This story is dedicated with love to the Memory of my Father, Lal M. Zereh
“You gave me the gift to see the East and West as two arms in one body, counterparts in the synchronization of a harmonious globe.”
This is a short story of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Copyright 2013 by Anosha Zereh
My senior year with the Porters
I came to America in 1963 with one small russet leather bag, presented to me by my paternal uncle upon my departure, packed with two slacks, two black socks and four collared shirts that I purchased from konah foroshi, the used stores in the old outskirts of Kabul where used western clothing was brought for retailing. And the money Babu, my mother, had given me from her small savings had prepared me for my voyage. I intended to bring my Afghani paraan tumbaan, the customary long blouse with hand-stitched embroidery on its chest with saggy pants that I wore at home in Kabul, but my sisters advised against it since the Americans might find it strange.
At that time, just about seventeen, this was to be my first time away from home, although there were occasional breaks from school where I was away from my family, especially with Babu for weeks at a time when I visited her paternal home in the valleys north of Kabul. My mother and I would visit my grandparents in the summer breaks, the only pastime I had really experienced. I kissed Babu’s hands as a customary valediction, and she returned the farewell kissing the top of my head, murmuring in her usual soft voice, “A bird flies by means of his wings; a believer flies by means of his purpose,” sending off her only son to an alien land, blowing her prayers behind me as I walked out the door. I was picked up from the airport after twenty-three hours of an arduous flight to Sacramento with a six-hour layover in JFK airport, where I fell asleep on the chair and would have missed my flight if it wasn't for the passenger next to me who nicely shook my shoulder signaling towards the boarding of the passengers. I was received in Sacramento by a man I had only met through letters a few months prior to my flight. Mr. James Porter had written me three times the last four months since my endorsement request from the American Field Service. The AFS network, working with the Afghan government under King Zahir Shah’s new reform policy to educate young Afghans like me in the West, had set up an agency in Kabul attracting an assemblage of fervent students who reached for higher education abroad by applying for international exchange programs. Comatose from my own grueling life, in those days I was oblivious to life outside of Kabul. My paternal uncle, Kaka Abdullah, who had been my guardian since the age of seven, initiated the option to Babu on his regular visits, preparing my illiterate but unbreakable mother to release her only son. When Babu asked me to submit an application for the AFS, I was in the beginning of my junior year at Hababia High School, an up-to-date French immersion school located in the upper part of Kabul by the king on one of his many schemes to modernize our general public.
In the beginning, I bickered with Babu whenever she brought up the subject, usually after our evening meals just as I had finished. Fatho would be passing the silver hand basin to wash our hands, and ostensibly Babu would start chatting about her daily events. Somehow she would weave in the conversation of my going abroad “Lal bachem, your Kaka Abdullah recognized your aptitude for schooling. He believes you have it in you, to be an important person, to change your existing path and shape your future to your heart’s desire, to go to Amrika.” She finished by articulating America in her own Dari accentuation, and her eyes sparkled as she finished her sentence, in apprehension as she pleaded with me. “Stretch your feet to the length of your blanket, Babu!”
I responded to her request, to counter her buoyant hope she had for me, “I am afraid you are disregarding the ceiling limits now and devoid of hindrance want me to touch the sky,” I said calming down with ease laugh in my own amusement.
“Kaka Abdullah described to me of his neighbor’s nephew, I think he said his name is Faridon, he went to Amrika two years ago and now he has been accepted to a good university there as well, when he finishes he will return to his family, his father told Kaka that he has four jobs lined up for him already. His reputation amongst the young men in the neighborhood is of a celebrity, you should hear what they say about him. If you go Bachem, you will return with an excellent celebration as well!” I nodded my head as Babu unrelentingly continued to fill me in with Faridon’s life in America, her small face glimmering with the belief that I, her only son would also shine as a burnished star, illuminating her gloomy existence with my return from abroad.
Tired of my long day‘s routine, I had woken up at quarter to six to prepare the morning groundwork for Babu’s work day, followed by setting out for school which was an hour walk from my house, as I could not afford to buy a bicycle like the other boys. Then there were the exhausting hours I spent tutoring the more affluent boys of Hababia in French until dusk. I decided to close my eyes, and before long I had plummeted to deep sleep in the midst of Babu’s reverie of me going abroad to Amrika.
The hostility over the question of my going abroad with Babu seemed to persist until my older sister Shakila caused some infuriation in our household. Merely eighteen she fell in love, or more accurately what she thought was love at such a young age, and decided to get engaged to the young man she had met and relatively grew fond of. I opposed her betrothal after meeting him at our house at a formal gathering to celebrate the bestowing of her hand. He was older, seeming to be twenty-six, short with bulky arms, his sulky temper masked under a smile he often would display knowing that I was watching him. His humor was the worst quality he possessed the few times we met at my house. I was unable to grip his jokes, so I greeted him with a formal smile amid our frozen associations.
Two months after their engagement, I found out she was pregnant, not surprised by his disposition. She was wed in a small congregation in my uncle’s house and moved to his family domicile. The taunts of the relatives did not disturb me; Babu buried in her silence was more disturbing to me, although she tried to conceal it from me. During those evening dinners the quietness in Babu spoke to me louder than ever before.
“Having been bitten by a snake, a rope can induce the same fear, bachem,” she told me worried about the stamped stigma on the family surname. Babu begged me to rescue what was left to our family reputation from the disgrace that my father’s repute and Shakila’s pregnancy had bestowed upon us.
The AFS’ propitious consent to go abroad to attend school in America would play as a redeemer.
“The neighbor two doors down, you know her Lal bachem, Sharifa Jan, the lady with extremely short hair and raspy voice, you met her at our house some time ago, she came today and took her deposit back for the order of winter quilts she had given me three months ago. She did not say anything, but her manner spoke loud and clear, she has heard of your sister’s condition, and you know the neighborhood’s women, this is why I am always vigilant, the walls have mice and the mice have ears, the news of my domicile has been broadcasted quicker than the broadcasting of Radio Kabul. I asked Sharifa Jan to have tea, as she usually does for a visit, her unyielding posture was rushing to sprint out of my house. Babu stopped for a while, talking in her taught and looked at me with an assured gaze, “This is the beginning; I have to be vigilant with our saving for the winter from this point.” She finished instantly, conscious of her business exchange in the neighborhood being in jeopardy, and for the first time, Babu did not mention my parting for abroad. She spoke with the permanence I knew my mother possessed when difficulty looked her straight in the face. She said these tests were God’s will, and devotees of God cannot change it. But I felt dissimilar to my mother’s stance to God’s will. Babu had always chanted in my ear since I can remember, “Lal bachem, you take the essential pace, Khuda will exalt and embrace.”
Shortly after I decided to take my pace, I applied for AFS by the end of my junior year, I was asked by the officials in their offices to prepare for my journey to America after being accepted.
Mr. Porter picked me up from the airport, standing in the entrance of the gate as I entered with my small baggage in hand. He walked towards me as if he was acquainted with me somehow, and his hands shook mine in an intimate yet somehow reserved touch.
“Welcome to America son!” he uttered in a voluble English expression.
From his letters I had certain familiarity with this man, but comprehending him and his heavy accent was entirely different. When I read his letters, I had my dictionary in front of me, given to me by my uncle with my English teachers at my high school aiding me and the staff at AFS helping me translate--and after what seemed to be the twentieth time, deciphering the letter by heart.
“Thank you sir,” I replied, uttering the few words that came to me quickly. I had rehearsed such lines at home and at the AFS office with Laura, a lean mild mature woman who was fond of me, repeating various exercises, but somehow at the airport, the words coming out of my mouth appeared foreign to my ears. Laura had instructed me on the idioms that would be useful for me on daily basis. She equipped me with the necessary phrases “How are you sir?”; “Would like me to help you?”; “May I have a cup of tea please?”; and “What is your name Madame?” Nothing, however, was going to really prepare my mind and ears that played so many games with me those first couple weeks in America. I sat in the front in the passenger seat next to Mr. Porter. The car seemed undersized for his large shape, his weight lowering the tiny vehicle, his large head meeting the non-functional hood vents. I listened to the radio that turned on as the keys started the engine. This was my first time sitting in a car, although I had seen them in Kabul, but nothing in contrast to Mr. Porter’s sky blue Chevy Corvette Stingray. This was my seventeen-year-old observation in that moment as we drove off towards his house in Marysville, a small city north of Sacramento with a Mediterranean climate, not too unfamiliar for me. It had wet winters and hot dry summers like Kabul, albeit unlike Kabul’s winter, it did not have snow, just rainfall that resembled the Indian monsoon season I had read about in my geography books. The small city I discovered soon after attained a very small population that mainly consisted of rice field farmers, Mr. Porter and his family belonging to one of the farms harvesting top-quality rice in the larger Sacramento County.
