My First Eid in Afghanistan (During An Unprecendented Taliban Ceasefire!)

by - 8:17 PM

Without question, 2018’s festive season of Eid in Afghanistan has been an unprecedented one. Nobody expected the notorious Taliban to announce a 3-day ceasefire with Afghan government security forces for the sake of a ‘peaceable Eid’ for the Afghan people. It was a weekend fraught with quiet tension. For once, there weren’t any news of suicide bombs or attacks. But in a move that alarmed the nation, the Taliban surprised and terrified the people of Kabul by riding into the city and its neighborhoods brazenly on their trucks and motorcycles, chanting slogans yet appearing uncharacteristically friendly to everyone. It was almost like Kabul had turned into another planet for three days. News reports surfaced of Taliban fighters embracing Afghan security officers, and even more unbelievably, taking selfies with civilians. (These Taliban fighters were later reprimanded by their leaders for doing so.) All of these events were totally out of the ordinary and slightly sinister, considering how the Taliban have slaughtered civilians, imposed an oppressive and radical way of life, and caused the suffering of millions. Yet the atmosphere was somewhat hopeful – everyone was hoping for an extended ceasefire beyond the 3-days and possibly a truce. It seems to me that the war-weary people of Afghanistan have become so tired and numb of fighting that they are okay to accept or cling on to any sliver of promise for ‘peace’, an end to the unceasing conflict, even when it is clearly a lie. Unsurprisingly, on Sunday, those hopes were dashed once more as the Taliban announced that the ceasefire was over and they were going back to resuming fighting against the ‘foreign invaders and their internal supporters’.

For me, it was my first Eid celebration ever – and I had the unimaginable privilege of experiencing it in the tumultuous yet strikingly breath-taking countryside. The sensory-laden memories of those three days – from the 15th to 17th of June – will always be pixelated in my mind’s eye and etched upon my heart. Since I’ve only been living in Kabul for almost 70 days, I didn’t expect to be invited for local Eid celebrations due to the security situation and the usual threats that could pose not only for me, but for those who might invite me into their homes. But to my surprise and delight, I was invited by a colleague – I shall call him Aman – to join their family for a trip out of Kabul to Parwan province for a day road-trip. Considering the enormous risks, I said yes, without hesitation. It was a chance for me to witness the reality of the country and hangout with a local family I knew beyond doubt I could trust. Aman is a young musician whom I am tasked with mentoring in music teaching so that he will eventually take my place at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. He has been ever most helpful, open-hearted, and always smiling his sweet courteous smile to everyone no matter how bad a day can get in this ridiculous place.

On one of the bad days that I’ll never forget, Aman was in charge of taking a group of students for a concert in an embassy. It was a huge responsibility because there are stringent security checks of the students and the instruments entering the ‘green zone’, not to mention the risk that it posed for him and the young musicians whom the Taliban have publicly threatened numerous times. That day, the worst happened when a bomb went off in the vicinity as they were on their way. It was on the road they had to travel on to get to the concert venue. Due to the subsequent security cordon and checks, they were stuck on the bus for three hours on the same road. When they finally reached the venue, they were subject to a lengthy security search. Even though they had prepared ahead of time for this, and travelled hours in advance, they were still almost going to be late for the concert. Aman requested for them to speed up the process, but it was protocol and they had to go through it. Finally, when they got in just in time, they were told that the concert was cancelled earlier because of the blast. It was an awful waste of effort and time, since they could have been notified earlier!

Aman came back to school flustered, but still with a smile on his face when he greeted me in my studio. I heard about the bomb and knew they were on the way to the concert. I was anxious to check on him and knew he wouldn’t be in the best mood. Yet he answered me with a smile and told me what happened. He was indeed frustrated that he was held responsible for being ‘late’ to the venue, when they weren’t actually late. In Afghanistan, someone has to be faulted, and it is usually the innocent who take the blame. I felt so sorry for him, but I marveled that he was still smiling at me. He didn’t show his anger or frustration to me even on such a terrible and tiring day. My level of respect for him shot through the roof.

Standing in a beautiful 'green place' with the Hindu Kush mountains in the back-drop.
Indeed, I believe God gave me the best gift this Eid – the friendship of a family and the company of such open-hearted Afghans. To be welcomed not simply as a friend, but as a sister and a teacher. As we drove out of Kabul, we passed checkpoints and the street chaos of endless people and motorists making their way out of or into Kabul for the weekend celebrations with family and friends after enduring a whole month of Ramadan fasting. I couldn’t stop smiling that I’d gotten this opportunity. Aman’s father drove us in a 30-year old family van, and we journeyed to Parwan with his mom, older cousin, two brothers, and youngest sister altogether. (The poor ancient van later on over-heated, and we had to spray water over the engine on the way home.) We passed mountainous neighborhood homes perched precariously on cliff-edges. The roads were lined with various stalls selling fruits, fresh pomegranate juice, cigarettes, sweets, and telephone scratch cards. Road-battered corollas, yellow and white old taxis, motorbikes, and mini-bus vans were all inches from each other as we crawled our way to different destinations for Eid.

