by Emilie Gruat
All names cited here were changed.
At that time, I was an actress in a theater company based in Paris. We toured all around the world, which also fulfilled my passion for travel. In 2003 we had been working on a new creation, which was mostly documented and shaped from true facts and stories: refugees from Eastern Europe and The Middle East had shared with us their journeys and experiences, as well as their dreams and ideals. I watched movies, I learned words or sentences in Serbian or Dâri, and I read books and studied pictures or portraits to fully document my characters: a young Serbian woman and a 15 year-old Afghan teenager.
In fact this acting experience revived something deeper in me, as if the shock I had felt and suppressed earlier in my life, after first hearing about the actions, bans and killings carried out by the Taliban, was slowly making its way out of my body and mind. What had first been unthinkable had become unbearable, and I felt a strong urge to go to Afghanistan.
How can you be an artist where creating is said to be a ‘sin’? How can you be a woman when all feminine aspects are denied and considered ‘wrong’? How can you even feel as a woman when kept completely out of daylight? How can you make theater where truth is considered a threat and a danger, and where basic human rights are sapped? Are there still any theater makers in Afghanistan? Are there any women involved in theater? These are the threads I investigated once I arrived in Afghanistan.
One of my best friends in Paris, Atash, is Afghan. When I told him about my plan to go to his country he offered to arrange for me to stay with his family in Kabul; and that’s how I met Arezou, Babur and their four children. Arezou was working as a nurse for a Swiss NGO. Babur was a pilot for Ariana, the Afghan airlines. They lived in a crumbling apartment building with no water or electricity in Microrayan, in Kabul. In fact this area was supposed to have access to water and electricity at night, from 6 to 10 p.m. but most of the time, nothing would come out of the taps and they had to light candles or use flashlights.
They received and treated me as part of their family. They wanted me to be able to focus on my research, and I remember how strange I felt when I realized what my coming really meant for them. In a way, I represented a part of the world which animated their hopes and dreams and where they wanted to eventually seek asylum. They were just returning from Pakistan, where they had taken refuge during the Taliban regime. They had lost everything and even their apartment had been occupied for some time by other people.
My bedroom was actually the room usually used as the living room, but during the entire month I spent with the they considered it as ‘Awtaq-e-Emilie’/ ‘Emilie’s room’, and they made sure their children wouldn’t enter it without permission. I didn’t mind, but they made it key: I had to have a private space of my own. Because I was a guest, Babur resented the idea that I would wash myself with cold water from the well, so he bought a big electrode to heat up the water. On her way back home every afternoon, Arezou went to the bazaar to buy food she knew I would eat. I am a vegetarian, and though some of the Afghan meals have veggies, the main food is lamb, so she cooked special dishes and bought fresh fruits, nuts and ‘nan’/ ‘bread’ every day. ‘Angur’/ ‘grapes’, ‘berenj’/ ‘rice’ or ‘zardak’/ ‘carrots’ were some of the first Dâri words I learned. For the first diner I shared with them, I arrived covered from head to toe, wearing a veil on my head, a tunic with long sleeves, a pair of long and loose pants in cotton, and socks on my feet— Well: I caused laughter that lasted at least for five minutes. The children couldn’t help laughing. Babur told me right away to feel as free as in my place in Paris, and to wear the same clothes as usual. Arezou insisted on the fact that I had nothing to worry about in terms of clothing when I was inside. However, she later explained that I would have to cover my head and wear long sleeves and pants once outside. Babur also asked Esfandyar, Arezou’s younger brother, to accompany me at all my meetings and activities, so that I would remain safe.
Their two elder daughters Homah and Shakeba went to school, in the same class. When they took refuge in Pakistan, Shakeba was a small child, and she never got the chance to complete her education before the family settled again in Kabul; hence her going back to school in the same class as Homah, 5 years younger than her. Their class was only composed of girls, and if there was any threat of some sort (bombs, harassment), the one-room school was closed, and Homah and Shakeba remained at home.
Every morning I left home with them, and at some point we would split paths; they to go to school, and I, to attend a language school downtown. My class was a Dâri class taught in English, mostly composed of international students. Close to the school was a ‘chay-khana’/ ‘Tea place’, very tiny, located on the edge of the street and mostly made from scratch. The first days I passed by it only men were sipping tea and chatting. Even if I understood why, I could hardly believe that women were banned. So on my fourth day, I decided to go and to sit with them. I felt confident enough with the few Dâri words that I had learned, and I thought it could be really enthralling to have a discussion with them. I think this experience was as challenging for them as well as- as it finally turned out- for me. But after three or four days sharing tea and talks together, after their helping me with Dâri pronunciation and vocabulary, this nearly became a ritual. So from then on, at around 8.30 a.m. after my class, each day I sat with and sipped some ‘chay sabz’/ ‘green tea’ with the ‘manager’ of the place, a thirty year-old Afghan man who spoke English and German and had spent some time in Germany, his young brother, and two or three other men, friends of his.
