where does it hurt?

My 9x9 inch square of Afghan embroidery

Like so many of us, I’ve been watching the surreal coverage of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Also, like many, although certainly too few, I’ve had the good fortune to visit Afghanistan.

And my heart aches.

In moments like this–especially like this–I return to the words of the extraordinary poet, Warsan Shire;

…later that night, I held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, where does it hurt? it answered, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.

Her words are perfect. In this 28-word excerpt from her poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” Shire captures the current state of the world. Wild fires, draught, an oil tanker explosion in Lebanon, the latest earthquake in Haiti, the cluster that is American leadership, COVID-19, the Delta variant, climate change, gun violence, sexual abuse, tropical storms, floods in Turkey, Germany, and Belgium-my second homeland. Crises in Niger, Mozambique, Nigeria, Belarus, Cuba, Myanmar, Hong Kong. The continued oppression of BIPOC. The list is endless. where does it hurt? everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.

My own, albeit brief, few weeks in Afghanistan were wonderful. With a colleague, and at the request of the UN Department of Peace Operations, we conducted a two week training of more than 30 Afghan medical professionals on HIV testing and counseling. It remains one of my fondest work experiences. We discussed sex and sexuality and the importance of client-centered care and the stigma associated with HIV. We conducted male and female condom demonstrations. Admittedly, the women and men were at separate ends of the conference room. A very, very, (VERY) large conference room. But we did it. Conversations were robust. Questions were provocative. The training was deemed a success. The knowledge we shared was theirs to keep forever.

The people we met and worked with for those few weeks were kind and hospitable, and busted their behinds to attend the workshop each and every day. In the evenings, we’d retreat to our hotel–one that would later be bombed, months after our stay–and dine on delicious Afghan meals. We did not visit Kabul properly because we were not allowed. But from the roof of the hotel we could see the whole city in a 360-degree view. It was stunning and the surrounding mountains majestic.

At the time, in 2007, I worked for UNICEF so I also met with our staff based in Kabul. We also held a shorter HIV-awareness training for my Afghan colleagues which was well attended and equally successful. A safe space for asking frank questions of a colleague who, in my case, was/is living with HIV. That evening, I had dinner with the head of our office, a beautiful woman from Cameroon with long locs and fierce courage. We ate at another hotel–one that would also be bombed months later–and discussed our good fortune to attempt to do good in the world, however feeble or fleeting our efforts might have been.

To this day, I keep this small vibrant 9x9 inch square of embroidery, that I acquired on that trip, next to my desk. I look at it daily and it reminds me of the beauty of Afghanistan and, above all, her people. They did not ask for this chaos. They do not deserve this chaos. We should never have been there in the first place. We lost. But I am also not sad that we left, only that we left so ungraciously, so egregiously. I worry at this small piece of exquisite embroidery and know where the world hurts: everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.

[Read more about Warsan Shire in this beautiful profile by Alexis Okeowo]

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My book, My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19, published by Northampton House Press is available in print and audio.

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Martina Clark

My book, My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19, published by Northampton House Press is available in print and audio.