A new administration has begun escalating the number of U.S. troops in the nation that harbored Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorists.
During key moments of the run-up to 9/11 and the initial reconstruction of Afghanistan, the author bore witness to the plight of an oppressed group of women.
Photo by M.C. Wallo
Political activism has been the long-time calling of Ms. Bick, who lived most of her adult life in Washington, D.C., summering on the Vineyard. Before moving to Martha's Vineyard permanently, she helped found Women Strike for Peace, ran its national office, and worked for the Institute for Policy Studies, the Institute of Women's Policy Research and the National Conference of State and Local Public Policy.
Learning from an acquaintance about an invitation to visit Afghanistan from the All-Afghan Women's Council, Ms. Bick joined a small group of American women heading to Kabul in 1990. She had recently turned 65, and was ready for "one last, unforgettable journey before 'old age' kicked in." The trip did prove unforgettable, and it was not her last to the war-torn country.
Early in the first visit, the author observes: "Maintaining oppressive gender roles is one of the most potent weapons in opposing modernity." That reality echoes through her experiences in all three visits to Afghanistan.
When she was not allowed to leave her hotel unescorted, Ms. Bick gained firsthand experience of how oppressed the women are in this traditionalist Muslim nation. But she was able to visit hospitals, school, orphanages and museums and see the work done by women under difficult circumstances.
In a felicitous blending of personal experience with historical and political background on a part of the world most Americans know too little about, the author brought to bear an intelligent and passionate point of view on what she sees.
"The contrast between how blithely I have come on this trip and what these women expect of me becomes more oppressive as the appeals multiply everywhere we go," she writes. Of the period in the 1990s when the U.S. was supporting the Taliban, she writes compellingly of Afghanistan's significance in global politics, concluding, "I have come to see events there as an omen; Afghanistan as our modern Cassandra."
Nasrine Gross, an activist she met in 2000, led her to join NEGAR, a French-based organization supporting Afghani women. As Ms. Bick learned to negotiate the complex web of alliances that make up Afghanistan political realities, she deepened her commitment to helping its women.
Her second trip to Afghanistan with a small group of NEGAR women and a filmmaker comes in 2001. Her itinerary took her to Khoja Bahauddin and Faizabad to visit more schools, a hospital, a displaced person's camp and a women's association.
During this trip, Ms. Bick stayed in the guesthouse compound of the Afghani Northern Alliance where popular leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists. In this section of the book, she writes vividly of returning to the compound after Massoud's death. "The stink of doused fire fills my lungs and makes my stomach heave. Over the wall that divides the compound, we can see the villa.
Smoke has blackened its walls, and its windows have been blown out."
The gripping story of how she was evacuated follows. As a woman in her 60s, suffering from arthritis and spinal stenosis, she traveled with considerable difficulty through countries where she doesn't speak the language, where borders were difficult to negotiate and war was imminent.
A return trip in 2003 allowed her to participate in a conference that represented the culmination of NEGAR's previous work, with Afghani women playing a part in the post-9/11 reconstruction of Afghanistan as a nation. It makes a fitting end to a powerful story.
"Walking the Precipice" is a deeply personal account told with honesty, humor, and insight. The author never claims more for herself than is appropriate, nor does she apologize for her emotional responses to what she sees. Neither a professional political analyst nor a diplomat, she brings to bear acute powers of observation, a deep concern for an oppressed group of women, and her own impressive background as an organizer on a significant moment in history. To read "Walking the Precipice" is to be moved and educated.