One expatriate young lady's memories of Afghanistan culture...

"This is Afghanistan"

The other day someone asked me, “What do you miss most about Afghanistan and Afghanistan culture?” I had to stop and think, even though I've been asked this question many times.

Usually I have settled for some meaningless answer like “the people” or “the Afghan culture”?

Through the eyes of the media, people see a barren wasteland with nothing but bearded terrorists, or snotty-nosed children playing in the dirt while their mothers beg for crusts of bread behind tattered veils. "Afghanistan" has become synonymous with "bad news", "terror", and "crisis".

I know this is part of Afghanistan. Afghans themselves tell a story that reinforces the image:

They say that one day a scorpion wanted to cross over a river, so it asked a frog if it could ride on its back. The frog said, "How can I know that you will not sting me as we are crossing the river?" The scorpion replied, "Why would I sting you? If I did I would drown just like you would!" Reassured, the frog let the scorpion climb onto its back and started swimming across the river. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. With its last breath, the frog cried out, "Why have you done this? Now we will both drown!" The scorpion's only reply was, "Because I'm a scorpion."

But something within me cries, No! This is not Afghanistan, not the land I know and love, not what it was meant to be! The mordar [killing] image is only a partial truth.

What do I miss about Afghanistan and Afghanistan culture? The following is my attempt to articulate an answer.

(Note: There are some Dari words that really cannot be translated into English and retain their effect; I am putting their definitions at the bottom, and even including the phonetic forms for my beloved linguist friends!)

  • I miss waking up to the sound of roosters crowing and the voice of the vegetable seller shouting palak! zardak!” as he rolls his wooden karachee down the street.

  • I miss stepping out of bed and feeling thick warm namat under my feet, looking out the window to see the fine dusting of snow covering the flat mud roofs of the city, and running downstairs to cuddle up by the bukharee.

  • I miss the mud of Kabul's streets, oozing up around my rubber galashes.

  • I miss the feeling of warm security my chadar brought me as I walked through the city with averted gaze, clutching it tightly under my chin.

  • I miss the ridiculousness of being greeted by Afghan women friends and not being able to recognize them because their faces were hidden behind their chadarees.

  • I miss watching children play soccer in the street.

  • I miss shopping in the cloth bazaar, browsing through bolts of floral prints, solid colors, geometric designs, textures that vary from satiny to veil-thin to coarse cotton.

  • I miss discussing with the shop keeper whether a peran-O-tumban takes a meter-and-a-half or two meters of fabric, and watching him wrap the material around his metal meter-stick.

  • I miss the sound of the cloth ripping, signifying a decision made, a price agreed upon, a deal closed.
  • I miss paying with thick wads of paper bills held together by rubber bands.[prior to 2003's currency change]

  • I miss breathing in the smell of nan, watching it get pulled out of the tandoor by a long stick, wrapping a stack of it in a clean dishcloth, letting its warmth seep through my cold hands.

  • I miss devouring it in the back of our jeep on our way home from community meetings.
  • I miss driving through puddles as wide as the road, watching the brown spray shoot up from the sides of our tires.

  • I miss the wonder of Afghanistan's spring, those magical two weeks when the barren desert turns into a delicate green.

  • I miss the almond blossoms, bursting balls of white and pink, spreading fragrance and petals to the wind.

  • I miss the fields covered with red poppies like a giant blanket.
  • I miss picking the tender grass that grows on the roof and feeding it to my pet rabbits.

  • I miss now-roze, when the girls get all dressed up in glittery new dresses, when the boys have contests to see whose dyed red egg has the strongest shell, and when they all line up for rides on the merry-go-rounds set up in the street.

  • I miss seeing families picnicking around the rauza in Mazar, the turquoise blue minarets behind them sparkling in the afternoon sun, children feeding the white pigeons that rise and settle all around like snow in a Christmas globe.

  • I miss going to weddings and eating heaping platters of greasy quabeli palao with my fingers.

  • I miss the scent of heavily perfumed bodies mingled with sweat, hairspray, and cardamom green tea.

  • I miss the loud music, the tabla and tinny-sounding keyboard, the singers testing the microphones with an echoing “yak, du, say” and the dancers moving their hennaed hands and feet with ever graceful poise.

