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IN THE LAND of BLUE BUBQAS
By KATE MCCORD
Copyright © 2012 Kate McCord
All right reserved.
Chapter One Become one of us, Foreigner
I climbed into the rickshaw, a 125cc motorcycle with a pickup truck bed welded over shock-less back tires. The rickshaw had metal sidewalls and a burgundy canvas roof stretched over metal rails and trimmed with fat, swinging, red tassels. Plastic sheets covered the space between the walls and roof making a sort of blurry window just below eye level. The back was open, allowing entrance and a view to the street behind. In the truck bed, two narrow metal benches covered with thin red cushions provided just enough space for four people to sit hip-to-hip on each side, knees interlocking with four facing passengers on the opposite bench.
Inside the rickshaw were two men, one with a gray beard and the other with a long black one. As soon as they saw me, the black-bearded man shifted beside the other, making space for me to sit alone on one side of the rickshaw. It was the right thing to do, and I was pleased that they had adjusted. The rules in Afghanistan are clear, and all must follow them.
I lifted my long coat with one hand, pulled myself up with the other, and climbed in, careful not to brush against the men's knees as I sat. I wedged my hand between one of the metal roof rails and the stretched canvas it supported, locked on, lowered my head, and watched the street outside the back. The boy rickshaw operator popped into gear and bounced down one of the few paved roads in the Afghan town in which I lived.
I had muttered a soft "Salaam" as I climbed inside. It's polite, although a woman hidden under the all-encompassing blue burqa probably wouldn't have done it. The two men eyed me. That was rude, and they certainly wouldn't have stared if my face had been hidden. I was used to it. Virtually all Afghan men, completely unashamed, stared at me wherever I went—another price of being a foreign woman in Afghanistan.
It was early winter, the season of cold, intermittent rain and mud. I wore a long, dark blue coat made of a gabardine-like fabric. Draped around my head was a thin, burgundy scarf, loosely wound, my brown bangs resting against the edge of my sunglasses. I had a small, black leather purse across one shoulder with a bright yellow telephone pouch and a bunch of keys clipped on with a carabiner. Often, well-intentioned Afghan men told me that I should put my telephone and keys away where they wouldn't be stolen: "You can't trust anyone here." They had no idea how strong that carabiner was.
I had my own objectives. The phone was security. I had to be able to hear it and reach it quickly. In Afghanistan, I lived without armed guards or concertina wire. My body armor was a cotton scarf and gabardine coat; my combat boots, sandals, or slip-on shoes; my phone, a lifeline—literally.
In America, people carry their cell phones because they're emotionally attached to them. They wouldn't dream of being out of touch. In Afghanistan, I carry mine because I must. Suppose one of my coworkers is kidnapped or there's a bomb threat in town. How would I know? If I were lucky, I would get a phone call or text message. Or suppose someone tried to kidnap me? I had to keep my cell phone near at all times.
The keys were another matter. I had a habit of collecting swirling clouds of children around me whenever I walked down my street. They all knew me and loved to draw close. I certainly couldn't be digging through my purse to find anything with such an entourage. Everything the foreigner has or does is fascinating. I wanted my gate key handy.
I wore dark sunglasses, even in overcast weather, and women in sunglasses were always an unusual sight. I had found wearing the glasses easier than exposing my shockingly blue eyes. Afghans said it was good that I hid my eyes behind the sunglasses. They told me it was good that I dressed conservatively, even if I didn't dress exactly like an Afghan woman. Often people thought I was a Muslim because I wore the long coat and headscarf. Misrepresenting myself was never my intention; avoiding stones thrown in rage was.
The two men, the gray-beard and the black-beard, studied me carefully. I hung on to the roof rail, pulled my knees close, and watched the paved road behind me. I suspected they would break the silence and hoped they wouldn't. I waited and thought of other trips I had taken in the company of other random men.
Once, in a different town, an Afghan taxi driver had asked me to take him to America. I had told him I couldn't; it wasn't possible.
"Because you're not my relative."
"No problem. I will marry you. Then you can take me to America." I remembered watching him smile in the rearview mirror. He had been delighted with his own cleverness.
I can't count the number of Afghan men who have offered to marry me. Afghan women have even asked me to marry their sons or their brothers. At first I thought it was just because I'm exotic, a crazy blue-eyed foreigner with a quick smile. Eventually, though, I figured it out. I was far too "other" to be safe or even comprehensible. If I was going to live there, among Afghans, they needed me to become one of them, to fit in their social construct. There's no place in Afghanistan for an independent, unmarried adult woman. I didn't make sense. And anyway, in Afghanistan, marriage is a legal, practical arrangement. It isn't meant to be the deep, romantic companionship we prize in the West.
With that taxi driver from the other city, I had taken a guess. "You know, not everyone in America is a Muslim. Very few women wear headscarves."
At that, he shot me a wide-eyed glance in his rearview mirror. "But you do."
