I was about eight years old when I saw my mother’s uncle for the first time. He had come to Kabul some days before and was then visiting us. He lived in our ancestral village of Kandibagh in the Chaparhar region of the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan.
This was his first visit to our home. If he had come to Kabul prior to that, I certainly had not seen him. How could I ever forget a man like him? He was so fierce looking. When I looked at him at the door of our home, all I could see was a pair of deep glaring brown eyes separated by a prominent hook nose, two protruding pinkish cheeks, a round ball of charcoal-black hair for what was the rest of his face and a beautiful silky turban covering most of his forehead. A colorful silk shawl covered his torso. As he opened his arms to hug my father, his shawl no longer hid his body and I noticed that his chest was adorned with beautiful bandoleers crisscrossing his shoulders and his waist, displaying dozens of golden cartridges with their bright steel gray and coppery red bullet- heads. He wore these on top of a deep mauve vest decorated with strips of gold thread lace and braided gold-thread strings sewn all along the garment’s edges and pockets. He was a short man but he stood straight and the standing edge of his turban gave him an extra six inches of height. When I was told to say “Salaam” and kiss my great-uncle’s hand, I took his extended hand with a measure of awe and admiration and kissed it, but he did not bend down to kiss me or give me a kindly pat, as all our other guests usually did. I decided right then and there that I did not like this proud unbending man, even if everyone else did.
Later on, in our living room, I sat at some distance, clandestinely looking at him as he sat talking with my elders. He used his hands and moved his head for emphasis. He spoke loudly, lightly and, at times, also laughed heartily. There was something about this man that I did not understand. His looks made him appear fearful, harsh, even cruel, while his gestures and especially his hearty laughter gave one the impression that he really was serene, gentle and kind.
We had palaw, chicken qorma, torshi, yogurt and tandori naan (flat bread), our more common dinner being some vegetable soup made with beef or mutton and naan. As was our custom, I helped our guest wash his hands in preparation for dinner right where he was sitting. I brought a bowl, a bar of soap in a saucer, a pitcher of water and a towel, dangling from my shoulder. Leaning before him, I poured water over his hands just a few inches above the bowl. When he was finished, I served the rest of the family in the same manner and then placed everything by the door. Normally, everyone entering the room for dinner would wash his or her hands right there by the door and then go to sit on the floor around the bread-cloth. I helped spread the bread-cloth and then sat to wait for the food to be brought in. There were six of us including my parents, my paternal grandmother and my three-year-old sister. The rice and chicken came in two heaped platters so everyone could easily reach the food. There were no individual plates, no spoons, knives or forks. The only spoons were those in the pickle and yogurt bowls which were circulated, and whoever wished to take either item, did so by placing some spoonfuls in the section of the platter in front of him. Everybody used his right hand, made a morsel of rice and meat and ate it. I continued to watch my great-uncle surreptitiously and noted that he made morsels of palaw and meat between his fingers and his palm, pressed each morsel into a huge oblong shape which then disappeared somewhere between his mustache and beard. I had been taught by my parents to pick up a small morsel between my thumb and the first two digits of my fingers and, after carefully lifting it to my mouth, to use the back of my thumb to push the little morsel into my mouth. By the time our guest had eaten a few fistsfuls, his whole hand was greasy, but he seemed not to care. I had been taught to be very careful not to let any grease reach the lower joints of my fingers. He belched several times during dinner and each time he asked for a glass of water which he drank to the last drop. When the meal was finished, once again I brought the bowl, soap and pitcher for him to wash his hands. After dinner he put both hands to work smoothing his bristly beard and, in the process, gave it a little luster, I thought, with some of the grease that was left on the hairs around his mouth.
He could not sit cross-legged like the rest of us. So, as soon as the dinnerware was removed, he leaned to one side along the mattress on some cushions placed beside him. He drank his tea in that position. Our living room, like everyone else’s, was furnished with a gelem (kilim, woolen flat-weave rug) and mattresses along the three walls away from the door. Several cushions were placed along the base of the walls for people to lean on. In some homes all bedclothes such as the cushions, mattresses, blankets and sheets were folded up and wrapped in large cloths and arranged along the walls to act as cushions during the day. At night, the same room was used as a bedroom when the bundles were unwrapped and the bedding was spread out for members of the family. This was the practice in families that did not have enough rooms. Larger homes boasted a special room, known as guestroom, that had mattresses and cushions along the walls and no wrapped bedding. These rooms were used only when someone had guests or when the children had grown up enough not to make a mess and create a problem for the mother when some sudden unexpected guest showed up.
My great-uncle wore a long white shirt and white baggy trousers and a vest adorned with lacework, and, of course, his bandoleers on top of his beautiful velvet vest. His silk shawl had been gathered and placed at his side so that it might not be creased, greased or wet during dinner or afterwards. My mother had promised to make me just such a shirt and trousers and vest in the new year. I wished I had had them then to show great-uncle that we city children also wore beautiful clothes.
Father had already told us that our great-uncle had been invited to Kabul by the Ameer Saheb to attend the Loya Jarga (a Grand Assembly of elders throughout the nation, held traditionally in times of national crises). This time, the Ameer Saheb was trying to convince the elders of the Afghan nation that he was their true Muslim (Moslem) King, that the propaganda against him and his Islamic beliefs was a malicious machination of the Angraze (the British), the infidel, whose real country was far away on an island and who wanted to rule the Islamic Kingdom of Afghanistan even after officially recognizing our independence just a few years before. The Ameer Saheb had proclaimed the independence of our country from the Angrazi India soon after sitting on the throne and had even gone to war against them to gain it. Father had also told us that the last war was really the third war that the Afghans had fought with the Angraze people who had taken India many years before and had always wanted to take Afghanistan too.
Now, great-uncle told us that the great meeting was over and the elders were returning to their homes in the provinces. The Ameer Saheb had seen to it that, where possible, these dignitaries would return in the newly acquired steam-cars. Father had already told us about these cars and we were filled with wonder. Great-uncle was describing his forthcoming journey to Jalalabad on one of them with some relish. My curiosity was rekindled. It did not take me long to decide that my great-uncle was not fearsome or harsh and that it did not matter that he had not hugged me upon arrival at our home. He was definitely a kind and caring man.