On my first Friday, the equivalent of Saturday or Sunday here, Arezou brought me to ‘Bagh—e-Zanana’/ “The Park for Women’. We arrived around 4p.m., which was a bit too late. Babur was concerned when we left so ‘late’ (night fell at 5:30, and then the city was plunged into darkness); but Arezou insisted on taking me there, and promised him that we wouldn’t be too long. The kids were also excited, since they knew they would be able to enjoy the park’s swings and to eventually meet friends.
Two men guarded the park, which was rather small, and encircled by walls so that it would remain out of men’s vision. After passing the controls and being allowed to enter, we sat in the lawn while Arezou’s children started running, playing, and talking with some friends. Quite all the women wore burqas, yet inside the park they held them on top of their heads. Their clothing was in total opposition to the connotation of the burqa. Indeed, they wore short skirts, red, yellow or flashy blue shirts, high heels, glossy make up and lots of jewelry. Arezou told me that for most of the women, wearing the burqa was just the safer way they had found to go free in the streets, with their husbands’ consent, who, most of the times, had no idea of the rather eccentric way they were dressed under the burqa.
Arezou explained to me that for her, being free meant to walk ‘uncovered’ in the streets-wearing a veil but not a burqa, and to let her husband know about it. She confessed that she had been really lucky: even if she and Babur were promised to each other during their early childhoods, while growing up they had slowly learned to know and respect each other so that eventually their relationship sprang from love. I shall never forget that one of the most sensual conversation I had happened in ‘Bagh-E-Zanana’ with Arezou.
Later in my journey, Arezou took me to Panjshir, the ‘lung’ of the country. She was sent there to drop off medicine at a small clinic in a village, and to give gynecology treatments to women. We shared lunch with the only full-time nurse of the place, and then the first patient arrived. The patient asked Arezou to be quick because her husband wasn’t aware of her presence at the clinic. Taking contraceptives was still a complicated issue among most Afghan couples, because many men rejected the idea that women could have the right to choose to have children or the right to experience sexual pleasure- just for its own sake- and they also thought it was against their religious beliefs. On our way back, Arezou asked the driver of the NGO to stop by a river so that I could enjoy the wild and rough beauty of the place. We found a grocery store, bought ‘angur’ and nuts, and spent about an hour enjoying the view and the refreshing air.
A week later elections took place to elect a new president. I had the opportunity to follow Arezou to the polling center of her area, and I realized how very few women went to vote. I felt again that some of them might have been prevented the right to vote, just by their husbands or other relatives in their family. Others were probably not aware of the elections, or able to vote due to their lack of education. Also, widows starving in the streets under their burquas who had lost their husbands in the past wars and conflicts, were obviously trying to first provide their children with some food, before anything else.
On the night of that same day, at dinner time, we suddenly heard explosions and rockets all around Mircorayan. While Babur quietly blew out candles, Arezou turned to me, and, laughing, suggested that we move from under the window to go on eating— an eventual blast could cause the window to break into shards, which would interrupt our chat and dinner time.
A week before my departure, I traveled to Faizabad, in the North of the country, and attended Arezou’s cousin’s wedding ceremony which lasted for three days. Babur went to a place where the future husband celebrated with his friends, while we, the women and children, went to another place- the one reserved for the bride, her girlfriends and all the women of her family. Colorful outfits danced around with passion and joy. One of the bride’s best friends was in charge of ‘calling’ for the gifts. She called one by one every guest, who then carried to the center of the place luggage full of sheets, crockery, cooking devices, jewelry or clothes. After dropping her gift, each guest had to remain around the pile of presents and to dance along with the other guests. Once all the luggage was dropped, another friend, obviously a belly dancer, came and danced for everyone until a hearty and delicious meal was served. At some point on the second day, the bride left to her future husband’s house, so we all followed her in a joyful cortege.
Babur joined us when we reached the husband’s house, and I had the great honor to be allowed to meet the fiance, before we returned to the house of the bride’s mother, whose cheering smile welcomed us with ‘chay sabz’ and ‘asal’/ ‘honey.’