The View from the Sitting Room

Photo by Malalai Abdali, via Internews.

Photo by Malalai Abdali, via Internews.

 

One morning, the women in the Kabul house awoke with a particular sense of purpose. After the dawn prayer, when Nazo would usually roll back into bed and sleep in as long as she could, Nafisa nudged her sister-in-law and marched her toward the kitchen. As foreigners and guests of the family, my two American colleagues and I were exempt from early risings, but I heard Amina’s voice in the kitchen, not an everyday occurrence at this early hour, and my curiosity got the better of me.

Amina was the sister of an Afghan-immigrant professor I’d first met three years earlier, right after 9/11 in Portland, Oregon, when I had been tasked with reporting a story that, in my editor’s words, would put a “human face on the country we’re about to bomb.” That human face turned out to be that of a man I’ll call Daoud Shirzai, who was then more than thirty years into an “involuntary exile” in the U.S., and that initial interview evolved into a friendship with Daoud and his patchwork family in Portland, his brothers Yusuf and Maiwand, and his nieces and nephews. Three years later, Daoud invited me to Kabul, where he had at long last returned to play a part in the post-Taliban Karzai government.

Now I had come, with Daoud’s niece Laila as translator and my colleague Stephanie, a photojournalist, to document Daoud’s work in the new government, his family’s story, and, by extension, Afghanistan’s confounding past and precarious present. But most of my time was spent with – and most of my insights gleaned from – the women who managed the Shirzai household in Kabul: Amina, her daughter Nazo, and her new daughter-in-law Nafisa. They opened unexpected windows onto Afghanistan for me, taking me to see the first girls’ schools in a decade and Bollywood-inspired dress shops that glittered with post-Taliban women’s fashion. This morning would be no exception.

I came into the kitchen, blinking away sleep. In the dawn light through the windows white clouds of flour swirled. Nafisa and Nazo squatted on the kitchen floor, their strong, limber legs supporting them with their sleeves rolled up, each kneading a glossy, pale mass of dough on cloth laid on the linoleum. The air was thick and yeasty. They began forming balls the size of large grapefruits. This continued without their usual chatter. Nazo, who looked decidedly groggy, never liked being up this early in the morning. Amina, tall, solid, and with her neat white headscarf on, paced between them, checking on their progress.

She noticed me looking on and asked me something in Pashto. I shook my head, wishing Laila were awake. Amina said something else to me that began with “Laila,” and I answered, “Wo,” hoping I had just said “yes” to agree that she should ask Laila. I knew this much about Amina: She was the Shirzai family’s stronghold in Afghanistan, the one who had stayed in Kabul through the Soviet War, the civil wars, the Taliban, and the U.S.-led invasion. Her younger brother Mohammed had been imprisoned by Afghan communists before the Soviet War, and was never heard from again. Because no body was recovered, the family still said he was “lost.” After Mohammed was taken, three of her brothers – Daoud, Maiwand, and Yusuf – fled to the United States, fearful that they were in danger too. They believed that, as a woman, Amina would be safer in Kabul than they would be, so she remained behind with the family’s property and a family of her own. She was illiterate, with no formal education, and she and I could barely communicate without Laila’s help. But I sensed from the start I had a lot to learn from her, both about life in Afghanistan and the Shirzais.

I also knew she was one of the only family members who had been present the day Mohammed was taken from his home, in front of his wife and young children. The youngest Shirzai brother Yusuf, who now lived in Portland, had been there too. But here in Afghanistan, I wanted to know what Amina’s memory of that day in 1979 had been. I didn’t know how to ask her. Mohammed’s loss was something the family rarely talked about or acknowledged, as if doing so would have the same effect as calling him “dead.” It was in unexpected places that I sensed the outlines of his absence, the gaping negative space that his loss created in the Shirzai family. Only a couple days before, we had visited the family’s rural compound in the Ghazni province, where Laila and Nazo’s still-living grandmother – Amina’s mother – kept a room with Mohammed’s framed black and white portrait in it, like a shrine. In it, he had a thick side sweep of pomaded hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a serious, close-lipped expression.

