True story: Afghanistan’s First Lady once slapped me so hard I pissed my pants.
My brief encounter with the center of Mrs Ahmadzai’s palm happened on a school bus. In a communist country, no one was above riding public transportation. The president’s wife and her oafish daughter were, however, latecomers, seats were at a premium, and I was not above paying with my pride in order to keep mine. She didn’t know me from Adam, so I don’t know what compelled her to demand my seat as she stood in the narrow aisle, the makeshift gutter for kids who soiled themselves out of fear, laughter and motion sickness. Stand up, she ordered. I did. And give up your seat to my daughter, she persisted. I refused almost at the same time as her hand connected with my jaw, and I, out of surprise rather than heroism, unleashed my sense of justice at her feet. None of the students said a word and I resolved not to shed a tear. We rode quietly home, me with my ass stuck to the prized vinyl, they staring out of the windows at the changing world.
Those days were the late 1980s in Afghanistan, the tail end of a few meteoric decades of relative peace and prosperity. More specifically it was 1989, a special time in Kabul. I had defeated mumps and earned a packet of crayons from my crush, whose twin brother was my arch-rival. The Indian Embassy’s International English Primary School had issued outstanding marks for my essay on the sanctity of the cow, and involuntarily relieving myself on the bus had taught me a solid lesson on pyrrhic victories. But more important than anything else that fateful year was my discovery of the life-defining transcendence of Peter Gabriel.
It’s worth mentioning that the Soviets, like centuries worth of other aggressors, had that year finally cottoned on to the idea of misplaced tenacity and left Afghanistan to simmer and implode. So Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ played alongside the retreating tracks of the hammer and sickle, and the increasing frequency of tea-kettle whistles from passing rockets. The montage of Gabriel’s face constructed entirely of fruits was fascinating. Claymation at its finest: an ingenious distraction, and, in hindsight, a way of seeing beyond the peaks of the Hindu Kush.
When Gabriel’s fruits exploded on screen, the sheer creative force behind the music video seemed unimaginable to my sister and me. They’re made of moom, my mother had stated matter-of-factly – in the same way she broke bad news. Moom, the modeling clay with which my sister once styled my hair, now animated with color and life a bunch of rogue objects. ‘Sledgehammer’ was a link to the familiar memory of France, where we had lived briefly, and to all that was possible out there. It would not be until years later, when I better understood English – and where babies came from – that I grasped the full meaning of the lyrics. The war, however, would continue to be confounding.
Worse still, the war was monotonous – a predictable series of high-pitched sounds and percussion. Fortunately, my dad’s collection of rock and blues LPs, culled from his college days in France, provided a more melodic soundtrack to life in post-Soviet Kabul.
Contrary to assumptions about Afghan men and secular activity, my father never beat us (or my mom) for having Western or non-Islamic inclinations. Dad did not wield an iron fist, choosing instead a zen-like state of patience and reason to deal with the three women in the household. Not blessed with sons (something of a curse among more conservative Afghans), my dad never faltered in his open affection and his mastery of psychological warfare when it came to negating our appeals to his pathos. He rarely flat-out denied us anything, but disguised refusal as a question that challenged the integrity of our moral core – ‘you can wear that dress, but do you think it best reflects the person you know you are?’ Basically, he guilt-tripped the hell out of us and it worked like a charm almost every time. But he changed my life with music.
My dad would tell us about the Woodstock Festival in 1969, which aired on TV sets in Toulouse, France. He and a group of Afghan exchange students sat watching Jimi Hendrix turn a Fender Stratocaster into a mesmerizing siren. It was beautiful. My dad rattled off names like Baez and Santana and Joplin, and I would file them in a mental registry. The physical registry we maintained at home: we had more than a hundred records packed tightly at the bottom of a wall-to-wall shelf, my dad’s musical equivalent of memoirs. Over the course of my life, he would explain various curiosities about the songs that had filled our house even when we couldn’t hear them. He would also use music as a way to encourage sis and me to keep up our French, by playing and translating Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré and Charles Aznavour.
