It was through Baqul’s ten year old daughter Sughra and her mother Fatima I began to meet and make friends with some of the village women. Left to the men I would never have met women socially – maybe they didn’t view foreigners as being real women. Or foreign women as being real people.
Sughra often visited my room. She would rummage happily in my tin trunk, my few possessions an endless source of wonder. She questioned me on everything she unearthed, from supplies of soap and shampoo to notebooks and pens. She pored over a small album of photographs until she could identify each of my family members.
Her little sister, Amina, though at first nervous of me, was eventually won over by some old birthday cards to which she took a fancy. One day I made a string of paper dolls for her. She watched with interest as I folded the paper and cut the shapes. However, when I unfolded the paper and showed her how to make the dolls dance she shrieked in terror and ran for the door. Sughra, after carefully examining the dolls, scolded her and told her not to be so silly.
Fatima and I often met on neutral territory between our respective latrines, passing the time of day in friendly greetings. She always asked me to come for tea but I was hesitant, afraid my fluency in Dari couldn’t hold out for the length of time it takes to make tea. However, realising that yet another refusal might strain the shaky foundations of our friendship I finally agreed to visit.
The house was small, with just two rooms, both of which could fit easily into the living room at the clinic. The door opened directly into the first room – a kitchen and store. The second room provided living and sleeping accommodation for the family of seven. I understood why Sughra was so fascinated by my possessions – her family had none. A threadbare piece of what, once, had been a colourful gilim covered only part of the earth floor, while a small bundle of bedding in a corner constituted the entire furnishing of the room. On a small, recessed shelf a few medicines (no home was without a plastic bag of pills, syrups and tonics), embroidery materials and a small bundle of clothing were stored.
That first visit was not exactly a huge success. Fatima had invited several of her friends, and although none of the women were strangers to me, I became self-conscious, tongue-tied with embarrassment. There were many awkward pauses in our stilted conversation during which I would smile and smile, desperately trying to think of a topic my limited vocabulary would allow. Having exhausted the weather – what can be found to say on that subject when every day is warm and sunny? – I asked one little girl if she was going to school yet. There was a stunned silence. In Jaghoray, in those days, girls did not go to school. They helped their mothers with housework, looked after siblings, or the sheep on the mountains. Their brothers went to school. Feeling extremely foolish, I resorted to praising the tea – which meant Fatima had to rush off to make more.
Despite the initial awkwardness I was soon comfortable enough to drop in from time to time to have a chat with Fatima. She was a plump, smiling woman in her early thirties – though age is pretty much a ‘guesstimate’. When I first met her she was in her tenth pregnancy, still breast feeding Amina. Of her previous nine pregnancies, four had ended in miscarriage. Two of her remaining children had Hurler’s Syndrome. The family was poorer than any proverbial church mice. It was astonishing that she could still find anything about which to smile, yet Fatima was always cheerful, ready for a laugh. Baqul had taken Fatima to live in Kabul after their marriage. During the early 1980s all young, able bodied men were conscripted into the Afghan army but Baqul had no stomach for fighting and they returned to his village, to their tiny house, and small patch of land which could never provide for all their needs. No wonder Baqul had been so delighted when Hussain had agreed with Gul Agha’s request to employ him as the clinic cook.
Sometimes when I visited Fatima, some of her friends would put in an appearance. More tea would be made as they settled down for a good gossip. Following their conversation was often difficult and I frequently begged them to speak more slowly for me. They made valiant efforts to make me understand – using mime, bellowing in my ear (I thought only the English yelled at foreigners to make them understand) but try as they might, they could not slow down the normal speed of their speech.
Sometimes, in a party mood, they would dance. First, the dancers would pull their chaddar completely over their faces then, unable to see a thing, they would start to stomp. This stomping – there’s really no other word to describe it – had a “musical” accompaniment, a continuously blown raspberry. Perhaps the chaddar was worn as much as a protective device, to prevent the spectators being drowned in spittle, as for modesty. This rather graceless form of dance was performed at weddings, though never in front of men. I thought it unlikely that men’s passions could be inflamed by viewing a performance so devoid of eroticism – but I kept my foreign opinions to myself.
Conversations invariably turned to women’s problems and my vocabulary increased greatly as we discussed stomach cramps, menstruation, contraception, pregnancies, morning sickness, breast feeding and children’s illnesses. I was soon disabused of the notion, based on their so careful concealment of every contour of their bodies and every hair on their heads whenever they were in public, that Hazara women were modest to the point of prudery. With surprising speed they would whip off items of clothing to demonstrate where the pain was. Those who were nursing infants would produce enormous, milk engorged breasts without a hint of embarrassment, often forgetting to pop them back inside their bodices after the feed. They made risqué jokes, full of sexual innuendo – much of which passed, disappointingly, right over my head.
Yet these same women would arrive at the clinic to consult “Dr” Hussain, and refuse to remove their chaddar. One particularly shy creature could not even bring herself to open her mouth to allow him to examine her teeth, which she said were giving her problems. They would giggle sheepishly, roll their eyes, but refuse steadfastly to allow much more than their blood pressure to be checked. Hussain was frequently driven mad by this behaviour but could never see that he and all other men were responsible for it.
Who was it who insisted that ‘mum’ pull her chaddar more securely round her when walking in the bazaar?