Even the tone of his voice was not severe, but gentle. He even mentioned the various gifts that he was taking home to his sons, daughters and grandchildren. I was thinking how wonderful it would be to go with him to Kandibagh and see his grandchildren, as well as, my aunt, who used to live with us not very long ago. I was so possessed with this joyous thought that, forgetting Father’s explicit instruction not to interrupt my elders’ conversation, especially our guests’, I looked straight at my father and said, “Agha Jan, may I go along with my uncle to Kandibagh in the steamcar?” Father said,”No, Bachame (my son), your uncle is traveling with other elders and, perhaps, some of his men. There will be no room in the steamcar.” Dejected, I looked toward the great leaning mound of flesh that was, after all, my great-uncle and mutely sought his aid.
That look did it. He not only supported my wish but said that in Kandibagh he would let me visit both my aunt and my uncle. My aunt was my father’s only sister and my uncle, whom I had never seen, was my mother’s only brother. My great-uncle said it would be great fun for a Kabuli boy to see his parents’ village. He further assured everyone not to worry about the steam-car journey, for there would always be someone to look after me.
Uncle had spoken. No one could ignore the voice of authority. The matter was settled. I was in a state of ecstasy. My mother was not at all happy about this decision. I had never been permitted to go anywhere alone in the city. To stay somewhere overnight in town was out of the question.
And now, I was going to Jalalabad, a place at least three days away by steam-car as per uncle’s earlier statements. I was to stay in Kandibagh for God only knew how long. What if I should be sick? What if I should have an accident? What if some of the village kids should dislike me, quarrel with me and beat me? Out there I would be exposed to anything and everything, and away from my mother’s care and my grandmother’s protection. What if I picked up some bad habits, learned to use bad language, especially as I was soon to go to school? No. The thought did not please my mother at all. But what could she do? Her upbringing required that she should not question the decision of her elders. She did mumble some of her fears loud enough for her uncle to hear, but these were dismissed either as improbable or exaggerated protectiveness. On the other hand, she knew that her uncle would certainly keep an indirect eye on her son even after he was delivered to his aunt or uncle in Kandibagh. This he could do and would do. There was really no reason to worry. And yet! She was my mother and I was her first born. Well, perhaps it would be all right. Maybe out there her son could learn to look after himself. After all, when he goes to school in the fall, he should not be the shy little boy he now appears to be. Yes, it would be better for him and it would be quite all right.
That night I could not fall asleep for a long time. I shared a room with my grandmother. She talked to me about the village, the people and the little boys there and about the birds that I might trap and so on until finally I did fall asleep. The next morning I got up to find, much to my dismay, that great-uncle had already left. I panicked and began to cry. Mother then opened a bag and produced a brand new set of shirt and trousers quite like great uncle’s that she had sat late into the night to sew for me for the trip. Everyone assured me that great uncle would be back for me as soon as he was ready.
I had never seen a steam-car. It would be so exciting to be traveling on one for three days and nights. None of my relatives had ever ridden on it, for only very important
people in the service of the Ameer Saheb or his guests like great-uncle could. But then, the idea of the steam also bothered me. Was it not steam which came out of mother’s tea kettle and which I had once inhaled scalding my throat? Wouldn’t it burn the travelers who came close to it? Where would everybody sit and where would I sit on the steam-car? Would the steam scald us all? Of course not! For, if it did, no one would ever travel on one. I decided that my fears were foolish.
On the day of the journey mother kissed and hugged me in front of everyone and advised me to conduct myself like a gentleman all the time and everywhere I went. She gave me the bundle of new clothes which she had sewn for me and instructed me to keep my clothes clean and have my aunt or my uncle’s wife wash them every few days. It was one of my great-uncle’s men who came to take me to him at the steam car at the Government Guest House. My excitement was so much that I forgot to kiss my little sister goodbye. She cried and I was promptly admonished by everybody.
My steam car journey was an experience all its own.
There it was, the steam-car, sparkling and ready. Huge puffs of smoke were coming out of its top through a black funnel. From somewhere in front I could hear hissing and crackling sounds. The travelers were seated in a little compartment in the back. We got in from the back, for the front was blocked to our view. Earlier I had seen piles of wood between the engine and the compartment and had watched someone throw pieces of wood into a fire that was already blazing with red hot embers. Someone else told me it was like a great samawar (samovar); only they did not make tea with its hot boiling water because the boiling water changed into steam which, in turn, made the car go.
We were soon on our way to Jalalabad over a road that some one told me, the retreating Angraze army, twelve thousand strong, had taken one winter many years ago and that all but one of them had died along the way. That army had taken six days between the two cities and was wiped out, partly by the Afghan warriors and partly by the bitter winter cold and snow.