And then there were music videos. The videos demonstrated precisely that for which the language barrier could not account (pretty much about 90 percent of the content). Pink Floyd resonated with me for two reasons: they were named for my favorite color, and one of their albums had a picture of a prism on the cover. They also seemed to advance fairly compelling arguments: ‘Teacher, leave those kids alone’ and ‘If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?’
The question made sense because delayed satisfaction was a well-cultivated sensibility to any young Afghan. The threat of impending hellfire and its social equivalent – gossip – ensured perfect comportment in the classroom and at home; as a result, a lot of life was spent simply waiting. We, like many families, waited for ‘papers’ – specifically for my father’s transfer authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would allow him to assume the role of consul general in London and afford the family safe passage out of Afghanistan. While people prayed for peace, I secretly held out for Corn Flakes. It was hard to find and expensive to buy in Kabul, but my parents would always manage to get a box for us kids, which ended up making me feel bad. So I hoped we would go to Geneva or London or France where presumably Corn Flakes fell from the sky. And where, sated with cereal, I could finally play outside.
One afternoon, when the skies seemed clear of any potential raids, my mother took my sister and me out on our bikes (a rare treat). I have a snapshot memory of this set to ‘Eye of the Tiger’. Approaching the small rose garden by the apartment complex in which we lived, I zoned in on my competition – the son of my father’s boss. Encouraged by my mother’s anxious supervision of my sister, who explored every treacherous ledge with a confident curiosity, I chased the tiny boy’s curving back. A steely-eyed killer on a Barbie bike, I pursued – and scared – the bejesus out of him. He pedaled faster; I pedaled closer. Then we both stopped in our tracks. A dull thud, like a heavy ball dropped on sand sounded from a distance. My mother called my name and I hesitated, turning, twisting just enough to see her striding towards me – a statuesque beauty in a short-sleeved coral dress. Her long legs jutted out in quick steps over the concrete.
‘We have to go home. It’s getting dangerous. Come on, get your sister.’
That was largely the extent of playing outside.
When I was eleven, my dad resigned from the Foreign Service because of Afghanistan’s growing love affair with radicalization, which effectively rendered us homeless in London. We were placed in a motel, which was like refugee camp, in one of the ritziest parts of the city, so that we could fully appreciate the irony of our situation: the Afghan diplomat and his wife, an out-of-work doctor, and their two daughters squatting among refugees and an army of cockroaches. My parent’s ‘room’ had a cassette and CD player, and on one of our excursions to a Sunday flea market we purchased a stack of rhythm and blues and rock and roll albums. In hindsight, our situation at that time was pretty dire, so I don’t recall if my folks listened to music then. But I did. With oversized headphones clamped around my head, I sang along with Fontella Bass, Queen, Ray Charles (a lot of Ray Charles) and Chuck Berry when no one was listening, and bopped something off beat to the Dixie Cups. And I thought about boys.
The British government ultimately relocated us to a flat in Chelsea. We lived above a transvestite – who kept a sequined red platform stiletto in the window – and a pair of quarreling lovers. They were perfectly cordial, though we rarely saw them. Sis and I would occasionally catch the transvestite at her window and wave on our way in from school. As for the couple, they would slam in and out of their apartment a couple of times a week or we would glimpse the woman sulking at the window. Paula. She was built like a brick shithouse. Both neighbors seemed to be on the margins of English society, and perhaps by feeling similarly situated, I felt a collective sadness for our positions. I did not begrudge them my curiosity, and while my imagination peered beyond their front doors, they soon became colorful fixtures against the otherwise bleak landscape of Edith Grove.
During that period, my parents, running out of money and patience, thought seriously about immigrating to the United States. Sis and I, inured to long-distance moves, worried mostly about our social life. Our family had embedded into the Afghan community in London and we spent almost every weekend at various house parties, listening and dancing to Afghan music – until the infamy of Los Del Río’s ‘Macarena’. It was through the latter that our friendship with the daughters of our parents’ friends, who had moved there a decade prior to us, began to cement. Well versed in family name, honor and shame, our sextet of hormonal frenzy would gather in a room away from adults and gossip about crushes and how much we wished we were white, because those girls had it so easy, and at the peak of our physical incapacitation (we couldn’t date let alone kiss a boy), we would line up and dance the Macarena for the five-hundredth time, fantasizing about the moment when our crushes would somehow witness our mastery of the dance and become wholly smitten.
