Category Archives: Meena

My first Namaz

In the rainy season of Pakistan, the news of my grandmother’s death made our lives rainier
This season showed me my father’s tears for the first time
His red eyes hurt so much, I wanted to take the pain away but didn’t know how
After the long day of the funeral, he was sleeping on a mattress
I crossed my legs and sat close to him
My little hands touched his forehead; I put my head on his.
He woke up nervous as if he did not know where he was
He asked me how his love was doing. I said nothing, but nodded my head
He went to pray for his mother’s soul to rest in peace
I decided at age six, I was old enough to pray with him
I told him that God would listen to me more; I don’t know from where that idea came
He spread out two green prayer rugs
We both stood facing the qiblah
He took my small hands in his large ones and put the right on the left, close to my chest
He asked me to repeat after him
As I bent, he helped me put my hands on my knees and we stood up again
Now we both sat in Sajda, putting our foreheads on the rug
His head was still on the rug when I stole a glance at him
He looked back, reminding me that I was not supposed to do that
Looking the peace in his face, though,
Was probably worth the sin

By Meena

(Eds Note: Namaz means prayer. Qiblah is a niche which indicates the direction Muslims should face during prayer. Sajda means prostration in worship. )

An Evening at the Palace

It was a huge room, like one in movies about kings and queens. All around the room were a dozen golden couches with a touch of light green. Three red sofas with golden pillows were at the end of the room. The smell of fresh roses was in the air, probably coming from the flowers on the balcony.
Standing there, I felt so small compared to the glory and beauty of the room. I carefully sat in the corner of a big golden couch, which felt too comfortable and too large for my small body. Looking at the ceiling, my heart was beating faster than normal. I was waiting to meet a man I had innocently loved and admired as a child and then grown to hate. Like many Afghan citizens, I lost respect for him because of his policies towards women’s rights, his stance on negotiating with the Taliban, and his alliance with Dostum, a warlord and criminal. For me, the turning point came when he signed the Shia family law which legalized marital rape and lowered the marriage age significantly.

I was still looking at the ceiling, lost in thought, when he entered. He looked the same in reality as he did on TV, the same light face and soft eyes with the same warm smile. His smile used to be a source of energy and hope for millions of Afghans, who on October 4, 2004, went to the polls to cast their votes, not caring about the rain of bombs and explosions. Those millions trusted him with their lives, their children’s lives and their dreams. So lost in thought was I that I did not notice when he got close to me. I was still sitting. I stood and greeted him.

I introduced myself using my full name and added, “It is wonderful to be meeting you, sir.”
He considered my name and said in a friendly tone, “So you are Pashtun as well.”
“My father is,” I answered respectfully. “I am Afghan.”
“Of course. So what do you want to be?”
“I hope to have my own business, insha allah”
“That is great. Let me remember what I wanted to be when I was your age,” he said, and continued to talk about his education in India, his political struggle and his presidency.

Pretending to be all ears, I instead was remembering just after the 2004 elections, how I took my father’s cell phone and called my grandfather to ask if all my uncles and their wives had voted for Mr. Karzai. After hearing the positive response, I was so full with joy. It reminded me of my childhood’s innocence, yet the responsibility I felt on my shoulders towards the people of Afghanistan. The memory brought a smile, but I did a good job hiding it. As a child, missing his speeches was out of question. Ironically, as a young adult, my first reaction while watching him on TV was to change the channel.

The man sitting in front of me was my country’s president, but the only thing I could feel towards him was anger. I wanted to shout at him for the widespread insecurity, the growing corruption, the legalization of marital rape, the exclusion of women from the government and the support for warlords whose hands still smell from the blood of innocent men, women and children. Most importantly, I wanted to shout at him for his last election fraud, for trying to once again take people’s futures from their hands. Yet I said nothing. Power corrupts, and he was long corrupt and deaf.

