When I came to Afghanistan in October, I was irrationally and, perhaps, naively head-over-heels in love with every day and every experience here. Upon my return in January, however, I had a hard time readjusting. But thanks to moments – and people – like these, I gradually began to remember what it was about this country that I fell in love with in the first place…
She has alabaster skin dotted by delicate freckles, big brown eyes, and a quick tongue that sends the girls into fits of laughter. She, along with her sister, adopt Fara and I almost as soon as we sit down in the then-empty soundstage. In the long hours of downtime before and between the shooting of the semi-final episode of Afghan Star, Afghanistan’s answer to American Idol, the pair of them keep us entertained.
Mostly with questions. Where am I from? How long have I been in Afghanistan? Am I married? Do I have a boyfriend? Why don’t I have a boyfriend? Who is my favorite Afghan star? What do I think of Afghan men? Do I want to meet their brother, who is a doctor?
“He’s different,” she promises, “smart and progressive and bishyar maqbul hast*. You will like him.” She pauses, “And besides, if you like Afghanistan so much, isn’t it good to marry an Afghan and stay forever?”
And later, “Can I invite you to my home?” she asks, excited but suddenly bashful. “You can meet my brother. You can meet all of my brothers.” She raises her eyebrows mischievously, and I laugh.
Charming, bold, and vivacious, she seems as much an Afghan star as the contestants on stage before us.
The Problem with Husbands
It is before a big family dinner, and the women are gathered by the bukhari**, comparing bolts of recently purchased cloth that tomorrow will be transformed into outfits. The three men present – the husbands and fathers – are on the far side of the room, lounging with their feet stretched out and their chai and snacks before them. The many children are playing a shrieking game of tag around us. But for all intensive purposes, we women are alone and talking openly.
“It’s good that you do not have a husband yet,” one of the women tells me. “Men only bring problems.”
“And Afghan men are the worst!” Another chimes in.
They chatter in rapid-fire Dari, and I am made to understand, via their accompanying hand gestures, the smelliness, infidelity, and troubles of having a husband. I glance over at their men, and my friend, the host, catches my eye, shrugs, and grins indulgently. What can you do? He seems to ask.
Later, after dinner, we are lounging around in a food-induced coma. Talk turns to 2014 and everyone’s plans. “Eileen says she will stay in Afghanistan.” My friend informs everyone.
One of the men roars with mirth, “You stay in Afghanistan and I will go to the U.S. in your place.”
His wife quickly jumps in, “No, I will take her place and she can have mine – my life, my tazkeera, even my husband. How about it?”
Laughter all around – with the loudest coming from her husband.
Small Acts of Resistance
We are speeding through the night, six of us jammed into a small red sedan. Western pop music is blaring through the stereo, and as we approach a police checkpoint, Nabil taps on the breaks to the beat of the reggaeton song playing. One of the ANP*** shines his flashlight into the car, and seeing five women inside – four of us stuffed into the backseat and one, her headscarf defiantly down, in the front – he waves us on.
Nabil says something in Dari that I don’t catch but Benazir, who’s sitting half on me and half next to me, hits him playfully in response and the other women laugh.
A small gesture that would go unnoticed in any other context, but in conservative Afghanistan, where five unmarried young women and one unmarried young man should not be together period, it’s a small gesture of resistance.
The song changes and Shakira’s strong voice belts out,
“Cause I’m a gypsy, but are you coming with me? I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me.
I never made agreements, just like a gypsy. And I won’t back down, cause life’s already hurt me,
And I won’t cry. I’m too young to die. If you’re going to quit me. ’Cause I’m a gypsy…”
Benazir is the only one that knows all the words, but the rest of us sway along, connecting deeply to the lyrics. “This song is my favorite!” She says feelingly at its conclusion, and I wonder at their resilience. Who are these women, and how have they managed to maintain their free spirits and joie de vivre here?
And perhaps more importantly, how many more women like them are out there, resisting in their own small ways?
*Bishyar maqbul hast: He’s very handsome.
**Bukhari: an Afghan metal fireplace used to heat homes in the winter. They are typically filled with sawdust, coal, or wood, though the word “bukhari” has also come to refer to any heater, including electric heaters.
***ANP: Afghan National Police: