Benedicte Grima Santry spent years in the remote reaches of Afghanistan and Pakistan. What she learned—and now teaches—is invaluable, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Benedicte Grima Santry Gr’89 sat in the back seat of a jeep in southeastern Afghanistan, wrapped in a floor-length, Iranian-style black chador. As she, her driver, and a paramedic bounced their way across the vast, desolate plain, always on the lookout for a blast of overhead gunfire, the driver suddenly whispered over his shoulder: “Saudis! Tighten your veil!” Grima Santry quickly stuffed all wisps of her dark hair under her veil and tightened her grip on the opaque fabric under her chin. The adrenaline surged.

It was the holy month of Ramadan and the year was 1990. The three were working for Freedom Medicine inspecting rural medical clinics in the Logar and Wardak provinces south and east of Kabul. By then Grima Santry, a language and culture expert, had already been working for more than a decade among the tribal Pashtun peoples in whose territory they were traveling. Her fluency in Pashto and Farsi was a vital asset as she checked on the access of rural women and children to medical assistance, since outside men could not touch this issue. And because the clinics were often either run by men or located in male-oriented sections of a town, many women would rather risk their health than go to a clinic for treatment. Grima Santry’s findings would help local and foreign medical personnel give better care to the entire population.

It was a turbulent time in Afghanistan. The Soviets were pulling out after a decade of occupation, and the drive was extremely dangerous. Grima Santry and her companions had to cross empty stretches of plains in silence, often forming caravans with other cars: safety in numbers.

As the Soviets were withdrawing, Saudis were coming to help their fellow Muslims. Afghanistan and Pakistan are governed more by tradition and custom than anything else—including Islam, which is shaped by these cultural customs and traditions more than it shapes them. Visiting Gulf Arabs who had been unsuccessful at pushing their ultra-conservative Wahhabi interpretations of Islam back home found a receptive audience in the Pashtun-dominated territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that fierce and isolationist region—where age-old patriarchal conservatism, a strict code of honor, and the Pashtun concept of hospitality hold sway—a new strain of Islamism took root.

As a result, Saudis were stationed at many of the checkpoints. At all of them, the three were asked: What are you doing? What’s your mission? Where are you going? For whom are you working? Throughout it all, Grima Santry would just sit there and not say a word; the driver and paramedic would speak for her.

At one particular checkpoint, the Saudi in charge nodded toward Grima Santry and asked if she was Engreeza, a term that once meant “English” but over the years had also come to more generically mean “foreigner.” The driver nodded yes, thinking of the generic meaning of the word. Wrong answer: the guard started yelling, Engreeza, Engreeza! Two days earlier the BBC had aired a report that had angered the Pashtuns. The guard confused the two meanings and thought Grima Santry was British.

The three were taken to the Saudi guard’s commander for more than two hours of interrogation. Who are you? Where did you go? Why do you speak Pashto? Where did you learn it? What are you doing here? Who are you talking to? Finally, the guards were convinced she was not a threat.

Asked if she ever felt threatened as a woman, Grima Santry calmly shakes her head. Her worry was because she was a foreigner.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/08/06

Understanding Pashto
By Beebe Bahrami

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