The steam car made many stops, some for fuel and water and some for the passengers’ needs and some for their prayer times. After all, this car had been placed at their disposal for the journey and there was no stipulation as to the length of time it would take them to reach their destination. What the passengers enjoyed most were these stops at the caravansarais en route. For it was there that they could recline on kutts, four-posted cots woven with reed ropes and covered with reed mats), drink tea or just sit in the shade and be fanned by a caravansarai employee. They chatted forever in Pukhto which I did not speak but understood. At home my parents spoke in dari (Afghan Farsi) when I or my little sister was around. Only when there were guests in the house, did they speak Pukhto. But I think we both understood the gist of what was being said. The elders were talking about the Ameer and about his asking women in Kabul to go about without a chaderi (a kind of veil to cover faces and bodies of women.) They talked about his opening schools for girls and how wrong all of this was, and that the nation’s elders had voted not to help him in these measures. I did not know about these things. My mother never went out of the house without a chaderi. Only my grandmother did, but then she always wore her black sadur which covered her head and all of her body, and this, when she was already clothed with a long dress and baggy trousers. Only her face and her hands were visible. I did not know about schools for girls and only vaguely knew that I would have to go to school that very autumn. But I thought if these men really did not let girls go to school, how on earth would girls learn to read and write. This was unfair. As for the Ameer, I already knew he was really a very good king. My own father had told me so. The Ameer had made a railroad to the Darulaman Gardens where my father had taken me several times on Jumas (Fridays). There were beautiful rose bushes and beds of varicolored flowers and great numbers of people sat on the grass or under big shade trees and listened to music by several bands that the Ameer had hired to play for the public’s pleasure on weekends and holidays. I used to run around and play with other little boys my age. Oh, it was so much fun! I wished my father would take me there more often. I also knew that the Ameer had other gardens in Paghman where hundreds of people went, some staying there for several days at a time. Father had told me the Ameer himself went often to Paghman. Sometimes he wore ordinary clothes and mixed with his people and talked to them about their likes and dislikes, their wishes and their needs, their problems and so on, without letting them know who he was. He did all this to help his people and to let them enjoy life as best they could. There were many parks in Paghman. There was a place set aside for horse racing. There also were many fountains where water gushed out of the mouths of geese, horses and frogs all made of metal. Every year in the summer, the Jashn (the independence celebration) took place there. There was a cinema there where you could see people from other places in a big dark room, but they were not real people, for when the lights were turned on, they would all be gone. I wished that some day my father would take me there to see the gardens and the cinema, but most of all, to see the Ameer Saheb. Perhaps he would also talk to me.
These elders on the steam-car really did not know the Ameer. They did not know the real truth about him. They had seen him, perhaps only as the King of Afghanistan and not as an ordinary man in ordinary clothes. Had they lived in Kabul, they might have known him as my father did. I was sure my father had seen him although he did not say so to me. Father knew him a lot better.
Well, it was not my place to tell these big men that they were wrong about the Ameer. In the first place they hardly talked to me. Even my great-uncle seldom addressed me. And then, if the Amir himself had not been able to convince them, how could I?
The journey was well in progress. I saw caravans of camels and donkeys laden with goods coming from Jalalabad or going back from Kabul. Someone would be holding on tightly to the harness of the lead camel as our steam-car approached them or passed them. Indeed, the camels and horses showed mortal fear at the sight and sound of the steam-car.
The evenings and nights were really nice. Out here on the mountains the evenings were cool and the nights magnificent. The sky here was much brighter than over Kabul. I thought there were many more twinkling stars up here than in the sky over our home. I could easily recognize the Scale with its two plates a little below its middle star, in perfect balance. I could imagine it like the merchants’ scales in the bazaar. Over there was the Kutt with the four stars for its legs. Near one leg there was the little lamb by the old woman spinning her yarn from a wad of cotton wound around her arm. My grandmother had shown me the Kutt and given me all the details which seemed clearer here than from our roof back home where we all slept during the summer months.
On the afternoon of the third day the steam-car reached the town of Nimla and stopped at the caravansarai there. My great uncle, his entourage and I got off. There would be two other caravansarais at Fathabad and Bawley before the rest of the passengers reached Jalalabad. Our destination was the same distance away from Nimla as it was from Jalalabad so we were saving time by getting off here rather than driving all the way to that city and then going on to Chaparhar. I discovered that quite a few of my uncle’s men were waiting for him there and I wondered just how many days they had spent there waiting. We spent the rest of that day and the night there and feasted on a roasted sheep slaughtered in his honor the moment he stepped out of the car. I soon fell asleep on a bed prepared for me on a kutt and never saw or heard the steam car go off toward Jalalabad. In fact I never saw another one again.
I was awakened in the dead of the night and told that we were going on to Chaparhar right then in order to reach the village before the desert got hot. Someone lifted me and sat me on a horse behind a rider, ordering me to hold on tight to his waist band. The journey started. I would have fallen asleep several times if it had not been for fear of falling off the horse and being left behind all alone in the desert. A long time later the light of dawn appeared and the group of riders stopped for morning prayers at a spring in the middle of the desert.
It was mid-morning when my rider told me that we had reached the outskirts of Chaparhar. It was already getting hot but the rider assured me that at Kandibagh I would surely enjoy the cool breeze beneath the old mulberry tree where my uncle taught his pupils every morning.
I could only see the desert and the thirty or so riders with their rifles showing and my uncle in the lead. Here and there I could see only a thorny shrub and the dried out exposed roots of some desert plants whose leaves had long disappeared. From time to time our path went down gullies carved out of the desert by years and years of flashfloods which usually occurred in this part of the country. It was high noon when our party finally reached the edge of the desert. The first fields that I saw were those from which wheat had been harvested months before. Further on there were fields of corn standing very tall, some already being harvested. From time to time the horses jumped over irrigation ditches that barely seemed moist. When I asked my horseman why there was no water in the ditches, he told me that we were no longer in Kabul with its plentiful supply of water. Down here what little water reached these ditches came from the karazes which people had dug decades ago. No big rivers came into Chaparhar from Spinghar Mountain. Some small bodies of water, that did flow down from melting snows of the Spinghar, were mainly exploited by people living in areas upstream. Kandibagh only got the flashfloods in the summer months and that was good, for it brought down the firewood that people needed. Spinghar was covered with evergreen trees and there was always a lot of dead wood that the flashfloods carried down its slopes. My horseman also told me that the wells for the karazes were started at the foothills of Spinghar and their bases were interconnected with a little slope and their combined water reached the surface near the farms. This water was then rationed among the land owners according to their land holdings.
We finally reached the village road which connected the region with the city of Jalalabad. It did not look like a road to me, for hardly a gadi (horse and buggy) could be driven over it. Well, the worst was over. We had reached home territory and I was getting more and more excited. We came upon some huge mulberry trees and saw grapevines intertwined with their branches. There were pomegranate orchards and quince and citrus gardens. Hedges of Sanzelay (oleaster trees, with elongated seeds having a tasty cream-colored powdery flesh and a soft colorful outer skin that can be easily peeled off exposing the delicious fruit) separated the fields from the road and also encircled little fields where the farmers grew garden vegetables, this because they wanted to keep domestic animals out. There were no poplar trees and also not many willow trees to be seen. I was told they did not grow very well in the region. There were also no apple or pear trees and the reason given me was the scarce water supply.