Mr. Porter opened the trunk of the Stingray, brand new, and he started making small talk about the weather in his sharp tone, the words loftily coming to my ears. I was unable to understand what he was saying and nodded “yes sir” with a few “pardon me” questions to show that I was listening.
Mesmerized by the cleanliness of the streets as we drove out of the airport, I settled in my seat in silence, monitoring the new land that was to be my home for one year. I arrived at the Porter ranch, witnessing that their street name where we turned right off the highway 70 was marked with their name on a large board over the postal box: “Welcome to Porter Ranch.” Not familiar with the word ranch I took out my dictionary while Mr. Porter was driving in the long alley towards the house, where I read “a large farm devoted to keeping a particular type of animal or growing a particular type of crop,” surprised that he was a farmer and lived on a ranch. I prepared to meet the family as we parked the car in the front of a brown classic ranch home, noticing a middle-aged, slim woman wearing an orange color knee high skirt, a white silk chemise delineating her upper body, paired with white sandals, her small feet manicured with orange nail polish.
“Welcome Lal!” Mrs. Porter hollered from the flight of the three steps that welcomed the visitor to the green entrance door of the house.
I was nervous to get out of the car, unable to move my feet yet, let alone instruct my tongue to pronounce what seemed to me as weighty English enunciation at that moment.
Exhausted and mentally comatose from my long trip in, I uttered, walking towards Mrs. Porter with my hand in the air ready to shake hers, “Pleased to meet your acquaintance, Mrs. Porter.” There was placidness about Mrs. Porter, she gave me a smile as we walked, her deep green-blue eyes like two couplets of ghazal, decipherable through her lucid smile , she did not have to speak much , this much I understood that very first day, as she moved towards the house, welcoming me.
I reinstated the cordial smile and walked after her, as she opened the green front door of her home. Unable to examine her eyes any longer, I looked down and turned to the car where Mr. Porter was opening the trunk to get my luggage and attempted to hide my apprehension. The entryway beamed with the sunlight entering from the door, and I said “Hello” to the Porter boys standing to greet me in the foyer. The day of my arrival, August 25th, a Thursday, was a sizzling afternoon. I was informed later by the Porters that it was an unusual heat wave for them as well. I had only my suit case and AFS folder which carried my arranged tickets and the necessary official procedures that I was to take to Marysville High School during registration next week. Laura also handed me three hundred dollars that was prearranged for the year long erudition expense; Laura informed me it was part of the scholarship I had secured with my chance to attend school in America. Laura said the sum of money in a white sealed envelope was for my academic achievement, and I planted the envelope on his small writing desk’s upper drawer, conceding that this was to be used for emergencies only.
Laura, a kindhearted American in her early thirties, was in charge of the AFS office in Kabul. She was multilingual, English, French, and Italian, using her fourth language Farsi with me as her tutor once we were acquainted better. In the preceding months that I was to prepare for my senior year abroad, she educated me about verbal communication in the English language. Laura turned out to be the bridge I needed at the time to surpass my fear of leaving for an unknown world.
She played a significant role in my life that year, and with her assistance I was able to pass through adolescence. The key to opening this gate was handed to me by Laura, and she intoned the old axiom in her broken Dari, pushing each word with a force enunciating the ends of the words, “Lal, Khastan tawanistan ast,” with a large smile asserting what I already knew, but she uttered it every now and then to remind me of the truth behind this proverb: “To desire is man’s aptitude to make his mind up and do.” My first two weeks at the Porter family were spent being introduced to the members of the family in the household. Mr. and Mrs. Porter had two sons, Michael, a senior, and Vincent, a freshman, both in the same high school I was to attend. Michael and Vincent were tall like Mr. Porter, and although I am the tallest man in my family and considered tall for an average man my age, at 5’11 I felt short standing beside the brothers. At 6’2 both were not only tall but also giant by nature like Mr. Porter.
I met Grandma Ann, a mesmeric 85-year-old woman who would visit the Porters every Sunday. She could not drive anymore, so Mr. Porter picked her up before breakfast while we prepared for church. Her wrinkled face was swamped with eye makeup that helped locate the lines to her eyes lost in the flood of draping skin, rumpled by age, something that did not seem to bother her at all. Mrs. Porter said that her mother-in-law was “young in heart”, the connotation I understood as I spent more time with her during those Sunday brunches. I learned from Ann, who freely imparted to me the details of her life, that she lived alone in Yuba City, a few minutes from the ranch, the house rented by Mr. Porter when he moved her to California ten years earlier after his father passed away. I discerned from her deep pronunciation an accent not familiar to my ears. She was from a third generation South Carolinian that she claimed with pride. Although she didn’t ask me any questions, every so often if I did share something personal from my background she screamed in her soft voice “Lal that is wonderful!” She finished the word wonderful almost spitting, her eyes watery with each word she asserted. In time I was accustomed to Grandma Ann’s “That is wonder-fu-l” contention each time to my statements. I was affronted at first that Grandma Ann lived alone, and although I did not feel sad for her, there was a piece of me moved by her old age her sensible legends needing youthful ears. I began to understand the American conduct soon after. Grandma Ann seemed ancient to me because I had never met anyone her age back home. At times I worried for her condition, living alone in the small house. She would tell timeless, unsolicited parables, at times no one listening but her disclosing them anyway. “Grandma Ann, might I call you Grandma Ann?” I asked while she was gardening in her backyard. Vincent and I were dropping a basket of oranges for her.
“Oh my dear Lal, that would be wonderful.” Her hands were soiled deep in dirt, she got up halfway, instructing me with her hands to bow down, and Grandma Ann gave me a moist kiss on my right check, and then another on the left. She had a dazzling smile that went back to the moisten dirt as she continued with her flora. From the porch Vincent winked at me. “Welcome to our family, Lal,” he said, cheerfully.
“Thanks!” I said looking on Grandma Ann’s head, her white hair only partially covering the sunburn skin underneath. I would imagine Grandma Ann alone in her backyard gardening, a hobby she shared with Mrs. Porter, fueling her long days with the memories of her husband. Grandma Ann’s life stood out from my maternal grandmother. Merely in her early sixties Bibi was an unyielding woman like her first born, my mother Babu. Bibi was not what I would regard as “young in heart”, her brawny short figure well-built for the robust work that she energetically performed every day from dawn to nightfall. Although she chuckled at my silly fallout's the summers I visited her, the cheerfulness in her eyes belied the millstone she carried. Babu’s worry troubled her. Walking with difficulty, my hand in hers, she blamed my father for a whole lot more than just discarding us. Bibi chanted the usual free verses she amalgamated in concert assonance, two lines expressing the secrets she could not convey otherwise, and I enjoyed her company and her confessions. Those confessions were only for me, Bibi told me, because only I paid attention to her with unremitting care. “Lal bachem, you are the nightingale of my rapture, the chosen guest to my rose garden, the most exquisite bird in all nine valleys. You visit Bibi migrating from Kabul for only a couple months in the summer, carrying your sweet song to awaken my roses, delightfully arousing my senses, when you are here the fragrance of these flowers traces into my soul, winging its way to the heavens, whilst Bibi is imprisoned in the cage of the body, here with you, my dulcet nightingale.”