By Meena

Afghanistan, a Dream

I was standing in front of the window in the small, dark living room, folding my arms against my chest, looking out at the drops of rain falling like the tears of a mother for her dead child, like a gift from the hell, like a curse from the devil. The dark, gloomy sky had a rhythm of pain, a rhythm of loneliness. The land was like a woman in black, shouting from the unbearable pain.

It was October 21, 2008. Taliban insurgents had pulled thirty Afghan men off a bus in southern Afghanistan and beheaded them after accusing them of being soldiers traveling in civilian clothes. The thirty were actually men going to west to Iran to find work. This was not only the end of thirty lives and their dreams, but the end for families and friends they had left behind waiting for them.

I wanted to step back and leave the suffering, but the portrait inside my heart was no different from that of the view. I finally pulled myself away and closed my eyes, trying to see deep inside and imagine a dream picture of Afghanistan. I saw a land, warm from the sunshine, little girls and boys flying white kites in an open green field, dozens of women wearing green, blue and red scarves and sitting under the shadows of a pine tree, giggling while their noses shined from the reflection of sunshine, a group of men chuckling together. I saw a young man in white holding a little girl’s hand with a pencil, teaching her how to write. I looked to the right side and there was a masjid (mosque) in the color of light emerald. I looked closer and found a woman wearing green head scarf reading to a younger girl from the pages of holy Quran.

I saw the same land in the winter with snow falling down from the sky like pearls, covering the land like a piece of white silk. It was pure like a gift from Heaven, like a blessing from Allah. I heard something, looked up, and it was the Snow Partridge sitting on the dry branches of olive tree covered with pure white snow, singing sola, sola and sola (peace, peace and peace.)

By Meena

The Burqa

Navy blue, long and baggy

Top and bottom with different designs of flowers

Hanging outside the shop along with other white and green ones

Swinging in the cold wind of Kabul winter.

Swinging tiredly and wondering about the woman who would own it

Maybe the one who would wear it unwillingly

Cursing herself for being born a woman

Complaining about her inability to see or move freely.

Swinging right and left, the burqa remained wondering

Whose face would it hide? Whose identity would it take?

By Meena

Henna by Meena

The spicy scent of henna used to bring back memories of Eid, weddings, parties and all the happy occasions. Now, the only thing henna’s smell brings me is the image of my mother and me crouched in the far corner of the kitchen, crying. The smell of henna brings back anger and sorrow, a sense of helplessness and weakness.

Like many Kabul winter days, it was cold, dry and gray. The schools were off for the winter. My eldest aunt was visiting from Iran. My two younger sisters were sitting at the end of the room drawing, a habit they had adopted to avoid having to worry about my parents’ problems. Funny, whenever we had such problems they would always draw cartoons, animals, and dolls. But they would also often draw homes, safe and warm. The living room was large with tan walls that had been darkened from the smoke of the stove. The curtains, as usual, were closed so no man from outside could see us. My parents and aunt were in the men’s guest room. My mother had asked us not to come. And I knew something was wrong again.

I was sitting on the big red mattress. I got up. I could no longer take the silence or the suspense. I walked towards the door when I heard my sister calling after me “Do not go, remember what Mother jaan said.”

I answered without looking, “I am going to the kitchen only, don’t worry.” I went downstairs, walking slowly and looking at the black marble of the stairs as if I were reading something in the blackness. As I got closer to the hall, the smell of Shorwa-e-Tarkari, an Afghan dish made of meat with lots of vegetables, got stronger and reminded me of my mother feeding me with her soft, warm hands when I refused to eat the vegetables.

When I got to the small hall, I sat on the stairs and looked up, trying to find Allah to ask Him why? I could not find Him. Even He had left me alone. I got up and walked towards the small room at the end of the yard, often used as the men’s guest room. My fear of what I might hear made me walk slowly but the thought of my mother being there defenseless made me walk fast while folding my bare arms tightly. The room was much lower than the yard; I walked down the three stairs through a narrow, dark corridor. As I went towards the room, my father’s voice got louder. He said to my aunt, “You don’t know this slut; she is a slut, a whore. I never wanted to get married anyway, and you all forced me to and look at this mess now.”