The heat of the summer midday did not bother me any more. Was it because I was too excited to feel it or that it was really cooler under the trees and there was a breeze? Soon I would see my aunt and say goodbye to my great-uncle who had almost become a total stranger to me now. He had not spoken to me more than to ask once or twice during the entire journey just how I was doing. Maybe it was because of his entourage that he did not have the time to chat with me. We stopped in front of his Kala (fortified, towered residence). Great-uncle came over and instructed my horseman to take me to my aunt’s home. He said goodbye to me and told me that I could come to his home whenever I wanted to. I was instructed to be kind and polite to my aunt and to take good care of myself. He assured me that he would keep informed about my health and wellbeing and told me to come to him if I needed any thing at all. I was also to contact him when I was ready to go back home to Kabul. I was pleased and said goodbye to him. My horseman then took me to my aunt at Mirza Kala which was about fifteen minutes away.
My aunt was both surprised and pleased to see me. She immediately prepared a kutt for me underneath the intertwined mulberry tree and grapevine in her yard, sprinkled most of the yard with water to cool it down further and hastened to cook something for lunch. Her yard was huge in comparison to ours in Kabul. Her home, the original family abode on my father’s side of the family, occupied the northwestern wing of the Kala that was home for the Mirza clan, a name by which my grandfather’s family was known. Later on, as some of them moved out and built themselves separate kalas, other folk moved into the Kala either as part owners or as tenants doing work for those of the Mirza clan who either lived away or tended their own farms elsewhere in the neighborhood. As one entered the kala’s huge gate, one found oneself in a long alley with several doors to the right and left each opening to a yard and several rooms along the walls. At the time of my visit only the first house to the left belonged to my grandfather and, through him, to my father. It now housed my aunt, her husband and his other wife and their several sons and daughters. In a way, my aunt was our tenant farmer also as her husband had entered into an agreement with my father to plant our land with various crops every year on a one third/two thirds basis. Father’s entire property, inherited from his father, was about three acres. This was not enough to occupy all the time of a farmer. Aunt’s husband had some land of his own and the total acreage brought him more income than his own farm land alone. Most people in Kandibagh and the surrounding kalas had small holdings ranging from five to fifteen acres. Only a few people such as my mother’s uncle, my grandfather’s brothers and some other Maleks (village elders with some followers of their own on village affairs) owned anywhere between fifteen and fifty acres or more. These big land owners either had farmers in their employ or gave their land to some tenant farmers on the principle of one third/two thirds share of the harvest. Maybe the maleks were the feudal lords of ancient times who not only owned the land but also the farmers, but over the years their power and influence declined and in the end, they were left with only a little land and the title of malek (village elder.) In such instances the owners provided the grain, the necessary water, the fertilizer and the oxen. They also paid all the taxes. The farmer gave his full time and got one third of the crop as his share. I learned all this from my aunt’s husband during my stay in Kandibagh. According to him a farmer’s life in the village was really a hard one. He barely subsisted on the earnings from farming about ten to fifteen acres of land, which sometimes belonged to more than one landlord. There were times when the much-needed water would be scarce and other farmers, also needing water for their crops, stole it. I was amazed at first that people could steal water, but it was made clear to me soon enough. The farmer and his family had to keep a very close watch over the route that the karaze water took to reach the land that had title to it for a period of time, say three hours. Now, if a farmer’s turn to irrigate his fields came at night and if he did not have help from his immediate family in keeping watch over the route, some other farmer with thirsty fields along the route could, and would, secretly divert all or a portion of the flow onto his fields. Consequently, the water would not reach its rightful owner’s fields and damage would be done.
Of course this theft could not remain unknown for long. Within the hour, harsh words, even fights, could ensue. And usually some compromise would be reached, mostly on the spot, between the culprit and the victim. The former would promise the latter to purchase a portion of someone else’s share of water and let the latter use it as compensation. Occasionally water meant for the land of one farmer would accidentally flow along the ditch to someone else’s land or be blocked by bushes and dirt en route and, not reaching the farm it was meant for, flow into some other farm. There could also be cases where someone, in charge of directing the water to his fields, forgot to block its entry to someone else’s farm thus bringing about a loss of water to his own fields. In such cases, the affected farmer would simply buy a share of time from someone else and later get redeemed by the owner of the land for whom he was farming the land. If the landlord was fair-minded, he would compensate the farmer, if not, he could blame the whole thing on the poor tenant farmer’s negligence and the farmer could lose the money he paid for the water on the occasion.
Thus a poor farmer, who, more often than not, borrowed cash or water time with a promise to pay it back at harvest, would have no other alternative than to do so out of his own one third share of the harvest. This would definitely cause him and his family additional hardship, sometimes, for many years. But such instances were rare in Kandibagh. By instinct, as it were, the farmer, his sons and daughters, his daughters- in-law, sons-in-law and other available relatives vigilantly followed the water route and diligently worked to have that water reach their own thirsty crops without any loss, accidental or intentional.
It soon became clear to me that my aunt was not doing well financially. Her husband, the head of the family, had a lot of mouths to feed. My aunt had no children after her one and only son died at the age of six months in Kabul without his father ever seeing him. Her husband’s second wife, however, had two sons and three daughters. The son, about l8 then, helped him on the farm. The wives did the necessary chores around the home as well as out in the fields. Between them, the two women saw to it that every thing was looked after. The family kept two cows for milk. There was a donkey for hauling heavy commodities such as grain to the nearest mill or crops from the farm or manure to the fields. There were several sheep. A lot of chicken ran around the yard messing the place up and were always in the way of things. But they were considered necessary as their eggs and sometimes the chickens themselves were welcome meals for sudden guests. One of them constituted my dinner the first night of my arrival.
