As we all slowly go back out into the real world and engage with our fellow humans, one of the things I’ve vowed to try and do more is be more present and interested in the people, places, and things around me. And so, today, as I got my haircut from the woman who has been — along with her husband — cutting my hair for many years now, I decided to ask her a question I have long been meaning to ask.
They are a kind, hard-working, and proud couple who clearly have a sweet and enduring love, and when they address each other, they do so in another language. The two of them remind me of another older couple I know, who came to America after fleeing the Islamic Revolution in Iran — so I have long assumed they might be speaking Farsi. But I wasn’t sure. And while I’ve wanted to ask for a while now, I’ve also feared being rude or worried about being unwelcome.
But today I finally got the courage to ask (while politely watching for any indication that she might not be open to sharing — which I, of course, would want to respect):
“What language are you two speaking to one another, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all. It is Farsi. Do you have any Persian friends?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I have had a few throughout the years. I thought that was the language you two were speaking. Did you come here from Iran?”
“My husband did. I met him here. I am originally from Afghanistan.”
She then went on to share her incredible life story with me. The youngest in a large family, she has three sisters and two brothers. Her mother was a housewife. Her father owned a small shoe manufacturing plant in Kabul, the Afghan capital. They were a middle-class family, but “when the communists took over, they confiscated the business, and our lives were never the same.”
Her oldest sister moved to the United States with her husband (who had been able to come here because he had been working for an American company in Afghanistan). As things got more difficult during the Afghan war with the USSR, her sister sponsored her to come to the United States.
At first, she was incredibly homesick. She dearly missed one of her younger cousins who had been living with her and her family. “He was a young, small boy — 3 or 4 at the time. He was almost like a son to me. So I cried almost every night for him. Many nights. Because I missed him.”
Early on, she had felt increasingly uncomfortable living with her sister and her sister’s family, like she was imposing on their lives. And she was still very homesick. So she eventually left America and returned to Afghanistan for a few years and became a teacher. The president at the time was a man named Mohammad Najibullah.
“Before he was president, he was a very violent and brutal man. But as president, he was the best we have ever had. It was a surprise. He was a strong leader. He knew Afghanistan needed to come together. He shared power with the other parties. He wanted peace. But when the Soviets finally left, some people still saw him as a Soviet puppet. Then the mujahideen took over and pushed him out of power — this was when I left again and could not go back.
“When the Taliban invaded Kabul a few years later, they captured him. They tortured him, executed him, and hung his body from a traffic light in a main part of Kabul — so everyone could see.
“Now Afghans joke that the mujahideen took our strong ox and gave us seven weak donkeys instead. Najibullah was our strong ox who united Afghanistan. Now it is broken in pieces.”
I asked her if she still missed Kabul: “No. Not anymore. I have been back to Afghanistan three times since 9/11. The first time I didn’t want to leave. I was so happy to be home. But every time I came back to visit, life there was a little harder. Now everybody there lives a very hard life — it is like ‘camping’ every day. It is very hard. The last time I was there, I went with my oldest sister. By the second day I was telling her I wanted to go home. I was so homesick for America.”
“You had come full circle?”
“Yes. Now I was homesick for America. I no longer felt Kabul was home. I have not been back since. I cannot go back. My middle sister is still there. I will Skype with her, and she says that her wish is to see me one more time before she dies. I tell her I hope so too — that I will try — because I don’t want to break her heart. I can’t break her heart. But I cannot go back. Maybe we can meet in another place, like Turkey. Maybe. But when things are better. Not now.”
My haircut was about over, and so she ended her story by making the point that Americans who complain about life here need to spend some time in other countries: “We are so lucky here. This is one of the best places to live in the world.”
I thank her for sharing her story. She thanks me for listening.
And I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity.
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