MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #12

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Afghanistan’s amazing mountain scenery

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.

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Just to show I was there!

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.

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Tea party

 

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.

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Hussain in the clinic – female patient reluctant, her son truculent!

Who was it who insisted that ‘mum’ pull her chaddar more securely round her when walking in the bazaar?

19 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #12

  1. This is fascinating. Among women, there was little embarrassment about body. It is so sad that a woman’s life had been relegated to baby factory and any talents a woman may have possessed were ignored. Half the population.

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    • Thanks for your comments on this post. I should say that I’m writing about my experiences in a remote rural area in central Afghanistan and, although I was unaware of it at the time, in cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, women were working as teachers, doctors, nurses and university professors. The gulf between rural and urban was enormous. It’s quite hard to know how much to stick entirely to my own memories and experiences and how much to write about other things happening. Interestingly, I was the one who was embarrassed about displaying parts of my body – and they thought encasing my small boobs in a bra was hilarious 🙂

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      • Bras aren’t comfortable. It appears that the way women dressed was quite comfortable there. I give to Central Asia Institute that builds schools to help young girls in places like rural Afghanistan get an education. I don’t know if it is doing much good — but I do know that if I don’t try to help, that can be worse.

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        • Yes, their clothes were comfortable to wear. I haven’t heard of the Central Asia Institute but anything that helps build schools is worth supporting. Education for girls is much more widespread nowadays, even in some very remote areas.

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  2. I was actually encouraged to read that once you were all ‘women together’, it wasn’t so different at all. These memories make me understand so much more about a culture we knew little about at the time.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • Thanks, Pete. I was always happy to note and celebrate the similarities rather than the differences. And, as I said in a comment above, these are snapshots of one small rural area, not of the whole country. Glad you are enjoying the posts.

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    • Yes, that’s exactly right, Janet, and when they gather together they share the same concerns about their kids, about their health. I never ceased to be amazed at how they manged in very little space – and cooked wonderful meals over a fire and somehow managed to get everything ready and hot at the same time.

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  3. Mary, a wonderfully descriptive and enlightening post of the two cultures meeting for tea! You capture the minutiae of life in this excellent reportage. I had to laugh how ‘I thought only the English yelled at foreigners to make them understand.’ The dancing sounds like nothing I’ve seen! Thank goodness for your new friends which gave you a insight into their everyday existence. Because that’s what it sounds like, an existence… with barely anything, including little hope. The dichotomy of fheir approach to their bodies is interesting… so free at home with the women, so restricted outside. The photo of the son with his mother at the clinic sums it up … the young man’s attitude unrelenting.

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    • Thanks for your comments, Annika. I sometimes worry I focus too much on the minutiae, which people might find boring but which always fascinated me. Their lives were hard but they did always find things to smile and laugh about and find time to take tea and share the gossip.

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  4. Absolutely fascinating Mary. The dancing “stomping” called POOFFEE.
    As a young boy, I remember “Dr” Hussain, a good friend of my father visited our home on his motorcycle. Sadly few months later he was brutally murdered by Taliban , along with a other Hazara passengers, one of them my teacher.

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    • Thank you for dropping by, Bashir and leaving a comment. I didn’t know what the dancing was called. Hussain was like my son. I first knew him in Karachi, Pakistan when he came to do the training. He was such a young boy and both his parents had died when he was small. I did not know who the other passengers were with Hussain when he was killed. For a long time I kept hoping there was a mistake and it wasn’t true. Even contacting the Red Cross to see if maybe he was in the jail somewhere but in the end I had to accept it really had happened. Who was your teacher? Do you still live in Jaghori? Thank you.

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      • Thanks for your reply Mary.
        I remember the day Hussain came to see my father. He had a big smile on his face. I remember this because seeing a motorcycle was a rare sight for us back then. As kids whenever we heard the sound of a motorcycle or a car, we would run outside, and follow it with our eyes until it disappeared and the dust behind it settled to ground. This time as I heard the noise, I ran outside, I saw Hussain on his motorcycle. He stopped right in front of our house. He smiled, said hello, then asked where my father was… I think he left for Pakistan few days later, but sadly on his way back home he got killed.
        According to some estimates during that period, more than 4000 Hazaras, were killed by Taliban in KANDI POSHT. Taliban stopped buses, trucks and cars, identified the hazaras, then separated them and executed them.
        Hussain along with my school teacher Jawad Noori and our local mosque’s Mullah, Akhond Bayani were in the same car as Hussain, they were killed together in the same spot…
        The last time I visited jaghuri, was July 2018. The routes to Jaghuri still remains unsafe to this day. Innocent people still lose their lives unfortunately.

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        • Thank you for sharing your memories of Hussain. I was already back in Scotland when he brought his wife and small sons to Pakistan and I was so happy to know he was safe. He telephoned me to say he was going to make one last trip to the clinic in Jaghori then he would return to Pakistan. I begged him not to go back but he said he had to. He said he’d phone me as soon as he returned to Pakistan in two weeks. he never came back. I know the way to Jaghori is still very dangerous. My friend Jawad emailed from Kabul to say life for Hazara people in the city is really not good just now – apart from Covid-19, the Sunni people are very against Shia. And two of my friends are midwives in the hospital which was attacked. Thankfully, they were both unhurt but what does that do to people emotionally and mentally?

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          • Pleased to hear your midwife friends are unharmed in Dashtee Barchi hospital attack.
            The plight of Hazaras are endless.
            5 young Hazara men were set on fire in Ghazni yesterday…we are physically and mentally wounded and feel helpless. People are concerned about the Covid19 ; but at least the virus does not discriminate against race , color or religious background…
            The situation in afghanistan is quite complex. It is not just Sunnis against Shia. It is a combination of proxy wars between major stakeholders as well some domestic tribalism and racial issues…
            Thanks for all your hard work and kind support for Afghanistan, especially for the Hazaras of central Afganistan Mary.

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