Editor's Note: The names of the Afghans and Afghan-Americans have been changed to protect them and other family members in Afghanistan.
Before I met Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina Shirzai, I saw the siblings in a treasured family photograph. It was the last one the three ever had taken with their father, before he was captured by the communists in 1979. In the black-and-white snapshot, their father reclines on a narrow cot-like bed in the family’s house in Kabul. He’s propping himself with an elbow and wearing an argyle sweater. He has horn-rimmed glasses, a side-parted sweep of black hair, and a long, straight nose. Though his lenses are thick, his eyes—a moody intellectual’s eyes, storm clouds on the horizon—shine through the glass. The three children gather on the bed around his blanketed legs, a pyramid of offspring: Mohib, six, with dark curls, looking petulant. Sarasa, four, in a pageboy haircut, mischief in her black eyes. Mina, a chubby infant in feet pajamas. Their father is trying not to smile, since that was not Afghan convention, but the corners of his mouth still turn upward. And his beloved battery-operated radio, with the antennae jutting out at an angle, sits on the floor at his side, close enough for him to reach over and adjust a dial without jostling the children. The first time I picked up the photograph, the paper dry and delicate, I held the top and bottom edges of the white-edged print between my thumb and two fingers, afraid to breathe on it.
Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina, now in their twenties, had lived with their two uncles in Oregon since high school. I had gotten to know them there, in Portland, first as a journalist assigned by my editor after 9/11 to “find a human face for the country we’re about to bomb,” then as a friend. The family didn’t talk much about their father, except to say that he was “lost,” not dead—his body was never found, but one year after he was taken, the Soviet guards at Pul-e-Charki prison in Kabul had handed his wife his clothes and wedding ring and told her to stop looking for him. But the lost father and brother was always there, in the silences, seeping up in conversations like drops of dew. I knew he had been a radio journalist, that he had helped organize an anti-communist coup with other young intellectuals in Kabul. He would have commandeered the station he had worked at to facilitate communications after the takeover. When the planned coup was exposed by the communists, KGB-conscripted Afghan soldiers came for him. He was taken from his home, in front of his wife and children.
For years, Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina had been trying to sponsor their widowed mother to come live with them in the United States. In early 2004, the paperwork was finally approved. At about the same time, I was planning to travel with Stephanie, my photojournalist friend, to Kabul to meet their uncle, Daoud, who had taken a post with the new Karzai government there. We wanted him to help us tell the story of the country’s rebuilding.
Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina had made some big changes to prepare for their mother’s arrival. They knew their mother, used to living in a multi-family compound in an Afghan-refugee neighborhood of Pakistan, would never feel comfortable in the apartment they had shared. The three siblings pooled their savings and bought a two-story house far out in the suburbs west of Portland.
In Afghan culture, men are nicknamed by their professions—Daoud was called Ustad for professor, others Doktor or Inginir—and women are known by their roles within the family—Majana and Dada for “auntie” or Randara for “sister-in-law.” All the Shirzais called Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina’s mother “Mamoy,” which meant “wife of my uncle,” an acknowledgment of her late husband.
In May, one week before Stephanie and I were to leave to meet Daoud in Afghanistan, Mamoy, still newly arrived, invited the two of us over for a send-off dinner. Mina called me to deliver the invitation from her mother, who spoke only a few words in English, something that changed little even after she had been in the United States for years. Mamoy felt no compulsion to assimilate. I admired her for this. She was unrelentingly Afghan, barking at everyone in tirades of Pashto whether or not they understood her, feigning anger at people for not visiting her enough, not knowing enough Pashto, not drinking enough of her tea, or eating enough of her food. “Learn English? Why should I learn English?” she would say in Pashto, slicing the air with an upturned right hand. “Everyone else should learn Pashto!” Stephanie confessed to Sarasa and Mina that she was scared of their mother.
