<<Les fruits dépassent les promesses des fleurs.>> . . . . . <<The fruits surpass the promises of the flowers.>>
By the time we reached Rafi, the caretaker and his companion had taken off. There would be no food, we were told, but we were to follow them for some tea and snacks. We continued in the same direction they had left. After a few minutes, we saw a woman in a flowery chador with a man and a donkey coming towards us in the opposite direction. The woman was leading the donkey, but the moment she saw us, she let go of it and stepped to the side of the trail facing the dry stone wall with her back demonstratively turned towards us. The man rushed forward to keep the donkey back. I deliberately walked closely past the woman and said, ‘Salaam aleikum’ (Peace be with you), hoping to put her at ease. She replied, ‘Aleikum-o salaam.’ (And with you) Once they were out of sight, I asked Rafi if she acted the way she did because of him. He confirmed my suspicion by saying that in these rural areas that is how women who are not covering their faces act when they see a male stranger approaching. [photo essay]
Shortly afterwards we arrived at the ‘hotel’, a concrete two-storey structure set in a private garden bordered with a masonry wall. On the side facing the pathway at first floor level there was a balcony with metal railings running along the length of the building. It looked more like a miniature London inner city council housing estate than a guesthouse or a ‘hotel’ as the locals kept referring to it. In that beautiful natural landscape the unimaginative grey building stuck out like a sore thumb. The solid metal garden gate was unlocked. As soon as we entered, a slim bearded man in a white shalwar kameez and a military green waistcoat wearing a camel colour pakol on his head came out to greet us.
We had to take our shoes off to enter the building, but were provided with plastic sandals for indoors. The caretaker directed us upstairs towards the sun-showered balcony. The day had grown rather hot, and I was hot with my long hair covered in a black pashmina. As soon as we sat down, I took off the pashmina to let my hair and neck get some fresh air. Sara did the same. So far, everywhere I had been, the hijab rules were much more relaxed indoors. Rafi had already made his way into the kitchen to see if he could get anything to eat. A few minutes later he returned with the caretaker. I noticed immediately that the caretaker was avoiding eye contact when he was taking our orders and had become slightly tense.
We had been advised that in no circumstances should we offend or alienate the locals by being insensitive to their culture and traditions, as our work depends strongly on a close link with local communities. I increasingly believe that in such a traditional society as Afghanistan any attempt to affect change must be done with utmost patience and in a non-confrontational way. Here we were, two women in somebody else’s country, in somebody else’s house and we were forcing our way of being on him. It didn’t matter how wrong we thought some aspects of their traditional culture might be, the important thing was to remember why we were there and what we were trying to accomplish.
This man’s behaviour and body language signalled that he was uncomfortable around us with our heads uncovered. Once he left for the kitchen again, I told Sara that we needed to put our head covers back on. Rafi smiled in approval. When the caretaker returned 15 minutes later with Rafi’s food and some melons and green tea for Sara and I, he was all smiles. He pulled up a chair and sat down with us to chat.
His name was Shah-Muhammad. He had spent 9 years in Iran, most of it in Tehran. While in Iran he sometimes worked as a cleaner, sometimes as a labourer. He had noticed I spoke Farsi and started praising Iran and Iranians. He said people were extremely kind to him in Iran. He mentioned that he had married his wife there. I asked him, if his wife was Iranian. He laughed and said, ‘No, Iranians don’t give their girls to Afghans.’ I didn’t know what to say and regretted my question.
We then talked about the differences between Farsi and Dari. He said when he first moved to Iran, he got a job as a labourer on a construction site. The foreman was an Azeri with a bad temper. He said on his first day at work, the foreman asked him to get the estanboli. He didn’t know what an estanboli was, but he did not dare to ask lest he got yelled at. Instead he set out searching up and down the whole construction site looking for something he wouldn’t even recognise even if he saw it. He said, ‘Finally I went back and said, Oossaa, (Master Teacher) I can’t find the estanboli’. At that moment the foreman screamed at him and pointed to a metal pan used to mix gypsum powder with water and said, ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see it in the corner?’ He finished off the story with a roaring laughter. Rafi joined in. I smiled sheepishly. Up until that moment I didn’t know what an estanboli was either. I wondered if I would have acted the same way as Shah- Muhammad, had I been obliged to put up with a temperamental boss.
He had returned to his home village from Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. His family has some land in the area. An American businessman had approached him with a deal. He would build a ‘hotel’ on his piece of land and would pay Muhammad a salary as the caretaker. All the income for the first 10 years would go to the American, but after the 10 years the building would be left to Muhammad and his family. He seemed happy with the deal. The day before our visit, they had catered to 60 people visiting the area from an office in Kabul.
It was time for us to resume our walk. Having lived in Iran for many years he seemed well acquainted with the concept of taarof, because when I tried to settle the bill he kept insisting that we be his guests. He said, ‘Maa saalha dar mamlekat-e shoma mehman boodim, haalaa shoma ham mehman-e maa bashid.’ (We were guests in your country for many years, now you be our guest.) After lots of to-ing and fro-ing I finally paid him. As we were about to leave, he added ‘Please next time come back for a few days and stay overnight. This is a safe area and the countryside is beautiful.’ I thanked him and said I could see that.
