Special Episode: Hollie Answers Questions About Afghanistan Asked by Instagram Users

Humans want to get to know other humans. Social media often asks questions about these mysteries. Cultural journalism is about helping people get answers to those questions.


This time we are going to be answering questions about Afghanistan that were asked on Hollie's on her Instagram page. These questions were asked as part of a post for a giveaway of her book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield”. This episode will answer questions picked from a list of forty -six that were asked. Hollie will answer them in her own words. Future episodes will answer more questions.


With the current younger generation of Afghans growing up outside of the Taliban influence how much chance is there for the emergence of a real uprising at some point? With ISIS causing havoc, the situation seems ripe for revolt, given then can arm themselves.

First, in Afghanistan, what I'm seeing so far is people with personal guns can keep their personal guns. What the Taliban initially did was it went around to businesses and places and, and we're looking at people, weapons. And if they were government or military issued, they were taking them as well as any vehicles that were issued by the government. But they were handing back people's personal weapons to them.

So, for people, a limited sort of supply. Nothing fancy. A few people may have an AK47. Hunting is still a thing in Afghanistan. Some people have hunting rifles, but it's allowed. It’s not necessarily this sort of a big gun culture, but so far, they haven't taken people’s personal weapons away from them.

In terms of a revolt, what Afghanistan is seeing is a dire economic situation. I always think when you get to a point when people have not received their government salaries in many months, history tells us, right back to the French Revolution, and even before, when people can't feed their families; that is, when you see a revolt.

It's obviously going to be quite difficult because the Taliban do have American made weapons, so it's not something that I see anytime soon. But it's certainly something that you would never rule out, especially in a country like Afghanistan. 

I think in my assessment, the biggest chance of any conflict is really stemming from the Taliban itself. There's obviously a lot of different power struggles. These people that have spent a majority of the last 20 years living in the mountains and fighting. So, to run a country and to govern is something that is a complete anomaly.  There's certainly a struggle for power. So, I think the biggest chance of a civil war would come as it did in the 1990’s from a power from within.

Yes, ISIS it does wreak havoc in certain areas. But it's not a constant thing. It's not a daily bombing. I mean, here was a bombing in Kundus a few days ago, which he killed one hundred people, and that seems to be ISIS. They are in Jalalabad and other places where they wreck the occasional habit. They don't really control territory, but they are certainly, you know, forced to reckon with the Taliban.

The Taliban would like to tell you that they don't exist or that they are extremely small, and they are not a problem. Because of course the Taliban wants to put out a message of stability and security. 

But I certainly think the Daesh is something that could be quite a headache for them right now. It's not sort of a huge insurgency in the way the Taliban was for the previous government; but ISIS certainly can wreck quite a bit of havoc and take a lot of lives in the process. 


Are women/girls allowed to work and go to school under the Taliban, or has that totally been taken away in a matter of weeks?

So right now, as it stands, girls of all ages that go to private schools, and there were a lot of private schools in Afghanistan, are still going to school as normal.

But in the public school system, that’s where girls have been halted from going to school. That’s been going on about three weeks now; so, it's quite problematic.  When I talk to education ministers and other officials about this, they always say they are not against girls going to school. The issue is they want to make sure that girls have “completely separate” transportation so that they're not walking to school. They're not interacting with boys. This is for high school and above. Secondary or primary school students are still going to school. It's the secondary, and then some universities that are problematic. 

The Taliban are saying is they want to have complete separate transportation, and obviously complete a separate infrastructure for girls and boys. In some provinces have already got that setup.  And then in other places that have been used to the more co-educational system over the last several years, they still must get that in place.

It seems like a pathetic excuse. I don't know how long it will go on. But officials do say they have nothing against girls going to school, it's just that they want it to be in complete adherence to Islamic law and their interpretation of it. And that requires a complete separation. 

So that is what they're using, and they're sort of saying, well, we don't have the finances and resources to provide the buses or whatever it is that they that they want to do right now. 

Then of course, they're saying that is because of the $9.5 billion that the US froze when the Taliban took control.  They are saying, well, we need that money so that we can get the resources in place. 

Whereas the international community is saying, well, you need to get those resources in place before we unfreeze that money, so it's a little bit of a tip for tat there. 


What are the biggest differences you are seeing in places like Kabul compared to places like Marjah and Sangin? Any?

Yes, absolutely! I think it's always been the case that women that live in rural areas. I mean to be frank; their lives are not really going to change too much.

These are women that never went out of the house without a burka. They didn't work in regular jobs, unless it was on the farm, doing more laborious work, but they didn't really do the jobs requiring the education that women in Kabul have. 

Too often we just view Afghanistan from the lens of women in Kabul.  And it's important to acknowledge that that women in rural areas are very conservative. They stay home look after the family. The husband may go out to work and their job is to provide, in a quite different sense.

I think for them, in certain places perhaps; their lives may even improve because they don't have to worry about the extra risk of violence happening where they are.

I just think obviously the lives of women that are going to school and working in Kabul are going to, or have already, changed drastically. 

But that really isn't necessarily the case in a lot of the rural areas. It's interesting in a place like Sangin. It's obviously the capital where poppies are grown to export as heroin and other drugs.

You just didn't see any sort of development there (for the last 20 years). You talk to the people. I'm sure the US and the international community tried to do programs there. It was far too dangerous; the Taliban destroyed it. 

The people there really didn't see any benefit in a US occupation. The roads are all destroyed. They don't really have any extra infrastructure, or schools, or mosques. To them, all the past twenty years brought was just bloodshed. They saw no direct benefits in their lives from that. 