We arrived at the new house, remarkable in its sparkling whiteness, from the carpet to the walls to the tile countertop in the kitchen. Did Mamoy miss the deep crimson hues of the carpets and cushions in an Afghan household, the constant swirl of brightly hued scarves, dresses, and shalwar kameez? Mamoy flung the door open, and greeted us with outstretched arms. “Salaam! Tsenga ye? Jora ye? Stere me se!” She embraced me and Stephanie as we crossed the threshold. Mamoy had unwavering black eyes in a pale face that had grown fuller but not softer with age, and an infectious smile. Her cheekbones swept under the wells of her eyes like knife edges. She hugged me tightly, kissed me three times on opposite cheeks, right-left-right, engulfing me into the soft cotton fabric of her white chador, or headscarf. She was short and round, hardly delicate, though her eyes and cheekbones bore a vestigial prettiness grief and time had not erased.
At her side was Sarasa, who wore a black shalwar kameez she had made herself. Her voluptuousness was not hidden by the untraditionally close fit of her traditional outfit. This was a constant source of tension between her and her mother. Mina flanked her big sister, wearing jeans. Neither of the younger women had covered their hair since arriving in the United States as teenagers. This the devoutly religious Mamoy had gotten used to; other things proved more difficult.
Despite a honeymoon period, during which everyone had been on their best behavior, the long-awaited reunion with her now-adult children had been jolting for Mamoy. In their years living away from her, Mohib, Sarasa, and Mina had transformed into alien, American creatures. They wore clothes, said and did things that puzzled, shocked, and chagrined their devoutly religious mother. Once, taking it upon herself to do everyone’s laundry, she had found Mina’s thong underwear and not been able to comprehend how a woman would wear such an article of clothing, and why she would ever want to. And on this night, Mohib was absent, which after the initial month or two following Mamoy’s arrival, was more often the case. His frequent escapes to places and activities unknown had also become one of a growing number of conflicts in the newly united household.
Mamoy embraced and greeted Stephanie, then grabbed her hand in two of hers, and uttered an insistent question in Pashto. Mina stood at her side and chuckled as she translated, “My mom wants to know why you are scared of her.”
Stephanie stammered, “Wha … Why did you tell her that?” Mina shrugged her shoulders guiltily.
Though her children favored eating around the coffee table as they had during Sunday dinners, Mamoy had spread out an embroidered disterkhan cloth on the cream-colored carpet. She invited us to sit down on the floor around it. “You will have to get used to this,” she said, as Mina translated. We ate from the platters of stewed meats and vegetables, homemade flatbread, as well as a big plate of a flat, stuffed pastry-like concoction called parakee. The handmade dough had to be rolled out and stuffed with a seasoned mashed potato and onion mixture. Then there was the danger of dropping and removing them from a pan of sizzling oil, which Afghan women did with their bare, toughened index fingers and thumbs. As I surveyed the crispy brown bubbles on the surface of the dough, I knew Mamoy felt our impending trip was very important.
We ate heartily, Mamoy joking that it was good we liked the food so much, because that’s all we’d be having for a while. After dinner, Mamoy returned with two folded cotton squares. They were chador, just like hers, one white and the other pale yellow. They felt worn and soft, and had scalloped, embroidered edges. “You will need these,” she said, handing one to each of us.
Stephanie and I each looked down at the folded scarves. Sarasa and Mina had promised us a couple of them before we left, and I had thought we’d just figure them out somewhere between Portland and Kabul, on the plane or during our layover. After all, Mamoy wore them with such ease, what skill or special knowledge could be necessary? But as I tentatively unfurled the unwieldy piece of fabric on my lap, I had no idea how to put it on my head or wrap it. It was so large—I could barely extend my arms to meet its full length. Mamoy shook her head, and unleashed a stream of Pashto that Mina translated to, “Oh, goodness, you’re going to need a lot of help with that. Here, let me show you or you will never get by in Afghanistan.”
She came to me first, the one who was not scared of her, and sat down on the floor cross-legged in front of me. Mamoy talked at me in Pashto the whole time, but no translation was necessary because she deftly took the chador in two hands, lofted it over my head as it billowed and came to rest with the front edge right at my hairline. She then adjusted it so that more of the fabric was on my right side. In a swift motion, she flung the longer end over my left shoulder. Her hands were soft and cool on my face and upper arms. She then fussed with the edges so that it was secure under my chin and over my chest, saying something emphatically. Sarasa translated “It’s really important to cover all your chest” with a sarcastic edge.
