My Afghan Home
Nearing the end of the road, our diarist reflects on the unlikely sanctuary she found in a blighted land.
MAZAR-E-SHARIF — At dusk, the woman of the house kneels on the edge of the tandoor built into the cement floor in the corner of her yard, slips her hand into a sleeve ripped off years ago from some old jacket, reaches in, and pulls.
Nothing. The loaf of nan is stuck; the clay oven refuses to release it. She straightens up, pulling her hand away, and hollers for one of the handful of grandchildren in her twilit yard to fetch a long knife from the kitchen. The heat from the coals has colored her full face the color of a ripe orange. She throws back her head, takes a swig from a tall plastic bottle in which a chunk of ice has begun to melt, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, spots me watching her, and laughs.
My hostess has 13 children. For the last three weeks, I have been the 14th.
Every morning, after I pull on my shoes outside her front door, she throws water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher. A protective charm. The woman knows: This war has no front lines. Any highway or dirt road or city street or courtyard can become a battle zone at the clang of a bullet slipping into the breech of a Kalashnikov. The Taliban is nowhere and everywhere. Last week, insurgents wearing police uniforms set up a roadblock near a rotary I often take and searched passing cars for government employees and Afghan civilians working for NATO. A foreign journalist would have been a prize. Who knows whether one morning, the Taliban won’t set up a checkpoint down the street?
If the Islamist militia finds out my hostess has been sheltering an American, the punishment will be severe. Unutterable. (That’s why I will not publish the woman’s name.) But she is a risk-taker. In 1997, when Hazaras and Uzbeks launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Pashtuns in Mazar-e-Sharif, she provided sanctuary to a Pashtun family. In 1998, when the Taliban slaughtered and maimed Hazaras, she took in Hazara neighbors.
I know how these people felt inside the mortared walls of my hostess’s compound.
During the day, I keep the door to my room open because I know people will be filing in and out anyway, usually without knocking. That’s how life happens in this family of 24 (or 27; the matriarch is not sure). Someone will come by to bring me a thermos of fresh green tea. A china saucer of green raisins, sometimes with tiny brown teardrops of almonds mixed in. A pewter tray with some apples, and a paring knife.
One of the woman’s nine sons will stop by to see if I need anything else, and if I am feeling well. Another will borrow some stationery. The 8-year-old granddaughter will run in to give me a quick, firm hug, and then run off to the kitchen, where the women are always cooking something good in giant pressure cookers. The 2-year-old granddaughter, the baby of the family who calls me auntie, will stop by to raid the pistachios I keep on my magazine table.
One morning the grandchildren ambush me as I am headed out the door and spray me with deodorant, all over my clothes and headscarf. They want me to smell extra nice out there, in the hostile and unpredictable world beyond their grandmother’s protective walls.
Sometimes the matron herself comes in and sits on the couch her sons thoughtfully brought up to my room the day I arrived. She fans herself with the free end of her gauze scarf and complains about the heat. About the housework that has consumed her 50-something years. (She does not know exactly how many. Few Afghans keep track of their age — who wants to count the seasons of privation?)
She complains about the war that has plundered her country during most of these years.
She talks in Dari, a language I do not speak. But I know what she is saying. An Afghan woman’s lot, like war, requires no translation.
Each afternoon, I stumble into the house distraught after another day of reporting. Villagers abandoned by the world to survive or perish in the violence that has been wracking Afghanistan since time immemorial. The slow caving in of the mud-brick compounds whose owners were either fortunate enough to have run away from war — or unfortunate enough to have been killed in it. Refugees who survive on stale bread soaked in boiling water. Opiated women hand-weaving priceless carpets for 40 cents a day.
Children as young as 7 forced into hard labor by their indigent parents.
Children who die before they become old enough to be forced to wheelbarrow bags of cement, or shoe horses, or pump car tires; whose death is foretold by their poverty.
If she could, my hostess would take in all these children, too.
She would let them fly kites on the flat cement roof of her house. She would mix up their names the way she mixes up the names of her children and grandchildren. (She’ll go through five or six names before getting to the one she is looking for. Mothers do that.) They would sleep in the room where I am staying now, with its second-floor view of the labyrinthine sprawl of mud-brick and poured concrete rooftops and courtyards that recede toward the gunmetal knuckles of the northern Hindu Kush. Round loaves of cow manure, for cooking fuel, dry on the rooftops. (The courtyard beneath my window is taken up entirely by a neighbor’s milch cow. On hot afternoons, the cow sends wafts of hot, wholesome farm smell into my room. At night, it sighs meaningfully in its sleep.)
She would feed these children fresh disks of whole-wheat nan from her hot clay oven. The nan tastes like love.
I will never forget this taste.
My time in Mazar-e-Sharif is nearly up. I leave the house tomorrow. Tonight is the last time I get to watch my hostess bake bread.
A granddaughter — the one who likes to run into my room for a quick hug and a kiss — arrives at the tandoor with a kitchen knife. The woman draws a sharp breath, as though before a deep dive, and leans back into the oven. At knifepoint, the oven surrenders; the bread loaf emerges crusty underneath and soft and ocher on the top. The color of the land that produced it.
She dabs the hot nan with some water from an aluminum basin, to keep it moist, tosses it onto a cut of folded, clean cotton cloth, and reaches into the tandoor again. More loaves come out. Night has sprinkled stars into the high Afghan sky, the rice pilau is seething in the pressure cooker in the kitchen, and it is almost time for dinner.
Read the final dispatch, “Three Weeks in a Hopeless Land.”