Kabul Diaries: an honorary man

On the night of the delicious Indian feast, Ben showed up to dinner dressed up in an elegant shalwar kameez, a well-crafted waistcoat and a pakol. I had never been a fan of shalwar kameez, but this looked really good. I asked him where he had got it from, he replied, ‘I had it made. Do you want one? I am going the tailor’s again in a few days to have another one made. Do you want to come along? You can pick a fabric there and they take your measurements in 5 minutes. We can go pick it up a few days later.’ I was too tempted to resist.

A couple of evenings later, after work, Abdul-Bashar, Ben and I made our way to the tailor’s shop. Abdul-Bashar was one of the drivers. He was related to the tailor and had originally introduced Ben to him. He, too, wanted to have a new shalwar kameez made. The short drive was quiet, as he was not a man of many words. He was tall for an Afghan and sturdily-built. I had noticed him drive us to work several times in the mornings, but had never talked to him. He was one of the few Afghans I met, who had not been to Iran. Instead, he and his family spent many years in Pakistan. He was a Pashtoon and spoke Dari, as well as Pashto and Urdu.

As Abdul-Bashar was parking the van, Ben pointed to a small shop with a simple glass façade, ‘That’s the one we are going to.’ We were waiting for Abdul-Bashar to join us, but he gestured to us to go in. Ben held the door open for me to enter. ‘Salaam. Mande nabashid,’ (Peace be with you. May you not be tired.) I said. The middle-aged man behind the counter stood up and returned my greeting, ‘Aleikum-o salaam.’ There were two younger men with him behind the counter. They all recognised Ben and extended their hands. They were still exchanging greetings when Abdul-Bashar walked in.

I decided to busy myself with examining the materials while they were talking. One of the younger men, the tailor’s son, saw me touching the fabrics and said, ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Yes, maybe… I am looking for a petroleum blue.’ I replied. Incredulously he asked, ‘For yourself?’ I said,‘Yes.’ He hesitated and looked at his father. The older man enquired again, ‘You want to have a shalwar kameez made? For yourself?’ ‘Yes. Is there a problem?’ I said looking at Abdul-Bashar. The older man pointed to a shop across the street and said, ‘That one does women’s clothing. Here you will not find any fabric you like. We only make clothing for men. You would be better served over there.’

The shop he was pointing at was displaying a couple of gaudy sharwar kameezes in glittering pink and purple. I looked at Ben, then turned to the tailor and said, ‘I actually like the cut of Ben’s shalwar kameez, and I like your fabrics much better. I would like you to make mine, like you did Ben’s, if that is possible.’ Abdul-Bashar shifted his weight slightly and started saying something in Pashto. The old man asked him a question looking at me. Abdul-Bashar nodded as their faces broke into a smile. The other man was shaking his head.

Unable to understand Pashto, I could not follow what Abdul-Bashar had said. Still trying to convince them not to send me across the street, I volunteered, ‘If it is a matter of taking my measurements, I can go across the street to the women’s tailor, have them take my measurements and then come back.’ The tailor was still smiling as he said, ‘Is that true? You work in the old city?’ I hesitated before I replied, ‘Yes, I do.’ He shook his head again and continued, ‘Well, we have never made men’s shalwar kameez for women before, but if you really like our fabrics, we can also take your measurements.’

His response and change of tone was unexpected. I smiled and looked at Abdul-Bashar, curious to know what he had said. Later I found out that he had told them that I worked with the guys on the construction site in the old city making sure to mention the particular neighbourhood where we worked, as it had a reputation for being a rough area. I suppose the logic was that if I was doing a ‘man’s’ job, then I could probably also choose men’s clothing. I never intended to wear my shalwar kameez in Afghanistan, but that did not seem to matter much. The rest of the interaction went smoothly. My order would be ready the day before my departure.

Time was passing rapidly. I still had not seen much of the city and needed to do some shopping. Ben, Mike, Sara and I arranged for a car to take us to the famous Chicken Street in Shahr-e Now. Abdul-Bashar drove us. Mentioned in the 1970’s hippie trail guides, Chicken Street is a famous shopping street in Kabul. Over many years of war and destruction it has lost much of its original allure, but compared to the rest of the city it still stands out. These days there are not many tourists in Kabul, but if you were to encounter one anywhere, it would be here. The street itself is not very long, probably as long as 3 or 4 New York City blocks, but there are a number of side streets and courtyards, which are lined with various antique, leather goods, garments, jewelery, book and carpet shops. We spent the late morning browsing the shops. By the time we were ready to leave for lunch I had found a few small gifts and a nice golden-brown karakul for myself.

We went to the Kabul Café for a light lunch. Normally if we were with any of the locals around mealtimes, we would invite them to join us. Kabul Café was not a place where Abdul-Bashar would ordinarily eat. The Café itself with its brightly coloured walls in deep blue and marine green looked more Mexican than Afghan. Like most places mainly frequented by ex-pats, the overpriced food was not up to the standards of the locals. Abdul-Bashar and I each ordered a Kabob Salad, which consisted of a plate of chopped lettuce (a rarity in Kabul), cucumber, tomatoes, and olives with pieces of Iranian cheese topped with bits of grilled chicken or lamb. Clearly unimpressed with the food, Abdul Bashar hardly touched his.

After the meal on our way to the car, he pulled me to the side and said, ‘Tonight I want to invite you to a proper Afghan Kabob.‘ He asked me to pass the invitation on to Mike, Ben, and Bijoy, our Indian colleague, as well. Touched by his generosity and his attempt to show us his real Afghanistan, I thanked him and said I would let the others know. I didn’t realise, until a couple of hours later that we had been invited to a home-cooked meal. It would be my first visit to an Afghan household and I was looking forward to finally meet some Afghan women.