Mamoy raised her hands before me—voilà—and I sat there, frozen. A wrong move would certainly send the entire scarf architecture askew. Could I really do this for weeks? Mamoy moved on to Stephanie, unfurling and wrapping her scarf for her. After pulling down Stephanie’s bottom edges safely over her bosom, Mamoy turned to check on me. I had instinctively folded my arms up below the scarf. “Don’t tuck your hands in there!” she scolded. “It looks like you’ve stolen something.” She laughed and pulled my forearms out.
I caught my reflection in the glass coffee table, startled by how different I looked without my unruly black hair framing my face. With my face in sharp relief against the light fabric, I felt strangely neutral, both in color and in appearance. Was I supposed to behave differently now, with my hair covered? More demure, more deferential? Certainly, the only chador-wearing woman in this household wasn’t.
Mamoy reached over and unwrapped my scarf, handed it to me in a pile of fabric, and said, “OK, now you try.” Her eyes fixed on me. She was more religious than any of the other Shirzai women in Portland, but even now she never spoke of Islam, or the scarf’s significance. Whenever Mamoy could commandeer one of her daughters as an interpreter, she talked to me about one subject alone: family. She told me about all of the nieces, sisters-in-law, and children who shared her household in Pakistan. She had taught the younger women to sew, cook, and make jewelry, including the elaborate beaded dress ornaments a Pashtun bride had to prepare for her wedding. The heavy pieces could take up to a year to make by hand. I wanted to learn to wear the scarf well—and I wanted her to think of me as family.
Nervous, I hurried through the motions, clumsy as I measured each side and threw it over my shoulder. Mamoy gasped. “No, no, no, not over the right shoulder!” she cried, caught the errant tail of my chador, and unwrapped me.
“The left, the left,” she said, shifting the fabric, measuring out a length on my right-hand side, and inviting me to throw it over the correct shoulder.
Sarasa giggled. “Did I just make some kind of major faux pas?” I said.
“No one does it over the right,” she said, offering me a pitying smile.
I fiddled with the fabric over my hairline, testing its purchase on my forehead, and then took the extra cloth on my right side and flung it onto my left shoulder. For this, I earned an exclamation of approval from Mamoy. “Keep it on for a while,” she said. “Get used to it. You should wear it at home to practice.” I began to move more freely, realizing that it was harder than I had imagined to dislodge the scarf from my head. If I did, she demonstrated, it would be simple to slip it back on in a single motion before any men caught a good look at my exposed hair. First, she did it with my scarf, and then with her own. Seeing her glossy black hair, streaked with filaments of silver, for the first time—how long it was. She wore it in two long braids on each side, the tapered ends coming to points like sable paintbrushes. Her pale face, framed by that long, straight hair, parted neatly in the middle. The blackness of her hair playing off her round, jewel-like eyes.
Now I knew why the young village girl, before the hardness brought on by the loss of her husband, and the years without her children, had to cover her hair. She smiled sheepishly, and yanked her white chador back on, taking care to tuck the ends of her braids back into it.
As the evening came to a close, Mamoy placed our scarves into a shopping bag. It was time for Stephanie and I to say our goodbyes until we returned from Afghanistan. As we stood in the vestibule, Mamoy gave a little speech in parting, wishing us good luck and godspeed in lofty language that suggested we were embarking on a great journey. Her blessing. I hadn’t mastered her scarf-wearing lessons just yet, but she was proud of me. As she and I embraced and cheek-kissed in parting, I held onto her right hand. She wore a gold ring with a large, square saffron-colored stone that had a small gold medallion embedded in it. “I like your ring,” I said and Mina translated. “Xaysta,” I said, using one of the only words from our Pashto language tapes that had stuck with me. Beautiful.
“Tashakur,” Mamoy said. Thank you. “My husband gave it to me.”