My father had turned on my mother many times before, when he would leave the house and we would not see him for a month or two. Usually his sisters would come and they would talk. After they talked, our lives would get back to normal. But my siblings and I never knew what was said in those meetings. Until now. I was shocked as I heard my father using those words. I did not know what to feel, but I wanted to somehow undo it, somehow make the words go back.

I heard my mother’s voice crying and saying “Akbar, What I have done to you that you are making me go through all this? I have to stay in this marriage because of my children, because of my father’s honor.” She continued, “You are calling me a slut just because a corner of the stupid curtain was open and you think I did it in purpose so the men could see me.”

“Don’t you dare talk to me that way,” said my father. “I know you did it on purpose and you can go to your father’s house anytime you wish and live there.”

I heard my mother crying. I brought my hands to my face. I could smell the henna in the palms of my hands. It smelled so different, so strange. It smelled like a happiness I was not granted. I ran to the kitchen. I sat in the corner, folding my legs, with my face buried in my hands. The smell of henna took me back to the days when my mother, sitting on the floor just out of shower, her wet hair hanging down, would paint henna in my little palms. She looked so focused, frowning with her forehead and yet she looked so innocent you would want to protect her from everything, from life itself. I opened my eyes looked around the kitchen, remembered the times when I came back from school and found my mother standing in the kitchen with her back to me. I would often run to her and hug her from the back. She did use perfume, but the smell of perfume was nothing compared to her own smell. She smelled like a mother, warm and kind. She would always tell me: “Now stop bothering me; go and change. I will fix you some lunch.”

I was still sitting in the kitchen when my mother entered. She wore a black scarf draped on her head. Her face looked as if her soul was not present. Her eyes were a little red from crying. I stood up, turned and cleaned my tears, pretending I had heard nothing. I said, “I will go get some logs,” avoiding her face. When I came back with the logs, I found her sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her face in her hands, sobbing. I put down the logs and hurried towards her. I put my arms around her and held her. We both were crying uncontrollably while hugging each other and the smell of henna was all in the air. We did not exchange a word, but the silence said it all.

Whenever I smell henna, it takes me back to the winter of 2002, to that same corner of the kitchen where my mother and I were sitting and crying, holding each other to protect each other from the harsh winds of life.

By Meena

Chalk

The Dari teacher is late
We call it time to have some fun
We close the class door, taahp
We take the chalk from the desk and start hitting each other

We make plenty of noise and laughter
Run all around the class
Until the door opens and the teacher enters

She finds Aseia holding Farwa’s hands while drawing on her back with chalk
She finds Nelofar running after Farahnaz, holding chalk
She finds me standing on the table hitting Hailai with chalk

She takes out a long iron ruler that smells like a cold wind
She hits us all twice on our palms
She gives a long speech on proper Afghan Muslim ladies
She ends the speech, declaring us un-Islamic and un-Afghan

The class time is over
The teacher leaves
looking at us silently

The smell of chalk is all in the air
It is the cold smell of calcite
The chalk powder on our fingers feels dry

We all gather close to the teacher’s desk
We look at our palms, they are red and itchy
We admit it hurts but the fun is worth it

We laugh out loud
We feel free like fishes swimming deep in the ocean
We feel free like birds flying high in the sky

By Meena

The Marriage Proposal

It requires a lot of guts to fall in love in Afghanistan. This was particularly true during the Taliban era, when the separation of male and female societies was taken very seriously and often enforced with violence. My mother’s 25-year-old cousin, a dentist, certainly had guts. He proved it by falling in love with S, one of his patients. The Taliban required every female patient to have a male relative accompany her to the doctor. The good thing about the rule was that there were no age requirements. So a seven-year-old nephew worked just fine during their dates at his clinic, which was within walking distance from S’s house. Finally, the dentist asked my aunt and my mother to go khuwast gari (ask for a bride’s hand).

