Monthly Archives: August 2013

The window

A wide-open French window frames the figure. It is an early spring morning. The light is still gentle. It bounces off the terracotta roofs, kisses the gray waterspouts, floods the room, and bathes the figure in its golden light. The figure glows against the open window. A dark silhouette against the brightness of the morning. The inviting curve of the back. The gentle slope of the shoulders. And the head craned slightly to the left. Light catches in the neatly cropped hair and creates a halo of gold.

How many moments of silent contemplation, sleeping slumber, and joyous celebrations like this I have captured on film. How many times I have caught that head tipped slightly to the left in a café, at home, or wandering around. How many times I have pondered how to position that beautiful back topped by those shoulders so that their gentleness and slope were most alluring and inspiring. How many times I have debated just how to show off that gorgeous head full of hair, whether it is a neat crop or a flow of unruly curls.

How much I loved to play with that hair. How I enjoyed the smell of lemon on those curls, catching the droplets of water, and tasting the sourness of it when I kissed that beautiful neck. How warm and safe that back was. How reassuring it was to lean against it at night, how restful it was to feel that back against me when we watched the sun set, or the moon rise, or the fire burn.

This picture is a reminder of beauty and the presents that life gave to me. Yet the picture freezes my soul, clutches my stomach, and paralyzes my limbs. Now, absolutely nothing in the world could bridge that distance, fulfill that longing, allow that beauty to continue. I only have to wait for the day when I too shall sail into the land that disappears in the mist. Would I walk the bridge of fire to get there? Or maybe there will be a boat waiting for me at some presently unseen shore. Or maybe I will just find myself there without noticing the road. The entrance, the invitation will certainly come one day. But at this moment, now, there are only photographs, only a memory of someone who is no longer here. There is no invitation, there is no door.

It is not only that I feel left behind, as if my date forgot to take me just as I was getting ready to leave. It is not only that I feel abandoned in the ocean with no directions to the shore and enormous waves crashing at me. It is something else. I feel… I feel as if…

In so many hypothetical scenarios, when asked, we say that we would sacrifice ourselves so that our partner would live. Now I see that there is no glory in that answer. It is an expression of our deepest desire to not be left behind. It is an easy way out. Who would voluntarily give up their limbs? Who would volunteer to live reduced to a fraction of what they once were? Of course one would chose to go first, for a life without the half-circle is like living wrapped in a thick cotton pad. All your senses are muffled. Nothing has a taste of life. And the best thing you have is a snapshot of what you once were.

There was this older couple who lived together for over 60 years. They still wrote each other letters and notes every day, even though they had not spent more than a handful of nights away from each other. I once asked one of them why did they kept on writing to each other. “So that he knows how much I love him.” I felt utterly foolish for asking.

How I cried at the funeral for one of them. The sheer thought of her waking up and finding no letter under her pillow crushed me. I shivered at the thought of her asking where the salt had gone and not receiving an answer. I could not hold myself together for the silence that must have been ringing in her ears when the voice of her love was no longer heard.

However, she was extremely composed, calm, and detached. Our condolences were only met with vacant words that showed only slight recognition of our presence. On the seventh morning, she did not wake up. I was sad to learn that, but at the same time incredibly relieved. I imagined them reunited on the other side of the bridge. I imagined them re-joined as a part of the universe. There would be no more days without letters, no more lunches without your tea being made for you, no more misplaced salt.

Yet not all of us are that lucky. Some have to have to continue when the other’s road has come to an abrupt end. My friend, who is 97, lost his partner some 30 years ago. There was not a day when she was not a part of a conversation. He spoke of her as if she had just finished her lunch and gone for a walk, as if she would be back any moment soon. For these last 30 years there had been no other in his life. “How could I?” he said when I asked. “But many others re-marry,” I remember replying. My answer was a long stare. I lowered my prodding eyes and nodded. Now my friend is frail and no longer leaves his apartment. He keeps talking about his wife, now with more joy than before. He says that soon he will be joining her and his eyes sparkle with happiness. I never detect fear in them, only a hopeless joy of anticipation.

I feel warmth wrapping around me. I feel someone rocking me back and forth. My gaze focuses on an old carpet I used to play on as a child. My sister and I used the pattern on the carpet as a road map, or sometimes as a sea atlas. We pushed the toy cars to follow the pattern like a road or blew into paper sails of boats we had made, imagining them rushing to a distant port.