Ever since she had been first introduced to me a couple weeks before, Amina had been somewhat elusive. She greeted us when she saw us, asked about our days. But she was more a watchful presence than a friendly one, making sure we behaved appropriately around her sons – which meant we were not to make eye contact nor stand too close when speaking to them. After our return from the family’s village compound, Amina was warmer, more at ease with our presence in the house. One evening, after dinner, as Nafisa and Nazo were cleaning up with Laila and Stephanie helping, I brought my laptop to the women’s sitting room. Stephanie had downloaded photos from our trip to Ghazni on it. I offered to show them to Amina, who patted the cushion next to hers for me to sit. Without an interpreter, we were reduced to a handful of Pashto words and phrases that I knew: “Kha da.” (It’s good). “Der kha da.” (It’s very good). “Wo” (Yes). “Xaysta” (Beautiful). “Zor kor” (Old house – or home). “Nawe kor.” (New house). “Ghat kor.” (Big house). These words served us well for the photos of the family members who lived there, as well as of the old house, and the new compound, but didn’t go very far beyond that.

I deliberately saved one photo for last: the one Stephanie had taken of Grandma’s photo room, in which Mohammed’s framed portrait was visible. I silently clicked on it and tilted the screen at her. Amina made a small sound of recognition and stared for a long time. She made regular visits to the compound and must have known the room. But seeing this photo told her that I had also seen this room. She touched the screen image of Mohammed and looked at me quizzically, asking a question softly in Pashto. I wanted to summon Laila. But, wait: I knew what Amina was asking me, if not the words, then the spirit of the question.

Wo,” I said, catching her dark-eyed gaze for a moment, and then turning my eyes downward respectfully. She had asked if I knew what happened to him. “But I want to know more,” I said, just above a whisper, in English. Then, heart pounding, barely audible: “What did it mean to you?” I mustered the courage to ask only because I was sure she would never understand me.

Amina nodded gently and said “Xa,” the Pashto equivalent of “Oh,” or “Uh-huh.” Startled, I clicked the photo closed. Had she understood me? Or was she just making a polite acknowledgement of my English jibberish?

Khlas so?” she asked, motioning toward the screen. Finished?

Wo,” I said.

“Tashakur,” she said, and placed a firm hand on my shoulder. Then she got up, smiled, and took leave of me.

“My aunt wants to know if we want to come with her to the bread bakery,” Laila said later on the morning I had watched Nazo and Nafisa kneading dough. She explained that this “bakery” was a public wood-burning oven where families brought their own dough to be made into the puffy flatbread that we ate every day. “And then she’s going to the old house on the other side of town that our family rents out. Our tenants moved out, so now my aunt cleans it and takes care of it.”

“Of course,” I said. I was eager to accompany family members on errands that, however quotidian to them, always intrigued me. But I knew better than to ask Laila when we were leaving. Afghanistan, I was coming to understand, ticked off time in cups of tea, in the rhythms of human interactions, and rewarded patience. A Taliban commander had once warned then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, “You Americans may have all the watches. But we have all the time.” Now we were on the bread dough’s time clock.

At last, the bread had risen. Amina came into the vestibule, found her blue chadori – what Americans have come to know as the burqa – on its hook, threw it over her head in a practiced motion, and walked, now strangely faceless, to the kitchen. It was time to go. Nafisa and Nazo had arranged balls of dough around a large, flat, round basket with an indentation on the underside for the carrier’s head. A white cotton cloth was draped over the dough. Amina bent down and Nafisa and Nazo carefully set the basket in place on top of her head, then she stood up, looking around for us as much as her load would allow her. I smiled at her and could see her dark eyes smiling back through the mesh opening of the chadori. Laila, Stephanie, and I were in our headscarves. Based on what I’d seen, about half of the women in Kabul at that time wore chadori like Amina, but nobody had ever suggested that we should do so.

I asked Laila why Amina wore the veil outside, instead of the headscarf she wore at home. “Does her husband want her to?”

After Laila translated the question for her aunt, I heard a loud “Ha!” followed by deep laughter from behind the chadori. Amina’s reply sounded sarcastic.

Laila smirked and said to me, “She says she doesn’t know or care what her husband thinks. But it’s too troublesome to deal with a headscarf when you have to carry the bread or do any kind of work. The chadori just sits on your head without falling off and you don’t have to keep fixing it.”