Monday afternoon, my mother dressed in her best outfit, long black skirt and reddish shirt. I wore my black salwar kamiz (dress with pants) and combed my hair back. Looking in the mirror and feeling proud, I decided to stay serious and act like a grown up during our visit. My aunty, with her burqa half open, entered the yard and asked us to hurry, for the taxi was waiting outside. My mother put on her burqa very carefully so her hair did not get messed up. I was neither old enough nor tall enough to have to wear a burqa or a scarf – the only benefit to being a child and short back then.

We rode in an old white and yellow taxi. The taxi driver was in his mid-thirties and had a long beard and a long face. He drove quietly and with great focus the whole way. While my mother and my aunt were chatting, I looked out of the window. It was the usual scenes – a Hazara man in his late thirties pushing an overly loaded cart, a woman in a navy blue burqa bargaining at a fruit cart, children with muddy faces holding packets of gum to sell, shouting and running after cars. The only thing they all had in common was an air of grief.

The cab driver left us at the end of the paved road. We had to walk for another five minutes to get to the home of the woman my mother’s cousin wanted to marry. It was a muddy, narrow street with houses located out of order. Finally we got to the right house. The blue, metal door was open, so with a small knock, we entered the yard. S’s mother was talking to her daughter-in-law, but as soon as they saw us, they hurried to greet us.

My aunt introduced my mother by saying, “This is my eldest cousin and my late mother’s favorite niece.”

S’s mother nodded and asked us to come in. It was a narrow room with tin, painted walls and maroon curtains, giving it a dark, gloomy look. The mother asked about our health and our preference for tea.

“Aunty Jaan, I am here all the way from Pakistan to ask for your daughter’s hand. I hope you will not disappoint us,” my mother said, smiling.

S’s mother frowned and said: “Well, child, we have no problem with the marriage, but we have already told aunty jaan about our conditions.”

“I know, you have been extremely kind but the dowry money is way too much.”

“Too much! Is 80,000 Afghanis too much for you? Trust me, daughter, it is nothing. The only reason I am ready to give my approval to this marriage, ignoring my sons’ disapproval and the fact that you are Shia, is that I know my daughter is happy with this union. My father and brothers married me off to a man twenty-five years older than I was. I was widowed at a very young age. I went through a lot in life and I do not wish the same thing to happen to my daughter. She has no shortage of admirers among our relatives.”

My mother and my aunt tried to get her to decrease the dowry, saying that my mother’s cousin would never be able to afford that amount of money and a debt would affect both of their lives negatively after marriage.

But S’s mother refused to decrease even a penny, saying, “Look, child, I had to pay 20,000 Afghani for my daughter-in-law who is not even that beautiful, as you saw. All I am asking from you is 80,000 Afghani.”

My mother and my aunty stayed pretty much quiet until the end of our visit. We left, saying the matter would be discussed with our men and we would get back to them. On our way back, walking towards the dental clinic, my mother expressed her feelings against the dowry and said this had never been part of her family traditions.

My aunt nodded and added “I know, and guess what? She’s not even worth that much. Did you notice the big scar on her head?”

They both agreed that since S was not Shia, not beautiful enough, and not modest enough given that she’d had a love affair with the dentist, he would be better off not marrying her.

After hearing the news, my mother’s cousin the dentist took a deep breath, looked up and said, “Fine, I will sell the land and pay the dowry.”

My mother and my aunt were not happy about it, but they had to agree. Despite their disappointment, I was happy. I thought S was beautiful. And besides, I would get to go to a party, even if music was forbidden. It would still be fun.

The couple ended up being happily married, but there are thousands of Afghan women who are forced into marriages with elder men for big dowries. A lot of them live as prisoners for the rest of their lives. Many put an end to their lives, increasing Afghanistan’s suicide rate among women.

By Meena