George, the protagonist of my fantasies, was too cool for school, and for me. At Holland Park, the gritty secondary school of angry immigrant kids and lower-echelon Brits, George was a reticent Colombian badass who didn’t suffer fools. When he wasn’t brooding, he was playing soccer or cutting class. His soccer was decent, but his brooding was top-notch. He regarded the entire juvenile procession of Holland Park in silence, his dark eyes squinting under the plush black curls that spun out of his head. He kept his lips pursed lest a smile should escape them, and never did he allow anyone to call him ‘whore-hay’. I rarely spoke to him for fear that he would crush me with indifference. I moved on to Selim, a lanky Sudanese, who in contrast to George moved with the touching gravity of a monk. At about the same time George and Selim made an appearance in my life, I began reading racy romance sagas by V.C. Andrews (two per week) and listening to Sam Cooke’s ‘You send me’; his lingering woo-ooahs about romance resonated with my woes.
Woah indeed. For my parents to have entertained the notion of such a dalliance two things would have been required: 1) the existence of hell and 2) it freezing over.
I spent most of my early adolescence in my own head, creating fictions that I would turn over in my mind nightly, in the hopes that one day I might get to experience them. Then I would feel I was surely hell-bound for even entertaining such thoughts, and pray in earnest for Allah to protect me.
My Afghan girlfriends had similar experiences, though their profound advances in physical beauty brought them the male attention I repelled with the steel-wool perm on my head, acne, glasses and braces with their dazzling headgear. The further removed boys became, the greater grew our obsession with obtaining one. Pragmatically, I considered my fate sealed when an older Afghan boy, who had thought I was cute at the swimming pool (with H2O-tamed hair and sans glasses), saw me in my fully-dried glory a week later and caustically remarked that I was, in fact, terribly ugly. Instantaneously, I agreed. It wasn’t to downplay the bristling humiliation, but rather to buoy the sinking relationship with a point of mutual agreement, even if it was because I was ‘jast so aglee’ – his words and accent, not mine. Many years later, he developed a heroin problem and moved to Pakistan. I fared a bit better by sticking with my less-physical attributes, and when I could share no remarkable stories of male-human-contact, I began to mark the end of our evenings together with adolescent story time.
‘Ok. So close your eyes and imagine a fine sand beach. You’re with your crush –’
‘Ohmigod, can it be Shane from Boyzone?’
‘Well yea, course it can! It can be whoever you want. Except Ronan ’cause he’s mine. Anyways,’ I’d continue. ‘Your crush touches your arm –’
‘If Shane touched my arm, I would die. I. Would. Fucking. Die.’
‘But you don’t die. He comes closer and pulls you against his chest. He smells like sea salt and . . . CK One. You hold hands and look at the sea together. A shooting star streaks across the sky and, as you tilt your head up to point it out, he kisses you. You close your eyes and feel his breath against your face, and when you reopen them . . . YOUR DAD IS STANDING THERE AND HE IS REALLY PISSED AHAHAHA.’
It was a drastic denouement, but one that reinforced our reality and more specifically our culture. Amid laughter and curses in Dari and English, we resigned our futile romantic pursuits to what we perceived as a fate worse than ending up an un-kissed teenager: being Afghan.
Defying my parents was not necessarily a matter of fear, but respect. I have, on occasion, been treated to glorious expressions of awe when I tell people that my parents wanted us girls to be educated and no, we did not risk an honor killing (of course). It’s fascinating to watch how quickly awe turns to disappointment – I count mere seconds. Anyway, not only did I pull the ‘stun’ of going to secondary school, one day I decided that my parents had an illogical rule against wearing make-up and donned an unhealthy mask of foundation to school. Dad waited until just outside the school gate to confirm that I had underestimated his paternal perspicacity.
‘Mimi, it’s not the right shade for you in the first place.’
