And this is she
with whom I tried to speak, whose hurt, expressive head
turning aside from pain …
and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul.
– Adrienne Rich, “Twenty-One Love Poems”
We stood before the bright blue wooden door, a single spot of color in the long, white compound wall and the dun, rubble-strewn city. Fumes from the diesel engines and open sewers of Kabul swirled around us, mixing with the dust of the unpaved road.
“This is it,” said Laila, my Afghan-American interpreter and travel companion.
On the other side of the wall, I would soon meet a woman I had been hearing about for three years. She was illiterate and had never attended school, but her sons in America were gruff, stoic, highly educated men who held university professorships and high-level government jobs, and spoke proudly of their Pashtun roots. In English, the men called her one thing and one thing only: Our Dear Mother. Laila simply called her Grandma.
It was May 2004. After September 11, I had begun reporting on the Shirzais, an Oregon-based Afghan immigrant family, for a major daily newspaper. Grandma’s oldest son, Daoud, a university professor who returned to Afghanistan to serve in the new Karzai government, had invited me to visit them in Kabul.
I’d traveled more than thirty hours, arriving at the house after a bumpy, dusty car ride from the Kabul airport. Laila’s grandmother was waiting for us in the women’s sitting room. What would I say to her, I wondered? Even with Laila’s help, could we ever understand each other?
Daoud had purchased this house before the Soviet War, soon after taking his first university teaching job in Portland. On the northwest outskirts of the city, it had been built amid wheat fields, which reminded him of Shinzmaray, his family’s rural village in the Ghazni province. Those fields were long gone now, replaced by a sprawl of other homes crowding the unpaved roads. Daoud had originally intended to return one day and live there. But then his younger brother Mohammed was captured and executed by the communists. Guilty by association with his brother and with the United States, he knew he could not come back as the Soviet War, and the wars that followed, raged. Other family members, those who remained, had taken over the compound.
Behind the blue door was a courtyard dotted with rosebushes and fig trees—a rare spot of lushness in the arid, brown city. The neatly trimmed grass was still damp from its midday watering. Leaving our shoes with the others piled near the doorway, we stepped up into a small vestibule, the entrance to the women’s side of the compound. Through the filmy white fabric draped across the doorway, I could see a squat, dark shape slowly rising from a cushion.
Entering an Afghan home, whether a modern compound in Kabul or a mud-brick house in a village, happens in stages. Guests first enter through an outer wall that shields its inhabitants from outsiders. Male guests are then ushered into the most accessible room from the courtyard, usually the formal sitting room for men. As a woman, I was guided through a smaller side entrance that led to the innermost rooms, which weren’t visible from the courtyard. This positioning allowed the females protection from prying eyes, and full-length curtains hung in the entryways for added privacy.
Purdah, the Islamic term for keeping women hidden from men through separation and veiling, comes from the Hindi word for “curtain.” To westerners, these protected spaces tend to symbolize sexism and oppression. But during my weeks in Afghanistan I would come to understand that the women I met regarded this separation as a form of freedom. Purdah meant they could be themselves in half the home, sometimes without headscarves, knowing that men would rarely enter. Inside the inner sanctum, women developed a fierce closeness and formed their own society, where the elders would watch over and nurture the younger. Inside those rooms, girls became women, marriages were arranged, widows were comforted. Entering an Afghan women’s room truly lifted a veil into another, hidden world.
As Laila parted the curtain, Grandma came toward us. I had practiced the traditional greeting with Laila’s older female relatives in America: the embrace, the left-right-left cheek kisses, and a rapid-fire series of Pashto greetings. Still, I worried I might mess it up, as I sometimes did, going right instead of left and awkwardly almost kissing the other woman on the lips.
I practically stumbled into Grandma’s outstretched arms, and she engulfed me in an iron embrace, hugging me with more force than any of Laila’s American relatives ever had. Her grip was cushioned, though, by the black fabric of her large chador and a voluminous traditional Afghan dress. How did a woman who had appeared so frail standing up possess such strength? She placed a soft hand on each side of my face and regarded me at arm’s length, her glittering black eyes attempting to focus on me. Her hands firmly guided my head from side to side, training wheels for the kissing, as she pressed her lips into my cheeks.
“Salaam aleikum! Tsenga ye? Jora ye? Stere me se!” she said. Peace be with you! How are you? How is your health? May you not be tired! I repeated the words back to her as best I could, trying to roll my “r” on Stere, “tired,” just right.
The octogenarian before me had lost five of her fourteen children to disease or accidents when they were small. Then Mohammed was taken. She endured the Soviet bombing of her village and stayed as her children and grandchildren left to start new lives all over the world. She had stayed through the civil war, the Taliban, and now, the U.S.-led war. And then six years ago, she lost her husband to illness. Who was I to tell her not to be tired?
Grandma motioned for us to sit on the pomegranate-colored velour cushions flanking the room, then took a seat near the center, smoothing her full skirt over her crossed legs. I had expected to see Daoud when I arrived, but there was no sign of any of the men.
Laila’s cousin whisked in a tray with a large teapot and glass cups. The warm cardamom-scented liquid washed over my dust-parched tongue and throat, and Grandma smiled and sipped hers as I downed mine in a couple of gulps. It was refilled immediately, and I resolved to drink more daintily.
When I set down my cup, Grandma began to talk. I instinctively sat at her side, and Laila settled opposite me so she could interpret from Pashto. She spoke first of Shinzmaray, and the family’s traditional mud-brick compound where she spent most of her time. She was only in Kabul now because Daoud was here, she explained. She preferred the village to the city. “It’s peaceful there,” she said. But it hadn’t always been that way.