I blushed, wishing I hadn’t asked the part about her husband. She was right – not only did I constantly readjust my scarf, but I also noticed that Nafisa and Nazo did too. It was second nature to them, as habitual a gesture as tucking my hair behind my ear.

As her blue-draped form stepped through the blue door into the unpaved street, effortlessly balancing the bread basket atop her head, Amina said something else to Laila.

“Besides,” Laila relayed, “if she doesn’t wear it, other women will talk.”

I wished I could have seen Amina’s face as she said that. It was hard to get used to conversing with a disembodied voice coming from behind a wall of fabric.

“Wow,” I said. “So it’s the women, huh?”

Seeming to understand the gist of my comment, Amina said something else and Laila translated, “Men may make the rules, but women are the police.”

I had tried on Amina’s chadori once and walked around the house in it, just to see what it was like. I expected it to feel heavy and oppressive. I thought I’d be bumping into walls. But the fabric was lighter than it looked, and the mesh face screen actually allowed me to see surprisingly well, peripheral vision and all. Looking in a mirror, I saw I was not myself, but a faceless and armless figure. For that reason, and not for the perceived physical impediments, I couldn’t imagine going out of the house like this, though Amina and countless other women here did every day.

Yet to most Afghan women I had met, the chadori was not a high-priority issue, in light of the Afghanistan’s far bigger problems.

“I’ll wear whatever they want me to,” one female student at Kabul Education University had said to me, “Just give me electricity twenty-four hours a day, and a promise that my children will grow up with functioning schools and no war.”

Amina was striding ahead of us, not slowed down in the least by her chadori or the basket, and we jogged a few steps to keep up. We wound our way through a maze of unpaved, unmarked streets, taking so many turns that, had we become separated from her, we would have been utterly lost. As we reached a larger intersection, a low, swaying blue shape sat near the middle of the street, barely out of the way of car traffic. I looked closer. A woman, wearing a dirty chadori, smeared with black stains like a mechanic’s coveralls, sat cross-legged on the road. She extended one upturned, gnarled hand from behind the veil, fingers misshapen and knuckles swollen. As we approached, the tempo of her rhythmic high-pitched warble, in time to the constant swaying of her body, increased and her hand reached toward us. Then her smell hit me, sour sweat and ammonia. I wanted to step away, but I slowed and stared. Kabul had countless beggars, many of them amputee landmine victims hobbling on makeshift crutches, waving stumps of arms, or dragging themselves around with their hands (the double amputees), and children, boys and girls. But I had not yet seen a grown woman. This beggar’s claw-like hand, her stained veil, and her bird’s voice grasped at my throat and pushed tears into my eyes, which I blinked back. Stephanie murmured a soft sound of pity.

Amina strode past the beggar without a second look, mumbling to Laila. Laila whispered, “A widow. She’s here all the time.”

I rushed again to catch up with Amina, feeling grateful for a reason not to keep looking, then feeling guilty for feeling grateful. I would need Amina’s decades here to have her fortitude.

As we stepped in front of the bakery, enclosed on three sides with a roof but open in the front, a tide of heat swept over us. At the back of the building, on either side of the wood-fired pit oven, two women in headscarves and simple dresses slapped raw dough onto the sides of the pit oven and extracted the large, flat baked pieces with long wooden tongs. Though perspiration was beading on my nose and forehead, they didn’t seem affected by the rippling heat. In the front, two more women sat on the ground shaping dough, slapping round blobs, like the ones in Amina’s baskets.

Even before Amina knelt down to remove her basket and then flipped up the front of her chadori, the women recognized and greeted her. Embraces and cheek-kisses were exchanged with the front two women, and the two at the oven waved. Just as their eyes landed on us, Amina quickly motioned to us and said a few words. The women nodded. We nodded back. Later, I’d learn from Laila that she had said, “This is my niece, and these are two sisters from the North who are visiting us.” Sometimes Stephanie and I were cousins, and sometimes we were from Pakistan. The story always changed slightly. But the implication remained that we were Afghans from one of the northern ethnic groups, who looked Asian – or from Pakistan, which could explain our lacking Afghan languages. In other words, that we were definitely not Americans, which at best might render us suspect because of mixed feelings about the U.S. occupation, or at worst as potential kidnapping victims worth good ransom money. Even so, I was secretly pleased that I could “pass.”