My sister holds me tight in her arms. She rocks me gently like a baby back and forth. I rest against her body. Eventually she prizes the album from my palms, away from my lap and closes it. She caresses my face and her fingers are wet. She kisses my eyes, my temples. She cradles me as if I were her child resting on her chest. At some point, she no longer rocks me, just holds me tight in her arms. She asks me if I want to have some already cold tea. I nod my head. She slowly releases her hold. We sit a little bit longer on the floor side by side. I watch her trace the carpet’s pattern with her finger. She taps a place where the pattern becomes concentrated. She gets up and extends me her hand. I catch it and get off the floor too. We walk into the yard.

The house is already dark. All the neighbors are quiet. Not even dogs bark. It is just me and my sister. The night is hot, the breeze is pleasant. We sit on the porch and my sister holds my hand. The light from the porch lamp casts harsh shadows. I feel tired. We sip on the cold green tea. My sister gets up and turns the light off. In a short while it is no longer dark. The night is lit up with myriad stars. I trace the Milky Way and look for the Big Bear. I find it and breathe out a sigh of relief. Every night. It never fails to be there.

The Night

The Stars

The treasure

The treasure

I pick up a red, gold-printed greeting card from a box. It never fails to catch my attention. I open it to find a tiny peacock feather glued to the inside. The card has a short message signed at the end with a drawing of a daisy. I look at it with the same amazement as I did the first time years ago. The feather never fails to make me smile. The card says that I am missed and loved, that soon I will be reunited with a friend. I run my fingers across the card. The golden print is slightly raised on the card. I bring the card to my nose. It used to smell of spices and incense, but it now smells of old paper. I put the card back into the box.

I pick up folded sheets of paper covered by a wide scrawl of blue pen. I concentrate hard to be able to read the script, but even before I read the first line, the words flow into my mind. I remember the letter by heart. I close my eyes to relive the memory of reading it for the first time. It was hand-delivered. I pulled it out of a folder and held it like a fragile vase as I walked to a far corner of the room behind a large carved closet, where I settled by a carved table to read it. The letter spoke about light and roads, about choices and dilemmas, about the anticipation of separation and the hope of not being lost. I caress the poem as if doing so would reassure the author that distance and time are just illusions.

Right next to it is another letter covered in the same scrawl, now in black pen. Again, I don’t need to read the letter to remember what it says. I now caress both the poem and the letter, just of out habit. The letter tells about the harshness of separation and the excruciating pain of loss; it is a river of grief that disagrees with my pronouncement that distance and time are just illusions. It tells about air that no longer supplies oxygen to the lungs, water no longer hydrating the body, and the light no longer bright in one’s eyes. I sit on the floor cross-legged with the box of letters in front of me. I feel the tightness in my chest. How much I wish I could reach through the time and space. How much I wish there was no occasion for that letter. I close my eyes again and allow myself to remember my friend, to let the pain wash away. Maybe distance and time are real, maybe my memories are just illusions.

I place the letters back into the box. I sit still for a little bit. I reach for another card; it is an invitation to a gallery. The card is slightly creased at the corners. The subtle colors of the print bring back the cold winter evening when I was making my way to a gallery to see my friend’s installation. Wrapped in my goose-down coat and a large shawl, I was battling the wind and sleet. There were a handful of people already at the gallery. I picked up a plastic cup of wine and moved further inside the gallery to warm up, greet others, and enjoy the art. The installations invited us to co-create and to move beyond our individual self, beyond the silence of technology. I caress the card as I smile thinking about the years I spent with that friend debating the boundary between art, technology, and isolation. I think about friends lost to time, to misunderstandings, to laziness. I remember every one of their faces, their smiles, and their voices.

I glance back to the box. My eyes stop on a thick letter folded into quarters. The handwriting is even, letters are carefully drawn, each connection is precise. There is a measured distance between the words, with a rare exception when words attempt to run off the page; then they diminish in size and almost drip off the margins. How much I dreaded getting those letters. These were always not just news from home, but also instructions, reprimands, and sometimes pleadings. At times it would take so much mental energy to read those letters that I had to muster some courage by either taking a day off or having a glass of a strong malt to help me along. How strange that these letters no longer elicit such a reaction. I read through them one by one and see just how much my parents worried about me, just how much stress I have caused them, just how much they love me. I mouth thank you, and I love you when I place letters back into the box.

I pick up another card. It is a blue card with golden stars, and green lilies. It says, “Now that you graduated, the light bulb is supposed to be on!” The card came with a light bulb to fix a broken nightstand I had in my room for weeks. I smile as a memories flood me, memories of many books read, goodnight stories told, and conversations I had under that light. I place the card back into the box and let my heart rest a little bit. Just next to this card is another one with a simple cartoon of a lucky clover following a traveler. This card was also given to me for graduation. It has no written message, just the name of a friend. This simple blessing followed me to so many places. I take a deep breath of relive as my heart has found its normal rhythm.