“One day,” she said, “from seven in the morning to seven at night, the planes kept circling and bombing.” Her voice rose and fell, at times getting caught in a warbling spot in her throat. She gestured with her hands, sticking her thumb and pinky finger out like wings to demonstrate the swoops of the Soviet bombers. “I can’t hear well because of the bombs.”
(Indeed, later, when I would finally gather the courage to try the rudimentary Pashto I learned from diplomatic language tapes, Laila would instruct me to lean close to Grandma’s good ear and shout.)
“The bombs dropped on people’s crops and tractors,” she continued. “Their livelihoods were destroyed. Before the war started, people had so much land. Horses couldn’t go from one end to the other. Now the land is destroyed. People hardly get by.”
Grandma beckoned to me. She put on a pair of thick glasses that covered half her round face and pulled something out of the folds of her scarf, like a magician. It was a tiny black crayon, pointed at one end.
“She does this to everyone,” Laila said. “She wants to put kohl on your eyes to beautify you.”
Grandma firmly propped my face with one hand and trained the point of the crayon straight toward my left eye with the other. Laila instructed me to blink down on the tip as her grandmother drew it across my inner eyelids. Seeing the results, the elderly lady threw up her hands and made a soft sound of delight. In this world of women, familiarity occurred through actions, not words. This instant intimacy was hospitality and, more subtly, a way of keeping me in line. Absorbed into the intricate social order of the household, I’d be far less likely to disrupt it.
Over the next few weeks, I would be alternately praised and reprimanded by Grandma and the other women of the household on the finer points of protocol: I could remove my headscarf in front of the younger women, but should keep it on for Grandma and the older women. I should not make eye contact with any of the men, particularly the younger, unmarried ones, in front of Grandma. Even though Daoud and I always shook hands to greet each other in Portland, I should absolutely refrain from doing so in Kabul. In fact, one evening in the sitting room, Laila would translate a message from Grandma: the women had decided that I tended to stand too close to Daoud when talking to him in the courtyard, the compound’s only gender-neutral space.
Now with her glasses on, Grandma studied me again.
“Are you married? How old are you? Where is your family?”
Laila mumbled in English, “I’m going to tell her you’re twenty-five, not thirty, because otherwise you’ll get an earful about not being married yet.” She then shouted into Grandma’s ear in Pashto.
“Twenty-five?” Grandma said. “Why aren’t you married yet? And Laila too. You should tell her to get married, too.”
Laila, who actually was twenty-five, rolled her eyes.
As Grandma continued to espouse the virtues of marriage, Laila stopped translating and whispered, “Change the subject.”
“Ok,” I said. I turned to Grandma. “I’d like to show you what I do for a living.”
Only twenty percent of Afghan women were literate, and nearly all of those who could read had grown up in urban areas. How many times in her life, if ever, had Grandma picked up a newspaper? Would she be able to comprehend what a journalist did, and that I had written about her family? I pulled out a newspaper from the year 2000 with my first article about the Shirzais. The story had run with many photos, including an old family snapshot from the seventies.
Seeing the front page, Grandma exclaimed over a portrait of Daoud giving a university lecture. She picked up the paper and kissed her firstborn son’s image. Then she honed in on the old, black-and-white family shot of Mohammed and his three children. In the photo, Mohammed wore horn-rimmed glasses and an argyle sweater. His children, all under the age of six, piled on top of him as he reclined on a bed. Mohib, the oldest, had curly hair and a petulant look on his face. Sarasa had a pageboy haircut and a mischievous glint in her eye; Mina, the baby, was wearing feet pajamas, barely able to sit up. They were grown now, Laila’s age, and also living in Portland. Though Afghans typically didn’t smile for photos, Mohammed’s lips were pressed together with the corners of his mouth turned up, as if he couldn’t help himself.
Later that year he was kidnapped from his home by the KGB, imprisoned and eventually executed for helping to organize a coup against the communists. His body was never recovered, but was likely one of the 50,000 believed to have been disposed of in mass graves in Kabul. Those found had broken bones and gunshot holes to the skulls. Grandma’s smile fell. She extended a finger toward the newsprint, caressing her late son’s slim face, and then each of the children’s.
“Mohib, Sarasa, Mina, their father was taken. And now they are all the way in America,” she said. Laila’s voice grew quiet as she translated. “The war broke so many families.”
I felt instant regret. “Should I not have shown her that photo?” I whispered.
“It’s OK,” Laila whispered back. “It’s good, actually.”
Grandma blinked hard behind her thick lenses. She folded back the sides of the newspaper and kissed Mohammed’s image, then smoothed the paper down on her knee and let her son and grandchildren gaze up at her. She removed her glasses. The late afternoon sun through the sitting room window caught the wetness in her eyes and made her round face glow. She smiled and gripped my hand fiercely. I squeezed back and swallowed all that I had planned to tell her about the newspaper and my job. She had already shown me more about both than I could have possibly imagined.
Note: The names of Afghans and Afghan-Americans in this story have been changed for their protection. They were threatened for cooperating with an American journalist.
Angie Chuang is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and educator. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, CALYX, Washingtonian magazine, Asian American Literary Review, and Consequence, as well as the anthologies Best Women’s Travel Writing Vol. 8, Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Best Travel Writing Vol. 9, and Tales from Nowhere. She is on the faculty of American University School of Communication. “The Women’s Sitting Room” is an excerpt from her book manuscript, "The Four Words for Home," which won Second Place in the 2011 Santa Fe Writer’s Project Literary Awards.
This story is reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher from "The Best Women's Travel Writing, Vol. 9," edited by Lavinia Spalding, published by Travelers' Tales, copyright 2013 Solas House, Inc. An earlier version of the story originally appeared in Adanna Winter 2013, “Women and War: A Tribute to Adrienne Rich.”
Photo by Stephanie Yao Long