The women’s rhythmic bread-making echoed the cadences of their speech as they chatted with Amina. The women in the front, once they finished slapping the dough balls flat, laid them on a floured surface, coaxing each piece into a long oblong and pressing water-dampened fingers along the dough to make vertical grooves. Then those pieces were passed back to the two women by the oven, who took care of the baking. The result looked like a misshapen featherbed, perfectly browned, filling the hot air with a yeasty aroma.

Amina left the basket there; Nafisa or Nazo would come pick it up along with the finished bread later. She flipped her chadori back over her head and motioned for us to follow. Once we reached a main road, Amina hailed a taxi. The driver rolled down his window and she leaned in, her eight-square-inch mesh face-window a couple feet from him. The two talked, more and more animated, until it was clear that Amina was raising her voice, and she was gesturing forcefully with her right hand from under her veil.

“Bargaining,” Laila explained. “My aunt’s a tough one.”

Once again, I thought of the wars and regimes she had lived through in Afghanistan – and, most of all, her presence in the room the day Mohammed was taken. And my unanswered, perhaps not-understood, question: “What did it mean to you?”

The cab driver hung his head in resignation, and then motioned for all of us to get into the cab.

We got out in a neighborhood northwest of the city’s center. The houses were smaller, more vertical – most were two stories – and closer together than where we were staying. We approached a double-doored wooden gate on the outer wall of a saffron-colored house. Amina opened a padlock and let us in. As I walked past her, she caught my gaze through her mesh face screen and said something.

“She wants you to know that our family lived in this house all together through the Soviet War, after people moved from the village,” Laila said.

I nodded. But I had not expected this. I had thought this was just a rental property. Through the Soviet War. That meant that the family had been here when Mohammed was taken in 1979, just before the war started. The last time they saw him was in this house.

So was that why she had taken me here? Or maybe this trip was just a coincidence. After all, she had to come and clean the house sooner or later. Judging by the ease with which she pulled off her chadori and hung it on a perfectly hook-shaped branch of a gnarled, dead apple tree in the concrete courtyard, this caretaking of the past was routine for her, like taking bread to the baker. The twisted, lifeless tree stood, defiant, providing a trellis for grapevines someone had trained around its branches. The vines were so well embedded that their flat, pale-green leaves appeared as if they were growing out of the tree.

Through Laila, Amina said she had moved here in the early 1990s, during the civil war, with her husband and six children. In those chaotic days, rockets screamed through the streets – once shattering a downstairs window – and stray bullets claimed random victims, including a neighbor’s twelve-year-old son, the same age as her youngest at the time. The neighbor boy’s bloodied body lay in the street for nearly half a day before someone carried him away for burial. Soon after that, she and her husband decided to move the whole family to Peshawar, Pakistan, and enroll their children in the refugee schools run by other Afghans there. But eventually they returned to Kabul.

The house extended far back from the street. The floors and walls were concrete and cool, coated in a thin film of dust. The main sitting room was beside the front entryway, looking out onto the courtyard. Amina ducked into another room. The door opened and slammed, followed by a muffled jingling sound. When Amina emerged, she gave Laila a handful of keys, some attached to a ring and some loose, wrapped inside a red-and-black checked handkerchief. Then she found a broom and started sweeping. Laila’s cupped hands were full of keys, the old-fashioned kind, with flat, round heads, cylindrical shafts and little square ends with finger-like protrusions. There were many more keys than there were doors in the house.

Laila, Stephanie, and I clambered up the stairs and began sticking keys into locked doors. Laila was determined to find her Uncle Maiwand’s old room. From the age of twelve, Laila had been sent to Portland with two of her brothers to be raised by Daoud and his other younger brothers, Maiwand and Yusuf, who had attended college in the United States and then settled with Daoud in Portland. We jiggled keys and peered inside keyholes. The echoey house reverberated with our every move. I imagined Maiwand and Yusuf, a couple years apart, playing in the courtyard, like in a black-and-white picture Yusuf had shown me of the two boys standing there. They were wide-eyed, gangly, and entranced by a single bicycle wheel, rolling it together. As teenagers, they had watched from within these walls as a revolution took hold, as the nation reeled from the 1978 assassination of President Mohammed Daoud Khan and most of his family by the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

None of the keys opened any of the doors. We gave up and went downstairs. We walked all the way out the back door and into a narrow roofless corridor that separated another section of the house. In that part, there were two outhouse-style bathrooms. The rest of the back section was a large, low-ceilinged room. I craned my neck inside, but it was too dark to see.

