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I was welcomed into this world with gunshots.
In Afghanistan, when a son is born, tradition dictates that the father rushes into the street with his pistol and fires a few rounds into the air to celebrate. My father did this for Khalid, my older brother, his firstborn, as was the Pashtun custom. A little over a year later, minutes after I was born, my father rushed outside with his weapon and did the same. His friends appeared and congratulated him on the birth of another son. My father laughed and said, “Oh no, my beautiful daughter was born today.” But nobody celebrates the birth of a daughter with gunshots. His friends shook their heads at such eccentric behavior. “You will see!” he told them. “I promise that my daughter will prove that she is better than many Pashtun sons, and will do more for her people than one hundred sons combined.”
I carry one of my father’s picture with me always. It is a photograph of him with the three of us—my brother, my sister, and me. It is small, black and white, and bears a collection of tiny holes, puncture marks from the pins and small nails that, over the years, have fixed it to my walls in Kabul, Ghazni Province, Peshawar, and, finally, Portland, Oregon. In his pictures he is a young man with sideburns and big, black-framed eyeglasses, wearing a diamond-patterend crewneck sweater and listening to the radio, while my brother, sister, and I are draped all over him. My brother, Khalid, who is now roughly the same age our father was when he disappeared, has a collection of sweaters with this same motif, most of them given to him by my sister, Najiba, and me.
In the background you can see our bunk beds pushed against the wall. It is not uncommon for Afghan families to sleep in the same room, and despite my father’s Western tastes, despite his forward-thinking education—he was an attorney—and his radio program that explored Pashtun music and culture, our family was no different, and we all slept in the same room.
Even though I don’t remember when the picture was taken, I cherish that moment. It brings me great comfort when I am faced with self-doubt, and reminds me of what he had predicted at the time of my birth, declaring my destiny to the world.
My father became one of the first prisoners of war during the Soviet occupation, taken from his home by KGB agents when most of the world didn’t even know they were in Afghanistan. I became one of the millions of Afghan refugees of that war at age five, when I still had most of my baby teeth. I have flashes of memories from that nightmare, like taking my pet cat to a settlement of mud houses outside Kabul, leaving her in the center, hoping someone would take care of her because we had to flee the city and couldn’t take her with us. I remember turning around in the car, trying to get one more glimpse of her before saying good-bye to her forever. Even today the sight of people with their pets fills me with sadness.
I remember getting on a donkey to cross the border into Pakistan, and being afraid that it would take off and I would lose the caravan of other refugees, leaving Mamai and Najiba behind with them. The journey to Pakistan took almost ten days. During that time we were at the mercy of kind strangers for food, shelter, and safety. I vividly remember one house where, in the true spirit of Pashtunwali, the ways of the Pashtun, they gave us their only two eggs, cooked in real butter. So delicious, I can close my eyes and instantly taste that butter. But after a while, what I return to most is not so much each individual painful memory but an ever-present feeling of certainty that I would not survive my childhood. I see effects of that overwhelming presence of terror in my childhood in me today, and I know I will feel it for the rest of my life. What is devastating is that there are thousands of us Afghan children, young and old, who suffered through the same journey, and who will forever bear the scars of those years of constant fear.
I do have some happy memories from my childhood. One of the very few cherished ones is of my brother, my sister, and me standing at the window on the second floor of our house in Kabul, waiting for my father to drive up in the Soap Dish—what we called his white Volkswagen Beetle—and running down to open the door so he could park, step out, and gather all three of us in a group embrace. He would then place Khalid on his shoulders, and Najiba and I would drape ourselves over his arms as he walked into the house, greeting Mamai with a smile.
On Fridays my father liked to cook big lunches for his family and friends. His lunches were legendary. He had many friends, and they would gather around our huge marble table, which sat thirty-eight people comfortably. Here they enjoyed his excellent cooking and shared many laughs at his expense. Even in Kabul, during the progressive mid-seventies, when women walked around the city in miniskirts and the latest European fashions, men never even entered a kitchen, unless they were searching for their wives to ask them what was for dinner. But my father not only loved to cook, he designed our kitchen to suit his strange methods. Traditionally, Afghan women squat on their heels while cooking because everything—the burners, the food—is on the ground level, but my father realized how much easier it was to cook while standing. So in the late seventies, we were the only family we knew in all of Kabul who had kitchen counters, and Mamai cooked standing up.
On one hot Friday afternoon in 1979, according to my mother, my father was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the meal when there was a knock on the door. It was one of our relatives, who’d arrived with a “friend.” The relative asked my father to step outside for a moment. My father paused. He was wearing his slippers. Still, he did not want to insult his relative, so he stepped outside, closing the door behind him. The KGB had just begun secretly kidnapping and imprisoning people who spoke out against the Soviet Union’s covert involvement in the Afghan government. My father was among the first to openly talk about the danger the Soviet presence in Kabul presented to Afghanistan. On his radio show, he announced to his listeners that the Soviets had arrived in Afghanistan with no good intentions. He let everyone know: They wanted to destroy the country of the proud Pashtun nation.
The food got cold while his friends sat around the big marble table, awaiting the return of their host. He never came back. Not that day or ever. I was too young to know what was going on, but Mamai and my uncles were crazy with worry—how could a grown man disappear in the middle of the day, out of his front door? No one seemed to know anything about it, and several family friends distanced themselves to the point of shutting doors in my uncles’ faces, and telling them there was nothing they could do to help us. My father had been sold out by his countrymen, who were collaborating with the KGB. Several days later word arrived from one of my father’s friends that my father had been taken to Pul-i-charkhi, the infamous prison on the outskirts of Kabul, for questioning.
