Good travel pushes you to let go of control, and Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. Here, daily life is dictated by security decisions, which roads are safe to travel on and which ones are not, and if you are trying to stick to a concrete plan, something will surely get in the way. Afghanistan is the place for serendipity, a place that when you come to understand that you have absolutely no control, you can give in to be open to the many things that can happen all around you.
There is a constant balance between fear and awareness of your surroundings and being open and receptive to the unknown. In the midst of conflict there is beauty; the call to prayer in the dark of the early morning, a stranger offering you a glass of tea, a young woman smiling because you asked her how she was doing. If there were a definition of daily life in Afghanistan for a traveler, it would go something along the lines of: constant change peppered with frequent tea breaks.
Traveling as a woman, I was at all times aware of my surroundings and my own presence in relation to the people around me. My headscarf always seemed to be falling off. Warm in the midday heat I would go to push up my sleeves, and then remember that they had to stay covered. Men were everywhere. There were stares, a lot of them, but a few moments into a personal exchange and those stares often turned to smiles.On an afternoon in Babur Gardens, an historic enclosed park that is a popular place of respite from the dust, diesel and general chaos that defines everyday Kabul life, my friend Tony and I walked down a gravel, tree-lined path. It was the second day of Eid, a Muslim holiday, and families were out in abundance, picnicking and taking a moment to enjoy the trees and flowers.
As we walked, an old man stood up, a glass of tea in his hand. He motioned to us to come towards him. Traveling in a conflict zone makes you constantly alert to your surroundings, accepting that you must respect local customs at all times and that you should never become complacent. You have to trust your gut. Had a stranger motioned to me on a street corner, I may have turned in the other direction, but here in the privacy of an enclosed garden space, filled with happy families celebrating a holiday, I felt a certain level of calmness and security.
“I think we have to go over there,” I said to Tony.
We crossed the path and joined the family. The older man invited us to sit down on a blanket and he handed us both glasses of tea. We exchanged the series of salutations and “happy Eid,” an exchange that I had gotten comfortable doing in Dari. The man and his family smiled.
Then we launched into the get-know-you-without-speaking-your-language game, and entertaining combination of hand motions, my mediocre Dari vocabulary, and the family’s limited grasp of English phrases.
In Dari, the man asks if I am Tony’s wife.
“Balay” we both nod. Yes. This “wedding of convenience” as we later called it is easier than the truth.
The man motions to the smiling baby in his lap, whose eyes are outlined in kohl (a sign of prosperity I later learn) and points to me. “Shomaa?”
Do we have a child?
Tony has a son, so he nods. I realize this has now made me not only a wife of convenience but a mother of convenience as well.
The man says a long sentence, of which I recognize the words for “where” and “America.” He is asking where the child is.
“In America,” says Tony.
The family smiles. I am hoping that they assume we have left the child with the grandparents and I am not being seen as an infidel mother who leaves her child behind.
To change the subject, I turn to one of the teenage daughters.
“Maqbulas,” I say to her, pointing to her headscarf, a striking purple color with beaded tassels, indicating that it’s pretty. As it’s Eid, she’s wearing her finest.
She laughs in a shy manner, and then moves from her blanket to sit next to me. She has noticed the assortment of bracelets on my wrist. She pulls a bracelet of plastic heart beads from her purse and puts it on my wrist.
“Tashakur,” I repeat several times. “Besyaar maqbul.” It’s very beautiful. She and her sisters smiled.
We learn from the younger boys in the group that can speak a bit of English that the older woman sitting behind the girls is the girls’ mother. Her face is tan and wrinkled, framed tightly by her black headscarf. “Their father and her husband died,” he says matter of factly. My Dari and his English aren’t good enough for me to figure out how the entire family fits together, but I assume that the older man is an uncle of some sort. So much pain and love in one family history.
We amuse them; this odd American couple that leaves their baby back in their home country, with a wife that knows a few Dari words. They in turn enthrall me, taking us into their family moment. Pouring tea for strangers.
Eventually we excuse ourselves, thanking them profusely for the tea. I leave feeling honored, like I was just given the kind of moment that will forever change your perspective. A moment that can’t be replicated. A moment that will later bring tears to my eyes because it’s representative of a shared humanity we so rarely see in the mass media. A moment that only happens because you let go of control.
We return to the rest of our group. It’s time for another glass of tea.
At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.
[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]