Afghanistan’s first female tour guide
Fatima Haidari’s Good City Guide to Herat
Take a virtual tour of Herat, Afghanistan, with the country’s first female guide – Fatima Haidari tells of her life in the city, of leaving it, and of returning virtually
In the bustling Old Bazaar of Herat, you’ll see spun wool and traditional men’s clothes, hand-sewn and embroidered with details. Once, it was Fatima Haidari’s job to make these handicrafts.
She stayed up as late into the night as she could manage, so that she could fund a basic education. Years later, she led tour groups through this Bazaar, showing them the items she once crafted. She knows how much time and love women put into making these items to earn an income, so pointing them out is a special moment on her tour of Herat.
This, of course, was before the Taliban regained control. Fatima was the first female tour guide in Afghanistan. Now there are none.
For Fatima, Herat was a city of opportunities. Displaced from a war-torn village in Afghanistan at the age of ten, this new place gave her the opportunity to attend school for the first time in her life. In her village, she’d studied books at home, but was desperate to be in a classroom. But once in Herat, she was too old for starting school. The only option was private schooling, and the family’s economic situation couldn’t take the burden. That’s when Fatima began making handicrafts in order to buy books and pay for classes, paving the way for an education, and eventually working for tour operators – including Untamed Borders – and as a radio host.
Once Fatima began leading groups of tourists around her beloved city, CNN got wind of her groundbreaking job. She made the tough decision to tell her story – the double-edged sword of raising her profile and putting her within the sights of terrorist groups. But she wanted other women and girls to know about the possibilities for them.
And then came the Taliban takeover.
Fatima found out she was on the list of targets. Once the Taliban captured Herat, for the safety of herself and her loved ones, Fatima had to leave for Kabul, before being evacuated to Italy.
But from a computer screen in Milan, the 24-year-old is still leading tours of her home city. Through adventure travel company Untamed Borders, Fatima is giving people access to Herat, showing them that there’s more to the country than war and terror.
As people from across the world join one of Fatima’s exclusive tours of Herat, she begins by taking them to the Great Mosque. Even from the pictures, without the sounds, weather or smells of Herat, the blue and azure tiles plastering the mosque are breathtaking. She tells them about the city once famous for its wine, walking them through its history through pictures and videos.
“Untamed Borders is committed to working with women in conservative countries where their opportunities in the workforce may be limited,” James Willcox, the travel organisation’s founder, tells TOPIA. “As soon as Fatima came onto our radar, we knew she was perfect. She already had a travel blog and had that passion that all good guides need.”
This bold company takes people to some of the most inaccessible places. In fact, James is planning to relaunch in-person trips to Afghanistan soon.
Q&A: Fatima Haidari
To find out everything about Herat, you’ll have to join Fatima’s Untamed Borders tour – the fee for which is split between Fatima and the underground women’s education group in Afghanistan that she supports. But until then, this is a flavour. From her new home in Milan, Fatima told TOPIA how the city has changed her life.
What does Herat mean to you?
Herat is the city where I could find myself, I could know myself better. Before Herat, I was living in an outlying and deprived village where education was forbidden for girls. Herat was a city of opportunities for me.
There was an organisation which offered free English classes for refugee girls. And since I was an internal refugee in Herat, I could take that opportunity. And after eight months, they selected me as an English assistant teacher. They paid me $50 per month. And at the same time, I stopped making handicrafts. In Afghanistan, it was enough to continue my school.
I had to convince my family to let me go to university because I didn’t want to stop there. My father, he was telling me, “It’s enough for you as a girl, that you know reading and writing.” Also, my mother was worried because university was far away from our town. In a country where you go out in the morning and you do not expect to come back alive at night, I think it was her right to be worried. I convinced them. I wanted to study journalism because when I was working as a shepherd in the high hills, I learned the world of education for the first time listening to the old radio of my father. Also, there were a lot of women’s stories around me. I’ve seen women who have been sexually abused, who were beaten by their husbands, and it was so painful for me.
