I love babies. I know it’s not considered manly in some circles to admit to this, and in some it’s even seen as “creepy”. But it’s true. I love babies and small children. I made two wonderful girls with my wife, and she managed to raise them to be extremely interesting young women, despite my globe-trotting lifestyle. I wished I could’ve spent more time with them, but that was not to be. You’ll note my fascination with babies and small children in my previous post about the Herat Women’s Prison at https://hotmilkforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/the-best-hotel-in-afghanistan-14-2/
So, when a year ago last winter my friend Nawab asked me to give a ride to a mutual friend so he could get to the hospital where his wife had just given birth to his new son, I jumped at the chance to go, despite the awful winter weather and lateness of the hour.
Getting to the hospital was quite a complex journey, driving through bazaars that had spilled out onto the streets, through construction zones that were mildly treacherous and coping with the unpredictable nature of Kabul’s street patterns. In order to facilitate such an overpopulation of automobiles, Kabul’s traffic engineers have been creating one-way streets and strategic roadblocks which serve to ease traffic jams, a bane of life in Afghanistan’s largest city.
After several switch-backs and driving places I really don’t think we should’ve driven, we arrive at the hospital.
Surprisingly, we were hustled up to the pediatric section of the hospital room and got to meet his first son, very soon after birth. The baby’s name is Ahmad. I was somewhat astounded that we were escorted directly into her room; I was operating under the assumption that the women’s portion of the hospital was off limits toward men.
The extended family filled the hospital room, and the new mother greeted us, looking wan and exhausted. My friend’s father was there as well, and he greeted us enthusiastically at the door of the hospital and he was the one who brought us upstairs to the pediatric section.
Once we had seen the baby, and talked to everyone, who thanked us profusely for bringing the new father to the hospital, we took our leave. But we had parked in a pool of what we thought was water, in a low place next to the hospital. As we pulled forward, our left rear tire exploded, having hit something large and sharp in the ground that completely shredded it.
I was able to get partway out of the pool of suspicious looking “water” but when we stopped and got out, it became obvious that the “water” was actually the result of an ice-plugged sewer. The smell was pretty foul, but the tire wasn’t going to fix it self.
As I wrestled jacks and the spare tire out of the truck, the entire neighborhood descended upon us to help. We had someone doing every possible job, including holding flashlights and lug nuts, just to make our task easier. If you’d ask a typical Westerner to describe what would happen if they blew a tire at night in Afghanistan, I bet their answer wouldn’t be “you’d meet a bunch of new friends you never thought you had”. But we met many new friends that night, as we struggled to change a tire in the worst possible conditions. Regardless of the help, it was necessary for me to get prone under the truck in several inches of really foul liquid, while wearing my best clothes.
After we finished changing the tire, and everyone had been hand-shaken, hugged and kissed, (I admit that the feel of a man’s whiskers on my cheeks is a bit “different”) the new father offered to take us to one of the nicer restaurants in town. Despite my being fairly covered in sewage, and my objections for a variety of reasons, I eventually accepted.
We went to “Mann’s Restaurant” which is not that far from the Afghan National Parliament. As you can see from the picture, it borrows a certain familiar design from another obscure restaurant that I assume no one will recognize.
Despite my cold and filthy clothes, which were slowly drying as we sat there, we were treated quite well, and the food was extremely delicious. We had a thick soup like egg drop, fried chicken done without breading, Afghan-style, tasty kabab, and Qabili Pilau, which was delicious. (On a later visit, the dishwasher boy accidentally broke a jar over the pilau and mine was full of glass shards, which I merely fished out and continued eating.)
After dropping the new father off at his apartment, we returned to ours, and were stopped by security because we were returning late enough that the new guard had never seen us, and didn’t know we belonged there. So, after a couple hours and waking up someone who could vouch for us, we finally got back to our beds, where we collapsed. After dealing with filthy clothing and a quick shower, of course.
I continue to be good friends with this man and his family. This family is ethnically Hazara and is very progressive. The husband and wife are both young professionals. They live in a nice small apartment in a good part of Kabul. I’ve watched their son grow to be quite the imp. He especially likes to “fly” and to attempt to pull on my beard and steal my glasses off my face. I’ve met her mother and his father, all of his brothers, and several of his friends. We occasionally get together at their apartment for an evening meal and conversation.
A typical evening consists of our arrival between 4-6 pm; for the first hour or so, we sit, drink tea and snack on nuts, raisins candy and cake and talk to the women of the family, with them occasionally leaving the conversation to attend to the early portions of meal preparation. Sometimes her friends are there to help, and they will sit and talk to us. Her friends include female lawyers, engineers and businesswomen.
As the evening becomes later, though, the women leave to do full time meal preparation, as the meals are always massive and elaborate. They also set up their own conversation circle, and snack while they prepare the meal. The men usually show up at intervals, until they fill the multipurpose bedroom/dining room/living room. The multipurpose nature of the room is accommodated by the fact that everything is done at floor level. There are cushions along the walls that can be both sat and slept upon; (I have done both), as tea, cakes and nokel (nuts and raisins) were served.
The conversation tends to concentrate on politics and ethnic tensions. Sometimes it touches on economic issues, but only seldom. The Hazara fear the Pashtun and hate both the Pakistanis and Iranians. The majority of their dislike is reserved for the Kuchi, though. Each year, the Kuchi, who are generally nomadic Pashtuns, travel through Hazara lands, and there is always conflict, sometimes bloody conflict. This year there was fighting in Ghazni and Wardak provinces, and last year the Kuchi killed 6 Hazara in Western Kabul suburbs, and Afghan National Police killed 12 additional Hazara who had gathered to protest the Kuchi incursion and resultant violence.
These topics tend to dominate dinner conversation. In fact, these topics, combined with fear of what will happen after ISAF transitions security in 2014. The unfortunate fact that Hazara are often slaughtered by the thousands when other ethnic groups get their blood up makes them perpetually nervous about what will happen when Afghanistan controls its own destiny. Never mind relatively minor things like discrimination against Hazaras in education and employment.
One evening’s meal in particular was notable for a couple reasons: The grandfather chose the time just after tea and cookies and before the main meal to engage in one of the five daily prayers, and he set up his prayer rug in the eating/dining/living room. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him pray. After the old man ceased praying, the women brought the food. We had Chelow, which is a white rice and oil dish, which is incredibly rich, seasoned ground beef in the shape of small, 4 inch long torpedoes called kabab shami, fried potatoes, a stewed mixture of lentils, lamb and oil called Quorma, a chicken soup called Shorwa. There was also Most, which is unflavored yoghurt, and of course na’an, which is Afghan bread.
After becoming completely sated, and even more, they brought out some mango flavored rice pudding. And then, once that was cleared away, they brought out large juicy chunks of watermelon. The meal was more than filling, and it was more than mild discomfort that I got my bloated body off the cushions on the floor. By this time it was after 9 pm, which made it a nice, short 5 hour meal. Usually these events run a couple hours later.
As we rose to leave, we hugged and kissed, which I now have become used to. As I hugged and kissed the grandfather, he gripped me tightly, and said “You and I are both sons of Adam, so now we are brothers.” This was touching, and I have to admit to being more than a little emotional about it. On the ride home, I talked to my partner, and replayed the conversation of the evening that I didn’t pick up on.
I have to admit, that playing with the baby, and seeing the family enjoying each other, I was incredibly homesick. I missed my family just then so badly it was nearly unbearable.