I smiled and responded, "Not in America."
He arched his back, stretched his neck, and completely abandoned the road for the rearview. "You walk around with your head naked?"
I narrowed my eyes and grinned. "Yep." I wanted to add, "You'd better believe it, buddy" but figured I'd expressed enough.
His response had been classic Afghan male. He lowered his eyebrows, tilted his head downward, and lectured me through the rearview: "You should be ashamed of yourself. And if America is like that, I don't want to go."
I figured his marriage proposal had just vanished. Ah, me, another opportunity lost. I smiled, grateful, and gently told the driver, "I know, you are not American." For him, the other, the stranger, the one who is not like us is simply incomprehensible.
I remembered that driver as the two men in the cabin of the metal rickshaw studied my clothes. They could see the edge of my calf-length navy skirt and the bottoms of my lightweight black tambon pants sticking out from underneath. They looked at my foreign shoes, ankle-high, flat-heeled, slip-on leather boots with Velcro closures. Certainly not the typical, shiny black plastic slip-ons or high-heeled, long-pointed shoes Afghan women favor. I think they even looked at my socks. In the winter, I always wore thick, brown, smart wool socks that someone had sent me from America. They were the best for the ice and cold. I only wished they were black so they'd disappear under my tambons.
All the while our little metal rickshaw with its boy driver bounced and braked and jerked along the main street through our little town. I clung to the metal roof bar and kept my eyes on the street behind us. It would only take a few minutes to reach the center of town where I'd jump down, pay a few Afghan coins, and go about my business. I wondered if I'd make it without conversation, but that wasn't to be.
I could see the gray-beard out of the corner of my eye, stroking his beard, considering his question. Finally, he found one. "Where are you from?" A simple question, but like any interaction in Afghanistan, full of potential danger or gracious welcome.
I didn't take my eyes off the street behind us. "America," I said, without apology, arrogance, or pride. I simply answered his question.
In my part of Afghanistan, Germany is more popular than America. For the most part, locals don't like America and have, on many occasions, made that very clear to me. Once, a bearded man in another rickshaw told me Americans were black-hearted, evil, and cruel. Germans were good. I had been very polite and had asked, "Do you believe I'm black-hearted, evil, and cruel?" I'd put him on the spot. I knew there was no way he could insult me. I was his guest.
That man had responded quickly, almost stammering, "No, no. You are our guest. Obviously, you are a good person. You must be here to help us. Do you work for an NGO? Which one? What kind of projects does your NGO do? Ah, that's very good. See, you are here to help us. You are good."
That day I had ignored offense and sidestepped confrontation. Before I had climbed out of that rickshaw, I had spoken a blessing over the man. It was a small blessing, but still generous: "May God bless you and your family." He'd been delighted.
This day, though, I was with two different men in the back of a rickshaw who were studying me closely. I waited, held on to the roof rail, and wondered where the conversation would go.
On some trips to the town center, I caught rickshaws full of women and children, uncomfortably packed, but I could climb inside without any trouble or fear. Sometimes I caught rickshaws with men, and they made space for me. I've stood on the street and waited until they all shifted and were satisfied that they had created an appropriate place for me to sit. They always did. The rules are clear.
Once I climbed into an old Russian taxi with space for three in the back and two on the passenger seat in the front. When I climbed in, there had been only a single male passenger in the front seat, plus the driver. I sat in the empty backseat. We drove from one to another small village outside of town. That vehicle was a linie, a taxi that drives the same route over and over, back and forth. It picks up whoever wants a ride. Everyone shares the space. If there's no room in the vehicle, the children sit on the roof and the women in the trunk. It's dirt cheap and easy to catch. That particular line cost something like ten cents for a twenty-minute trip.
I had been alone in the backseat of that vehicle. It was a nice ride. When the vehicle stopped to pick up another man, he immediately climbed onto the passenger seat in the front, jamming in next to the other passenger who already had that seat. I still had the entire backseat to myself. Then the driver stopped to pick up another man. That rider slid into the wide backseat next to me, and I immediately got out of the vehicle. I told the two men in the front seat to move into the back and they did. They smiled, sheepishly, but they did it. I slipped into the front passenger seat. There are rules, and they're important. They must be obeyed.
Once I even moved passengers on an airplane. I was flying from Istanbul to Kabul on a late-night flight. There was one other woman in the waiting lounge, a French aid worker living in Kabul. I asked her to sit with me, and she agreed. The plane was packed. About half the passengers arrived in the departure lounge in handcuffs. They were illegal refugees evicted by the German government. Their warders removed their shackles just before the illegal refugees boarded the plane. The French woman's assigned seat was in the center of a row of three. Mine was by the window in a row of two. I stood in the aisle next to my assigned seatmate, a young man newly freed from his German chains, and loudly ordered him to move and take the place of my companion. He hesitated. The flight attendant told me to take my seat, but I refused. "It's not appropriate. He must move." The other Afghan men seated nearby laughed at the youth and commanded him to yield. My French companion and I took our seats and slept peacefully all the way to Kabul. There are rules—rules about what to wear, where to sit, when to marry, and more. They must be obeyed.