I wanted to cover women’s stories. Journalism was not an easy thing to choose, because it’s a challenging job for women in Afghanistan, because there were so many women journalists who have been kidnapped, killed and robbed. So that was one of the reasons my family didn’t want me to go.
How did you start the classes for educating girls?
Together with ten of my friends who were my classmates, we decided to establish our own organisation. Although we didn’t have any money. The very first people who were listening to our idea were laughing at us because they were thinking, “How without any money, can you open an organisation?” But we decided to go door to door to the people who were working in offices. At first they were laughing at us, but once they saw we were so determined to open the organisation they helped us. One of them gave us chairs, one of them gave us a desk, one of them blackboards and one of them carpets, one of them just a little bit of money.
Finally, after three months, we could establish our own organisation. The girls in our town were deprived of getting an education. We were all women and it was for women, so they could trust us. And within three months, we had 300 women students.
How did you become Afghanistan’s first female tour guide?
I got a project from the university to do research about Afghanistan’s historical attractions. Afghanistan has so many positive things. Anybody in the world who hears the name Afghanistan, pictures only exclusion, terror, or war. I really didn’t like that. So I created a Facebook account, and I joined an English group. As I was doing my research about Afghanistan’s attractions, I was also posting in that English group, because I wanted to reflect Afghanistan positively from the perspective of a woman. There were some travellers in that group who were attracted to my posts, they commented, and I was quite enjoying posting and reading the positive comments.
One day, two travellers from Ukraine contacted me, “Hi Fatima, we really loved your posts. And now we are interested in coming to Afghanistan. And surely we want to come to visit you and your city. So if it’s possible, can you show us around?”
For me, it was the start of a change. I could talk about Herat to them positively, about Afghanistan, about women, about culture. And they could talk about Afghanistan positively to their friends. It is the way to change the world.
I guided them for two days in Herat, and after they left they suggested me to the Untamed Borders company.
I always loved to guide my sheep into nature in the mountains, but I never thought one day I could do the same thing with humans. I was always talking to my sheep when I was a shepherd. Sometimes I felt they understood me more than anybody in my life because people always laughed at my dreams.
Was it tough to be a female tour guide in Afghanistan?
I think one thing that people were interested in about me guiding them was women’s stories. And they loved me to describe them because I have lived the story.
Actually, it was not very easy to be a tour guide there because it was not accepted in the society. According to them, I was spreading evil or transferring Western ideas to the local women. My father was telling me it’s dangerous and my mum was worried. Once I’d convinced my family I had to fight with society. They looked at me strangely, insulting me with their words, they hit me with stones. Even the people working in historical attractions were telling me, “If you want to continue the job, you have to have a man. You’re not only putting your life in danger but also your guests.”
They were trying to scare me off doing my job. I used to fight with them with just a smile. And I think a smile was enough for me to make them understand that no, I’m not wrong, I’m strong enough to continue my job.
I have a motto – to be a changer, not a victim. You never choose your birthplace, but you can choose the way you live your life.
What’s beautiful about Herat for you?
There are so many shrines and the culture is beautiful. People are hospitable. There were so many festivals, and people absolutely loved to offer local foods to my guests.
It has been a place for many empires, from the Mongols and Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and the Timurid Empire… Once it was part of Iran. It’s very similar to Iran and some people call it Small Iran.
Guests often said when they came to Afghanistan, “Everybody was discouraging us. It’s dangerous for you. But now when we go back, we will encourage others to go to Afghanistan – it’s completely different from what the media reflects to the world.” Of course, we cannot ignore war, terror or those things in Afghanistan, but not in every part of Afghanistan. I mean, I’m talking before the Taliban.
Fatima shares some of her favourite Herat spots to experience, from the bazaars to the teahouses.
Great Mosque of Herat
“Herat Mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, and visitors loved it. It is one of the biggest mosques in Asia and the fifth biggest in the world [according to some reports]. People always say they didn’t think they’d feel this peaceful there. I could hardly convince my guests to leave when it was time. It is so nicely detailed with turquoise and colourful tiles.