Bibi took me everywhere with her, I picked the aromatic herbs from the lower valley with her, she showed me the secret to milking her sheep, and while the female mammal was feeding her young Bibi would quickly put the brown clay pot under her udders and gently squeeze them with care, her small lips compressing in concentration with every clutch. Bibi and I walked to the grove, the cherry grove, my favorite season for my arrival in late June, the sour pungent taste of those cherries dampening my mouth. I spent my afternoons under the bountiful mulberry trees in Bibi’s orchard, stuffed with the sweet fruit where I took my rest under a tree’s shield until Bibi’s voice awakened me. “Lal Jan where are you?” she would call out in her sweet voice looking for me. Although I never answered her, she would call out a few times knowing I could hear her but wouldn't answer, her pleasant calling a tune like the sound of the birds in the orchard. I would so often lose myself, drawing closer to rouse as her humming of my name would bring me back to my reality.
Bibi’s days were eventful. Unlike Grandma Ann she did not have a hobby, she did not have moments for herself, and the entire house depended on her. My grandfather’s tasks were often completed by her, although my two maternal uncles’ wives helped Bibi with the house chores. Her compassionate nature gave the young women more time with their young, with their two children clutched under their breast all day and the others running around the fields with Bibi and me, leaving my Bibi to never have days of solitude. Bibi was the spring blossom and we were eager honeybees dancing around her serene splendor. In those first weeks of August with the Porters, I became skilled at the manners of their household. From morning breakfast to our dinner table, Mrs. Porter determined I was a quick apprentice and introduced me to the conduct she expected from her sons and now me. I became aware of the daily routines in the house, “Lal, during dinner I expect the boys to sit upright, never slouching, your hands on the dinner table, and while eating, you must chew the food slowly.” Her instruction was akin to a school teacher with her students. ”Chewing slowly” was exceptionally slow, at times at a snail’s pace compared to my usual gulping down handfuls of rice that Babu served on a platter the four of us shared sitting around the mat on the floor.
“May I be excused” was my first proficiency in the manners of the Porter house. I had asked for permission to excuse myself from the dinner table in the beginning still famished from the small portion but too shy to ask for second helping. I also came across studying the Bible, handed to me by Mrs. Porter, preparing myself for the nightly prayer we delivered before dinner as well as for Sunday church, routinely biting into the thin cracker presented to each of us by the father as we kneeled down facing the massive statue of Jesus Christ amending our confessions at St John’s church each Sunday. The congregation on Sundays seemed strange to me, although I knew of religious resonance in Kabul, the sound of the Mullah five times a day endorsing the intervals of prayer time to the public. I had only been inside a mosque for prayer on two occasions accompanied by my Kaka Abdullah on Eid when people attended the small white mosque to worship in concert in a communal prayer. Babu regularly prayed on her prayer mat on the side of our room, with the front folded over to signify that she was done with her prayers, since it was not customary for women to attend mosques, I preferred laying my prayer mat next to Babu’s, not so much because of the composure I received from the prayer itself, while examining my God that I esteemed in Arabic verses I had committed to memory, ignorant to their subtext, but for the peace I received whenever I was on my prayer mat next to Babu. She had composure that unruffled my mind, calming me down artlessly, although I discerned she was unaware of her pious power that she held over me. Those first August days in America were abnormally hot. The Porter family drove me to their aunt’s beach house in Monterey, a long drive from Marysville, where we spent four days and three nights with Mrs. Ordway, Mr. Porter’s maternal aunt. She was a widow in her early fifties with short gray hair, a scrawny figure, and dark black framed glasses sliding off her tiny nose whenever she looked down. She did not speak much, an introvert, and I got the impression it was my being there, a stranger in their preserved space, that made her more detached. Mr. and Mrs. Porter took pleasure in spending much of the time in Monterey on the beach scrubbing oil on each other’s backs, reading their paperback novels, drinking lemonade from their disposable cups, their bright green and yellow umbrellas protecting their heads from the sun. They were akin to a pair of inseparable siblings, yet as I was to discover later, they were absolutely distinctive individuals and complete opposites failing to fall out of love after so many years of marriage. I had never before witnessed love between a man and woman in close proximity. There were stories declaring such love in the movies that I had watched in Kabul cinema a few times, but the nearness of marriage and intimacy left an impression on me for the rest of my days, especially in my own years of matrimonial commitment. I could not recollect my father colorfully in the same manner with Babu. He left us when I was almost seven. I was in first grade when I came home to find Babu in the corner of her rectangular pad covered with a dark velvet carpeting, her eyes drowning in her white scarf swamped with tears, when she finally announced to us that our father would not come back.
I later found out through Kaka Abdullah that my father had gone astray in one of the tea houses in the old city of Kabul, and the hub of opium had overpowered him. An ardent, jovial musician, he performed in tea houses for a small sum of money, his musical instrument, his large rubab on his back traveling to find an audience. The short-necked lute with a body curved from a single mulberry trunk resembled a woman’s figure with her tall neck lying on the floor. I eyed the instrument in the corner of the room in the dark where it sat like the lion, presiding over our household through my father’s passion for it , the pelt glowing under the glimmer of the moonlight coming from the small window, its fretted melody tweaking whenever my father’s elastic fingers touched the three strings. I would chant along my to father’s sympathetic folk songs mesmerizing me sleep. It was crooning in these assemblies that my father would one day lose himself under the obscure mist of narcotics. Babu warned my father to stay away from us as he disappeared further into his dependence, raising her children all alone. At that time Shakila was eight, I was seven and Fatho, my youngest sister at the time, a toddler. Performing any kind of work she could find in the neighborhood, an uneducated woman, she was confined to housework for the more successful neighbors until my father’s brother helped her launch her own business. Recognizing Babu’s talent as a seamstress, a practice she had learned under her paternal aunt Dena, a gifted local seamstress in Kohistan, Kaka Abdullah produced the material that she used to sew coverlets which were sold in high demand. She sewed quilts of meticulous designs, and those demands for them satisfied our small tummies. The needlework started early in the mornings and went beyond the hours of daylight, her delicate hands working noiselessly not to wake us up in our one-bedroom home, a dainty small house premeditated by Babu’s aptitude for exhibiting more than we really possessed. Summoning up my own childhood family unit, I saw nothing proverbial about the Porters. Every week in America was a volume of encyclopedias, and I was breaking new ground with every chapter I opened, flipping the pages for further information, observing this new land with fresh eyes, taking in every bit of information and digesting it, followed by a careful dissection of each word in my dictionary. I forwarded it all to the shelves of my brain to commit to memory.
In Monterey Mrs. Ordway gave me a book over lunch the second day while serving us two white slices of square bread on top each other. She introduced it as a sandwich, while she informed me about the author’s biography and his admirable triumph as a local writer. The novel was small; Mrs. Porter suggested that I should read it while in Monterey since it would be my first American book, an excellent literary footing for my senior year. John Steinback seemed discouraging to me. Not prone to reading novels, mostly used to academic books at Hababia, I could not arrange in my mind around Of Mice and Men so early on in a new world, with the little I knew about American life. The subject of ranchers in America was of interest to me but did not seem to register compared to the family I lived with.
For the next three days in Monterey while resting by the beach, along with Michael and Vincent lying on our towels, even as I was struggling to read this complicated novel, it was a calming retreat. For the first time I was introduced to the word racism, searching for the definition in my Webster’s dictionary, and I arose in a shock leaving it half unfinished, to learn more about it in America from the Porter family during dinner on the porch. As they examined how little I knew about American history, they politely filled me in from the beginning. I learned that there was a time Americans had slaves, these slaves purchased by the plantation owners with no more value than a camel or a mule back home. I also learned that this land that once belonged to the red skins, who generally lived in large reservations given to them by the government.
“Lal you need to be careful. If you are being examined from head to toe, you might find yourself in danger.” Vincent looked at me with his sharp gaze as he stuffed his mouth with the white sandwich bread. He continued after swallowing, “If this should take place, Lal you are facing racism in America my friend.” Vincent’s enlightening speech and the unfriendly looks at my tanned skin, especially my deep bronzed skin in summers, would frighten me in my forthcoming days. Attending a school as the only dark student in Marysville High School was turning out to be daunting. It wasn’t until Mrs. Porter called out from the porch, “Vincent stop that, you are merely giving the boy a fright,” that I realized his repartee. We laughed once I understood Vincent’s comic cleverness; he humored me about this subject for the rest of the year, joking in his comical manner. I liked Vincent. He reminded me of my baby sister, Fatho, their joyful huge smiles, the delight in their humor similar, unaware of the world around them, always ready to join in and go to the next situation for amusement.
