Crossing the Valley
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As I sat through the family gathering, I listened to the constant chatter and laughter of my family members. The intoxicating aroma of barbequed chicken and beef kabab, home-made bread, Bolaani, pilaou rice, Ahshak, and several pots of vegetable stews lingered everywhere. After all, since eating is a favorite hobby of Afghans, there is no such thing as an Afghan gathering without good food! I pondered for days as to which immigrant I’d interview and it dawned on me that my own family members all have interesting journeys to share.
My grandmother has been a housewife all her life, yet she remains a truly amazing and devoted mother and grandmother as well as an overall strong individual. Throughout her life, she has constantly served others without a thought to her own well-being and the same is reflected in her three daughters. She frequently calls others younger than her as “Jaan” (dear, sweetheart or life) and “Bachai” (youngling). She is often heard ranting enthusiastically about our great Afghanistan and her hope of returning to her ‘little house.’ Furthermore, she encourages all of her grandchildren to remain constantly loyal to Afghanistan, our culture and our heritage. To our parents’ slight humor, she will often spite her own children to spoil her grandchildren because as she says “Bachai, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here so I want all of you to remember me as a loving and caring person.”
I remember one night my cousins and I slept over at her house and she kept us up until almost 2:00 in the morning lecturing about life and what it took to be a ‘Great Afghan.’ “Bachai, it doesn’t matter if some else is from a different religion, country or ethnicity, what you must always remember is their character.” What I always take away with me from my grandmother is that she no matter what happens to her, she will continue with life and never falter in her step.
Although I hated doing the dishes after our family had eaten (there were always so many!), it was the only time I could catch my grandma alone so I helped her rinse. Although my grandmother has a brand-new dishwasher, she has never used it. When I asked her about it, she said that it was another unnecessary luxury of American life which makes people lazy. “Why should I let machines do the work when I am healthy and alive and I can still do work myself?” As I prepared for another lecture about our great Afghanistan, Nahid (one of my cousins) helped dry the dishes and Suhail (another cousin) began to put the dishes away. I noticed that if I asked my grandmother a question, she would answer it vaguely; yet, she would go on about what she deemed important.
It was hard at first to get her to talk about her early years with the rest of the family but she eventually opened up. My grandmother’s life has been one of hardships. She was born on 1920 with the name of Khawar in the village of Ghazni and my great-grand-mother passed away when my grandma was around 11 years old. Afterwards, her father remarried so that someone could help raise his children. My grandmother talked much more about her life after marriage. She moved from Ghazni to Kabul after she married and she had six children. My mother was first born. My grandfather worked for the government and when I asked for specifics, my grandmother stated, “Your grandfather was a great man, there will not be anyone like him. He would help anyone that needed it without any thought to himself. I remember one time, it was almost time for your mother and aunts and uncles to go to school…but your grandfather saw a couple of poor children and he gave the books, notebooks and utensil’s to those poor souls. I wonder whatever happened to them. They would always play with the children in the neighborhood. May Allah watch over them wherever they are…those poor souls. The Taliban are such evil people! They have destroyed everything.”
My grandma is illiterate, she never learned to read or write, because she never had the need to. She had an arranged marriage to my grandfather when she was about 21 years old. When I asked her about her house in Afghanistan, she talked for exactly 47 minutes, “We had a beautiful house with all sorts of trees and vegetation…whatever we wanted, we went and got from our own yard…we never bought any food…it was all homemade…people here eat and eat and they get big! There, we ate a lot more than here but we never became so big…it was the air that we breathed that kept us healthy…no cars, you see…the water gave us energy and we drank from the streams because the water came from deep inside the earth where the water is clean and pure. We did all of our own work and still managed to help others out.”
In Afghanistan, my grandfather was put in jail for about two years because he disagreed with the government. After he was released, my entire family moved to Iran. I asked her about living in Pakistan and Iran. She answered with sadness. “Oh, Bachai, our lives were so hard. The people there treated us very badly. Your poor uncle worked so hard to get us to where we are now…we risked everything, even our lives, for our children…so you could have a better life.” My oldest uncle, Haider, worked extremely hard to get his family out of Iran to travel into Pakistan. My grandmother talked about how my Haider lived in a body of a car with a little stove as his only heat in the winter. The Afghans were treated horribly in Iran because the poverty, loss of jobs, and lack of money was all blamed on the Afghans. Iranians were not allowed to hire Afghans, and those that secretly did, made the Afghans work and take jobs that no ‘civilized’ Iranian wanted and often cheated them out of their already low wages. “Some Iranian neighbors were very kind and they helped us get adjusted. They helped us a lot…other Afghans had to stand in line for nearly twelve hours to get loaves of bread or vegetables, but our neighbors helped us so that we could get everything fresh…May God watch over those souls who did so much for others.”
