Friday, June 18, 2010

Meet and greet

I ate at a colleague's home Wednesday evening. The meal itself was generous and excellently prepared - rice, stewed okra with tomato, spinach, roast chicken, meat dumplings called mantu, mixed raw vegetable plates, yogurt, and fresh watermelon for dessert. This was all prepared by Mariam, a university student and the youngest child in the family, and two friends who were curious to meet the American girls.

Our fellow guests, however, were what made dinner an experience worth sharing. First, the head of the household: his father was elected to the first Afghan parliament in 1964, under Mohammed Zahir Shah. This made the family political targets after the Soviet invasion, so at 14, he was married off to an 11-year-old neighbor and sent from Daikundi province to Pakistan. They later settled in Iran, where they raised 6 children (another 7 died in infancy). A widower, he now lives with four of his children here in Kabul.

A cousin visiting from Daikundi is running for the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the Afghan parliament, and the only one directly elected). She's already served four years on the provincial council, having first been elected at 22. She has received death threats but still campaigns as one of six women competing for one reserved seat ("we are friends and competitors," she says of the other female candidates) because she is determined to improve opportunities for women.

The newly-married sister-in-law, still settling in with her new family after only a month in the household, smiles shyly and tries out a bit of English she has learned. She agreed before the wedding that she would not work or study, but hopes that her husband will change his mind. She's been thinking about the psychology program at Kabul University, where she passed the entrance exam last year, but not with a high enough score for the psychology department.

And Mariam, the youngest daughter and our evening's chef, who is engaged to an Afghan-American in the U.S. Army. She'll be moving to the States sometime next year to join him, and she seems far more excited than nervous about this prospect. For the moment, though, she's enjoying her political science studies and her friends - the three girls pull off their scarves in the kitchen and ask their guests questions about how women dress in the States and what Lea's Chilean fiancé looks like (which leads to a computer slide show). The 16-year-old tells me I wear my scarf too conservatively and asks if I'm Muslim. I try and explain that when I wear it draped loosely as she does, it falls off. She laughs at me, but I've seen the little schoolgirls wearing scarves that are sewn so they will stay put and I know that learning to keep a flimsy bit of fabric artfully draped so as to reveal just enough hair to be stylish but not so much as to be scandalous is decidedly a learned skill, and one I'm unlikely to master in my short time here.

Re-scarving and returning to the living room to eat, we find the others - a television sports producer, a teacher who plays on the national indoor soccer team, an uncle transfixed by the Spain-Switzerland game on the television. They have stories as well, but the clock soon reaches 10 and we leave reluctantly to catch some sleep before the next day's work. After two weeks enmeshed in the internationals' bubble, this brief escape into an Afghan home has been a welcome escape from routine.

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