I spent the lingering days of autumn exploring more exhilarating exercises by following Michael who always came up with a thrilling way to fascinate me. He took me to the sea often, and unlike him, a distinguished swimmer, I was afraid at first but once the encounter of the waves introduced itself to my body, I hit upon the sea with emotions I had never met before. “You need to sprint and let your body hit the water straight away. The first time you will feel a sharp sting right through your skin, like encountering combustion, but after three seconds your body will feel one with the salty water.” Michael’s poise assured me. He was more like his father and had a perpetual hunger for life. Although two months younger than I, fear had never encountered Michael. Whenever I stood next to him, he encouraged me but didn’t even know he possessed this gift, an impressive trait I grew to admire. “What if I drown Michael?” I pleaded. “I am not a good swimmer.” In my mind I kept weigh up the possibility of drowning and taking a risk for once in my life, a tacit voice judging me inside you didn’t come this far to drown in the Pacific Ocean Lal. I did my best to hide my terror of the boisterous waves, at the same time hoping he cant read my mind. “Lal you will not drown, trust me. Do you trust me?” he asked, his eyebrows forming an unusual arc. I did trust Michael; I didn't know him well enough to place my life in his hands, but for some reason I compressed the voice away from my mind and ran after him with my feet on the soft sand, and with a fierce last push our bodies smacked the water, both shattering, our hands up in the air, detonating an interminable memory that I would remember for a long time to come. I had seen the ocean in my mind when Laura described her family beach house in Santa Monica as a child, how it filled her with joy, and how her eyes were lost in thought. Then she would jump to a more distant subject, leaving me puzzled with her recollection. I agreed with Laura as I found myself dumbfounded by the beauty of the Pacific Ocean, astonished with indebtedness for God’s ability to create such pictorial beauty. My last week in America I visited Monterey along with Vincent and Michael, and I wanted to say goodbye on my own terms, so I took a long walk in the nippy ocean breeze, wanting to take with me the foreign smell of the ocean, satisfying my irresistible craving of napping on the soft yet blistering beach sand, a majestic moment I had to bid farewell to in person.
On August 28th at the beach house, on the last evening before retreating back to the ranch to get ready the next morning for high school that impending Monday, Mrs. Ordway turned her on TV. Vincent was teaching me American cards, while Michael and Mr. Porter were playing a game of chess on the side table across us, next to the television. The sound of the anchor from the TV seemed to be announcing a speech, asserting the name of the prominent man, I later found out from Michael to be Dr. King, a civil rights leader. His speech that day made an impression on me, his clear voice speaking to the audience of the black man’s fate reckoning with precision I had never heard before. Listening to Dr. King’s “I have a dream” would ameliorate my fear of what I had encountered so far in my life in regard to my destiny. I had a dream, in fact I had countless dreams, from ever since I could remember. Unlike Dr. King, though, I was deficient in the manner of meticulousness I discovered in his voice, and deeply became an admirer of his oral capability. I did well one-on-one, and a majority of the time I was an able presenter, but not all of the time. When the shades of my past encountered my mind, I was unable to amplify my personality, an insecurity I dreamed of winning over one day.
During our long drive home, the Porters and I bartered questions. They asked me about my adjustment so far in America. “Comparatively unperturbed compared to what I had premeditated,” I responded truthfully.
I asked them: “Why did the American people give the black man a bad check according to Dr. King?”; “What does Negro mean?”; “Insufficient funds?”; “Valley of despair?”. All my queries were satisfied by the Porter family, the boys joining in with their optimistic ripostes, overwhelming my starving longing to gather a part of history that I was actually able to observe in person.
Politics did not interest me back home. The insignificant curiosity I had began and ended with the morning national anthem we sang at school, holding our right hand on our chest, the king’s portrait hanging over the white stucco building facing us, his reflective bald head and arched dark brows depicting an expression from a liberated but yet vulnerable man ornamented by his fierce military uniform.
Never questioning the political atmosphere of my own native state, I watched the ordinary news on American TV and the steady standardized news system delivered to the American people, an interest I did not have in Kabul. We were ordered to respect the king, and I found out that year that what we had, a monarchy was much different than the American system of democracy. The little interest that I did maintain was through Laura, reporter of the daily news in Kabul, and her ardent interest in the politics of my country magnetized the idle part of me. I think my halfhearted view for political affairs was due to providing backing for my family, pushing myself to surpass even my own expectations. I simply did not have the leisure time to worry about the politics of the nation because I needed to worry about my mother and two sisters. I worried constantly about myself not to fall under my father’s ghost. I did not share this with Laura, like the scores of other undisclosed personal matters that were hidden under my cloak. My throat at times swirled in knots, feeling a web of hot blood complicating my tone as I spoke, blocking things, reversing them back in where they felt right, so afraid of an upsurge of tears in front of my American lady friend. During our evening chitchats, Laura educated me with useful information about America; she updated me about the life of teenagers in there. “You know Lal, you will have to prepare for charming a girl in America,” she whispered in a lighthearted conversation we were having outside in the balcony of the office, during our tutoring sessions. Her lively tone was animated, her bubbly manner alluring to my dreary ears.
“Laura, two watermelons cannot be held with one hand. I am going to America for only one reason that is my education, and nothing else!” I said escaping from the uncomfortable conversation of girls. She told me remarkable travel stories of different parts of the world. My favorite anecdote she shared with me in her lithe French was the first time she landed in Lahore, Pakistan. Only twenty-three at the time, she landed in the busy train station of Lahore to find herself encircled by men in red uniforms, what appeared to her as an incursion as she stepped off the outdated stairs of the train to the pavement, the laborers fighting to give her a hand with her heavy luggage. This was to be her first project for AFS. Unfamiliar with South Asia, she confused the accommodating reception as an attack on her suitcases. In time, good-humoredly she grew to love the region, leading her to India for three years, afterward Kabul the year before I met her. “You will never have to worry about such an attack on your suit cases in Kabul,” I said to her bashfully, “Why is that Lal?” Looking her in the eye I smiled, my cheeks turning rosy as they did when I was self-conscious. “Because Afghans don’t have a railroad yet,” I added, finishing with a smile. She smiled back, overlooking the shy humor.
“Laura, where will your next assignment be?” I asked with the high regard I had for her work and audacious spirit. “I am not going to leave Kabul,” she told me,, “at least not for a long time.”
The topic of girls, love and rendezvous was an impassioned one Laura took pleasure in, fervently asking me about my love life. “I am not to court a girl,” I assured her. “Babu will find me a nice girl to marry when I finish my university.” I looked down as I took a sip from the green tea she supplied at our meetings in the afternoons. I was shy in front of her, for speaking to a female about dating a girl was uncharacteristic of decent boys. Laura knew this but she pleasantly liked to prepare me for life in America. I had never spoken to a woman who was not my relative or a family member before meeting Laura. I did not see her in a romantic light, but, at the same time, I declined to see her as I saw Shakila and Fatho. She was more to me than a person I could compartmentalize easily; she helped me see what type of person I was during those months that we worked simultaneously teaching and learning from one another.
“Lal, you teach me how to converse, read and write Dari. I will teach you English. An even exchange,” she offered, her eyes energized and waiting for my answer. I had never been tutored before, it was always me offering my services to others, and now for the first time I would be tutored, gratis. Before knowing it “very well” flew out of my mouth, like a bird waiting for the occasion for the small door of the cage to open, breaking out instantaneously. Under Laura’s hidden gloominess, I was able to claim my disposition. She said this was a quality rare in boys my age. I agreed for a sixteen year old at that time when I meet Laura, it must have been atypical for boys my age to sit upright, confirm an authoritarian determination, my desire to succeed every so often overwhelming her. I would find my portrait in her conspicuous deep blue eyes gawking at me, her narrow delicate skin diaphanous, her mouth finally uttering: “Lal, where does your craving to thrive come from?” She would ask this demanding to know, her temptation inherently to know more about my background, a subject I shared very little with her.
My unfathomable desire to become a pioneering engineer one day initiated her do further research for my sake on various universities I would apply to after my senior year.
The leaflets she had geared up included University of Beirut, as well as the Harvard of the Middle East, Kabul University which was on top of her list as an admirable engineering school equipped with foreign professors from France, Sweden, Germany and England. They produced a respected academic faculty, and the ability to be with my family was a significant score.