The household slept on the roof at night. The chickens either slept on the lower branches of the huge mulberry tree or the extreme protruding ends of the wooden drains of the roof. The other animals were put in the barn immediately to the left of the entrance door to the yard. In front of the barn there was a mound of animal dung and other refuse that served as manure for the fields.
Later I found out that the village butcher slaughtered and sold his sheep or a cow or camel early in the morning. A late arrival of some staying guest meant that he/she would either have chicken or eggs or simply some vegetable meal until the next day. As a rule the farmers did not eat meat every day. They sufficed with fresh hot bread, some eggs or milk product for their breakfast, their lunch was mainly some corn or wheat bread, a bowl of sour milk or some vegetable and their dinner was either bread and vegetables or some kind of rice dish generally without any meat. Only the landlords or farmers with some land of their own and those who usually expected outside guests at their meals were the local butcher’s regular customers. In Kabul chicken was considered a delicacy but here it served the purpose of the traditional Afghan hospitality. The first thing I was offered to eat at my aunt’s was a raw onion. She insisted that it was necessary as it would protect me from getting sick as a result of a change in environment, food and water. This was news to me as mother and grandmother did not ask our out-of-town guests to do the same. I refused at first but gave in when she told me to take some bites simply as a medicine. Later on in life I discovered that this custom was prevalent all over Afghanistan although I still do not know what facts there may be to support it.
That first night aunt sent me down to her room to fetch her something. Upon entering the room with a lantern, the first thing I noticed was a number of strange looking creatures running about all over the place seeking darker shelters. Almost instantaneously my aunt rushed in telling me to beware of the scorpions. She almost pushed me out and, grabbing a man’s footwear that was lying there, she began attacking the ones still nearest the door. Presently some were killed and the rest disappeared. I had heard of scorpions and their poisonous stings but had not seen one until that night. Those were my first moments of fear in Kandibagh, the home of my parents until about ten years ago.
Aunt’s home actually occupied a wing of the Mirza Kala. It was so named because my ancestors who built it were the mirzas (Scribes), tutors and land measurers of the village and nearby kalas for generations. Some of these kalas truly looked like fortresses with towers on two or all four corners. The towers were equipped with windows and tiny rectangular holes through which to aim guns and shoot at the enemy outside without being observed. The towers stood several pakhsas (units of measurement for wall height roughly equal to two feet) higher than the surrounding walls which stood about l3 pakhsas high. The base of the wall was worked with stones, pebbles and mud whereas the rest of the walls was mainly made with mud specially hardened with oxen treading on it for long periods of time. The base was over one yard wide and the wall tapered off to a width of about one foot at the top. It was then covered with a layer of flat rock protruding both outwards and inwards and then covered with a semicircle of mud forming the top . Every pakhsa was built all the way around and then left to dry out somewhat during which some cracks would appear in the pakhsas. Pieces of rock would be placed on top of the cracks to stop the crack expanding to and affecting the next layer of pakhsa. Some people left rectangular holes in a row above the eighth or ninth pakhsa for defense purposes. The gate area was treated differently as huge beams of wood were laid out flat marking the top of the gate. The gate itself consisted mainly of two sections, sometimes three, with a smaller door incorporated in one panel for a person to get through when the main gate remained locked for some reason.
Generally the towers were used as living rooms as they furnished enough breeze when the windows were opened and the view was gorgeous from up there. Only people would not want to entertain outside guests in the tower rooms as they did not like guests to be able to observe their womenfolk working or walking about in the yard. The lower level rooms of the towers were also used as living quarters or storage rooms all the way down to the ground level.
A kala could belong to one family or to a number of families. In the latter instance, they would be kith and kin if possible. If not, then they would be mainly the farmers in the employ of one or more families or even tenant farmers working an absent owner’s land. Depending on the number of original families owning a kala, it is generally subdivided in two, three, four or more parts, all of them opening on to the main gate through an alley running straight down the kala from the main gate. As one entered a family quarter from a door in the alley, one would find oneself in a courtyard. There would be a barn on one side and a series of rooms on the other side. The rooms, rarely on the second floor, could be used as grain storage spaces, general storage, bedrooms etc. There would be a special area behind the barn used as an outhouse. Sometimes, people created a special room on a corner of the roof which also protruded beyond the kala wall. This room would be provided with a hole on its floor giving it an outhouse effect. In such cases, the owners would build three additional support walls, outside the kala wall, all the way up to the floor of such outhouses in order to give them a neat appearance. Some yards would also have a tree or two for shade and where the yards were spacious, there would also be some vegetable and flower beds. There would be an outside kitchen most often under the stairway to the roof for summer cooking and a separate room for winter months. The room thus used would also have a hole in the ceiling for smoke to rise out of. Protection would be provided on top of the hole against rain water as the hearth would be directly beneath the hole where all the cooking would be done.
The hearth would have the appearance of an open fireplace with a metal triangle sitting atop three iron or mud legs at a height of about ten inches. Cooking fire would be made with wood or dried out animal dung or dried out roots of desert plants collected during early winter and stored in a room for the purpose. A cooking pot would be placed on the triangular mounds and at least on one side of the fireplace there would be placed a gelim, or nimsai (felt floor covering) and cotton mattress for the family to sit on and eat and chat while the wife or mother cooked dinner or baked bread. The latter would have one side of the fireplace all to herself as her pots and pans and other paraphernalia would be spread all about her. Depending on the economy of the family, everyone would sleep in the same room after dinner, as it would be the only room which would be warm from the heat of the fireplace, or disperse to several unheated rooms. In the case of my aunt, she occupied the farthest of a series of rooms along the wall of the property to the right of the entrance door.
