‘Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to her Son,’ by Homeira Qaderi: An Excerpt

Bread and Bullets

Afghanistan is the land of invisible bullets and the land of a death foretold, the land of doomed destinies, and the land of dejected and disgruntled youth, waiting forever for dreams that will never come true. This is how Madar, my mother, Ansari, and Nanah-jan, my grandmother, Firozah, described my homeland to me when I was barely four years old. In their eyes, Afghanistan was divided between the Russian occupiers and their communist government allies on the one side and the mujahideen on the other. But for me, Afghanistan was divided between the street in front of our house where I played during cease-fires, and the dangerous world beyond our walls when war returned and kept me stuck inside.

I was a bright, playful child, too young and energetic to understand fear, whether of invisible bullets buzzing through the air or of Russian tanks rumbling in the street outside our house. Inside those walls, there was a courtyard filled with apple and mulberry trees, and red and green grapes growing on the vine. We were three generations living there: Baba-jan and Nanah-jan, their four daughters, my aunts Kurbra, Hajar, Zahra, and Azizah, my uncles Naseer and Basheer, Agha and Madar, plus my baby brother, Mushtaq, and me.

Nanah-jan always said, “A girl should have fear in her eyes.”

I spent a lot of time in front of the hallway mirror, examining my eyes to discover where the fear was hiding.

Aunt Zahra told me, “A girl’s fear is right on her eyelids.”

I would turn my eyelids inside out, hoping to detect the shape or color of fear.

Madar often said, “The night this girl was born, we were surrounded by fire. It felt like the city was giving birth. Before Homeira heard her own cries, she heard other people’s screams. No wonder she isn’t afraid of anything.”

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Zahra was seventeen when she was struck by one of those invisible bullets while she was trying to pull me out of the grapevine and carry me to safety in the basement. My poor aunt fell down on her face. I could hear her gasping for breath. Blood was pouring out of her eyes. I stopped searching for the kittens and tried to find the invisible bullet in her eye, the place where a girl’s fear is hidden.

I can’t remember a time when my homeland was not at war. My childhood began with jet-fighter attacks, bombs falling from the sky, and me trying to count invisible bullets. War and hunger, those are my earliest memories. I remember Madar trying to breast-feed my brother, even after he was past the age of two, because there was no food left to eat. Mushtaq chewed and bit my mother’s breast. I heard Madar’s quiet whimpering when she knew she had no milk left.

During each attack I watched Nanah-jan tie her hijab tighter so that she wouldn’t die without her veil and be thrown into hell in the hereafter. Even though she was illiterate, she often pretended to read the Holy Qur’an as she would run her index finger over the written lines of the scripture. She wanted to die a Muslim, holding the Holy Book close to her chest. And when I heard Baba-jan reading Surah Yaseen, the chapter on God’s sovereignty, the Day of Judgment, and a warning to nonbelievers, I knew that another bombing attack was coming.

My childhood world was within the bounds of a small window, low in the wall of our house, and a mother who was always trying to keep me away from that window. She knew bullets could pierce glass. She tried her best to keep me surrounded by four solid cement walls. My mother was like a spider trying to safeguard me within her web. But I was a wild, stubborn baby spider. I kept tearing her web apart to escape. I never tired of the struggle to get outside. I was always looking for a chance to sneak into our walled garden. I wanted to be the first to discover the new bullet holes in the walls. I wanted to be the first one to touch the damaged trees and the burnt timber. To be the first to find the kittens hiding under our grapevine. Finding those invisible bullets was my most secret wish. I asked my mother, “Where do all these invisible bullets come from?”

“Homeira,” she said, smoothing my hair, “we cannot see where they come from and we never see where they will go until they strike a tree or a wall or, God forbid, a person.”

But there were good days, too. I remember sneaking out of the house with Azizah on a day when there was no shooting. I remember the bright sunshine and the flow of a gentle wind of the season. I sat with my back against the sun-warmed wall of our house, playing in the dust and watching people passing by. I was totally unaware of the Russian tanks approaching on the nearby streets.

During cease-fires, I had the habit of going to the smoldering rubble of the bombed houses to see the new ruins and how the gardens had been laid to waste. I wanted to see the crumbling walls, the broken windows, the smashed closets, and the shattered china.

Once, in one of the houses that had been destroyed three or four days earlier, I saw a Russian soldier with his pants down; he was pressing his hand on the mouth of a neighbor’s daughter. From behind the wall I laughed at the Russian soldier’s bare bottom. He heard my laughter. He quickly got up, put one hand between his legs, and with his other hand he slapped me on my face until it burned. Then he spat in front of me. The girl used that moment to get up, put on her head scarf, and run away through the ruins.