“This is where Mamoy and her family lived,” Laila said, referring to the family’s nickname for Mohammed’s widow, “where their three children grew up. I think some of them were born here.”

As Stephanie took pictures in the open-air corridor, aiming her lens at a slant of midday sun against the golden walls, Laila and I went back into the main house. We tried the keys in a couple rooms tucked under the stairwell. Finally, one gained purchase on a lock, and Laila turned it with a satisfying click. We swung the door open to the corner room. There was an oval “AFG” sticker in the window, the kind you would put on a car.

“This is it,” Laila said, excited. “Uncle Maiwand’s room. I know he had that sticker. I’ve seen pictures.”

I walked its small perimeter, peering out the window. Laila filmed the room with her camcorder, zooming in on the sticker. I stepped out of the room so she could have an unobstructed recording, and time to contemplate this space that had belonged to the man who was like a father to her.

Amina was now upstairs, attacking cobwebs with a smaller broom. I walked past the stairwell, into the front sitting room. It was larger than any other space in the house, and had a big window looking out at the courtyard, the apple tree, and the double-doored gate that we had entered. I paused in the middle of the room, staring at that gate, its brown vertical wooden slats contrasting with the ripples in the yellow plaster courtyard wall. That gate. Why did it feel as if I had seen the view from this room before? It was quiet. I only heard the rhythmic bristle of Amina’s broom against the upstairs ceiling, Laila’s soft footsteps in Maiwand’s room, and the whirr of Stephanie’s camera shutter in the corridor.

Then I knew: This was the window through which Yusuf last saw his brother on the day Mohammed was taken. It was just as he had described, when he had told me the story two and a half years before. I had just met the family then, in early October 2001.

Daoud and Maiwand had been terse about Mohammed’s capture, each telling me they hadn’t been there and didn’t know the details. Their youngest brother, Yusuf, had been a teenager at time and was in the house when happened, they had told me. But the first time I met Yusuf in Portland, he also cut a wide berth around the topic. The second time, he showed me a black-and-white photo of Mohammed and his three small children, all six or younger. This was the last photo taken of him, Yusuf said. As I studied it, he began telling me the story.

He talked about the time after the Saur Revolution, before Soviet invasion, how in 1979 the KGB was everywhere, and intellectuals and anti-communists began disappearing. It happened slowly at first, he said, so they weren’t that worried. Mohammed hadn’t told his family that he planned to help organize the anti-communist coup; he didn’t want to implicate them. A radio journalist and producer, Mohammed had aligned himself with a Muslim nationalist group. If the coup had been realized, he would have been in charge of taking over the national radio station and communicating the group’s message to the public. This was no small responsibility in a nation where large numbers of illiterate people without access to electricity depended on radio as their only means of contact with the outside world. What the family did know at the time was that Mohammed had been involved in various causes since he was in college, and that his fellow activists often came to the house and whisked him away to important meetings.

“Then the coup was foiled,” Yusuf had said. “The communist government started sweeping.”

He fell silent for a while.

“Friday was our day of rest,” he began again. “We had guests at the house. I was sixteen. At eleven-thirty in the morning, there was a doorbell.”

Everyone was in the front sitting room. They had cushions for sitting set up in a semi-circle, facing the front window, with a view of the courtyard, with the apple tree, the peach tree, and the other greenery there. There used to be flowerpots in the room, lined up along the windowsill. The flowers filled the room with their sweet fragrance, which mixed with the scent of tea steaming in glass cups on the table. The women were in one of the back rooms, busy preparing lunch for the guests. Someone opened one side of the double-doored wooden gate and greeted three men, two Soviets and an Afghan. The Afghan had a big mustache, Yusuf remembered. They asked for Mr. Shirzai, whom everyone immediately understood to be Mohammed, because people came for him all the time. Mohammed calmly got up and walked to the gate to talk to them. Nothing seemed to be awry with this conversation in plain view of the family and guests. Surely Mohammed would tell them he was about to have lunch with his family. Then he walked with them, through the gate and out onto the street.

