Aug 19, 2022
ON AUGUST 23, Fatima Haidari will guide a group of tourists through Herat, the third largest Afghan city and a place that’s been a center of culture, art and poetry for centuries. As the first female tour guide in Afghanistan, it’s a city she knows well.
She’ll lead her guests to favorite spots like the intricately tiled Great Mosque, the imposing walls of the Citadel and the towering minarets of the Musalla complex, as well as through the bustling alleyways of the old bazaar.
But Haidari and her group won’t physically be in Afghanistan. The excursion is part of a series of virtual tours that she’s organizing with Untamed Borders, a travel company specializing in off-the-beaten-track adventures that has been working in the country since 2008, pioneering the first skiing and kayaking trips, and founding the Marathon of Afghanistan.
Haidari left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover a year ago, and is determined to continue showing the beauty of her country from her current base in Italy. She’s also raising awareness and funds for charities that are continuing to offer education for girls – in secret – in Afghanistan, with proceeds from the tour’s US$60 participation fee supporting this work.
She hopes that the one-hour virtual tours will give her guests a sense of what they would experience if they joined her in Herat in person, as well as an insight into the realities of the current situation in the country. And for Haidari herself, although she’s conducting her tours from some 5,000 kilometers away, they still feel ‘real,’ she says: “I feel like I’m continuing to do my job.”
She credits an unusual source as being the inspiration behind her career as a tour guide – the sheep she herded through the mountains of Afghanistan as a small girl. With nobody else to speak to, she started talking to them about nature, the mountains and waterfalls, and anything else that struck her as beautiful. “It may sound a little strange now, but when I started (working as a tour guide), it really connected back to when I was guiding a group of sheep,” she told Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia in an interview. “Being a shepherd helped me to be a good leader.”
Her family moved from the mountains to Herat, where she researched Afghanistan’s potential tourist attractions as part of her university studies. “I knew that when people around the world heard the name Afghanistan, only pictures of mines, explosions, terror and war came into their minds,” she says. “I really didn’t like that, so I decided to introduce Afghanistan in a positive way to the world, from the perspective of a woman.”
Starting small, Haidari created a Facebook account that she populated with regular photos and posts. Her page gained traction among a community of curious travelers, and in early 2020 she was approached by two Ukrainians who asked her to guide them around Herat.
“I was able to introduce the beauty of Afghanistan to them in a positive way, without the negatives of explosions or terror or bombing,” she says. Her hope was that her guests would go home and tell their friends about the country and what they experienced there. “I was a woman who, for the first time, didn’t think about what would happen after that,” she says. “That day was so nice and I was feeling so positive.”
Becoming a tour guide was not a decision that Haidari took lightly, and she struggled to convince her family to let her take on a job that was not generally accepted by society for a female in Afghanistan. “I was the only one of my siblings who was educated, and our neighbors and society judged me a lot for doing such a job,” she says.
Her mother also opposed her decision at first, but eventually convinced the rest of the family to let her get on with it. Haidari understands her mother’s concerns all too well. “In a country where you go out in the morning and you’re not expected to come back alive, it was her right to be worried,” she says.
Haidari describes herself as “a changer, not a victim.” As she says, “I decided to change my life, to not accept being the victim of superstition, tradition, and what this society or community decides for us.” She hopes the sentiment can help to motivate others, and it’s this spirit that has carried her through times when the criticism and negativity around her career choice became almost too hard to bear.
“I was telling myself, Fatima, what they are doing is just asking you to be stronger,” she says. “It means you are just not strong enough yet, and you have to be stronger than they are.”
In the course of working as a tour guide in Afghanistan, Haidari faced stares and insults, and had stones thrown at her. “Even the educated people were telling me it was so dangerous for me as a girl, and that if I wanted to continue this job I should have a male colleague,” she recalls. But she was determined to carry on, believing that as a female tour guide, she could bring about a different understanding of her country for the many visitors who were as interested in Afghan women’s stories as they were in historical places.
“I have lived these stories and can tell them in a way that men can’t,” she says. “These stories are not my own, but the stories of millions of women.”
To join Fatima Haidari and to support her chosen charities for women’s education, book your place on her next virtual tour of Herat on August 23, 2022, at 7 p.m. GMT through Untamed Borders.