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Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: The Fastest Girl in Kabul

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One of the fastest people in Afghanistan runs like a girl -- and if everything works out, 19-year-old Mehbooba Andyar, the only Afghan woman scheduled to compete in this year's Olympics, will soon have the chance to prove she's one of the fastest in the world. But whether she wins or loses in Beijing, her biggest challenge lies not in the stadium but back home, where she faces fierce cultural disapproval -- and even death threats -- for stepping outside the traditional role of women in Afghan society to compete.

Sam French, our very own Man in Afghanistan, braved some cultural disapproval of his own -- including a truckload of angry cops wielding AK-47s -- to get the story. This is Sam's tale, and the terrific short documentary that he and French filmmakers Louis Meunier and Jerome Veyret made about it.

mehbooba.jpgOnly 19 years old, Mehbooba Andyar has always dreamed of representing Afghanistan at the Olympics. This year, in Beijing, her dreams will be realized when she competes in the 1500 meter and 800 meter track and field events at the 2008 Olympic games. Her story is remarkable in a country where women generally don't show their faces outside of the home, let alone attempt to compete on the world stage at the Olympics with billions of people watching. When she competes in Beijing, under the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules, she must wear clothes which cover her entire body, as well as a black headscarf. Needless to say, this will hamper her style a bit.

Her family has faced intimidation and even death threats over her decision to compete. She can barely step outside for fear she will be accosted, verbally abused, or worse. Because of such fierce cultural disapproval, she trains outside of her house, on a rutted mud street, at dusk, when her neighbors are all inside their houses watching the latest soap operas imported from India (in which, I might add, the women inevitably bare their bellies in revealing sarongs).

IMG_2467.JPG.jpgMehbooba's family, like most of the poor residents of Kabul, live on the hills which surround the city, in concrete or packed earth dwellings, where they can avoid the zoning laws. They are under constant threat by those who disapprove of Mehbooba's quest, and fearing for their lives, have been forced to move multiple times. But despite everything, her family wanted her story told.

Louis and I arrived late in the afternoon, our taxi taking us up muddy streets flowing with sewer water, past children playing pickup soccer and herds of sheep munching on trash. Mehbooba greeted us warmly, and ushered us into sit with the family for tea. Nothing is done in this country without tea -- it is the oil of social discourse. Mehbooba served us with grace, only a slight tremor while pouring betraying her nervousness.

We dared not film anything until the rituals had been observed. Afghans put great stock in hospitality. And so, while the light was rapidly disappearing, we left our cameras in their bags and made small talk, haltingly, through our translator. We finally managed to get some footage, but all too soon, it was time for dinner, and the light had nearly disappeared. Apparently, in addition to training for the Olympics, it's still Mehbooba's job to cook dinner for her family "“ father, mother, brother, and younger sister. I took the camera and filmed some b-roll of her stirring a vegetable soup, bent over a small gas camping stove, illuminated only by its tiny flame.

After serving her family, she left her food uneaten and stepped outside. It was time to train. At this point, the sun had set. Alone, lit by the sodium vapor light of a single streetlamp, she limbered up and prepared to run.

Suddenly, headlights pierced the darkness. A 4X4 lumbered up the dirt track and slid to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of us. It was the police. Another 4X4 appeared behind us. Six policemen, each carrying an AK-47, stepped out of the two vehicles and surrounded us. One of them grabbed our camera and threw it into the back of his vehicle as their leader started yelling at us in Dari. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that there were six angry men gesturing at us with guns.

Mehbooba's father ran out of the house and started yelling at the policemen. They gestured at Mehbooba, and one of them grabbed her and roughly dragged her back inside the house. One of them waved his gun and shouted a question at me. Our translator leaned close, whispering to me that they wanted to know why we were filming. We told him to tell them that we had authorization from Jekdalek, the president of the Afghan Olympic Committee. He relayed this, which provoked a more intense bout of yelling and waving of guns. The translator shook his head. They tell me that you are filming a porno, he said.

Apparently, one of the neighbors, in a righteous rage that Mehbooba was stepping outside of her place, had called the police, who were all too happy to believe that the only reason two foreigners with cameras would be in a woman's home was to film pornography. They yelled at us for two hours, standing on the dusty street, under the light of that single streetlamp. During the course of this barrage, none of which I understood, the neighbors had all finished dinner and come outside, ringing us with hostile faces. They all seemed to think that we were sex-addled foreign sickos, there to take advantage of their women. When the cops finally herded us to their vehicles, I was all too happy to get out of there.

At the station, the police chief asked to see ID. Louis pulled out his ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) press badge, which seemed to convince him that we were not pornographers. Our translator breathed a sigh of relief as we were unceremoniously shown the door. He said that if he had not been with us, he would have been beaten and thrown in jail.

In fact, to our great chagrin, we subsequently learned that the police returned the house, arrested Mehbooba's father, and did exactly that. He was in jail for three days before being released. Because of us, her family had to move once again.

But her father implored us to continue filming. He wanted the world to know that his daughter would not be beaten by threats and intimidation. And so, over the next few days, we filmed Mehbooba training at the stadium, eating lunch with her fellow athletes, and talking about her struggle to compete. She seemed eager to talk to us, and even though her family bore the brunt of the punishment for our transgression, she apologized profusely and often for what happened. I think she was ashamed of her countrymen, and more determined than ever to show the world that she deserved to be in Beijing.

Even though she will never win any medals (she is a full minute slower than the fastest time in the 1500 meters), Mehbooba has already won by choosing to compete in the face of such cultural pressure. I believe she is a tribute to her country, and as I watched her run around the track at Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban used to execute women for adultery, I felt a sense of hope surge inside of me. When she competes in August, I hope the world watches her and feels the way I do: that where there is oppression and bigotry, there will be people like Mehbooba Ahdyar, who illuminate the world with their courage.

UPDATE: on July 4, 2008, Mehbooba fled from her hotel room in Italy, where she was training in preparation for the Olympic games. She is currently seeking asylum in Norway, fearful that her family will be killed should she compete. In a cruel twist of fate, however, the Afghan Olympic Committee has threatened to imprison Mehbooba's family if she doesn't return to compete; an impossible choice.

This is their short documentary about Mehbooba.

Timeline: Afghanistan at the Olympics

1980: The US and other nations boycott the summer games in Moscow because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan sends a team which is handpicked by the Soviet forces. Most of the real athletes have joined the Mujahadeen, including the current Afghanistan Olympic Committee president, Jekdalek.

1984: Afghanistan, under Communist rule, boycotts the summer games in Los Angeles.

1988: Afghanistan competes in Seoul, but wins no medals.

1992: Afghanistan does not compete in Barcelona.

1996: Afghanistan sends two athletes to Atlanta. One, boxer Mohammad Aman, fails to appear at a mandatory weigh-in and is disqualified. The other, Marathoner Abdul Wasiqi, hurts his hamstring and finishes last.

2000: Afghanistan is banned by the IOC from competing in Sydney because the Taliban placed too many restrictions on the athletes "“ they could not wear shorts, they could not shave (which disqualified the boxers) and they did not allow women to compete.

2004: Afghanistan sends five athletes to compete in Athens. Among them are Robina Muqim Yaar (100 meter runner) and Friba Rezihi (judo), who are the first two women from Afghanistan ever sent to the Olympic games. Afghanistan wins no medals.

Check out Sam's first dispatch here, or email him at sam at samfrench dot com.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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