What questions? Mamai wanted to know. She was frantic. But even in that more modern part of Afghanistan, a woman would never be allowed to visit a prison with her small children. Instead, every week my uncle would take my father a change of clothes and his favorite food. This went on for many weeks. Then one day my uncle showed up at the prison, at what had become his regular time, and the guard told him that there was no one there with my father’s name, Taher. Mamai’s nightmare recurred: My father had vanished again.
For a while, we remained in our large house in Kabul, hoping my father would return or that at least someone would bring us news of him. Khalid and I took to standing all day at the second-floor window, in order to be the first ones to spot him coming home. Najiba was still a babe in arms. Perhaps because she felt Mamai’s anguish, she cried a lot.
That December, in 1979, Russian tanks openly rolled into Kabul. Every day jets tore the sky overhead. We would hear their sharp hissing, then an eerie moment of silence, then explosions that shook the walls of our house and hurt our ears. At the time, our house was one of only a few two-story houses in Kabul, and whenever we heard the piercing squeal of the jets I was sure that our house was the logical target for the bombs, and that it was going to collapse on our heads at any moment.
Amid the chaos of the Russian invasion, we held out hopes that our father would somehow return, restoring us to a complete family, ready to make plans to survive the Soviet invasion together. No word ever came. With each passing week, Kabul became more and more dangerous. My Baba, my father’s father, wanted us to come to his village, just a few hours away from Kabul, but Mamai resisted. She tossed and turned at night, worrying that if we left the city, my father wouldn’t know where to find us, which was a silly fear since we had nowhere else to go but Baba’s village. Eventually, Baba, who was gentle but persistent, convinced Mamai that we had to go. In Kabul, children were starting to go missing. Baba said that if she didn’t leave, she would lose her children. One day the front door would be unlocked and someone would snatch us.
It was rumored that the Russians had started kidnapping children my brother’s age—Khalid was six—and sending them to the Soviet Union to train them to be spies for the KGB. After several little boys disappeared from our own neighborhood, Mamai had to accept that Baba was right. We packed up very few belongings and left.
Khalid was at the age when Afghan mothers begin to entertain the hope that their child might survive to adulthood, to marry and have children. Pashtuns believe that at this point a child is old enough to be separated from his mother, if necessary. Some uncles on my father’s side were heading across the border to Pakistan and took Khalid with them. There he would begin his schooling. Later I would learn that schooling was actually not the deciding factor for sending Khalid off to another country without us. The Russian soldiers were especially ruthless in killing off male children because they didn’t want these young boys to grow up and pick up weapons against the Soviet regime. Mamai, Najiba, and I went to live with Baba in Ghazni Province, where both my parents were born.
My grandfather was the mullah of his village, the religious authority and most esteemed elder. During the late seventies, mullahs were still respected and well liked by communities, and as such he was the true speen gerai—“white-bearded one”—that I would, almost twenty years later, seek out in each village I visited. He was an accomplished learner and teacher—he taught the male children in the village and at home taught my aunts how to write their names. He had traveled to Saudi Arabia to memorize the Koran. He would make us read it every evening and would translate into Pashtu the parts that he wanted to point out to us, since we could only read the Arabic. Because he was our elder, our Baba, I never knew his name when I was growing up, and it would have been disrespectful to ask. I never knew my own last name until I moved to America. People would ask what my last name was, and I would be confused, thinking they were asking me for a name I had had before. I would say, But I’ve always been Saima; that is what I was called last, too!
Baba was no taller than five feet six, but when I was a little girl, he seemed like a tower. He always wore shalwar kameez, a white cotton turban, and a light-brown patu, a shawl worn by men. Even now, as you pass through villages all over Afghanistan, you can see men squatting by the side of the road, their patus tossed casually over their shoulders. It’s an unsettling sight for the American soldiers, as patus are often used by suicide bombers to hide explosives strapped to their chests. But when I was five, I used to go snuggle in Baba’s patu and feel invincible, like nothing—not even the Russian bombs falling from the skies—could touch me.
We arrived in the village as winter was approaching. I remember a wonderful fur coat that Baba wore. Against the bitter, bone-chilling cold of Afghanistan, that fur coat was the only defense he had. He was the only man I had ever seen in a fur coat; he had inherited it from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and so on, so that no one remembered the original owner. It was gold and cream-colored, probably sheep shearling. I could pet his arm for hours, it was so wonderfully soft. In the evening, after he’d spent the day teaching the boys, he would call Najiba and me, open his coat wide, and let us crawl into his warm embrace. He told us stories. He asked after our day. He teased us. Two little girls receiving the love and undivided attention of the most respected man in the village was unheard-of in Pashtun culture.
At best, Pashtun parenting can be described as benign neglect. Children are largely ignored until it’s time for them to do something for their parents. A son is barely spoken to until he reaches the age of fifteen and is told to go to Saudi Arabia or some other Gulf country to get a job and make some money. A daughter receives less attention than the cow in the yard, which at least needs to be milked every morning; then one day, when she’s thirteen or fourteen, she’s told that she’s going to marry somebody on Friday. Her opinion in the matter is irrelevant.