“Barqaa Amaddddddddddddddddd! Electricity came!” we heard a child yell. The call then resounded throughout the group of children playing in front of a Soviet-built Microrayan building in Kabul. “Barq! Electricity!” Whistles and shouts in Pashtu and English could be heard from one end of the playground to the other. “Let’s watch Alla-u-dinne cartoons. Let’s watch Tom and Jerry cartoons,” came the cries fading into doorways as youngsters rushed inside to turn on their TVs.
It was 5 p.m., the usual time barq comes on. My cousin Shinkai and I were in her father’s kitchen. Shinkai was preparing dinner. The sound of young voices appeared inside as we heard my younger cousins rushing towards the dining room where the TV was. Glee, though, soon changed to arguments. I walked into the dining room to find 13-year-old Atal firmly holding the remote control while searching for the show with John Cena and the Undertaker, as 8-year-old Hiwad pleaded for Channel 4.
“Please, Atal jan, put on channel 4. My gymnastic teacher told us that Channel 4 will display our teacher’s exercises,” the younger boy said.
“Leave me alone,” was the older boy’s gruff response.
Completing this picture of sibling rivalry was 6-year-old Shamla, who circled her brothers holding her doll tightly to her chest. Shamla saw me and reached up to put her hands around my neck, giving me a kiss. “Look, Freshta,” she said in her little girl voice. “The electricity came. But they always shout over me and say ‘no, no, go leave us alone.’”
Pulling Shamla into my lap, I said, “Don’t mind them. Let me tell you the story of Bazak Chaini, China’s goat.” Just as I began the story, the barq went off, and with it the TV. Shamla laughed as the TV went dark, and said to her brothers, “Thank God barq went because you didn’t allow me to see the cartoon.” Her brothers had to smile.
Now there was no point in arguing over channel choices; the children gathered around on pillows as I continued the story. Shiraz, who had been playing football, came in to check on the TV situation and sat down with us to hear the story. Then, just as suddenly as the TV had flickered and gone off, it twinkled and came back on. “Oho,” the younger boys cried as they rushed for the remote. Shiraz went to gather his school shirts so he could make use of the electric iron. Shinkai, who had been in the kitchen finishing up dinner, ran to charge her mobile phone. Seeing Shiraz ironing his school clothes, she said, “Let me know when you are done. I need to iron the clothes I wear to the university.” My aunt, who had put a pail of water on the stove to heat for washing clothes, hurried to the washing machine. Everyone did their best to make excellent use of the electricity.
Barq usually lasts until 10 p.m., but not on this particular night. Poor Shinkai had just finished ironing her scarves and still had her skirts left to do when once again, the electricity flickered and off it went. “Go put the broken iron over the gas and let it heat up. That will finish your skirts” her mother instructed. Shainkai hated ironing clothes over gas because the smell was bitter and often caused headaches. But her mother said: “Don’t wait for electricity. It is a waste of time.”
Hiwad and Atal were shooed out of the room to go do their homework. This left the remote control unattended, which delighted Shamla, who tugged on her mother’s skirt and insisted that when barq came back on, it was her turn to watch TV.
As Shinkai was finishing her ironing with gas, barq once again returned. “I don’t need you. I finished my ironing. Go back,” Shinkai said to the lights as they twinkled back on.
The return of barq caused Atal and Hiwad to return to the dining room. However, Shamal firmly stood her ground in front of the TV, yelling for her mother, who was changing the water in the washing machine because it had become cold from the loss of barq. As their mother hurried into the dining room, Atal and Hiwad thought better of trying to reclaim the remote and made excuses of looking for long lost pens and books so they could continue their homework.
Dinner that night was eaten with gas lights on the table in case barq should once more disappear, and with the remote safely in Shamla’s hands. “None of you has the right to have the remote from me. I will keep it until tomorrow,” Shamla announced at dinner. Her parents smiled indulgently.
By the time barq said goodnight once again at 10 p.m., Shamla was fast asleep, holding the remote. “Poor Shamla has to sleep with the remote in her hands because of her brothers,” I thought to myself. But then I thought, “No, Shamla is the lucky one because with the twinkle of barq, she has hope. Lots of other families wish for barq so they can iron and wash their clothes, and watch TV. They are still wishing.”