Reporting On, Living In Afghanistan

Life in Afghanistan has changed since an increase in violence. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson explains to Renee Montagne that she often covers herself with a traditional burka when reporting outside Kabul. She also says dangerous conditions may keep many from voting in the upcoming presidential election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been covering Afghanistan for NPR since 2006. She's in Washington, D.C. for a brief time before heading back to Afghanistan, and she joined us to talk about some of her recent experiences. Good morning. Welcome to this end of this, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Renee, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, we're really talking this morning about the things that happened to you and that you noticed - a reporter's notebook, if you will. And there's one thing that I'm curious about: how much harder is it to move around these days than it was maybe a year ago, given the violence that continues to increase there?

NELSON: Well, the security situation, as you mentioned, has made it incredibly difficult to go around, not just for regular Afghans, perhaps even more so for foreigners, because we are often targets of the violence that you mentioned.

And so when I do travel by car, which is increasingly not the case nowadays, but when I do travel by car between cities and that sort of thing, I will wear the long, opaque coverage that women wear in Afghanistan called the burka. Some of them are blue, some of them lavender-colored. Just depending on what area we're in, that's that kind of color that I'll put on.

MONTAGNE: So, this anonymity gives you…say when you're wearing the burka, you can't make eye contact very easily. Does it change the way you interact with people that you're interviewing?

NELSON: Well, some people react positively to you wearing the burka. I mean, they see it as a sign of respect. Others, when they can hear…I mean, I speak Dari and I speak Farsi, but I do so with a bit of an Iranian accent. And so immediately they know I'm not an Afghan when I speak. And they sometimes are hostile, you know, why are you wearing the burka? And then when you explain to them, well, it's out of a sign of respect; it's out of, you know, protection for the people that I'm working with, then they calm down about it and it actually, you know, increases the rapport. You're able to have a dialogue with them and create some kind of connection.

MONTAGNE: Now, Soraya, when you go back later this summer you will be covering what is quite a big story in Afghanistan, and it's that country's second presidential election, and I will happily be meeting you there because I'll be going there as well myself. Is there enthusiasm for this election?

NELSON: Much less so than was anticipated at the beginning. I think part of it is because you don't really have the broad candidate field that they were expecting. Initially, there was talk of maybe 70 people running in the race, which would've made for a very interesting and rich, you know, tapestry, if you will.

MONTAGNE: For president?

NELSON: For president, yes.

MONTAGNE: It was narrowed down quite a bit, I think.

NELSON: It's narrowed down quite a bit. And the main contenders, the people who were seen as really being able to give Mr. Karzai a run for his money, have decided not to run.

MONTAGNE: What about safety? Will it be safe for people to vote in most parts of the country?

NELSON: Well, this is a top priority for the Western troops that are there. They are very determined to at least make district centers. And there's about 365 districts in Afghanistan. And so what they want to do make those district centers at least safe so that people can go cast their ballots there.

But there is definite concern that many people will be disenfranchised, because they simply can't get to polling stations safely or for fear that they will be attacked en route to polling stations.

MONTAGNE: I'm talking to Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's with us here in the United States on a trip back from Afghanistan. We asked listeners to weigh in with their question on NPR's news blog, The Two Way. And we'll be answering some of them online, but here's one caught our eye to put to you right here: have you seen any noticeable change in how the United States is viewed since the election of President Obama?

NELSON: Well, there definitely has been a positive effect. People feel more connected to him. In fact, his name, Obama, if you translate it literally in Dari - U-ba-ma - it's he is with us. They see him as somebody who's been able to pull himself up by the bootstraps and who has forward thinking and ideas, and who's really tried to make an effort to reach out to the Muslim world.

And so they're hoping that they'll more American attention to Afghanistan to help not just with the security issue but economics and development.

MONTAGNE: And how much attention was paid to President Obama's speech to the Muslim world?

NELSON: It was something they were very interested in. Even our bureau manager was talking about it, like, oh, it'll be great to see what he has to say to the Muslim world to help bridge the gap. The problem was in Afghanistan, the state-run television did in fact broadcast the speech, but they broadcast it in English with no subtitles. And so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And mostly people don't speak English in Afghan…

NELSON: That's correct. So, I think the attention waned pretty quickly and it was back to the Indian soap operas, for most. It did not, unfortunately, convey the message or reach as many people as certainly as the interest was there.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thank you very much and it's a pleasure to talk to you on this, and I'm looking forward to not only hearing you for our listeners but also for me seeing you in a few weeks on Afghanistan.

NELSON: It'll be great. Thanks so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, of course, usually reports from Afghanistan. One of our blog readers wondered whether people still fly kites there. Soraya's answer and more of your questions are at NPR.org. Just click on the link that says Two Way.

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