Later I would laughingly tell everyone this story about how red the Russian soldier’s buttocks were. Upon hearing my account of the event, Uncle Basheer punched the wall with his fists in anger. Baba-jan didn’t laugh at the story. He just wiped his tears.

In those days, Herat was a very strange mixture of heaven and hell. Sometimes, when the city was at peace, you could hear the returning birds chirping in trees. Sometimes, I could hear sweet musical notes as our neighbor’s son, Shuaib, sat on the wall playing a reed flute. I would dance to his music on our terrace, but Nanah-jan feared that melody, believing that the sound of the flute foretold early death. And soon, indeed, Shuaib died in a fire that consumed his house.

Nanah-jan once said, “I wish we were all birds, so we could fly out of this place.”

Almost every morning there was a long row of olive-green Russian tanks on the street in front of the hospital near our house, their engines idling under the tall pine trees that lined the road in a cacophony of noise. They would disappear in the haze of dusk. I asked my grandfather, “Baba-jan, tell me, where do the tanks come from every morning and where do they go every night?”

Baba-jan looked and whispered under his breath, “They come from hell and they go back to hell.”

I told Azizah that we should follow behind the Russian tanks so we could discover the path to hell.

“It’s too far away, Homeira,” she said emphatically. “We would get very tired.”

I told her she was afraid of the Russian tanks.

When Nanah-jan no longer had nuts in her pockets, she could no longer bribe Azizah and me to stay in the house. As soon as the city lapsed into silence, we would escape into the street when Madar and Nanah-jan weren’t looking. Once, a soldier gave me a tin of canned food. Because we were always hungry, I brought it home. Nanah-jan was horrified, shouting, “Haram! Haram! These cans are filled with frogs,” she said. “That’s what the red soldiers eat.”

When Azizah and I heard this, we ran into the backyard and threw up.

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A few frogs lived in the small stream in our garden, jumping around during the day and croaking their special songs in the evening. On the nights when there was silence, my heart broke for those poor little frogs. I knew the Russians had eaten them. I cried for them under my blanket.

During the cease-fires, our entertainment was collecting pinecones or running among the tanks, playing hide-and-seek with the boys. When the boys hid and I couldn’t find them, the Russian soldiers sitting on the tank turrets would point to the boys’ hiding spots. I remember that whenever I found a boy, the soldiers would clap and shout, their faces growing red with their laughter. Then I understood why we called the Soviet Army the “Red Army.”

One day, when it was my turn to hide, one of those red soldiers beckoned me over, a big smile on his round face. He bent down from the top of the tank, reaching his arms toward me. I held my arms up to him. He took my hands and pulled me up into the tank, scraping my shoulder against its hot iron side. My shoulder hurt, but I forgot the pain as soon as I looked around. I stared in amazement at the hundreds of buttons and blinking lights. It was stuffy inside and very hot. Another soldier was sitting on a metal seat. When he caught sight of me, he leaned toward me and said something to the first soldier, who answered quickly. They both started laughing. Then the seated man put his face against a round object.

I crawled over and began to touch some buttons beside him.

Looking at me over his shoulder, he said, “Nyet. Na, na.

I pointed at the tube. He leaned back in his seat and motioned for me to stand in front of him. I put my eye against the end of the tube. Inside I saw a small, round city. When the soldier turned a knob, the city became smaller. He turned the knob more, and the city inside became tiny and far away. I got scared and pulled my eye away. I looked around. We were all still the same size inside the tank. The soldier laughed and turned the knob again. He gestured with his chin, asking me to look into the tube again. The city came closer. The trees got bigger. The size of people standing and crying in front of the hospital grew larger. I saw Azizah, who was still looking for me. Her face was big enough in the tube to see the fear in her eyes. I saw girls in flowery dresses collecting pinecones. The boys had lost the game; they couldn’t find me.

I was five when I saw my city from inside the viewfinder of a Russian tank, my small city, my big city, the city that was very far from me and yet very close to me again. The soldier gave me chocolate. I looked at him and felt ashamed.

On one of those days, one of those tanks fired at our neighborhood and left half of our street in ruins. Another hit our grapevine. We then went to the basement and were living there for a while. We covered the floor with two large rugs and brought down blankets and slept there at night.

I played for hours with a doll that Nanah-jan had made for me. I asked Nanah-jan, “Can you make another dress for my doll so she becomes happy again?”

Nanah-jan promised that she would, as soon as she found some nice fabric.