As Mina repeated these words about the father she never really knew, Mamoy’s eyes grew moist and she smiled. I cradled Mamoy’s hand in mine and stroked her cool, soft skin with the other, my fingers lingering over the glimmering stone. Her gaze was soft, not focused on me anymore. Was she seeing her husband’s face, perhaps on the day he gave her the ring? I glanced over Mamoy’s shoulder at Mina’s straight, regal nose and that closed-lipped half-smile, and I saw her father’s face too, from that black-and white photo. The three little children nestled in a mound on his reclining, blanketed legs, like their father was their life raft. Where had Mamoy been when that photo was taken? Maybe she had been in the room, her heart warmed by seeing her husband and children together. Maybe she had been preparing dinner, tending to her perfectly crisp bread or richly spiced stews in the kitchen, where she kept her long braids uncovered in the presence of women. Perhaps she stepped out to check on the children and laughed her loud, infectious laugh when she saw them quietly nestled with their father. Maybe Mohammed, in that happy moment, feeling the weight of his children on his legs, saw his bride, the mother of his children, with her shining eyes, glossy hair, and broad smile, and forgot momentarily about the communists, the coup, the danger. He might have thought, We are complete, masha’Allah. Thanks to God.
This was the first time Mamoy had mentioned her late husband. She talked about him even less than her brothers-in-law did. I had not seen that ring, the gift from Mohammed, on her finger before? Was it a coincidence? Had she waiting for me to ask? She was smiling softly and studying the luminous amber-colored stone.
Her husband. That photograph. How, though Mohammed was trying not to smile, the corners of his mouth turned up like Mina’s were now, as she studied her mother’s ring. Mamoy wrapped her arms around me again, hard.
“Don’t forget to practice,” she said. “Wear the scarf at home before you go.”
I knew then that my trip was not just journalistic, and not even simply an answer to Daoud’s “And how will you help?” I was a pilgrim, an outsider, who had been granted the privilege of traveling a migrant stream of nostalgia, of love, and loss – of husbands, fathers, brothers, and a country.
The first thing most people, especially women, wanted to know when I returned from Afghanistan, was, “What was it like to wear a headscarf all the time?”
By the time I had worn my chador for a couple days in Kabul, it felt surprisingly natural. The questions I had about it before going—Would I feel oppressed? Physically uncomfortable? Like I had lost a part of my identity? —never crossed my mind. Since every other woman there was in chador, I just blended in. I watched bare-headed female foreign journalists and aid workers garner stares in the streets, and felt sorry for them. One had made the concession of wearing a small bandana over her head, folded in a triangle and knotted at the nape of her neck, but she seemed to get the most looks of all. What kind of shrunken chador is that? More practically, Kabul, full of unpaved dirt roads, diesel residue, and rubble of all sorts, was the dustiest place I’d been. With a limited supply of hot water, we took turns washing our hair—about once every five days. What a relief to be able to shield my hair from the elements, and to cover it when got grimy. I had trouble convincing Americans that I truly had liked wearing my scarf, that the soft fabric around my head felt like a protective cocoon in a harsh environment. It made me feel bonded in some way to the women around me. It made me think of Mamoy, of how she would be proud of me.
But that didn’t mean that the particulars of my chador-wearing hadn’t been subject to scrutiny. Daoud often intercepted me on my way out of the Kabul house with a paternal set of questions, thinly disguised as a checklist:
“Do you have bottled water?
“Do you have a larger scarf than that to wear?”
Like a teenager who had been told by her dad, “Are you wearing that out?” I would mumble unintelligibly, return to my room, but never actually change. The truth was, I wore Mamoy’s chador most of the time, and hers was—not surprisingly, given her devoutness—quite large compared to the trim ones that young women wore in Kabul’s universities. But many of those same women in fashionable outfits commuted to school with a blue full-body chadori, or burqa, over their jeans and small scarves, shedding the outer veil behind the safety of the school gates.
Once, when we had attended a graduation party for Kabul Education University, I was struck by the women – among Kabul’s first class of post-Taliban college graduates—and their colorful outfits. Their matched their shalwar kameez, in a riot of jewel tones and spangles, with nearly sheer scarves that covered only what was necessary. Some had exploited the social norm that allowed a bit of hair to peek out from the front of the scarf. They teased a few strands—often hennaed to a deep red or light brown—a couple inches from their head and folded it back under the scarf.