Aunt kept her grain in a corner of her rather large room. There were three kutts there. Blankets, mattresses and pillows were stored on one. The other two had straw mattresses and pillows only. Her boxes, perhaps containing her clothing and other belongings, were piled in a far corner. Her water mugs were placed on a stand immediately to the left of the entrance to the room. Her pots and pans, dishes and cups and other cooking utensils were hung from the wall just behind where she sat by the fireplace to do her cooking. The room had no window, so the only light to it came from the door and the smoke outlet in the ceiling. Several wooden pillars kept the roof in place. Otherwise the room would have been a small one, as the beams used were rather short and would not have reached from wall to wall to create such a large room. Long poplar beams were used in Kabul, which made residences roomier. Some of the kutts were taken out to the yard every day to sit or rest on whenever possible. Aunt’s husband used to sit on one just before he got ready to go to the fields. Later when he came home in the late afternoon, he would again sit on one and drink some tea and chat with her and his kids. At night the kutts were returned to the room and prepared as beds to sleep on.
During summer, Aunt had her kutt taken to the roof where it would be prepared as a bed each night. Usually there would be a floor covering by the bed where she and her husband would sit and chat during the evenings that she had his company until the next morning. This was an every-other-day schedule and was strictly maintained throughout the year.
Guests who were not close relatives, stayed and slept in the hujra (outside guest quarters) adjacent to the masjid (mosque) which was also an integral part of any kala. These hujras consisted of a large room with a door, two or more windows and smoke outlets in the roof. They were provided with several kutts and one or two floor coverings around the inevitable fireplace. Appropriate bedding would be provided by the host family to its guests. If the guest happened to be a passerby, then the family whose turn it was to send food out to the mula (leader of prayers) of the masjid, would also provide food and bedding to that guest. The nightly feeding of such a guest or guests, as well as that of the mula, was the duty of the kala families on a rotation basis. The kala’s men would attend the early-morning and the last two prayers of the day in the masjid behind the imam. The other two daily prayers would be performed out in the fields, often individually.
Women stayed and prayed inside the kala, always singly. Sometimes they prayed at the karaze where they went to fetch water or to wash clothes during the day. Female guests were received inside the kala and on such occasions, the men would generally stay and sleep in the hujra.
I soon found that the constant company of my aunt and the other women, loving and caring though it was, bored me. I wanted to go out to the dera (shaded rest area in the fields) and be near the men on the farm and, most of all, get to play with boys my age. Aunt, however, had seen to it that a boy from the kala come every morning to play with me. This was all right for a few days. I learned how to camouflage a trap made of two half circled pieces of wood, a short stick and some yarn to catch birds out in the fields adjacent to the kala. We trapped several birds in the first few days. Some we released after keeping them for a short while; some we killed, roasted and ate. The birds were either sparrows or finches which I already recognized, or one that was called “zerokai” for its yellow breast feathers. Our first catch was the zerokai who seemed unable to stand on both its legs after it was released from the trap. The kala boy, however, assured me that its leg was not broken. He tied a minute splint to the one weak leg of the bird, let it go and it flew away. Next, we caught a finch which he gave me to keep, saying it would sing in the early morning. He told me he would make a cage for it from mulberry branches and I was to feed it rice, dried bread and use the cover of a water mug as a trough for it to drink from. We tied a length of yarn to its leg and placed it on a branch of a tree nearby and then started to build the cage. We removed the fresh bark of some young shoots in long strips, used it to tie the stripped shoots together at one end. Then we made several circular forms from other stripped shoots each a little larger than the other. We then tied them along the open lengths of the shoots of the former unit starting with the smallest circular form and gradually going on until we reached and tied the ends of the shoots to the largest circular form. This formed the base of the cage after we placed a tentative floor of leaves in place. In order to make a door for the cage, my partner cut a couple of shoots at the points where we had knotted the two units together. This gave us a hole for the door. Then he made a door from some other shoots and tied it to the side of the hole. When you closed it and tied the door to the nearest shoot adjacent to the open side of the door, you had yourself a pretty neat bird cage.
The finch became my prized possession that day and for the next two days. On the fourth morning, I discovered that some cat had attacked it during the night and killed it, although the cat had not eaten it. It broke my heart, and I cried a lot and blamed my aunt for not being careful enough. She consoled me and promised to catch a maina for me inside the courtyard. These were rather big black birds with yellow beaks and legs and white feathers on their wings. There always were a lot of them around, as no one used them for food and they were too cunning for man and cat alike. I said I did not want a big ugly bird like a maina and that I would only keep a zerokai or a finch. She said that if we caught a young maina, I could, in time, teach it to talk. She assured me that this was the truth and that mainas had been known to talk .
The idea was thrilling and I went along with it. Preparations were soon underway to catch me a maina. My aunt, like all the other women in the kala , kept her daily milk, yogurt, butter and cooked foods underneath huge baskets in a shaded area of her courtyard. This was the method used to protect foods from flies, cats and dogs and, of course, the clever mainas. A rather heavy flat rock was always placed on top of the inverted basket so that it could not be tampered with by the cats or dogs. Aunt now used just such a basket as a snare. She tied a string to a six inch long stick and stood it precariously under the rim of the basket holding the latter high on one side so that a maina could easily walk through. There were some of the usual food commodities under the basket so the cunning mainas might not feel they were being tricked. I was told to hold on to the other end of the string quite some distance away until some birds actually went under the basket. As soon as this happened, I was as to give a hard tug at the string thus trapping it. Aunt had also strewn some grains of corn around the food containers under the basket as bait for the mainas. But I soon discovered that these birds were not so easy to catch. Soon enough some of them landed near the basket but instead of going right in, they walked cautiously around it stopping several times and looking around to see if some people were in the immediate vicinity. One or two flew away but a few lingered on still wary of entering the basket. Perhaps they sensed that an open basket, being a rare occurrence, meant that something out of the ordinary was about to happen. Eventually one not-so-clever maina decided it was all right and walked into my trap. I looked at my aunt and, upon her signal, I gave the string a strong jerk. The maina flew from under the basket before it could close down on him. All the other mainas also flew off and I thought that was the end of the attempt. But Aunt tried a second and a third time and we finally caught three mainas. I was delighted at our accomplishment but my pleasure was short lived, for no sooner had Aunt raised the rim of the basket to grab one of them when all three fluttered out and flew off. We persisted and finally Aunt was able to grab one bird at the risk of getting several bloody pecks, in the process, from the mean bird. We tied a string to one of its legs after Aunt had first clipped its wings. I tried to get close to it with some grains of corn in the palm of my hand, but the bird would not let me get close to it. By late in the afternoon, however, the maina finally gave up running away from me. It even accepted the grain that I offered it by throwing it near the bird’s feet. By next morning, it seemed quite ready to receive the corn grains from my hand without pecking at my flesh. I offered it water which it drank, to my joy. By the end of the second day, I tried, and succeeded, to make it sit on my index finger without fear. My aunt assured me that the maina we had captured was a young one and that it could truly be taught to talk. I gave it a name which I repeated dozens of times in the hope that the bird would say it back to me. But this was not to be. Sometime during its second night it had fallen off the branch of the mulberry where we had perched it and, unable to fly up to the branch due to its clipped wings, it had died hanging by the string around its leg.