Throughout the day, I witnessed marvelous feats of what I might dub ‘car jamming’. I saw up to three or four men squeezed in their front seats (I don’t know how the driver maneuvered his gear-stick), women in burqas with their babies and natty children squeezed onto their laps in the backseats of many passing cars. Sometimes there were up to six of them in the back, and to recount one especially memorable spectacle: three children gleefully sitting in a half opened boot with their legs dangling out. I’ve seen worse in Africa, but to see it in Afghanistan – with Afghan music in Dari and Pashtu playing on the radio – and to imagine the stifling summer heat these women have to endure under their blue burqas, is something else.

As we started to cruise our way into the countryside, the landscape started to change. The jagged, undulating Hindu Kush mountains towered in the distance, on both sides of the straight road out of Kabul. Aman narrated the different places we passed and promised that we will soon see the ‘green places’ – patches of green valley and anggur (grape) farms. He asks me if I’d like some chai (hot green tea) that they’d brought along. His dad later brings out a container for Aman to hold in the van. Aman tries to trick me and cheekily says there’s a snake in the container that we’re going to fry up for lunch. He opened it and it was filled with Afghan snacks – kishmish (raisins), almonds, pistachios, and the like. We shared a hilarious on-the-road moment when Aman gave me some salted unshelled almonds that were encrusted in white salt, which I thought was sugar. I popped it in my mouth and crunched it without thinking. Aman realizes in a split-second that I’d bitten the shell, and tries to stop me, but it’s too late! The salty, sharp shell pokes around my mouth and I can’t swallow it. I can’t bear to spit it out the van window even though everyone admonishes me to. “Gimme’ the chai!” I sputter. Aman hastily passes me the glass, warning, “Teacher be careful, it’s hot!” I sip the tea and swish down the almond shell in a gulp. We couldn’t stop laughing afterwards. It was a beautiful moment and in a reminiscent flash, I thought of my own family. How I wish they could be here to meet this endearing Afghan family with me.

Halfway through our journey, we stop by a local tea house. Aman says that this town is known for its Afghan bolani – a kind of deep-fried naan with salty kachalu (potatoes) wrapped inside. Before stepping out into the street, he advises me to not say a word once we got out, so that no one will suspect that I’m not Afghan. With my headscarf on and my oriental features, I could pass off as an Afghan Hazara – a tribe that stands out for their Mongolian looks. We head inside and seat ourselves cross-legged on a carpeted block of cement raised above ground-level. Aman’s dad bought the bolani and brought them in with newspapers, dripping with oil. I was touched by his humble and caring nature, as he is a doctor in a local hospital. The shop owner’s son served us tubs of mast (fresh cold yoghurt) and chili chutney to go with the bolani. Aman poured me some doogh, a thick and salty lassi drink with chopped mint and cucumber. We spoke in hushed voices, and I tried not to speak too much. I felt wonderful and privileged to be sitting where the locals sit, nobody else noticing that I’m not actually one of them. Aman saw me looking around with quiet gratitude and said these poignant words with a smile, “Teacher, you are keeping every memory.” 

About two hours later, we arrived at a town in Parwan province. There were locals bustling about everywhere and I was delighted at the sight of a more village-like Afghan scene. Local wizened-looking men were selling carts of fruit and veggies; most notably, the giant-sized badrang (huge green cucumbers, such as I’ve never seen before) and watermelons. The shops were all very close together and there were spice stalls with ruck-sacks of spices and nuts, as well as meat stalls with skinned animal parts distastefully dangling by iron hooks waiting to chopped up into chunks of lamb or beef. It reminded me of Africa. Aman pointed to the shiriak (Afghan ice-cream) shops that were all around the town. He said we’ll try it later before heading home, as this town is famous for their version of ice-cream – a frozen, creamy mix of sweet curdled butter and milk.

We finally arrived our destination – the home of Aman’s uncle, the younger brother of his father. Hamid and his lovely wife Amida (not their real names) welcomed us with open arms along with their three young children. We were ushered into a small carpeted living room, and seated on the tooshak floor cushions. There were ornate glass plates filled with snacks typical of the Eid season: sweets, raisins, almonds, nuts, crackers, wafers and kulcha (sweet home-made cookies). They served us bowls of apricots, cherries and cucumbers along with glasses of chai and pomegranate juice.