It was when the three men turned around that Yusuf saw the Kalashnikovs slung over their backs. Only Mohammed was unarmed. Everyone else saw this too. The armed men and Mohammed  headed toward a Jeep, parked around the corner a block away, barely in sight, because they had anticipated a struggle to get him into the car. But none of the men were grabbing him by force and they weren’t walking particularly quickly; Mohammed wouldn’t want to make a fuss in view of his whole family.

As the men walked away, a terrible realization seeped through the sitting room, through the teenaged Yusuf.

“There was nothing I could do. They were armed. We started breaking out – in screams, in tears,” Yusuf said, his eyes faraway. “Our guests disappeared. Our sister was hysterical. His wife was hysterical.”

More than twenty years later, when he told me about that day, about his brother and the Kalashnikovs,Yusuf was somewhere else.

“That was the last time I saw him. I knew he was gone.”

A long silence. I hesitated to meet Yusuf’s eyes.

“What was the first thought that went through your head, when you saw the guns, the Jeep parked around the corner?” I asked softly.

He met my eyes, almost startled to see me there.

“Thought? Thought?” he said, grasping. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“What were you feeling?” I corrected myself.

He put his bearded face in his hands and closed his eyes for a long time. Was he thinking or crying?

Then he looked up, straight at me, dry-eyed.

“It was like lightning strikes you over the head,” he said, “and goes through your whole spinal column, paralyzing you.”

I stood in the sitting room, staring at the wooden gate, smelling the empty room’s dust and abandonment, thinking of Yusuf’s words. I saw the cushions in a semi-circle, the half-finished green tea on the table, dishes with pistachios, golden raisins, and the cubes of rock sugar people would wedge against their front teeth as they sipped tea. Where had Yusuf been sitting? He, the lanky teenager, trying to look grown-up among all the men, admiring the gravity of his big brother’s activism: Oh, here comes someone else for Mohammed again. Mamoy must have been helping prepare lunch, with the small children in the room, playing. Her expressive, round eyes and pale, smooth skin in the flush of youth and motherhood without the weight of grief – how lovely and vivacious she must have been. The braids she liked to wear, black and glossy, threatening to slip out from under her scarf, and Mamoy feigning exasperation as she tucked them back in. Did she see her husband walk out the door and not catch his eye for modesty’s sake, since there were guests present? Or perhaps there was a brief, barely perceptible exchange that only a married couple could detect?

And Amina, “our sister” – who must have run out with Mamoy when the men’s shouting and wailing in the sitting room started. Yusuf had said they were both “hysterical.” I could hardly imagine the hardened Amina of today shedding a tear, much less wailing. But this was her younger brother. She had lost other siblings in the village, but they had died young, a fact of life in rural Afghanistan. Mohammed was different. He was a college graduate, a professional, a husband and father. He had made it past the threshold, out of the village. Kabul then was a modern, peaceful place. The Saur Revolution, the assassination, the Soviet presence – they all felt like a passing storm contained within the world of political people. And, until that day, they had not realized they were political people.

I looked out on the empty courtyard, with the dead apple tree – twisted like the beggar woman’s hand – and the double-doored gate, shut. This is how Amina must have seen it that day: without life, a door forever closed. And now she was the caretaker of this vacant house, sweeping out the dust. A shrine, just like the room her mother kept in the village with Mohammed’s framed photograph. The silent ways these women remembered.

She was on the steps, making her way down with the broom. Amina – who had brought me here. Was she trying to show me more than just the family’s rental house? Maybe she had understood my question, “What did it mean to you?” Whatever the case, she had answered it.

This private revelation felt like too much to hold to myself, just standing there. But what could I do? It would be unfair to burden Laila and Stephanie with this, on an outing that appeared to have nothing to do with these memories. I pulled my digital camera out of my purse and took a picture, out the window, focusing on the double doors of the gate, catching the vine-covered dead apple tree in the frame. Holding onto this view.