Caught red-handed and powdery-faced. I stared speechlessly. No shit, I wanted to say, I realized I looked like a goddamn geisha but hadn’t expected him to notice.
‘Why do you think you need to wear make-up, my dear?’
‘Because I have spots and I don’t like other people seeing them.’
‘Do they tease you?’
‘No . . . I just want to look better.’
‘You’re young. Nature gives you all the beauty you need at your age. You shouldn’t be concerned with make-up and other people, because they’re distractions from your main priority right now, which is school. You focus on school and I promise you that you will have beauty in more ways than you can imagine.’
‘I hope so.’
‘I know so. Now go wash your face.’
I didn’t have to wash my face because I cried like a colic-stricken baby all the way to Tutor Set 7.7. And I did focus on school – for the next nineteen-plus years of my life.
It was my mother’s birthday when we landed in San Francisco International Airport. She was born in Evanston, Illinois, while my grandparents were in graduate school, and repatriated to Afghanistan at age one. But the 6,942-mile umbilical cord had never been severed, and for my mom America (and Americans, by extension) was the epitome of perfection. My connection with America was more paper-oriented, rendered through Judy Blume stories of all-American girls in Connecticut. Waspy, a term I learned later, better described the particular communities I had read about. But far from the prevalence of white picket fences and its matching people, the East Bay was a tumultuous mix of ethnic groups, languages and colors simmering under California’s legendary sun.
The majority were first and second generation immigrants with little economic means or social capital to get ahead. Assimilation was a delicate give-and-take of heritage and cultural values, an increasing shift in identities from Jagdeep to ‘Jack’ and Majeed to ‘Mike’. But the names belied the adherence to more entrenched traditions and customs. For many immigrant parents, despite the disparities in their backgrounds and migrational trajectories, one question daunted their survival in America: how do you raise your children so they can transition seamlessly between two different cultures, but never want to leave their own? And for the children, the curiosities and temptations of the world just beyond were almost always tempered with a crippling guilt, emphasized by mothers and fathers who, like my own, marched into menial jobs to make some semblance of a better life possible.
High school was the ultimate test of assimilation and generational dynamics. Teen angst compounded by immigration. An endless stream of frustrated Why’s echoed by Because that’s our culture. Whereas the line between what was culturally acceptable and what was not seemed more clearly defined in most Afghan households, in ours, the line was tenuous: flexible at times and rigid in others, so that you never felt the full breadth of liberties that others enjoyed.
By my junior year, I ached with wanderlust and had one ticket out: education. At that time, Pearl Jam had just released Yield, which was the first album I personally and proudly owned. Eddie Vedder’s vocals resonated with the creative voice I felt I had fostered all my life. To submit to it, I believed, and to do with my life what I had always hoped – study English and write – would require immersion in the same environment that had allowed Pearl Jam, as well as Jimi Hendrix and Stone Temple Pilots, to trigger their imagination. I fared less successfully, but with my parents’ blessing (dad’s was hard-earned) I apprehensively mailed my regrets to UC Berkeley and took a chance on a small liberal arts college in Washington.
College was a wasteland of grunge rock, Americana and wealthy white kids pretending to be starving artists. It was a mixture of homesickness and adaptation. It was a time for exploration, but I had near to no patience or resources for personal confusion and drama, because my parents had made huge sacrifices to make my study possible. Instead, music, literature and travel opened far more interesting channels of adventure.
Growing up Afghan and Muslim had rendered even conceptual forays into sexuality subject to damning scrutiny by the angel who sat, supposedly, on your left shoulder and recorded your sins. I wasn’t so sure about this angel, and given that I didn’t pray and hadn’t fasted a day in my life, I figured he had given up on me and flown off to notarize someone else’s sins. Through some sort of sickness or security, the conflict of identity that plunged some of my peers into states of anguish seemed less exigent to me. I identified as Muslim and lived as a libertine.