The final school of her choice was University of California in Los Angeles, she herself being a pleased alumnus of UCLA. I brought the leaflets with me to America in the same folder I carried the AFS material and the other necessary papers she bequeathed to me with on my departure. On the day we said our goodbyes, Laura asked me repeatedly to have fun when I was in America. The last time I saw her I disappeared in the old colorless van that took us to the airport, unable to disclose to her why I suffered the ardor of success that she so wanted to discover. In those short six months with Laura, I sensed a spirit that I would be able to acknowledge much later in life, her unique spiritual gift having spoke to me without the need for a language. Although the medium of language for our long chats was primarily French, as we both were fluent, I often found a woman veiling a tender sadness, refusing to give in to her innate nature, which she presented as an open book, while also denying that part of herself, disallowing it to came to the surface. I found out that she herself had a secret under her empathetic smiles in those evenings, but was not quite able to hit upon the precise sorrow I found in her voice, especially during her wistful yarns of early life in Southern California.
I started school at Marysville High, anxious for my first day, introduced by Principal Merkin to my first class in the morning. English period was tense in my pristine outfit presented by the Porters. I knocked on the door, respectfully asking “Can I come in?” in my frail English. The teacher was sitting in her desk, a thin woman named Mrs. Jones who looked up from her notes and corrected me, “May I come in, and yes you may!” This was my preamble to what followed to be a laborious day. Michael was in two of my classes, English and American history, and he was congenial in introducing me to my full schedule along with recess, which was strange for me as I did not have such breaks in my previous school, and the peculiar area for lunch, the cafeteria, the crest of socialization for the seniors. For the first few days, Michael did not leave my side; he introduced me to everyone as a foreign student who resided with his family. There was inquisitiveness from his friends about where I was from and if the high schools in Afghanistan were dissimilar to the American high schools. After a couple of weeks, I confidently proceeded to my classes, performing my school work zealously with good organization, and at times with a little help from Mrs. Porter in the proficiency of the subjects I was not familiar with. I looked forward to the lunch breaks, devouring American sandwiches with Michael and his group of friends. Our school was principally Caucasian; I was the darkest skinned student, as teased by Vincent yet never finding a cause of stress because of it.
“You know Vince, I am also a white, the only difference is that I am a white man with a deep tan,” I said blasé to him amid our mutual classmates. encountered; there was a sense of appeal to my distinction instead of the discrimination that Vince had me scared of that first week. So I went about my own business, following the old Afghani saying, “Do not stop a donkey that is not yours,” which had become my dictum. Thus I stayed away from what was not my business. I attended games with Michael and Vincent glimpsing the Indian mascot for our high school, a vibrant orange and black color that bore an Indian chief’s face with feathers decorated for his coronet, his face painted with white marks under his eyes below his cheeks to highlight his warrior traits. In the year I lived in Maryville, I longed to meet a red-skinned man, but never came across any.
Our class visited Ellis Lake on Friday afternoons when it was still warm in the fall, the boys building boats out of cardboard and duct tape, trying to cross the lake without sinking. There was music booming from the cars parked by the lake, girls and boys shouting songs taking pleasure in their teenage years. I accompanied Michael and our friends frequently, and these trips are where I learned the movement of Twist, a dance I still bear in mind with fondness. I liked this dance, shy as I was to ask a girl; this rock and roll dance style enabled me to dance with a girl without the need to touch one another. My favorite song was the “Peppermint Twist” by The Starliters. At the dances I attended in high school and at the circle of parties, we twisted for hours, a delight I was unconscious of in my mind’s eye until I came to America. I had my first kiss from a very pretty girl during one of these dances, Amy Blane, she was a fantastic dancer and I enjoyed her company. She kissed me during a slow dance, but I was not prepared, her soft peachy flavored lips ardent, warm against mine, the tip of her tongue slightly sporting my inexperienced tongue. I pulled away my lips, while still holding her in my arms. Although an awkward moment in my life, I did not wish to humiliate Amy. We spoke about me, her, dating, my background, just enough that I wanted to share with her, and after the kiss on our walk back to school where I was to be picked up by Michael that evening, she seemed self-conscious at first, but we spoke through sunset waiting for Michael’s football game to come to its closing stages, and Amy and I had formed a fond friendship. I spent much of my free time in the school library reading, researching beyond my comprehension in most of the books I read, interpreting what I could through my dictionary, examining the U.S. history books and scanning through the books I would have read if I was a student there in my junior year. I was craving to grasp the American high school, the manner of the students, poles apart from Afghanistan, and the panache styles of clothing, pleasing to the eye. I slowly started to adapt the neat fashion fairly quickly with Mrs. Porter’s good taste. My first Thanksgiving saw the news of the assassination of President Kennedy two days earlier, and we spent much of that week glued to the small TV in the living room, the newscast updating the nation of the much loved president’s demise. The shooting took place at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, Texas, while traveling with his young wife Jacqueline. We had long conversations in front of the TV where we ate our dinner for the remaining week in the evenings, portable tables holding our plates, discussing the various plots for the assassination, “The Soviets could have been behind it,” alleged Mr. Porter his voice rough, drowned in the screen of the TV. “I think the CIA is behind this,” came Michael’s voice, arguing even much later in the year that the calculated killing of Kennedy was a “CIA operation!”
I did not have an opinion to share in the Kennedy cause of death and the indictment, so I listened to everyone else around me. The discussions went to late nights, leaving me and the boys fuming with anger as to who could be so hateful to kill such a loved president. We did not listen to Michael and Vincent’s favorite album by the Beatles on those evenings, there were no more sports events to attend, and no weekend expeditions to the beautiful lakes and rivers. This was the only time I saw the Porter family mourning as one, the monotonous weeks dashing us to winter break.
Christmas arrived soon after. The luminosity of the ornamentation in the Porter house was like embroidery of a whim of the imagination. I was informed by Laura that Christmas was a beautiful holiday celebrated by Americans, but nothing prepared me for its splendor. The evergreen tree designed by the boys and me the night before Thanksgiving Eve, a fortune of jovial feeling I may perhaps ponder on ceaselessly. It was on that Christmas that Mr. and Mrs. Porter asserted their unfaltering decision to embrace me as their third son. I was to call them as “Mom and Dad” like Michael and Vincent, a request from both before we hummed our prayers. It seemed instinctive to call them by their new name in such a short time. “Mom and Dad” just rolled out of me. I had accepted them as my family, though not biological, and I knew deep down there was a sacred connection between me and my new American family. After our relationship had been sealed, I spent most of my afternoons with Mom, accompanying her gardening in the spring, a laborious task I was not very good at. She had a sober attitude when she was gardening, her abstemious eyes focused on her work for hours under the remote sun. “Lal, let’s work on the wild rose now,” she instructed me as we picked up our gardening tools and walked to the rose bush, ready to bloom soon for spring. “I love the smell of these pink flowers. In spring this is where I like to spent much of my time when you boys are in school. The roses are my favorite; they remind me of your Dad.” She had a blissful smile when she spoke of him. “I am going to plant the fuchsia for spring by the kitchen window, the sod needs to be contrived with a new plot, I have worked on the sketches.” Mom was a draftswoman, her field in school was architecture, and after the war when she returned and married Dad, she soon found out she was pregnant with Michael, causing her not to obtain her license to practice architecture, raising the boys and helping him with his farming business. She postponed her own dreams until her boys were in middle school when she launched her own business of landscape design, working mostly with her local socialites.
“Lal, do you know why I want the fuchsia by the kitchen?” she asked. I looked at her, displaying a puzzled face, and softly answered, “I don’t know.” I really did not know much about gardening, the little I had learned before joining Mom was from Grandma Ann, who shared her love of her plants whenever I visited her with the boys to drop off produce. “The humming of the hummingbirds in the morning,” she whispered.
