It was January and I was thinking about a friend who had just arrived from Iran, and contacted me through Facebook the week before, inviting me to visit him and his wife in their new home in Dasht-e-Barchi. I couldn’t find any better day than Friday, because in Afghanistan Friday is our only day off. So I texted to say I was coming for the weekend.
I was so excited about going to this progressive suburb in west Kabul where I had lived for more than ten years with my mother and father and seven of my siblings. It was an amazing family time. Now most of us no longer live in Barchi.
I put on my long orange-and-white skirt and an overcoat. I tied my scarf close to my head so my hair could not be seen, and set off. What I found interesting on the bus ride to Mazari Square was that both the passengers and the bus staff were friendly and polite toward each other. When one passenger realized he had missed his stop and called to the driver, the fare collector smiled and said to the man, “Kaka jan! Stay and have a cup of tea with us.”
At first I thought the old man was a relative of theirs, but I soon realized he wasn’t. As he got off, the man thanked the fare collector for his offer of tea and I heard the fare collector say to the driver, “Good job you stopped! These days even our youth forget things. He is old. It doesn’t matter that he is forgetful.” I hadn’t seen this kind of behavior before.
I also noticed how the driver and the fare collector spoke to all passengers. To men, they would say “lala jan” (dear brother), “kaka jan” (dear uncle), or “padar jan” (dear father), and for women they would say “mather jan” (dear mother), “khahar jan” (dear sister), or “khala jan” (dear aunt). The use of “dear” or “jan” offers respect and can decrease tensions. It’s comforting and makes people feel good.
During the many years I lived in Barchi, the bus drivers and fare collectors were not this polite. I remember many people shouting. Once I remember they did not want to let me on because I did not have money for the fare, which was two Afghani at that time. These days it’s five Afghani, and if you don’t have the fare, they don’t shout at you. They just forgive you.
When I got off the bus and started walking, I saw again how respectful the people were, giving each other room to pass, smiling calmly and showing respect for women and children. I saw women, who in the past had been prohibited from being in public, out and smiling. It made me think how good these people were, because I had recently forgotten my smile. How could I stay sad in a place where everyone was happy and smiling? After twenty minutes of this, I started to smile too.
The next thing I noticed was the women’s clothing. Most of the old women were wearing long, wide scarves in different colors, which looked like half tents blowing in the wind. But for every ten women, only one or two covered herself in a burqa, or chadari, and this made me happy because I believe these are a source of female oppression. The women who were not wearing the big scarves wore smaller ones, which covered their hair in a good way, like the Islamic hijab. Younger women and girls wore more makeup and more colorful skirts and jeans like Westerners, although their hair was still covered by a hijab. Many women also wore Iranian fashions: long clothes and smaller scarves that covered their hair but not their faces. They were also wearing makeup. I saw women with black almond eyes, dark red lips, and red nail polish. The boys also wore Iranian and Western clothes and Western hairstyles.
Almost ten years ago, most people looked and thought in more isolated ways; now they embrace modern looks and thinking, and are more open-minded than in many other places in Afghanistan. They have become used to social change, even welcoming it. I believe this is because many have returned from other more developed countries like Australia, Germany, Iran, and Pakistan. They are more supportive of women’s lives and education. Those who have come from Germany or Australia have returned with open minds, and they have brought stories with them that are now affecting the way everyone thinks. Students are also returning from exchange programs in foreign countries, bringing knowledge and experience that have helped their families and communities.
Continued in part two. Photo by Robert K.
I enjoyed reading this piece, Raha. There is some very lovely description throughout.
I am happy you enjoyed reading my story. — Raha
Well done Raha jan!
I did enjoy reading your writing, so good information and interesting.
First of all, I really enjoyed the vivid description of flora and fauna, and your optimism. Especially after the Taliban’s seizing of power, it is heartening to hear stories of happiness and compassion.
Secondly, your description of the sartorial choices of visitors to Dasht-e-Barchi really stood out. You said that you find the burqa to be oppressive, but you also stated that the hijab “cover[s] their hair in a good way”. Could this be a subtle commentary on the rigid fundamentalism of the Taliban?
Overall, great job on this essay. While narrating a story of happiness, you acknowledge the suffering of the past, and have hope for the future, all written with heartfelt prose and carefully crafted word choice.
Thank you for lightening my day.
–Raha: I found your story to be very interesting, for a number of reasons. The primary sense one gets from reading this is one of improvement, at least by my and, it seems, your standards, and many Western standards more generally. This is in contrast to many of the reports that we generally get in the West about your country, and the Middle East as a whole. I do also note, however, that this was written about six years ago. I would be interested to hear what you would have to say now, now that the Taliban has retaken power. I suspect your tone would be less optimistic and positive, from the incomplete information I have. So perhaps your story, too, will become something of a historical document, about a period in Afghanistan’s history that seems to have ended for now, though its changes will hopefully not be all forgotten or lost. To conclude, thank you very much for sharing your story. It provided me with one of my first glimpses into life in Afghanistan through the eyes of someone like you.