The gray-bearded man in the back of the rickshaw with me knew the rules too. He could talk to me but not touch me. I could talk to him but should not look directly into his eyes. Instead, I studied the broken, potholed road behind us and waited.
Finally, the gray-beard leaned his relaxed face just slightly toward me, cocked his head sideways, and asked me honestly if there were mosques in America.
I breathed. It wasn't a threatening question. I have a stock response and gave it without looking at the man: "Yes, there are mosques in America. America is a free country, and people can worship God as they choose."
The gray-bearded man nodded thoughtfully. He stroked his long beard. Then he asked the expected question: "Are you a Muslim?"
I hesitated. His was a common question and I'd faced it many times. No matter what I said, my response wouldn't please him. I considered my options, the situation, and the rickshaw that both carried and trapped me.
The man hadn't asked if I went to the mosque in America. In Afghanistan, women don't go to mosques. There are a few exceptions, but so rare you can count them. Most of the women I know in Afghanistan, literally hundreds, have never walked into a mosque in their adult lives.
In Afghanistan, the culture, the rules are synonymous with the Holy Quran and the Hadith. A Muslim is a person who submits to these rules. The Quran, of course, is the holiest book of Islam, considered to be the very words of Allah spoken in Arabic, the language of Allah. The Hadith, and there are many, are written collections of the teachings and examples of the Prophet Mohammed. Most of Sharia law, the law of Islam, is drawn from the Hadith.
In Afghanistan, women wear burqas, the blue chadaris with the screen woven over the eyes. Burqas are required by the Holy Quran and the Hadith. Women cannot allow a male doctor or nurse even to take their blood pressure, let alone listen to their hearts, because it's the commandment of the Holy Quran or the Hadith. Women must ask their husbands' permission before they can leave the walls of their compound. These are all commandments.
Whether the Muslim holy books record these as true commandments or not isn't relevant in Afghanistan. If the local mullah, the neighborhood religious leader, says this is what the Prophet Mohammed taught, then that's all there is to it. There's nothing to debate. There are rules, and they must be followed without question.
I lived in Afghanistan for five years. I learned the rules. I had to.
The gray-beard and black-beard in the back of the rickshaw eyed me. The gray-beard had asked me, "Are you a Muslim?" For him, the word Muslim had a very clear definition. He did not just mean, "Are you submitted to God?" To which I could have said, "Yes, of course." He meant something much more precise: "Do you submit to the laws of the Prophet Mohammed as recorded in the Holy Quran and Hadith and as taught by the mullahs?"
Whatever true response I could give would not be welcome. Still, I could only give a true response. I answered the gray-bearded man's question softly and again without arrogance or apology. "No, I am not a Muslim. I am a follower of the Honorable Jesus Messiah."
I didn't look directly at either man. That would be rude. I kept my eyes down on the gray-beard's gnarled hands resting loosely on his knees. They didn't flinch, and I relaxed. He had accepted my answer.
I flicked my eyes across him and then looked down again. He was wearing a light-brown wool blanket called a pathu that wrapped around his shoulders and hung down to just above his knees. Beneath it, he had a khaki Shalwar karneez, the knee-length, cotton blend, long-sleeved shirt and matching oversized pajama bottoms. He wore rubber boots like English wellies but cheaper. He had a light gray, fairly small turban wrapped around his head. The color of his turban indicated that he was not a mullah. In our area, most mullahs wore white turbans. Some wore black, but that's the Taliban style. The size of his turban indicated he was probably Tajik. Most Pashto men wear larger turbans if they wear turbans at all. I took all this in with the slightest glance but kept my eyes downward.
I caught the measure of the black-bearded man in the same brief flicker. He wore a black turban, slightly smaller, in the northern style. He would be conservative and perhaps a mullah. His beard was chest long, like his Prophet's. Beneath that, he wore a brown pathu, similar to the older man's and a light brown Shalwar kameez. I caught his face just briefly and stiffened; I was not out of danger.
The black-bearded man scowled, brows furrowed, mouth tight as one might scowl at a hated child or a loose dog. He leaned too close to my face and glared directly into my averted eyes. His words came out as a command, short and abrupt: "You should become a Muslim. It would be better for you in this life and the next."
My body shivered.
It was not unusual for Afghans to press me to convert. I doubt if a week went by when someone didn't try. Usually, they just encouraged me to say the Shahada in Arabic, the Muslim statement of faith. I knew better than to say it. If I recite the phrase, I am automatically Muslim. My conversion would be irrevocable.
Excerpted from IN THE LAND of BLUE BUBQAS by KATE MCCORD Copyright © 2012 by Kate McCord. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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