After cordial introductions, Hamid congratulated me for working at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and mentioned that he had watched the recent news of our founder, Dr. Sarmast, receiving the prestigious Polar Music Prize award for his efforts in rebuilding the musical ruins of Afghanistan. He gushed about how it is one of the most ‘proud-ful’ organizations of our country, and how proud he is this music school is representative of what Afghanistan can be. His wife Amida, a very jolly woman, spilled over with laughter and side jokes as she held her youngest child on her lap. Her husband proceeded to recount how they ended up moving out of the city into this provincial town. It was a remarkable story of sacrifice and choosing to serve his nation rather than leave it. A few years ago, due to his work with English-speaking foreigners, he had the chance to emigrate and leave the troubles of Afghanistan behind. But he chose to stay – because, in his words: “If everyone who can help my country leaves it, who will be left behind to rebuild it?” He took on a new job which involved a countrywide project to educate girls in rural villages, with a goal to establish local school houses where local teachers are trained to educate girls who will otherwise be cooped up in their homes doing chores or farm-work to sustain their families. So that’s how they ended up in this rural town. I was touched by how convinced he was of this responsibility. He’d go from house to house, imploring mothers and fathers to allow their girls to attend the local school. The statistics don’t lie – the truth is, millions of girls (and boys) in Afghanistan still do not have access to education or the socio-cultural freedom to attend even if there was a school in their vicinity. We are waiting – and like Hamid, working hard – for that reality to shift and change for good in the near future.

Aman’s cousin – whom I shall call Waheed – was also a notable young man. He could speak English quite fluently and joined in the conversation. He told me about his family, how they fled to Pakistan and lived in a refugee camp during the Taliban years. His mother – a sister of Aman’s father – is well-known in Pakistan and Afghanistan for her efforts to start-up schools for Afghan girls in the refugee camps. She has received several major refugee-development awards over the years and continues her work in Pakistan to this day. Waheed, as a young man in his early twenties, returned to Kabul a few years back for study and work. I was honored to hear such stories and to get to know such an exceptional family. I sensed a real peace-maker’s heart instilled into their heritage.

Learning to drink local doogh, a salty lassi yoghurt drink with chopped mint, cucumber and chillies!
Hamid soon announced that the plan for the day was to take us all further out into the countryside for a picnic, where we’ll have his wife’s home-cooked lunch of kabuli pilau (spiced rice), lamb, naan, and curried banjan (eggplant). We headed out once more into the hot Afghan summer. I just wish I didn’t have to wear long-sleeved clothes and a scarf all the time when I’m out. But sometimes I pinch myself in wonder that I’m actually doing it. I’m dressing different and living different, so far without any issues or grievances. The culture is the culture – it is what it is. As always, I can adapt. I can do what it takes. I thank God that I’ve slipped into this other world without any trouble; and in fact, with great joy and unspeakable peace. Maybe that’s why I got invited.

When I asked Aman why he thought of inviting me, he laughed and said it’s because he felt I would enjoy seeing Afghan culture and being with a family. He said it's often difficult to invite other foreign teachers in the past, because they seemed too wrapped by their own culture for him to feel confident that they would be versatile enough to be among locals. He told me that I am the friendliest and kindest teacher so far, and he didn’t have to think twice to invite me. I was so honored by this. I could have cried.

As we drove out into the farming and wheat fields, we passed by Afghan cemeteries, with jagged head-stones poking out of the dry ground. It was quite an unusual sight. I saw brown mud-houses and women in flowing burqas with their young children dressed in their colorful Eid best, trailing behind their invisible mothers. Aman excitedly pointed out the ‘green places’ – the other-worldly valleys of green trees set against a backdrop of endless mountains and riveting, blue skies. It was an astonishing sight – and refreshing to the soul – so different from the bleak security blast walls, barbed wire, and sewage-ridden rivers of Kabul. Rivulets of melting ice water flowing from the high mountain regions snaked between the greenery and the dusty village roads. We finally found the picnic grounds, full of shady mulberry trees and a small rushing river, running cold from the Salang mountains. There were a group of local men also picnicking in the vicinity. Aman again reminded me not to say a word in English when we got out to find our picnic ground further up the river.

After spending the past two and a half months mostly indoors, between school and my apartment, this was the most beautiful and freeing day of my time in Afghanistan! I couldn’t thank Aman’s family enough for welcoming me into their midst for such a memorable day. The boys took turns to fetch our picnic goods from the van: rugs and cushions, a large tea kettle, a portable gas stove, the water container, cutlery and plates, chai glasses, and bags of watermelons, naan, snacks and home-cooked food. The first thing that Aman’s father did was to pull down the branches of the mulberry tree and pluck bunches of the sweet fruit for everyone. “Bibi jan!” he called out to me, using the typical term of Afghan endearment as he held down the branches low enough for me to pluck them. When we soon realized that the fruit was so ripe it could literally fall off the tree if we shook the branches, he proceeded to climb the tree with the help of his sons. As he clambered to the top, he ordered for the boys to hold out a picnic blanket so they could collect the falling berries. Then he started shaking the branches. It was so much fun seeing the fruit fall and the boys catch it with grins on their faces. Aman’s mom and myself started collecting and washing them. The berries were so sweet that eating them non-stop on such a hot day left us with a mild sore throat! 

