Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Real Afghanistan

One of the reasons I came to Afghanistan was to break stereotypes: my stereotypes about Afghans, and their stereotypes about me. I’ve been talking about this country and pretending I know what’s going on over here for so many years, but I really had no idea. It’s easy for us to act informed because we’ve read BBC News and written a few debate briefs, but as I’m sure you’ve seen from my previous entries, Afghanistan is nothing like the country that we see in the news. In the past few days, during dinners at the home of an Afghan friend and through volunteer work with Operation Christmas Child, I’ve gotten to see a new side to the country, a side that BBC probably hasn’t seen.

Josh, Rachal, and I went with the Banyan Tree Network’s Executive Director (Aref Dostyar) to his hometown of Mazar-e Sharif to conduct some exhibition debates and teach a workshop this weekend, and Aref invited us to his family‘s house for dinner on Friday and again on Sunday. He comes from a large family- his father, mother, two younger brothers, and four younger sisters all live in Mazar. From the beginning, it was clear that it was a house full of laughter and family time and close friendships; watching them interact and hug their visiting brother/son and joke in Dari that I couldn’t understand made me more homesick than I’ve been in months.

When we arrived, they greeted us the Afghan way- handshakes when men met men, three kisses when women met women, and a hand over the heart and murmured Salam when men and women intermingled. Immediately, Aref’s mom and sisters pulled Rachal and me into the house and took us to a room that was, like most Afghan rooms, empty of furniture. The edges of the room sported cushions on the floor and against the wall called toshaks. We reclined against them, trying to communicate with our limited Dari and their limited English. The fifteen-year-old sister (I feel terrible, but I’ve forgotten her name!) translated for us, but she did so between fits of giggles. I tried to help with the words I’ve learned in Dari, asking their names and their ages, but my pronunciation made them giggle all the harder.

They had intended to sit us in that room to eat, but it was just too hot (remember I told you Kabul is hot? Mazar is SO much worse!!), so we went outside. However, this meant that the sisters couldn’t sit with us, so they ate inside while we sat on the toshaks on the porch with Aref, his parents, and his brothers. It was a lot of fun. We talked about families and laughed at Josh’s facial expressions and heard about the brother’s work. They kept asking us to eat more- more nan, more rice, more meat and beans and tea and watermelon and candies… Afghans are nothing if not hospitable!

Some of the cultural bits were less comfortable. We sat on toshaks with the adults, and the two youngest kids brought a tablecloth, a bowl of candies, tea cups and saucers and a jug of green tea, a little tree to hold silverware, plates and glasses of water, plates of rice, a bowl of yogurt, a bigger bowl of beans, a plate of nan, smaller bowls of meat and sauce, plates with a mix of onions and other vegetables for spice, a plate of watermelon for desert. The youngest brother even brought a bowl and a jug before the meal began and poured water over our hands.

He at least sat with us after our hands were washed and ate with us, as did Aref’s mother, which surprised me. The youngest sister brought load after load of food, but after she dropped each one off, she went back inside. I’m not trying to be judgmental, and I hope it doesn’t sound that way, but it was so strange and contrary to everything I’m used to. At home, us kids set and clear the table just as these kids did, but we get to eat with the family. I know it’s the culture and I know that young girls don’t get to eat in the company of male strangers, but it’s still so hard to accept. It’s so hard to hear Aref tell me that his sisters aren’t strong like I am and not want to ask why he thinks that is.

I didn’t intend to write this entry as a rant about gender stereotypes, but in writing about the lovely dinner we had with Aref’s family and the hospitability his parents showed and the giggles from his sisters as we took photos and the silly expressions on his brother’s face as he mimicked Josh’s smile, it’s hard to avoid. It is impossible to celebrate the culture without expressing its downfalls (through my admittedly limited and Western point of view) at the same time. Even as I reveled in the love and the laughter that was ingrained in every moment that Aref’s family spent together, I was reminded constantly how different this culture is and how far I am from home.

On Monday, I spent several hours breaking gender stereotypes as I helped load giant boxes filled with shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child. OCC is a program that my family has participated in for years, in which we fill a box with gifts at Christmas time and send it to another country to help provide Christmas for another kid. Usually, I fill my boxes and turn them in and forget about them. This week, I’ve spent an awful lot of time remembering. On Monday, we unloaded, sorted, and then loaded about a thousand big boxes of shoeboxes onto trucks that would deliver them to individual schools and distribution sites. The boxes weren’t heavy, but they were big and very awkward to carry- I’ve got some impressive bruises on my arms and legs from trying to balance them as I moved them.

The Afghan workers who were hired to help us for the day weren’t happy about me helping. I was the only girl on site, and in the beginning, I didn’t really notice. The boxes weren’t any heavier than a hay bale, and I’ve moved a lot of those in my life. But when the trucks arrived with more workers in the afternoon, I kept finding an Afghan politely but firmly taking my box out of my hands before I could take a step. He would smile at me and oh so carefully ease the box away from me and carry it away. It drove me crazy. I know that most Afghan women don’t do manual labor, and that’s fine. But I wasn’t about to spend the afternoon sitting around looking pretty; I’d rather help and get done faster. The next time that Zamir tried to take a box from me, I jerked it back from him and told him I could do it. His jaw dropped as I stepped around him and lifted the box onto the fourth row, which was taller than I am. I felt a little guilty for shattering his world like that, but I’ve done so much conforming since I got here. I thought they would survive a little shock like that.

This is getting long, but I want to tell you about the distribution of Operation Christmas Child that we helped with on Sunday. We went to a school and a hospital in Mazar and passed out gifts to the kids there. The school, Seeds of Hope, serves children in a very poor community, most of whom are orphans or half-orphans. Hearing their stories was heartbreaking- one little girl, Sara, told us that her father died/was killed at the market one day because he owed people money, and her mother just up and left. She lives with her uncle, who is thinking about pulling her out of school because he wants her to work. She’s nine years old, and has the sweetest smile you ever saw. She showed us her box of gifts, and as we were leaving a few minutes later, I saw her and a friend walking hand in hand with lollipop’s from Sara’s Christmas gift in their mouths.

It’s amazing to see the resilience of these kids, their desire to learn, their capacity to love despite all that they’ve lost. The more time I spend abroad, the more I love traveling and meeting these people, but also the more I love my country and the more blessed I feel to have grown up in the US.

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