An annual ritual for me is a visit with sixth graders who’ve studied Afghan history, culture and contemporary problems. I take my Peace Corps issued trunk filled with the Afghan clothes I brought back. The boys would prefer rifles, the girls lapis jewelry, but from my own teaching days, I know how sixth graders like to dress up. After some play with the language and other aspects of Afghan culture, I open the trunk. This is the signal for their two teachers to pop back into the classroom, the female under a chadri (burqa), the male wearing the “Karzai coat” and embroidered cap. The students who’ve looked bored thus far crack a smile.

20120504_093542Then a few student helpers dress one Afghan-looking girl and one Afghan-looking boy in an outfit20120504_093523 I’ve put together. The girl takes a fan she’ll use to keep the flies off her grandmother while she dozes, and the boy holds a small fake bird he has as a pet. Teacher and student cameras click to capture this. Then students can try on one or all of the outfits including dresses, tunics, baggy pants, headscarves, and turbans. With no encouragement, some of these thirteen-year-old boys, as well as the girls, try on the burqa.

Since this year’s event, I spent a day with an Afghan student friend looking at these same clothes. What a surprise to learn after all these years and all the school programs I’ve done, that the long shirts I thought were for Afghan men were made forty years ago by tailors in the style of a man’s shirt, but in colors foreign women like me would buy to wear. My friend pointed out that the tunics did not have the seam pocket on one side required by Afghan for prayer beads and money. We laughed imagining an Afghan man in 1969 wearing the robin egg’s blue tunic.

Shopkeepers of cloth and tailoring learned what the foreign women would buy even at a time when there were relatively few foreign women living in Afghanistan. This is not remarkable given Afghanistan’s survival through the centuries at the crossroads of Asia, but was a sign that it’s a country of adaptability under pressure. And the Afghans continue to adapt to the pressures on them.