As Mom finished, her love of the small brightly colored bird transported me to my memory of Bibi walking with my small hand in hers along the vale, whispering in my ear, “Lal bachem, you are my hummingbird.” “Mom, my grandmother loves hummingbirds, like you. When I was little she called me her sweet hummingbird.” Although I rarely shared private moments with anyone, Mom had a kindness that unlocked my sealed lips, I wanted to tell her about my sweet grandmother, I wanted to release myself, and to unclutter the callous buried parts of my life. “What is your grandmother like? You have not spoken of her. And your mother, what is Babu like? I want to know. Both must be astonishing women. What lines of work are they interested in?” Her eyes were lighting up with her questions.
“They have raised a virtuous young man like you,” she added. “I am sure they are extraordinary women!”
“Bibi and Babu are both illiterate women. It’s different for women there. Both work in their homes, they are very hard working women, I can say that for sure!” I polished my last verdict of the two women with a gentle gesticulation, explaining the thousand different responsibilities both my Bibi and Babu administered on a daily basis. Mom listened to my tales of my childhood running in the Pamir Mountains, my summers with Bibi, and she was entranced with Babu’s stamina to raise her three children after her husband abandoned her, as a single mother, an expression I learned from Mom during those conversations. She explained to me that I should be proud of Babu since an illiterate single mother raising three children was not easy. My grandmother’s and mother’s vigor, I had not valued their vivacity for every challenge they battled. Bibi and Babu were innately sturdy women, part of their everyday job. My adopted mom helped me through our afternoon chats, and I begin to have a new stance for the women in my life, a feeling I was deficient of until I came to America. On Saturday mornings Mom and I also played golf on the Marysville Gold course, a delight I became intimate with by the time I left. Michael and Vincent were too busy with football games in the fall, baseball in spring and wrestling to join us, although they played croquet in the backyard on warm afternoons with Mom and me, wearing her out by the end of the evening. Michael, Vincent and I developed playful oaths to win game after game, in exchange for the family car to be handed to Michael for our weekend expeditions, listening to the Beatles as Beatlemania took a hold of us boys, especially after their first performance live on The Ed Sullivan Show. By February I converted to a loyal devotee of the young boys’ style of music, as we drove and sang to Feather River.
I was instructed by the boys, “I would lose my clasp eventually.” The slip never took place, except for that one kiss with Amy, the girls themselves keeping their distance in a respectful manner. I am not sure what Amy had said about me, but my pursuit of beautiful American girls, though I found them gorgeous, had been altered by Amy. I thanked her for the favor, as I was too shy to offend anyone else, like I had with her. Anyhow, my resolve for success in America was to stay clear and remain on a solitary style line of attack as far as girlfriends were concerned. I admired the American method of dating, but I held on strong to my desire to achieve my dream in America. I did not lose my clench, maintaining my virginity during my year long stay in the U.S.
Dad, a retired commander from World War II, and I had a special bond during our silent fishing expeditions in Sacramento River and when he was too tired to drive to Father River a few minutes from the ranch, sitting silently in our exclusive spaces. I was on an expedition to discover a father, the father that failed me, and I constantly desired a solid father who would command me, someone who would hold my hand taking me under his guidance, telling me of his failures and achievements in life. Kaka Abdullah told Babu on one of his visits that someone had seen my father inebriated in the dark alleys of Kabul when I was fourteen. It was a late night visit, and I was covered with the bulky quilt. Babu thought I was asleep, but I overheard everything. My new dad was fond of my self-disciplined behavior that he did not find in his own two sons. My obedient fondness for Dad’s tales, the welcome advice he gave about fishing and hunting unearthed a father/son, commander/soldier liaison we both recognized and grew to expand. If he was in the mood, he told me stories of combat during his years commanding the Fifth U.S. Army along with the British 8th Army into the Lombardy plain in spring 1945. Most of the topics that arose from his former years had a subterranean correlation to politics; Dad was fervently interested in world political affairs, a field I had to acquire an interest for. Never questioning the political atmosphere of my own native state, I watched the ordinary news on American TV and the steady standardized news system delivered to the American people, an interest I did not inhabit in Kabul. We were ordered to respect the king, and I found out that year that what we had, a monarchy was much different than the American system of democracy.
That spring for the first time in our history, a new administration formed in the cabinet, Prince Sardar Daud Khan resigned and a commoner took his place as the prime minster of Afghanistan. The small transmitter echoed the broadcasting of what left Laura and me stunned. “Do you know what this means Lal, Afghanistan is evolving towards the teething stages of evolution to a democratic system!” she bellowed, which was uncommon for Laura, her arms going above her head in exhilaration. The new Prime Minster announced his cabinet on March 13th, a week before Nawrooz, our New Year Day on the first day of equinox. The citizens rejoiced that year with merriment in festivities celebrating their history. Although I did not attend the yearly commemoration organized by the head of state, Laura requested for me to accompany her to Mazar where Jahenda Bala was praised in the old state of Balkh province. Laura prepared for our transportation, and we left two days before New Year’s Day.
We spent our first day under the splendor of the building surrounded by thousands of worshipers, the women covering their heads with a piece of semi-transparent fabric, although different than Laura’s square scarf that displayed a rainbow of colors covering her weightless blonde hair, her curly locks dangling on her side. Most of the men dressed in the traditional Afghan paraan-tumbaan, showing their new garments. I was also wearing my new paraan-tumbaan; Babu stitched the blue garments, its breast designed with her detailed embroidery, unified by the colors of the backdrop of the tiles inscribing Arabic verses from the Koran.
The Blue Mosque park swarmed with believers who came to perform their yearly ceremony. Laura and I were congested by the movement which was so slow, and it took us four hours to reach the mosque where Laura wanted to visit the tomb of Ali.
“Lal, did you know that this mausoleum is believed to be Ali IBN Abi Talib’s grave by these Afghan devotees?” “I am familiar with the legend,” I said shyly with smile that suggested an appreciation for her historical expertise.
“Did you know that the fourth Caliph is actually buried in Mosque of Ali in Najaf, Iraq?” she added, a fact I did not know as I looked above at the blue domes of the mosque. The white doves danced around us fleeting as a brief group of people passed us.
“No I did not know. We Afghans believe in this truth.
The piece of evidence inscribed in your book is irrelevant to the people who consider this legend to be genuine.” I contested this with her while walking as Laura inspected the magnificent architects and engineers who built the Blue Mosque. Although I knew that Laura was an adroit student of history, I decided to believe the tomb sheltered the remains our beloved prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. The legend was passed on from generation to generation illuminating Ali’s assassination in Iraq.
“You see it is true that he was killed in Iraq, but legend has it that before he departed from his earthly life, he walked to his faithful camel who kneeled upon his command, it is said, and that after sitting on his white female camel, Ali died upon whispering his last words to the steadfast animal that traversed thirsty for three weeks until he reached this site in Mazar, falling on its knees from exhaustion.” I finished, my mouth dried from the exasperated legend, and I stopped to take a drink of water from our carrier as we moved along walking towards the Blue Mosque.
What happened next?” asked Laura curiously.
I looked into her eyes, surveying her keen interest in my legend about the Lion of Gods tomb.
“Well legend has it that around the 12th century, a local mullah had a dream where Ali came to him and told him that he was buried in a city in Balkh. So the mullah woke up the next day and began his search which took him to Mazar. After investigation and the opening of the tomb, under the Seljuk Sultan, the order was carried out to build a shrine on the spot, which stood until Genghis Khan destroyed the mosque.”
“So this shrine is almost 900 years old?” Laura asked. I smiled at her. “You see my friend, you might have your books on Afghan history and such, but for the legends, you will need me.”
We both fetched our hands in our side bags hanging from our shoulder, and begin to feed the white doves, soon encased by the white hungry birds. “It was rebuilt in the 15th century by a man name Husain Baiqara. Do you see the inscription over there on top of the entrance: ‘Ali, Lion of God” that was inscribed at that time,’ I said with my right hand in the air towards the arched colossal entrance of the mosque, my mouth half open in excitement like a young child. My father had sung the Afghan folklore song with his rubab as we paid reverence to the idolizing Ali. I knew the song by heart, we all did, and we sang it during such festivities to venerate our tribute to Ali. I decided to sing the folklore song to Laura. Although bashful at first, at long last I hummed the customary legend to her in our lingering passage back to the gatehouse, passing on the dirt street enveloped with fields of multihued tulips, the wind echoing my voice louder than projected, and I sang joyously:
Let’s hold hands and go to Mazar venerating Sakhi Jan
To watch the tulips bloom my beloved
From the peak of the mountain I hollered
Ali the lion of God I summoned
Ali the lion of God or a king among men
Convert my heart to its jubilant hub again.