Our host, an English professor named Khatera, led Stephanie and me to a long table her students had saved for us. She wore a trim black-and-white patterned headscarf, covering only her head, and a long gray skirt suit. With Mamoy’s voluminous chador covering me down to my elbows, I looked dowdy next to her and the women around me. The room, lacking air conditioning as most buildings in Kabul did at the time, was stuffy. The heat accumulated under my scarf. Sweat beaded up on the back of my neck. Khatera looked me up and down with a sympathetic expression and reached into her sizeable black purse. She pulled out a black scarf, neatly folded into a small square, and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said, pressing in into my hands. “Wear this. It will be less hot. It matches your outfit.”
I shook my head, wanting to be polite. “It’s OK. I’m comfortable. I don’t need to wear it.”
She sighed. “Your scarf,” she said, shaking her head, “looks like a tent.”
I was speechless. Then I laughed and blushed. “I know, I know.”
Taking a quick look around to make sure no men were looking directly at me, I quickly removed my pale, tent-like scarf, unfurled her black one and wrapped it around my head. She reached over and helped me adjust it, and smiled, satisfied. “So much better,” she said and motioned toward a mirrored column in the banquet hall.
I was surprised at how different I looked in the smaller scarf. It looked like an extension of my head, the same color as my hair, not an engulfing covering that rendered me neckless, upper-armless, and, more to the purpose, without breasts. In this new, trim covering, I felt a little exposed, but welcomed that it was much lighter and cooler.
The party went on for hours, with live music and dancing, the men first, and then the women. When Stephanie and I decided to head home, I pulled Mamoy’s tent-like scarf out of my purse, and removed the black one to return to Khatera. “Here,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
She shook her head firmly as her long-fingered hands flew up. “No, no. You must keep it. Please. It is my gift to you. Wear it the next time I see you.”
This would not be the first borrowed item that an Afghan tried to force me to keep. She made the equivalent of two hundred dollars a month, which was barely a living wage even by Afghan standards. Though slightly worn, the scarf was nice and she didn’t have an endless supply of them. I protested that I would have no use for a headscarf once I returned to the United States.
“No, no. I want you to have this gift from me,” she said, clasping both my hands with both of hers and looking me straight in the eye. “You keep it in America to remember me, your friend.”
That evening, I tucked the scarf away. Going out in it was not an option, since it would never make Daoud’s inspection. How could I repay her? I wanted give her something of mine in return. I had packed so light I could hardly find anything that she’d want. I settled on a nearly-new pair of fashionable tortoise-shell sunglasses, complete with a faux-crocodile case. A couple days later, I brought these to her at her cramped, shared office at the university, and she was delighted. Women in Afghanistan never wore sunglasses. She put them on, a bit self-conscious, and smiled. With her smart black-and-white headscarf, she looked like an Afghan Jackie O. She had no mirror in her office, so I snapped a photo with my digital camera and then handed the camera to her so she could see herself. “Ah,” she said, laughing, her cheeks pink. “Like a movie star.”
The best thing about Khatera’s scarf was not that it was small and light, nor that it had a jaunty set of tassels at each of the narrow ends, which were a bit frayed. The best thing about the scarf she had given me, I discovered after I returned to Portland, was the way it smelled, the faintest hint of not-America.
Immigrants know the smell of not-America. When my brother and I were young, we’d sniff at the open suitcases of our visiting relatives, inhale that vague but unmistakable odor of humidity, mothballs, and cooking (maybe a little bit of ginger or garlic), and wrinkle our noses. “It smells like Taiwan,” one of would say while the other giggled knowingly. Khatera’s scarf smelled like dust, the particles of unpaved roads that settled like a film over every room, no matter how frequent or determined the sweeping. It smelled like a place noisy and colorful enough to contain Mamoy’s big-hearted energy—not an all-white suburban house with three young adults who were neither Afghan nor American. It smelled like it came from a place free of potpourri-scented air fresheners, Lysol, or Febreze. It reminded me of Kabul’s stew of diesel, raw sewage, and the warm waft of baking bread from the communal bakeries. It reminded me of feeling alive. Foul and fair, heaven and hell, all in one inhalation.