That's sort of a blunt assessment of that situation. 


What is one of the biggest misconceptions about Afghanistan, in your opinion or from the perspective of the Afghan people?

I think there's sort of this expectation of Afghanistan as being battle hardened fighters and militias in the mountains. And a lot of war and bloodshed exists.

But Afghans are incredibly gentle people. The men are especially very gentle. They walk down the street you know, holding hands. They are very masculine, and very affectionate towards each other and. Just incredibly gentle human beings.

It's bizarre you'll even see the Taliban, and they're always posing with roses or something ridiculous. That to us may seem ridiculous, but to them it's very poetic. There are a lot of poetic souls and people that love nature. Any Afghani you talk to loves nature. Every Friday, which is the only weekend day, you just see people filling the parks, especially during the summer. Flying kites and just being outside.

Overall, I always found Afghans to be quite softly spoken and just charming, lovely, and hospitable, gentle souls

That is sometimes lost in the war narrative. 


Amazing work. I applaud your bravery. How is the economy fairing there and how is the food rations?

Well, the economy is obviously not faring very well at all. A lot of people are out of work. Inflation has gone through the roof. Anyone in the government didn't receive any salaries; not only under Taliban, but also often for the month or two months in the previous government. They weren't paid either.  People are really going for months without. Around the bank, cash is virtually non-existent right now, so you know nobody can really, you know, afford to live their lives.  Even very mild enjoyment, that's difficult.  I think for a lot of Afghans don't know when or how it will stop, That's really causing havoc in terms of the economy and the cash shortage. 

You see a lot of people just selling their belongings. People just get everything out of their homes. They go to these little informal markets that are set up all over. They use a broker or middleman to set up a store for them. And they just selling everything they own. Even when they're not leaving or going anywhere just because there is no money coming in. There's no trade. There is just, you know, it gets worse and worse by the day.

Luckily, Afghans are very resourceful people. They can make a lot out of nothing. They can live on bread and other basic staples for days. But certainly, it's going to get to a point where it's really, you know, life is just it's hard to make any kind of ends meet. That is a huge problem, and I really would say right now it's the number one problem for the country.

And food rations are, well that doesn't exist, so unlike a lot of more socialist driven countries, Afghanistan doesn't provide food baskets or anything like that to these families and people. They are just on their own to get their own food.

Families often live together. At a friend’s house last night, they had seventeen people live in their home. Four brothers and all their wives and children.  People live together and they just make it work. That's something very incredible about the Afghan culture.


How do the women/mothers who have lost their husbands and their jobs under the Taliban survive and provide for their children? Do these women come together as a community to help each other? Do some men (non-Taliban) try to help them? Does the Taliban do anything?

What happens in a lot of Afghanistan is, it's a cultural custom that if a husband dies or somebody husband dies in war, they must marry their brother.  if the husband dies, sometimes women don't really have a choice; they then must marry the brother of their dead husband.

I met a woman in Khost province last week he revolted against this. Her husband died and she refused to marry the brother. She was quite outcast. She didn't have much to fall back in her case.

She then had to rely on other women and friends. She got a job as a teacher. She took care of her kids on her own. She is that independent woman. She never remarried. That's a rare thing. It's an incredible thing; but it's quite rare.

Oftentimes, you know, at least initially, women will be taken in by extended family members; but the expectation is for them to remarry within the family quickly.


Are you invited for tea/hosted by many civilian families during your reporting? If so what is that experience like in an Afghan home? I appreciate how you often talk about the normal people caught in between the fighting and I wonder about their personal stories shared with you. I am so thankful for your reporting! Stay strong and stay safe.

Absolutely, that's one thing about the Afghans is that they're always inviting you in. Even when you go to a meeting with the Taliban, the Taliban want you to stay for lunch. It's just a cultural custom.

It's a very hospitable. They view a foreigner as a guest in their country. They must provide for you. Sometimes it is just whatever tea they have. But that is extremely customary. It is exceedingly rare to go to any sort of meeting or to anyone’s home where tea doesn't come provided. It's a mainstay and it's lovely going into people's homes.

What happens in most homes is that the women and the men are separate, You'll eat separately. They entertain separately.

I can go in and meet the men. That's because I'm a bit of a third gender. I'm not an Afghan woman, but I'm also not a man. I’m an arbitrary in between.

I usually go into the home and just meet if they're willing to meet. The father, or the brothers, or whoever is there.

And then if there are several women in the home, they usually in a separate room. So, I will go to in the separate room and spend time with the women as well.

Yes, it's just a very the very distinct set of gender roles within the Afghan community. They don't mix a great deal. 

But it's an individual thing as well.  Some women are little bit more into it than others, but a lot just prefer to sort of be with their nieces, or sisters, or whoever it is that they're living with. So that's how things play out.

But yes, it's nice to go into people's homes. That's really one of the few chances that I do get to spend time with women because you don't really see too many of them in the street. And of course, most people that I'm interacting with daily, really.99% of them, are men, and that's because, especially under the Taliban, where there aren't any women. Outside of work, or in the streets, or anything like that, my interactions with women are very much limited to be in the house. 

Those are the questions for this session. Thank you very much Hollie. We look forward to the next time you do a Q&A dispatch. Thank you very much. 

Absolutely we'll do another one, and. we'll knock out the rest of those questions in a few days.

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Interview and transcription by Dennis Santiago. Photos by Jake Simpkin.


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