So I was overjoyed when the tailor shop down the street took a direct hit. As soon as the jets disappeared from the sky, I ran outside and searched the ruins for some beautiful cloth for my doll. Rummaging through the debris, I found a few nice pieces that were only a little dusty.

I ran home and showed them to Nanah-jan. I was so excited about getting a new dress made for my doll that I forgot to tell her I saw a hand moving in the rubble. My grandmother looked at the fabric and her eyes widened. “Take it back! This is haram!”

“These aren’t frogs!” I said.

I never gave them back to the moving hand. I hid them under the grapevine.

During the war, there was no flour, so Nanah-jan couldn’t bake bread anymore, not even the usual two small cakes for Azizah and me. It got even worse later when the roads to Herat were all blocked by the fighting and we didn’t even have potatoes to eat.

Nanah-jan said that the mujahideen were starving as well.

“They can eat frogs,” I said. “Or those big Russian chocolates with honey inside.”

“Homeira,” a startled Nanah-jan said. “How do you know what’s inside Russian chocolate?”

In an attempt to survive the Russian onslaught, people had learned how to pretend to be sympathetic to Russians by hoisting red banners on their front doors or roofs. Aunt Hajar hung a bright red cloth from the clothesline in the yard, so when the Russian jets were spinning above they would see our household as being sympathetic to them and wouldn’t bomb us. My grandmother, who considered any sympathy with the communists a sin, cursed her, saying we would all die as kaffirs, nonbelievers, and end up in hell. “We are not communists! Take down that red cloth from the clothesline,” she said.

“Does being a Muslim or a kaffir depend on a red cloth? She considers the hoisting of the red cloth an act of blasphemy and doesn’t understand these murderous Russians. Does she really think God is that unmerciful?” Hajar said. “I just don’t want to be killed.”

At night, it was the mujahideen’s turn. They did a house-to-house search for communists and collaborators, climbing walls and jumping into gardens and courtyards. Aunt Hajar hung a green cloth from the clothesline. I teased her, saying, “Should I tell the mujahideen that you hang a red cloth out in the daytime?”

“Homeira! I will tell them you ate Russian chocolate,” she said.

I became frightened and ran to my grandmother. “Tell Aunt Hajar not to scare me, Nanah-jan.

My aunt laughed and stuck out her tongue.

Uncle Naseer was a mujahid, a resister of the Russian invasion. Mujahideen were labeled rebels by the government, but people liked them and supported them and called them “the defenders of the faith.” They fought the Russians and suffered a lot, but they were eventually able to expel the invading Soviet forces from Afghanistan. That’s when they were also considered the defenders of the homeland.

Uncle Naseer came and went like a ghost, jumping into our yard after dark and hiding on the roof with his Kalashnikov. I’d hear his footsteps overhead and then hear him land in the yard.

Every night my grandfather took a mattress, a pillow, and blankets up to the roof. He always looked worried when my uncle was nearby. “Where did Uncle go, Baba-jan?” “Hush, child; he’s gone to count the stars.”

“Where does he sleep, Baba-jan?”

“Uncle Naseer’s house is on the moon, Homeira.”

“Can one sleep better on the moon, Baba-jan?”

Baba-jan sighed. “Yes, Homeira, but you must wake up before the moon sets or it will swallow you.”

Every night I watched the moon, worried that if Uncle Naseer overslept, the moon would swallow him.

That very night, agents of KhAD, the State Intelligence Agency, stormed into our house looking for Uncle Naseer. Terrified, I pointed to the roof and said, “Stars! Stars!”

My dear Siawash,

I am sure that someday when you learn that your mother has been alive all these years, you will be angry. You will ask yourself, “How could a mother just walk away and leave her child behind?” It was never my wish.

I wish that neither of us belonged to a society that victimizes mothering and motherhood. I hope that by the time you grow up, this attitude will have changed or disappeared. I, my mother, my mother’s mother, and my mother’s mother’s mother have all spent our lives hoping for that change. Please don’t think that my yearning for you and even for your father has left me completely. Not so . . . but I have learned to pay a price for my ambitions. I don’t regret the sacrifices I have made, for I know that through this suffering I am, I hope, making a difference for other women, the ones who will come after me.

Trust me and believe in the history that I’m trying to make. Try not to be angry at me for this separation. Instead believe in yourself, for it is you and I together who must create a new Afghanistan. I look forward to the day when the two of us will live in a society of equals. Even from the darkness of this dungeon, I look forward to the day when a blue sky will unfurl its bright and beautiful horizons. Nobody is going to give us this blue sky for free. We must take it by and for ourselves.

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