I notice an envelope. It is a standard white business envelope and inside are pink sheets of paper. The title says, “NO SHAME IN WEARING PINK!” followed by a short note. Even now, the words encourage me to smile and stay strong, they tell me that things will be okay, eventually, and that everything passes. They encourage me to remember that I am strong and smart and beautiful. How much I cried when I got that letter. How much I wanted for things to be okay now; not tomorrow, not the day after, not eventually, but now, at this very moment. I feel the words printed on felt buttons, I am surprised how light and warm these soft words of encouragement are. I say “thank you” out loud again. I said “thank you” years ago, but now I say it with my fully open heart. Thank you for believing in me, for missing me, for loving me, for being with me even as the distance and time have separated us. And thank you for reminding me that “this too shall pass.”

I linger over the box just a little bit longer. These wonderful, painful, playful, and nourishing memories are a fountain of inspiration. I open the box every so often to remember people who are not immediately near me. These letters slow me down and let me breathe. These letters pacify my worries. They tell me that the next move will go well, the next job will go well, the future is scary but exciting. They also tell me that even if things don’t go as I have planned or hoped, in the end it all will be well, for I have boxes full of memories, and letters, and notes, and cards to show for it.

Coffee, figs and a blank sheet of paper - this is how it all starts

Coffee, figs and a blank sheet of paper – this is how some of the letters start

Sitting down to write

Sitting down to write

The baker from years ago, still the same.

The baker from years ago, still the same.

I arrived to Kabul on a hot spring day in May 2007. The air was dry and dusty; it was so coarse that it cut my nose as I breathed. Kabul on the outside looked brown. The town felt strangely familiar and yet entirely foreign. The road from the airport was full of potholes. The people looked weary and poor. I barely saw any women on the streets. I was able to read only some of the signs. I was told that Kabul was unsafe, ugly, and that under no circumstances should I walk alone. I felt like an invader.

On my first morning in Kabul, I woke up early, way too early for the four-and-a-half-hour jet lag. I put on my long loose tunic, awkwardly wrapped a headscarf around my head, and braved the streets in search of a bakery, alone. For the last four years, I had craved a piece of tandoori naan for breakfast. I vaguely remembered directions from the day before and I was guided mainly by the smell of baking bread. A man in a dark outfit sat in the window of the bakery and I asked him for bread. He sized me up, and then almost reluctantly gave me a piece of long bread with lengthwise creases. This bread looked strange to me; it was nothing like the round plump naan of Osh. I gave the baker a 50 Afghani note. He returned change in four 10-Afghani notes and a five-Afghani coin. I was puzzled by the coin. I rushed back, afraid to be on the street.

I later discovered a green grocer around the corner. It was a tiny shop. One wall was covered with tomatoes, cucumbers, assorted greens and vegetables. The other wall was stocked with the seasonal fruits. To the back of the shop were weights and fresh spices. The guy had a weary look, but was generally helpful. Every so often, on my way back to the house, I did there my shopping. Some Fridays (my day off) I would venture out to the grocer to get some fruits. Yet just like my first day at the bakery, I felt the need to hide behind the high walls of my compound. Somehow being outside felt uncomfortable, as if I were not just breaking my security briefing, but violating some unwritten rule simply by being in the public space.

For my last few weeks in Kabul, I was living back in the same neighborhood. In my six years in Kabul I changed a few neighborhoods, it took me a few days to I realize that I was back to square one. The same man, in what could have been the same dark outfit, was sitting in the bakery window. This time I asked for some paraki naan – thin tortilla-style bread. Now the bread is 10 Afghanis, a price that has remained steady since food prices jumped two-fold in the winter of 2008. As I waited for the bread to bake, I asked the baker about his family and business. I watched as others bought their bread. For some, the baker didn’t take money but instead etched a few lines on a stick. He had a row of sticks. Some were almost full of etches, while others were brand-new. Other times a guy would come and carry away 40 to 60 naans in gigantic plastic bags. Yet other times, another guy would pile bread wrapped up in a cloth on his bicycle. It was a busy shop, something I have not realized before, it takes a lot of clients to sell an average of 30,000 pieces of bread daily.

