Six Syllables: Searching for Home, and the Post-9/11 Metaphor, in Kabul
In Kabul, we napped every afternoon, a two-hour siesta that made up for the fact that we had risen before dawn with the mosque loudspeaker’s first call to prayer. As with most things in Afghanistan, naps were easy to enter, difficult to get out of. The soft breathing of the women next to me, their headscarves neatly folded next to them as their black hair tumbled over their pillows, washed over me, quenching the raw thirst of that gritty, dusty city. The slide into sleep was liquid, unknowable.
Waking was another matter. The women tried to rouse me gently: a soft nudge on the shoulder. My name, in Pashto-accented English, as if murmured through cotton batting. It never felt right, like I had gotten either too little or too much sleep. A dizzying chemical taste in my dry, gummy mouth reminded me that I was on malaria pills. Worst of all, I always forgot where I was. Was I really in Afghanistan? Or at home? Where was “home,” exactly?
For me, coming out of naptime in Kabul always started with a minute or so of freefall, of feeling utterly alone in the world because I did not feel of it. In my work as a newspaper journalist in Portland, Oregon, I dutifully reported on candlelight vigils and anti-Muslim hate crimes. But, I wondered, how could I, the citizen, light a candle for a nation that was turning against its own? I wrote about the Portland’s chapter of Japanese American Citizens League reaching out to local Muslims and Arabs–but what did the mere need for the gesture, more than half a century after World War II, say? I watched, helpless, as the America around me nursed a rapidly growing hunger for retaliation while President Bush threatened to bomb Afghanistan “back to the Stone Ages.” Commentators and comedians retorted that the war- and famine-ravaged nation didn’t have far to go. The War on Terror was about to begin.[restrict]
“Afghanistan,” my editor said as he leaned over my waist-high cubicle wall. “Do you have any contacts with Afghan immigrants?”
“Umm, no,” I said, embarrassed, as I flipped through a Rolodex of mostly Latino surnames–Andrade, Benavidez, Caceres. I had been convinced that Latin American immigration would be the story of the new millennium.
“We’re looking for someone,” he said, chewing on the end of his pen, “to put a human face on the country we’re about to bomb.”
And that was why I found the Shirzai family. They were Afghan immigrants, a patchwork family in Portland that started with three brothers who came there out of the ashes of the Soviet War. They had raised six nieces and nephews, including the children of a brother who died at the hands of the communists. I wrote a newspaper article about them, then another, and another. Soon, I was a regular at their home in the fir-lined hills of Southwest Portland, drinking cup after cup of cardamom-laced tea as they unfurled their story–and that of their family members who stayed behind in Afghanistan. In the midst of my post-9/11 dislocation, I felt at home with the Shirzais. As they waited for word from their loved ones near bombing sites in Kabul, they tempered their sorrow for the loss of life on that day with the consequences of invading Afghanistan. They feared what the United States would become, because they understood firsthand what war does. Within a few weeks of knowing them, the Shirzais asked if I’d like to travel with them to Afghanistan someday, so I could truly understand why they cared so much about this war-scarred, “Stone Age” land. In May 2004, I did.
In this house, the multi-generational compound of the Shirzai family, I found my place. The younger women took me in and treated me like a sister. But outside the home’s walls, the city was hard on the senses and psyche, a swirl of dust, diesel residue, odors from the open sewers. Amputee landmine victims and dirt-caked, sickly children begged for bakhshesh; widows in filthy blue burqas silently extended hands out from under the veils. High school-aged boys, giddy with post-Taliban freedom, harassed women in the streets. Marry me, beautiful. Please marry me. Even catcalls had oddly fundamentalist overtones. The men with turbans and beards, as locals called them, were never far from the Afghan consciousness. Being out and about felt dangerous. Perhaps I took too much to heart the warning of a defense contractor sitting next to me on the flight to Kabul.
“You know, they’re putting bounties on foreigners. Anyone who’s desperate can sell you out. As the manager of an American company, the price on my head is $7,000,” he said with a hint of a Virginia accent. “An American woman journalist–I’m not sure what that’s going for, but probably more than me.”
But a sense of danger in a foreign land is more the accumulation of dissonances. I explored the city around me, searching. A psychic once told me I had lived one of my past lives in Afghanistan. I wanted to believe her, to find the salve to my unease in my own country here. Yet the treeless, brown-gray city, composed of more rubble and bullet-pocked concrete than anything else, offered no answers.
One morning, sitting under a nomad family’s tent in a vacant dirt lot, the piping-hot, puffy flatbread pressed into my palm by a gaunt, green-eyed mother felt like hospitality embodied. She enveloped my right hand and the piece of bread, almost painfully hot to the touch, between her two callused palms. A bite of that bread, crackling and golden outside, pillowy and yeasty inside–my hunger for connection, sated. My eyes met the baker’s, and she modestly pressed her thin lips together to contain her smile. She knew. Later, I wandered outside the tent to see the bread woman’s toddler son, stomach distended under his little tan kameez, playing next to a cesspool the size of a hot tub. The boy had his mother’s pale green eyes, and a large open sore on his forehead. It was carved out like a golf divot, and about the same size and depth. The edges were dirty and scabby, and the sore was weeping, a study in the salmon-to-crimson range of raw human flesh. The other children around him played and laughed, but he stared into space, not making eye contact with anyone. The bread, the boy–these were dissonances. What was I doing here? What could I learn about Afghanistan that could possibly matter, given our War, given a quarter-century’s worth of wars here, given the bread, given the boy?