Let’s hold hands and go to Mazar venerating Sakhi Jan
To watch the tulips bloom my beloved
Ali the lion of God amend a balm for my ailment
Deliver my plea to the Omnipotent
I will contribute offerings for your sake
Wherever you find lovers lost in zest,
Entreat them with a balm for their ache
In prayers safeguard their revered nest.
Let’s hold hands and go to Mazar venerating Sakhi jan
To watch the tulips bloom my beloved
Let’s gaze as one before the falling
In this brief passage nothing is certain my beloved.
I told Laura during our drive in the camouflage jeep she had rented for our journey that this was the truth I wanted to hold onto. Although I trusted her explicatory brochure she was clinging onto while we explored Mazar, this was devotion I wished to accept as true, like the rest of the devotees who came for centuries to reveal their grief begging for Ali’s consecration as he was the beloved of God, binding a knot for each wish, I tied a knot that year as well, after all we believed Mazar-I-Sharif carried the tomb of the exalted.
This was the only time Laura told me she saw a brief wave of joy that she witnessed in me. I concealed the motivation for my temporary joy displayed at this historic site, my only recollection of my father and me exploring the same sites when I was four on a visit to Nawrooz. This song resonated from him, the echo of his tender voice still fresh in my memory, sitting on his lap, his dulcet intonation of this song in Mazar, my sole emblem of having a father once,like a shadow following me.We lodged at a local tea house, harboring foreigners mostly who came to visit the shrine, although it did board a few Afghan families that had traveled from distant locations. The small gatehouse had six bedrooms and one traditional bathroom for all to share. We were served breakfast, Uzbaki fresh baked bread and sweetened green tea. I slept on the ground, so Laura could have the cushioned small wooded single bed in the corner of the room, and we would eat lunch at the local bazaar, the reeking of kabob sold in its streets engrossing Laura’s appetite.
On New Year’s Day we attended the Jahenda Bala ceremony, the heavy attendance making it impossible for us to survey the raising of the banner in Mazar Park, encircled by the armed soldiers keeping the populace under surveillance, orbiting the area and protecting the new prime minster and his officials.
Both Laura and I returned back to Kabul, she went back to her work that afternoon while I walked towards home, stopping at Kaka Naim’s barbershop on my way.
Kaka Afteen shaved my head like he used to when I was a young boy. Some unwanted guests had accompanied me to Kabul, a web of lice I had magnetized for the first time in sixteen years. When I returned back to school after the Nawrooz holiday, I saw Laura for our daily tutoring sessions; she concealed her experience with the parasites, although the cutting of her hair revealed that she had endured a visit from the undesirable guests as well. I listened to Dad speaking with a distinctive expression recounting Operation Grapeshot during World War II, a code name for the offensive attack that ended on the second of May with the German forces in Italy. My adolescent ears were fascinated by his stories. Never having seen war I found myself in those hours we spent together very immersed in Dad’s accounts, later envisaging the stories in my single bed in my room at night trying to visualize him in his twenties in the middle of the dreadful war. He had a mark to show his horrid experience, a long scar on his chest ghostly vocalizing man’s shameful voracious appetite for power. He told me the scar was from a container explosion at the end of his service in combat in ‘45, but for some reason I perceived that it was more than that, a classified matter, and he did not want to pierce my untarnished view of the world. Dad was everything I imagined demonstrative guardianship, and most importantly his hospitable temperament. My admiration for him grew every day. I idolized his hard work, and he woke up at 5 a.m. ready to perform his duties, despite the fact that farming rice fields was a trade he had to discover by himself after he retired from the Army and purchased a parcel from a retiring couple, sixty-seven acres for what he recounted as a small fortune, $23,000, soon mounting to 110 acres of rice fields as he increased his fortune.
“I could not have done it alone. Your mom encouraged me to buy this farm, she is the foundation of my household.”
He said this with an affectionate smile pleased to have been lucky, reminding me numerous times how he found Mom during the war in Italy in the course of his hospitalization after the explosion. He narrated the day he first met her in the white nursing uniform, her short blond hair covered by the blue coat she was wearing, her cheerless eyes moving in the alley of the beds occupied by the wounded soldiers. Mom was older than Dad by a few years, her sagacity a desire that Dad cherished. “I poked around the six weeks I was in the hospital for information. To pursue a wounded person is dishonorable. I sought to rub her sorrow with love’s liniment, but only when she was ready.” Fidgeting in his restless chair as he did when he got excited, this was not often. “I found out from the other nurses that same day that she was wounded in the heart, and did not speak much to anyone. Her young fiancée, a bomber in the Air Force had been killed in ‘44 in his jet aircraft. She joined the Army soon after.”
Dad was whispering and holding firmly onto his fishing rod, as if Mom was going to hear him, afraid to bring her past poignant memories to resurface once again. Filled with tears, he voiced, “She still carries sadness. I see it now and then.” Eventually, Dad asked Mom for an evening stroll in the military compound, aware of her condition, and he became the crutch she needed to find herself again.
“It was the roses that did the work,” he said, winking. He told me once that he would leave different color roses from the hospital garden, waking up at 5 a.m. while she was making her last rounds, leaving them on her small metal bed, running off to his bed before she could discover her secret admirer. When he told her one evening during their leisurely walk that he left the flowers, she smiled, her hair hiding half of her face so he could not tell what she was feeling. After a few seconds she put her small hand in his, and he knew from then on that they would be holding hands walking for the rest of their lives. She later confessed to Dad that she had collected the thirty-seven roses he had left on her bed every day, knowing all along whom the affectionate devotee was. When he received his permission to be dismissed from his services and return home, she displayed fondness for him as well. They got married in November 1946 in San Francisco, her hometown, in her local church surrounded by their loved ones who wished them well in their nuptials. Dad’s quixotic sketches of his love for Mom were counteracted his more violent tales of the war, a remedy to balance my assessment of the perfect human being he was.
“I still give her roses, the same color roses on special days, except now I pick them from her garden,” he confessed. “The rose has come to be a reminder of our love”.
I imagined myself getting married during Dad’s romantic anecdotes. I would marry a girl Babu would choose for me, as expected of the only son. Since she was to live with my mother each day for the rest of her life, it was more important that they would get along than me. I forecasted the different life I would lead compared to Mom and Dad’s as I watched the foggy water drifting on the river, the colorless run of water drumming the rocks while I held my black fishing rod, foreseeing a young Kabuli girl entering the unlocked doors of our house, a receptive welcome, digging up layers at a time to know each other better throughout the years. Love might take years to come, revolving around respect, which I hoped to evolve to friendship and if we were compatible, one day we would love each other. Before coming to America, I was one of those boys who never looked at girls; my sisters told me that the neighborhood girls called me an “irate young boy”.
Although I did not understand what I had done to win this appellation, I was told that the girls labeled me as such. Shakila said, “It’s your frown, especially with your black thick eyebrows, a baleful display comes across, it’s hard to ignore.”
Those eyebrows began to release their stretched frown inch by inch with time at the Porters, the transition akin to the snow melting from the callous Pamir Mountains. Eager for spring to surface, I came out of the rigid snow, but it was more than my frown that melted: my grueling self, concealed for so long started to awaken. I left the States with ascertainment that I would not be an “ass” in life when I return to Kabul. I resolved to rupture my “mule” nature with regard to myself and decided that I deserved to make peace with myself. I had established a bond with a family that I would probably never see once I step back into Kabul, since Babu was insistent that I finish at Kabul University.
I affirmed her desire as almost a decree and endorsed my submission. I had come with a small bag and a few personal belongings to America and after what seemed like only a few idyllic days with the Porter family, I left with the same suitcase, although, now, it was filled with new clothes Mom had purchased with Dad the week before. But what fulfilled me most on the day the family drove me for my departure was something unexpected.