  • I miss riding down the street in a gaudee, feeling the rumble of the wobbly wooden wheels over the road's uneven surface, watching the red pompoms on the horse's harness bob up and down, hearing the jingle of the bells, the swish of the whip, and the clicking sounds the driver makes to urge the horse to go faster. I miss having to lean back to carefully balance the weight in the tippy two-wheel contraption.

  • I miss the hot summer days when we would raid the melon stands, tapping on the smooth, green hides to see which watermelon sounded hollowest, picking out the biggest, ripest, wrinkled yellow em>, then cutting them open and sinking our teeth into their sweet, juicy flesh.

  • I miss stepping with bare feet from the hot cement sidewalk into the shade of our grapevine

  • I miss spraying my siblings with squirt bottles and fighting with the hose until we ran the well dry.

  • I miss summer evenings when the night-opening flowers would release their delicate perfume, and when we would sleep outside under mosquito nets gazing at the pinpoints of light that twinkled in the velvet sky.
  • I miss running to the shelter of our house or car in a khakbad when the dust was so thick that we could only see a few feet in front of us. There is nothing that quite compares with the smell of rain after a khakbad, or with the clean, crisp brilliance of the colors that shine out after everything has been washed clean.

  • I miss hiking on scree-covered mountains and passing donkeys loaded with huge bundles of firewood on the skinny trails.

  • I miss plopping myself down on the side of a grassy slope, feeling the breeze in my face, watching a herd of fat-tailed sheep graze together on the hillside nearby as the late afternoon sun turns the distant snow-capped mountains into a glistening gold.

  • I miss the chuckle of kauks as they half-waddle, half-fly through the grass, and the lonely song of the mullah, drifting up from the village mosque on the plain far below.

  • I miss searching for-ancient treasures under layers of ruined mud walls, finding flowers in bloom on sheer, barren rocky crags, and seeing stars that can only be seen where the atmosphere is thin and the electricity goes out.

  • I miss those uncertain days when I was certain that the only way I was going to live at all was by living on my knees. I miss the inexplicable comfort that is only found in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, the feeling of being held, sheltered, and led by invisible hands when the world shook around me.

  • This is Afghanistan, the way I see it.

    When my parents and youngest brother flew "home" to Afghanistan last December, my siblings and I walked along the beach in Los Angeles, watching and waving at every airplane that flew overhead, and feeling very much like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy must have felt when they grew too old to go back to Narnia.

    Yet I'm realizing that perhaps what I miss is not so much Narnia itself as the nearness of Aslan I experienced within it; and slowly I'm learning that this is a nearness with which no geographical distance can ever interfere.

    palak, zardak: “Spinach, carrots.” [pɑlak zaɾdak]

    karachee: Wooden cart, sometimes pulled by a donkey or horse, other times pushed by hand. [kaɾat͡ʃi]

    namat: Felt carpeting. [namat]

    bukharee: A stove-either wood or kerosene- that Afghans use to warm up a central room of their house. Ours was a cast-iron, wood-burning stove. [buxɑɾi]

    galaushes: Very common winter footwear; ankle-length, handmade, rubber with felt insoles. [kalɑuʃ]

    chadar: Long shawl covering the head, shoulders, and backside. [t͡ʃɑdɑɾ]

    chadaree: Also known as burkhas. The covering that Muslim women wear that hides their face and entire body. [t͡ʃɑdɑɾi]

    paran tumban: A typical outfit, including a long top and baggy pants underneath. [pɑrɑn tumbɑn]

    naan: Flat bread, either round or oblong. [nɑn]

    tandur: Round, clay oven that naan is baked in. The dough is slapped onto the inside walls of the oven, and pulled out with a long stick when baked. [tanduɾ]

    Now-roze: Afghan New Year. [naᵘɾoz]

    rauza: The Blue Mosque, a shrine to the prophet Ali. In the central square of the city of Mazar. [raᵘzɑ]

    Kabuli palau: Basmati rice with goat, sheep, beef, or chicken meat buried underneath, sautéed raisins and carrots sprinkled on top. [qɑbəli palaᵘ]

    tabla: A type of drum, played with the hands. [tabla]

    yak, du, se: “One, two, three.” [jak, du, se]

    gadi: A type of horse-drawn carriage. Very common transportation in Afghanistan. [gɑdi]

    kharbuza: An oblong, yellow melon with white flesh inside, sort of like a cantaloupe but all-around better! [xaɾbuza]

    khakbad: Dust storm. [xɑkbɑd]

    cowk: Afghan mountain partridge. [kaᵘk]

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