On the morning of September 11, sophomore year, my phone rang with an unusually early call from my best friend in California. She must be pregnant, I thought. My mind racing, I pictured a massive earthquake swallowing up my family in Fremont. Why else would she be calling so early? Instead, she told me to turn on the television. I sank into the sofa and watched two towers in New York fall to pieces. Afghanistan and Afghans were soon cast into sharp relief against the backdrop of the War on Terror. The land and its people were ‘other’ – a darkened space of confusion that begged for all sorts of inquiry. Those flung into the Western world finally gained relevance by sharing the expected narratives of war, hardship and trauma.
The Afghan experience became defined by literature, some of which was evocative, and some unabashedly opportunistic and/or apocryphal. Relevance became substantiated by experience, and experience was subjective in a country whose records were dust. Who could contest a heart-wrenching narrative set 7,000 miles away? The American public began to associate Afghan women with the burka, Afghan men with sticks and stones, and everything else in between with an oppressive insularity for which the greatest democracy in the world needed to assume responsibility. Their primary obligation was the liberation of Afghan women. But that required the assumption that all Afghan women, regardless of background, were being homogenously caged.
Returning to Fremont from college, I could understand why the idea had taken root. My Afghan peers, many of whom had been born overseas or left Afghanistan before they could form words, excused their scant Dari or Pashto to rally for the preservation of Muslim identity and Afghan culture in English. They revived and upheld practices with which their parents and grandparents had long departed in the remembrance of ‘home’, a social memory predicated on generations prior. NGOs, the international media and literature such as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns fostered an image of ‘Afghan women’ as modest, virtuous madonnas, bearing scars alongside the torch of liberty. And they shed tears that I could not for the freedom of sisters I did not recognize, women whose plights were supposed to be reflected in the countenance of each and every Afghan woman.
Perhaps not mine, I would think, as I lay in the dentist chair, reeling from the smell of fluoride and freshly-ground tooth.
‘What do your folks make of you not covering your head?’ he had asked me.
‘No one wears headscarves in my family. They’d be freaked out if I started wearing a headscarf.’ The question sounded as silly as if he had asked me whether my parents supported my decision to wear underwear. But he started as if I had uttered the grossest lie imaginable. I shrugged and listened for the upcoming crescendo of ‘In the Air’ by Phil Collins.
‘Here’s the best part – wait for it.’
‘So what’s going on with the Afghanistanis then? Is The Kite Runner true?’
‘D’doom d’doom DOOM DOOM! So awesome,’ An awesomeness I demonstrated by playing air drums. But he wasn’t impressed.
‘Hm . . . the Afghans? Well, when the Soviets invaded, everyone thought it was a good idea to use Islam to rally support and mobilize Islamic warriors. Then when the Soviets left, the Islamic warriors were pretty much in charge. They ousted the secular pro-Soviet regime and started a civil war that paved the way for the Taliban takeover. But before that, women had lots of rights and were very active in the government.’ Now I’d made Islam sound like the asshole, so I hedged. ‘Islam was basically manipulated to justify violence and oppression. As for The Kite Runner, I haven’t read it yet. I’m an English major – got to get through all the reading for my American Literature class.’
He stared agog at my face.
‘You should. It’s a great book. I’m surprised you haven’t read it.’
I read it the following year, after most people had rendered it the definitive encyclopedia on all things Afghan, and it was fantastic. But I thought then – and still do – that the questions that seemed okay to ask me about Afghanistan would be considered ridiculous in any other context. What if I asked ‘What’s going on with the Francians? Is Madame Bovary true?’
But those were questions I became inured to. It was as if the collective literature and expertise on Afghanistan had warranted a purgatorial category that cast people like me as ‘insufficiently affected’ to be a true Afghan woman. College felt more home to me then than the Afghan community in which we lived. Neither sis nor I were rocked by the cataclysmic, come-to-Allah epiphany about reclaiming our heritage. It was always present, but again, so was the vile humanity of hormones and boys.
In the month following the attacks, the US launched a full-out war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. As President Bush invoked a crusade of sorts, I panicked that my citizenship would never materialize. But the letter granting my American identity came in October, and my housemates and I celebrated with an all-American Halloween party.
Dressed as an egregiously inappropriate Amazonian-warrior-babe, I writhed in rhythm to Nelly’s ‘Ride Wit Me’, hoping against hope that the two feet of leopard-print fabric pinned around my chest and hips would not call it quits. But the costume sparked unexpected curiosities, which were put into perspective by the running back of our fledgling football team.