For the first time I felt a state of trance from the overwhelming love for my adopted American family. Laura rationalized in her concise accounts of yogic meditations this state of rapture and exaltation she had obtained, a practice she had became well-acquainted with in one of her many journeys to India. I found my state of exaltation without seeking. I pursued a conquest of my aspirations and followed them obsessively to reach those dreams. It was obvious to me much later that Laura had identified my unfilled spirit; she had knocked many times to find a barren room filled only with dust and obscurity.
I found out through Dad later in one of his usual letters I received, the final letter to be precise in the first week of December 1971, accompanied with a family Christmas card and the typical $100 bill they enclosed for my children’s annual Christmas gift, that Laura was responsible for the orchestration of my senior year with the Porters:
I am glad to have received your letter on October. Your mom and I have been terribly worried about the state of affairs in the region. The Communists are dreadfully seeking to take over Central Asia. There is an explosion of unpleasant news broadcasts on a daily basis about the Soviet invasion endorsing its power over the region. The news is upsetting your mom so I have decided to replace the TV for the local newspapers and reiterated to her to stay away from the TV altogether.
The boys are doing great. Michael and Vincent are coming to visit us for a few days with their families for Christmas. I spoke to them last night and informed them that I will be writing you. They asked me to pass their regards.
Michael asked, “Do you still immerse in the depth of the rivulet?” A subject matter between you boys I am sure.
I received terrible news from my youngest sister from Malibu, Barbara, when she came to visit us on spring break.
Two weeks ago she called me to inform us of her tragic loss, her only daughter passed away. Laura Guzeman, she had just celebrated her 35th birthday. Lal, Laura was my niece!
She was visiting a mausoleum in Dakar in Bangladesh with her coworkers from AFS on 23rd of November, on Thanksgiving break, when an unexpected open fire took place between what was reported by the local enforcement as a guerrilla attack. She died from her wounds instantaneously. Her body was released and has been permitted to be sent back to America, we are attending her funeral this Sunday. She had requested for us not to disclose any information of our link to you, but I think you should know now. My dear son, I hope you forgive us, on no account did she ever wished to pain you. She struggled for you to be accepted into AFS, it was Laura who orchestrated for our family to sign up as one of the families who would espouse you as a foreign exchange student in our household. Laura esteemed your desire and had pleaded to your mom and me to ensure your period in America would be a treasured episode in your life. Although she took the initiative to place you in our household, Mom and I choose you to be our rightful son, you must never forget that. I have enclosed a picture of Laura and her twin brother.
Mom sends her love.
I opened the envelop clinched with a small picture of a much younger Laura than I remembered, holding hands with a boy no more than seventeen, Mark, her twin brother, with an inscription of a blue pen mark, “Laura and Mark”. With his tan skin, dark black hair, and bushy chest although unclear to distinguish his features in the picture, I recognized what Laura saw in me. I later found out from Dad that Mark had been killed in a car accident on his seventeenth birthday. I understood Laura’s effortless journey to Kabul, her work with the AFS, her easy nature masking a part of her that I sensed as a young boy but could not uncover at the time. She saw Mark in me; I understood destiny’s amusement as I recalled my own expedition in life, perhaps a consequence of his young death. In my senior year with the Porters, I opened my eyes to the dawn of unwavering love for life. My life was not about success anymore. I had once struggled for my breaths, and it was Laura who said to take a lungful of air, not merely for oxygen but to feel it in your abdomen, touching the lifeless essence at the same time as greeting a new life to my existence. Laura knew the Porters would aid me in swapping my indifference for happiness with sparks of exuberance. She told me numerous times in our chats on the porch of the AFS, “Lal, life is more than an expedition for success.” When I bored her with my goals, she would assert, “Live with your heart, not your mind,” as she inhaled, gasping for air after speaking French when she became irritated by me. I wanted to say goodbye to Laura in person, speak to her like I did so many years ago on the porch of AFS, and so I took out my pen and started to write my adieu to my old friend:
You will be happy to be acquainted with your young friend today. Although years have surpassed our tutoring sessions in Kabul, I ponder those evenings with warm fondness.
I have penetrated the depth of happiness in life that you wished for me to discover as a young boy. My year with the Porters, your aunt and uncle along with their boys, unlocked those doors. Laura do you remember asking me where the passionate flame that burned inside of me came from, I never told you then, you asked why I never laughed like other boys my age, why I did not fly my kite during spring festivities, why my heart was flawed at such a young age. This was a mystery you struggled to untangle. I have traveled to a peaceable position in life now to share that part of my life with you. My dear friend, the flame arose my childhood, from the rejection of my father, who left us when I was very young. Observing Babu’s tears surging in the darkness of our small room, I pledged at age seven to postpone my laughter, and the mirth that every child naturally enjoys found itself under the shade of a dejected silence working uphill towards a dream that seemed unfeasible. I substituted my smile for success at age seven, never to transform to a man like my own father. I feared somehow his shadow would follow me and rupture my disposition, for every time I remembered his pleased grin, my brows puckered with a promise to follow in his footsteps and lead a nonchalant life, his flaws developing into my own very defect. This defect would have closed its doors to my own subsistence if I had not found you. I transformed these flaws under the guardianship of your uncle; he converted my undeveloped attitude of black and white as an ideal father, an amorous husband, and a prosperous farmer. In my eyes he will always be the perfect man, and I am grateful that you hosted our union.
You will also be happy to hear that I did not follow through with my dreams of becoming an engineer. During my first year in university in my Persian literature class, I fell in love with a 12th century poet, Farīd ud-Dīn Attar, whose inscription style spoke to me in person sweeping me to change my prearranged field of Engineering to Persian Literature, searching for my own hoopoe of love. This unstructured shift led me to arrive at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at University of Oxford in England for graduate school. The extensive program covered my expenses leaving me with a small amount that I sent home to help since Babu’s aging hands could not obey any longer. Can you believe that I wrote my thesis paper on “Attar’s Adeptness Cloaked in the Hoopoe, a Sufi Blaze of Love”. I know you would have taken pleasure in reading it.
My Dear friend, you were my hoopoe, my teacher, my internal guide in life, escorting me to the infinite love - buried deep within me.
I met a girl while in graduate school; Laila was a classmate at Oxford. Both of us fervent neophytes of Attar’s brilliance, we found in each other the decorum of love he bluntly articulated in his mystic poetry. We fell in love and married soon after. We went to Ankara after our graduation for a month, to seek her family’s blessing. She moved to Kabul with me, and Babu welcomed Laila to our lives immediately. I think her ability to converse in Dari, and the modest level that she learned at Oxford alleviated Babu’s approval. I have three daughters, Laura is six, Sharzad three and Tahrmina is four months old.
Laila and I live in Kabul with our daughters and Babu. We were both fortunate to land jobs at the University of Kabul, where we are both lecturers in the Persian Literature department. Each day during my lectures at the university, I am aware of my sense of happiness, as you counseled so many years ago when you would utter, “Find the route to surmount the mind’s desire into the heart, and you will encounter the spark of happiness!” I discovered that route to love both in life and work, thanks to you.
Your forever indebted friend,
That day I reread Dad’s letter for the third time, a grief of remorse budding within me, I walked to the clay fire oven where Babu was preparing to bake her bread for the evening, my children playing on the grass with Laila, and I took a bottomless breath. Looking at the clear blue sky at the heavens, trusting Laura was listening to my recital, nonchalantly deep down acceding her quintessence, I heard her voice whispering within me, “Lal, I am fine here,” a diaphanous resonance. I stood on the clay oven and dropped the weightless paper conveying my last farewell, and I whispered back to the warm spring wind, “Until we meet again.”
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"Anosha has done a great job in eloquently expressing the fearless voices of the Afghan women with their unique dimensions, aspirations, and feelings about many aspects of human conditions. Her approach stands in sharp contrast with the camouﬂaged and stereotypical representation of the Afghan women by the western media."
Mohammad H. Qayoumi, Ph.D., President, San Jose State University
About the Author
Born in Kabul, Anosha Zereh was three when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Her father, a UN employee apprehensive for his safety under the communist regime fled his beloved nation for India in 1985.
The Zereh family was eventually granted asylum in the United States in 1987.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Anosha has been a humanitarian working to improve the lives of Afghan orphaned children through education in Afghanistan and locally in Fremont, California, often referred to as the “Little Kabul” of the West. She lives with her two children and husband in Berkeley, California