Soap-and Information-from Afghanistan

Describing herself as a “recovering journalist,” Sarah Chayes has a new profession: she makes soap. Well, not exactly. More accurately, she runs a collective called “Arghand” in the Afghan city of Kandahar (one of the strongholds of the Taliban). And, for the month of July 2006, she relapsed into journalism, sharing her experiences and insights in a blog published on the New York Times homepage. Chayes was originally sent to Afghanistan in 2001 as a reporter for NPR (no stranger to conflict zones, she also reported from Kosovo). By 2002, however, she’d left journalism to help found Afghans for Civil Society, which accomplished several service projects during her tenure there, including building a well and a radio station. Now, however, Chayes is on to other projects, including soap-making, which sprang from the need to make the best use out of Kandahar’s fruit-based agriculture (her previous collective focused on dairy—most of the Kandaharis who were part of that effort have joined her in Arghand).

For Americans for whom Afghanistan is still an opaque and amorphous concept of a country, Chayes’ blog may have proved even more valuable than her soap. Despite their location at the center of an ill-defined, ill-understood but seemingly endless conflict, Chayes says that Kandaharis are “the least ideologically motivated people I have ever met.” She invited her blog readers to feel a part of her journey, along with her Afghan neighbors, “waiting and watching” as events unfold.