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Memory of a Visit - خاطره یک دیدار

· ESSAYS

David Weir

The news from the other side of the world is bleak and difficult to digest, but there are reasons to hold on to some small signs of hope. These reasons, for me, revolve around a memory.

When I was an English teacher in Taloqan, the capitol of Takhar in northeastern Afghanistan, almost all the women wore the chadri, a loose covering from head to toe, with only a tiny mesh opening so they could breathe and see where they were going.

But there were at least some in Taloqan who believed the status of women should change.

One day, Abdul Wahad, a student who did chores for us in return for room and board, brought the news that a married woman had sent word via her servant that she wanted to have tea with me inside her home.

I had never received an invitation of this nature before; the few women I'd ever met with privately were in the company of their husbands or fathers. And even that was rare.

As a foreigner and the only American male in the province, I feared committing a cross-cultural faux pas of the sort Westerners were infamous for. Everybody knew that men and women not in the same family never met in private.

But this woman was married to a well-respected man I'd met several times who spoke some English, wore Western-style clothes and supported the aggressive modernizing of the country under King Mohammed Zahir Shah.

I also knew it would be impolite to turn down her request. So I sent Abdul back with the message that I would be honored to attend.

As a respected Malem, Sahib (teacher) in Taloqan, I often was invited to meet in people's homes and I knew that this meeting, like everything else that happened in that small town, would not be a secret.

 

When the date arrived for my visit, I wore the traditional Afghan garments of loose pants under a long shirt beneath my Western sports jacket. Abdul led me to the gate of the woman's compound where I removed my shoes, and followed one of her servants who ushered me to an interior room decorated with plush Afghan carpets, pillows, and wall hangings.

This was a wealthy family's living room.

As I settled onto a pillow and crossed my legs, another servant brought me tea and Nuqui (frosted candy) and also set out a second serving on the other side of the low wooden table in the center of the room.

Presently, an elegant young woman entered the room and I rose to greet her. She bowed slightly and indicated that I should sit back down. She sat on a pillow across from me without speaking a word.

I mumbled what I hoped were some appropriate words in Dari, but she remained silent, looking down.

She wore a traditional dress, very colorful, and a scarf on top of her head, but no covering on her face. She had lovely skin, long black hair and large dark eyes. She wore gold earrings, bracelets and lapis rings but no makeup.

Unsure how to begin our conversation, I waited for my hostess to speak. But as the moments passed, she remained silent. Then I noticed that she was trembling visibly and that her expression was solemn, and I realized that this must have been a terrifying moment for her.

 

Although the mood was awkward, my instinct was to act as normal as I could, as if this were an everyday occurrence for me, which in the U.S. or Europe, of course it would be. Maybe that would put her at ease.

Plus I was hoping that all I had to do was be present for the encounter to be a success. I conveyed by gesture that I enjoyed the tea and Nuqui, and spent time admiring the lovely wall hangings. I tried to appear relaxed, but in truth I was every bit as nervous as she was.

Just when it appeared that the rest of the meeting would be conducted in silence, she looked up and into my eyes steadily and spoke a few halting words in English, then more fluidly in Dari. She clearly had practiced exactly what she wanted to say. Her voice was clear and steady.

She told me that on behalf of her husband and their family, she was grateful to me for teaching the children in their town. She said this was important because she and her husband wanted the next generation to grow up to be educated and perhaps even go to Kabul for college.

She emphasized that she was speaking about both the boys and the girls in Taloqan, although to date only one girl had yet been allowed by her family to reach the level of ninth grade in school there. That girl was in fact one of my students.

I thanked her warmly and sincerely both in English and in Dari. I praised her husband, their household, their family, and told her it was my great honor to be received in their home and to be the teacher of their children.

She smiled kindly, and summoned her servant, who'd been hovering at the door, to show me the way out. Before I left, I clasped my hands together, bowed and thanked her for the tea. We then exchanged the traditional parting phrase, خدا بهمرات, "God be with you."

A few days later, Abdul told me that it was the talk in town that we had had a very successful tea and that her family was now viewed as the most modern household in Taloqan. Abdul also told me he was very proud to be my student.

That happened 50 years ago. Thinking back on it, I think she may be one of the bravest people I have ever met.

On Tuesday, the victorious Taliban announced that the rights of Afghan women will be respected within the framework of Islamic law. Even if this was a sop thrown to the international community, as it surely was, they have never felt the need to do this before. One small sign of hope.

Inshallah

انشاالله

David Weir is a journalist who has worked and published at Rolling Stone, Salon, Wired.com, The New York Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York, New Times, SunDance, and many other publications and sites. He is a co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the author of four books.

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