Monday-night dinners are a big deal for the Australian part of my family. The tradition started with my grandmother, but these days it’s my uncle David who hosts and cooks the meal. The second anyone walks through the door, he thrusts a glass of whiskey on the rocks into their hands. It's his way of saying "welcome." As a child, I couldn’t wait for these dinners. They filled my heart with joy. The tradition and the gathering of my family made me feel safe and alive. Too young to drink anything but lemonade, I would sit at the grown-ups' feet, listening and watching everyone laugh and talk.
Getting up for a stack of Pringles was the only thing that interrupted my trance. I would slide my little arm halfway down the cardboard canister and dig out a thick stack of chips to shove into my mouth. I learned early on that the crunch of a stack was far more rewarding than just a single chip, even it meant that the rim of the can would inevitably scratch my forearm. But what I really longed for was my own glass of whiskey. When I finally turned 18, Uncle Dave poured me one — I was in. I have always looked up to my uncle David. He’s a loving father and a devoted family man, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous. (Women still swoon when he walks down the street.) Plus, he has always been a tremendous supporter of my photography, and a good extra hand on photo shoots when I am in a pinch. When I recently accepted a job reporting and shooting in Afghanistan, I knew it was safe to tell him — and only him — that I was going somewhere so dangerous. Delicately, I explained that I was accompanying Kimberly Jung, the founder of the spice company Rumi, to the saffron fields of western Afghanistan. There, we would have access to the entire process of the saffron harvest to see how it benefits the country’s women. He just nodded. I was grateful for his silent support. At first, I was giddy with excitement to see Afghanistan with my own eyes, but as my departure date approached the reality of my choice hit me. When it comes to flying, most of us are used to questions like, “Aisle or window?” But when I was traveling to Afghanistan, the questions were more like, “What is your blood type?” When I confessed to Stefan, my in-country Afghan security contact, that I didn’t know my blood type, he jokingly replied, “Let’s go with red.” He also told me that I would need to bring my own alcohol into the country if I wanted a drink while I was there. I was surprised. I was nervous about sneaking in what is essentially contraband for the Afghan people due to the prevailing religious beliefs. But something told me I would need a stiff drink on this adventure.
When I arrived at the Dubai airport, I met my traveling partner, Kim, the CEO of Rumi spice. We had met once briefly, but for the next 10 days we would spend every single moment together. We changed in the bathroom stall to hijabs and abayas. I had spent a lot of time researching how to walk, stand, and wear the clothes so I would fit in. I felt confident and ready. Before boarding our flight to Kabul, we dashed to buy a couple of bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey at the airport’s Duty Free shop.
When we landed in Kabul later that evening, it was dark. I could barely make out the raw, craggy, mountainous landscape. I felt nervous as I climbed down the plane’s stairs with my backpack full of cameras pressing into my back. Smells, sounds, and sights that were completely foreign to me engulfed my senses. The airport was dark and disorienting. The air was smoky with sand and dust and the helicopter noise was deafening. As hundreds of people tried to exit the airport, we were jostled around — the scene felt alarmingly chaotic. Out of respect, I kept my gaze glued to the airport floor to avoid making eye contact as much as possible. I was told that to catch a man’s glance and smile is deemed forward. To exit, we had to go through three different security checks and walk a mile through thick barricades that surrounded the airport. Finding the cars that would take us to the guesthouse took 30 minutes. I asked why we needed two cars, and I was told that one car was for us to ride in, and the other would be the backup car, in case there was trouble and we needed to change rides. Finally, we found our contact Stefan, an Australian man who was dressed in western clothes and wearing a headscarf. He silently nodded and gestured to the car. Despite his cold welcome, I noticed that he was disarmingly handsome (picture a young Liam Neeson). I had to remind myself to avert my gaze. Once in the dusty, rather broken-down looking car, I remember thinking that next to buses overflowing with locals, us foreigners stuck out like a sore thumb. Abruptly, we pulled in front of a white, windowless building. Two gun-toting guards opened the heavy steel gate. We were escorted in after they checked under and inside of the car. We were read the rules and procedures of the safe house in case of a bombing or emergency. No unapproved exits were allowed. Most importantly, we were instructed not to mistakenly push the panic button by our bedroom doors instead of the light switch. Before heading to the common area, I dumped my stuff on the bed and found the whiskey. My stomach was full of angst and nerves. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t eaten since departing from New York. As a guest in a safe house, you are invited to join the others in-residence for dinner. When I pushed the ornately carved wooden door open to the dining room, I was warmly greeted by the 10 ex-pats who live at the compound and who were already seated at the table. I was wearing my black clothes, but since we were in a protected house, everyone was dressed in western garb. The room was buzzing with chatter and warmth. I offered the group my whiskey, which was received with a college football crowd's enthusiasm. Within a moment, a glass of whiskey was placed in my hands and someone put a tube of Pringles in front of me. In that moment, time stopped. Whiskey and Pringles — just like we had at family dinners. As I squeezed my now adult-sized arm into the tube to grab a stack, I exhaled and took this as a sign that I was going to survive this two-week adventure. Everything was going to be okay. After dinner I went into the kitchen to thank the in-residence Afghan chef for the meal. During our exchange, I was struck by the particularly gentle and kind look in his eyes. Throughout the rest of my trip, I received that same look from many Afghan citizens. Sometimes I wondered if it was a silent thank you for daring to come into the war-torn country to see for myself what the people are really like and what they are facing. I will never be sure. But this much I do know: When my plane took off from Kabul, I shed many tears. I cried because I felt so much gratitude toward all of the Afghan people I had met who had helped us along in our journey. I cried at the thought of the wonderful, resilient people I had left behind, their untold stories, and the realities that they continue to face. Melanie Dunea is a photographer and writer based in New York City.