An older man I had addressed looked startled. “Would you give me directions?” I repeated. My question halted the man as if a roadblock had been lowered before him. His gaze lingered on my red shoes, traveled up my jeans to the folds of my chapan (a loose coat) topped with an oversized white scarf draped around my neck. My face didn’t match up with the rest of the clothing. He looked at me bewildered.
“I am lost. Would you tell me where this street leads?” I waved along the street we were standing on to illustrate the point. The man was disoriented. I imagined him frantically attempting to locate me on his social map.
My androgynous wardrobe has been a cause of confusion before. Sometimes it was practical to be a male, especially when I used to live in Kabul, to hop on a motorcycle to visit friends, or simply to see Kabul from a different perspective. In those days I still had a pixie cut. I looked like a dandelion that matured into the white flower. People would inevitably stare at me when I took off my helmet. I would hear their muted conversations: “A boy or a girl? … A boy!”
I was not alone. A friend of mine riding a motorbike was once stopped at a checkpoint. The policemen usually check documents and hope to find a reason to ask for “sweets” or to have a conversation to break their boredom. When she stopped and took off her helmet, they saw a foreigner – an unusual sight even in 2008–2010. And then it registered that the foreigner was a woman; moreover it was a woman dressed like a man, behaving like a man. At first they were lost for words. She greeted them in Dari. It took a few long seconds for the policemen to find their footing. Still in disbelief, they stated that women cannot ride bikes.
“Is there a law against it?” she asked them. “No, women are incapable of driving bikes,” they explained. She raised her eyebrows looked at the bike, then at them, then at the bike and then stared at them. They attempted with a few other arguments and gave up in a fit of nervous giggles. One of them said that she had to have a special permission to wear traditional Afghan male clothing. He wanted to see that permission, the others concurred. A few minutes into the argument, really annoyed, my friend simply pulled off the loose embroidered tunic and threw it at the policemen. Like a hot potato, they kept passing the tunic among themselves until one of the policemen threw the tunic onto the bike and demanded my friend to be on her way.
I, too, was often reprimanded at security checkpoints for wearing men’s clothing. This particular chapan is made out of fine camel wool. This simple loose coat is usually draped as a cloak around one’s shoulders with its long sleeves hanging behind. It is worn in the northern Afghanistan and formerly in Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan.
“This chapan is for men!” I would hear. “I like it,” I would reply. “But it is for men!” Would typically be a reply as if I didn’t hear them the first time. “Are you saying I am not a men?” I would ask playing on the dual use of the word. Some, horrified by my question, in a state close to panic, would mutter: “What are you?”
The man staring at me did not ask me that question out loud, but he might have as well have. His face betrayed utter confusion. My beardless face and my voice suggested female. Yet a distinct lack of makeup, my short unpainted nails, my flat shoes, and the men’s coat suggested man. He seemed to not register that he understood me. He looked at me as one does at a someone speaking an alien tongue. I repeated my question. The man appeared to be just as lost as I was.
It was my first few days in Kurgan Tube, a town in the south of Tajikistan just an hour drive north from the Afghan border. On that particular day, I walked around the bazaar for too long, had one to many random conversations, and one too many turns around the tight streets of the town to know where I was. The old man took another evaluating look at me and asked where is it I would like to go to.
“The central square,” I said. “It isn’t on this street,” he uttered, annoyed as if I had interrupted an important inner conference. A phantom roadblock lifted and he walked away shaking his head, as if a conversation with me brought utter dissonance to his world. “Foreigner!” I heard him say as he passed me.
I spotted a bakery on a corner. This wasn’t your normal bakery. This place made only tandoori samosas. “There is so much pumpkin on the bazaar I saw today, you must use some of that,” I started a conversation. “We have beef, lamb, or chicken.” The baker arranged freshly baked samosas on the tray before him without looking at me. “How about pumpkin samosa?” I insisted.
“We do pumpkin samosas only at home. Why don’t you get some lamb?” the baker responded, starting to place new samosas into the tandoor. “I would love to, but I do not eat meat.” “Have some chicken then,” he offered. I smiled, “Thank you, but any luck with pumpkin samosa?” “Come back tomorrow, I will make one just for you.” He smiled at an offer that was half-joking and half-real. “I am lost.” I said, “How do I find you tomorrow?”
Now, the trader was looking at me. The calculus of social placing was taking place in his head, too. “Where are you from?” His eyes sparked with mischief: “The past or the future?”
It was my turn to be startled. The nomad that makes a home everywhere and anywhere suddenly felt a tug of homesickness. The fog of memories thickened around me. For a brief moment I had tears in my eyes. I had an urge to tell him that I was lost, both metaphorically and physically. I wanted to tell him that I long to go home, but that home is nowhere to be found anymore. I wanted to tell him that I am in search of the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. But I did not have words to convey my story. I only smiled weakly at him.
“A very nice chapan,” he said, “You wear it better than we do. We wait to become old enough to not care about being modern.” “Oh, this chapan is from Mazar.” I leaned onto the landing by the tandoor and we spoke of my work, his work, my travel, his home and more. And suddenly it no longer mattered that I was lost.