In the summer of 1978, Grima Santry drove her Citroën “mini” from Paris, across Europe and into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. She had two companions when she left Paris: The first she dropped off in the Turkish city of Konya; the other in Tehran. From there, she was on her own as she pushed eastward into more tribal, traditional, and remote territories.
Her first stop was Yazd in central Iran. It was to be an exploratory journey, to get a feel for the area from Iran to Pakistan. She stayed with an acquaintance in the Ministry of Culture who gave her tips on driving through the area: what speed to traverse certain tough roads, how to maximize the cool hours of the day, what archaeological ruins to seek out. He counseled her to wear a long black chador rather than the light pastel-colored ones popular in Iran at the time, and was so concerned about Grima Santry traveling to Mashad alone that he organized a caravan to get her there.
“I went to Mashad because I learned in Iran that they were now issuing visas to enter Afghanistan,” Grima Santry recalls. “This had not been the case when I had left Paris.” She then drove from Mashad to Herat, Kandahar, and on to Kabul.
Visas to Afghanistan in 1978 were only good for three weeks, so when that ran out Grima Santry went further east into Pakistan and Swat territoryboth to renew her Afghan visa in Peshawar as well as to continue exploring the cultural landscapes that had captivated herand the eastern stretches of Iran. Upon returning to Afghanistan, Grima Santry headed north, through Bamian, Baghlan, and Taloqan, near the Tajik border, openly using her tape recorder and notebook to document the everyday life of the people and to collect narratives.
It was a dangerous time to be in Afghanistan, which was falling more and more under Soviet influence. The local officials thought she was a spy.
“They arrested me and held me under ‘hotel arrest’ for three days until they transferred me to Kabul, where I was to be under house arrest for another 11 days,” recalls Grima Santry, whose car was at a campground across the street from the Ministry. “In Kabul, I convinced the officials to let me sleep in my car and spend the days at the Ministry of the Interior, where they could keep an eye on me. It was all very civil, but I was angry because I knew my arrest was because of the Soviets; it wasn’t the Afghans who were doing this to me. It was late November, 1978, and Soviet tanks were rolling through Kabul.”
For two weeks, a routine developed as the local officials decided what to do with this recalcitrant folklorist. Every morning, guards arrived at Grima Santry’s car to escort her across the street, where she would sit with four women who worked there, chatting, signing papers, filling out forms. At closing hours, she’d be escorted back to her car. The U.S. embassy did not intervene, though it did send someone every day to check on her welfare and to call her parents.
Finally, at the end of the two weeks, the Afghan officials gave her an ultimatum: Go, get out of here. She was having car problems and managed to convince them to give her 24 hours to get it fixed.
“The semester was beginning in Paris and I knew I would be late for classes, which began in November,” she recalls. “I returned via Iran, avoiding Tehran because I had heard there was unrest in the capital [foreshadowing the start of the Iranian Revolution]. I went along the side roads in the north, near the Caspian Sea. When I reached the border with Turkey, I didn’t want to cross alone, having been warned about that as a solo woman. So I waited with my car where Kurds guarded the border.”
The Kurdish tribesmen were very protective of her and would not let her cross the border with just anyone. At night, when a good crossing opportunity had not arrived, the men would take her to their homes to sleep with their womenfolk. It took three days before a trustworthy Swiss trucker the Kurds knew passed through; he let Grima Santry drive her car into the back of his freight truck and ride with him in the cab. They drove to Zürich together, and from there she rushed back to Paris in her Citröen to begin classes, which had started two weeks before.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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FEATURE: Understanding Pashto