That was the last of my attempts to catch birds. I refused to go out with the boy from the kala. I brooded on the kutt under the tree all day and would hardly speak to anyone. Finally Aunt asked me if I would like to go to my uncle’s for a night or two. I said I would. I thought I might see some of my uncle’s pupils and make friends with them.
My uncle, Mama (mother’s brother), lived at the edge of the village. Aunt had told me there would be several boys and girls my age in the village with whom I could play. She said she would take me there the next day as it was too far from her home. But I remembered it to be quite close, as we crossed it to reach my great-uncle’s dera on the day of my arrival about ten days ago. Poor Aunt had no recourse other than to let me go as I insisted to be taken there the same evening. So she asked her stepson to take me to Mama’s. It took us less than fifteen minutes to get there. At my remark that Aunt was mistaken when she said that Mama’s home was far away, he raised a bemused eye brow and merely said that Aunt was an old woman after all. I knew it was not so but it told me a lot about the villagers’ judgement of time and distance.
Much to my aunt’s dismay, my visit to the village of Kandibagh and mama’s house there was to last the remainder of my sojourn in the Chaparhar region of the Nangarhar Province.
The village resembled Kabul in so far as it had a couple of streets, several shops, however small, and a square where the little boys and girls of the village usually played. Originally it had two gates and was walled all around. But one gate had been demolished some how and people and cattle could enter the village freely at all times. I also found out that the other gate, which was still in place, was never closed. Also a section of the wall closest to the karaze was either left open or the door to it had been removed, as men and women easily walked out to the karaze for ablution, or washing or just to fetch water at all times.
One could buy cookies, candies or popcorn, made on the spot, using corn brought in by the customers themselves. You could pay cash for what you bought. You could also buy things with grain, cotton, spun yarn and the like. Mamanee (Mama’s wife) always gave me grains to take to the shops for whatever I needed to buy. Mama had two daughters; the older one, Hajira, was almost my age.
The square was just outside Mama’s home and I soon found several boys with whom I played several games. One of these games was played with a cloth ball. Boys and girls would divide into two teams. Each would have a captain. The captain would start the game by trying to strike the ball (which he or she had thrown toward him or her) with a stick. Three attempts would be made. Upon striking the ball, the hitter would run to the end base and wait there for a chance to run back to the home base. This chance occurred when a team member hit the ball and ran safely to the end base and the waiting player there also made it back safely to the home base. If any runner was hit by the ball or touched en route to either base by a ball carrier, or if the ball was caught in the air, then the other team took its turn at hitting the ball. This was rather similar to the topedanda (baseball) that I played in Kabul with my street friends. But here everyone played barefoot and the game included girls if they chose to play.
Another game was to make a hole in the ground wide enough to take about 6 or 8 walnuts thrown at it from a distance of about two yards. A player would throw a bunch of walnuts at the hole. Some of them would go in the hole and stay there while some would bounce out and roll away. If the number in the hole was even, the thrower would win a similar number from the person he was playing against. If it was an odd number, he would lose them to the other player. But the number that had rolled away would be the thrower’s. Players alternated in this game. This game was costly, for you had to buy your walnuts with grain, and if your mother became aware of it, you would not be permitted to buy the walnuts in the first place. This amounted to a form of gambling, frowned upon by parents and guardians alike.
They also played another game with walnuts. Two to four played. The players would line up their walnuts at two yards distance from each other. Then they would all go about seven yards away from the line of walnuts. A player would shoot his marble in the direction of the walnuts.. If his marble hit a walnut, that one became his property for the time being. When all players shot their marbles in the same manner, then the player whose marble had struck the first walnut had the first chance to attempt to strike again. He could start by aiming at, and striking the marble of a player. If he succeeded, that player would be out of the game. He could also choose to hit and pocket all the walnuts first and then attempt to throw the other players out of the game by striking their marbles one after the other. If, however, he missed, then it would be the turn of the next player in line to shoot his marble out of the game and repossess the walnuts he had hit and pocketed earlier. This player would then attempt to shoot the remaining players out to become the winner. The first player could also choose to strike all the walnuts and arrange for his marble to rest far away from the marbles of the others and then relinquish his turn to the next contender. In such a case, his marble would become the main target. If no one was able to strike it, the first player was automatically the winner of that round of the game. But if at the start, no one scored a hit, then the player whose marble landed closest to a walnut in the line, would start the play and the others took their turns according to the distance of their marbles from the walnuts. A player who first struck a walnut and pocketed it, had three choices of pursuing the game: He could throw all the other contenders out of the game by striking their marbles. He could strike the rest of the walnuts, pocket them and then go after the other players. He could choose to alternately strike the walnuts and marbles. If successful, he was the clear winner of the walnuts. If not, the next player got the same choices. This game lasted until the players lost all their walnuts to one person or they got tired and just quit with whatever number of walnuts they still possessed at the time. I knew this game from playing it in Kabul.