We continued walking upstream for another half an hour. Rafi was getting increasingly tired. He said we needed to be back on the road before it got dark. On the way back, word had spread that the kharegis (foreigners) were spreading gums and taking photographs of people.
We had just passed a water mill when two girls and two boys stepped out form behind the trees. We had seen the boys on our way up and had given them gums, but the girls’ faces were new. When we said we had run out of gums, one of the boys pointed to one of the girls, and said, ‘She has neither mother nor father.’ I asked, ‘Who does she live with?’ He replied, ‘With her grandfather.’
The girl, probably 6, was beautiful and had made an effort to dress up with a flowery dress and plastic bead necklace in dark blue and red. I was desperately wishing I had something to give to the girls, especially since the boys had got something from us earlier. Then I remembered that I was wearing my green butterfly hairclips. I have to wear three of them to keep my hair in check. I pulled out two and gave each girl one. Their eyes were sparkling looking at them.
On the return leg of our walk we found many of the same children waiting for us. Some had brought along friends. Every body wanted more gums, but we had run out. We promised to return with more next time we came. One particular Hazara boy who was probably 12 had dressed up and was sitting on a rock on the side of the trail waiting for us. He wasn’t interested in gums. All he wanted was for me to take his photograph. I showed him the snapshot on the camera afterwards. He smiled and said, ‘Can you bring the photo with you next time you come?’ I promised I would. He was a handsome kid, seemed quite grounded for his age. He had a sad but serene smile.
A little later, Sara quietly said to me, ‘It’s a shame that the term Hazara has come to have derogatory connotations in this country. Imagine being ashamed to say your ethnicity out loud.’ Hoping Rafi would shed some light on the issue, I asked him if what Sara said was true. He said, ‘Yes, Hazaras are like Turks (Iranian people of Azeri origin) in Iran’. Like most Afghans I have encountered so far, Rafi had spent many years in Iran. I was taken aback by his response. I paused for a few seconds before I said, ‘You know, I am half Azeri.’ The poor man turned red from embarrassment. He didn’t seem to know what to say. That made me very uncomfortable, too. Trying to fill the pause, I continued, ‘My mother was Azeri.’ Seeing a way out, he said, ‘ Well, your father isn’t Azeri, is he?’ I said, ‘No, he is Fars (Persian).’ Slightly relieved, he said, ‘Then technically speaking you are not a Turk. In our cultures, your ethnicity is passed down from the father’s side.’ I laughed and said, ‘Forgive me for being a bit untraditional, but I have a lot more in my personality and character from my mother than from my father. As far as I am concerned, I am as much a Turk as I am a Fars.’ He went quite for a few minutes. After what seemed like a long time he said, ‘I am terribly sorry for the comparison. I did not mean to offend you. You are a well-educated person. You have travelled a lot and have achieved a lot. So when somebody means to offend by calling you a Turk, you are confident in your roots and will probably laugh them off. But you have to realise, you need self-confidence to be able to do that; a self-confidence you have probably gained through education and success. Again, I apologise if I have offended you.’
I am not sure if I agree with him entirely that one has to be “successful and educated” to take pride in one’s ethnic heritage. Nevertheless, I was impressed with his response. I felt sorry to have caused him embarrassment by broaching such a sensitive subject. I assured him that no offence had been taken from the comparison. My only intention was to point out to him that despite what he might think, many Azeris are proud of their roots; as I am sure many Hazaras are. In the end I told him that I was grateful to him for the clarification. We did not discuss the subject again.
Some of the last people we encountered on the trail were three women in blue burkhas. One of them was carrying a small girl on her shoulders. They stopped Sara, who was walking a few steps ahead, to ask her a question. She turned to me and said, ‘Do you understand what they are saying?’ When I asked them to repeat what they had said, they asked, ‘What have you been doing here today?’ I told them we had come to walk in the countryside and enjoy the beautiful scenery. One of them said, ‘No, I mean what was the purpose of your visit?’ I replied, ‘Nothing, just walking around for a day.’ They still looked puzzled as we separated.
Rafi was dragging his feet. I asked, ‘Are you tired?’ Being a proud young Pashtoon of 26, he said, ‘No, it’s just that I haven’t been exercising lately. I have never walked this much in one go in my entire life.’ He laughed and continued, ‘I probably won’t be able to walk tomorrow. My legs hurt a bit.' He added jokingly, 'In fact, I don’t think I can use the gas and the break pedals with these feet, do you want to drive?’ Normally, I would have jumped at the opportunity to drive in Afghanistan. And if Sara wasn’t with us, I probably would have, but we had been strictly forbidden from driving anywhere. I could not risk being told on. I reminded him half-heartedly of the rules.
We made it back into the village shortly after 4 PM. The shops were closing, but we managed to do some shopping and have some tea before we got back in the car to head back to Kabul. By the time we reached the car Rafi had ruined his nice leather shoes. He said, ‘In the morning I told these kids we would be back in an hour.’ I doubt if next time he will accept my invitation, even if it is really for a one hour stroll.
On the drive back, as we passed by buildings and walls prominently showing the white letterings of de-mining codes, I couldn’t help but wonder over the years how many children like the ones we had encountered on our walk that day had been blown up to pieces before the eyes of their parents or their peers. Then again, on a second thought, I didn’t really want to know. [photo essay]
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