‘Have you seen Aladdin? You could totally be Princess Jasmine or – wait! You should’ve been an Afghan warrior princess!’
You should have been aborted, I thought. ‘Yeah well, it required a lot more fabric.’
‘I just want to say,’ as he leaned in to share a boozy exhale, ‘I’m really sorry about your country. I hope America can liberate it.’
‘Kevin, seriously? This is my country.’
‘No, I know. I’m just saying, like your real country where you have roots. If it were me, I’d be upset if another country invaded America. Are you super angry at what’s going on?’
‘Angry? What do you mean?’
‘Like the US dropping bombs over Afghanistan to push out the bad guys. I just think in the end the people will understand what freedom is, you know? People there have lived under so much oppression, they don’t get why democracy is better. Once we introduce them to freedom and democracy, they’ll want to change the way they live – like they wouldn’t want to support al-Qaeda and the Taliban. You know what I mean?’
‘That’s based on the assumpt–’ I started, then assessing the futility of the discussion, resorted to a fat lie. ‘Dude, they just tapped a new keg out back!’
With that, I had diffused the first instance of a conversation that would haunt the rest of my adult life.
The war in Afghanistan cast two sharp distinctions: good guys and bad guys – or terrorists and victims. The victim narrative shaped Afghans and Afghanistan, and in turn justified neo-colonial endeavors that, like a car accelerating in heavy mud, continued to mire the international community in an unwinnable war. The Afghan-American community in the US became a proxy for the ‘victims’ in Afghanistan
As an Afghan, it was hard to live up to being Afghan if you didn’t identify as a victim. Politicians, academics, the media and think tanks had effectively repositioned Afghanness. To articulate sentiments and memories consistent with ‘Afghanistan’, one had to harbor some sort of trauma – be it their own or their parents’ or their grandparents’. In the diaspora, Afghan-Americans who had left Afghanistan before their third birthday dazzled on national news channels as the victims of the Soviet invasion. Amidst the tales of Soviet rape-and-pillage and the often convenient dismissal of the mujahideen’s equally destructive wake, stories about the extraordinarily mundane were unacceptable facsimiles of legitimate experience. The whole experience of migration became politicized: when you left, how you left and your means of transportation all became indicators of your authenticity. If you left later than the early 1980s, your family was suspected of having communist sympathies; if you left with a passport on a plane, then you must have constituted the elite stratum of urban society.
It seemed that the only way people could relate to Afghans was, ironically, to render them so exotic and damaged that they became something like archaeological curiosities. Once, while discussing women’s rights at Georgetown University, Hillary Clinton and Melanne Verveer spoke at length about the need to give Afghan women a voice. They then yielded the stage for the remaining five minutes, so that the audience could marvel at a young woman from Afghanistan, who thanked her sponsors in clear English and reinforced their message of goodwill towards Afghan women. In the words of Monthy Python, ‘there was much rejoicing’. Such images created a sensational new social memory of Afghanistan and Afghans, one that fostered a belief in their codependence and inchoate understanding of forks and knives.
Memories play to distinct soundtracks. Perhaps that’s what makes them bearable. Music kindled the stories I remember and palliated those I’d rather forget. Music was a temporary journey to somewhere other than the present, but it was also a reminder of a different world outside Afghanistan, a world we got to by embracing two clichés with devout conviction: better late than never, and the grass is greener on the other side.
Today, I study with earnest curiosity the movement of Afghan people and the transformative nature of journeys. I talk to emigrants, young and old, who tell me of the trajectory that brought them to northern Virginia or San Francisco. The older folks talk of the golden years of pencil skirts and beehive hairdos and an Islam that didn’t go boom. The younger ones spit on Soviets they never met and revile the earth that bore them. A lot of them recall Indian movies airing on Thursday nights (I do, too), but no one mentions Peter Gabriel, and I never bring him up. We share stories and shake hands, establishing for a brief moment, at least, that beautiful, elusive dynamic – a contented harmony.
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Weidenhaupt