At 20:00 that evening Abdul-Bashar drove us to his home, which was about a 20 minutes drive from the Qala. Like most Kabul neighbourhoods, the streets here consisted mainly of dirt roads, but these were a lot less bumpy. Since my arrival I had learned that most of the streets frequented by the ex-patriot community were bumpy because people who lived on them wanted them that way. They would slow down any getaway cars considerably in case of an attack.

Abdul-Bashar parked the car in front of the house. As we were climbing out of the van the front door opened and four men stepped out to greet us. Three of them were Abdul-Bashar’s brothers and the fourth one was their cousin. There was a trail of little boys behind them. After we all exchanged salaams and shook hands, I was asked to go in first. Walking through the door, I saw a see-through metal spiral staircase about 1.5 meters into the front courtyard. It was in a slightly odd position as it partly blocked the passage from the front door to the main house. I hesitated, as I didn’t know if I didn’t know if I was expected to walk around it towards the main house or go up the stairs. Abdul-Bashar’s cousin noticed my confusion. He approached pointing up towards the top of the stairs and said, ’Please this way.’ I started climbing, the men followed.

On the small landing at the top I took off my shoes and opened the door to find myself in a long rectangular room of about 5m by 15m. The floors were covered wall-to-wall with thick Afghan carpets in deep red. All around the perimeter of the room a series of small mattresses were covered with tiny rugs matching the colour and patterns of those on the floor. The continuous, slightly raised seating area was furnished with a series of regularly spaced cylindrical cushions serving as armrests or cushions to lean on. Those were covered in a thick floral golden fabric matching the drapes on the window. The only other colours in the room, besides crimson and gold, were the warm beige on the walls and the darkly stained wood of the TV armoire.

I walked halfway up the length of the room and sat down. Ben and Bijoy sat on either side of me. Abdul-Bashar joined them. Mark and Abdul-Bashar’s eldest brother sat across the room facing us. The two younger brothers joined on the other side closer to the door. The little boys huddled next to the door. The TV was running on an Afghan station in the background. Although the room was brightly lit, there was a small portable gaslight burning in the middle of the room. Once seated, we began with small introductions. We found that the four-year-old at the door was Abdul Bashar’s own son, and the other boys ranging from 3 to 12 were his nephews. His eldest brother was in the final year of his residency as a paediatric surgeon, while the youngest worked for a mobile company up north in Qonduz. We never found out what the middle brother did. He was very quiet and did not say much throughout the evening.

Soon the conversation turned to the security situation, the Karzai government and how little control it had over the county. We were told how in cities other than Kabul – even the ones in the north – from dusk until dawn the Taliban took charge. Talking about the West’s demand for the Afghan government to get rid of corruption, the eldest brother sighed and said, ‘This is a funny world… It is the West that empowered and re-armed the corrupt warlords to begin with, now they are saying you must get rid of them. How?’

While we were engaged in conversation one of the little boys entered the room with a big stainless steel bowl and a matching pitcher. He placed the bowl on the floor before Ben and poured water from the pitcher on Ben’s hands as he rinsed them. Another little boy followed handing out small towels. The two of them went around the room pouring water over our hands as we washed and dried them. Soon after they left the room, a big cloth was spread on the floor and food was served.

It was incredible how within the few hours since we had been invited such an enormous feast had been prepared. Two huge platters of Qabli Pulao, grilled lamb chops, a chicken dish and three other lamb dishes were served along with Afghan salad. The food was delicious and we overindulged, but as we were eating I suddenly became acutely aware of the absence of the women in the room.

After the meal, when green tea was being served, all of the sudden the power went off. The gas lamp, which had been burning in the background during the meal, was once again put in the middle of the room. Shortly afterwards Abdul-Bashar’s father and his uncle joined us in the room. His father, the older of the two, had a snow-white beard but otherwise looked no older than 55. He wore a turban on his head and was wrapped in a camel-hair blanket over his traditional outfit. His few years younger brother was tall and skinny. He, too, was wearing Afghan traditional clothing, but instead of a turban he had a heavily embroidered tightly fitted hat on. Normally these small hats served as an anchor for a turban.

The older man entered the room first, followed closely by his younger bother. We all got up on our feet as they went around to exchange greetings and shake hands. I had shaken the hands of Abdul-Bashar’s brothers, but feeling a bit uncertain of the older generation’s reaction, I decided to place my right hand on my heart and bow my head slightly when they arrived at me. They mirrored my gestures and welcomed me as they sat down across the room.

Abdul-Bashar’s father spoke while fruits were served and we all listened, ‘Thank you for coming. We in Afghanistan may not have much, but we have our hospitality. Guests are very dear to us, no matter where you come from, whether you are a Christian or a Muslim. You are always welcome.’ The conversation had become much more formal now with the patriarchs in the room. After half an hour we decided it was time to leave. Everybody stood up as we said our goodbyes. Abdul-Bashar’s brothers insisted on walking us to the car.

Driving home I thought about the evening had been. It had been my first time inside an Afghan home and I felt privileged to have been afforded the opportunity. Despite the enormous generosity and hospitality, however, it would be dishonest, if I said I was not a bit disappointed that I had not got the chance to meet the women of the family. In fact looking back, during my entire stay I did not exchange words with any Afghan women other than on two very brief occasions, once with a female cook and the other time with the lady who did my laundry.

Speaking with Ben and Mike later on, they said the other times when they had been invited into an Afghan household, after the meal their European female colleagues had been asked to join the women in the other room. They admitted they were puzzled why I had not been asked to do so. Ben added facetiously, ‘It looks like you’ve become an honorary man. Welcome to the club!’

Oh well, maybe I should have passed up on that shalwar kameez after all.

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