“She’s here!” I hear a woman say as I enter the room, where a group of seven Afghan women are seated in a circle.
It’s always a daunting task. To approach a group of strangers as a complete stranger – about as much of an outsider as you can be – and hope that you form a connection.
These slightly uncomfortable situations have become the norm in my work for years, but that doesn’t make them any less comfortable. I’m learning how to enter a room as a complete stranger, handicapped by language and cultural barriers, and rely on the one universal thing that ties us together: art.
Sometimes there is someone in the room who can interpret, but usually not the case. I rely on my limited vocabulary and awkwardly exaggerated body language to do the introduction. This is usually the time when I question why in the world I’m doing any of this. These women have been through unspeakable hardships to get to where they are today, so how can I expect them to even speak with me? Doubt filled their faces – they’re seeing me as yet another researcher or journalist who is ready to ask intrusive questions about their past.
As I pull out the stacks of paper from my tattered, low-budget-traveler backpack and lay them out in front of the women, their faces start to change.
They reach for the papers and slowly start flipping through them. They’ll stop and point at something, show it to their neighbor, and smile. The papers that were once stacked are now spread all over the floor. I look around the group to see some women giggling while others are nodding in agreement and pointing to something on the page.
One woman points to the page and then points to herself.
“Same like me,” she says.
Another woman (with the highest English skills in the group) says, “I keep wanting to turn a new page to see what other cartoons you have. This is so fun!”
Good to know that someone thinks this book is, quite literally, a page-turner.
We go through each page together as a group and I have a list of questions to ask them. I frantically take notes, trying to detail their feedback as they continue sharing. After a few hours, we realize we’ll never get through everything, so I wait to see if they initiate a plan.
They ask to stay in contact – so we create a Whatsapp group. That’s where they share reference photos of their favorite food, traditional dresses, celebrations, rituals, all things Afghan. I add this to my database, which will later be used when developing the cartoons. We make plans for another meeting.