The central tile factory is in the Great Mosque. They have very simple tools – and are continuing the job of their fathers. Even if you don’t buy any, there’s an exhibition of tiles every day, so you can go and see the process of how people are making and designing them.
“The Old Bazaar of Herat has some teahouses, they’re 100 or 200 years old. They’re special teahouses, because the people who work there are so lovely, and at the same time they’re continuing the job of their fathers. They only have very simple green or black tea, perhaps with chocolate. The teahouses are so small and they were designed with handmade carpets, one of Herat’s biggest trades.
In the Timurid time – for families with low income – sewing carpets was one of their jobs. The whole family gathered together, they drank tea, listened to music, and sewed carpets. The carpets are handmade, with highly-detailed designs, and made from love. They believe that carpets and tea are connected to each other. Tea is what makes sewing the carpets more joyful.
The people working at the local teahouses have their own stories. I would take my guests there during the day to enjoy a cheap, simple cup of tea, but at the same time listen to the locals. For my guests, drinking in one of our local teahouses was so joyful and interesting. For most tour guides, who were men, it was meaningless to take guests into simple teahouses. But for me, it was something that my guests loved the most.
Goharshād’s Women’s Garden
“Timurid, which is a great Persian empire, transferred their capital to Herat. And in their empire, there was a woman, or a queen, called Goharshād. She worked a lot on Herat’s culture and archaeological sites. She was the one who commissioned the minarets, a university, and also a special garden where women could do sports. Those were places I could proudly introduce to my guests.
Very early in the morning, women would go cycling or do sports there. It was a safe women-only place because women were not allowed to do sports on the streets or in other places. But that was a place where a woman could run, cycle, or have a picnic.
The sounds of Herat
“There were a lot of local music shops and local singers. Those singers, they knew me, so they loved to offer their music to the tourists. They played local instruments or they sang for them. They loved it – they even invited those singers to their hotels to sing for them.
Souvenirs from the Old Bazaar
“Herat is the city of souvenirs in Afghanistan. Most of my guests loved to buy a small, handmade carpet, saffron or sweets. There is the Old Bazaar of Afghanistan and Herat has an antique bazaar. There is traditional jewellery – stones, silver, copper, gold from the empires’ times – and musical instruments for sale. Pottery is very famous in Herat.
I think the Old Bazaar is one of the places the guests loved most because the Silk Road in Afghanistan once crossed there and there are traditional Herat streets. You can experience the traditional life of Afghanistan and the traditional activities. It was an international spot once.
“The Citadel was first established in 330 BC. It’s now a big castle, but a woman called Shamiran, she first gathered people to make a base to defend the city against attackers. She built it, but once Alexander the Great came, he completely destroyed it and built a new castle. It has been quite a popular place for the military – it’s been a military base, a political spot, and the king’s family’s private place. People used to dance and have their own concerts there. It’s lovely, because there are so many stories inside.
Inspired? Delve further
What’s so good about this?
To answer that question, let’s ask another. Why visit Herat?
Untamed Borders founder James Willcox says: “Afghanistan was the first country where Untamed Borders started guiding back in 2008, and we have pioneered all sorts of trips and projects there, from skiing and marathons to horseback riding and kayaking. The decision to start working again in Afghanistan was not easy, but ultimately our mission is to engage and exchange through tourism. Our aim is to give our guests a complete view of the country they’re visiting, giving information on historical, cultural and geopolitical topics. In turn, the guests begin to understand countries that have gone through conflict, while also experiencing what daily life is like for people who live there.”
Fatima says: “The first reason is myself. I have lived a story that maybe some people can’t imagine. At the same time I’ve seen the stories of women who are suffering now, so I want to support them. When the Taliban arrived in Afghanistan they closed the door to education for those girls. It would be nice for them to join and support secret education for those girls, and it works for the guests. I’m continuing my job and they feel like I’m guiding them. Not virtually but in reality.”
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.