Little Women of Baghlan
The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban
Little Women of Baghlan is the true account of an ordinary young girl who answers the call to service and adventure during an extraordinary time in world history. Her story unfolds against the backdrop of changing social mores, the Cold War, the Peace Corps, and a country at the crossroads of China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran.
Excerpts from the opening pages of Little Women of Baghlan
THE HINDU KUSH
Off in a taxi and made the usual switch in Puli-Khumri. It was an uneventful ride until we came to an avalanche just before the Salang.
—Joanne Carter: Afghanistan Journal, April 21, 1970
Jo set her bag in the dust, among blades of grass worn thin by countless footsteps. A spindly row of trees cast elongated, early-morning shadows across the taxi bazaar, but already, passengers were queuing up.
A driver waved her forward. “Kabul?” He raised his eyebrows and nodded reflexively, eager for one more fare and a full payload. “Zut zut shodan!” —Hurry, hurry! “I have one seat left.”
Jo had done this a dozen times. It was another routine trip, but a reprieve nonetheless, a welcome break from teaching five and a half days a week. She climbed into the back seat of a sedan, a dusty, Russian-built Volga.
Three Afghans immediately crowded in after her, and she slid all the way across, to the far door. Three more Afghans fit themselves into the front, the one next to the driver wedged tightly against the gear box.
At least there was no one in the trunk. No last-minute traveler had pushed his way through the bazaar, shouting above the noise and confusion to get the driver’s attention, wanting to haggle for a reduced fare. Jo had seen it often: passengers climbing into the shadowy recess, their grins reminiscent of a Cheshire cat as they grabbed hold of a little handle on the inside of the trunk lid and pulled it down. But not today. No one was interested in riding to Kabul in the trunk of a car. The trip was five hours at best, and temperatures would be freezing in the high mountain passes.
Jo wore a skirt and sweater in deference to the dress code of a Muslim country and stuffed her coat into the small space by her feet. The men settled in, accepting her presence among them without question. The passenger next to her gathered the folds of a bulky chapan, a wool coat that covered his thin, drawstring tombans much like a heavy bathrobe. Careful not to press uncomfortably close, he maneuvered himself into position. Jo leaned away to give him room, and it occurred to her that if she had been more patient, had waited just a few extra minutes, she could have hired a taxi not yet filled. She could have paid for two fares instead of one—an easy guarantee of extra space. It was a tactic every Peace Corps Volunteer learned by the second day in Afghanistan.
But she had abandoned those little tricks long ago. Over the past two years Jo had become accustomed to Afghan life—the general inconvenience, the pitfalls of navigating a culture that often made no sense, and of course, overcrowded taxis. Just as she had done so many times in the past, she traveled as the only woman and the only American in a carload of Afghan men. She hardly gave it a second thought.
The men in front were businessmen and shop owners. Dressed in tunics and tombans, they had covered their prayer caps with turbans. The driver left his prayer cap exposed, and wore a simple wool jacket. Unencumbered by a heavy chapan, he slid behind the wheel with a self-assured movement, and looked over his shoulder to give Jo a confidential nod. “Balê,” he said. — Yes. “I will get you to Kabul zud, zud.”
He reached up and adjusted the rearview mirror, setting in motion a string of colored glass beads that hung as decoration. “Insha’Allah,” he added. —God willing. Turning around yet again, he looked at Jo and grinned, as if sharing a private joke. “Shomâ fahmided?” —Understand?
Jo couldn’t help smiling at his cocky, familiar manner. She nodded. “Man fahmidom.” —I understand.
Satisfied at her response, he turned back, put the car in gear, and pulled out of the taxi bazaar. With quick surreptitious movements, the Afghan passengers wiped their right hands over their faces and beards to disseminate Allah’s blessing: a gesture repeated before every crossing of the Hindu Kush.
Jo understood their concern. “Fast, fast” seemed to be the objective of every driver she had ever hired, and like the Afghans with her, she worried about getting to Kabul safely. How many times had she left Baghlan—a village in northern Afghanistan less than one hundred miles from the Russian border—with a driver who careened through turns so fast it seemed they would fly straight off a cliff? Jo expected the same from today’s driver, but when he eased his way around bicycles, donkeys, and horse-drawn carts, she breathed a sigh of relief. Not far from the bazaar he turned onto the only paved road in the village and headed south toward Kabul.
Praise for Little Women of Baghlan
“…the story of a love affair on a number of levels, certainly not least, a love affair with Afghanistan itself. “Yet Little Women of Baghlan is not written with any particular agenda, geopolitical or religious; it is rather, simply, the story of how a group of ordinary Americans interacted with the citizens in a village called Baghlan. Fox accomplishes this with attention to detail, sensitivity, and with extraordinary grace.”
– Dr. Michael Spath, Professor of Comparative Religion and Middle East Studies, Indiana University Purdue University
“A tonic for cynicism.”
– Lawrence F. Lihosit, author of South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir
“I think it’s important that the word about what Peace Corps Volunteers accomplished in Afghanistan gets the widest possible circulation; it stands in contrast to some of our country’s later activities.”
– Dr. John Bing, Chairman of the Board, ITAP International, and former Peace Corps Volunteer