Another game, played predominantly by boys, was called Khosai. This game was a kind of wrestling between two persons or even two team members with each person having the use of just one hand and one leg, while holding the right leg from behind with the left hand. The person who fell first or lost control and let his leg touch the ground would lose the game or be knocked out of the team and the game would go on until just one person remained standing on one leg. This game I did not know anything about and did not dare to play.
I experienced my first swim in the karaze with girls. In Kabul such a thing was unheard of. Only boys swam in the brooks close to their homes or in some small ponds nearby. Girls would not even go near these places when boys were around. In my case it was my Mama’s daughters and some other girls who were their friends. It started with an invitation to gather some fig fruits from a tree at the karaze, cool them in the water and then feast upon them. The idea was exciting and I immediately accepted. This, too, was my second morning at my uncle’s. Early that morning we headed for the karaze, almost next door. Hajira, my cousin, climbed the tree and, picking the figs one by one, carefully dropped them in the karaze water. I was to see to it that the figs did not get carried away by the flow. When she had thus picked enough figs, she climbed down and helped me rinse the fruit delicately in the cool water and showed me how to peel the very thin deep violet outer skin off the figs before eating them. I was not very pleased by the sound that the crushing of the seeds made between my teeth but the taste by far surpassed the inconvenience of the seeds. I think we both very much enjoyed the treat.
Later that day I coaxed Hajira to another assault on the fig tree. By this time the sun was high up and when we went to the karaze, we found a few girls our age already playing in the little brook. Hajira made me take off my shirt before I entered the water to collect the falling figs. Being half naked and skinny, I felt embarrassed, as the girls, covered down to their shanks, started to splash water at me amid bursts of laughter. Pretty soon I was soaking wet. My baggy trousers began sticking to my bony legs making me feel ridiculous standing there and being laughed at by a bunch of village girls. I promptly lay down and submerged all but my head in the water. Hajira began throwing figs into the brook and I busied myself collecting them. The girls also began to help. Some women came to fetch water for their cooking and drinking needs but they went upstream and paid us no attention. I noticed that some girls were eating the figs rather than just blocking their floating down the brook. I did the same. Hajira saw us and threatened she would stop her work up in the tree if we did not wait for her. We had to comply. Finally she joined us and we all had a session of fig eating amid laughter and joy and no more embarrassment.
Unfortunately that experience was not to be repeated. Apparently some women had noticed me in the water and had expressed their surprise and anger to my Mamani for having me trespass into the women’s section of the karaze. Their anger was not simply at the fact that I was a boy who should not be allowed to be there but also that I had come from the Big City. How was it that Mamani had permitted me to play, half-naked with the girls? This was unforgivable. So Mamani promptly forbade me from going into the women’s area of the karaze again. Of course I did not tell her that it was Hajira who had invited me to do so in the first place. Had I done so, Hajira would have received a good spanking. For this, she told me, she was extremely grateful. I discovered later that a section of the karaze, further up-stream, was enclosed for men to wash themselves in very early in the morning and to make ablutions for the various prayers of the day.
I never did go to great-uncle’s kala. I was quite happy at Mama and Mamani’s for I had found several boys to play with. Hajira, of course, was always at my side. She watched me when I played marbles with the boys. And whenever the others went home, we just sat somewhere under a mulberry and chatted. Hajira used to ask me questions about the city, its streets, shops, people, their homes, the public baths for women and a lot more. I enjoyed telling her about them. My description of Kabul homes and furnishings, vastly different as they were from the village homes, fascinated her most of all. I thought that she had fallen in love with Kabul because she never stopped asking questions about it. Her enchantment was, perhaps, due to my emphasizing the difference between Kandibagh and Kabul in replying to her questions. Hajira wished that she, too, were living in Kabul. She asked if I would take her there some day. I said I would. To me this seemed a real possibility and, of course, I would have been delighted to show her the city in all its glamour. She would see and enjoy city life during her sojourn. What I did not know then was that Hajira had also fallen in love with the first Kabuli she had seen, and my agreeing to take her to Kabul some day, had actually been taken as a promise of marriage to her.
Many years later, when I visited the village again, both Hajira and I were married, had different partners. I was astounded when she, at the first opportunity of being momentarily alone with me, confronted me with my ‘broken promise’. I had not taken her to the city as I had told her I would so many years ago. To her that had meant going to Kabul as my bride. She had waited and waited all those years. She was certain that I would come for her, but this had not happened. Finally, just a year before my visit, her mother had forced her to marry another cousin, her maternal aunt’s son who already had a wife. She had cried and cried and had even mentioned the possibility of marrying me. Mamani, however, had forcefully denied the existence of such a possibility. After all, my parents had never approached her parents on the subject and she was not about to offer her daughter to a sister-in-law who had hardly visited the village since she moved to Kabul. Hajira had gone to her husband’s home in the big kala, midway between Kandibagh and Mirza Kala, to live there with her cousin and his other wife. And she had hardly felt the joys of a newlywed when she was asked to join the other women in the chores of farm life. It was such a cheerless life. How could I have let her down so! And now I had finally come when her dreams were all shattered and I had married someone else!
I felt very sorry for her. But in all sincerity I had never thought her prospective visit to Kabul was anything other than a mere visit to Kabul of an awe-struck little country girl who happened to be my cousin and with whom I had had some good time many years ago. Marriage was never on my mind then. Perhaps in certain ways she was more ‘mature’ than I. And now, I was married. My marriage, too, was arranged by my parents, more so by my paternal grandmother who had insisted that she see a great-grandson or two before she passed away. At eighteen, I was the only eligible bachelor in the household and it was clearly my duty to oblige. The match was struck with the parents of a sixteen-year-old daughter of a neighboring ‘uncle’ merely because the two families had known each other for many years. That, too, was just a year ago. It pained me to see Hajira so unhappy and married, as a second wife, with progeny as the main motive. There was nothing that could be done to change the situation. After my first visit to Kandibagh, I had all but forgotten my ‘promise’ to my cousin. This time, I did not, indeed could not, forget her censure, undeserved and futile as it was. It haunted me for many years.