When I collapsed into my velour cushion that afternoon, I welcomed the sleep but fully expected the awakening to be more jolting than ever. Why could I not, just once, wake from a nap and know where I was? That’s all I wanted. To remember that I was in Kabul, Afghanistan, inside the Shirzai family compound, nestled safely with the young women of the household.
It was a voice, not one of the women’s and not a nudge on the shoulder, that brought me out of sleep. It was faraway, male, chant-like in cadence. It got louder, then softer, then louder again. He sang the same six syllables over and over again. What was he singing? Why had I not noticed this voice before–or had I? It sounded utterly new yet completely familiar at the same time.
I had forgotten to wonder where I was. It didn’t matter now. The women stirred, looked at me quizzically through sleepy eyes. Somewhere between quietly getting up, wrapping my headscarf around my head, finding my shoes in the pile outside the bedroom, tiptoeing across the courtyard, and cracking the courtyard door open to sneak a peek, the thought–Oh, right, I’m in Kabul–flickered across my consciousness. The voice got louder. He was coming around the corner. In time with the chanting, cartwheels squeaked and strained. Something made a whipping sound, like sails in the wind.
Then, licks of blue, gold, fuchsia, and white teased the dusty sky and dun landscape like flames. And he was on our street. A pushcart full of fabrics–billowing from poles, folded in neat rows, nearly engulfing the wiry man behind them.
“Chador au chadori…Chador au chadori.”
He was selling chador, headscarves, and chadori, the full-body veils known to Americans as burqas. On each corner of the cart, a post held a chadori, striated by dozens and dozens of tiny pleats, billowing in saffron, snow white, and dusky blue, the most commonly worn shade. The veils filled with hot Kabul air to assume the ambiguous forms of their future wearers. Then the wind picked up, and the hanging ghost-women evaporated as the veils became flags, horizontal in the breeze.
“Chador au chadori…”
The walnut-skinned man wore a white prayer cap. His baritone was languid, his Rs liquid, and the rising and falling notes of his tune so familiar. Had I heard him before, in my sleep? As he approached, I slipped behind the front door–a scarf and veil salesman surely would expect female modesty. But just after he passed, one more look.
“Chador au chadori…”
As he disappeared from sight, the voice faded. I had heard the tune before, but not in my sleep, and not here in Afghanistan. From the time I was a child, I regularly visited my grandparents in Taoyuen, a mid-sized city in Taiwan’s north. I was born in the United States, but with repeat visits to Taoyuen, the city had become a part of me.
For as long as I can remember, every morning in Taoyuen the same chant rang out over and over, carried by a tinny amplifier, often muffled by rainfall. The voice was female, and I can’t say if it belonged to the same woman for all those years. But the words and the tune were always the same:
“Man to bau, man to bau…Man to bau, man to bau.”
The woman pushed a cart full of man to, steamed rolls, and bau, stuffed breads, around the perimeter of the outdoor market. Her deep voice stretched out the round vowels as it rose and dipped. The chant faded and grew as she made her way around the neighborhood. I saw her once, a woman in a conical straw hat with a weathered face the color of weak Oolong tea. Her cart was packed with round, stacking stainless-steel containers full of those creamy white rolls, each as big as a fist. The steaming dough trailed clouds in her wake.
“Man to bau, man to bau…”
“Chador au chadori…”
The six-syllable, rising-and-falling cadences of her cry and his chant were echoes of each other. Different languages, different products; same song, same notes. Was it just that these two countries, in their varying trajectories toward modernity, still had economies that supported chanting, cart-pushing street vendors? Perhaps. But when I heard that chant in Afghanistan, I felt at home there for the first time.
I heard the scarf and veil salesman a few more times, always upon waking from my nap. Once, I peered out the front door to get another glimpse of him; the other times, I just languished, half asleep. For the rest of my time in Afghanistan, I never again woke up feeling dislocated. “Through metaphor, we strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in her iconic essay, “The Moral Necessity of Metaphor.” I had found my metaphor.
I returned to the United States from Afghanistan knowing I had to make that connection–not necessarily between Kabul and Taoyuen, Taiwan, but between my experience in Afghanistan and the rest of my life as a second-generation American. My metaphor was the Shirzai family, the “human face” of the country America invaded in 2001, whose story I went all the way to Afghanistan to know. Now it was time to do the only thing I knew to do with stories–to tell them. As the family members themselves struggled to resolve dissonances between homeland and home, Afghanistan and America, I mined my own ragged edges, between being the daughter of immigrants and the inheritor of my Chinese family’s own American journey. In telling their story, I came to better understand Afghanistan, America, myself–and my own limitations as a storyteller, friend, and daughter. It was all I knew to do in response to the planes flying into buildings, to the American bombs falling on Afghanistan, to the Shirzais opening their lives and homeland to me–and to the bread and the boy.
This essay is adapted from Angie Chuang’s nonfiction book manuscript, The Four Words for Home. The name of the Afghan American family has been changed to protect the safety of relatives in Afghanistan.