Needless to say, it was a surreal afternoon that I will treasure for days to come. There were moments when everyone was busy eating and chattering in Dari that I zoned out and looked up at the green leaves and blue skies beyond… Can you believe it. I am in Afghanistan, I whispered in my mind. I’m having a picnic in the countryside with an Afghan family who has welcomed me with open hands, who respects me enough to call me ‘Teacher’ instead of my first name and likes me enough to call me ‘jan’ (which means ‘dear’). Thank you God for these blessings in a new country!

I marveled at how safe I felt. Aman told me that I was brave to come with them. But then I thought about how brave they were for inviting me to join them as their daughter, their sister, their friend. We had a memorable conversation during the scrumptious meal as we sat sharing plates of pilau and lamb on the large rug altogether, tearing off pieces of chewy naan bread and dipping it in the eggplant curry and yoghurt. It was a special feeling of belonging, in a volatile and foreign land. I asked Aman about his plans for the future in music and Afghanistan. He shared an idea that astounded me. He wanted to start a project in the future in a region of Afghanistan that is the heartland of the persecuted Hazara tribe. Even though he himself is not a Hazara, he exuded a heart to help them. Here’s an Afghan who didn’t quite care about tribal differences. He said the Hazaras are a hard-working people who value education. If we started something in the way of music and the arts for them, they will certainly excel in it. The Hazaras will not disappoint. They have faced genocide in Afghanistan in the past century – for their looks, their particular sect of Islam, their ‘less-than’ minority status in the land, and their peace-loving ways. They have been remarkably brave and resilient even when so many odds are stacked against them. I was so taken by the ideas that Aman shared with me, that I told him, “Whether or not I will be here in the future for the time that these ideas are worked out in reality, I will – as a fellow musician and mentor – support you.” I felt so moved by this unexpected discovery about Aman because, I told him, I have made many Hazara friends back in Australia. The Hazaras are Afghans who have fled the war and the genocide in their homeland, to seek refuge in temporary places of relative safety in Pakistan or Iran. Some of them have made it to Australia, by boat or by plane, to seek asylum and refugee status. Perhaps it’s really no coincidence – and I believe it isn’t – that I have the privilege of mentoring a young person like Aman who somehow has a dream to help the Hazaras.

An Afghan mother cloaked in her burqa with her young daughter in a colourful Eid dress trailing behind her.
Throughout the day I marveled at the beauty of Afghan kindness. Later when we returned to Hamid’s home, Amida gave me two colorful scarves as a gift. Then they surprised us with an invitation for us all to stayover at their home if we wanted to. Hamid said to me, “Please, you are like a sister to my wife, so you are my sister. If you want to stay with us, please feel welcome. If you need anything or any help, please ask. You are like family with us.” Later in the evening, when we went to visit Aman’s grandparents on his mother’s side, his sister, aunties and cousin sisters gave me spontaneous gifts – a bracelet, a ring, a turquoise-stone heart pendant, colorful earrings, even some make-up goods like lip-stick and nail-polish (which I really needed)! I was so heart-stricken (in a good way) by this experience of Afghan generosity that I came home that day and wept for joy and heart-ache for the love I felt in this land at the hands of perfect strangers. At the end of the long day trip, in the night ride home, we talked about celebrating the next Eid. Aman, with a wistful smile, remarked in all seriousness, “Yes teacher, if we are still alive, we will celebrate the next Eid.”

The famous shiriak Afghan ice-cream shop in Chikar town, Parwan Province.
I know I will look back on this time in the future – if I live long enough – and say that Afghanistan grounded me. Being here has grounded me in humanity and in my God – it has anchored me in the rhythms of daily compassion, sitting in stillness, singing alone in a foreign land, cooking with simple ingredients, praying unceasingly, following my gut instinct, trusting the right people in a place where you can’t trust anyone, and funnily enough, running on the spot (for exercise in the confinement of my room, since the insecurity doesn’t allow for outdoor runs and besides, I can’t imagine how I’ll run with a hijab on). My time in Afghanistan has only just begun, and the doors have flung open wide in many ways for me. Being here has taught me to live intentionally and creatively like never before. All of us will die one day, but I figured that I will choose to live marching resolutely with eyes wide open toward that day – however soon or later it may come. I wholeheartedly believe that my first Eid in Afghanistan will lead to many more.

A gorgeous panorama of the Afghan countryside - wheat fields, distant mountains, and Afghan sheep herders.

[Cover Photo: In-between mud-houses in an Afghan village, 2018. Janielle Beh, Wayfarer By Faith.]

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