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July 22, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

A Kabul state of mind A Kabul state of mind (July 22, 2005)

Former Mayor Stasek contemplates next trip to Afghanistan

By Jon Wiener

Rosemary Stasek might be easily forgiven for not wanting to return to Afghanistan.

At various points in the last six months, since the beginning of her stint as logistics manager for the Kabul Beauty School, the former mayor of Mountain View found herself standing thigh-deep in raw sewage, staring at the ruins of the bombed-out Internet cafe she frequented, and reading about the kidnapping of an Italian aid worker who lived down the street.

But after Stasek returned to Mountain View last month, she quickly made up her mind that her most recent trip to Afghanistan would not be her last.

Looking back on the trip during an interview last week, Stasek explained, "You live very intensely there, on every level. That's what makes it an addictive place."

In a series of monthly columns for the Voice during her most recent adventure, Stasek showed that three years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan society is still less than an ideal place for a woman to live on her own.

After falling into the open ditch that serves as Kabul's sewer system, Stasek watched as her driver stared at her for several moments, waiting for her to climb out, before finally lending her a hand. Her habit of driving around herself frequently drew the ire of onlookers -- including police officers motivated to slash her tires.

"Just about anything that you do can get you branded as a whore," said Stasek. "There will be women in the National Assembly" -- elections will be held this fall -- "and they'll be called whores."

It is that kind of environment that leads Stasek to use the word subversive when she talks about the beauty school's ability to empower young Afghani women. Along with her business partner -- a hairdresser from Michigan who, like Stasek, does not pay herself a salary -- she recruits women from across the economic spectrum.

Some of the women eat their only meal of the day in the lunchroom at the beauty school. The senior apprentice in the salon, on the other hand, earns $700 a month, or 20 times a typical middle-class income. Every night when she goes home, her husband beats her, "just to remind her who she is and what her place is."

"Maybe we're not keeping her from being beaten, but we're keeping her daughter from being married off," said Stasek. "It's one thing for someone to call them a whore, it's another thing to feed their kids."

As a city council member from 1997-2005, Stasek was both fun-loving and direct. She wore Santa hats on the dais and recruited colleagues to the bar after meetings -- but fought hard to protect the city's heritage trees and delivered harsh attacks on the city's historical preservation ordinance and the corporate behavior of Clear Channel.

She got hooked on Afghanistan after being invited to join a delegation there three years ago, and despite her recent travails and the constant specter of violence, the country has clearly gotten to her. Stasek said she plans to go back in time for this fall's elections, in which a number of her friends are running for seats.

"I am desperate to make people understand that Afghanistan is not Iraq," said Stasek. "Afghanistan has so much going for it. The people want peace. They want their government to function."

Pausing for a while, she added, "We can't forget Afghanistan again."

This summer, Stasek will continue meeting with beauty industry representatives in an effort to spark their interest in a salon where women train to take control of their futures in a forgotten corner of the world. She will also continue to work on compiling her writing -- drawn from her columns and entries in her blog -- into a book. Her proposed title is "The Kabul Beauty School and Other Tales of Life and Love in Afghanistan."

In one blog entry from May 10, Stasek talked about being in "a Kabul state of mind," as she looked at the bombed wreckage of her Internet cafe and calculated what her survival chances would have been if her Internet connection at home had gone out an hour earlier.

"It's not that it doesn't bother me," she said of her decision to go back. "It's just that I miss it so much."

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