One day, while I waited, I asked if I could take pictures of the bakery. I ended up coming back several times to take pictures. I learned that it takes about ten people to run this operation. The guys at the bakery poured me overly sweet green tea and made me sesame-covered bread. I discovered that some of the guys had worked at the shop for over 10 years, while others had started only two months ago. They each had a family, worked 18-hour days, and commuted for about an hour to get to the bakery, except for the two who slept at the bakery. They talked giddily with me, at times turning shy and awkward like teenagers, but mainly they were curious and hungry for a conversation. They told me about current affairs and life in general, they told jokes and showered me with questions about myself.

I shopped with the same green grocer. I discovered that he had run that shop for over 20 years. He told me stories of when the Soviet soldiers came to his shop and how he learned Russian. Yet we mainly kept our conversation to discussions of the freshness of produce, seasonal availability of some fruits, and my stubborn insistence to not use plastic bags. He kept saying, “Are you sure you want to use that bag, it will get wet, this spinach is wet.” Or, “These potatoes will leave dirt in your bag, are you really sure you want to wash it after?” I tried to explain to him that I would rather wash my bag several times a week than add more bags to the landfill. He shook his head, and I almost could hear him saying “Ah, these strange foreigners.”

On these occasions, after getting my groceries or waiting for the bread, I didn’t feel the need to flee to the safety of the green garden behind high walls. Now the streets belonged to me. I walked along, saying “hi” to the young boys at the flower shops who kept giggling as I passed by; telling off some of them when they made an inappropriate comment. I nodded to women who rushed by me with kids in tow and heavy bags full of groceries, smiled at a group of young girls in white hijabs coming back from school, or chatted with a shopkeeper with a gentle face as I got my staples.

Once, at my staples shop, just as I was heading to the counter, a tiny seven-year-old girl rushed into the store, opened a fridge door almost into my face, pulled out a carton of pineapple juice, slammed the door and darted to the counter. Her head just reached to the top of the counter, so she lifted herself into tiptoes to place the juice before the shopkeeper. The girl and the shopkeeper exchanged long looks. “Are you going to pay for this?” he asked. “No,” the girl answered. “What do you want me to do then?” “Write it down,” she said defiantly. “Then you should say so, not just put it on the counter.” “Okay,” she said, and in a swift motion grabbed the juice and darted out of the shop. The shopkeeper smiled into his neat beard, pulled out an oversized book from under the counter, flipped through pages, found a particular page and added “pineapple juice, 70 Afs” to the list. He looked at me with a playfully stern look, “Will you pay or do you want me to write it down too?” I smiled. I wondered if six years ago I had been just like that girl, anxious to get my shopping done as fast as possible with as little interaction as possible. “Write it down,” I mocked the girl’s tone with a serious face giving him cash. He smiled with an open happy grin.

I left Kabul on another hot day in July 2013. The air was dry and dusty, but it no longer cut my nose. Kabul remains largely brown, except for mushroomed T-walls and concrete buildings and some struggling greening efforts. The road to the airport was paved and maintained. The people still looked weary and poor. There were many women on the streets. Some in blue burqas, others in black niqabs, and yet others in jeans and longish tunics with tiny scarves. I was able to read most of the signs, including the one just outside of the airport that said, “Welcome to the beautiful city of Kabul.” I both smirked and smiled when I saw that sign. Kabul is dirty, run-down, and beautiful. No, don’t look for the visual beauty in this place. Look elsewhere. The bakers, the greengrocers, the little girls in school uniform, the flower sellers on the street, the dusty antique joints, the crammed bookshop with a door on the second floor opening into a construction pit, and the street markets – these are the beauty of Kabul. If you just slow down and take the time to be, to observe, to chat. Alone. Without an armed escort. Then you will see that Kabul is beautiful. And you belong.

Then this guy puts them on wooden trays to rise.

One guy tears dough into balls, then another puts them on wooden trays to rise.

They take care of dough - storing it to rise and then hand it over to others. The trays are full of rising dough.

They take care of dough – storing it to rise and then hand it over to others. The trays are full of rising dough.

Calling for more bread for a customer, while others flatten the dough, make grooves in it, put it into the tandoor and fetch it baked.

Calling for more bread for a customer, while others flatten the dough, make grooves in it, put it into the tandoor and fetch it baked.

The flattening cycle.

The flattening cycle.

There is always a time for a joke, a question, or a smile.

There is always a time for a joke, a question…

There are always moments of rest.

… a short break…

And there are always moments to ponder.

… and there are always moments to smile…

And one does pray, wherever one finds space - on a landing...

… and to pray, wherever one finds space – on a landing…

Or just by the window.

… or just by the window.

Finally sending bread off.

Finally sending bread off.