I turned around, startled, to find Amina just a few feet behind me, staring. My face burned. She had an indecipherable look on her face, a hint of a smile. I wanted to say so many things to her in that moment. Laila was not there, so it would have been impossible for Amina and me to understand each other anyway. I did the only thing I could think to do. I showed her the photo I had just taken on my digital camera: the view from the sitting room.

Xa,” she affirmed, nodding. And because the memory was theirs, not mine, it was fitting that I didn’t know what she was thinking. After all, in clothes that were not my own, I had “passed” at the bakery as someone like an Afghan. Just as the Shirzais had taken me in as a guest, as someone like family. But, the more I understood the role of Mohammed’s absence in the family, so infrequently spoken of, the more I had begun to know the boundaries between seeming and being. That grapevine could stubbornly cling to the apple tree in the courtyard until the two were nearly indistinguishable, but they would always be two, not one. Today, whether Amina meant for me to or not, I had gotten as close as an outsider could. I had felt, if not known, completely. And the view from the sitting room, like this house, felt empty, the loss a physical presence.

Yusuf had told me that, after Mohammed was taken, the family had maintained hope that he was still alive for nearly a year. They sent clothes and food for him to Pul-e-Charkhi Prison, where countless anti-communist intellectuals were being held. There was no sign any of it was getting to him, but Mamoy insisted they keep dropping off the packages. Then one day one of the guards at Pul-e-Charkhi gave Mamoy his clothes and wedding ring.

“Stop looking for your husband,” they told her.

That was the day he became lost.

A mass grave unearthed in 2006 near Pul-e-Charkhi by NATO forces contained about 2,000 bodies, which had been shot in the head and then buried. Many had broken bones. In total, tens of thousands of Afghans were executed in similar ways during the Soviet era. As many as 50,000 other Afghan families lived on with similar silences and, without a body to bury or a grave to visit, said their loved ones were “lost.”

And I knew then that this “Afghan experience” that journalists like myself strove to capture was neither in the halls of the government ministry where Daoud Shirzai worked, nor in the strangely sparkly dress shops proclaiming their post-Taliban gaiety – and not even in the heartwrenching sight, sound, and smell of the veiled beggar woman. It lay in quiet rooms like this one, in countless other empty houses being swept, framed photographs in hidden rooms, and in the soundless echo of the word “lost,” uttered by those 50,000 families. For so many here –  women especially, the ones who stayed behind, after the death and after the exile of men – post-Taliban Afghanistan was not post-anything; wars and murderous regimes blurred together into present tense. How would the Americans be remembered? Amina’s reluctance to let the bakery women know we were from the United States offered a hint.

Soon, Laila and then Stephanie came. Laila was holding a sheaf of browned, parchment-thin paper. She showed me how there was English writing on it – the careful, round script of someone who was learning to write foreign words. The sentences were complex, with dependent clauses and adverbs. She wondered out loud if it was Maiwand’s handwriting, from when he was young.

“I bet it is. You should bring it back to him and ask,” I said to her, as her face brightened at the possibility that she could return a piece of his youth to him.

“This house has so many stories,” Laila said, looking out the window.

Amina signaled to us that she was ready to go. Laila and Stephanie followed her out. I lingered, the last one in the house. I looked out the window one last time, pictured the partially open gate that Friday morning in 1979 – the glimpse of the three Kalashnikovs, the unarmed Mohammed between them, and the Jeep, a block away. Shortly after 11:30 (Yusuf had remembered the exact time) all those clues crystallized into a single, irrevocable conclusion.

It was like lightning strikes you over the head.

I turned toward the front door, feeling the strong afternoon sun at my back, and stepped out, jogging to catch up with Amina. Laila and Stephanie were outside with her, scrutinizing the faded handwriting on the browned papers. Amina had already thrown her chadori back on and was faceless again, holding one of the gate’s double doors, ready to lock them behind me.

 

~

 

*The names of Afghan and Afghan American family members have been changed for the family’s protection. They were threatened for cooperating with an American journalist.

 

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About Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and educator. “The View from the Sitting Room” is adapted from a chapter of her nonfiction book, The Four Words for Home, forthcoming from Aquarius Press / Willow Books in spring 2014. Read her full bio here.

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