When my grandmother and aunt and uncles first came to America, life was very hard for them. “The house that they gave us was very dirty…the carpet was so black that if you walked, clouds of dust would rise up. I nearly broke my shoulders scrubbing, cleaning, dusting and washing the house to get it clean.” My aunt chipped in saying that they worked day and night to make themselves adjust to the American life style. “Your poor aunt and uncles, they went to school during the day time, and after school, they went straight to work. They worked at Denny’s or Wendy’s… anyway, it was one of the fast food restaurants…they always closed and when they came home, they would work on their homework until they fell into exhausted sleep at around 2:00…the whole cycle would begin the next day again when they woke up between 5:00 an 6:00 to take the bus to school.”
Here, my grandmother broke into tears and the children in the family were amazed. My grandmother was an emotional person but she always managed to keep her emotions in check so as not to worry others. “Mom, don’t cry, please…you’re going to make all of us cry!” One of my aunts cried. “I am sorry, Jaan. But we have come so far from that beginning. We didn’t know the language here, and now the children are beginning to forget their mother land! It is just upsetting.” My six year old cousin, Hannah, looked confused and I didn’t think she knew what to do or what was going on, so she just hugged my grandmother. My grandmother always said that there exists bad and good people in the world and that we must choose wisely. “When we first got here, one of the guards at the airport was very rude and mean to me…but the other people were so nice…we didn’t know what they were saying so we were very scared as to what would happened to us. Everyone was smiling and trying to help us.” I think that since that first day, my grandmother still hasn’t managed to learn very much English. She just smiles and people and says, “No speak English…talk to (and here, she’ll say someone’s name).”
When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother became even more attached to her children. Like the Hmong refugees from Laos, word of the death of an Afghan travels fast. People who did not know my family directly, still came because of respect or some distant relation. Within days, people from all over the world had called my grandmother about condolences. My grandmother spread her grief on her garden where she had dozens of different flowers and plants. She put all of her concentration and love into those plants and soon, the word of her fresh vegetables and beautiful flowers had spread to the Afghan families. Again, like the Hmong, the garden was of significant importance. My grandmother would spend her morning hours after prayer and preparing breakfast in her garden and after 6:00 in the afternoon, she could again be found in her garden tending her diverse vegetation.
The culture of Afghanistan is very different than that of America. In Afghanistan, elders were given the utmost respect and deviation from the norm was not accepted. The Afghan society is focused mainly on patriarchy although immigrants to Western society have smudged this, largely to adjust to a different life style. However, there were freedoms. When Afghans speak to children of Afghanistan, they always speak of the freedom and the focus on family life. Before the arrival of the ignorant Taliban, women went outside without scarf’s and did not fear prosecution because an ankle or a wrist showed. Women were prominent doctors, professors and teachers. Women and men were equals. Again, since our lives in America, we have had to become accustomed to a different language and culture. My family reminds me of “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.” My family is often loud and always has an opinion to give (even when they are not asked). My family can be compared somewhat to the families in the book, Voyages. Here, families of Tongan descent come to America. The families must decide what Tongan values to keep and which ones must be disposed of to fit in. The following quote from “Voyages,” sums up the problem in a nutshell. “When surrounded by a larger culture that does not share [the same] values, individuals can more easily evaluate…within alternative frameworks, picking and choosing, preserving, modifying or exaggerating what best suits their new lives.”
As I sat through the family get-together, politics was discussed to the point where the younger children had left the room out of boredom. My grandmother brought out deserts. She had made Shir-i-Birinj, Busrakh and homemade cake. Suhail brought out the tea cups and I brought out the pots of dark green and black tea flavored with cardamom. My Afghan family reminds me of “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.” We are usually loud and often give opinions (even when they are not wanted). My aunts and uncles have lost any faith in returning to Afghanistan. But my grandmother is enough to keep that dream and that desire alive in her grandchildren.
by Manija Sherzada