Love Story Gold Winner: Learning to Pray

by Angie Chuang

Two sisters-in-law in Kabul unveil the domestic world of post-Taliban Afghan women to me — and try to marry me off to one of their own.

The yellow door was made of wood that felt too light.  Every time we, the Americans – Laila, Stephanie, and I – swung it open, we pulled or pushed too hard and it flailed wildly on its hinges.  Back and forth, back and forth.   It had a large, crooked black English letter painted on it.  “What does the K stand for?” Stephanie asked, puzzling at it like it held a secret code.  I wondered myself:  “Kabul,” for the city we were in?  “Karzai,” a show of support for the president?  Nearly three years after the U.S. had overthrown the Taliban, and most Afghans still spoke of him with a trace of hope.  Nafisa smiled: “It stands for kitchen.”  Our laughter echoed through the room.

This was our space, the place in the compound-style Kabul home where the five of us young women, American and Afghan, spent most of our waking time together.  Nafisa and Nazo enjoyed our company as they did their household chores.  The men had their own spaces, such as the saloon, or sitting room, in which the family would discuss and make important decisions.  But the kitchen was the women’s space, a place we could have private conversations, where secrets could be shared, with little worry that someone would walk in and overhear.  The kitchen was where Nafisa and Nazo could be themselves.

As sisters-in-law, Nafisa and Nazo’s relationship was far more important than it typically would been have in the United States.   They were both in their twenties.  Nafisa had moved a year ago from Pakistan to marry Nazo’s brother, in a union arranged by their families.  The two young women did all of the cooking and most of the housework together.  They spent more time with each other than anyone else in the household.  Nafisa, who had liquid brown eyes and straight black hair, was serene and serious.  Nazo’s startling green eyes had an impish glow, and her curly dark hair was always trying to escape from her chador, or headscarf.  They chatted, bickered, and laughed with such ease, I sometimes wondered if Nafisa’s marriage had been arranged for her compatibility with Nazo as well as with Nazo’s brother.

He was on a business trip in Kandahar when we arrived, so Laila, Stephanie, and I shared the room usually occupied by the newlyweds – the only one in the house with access to a western-style flush toilet – with Nafisa and Nazo.  The room barely accommodated the double bed and the three sleeping mats.

It was May 2004.  After September 11, I had begun to report on the Shirzais, an Oregon-based Afghan immigrant family, and their plans to reconnect with their country as it rebuilt post-Taliban.  I first met Laila Shirzai in my official role as a journalist, but we soon became friends.  This trip had been her idea.  My photojournalist colleague, Stephanie Yao, joined us, and we all stayed in the home of Laila’s aunt, who was Nazo’s mother as well as Nafisa’s mother-in-law.

The three of us Americans had fallen into the foreign yet comforting rhythm of the sisters-in-law’s days.  Shortly after the 4:30 a.m. prayer call, they would pray while I snoozed.  Then they came in with a tray of bread and tea to rouse me.  Many days, Stephanie, Laila, and I helped the two young women in the kitchen as they prepared meals.  We chatted as we stood side by side, chopping onions and tomatoes.  We had gone shopping and attended a birthday party for Nazo’s friend together.  We visited Nazo’s school, an overcrowded, slapdash attempt to re-start girl’s education a decade after the Taliban banned it.  Nazo, at twenty-two, was in the tenth grade because of the time she had missed.  Other times, we just sat on the edge of the concrete-covered well in the house’s courtyard, leaning into each other under the fig trees.

One morning, I got up earlier than usual and lingered with a cup of tea in the kitchen as the household prepared for its day.  Nazo came in, wearing her school uniform of a black shalwar kameez, a traditional tunic-and-pants outfit, and a white headscarf.  Her English was not as fluent as Nafisa’s or her brothers’ – who had all spent time in Pakistani schools (where English was a part of the postcolonial curriculum) – so she often asked me for help with unfamiliar or forgotten words.

On this morning, she said, “I have forgotten the word that means you are sleeping but you are seeing things like you are waking.”

“Dream,” I said.

“Ah, yes,” she said, with a sly giggle.  “Drreeam.”

She paused, a glint in her green eyes.

“Did you have a dream last night?” I asked.

Her pale cheeks turned pink.  “Yesterday I dream about Yellow Pants.”  She covered her face with her hands.

“Yellow Pants” was her nickname for a black-haired young man whom she had spotted in Nafisa’s wedding video, wearing bright goldenrod trousers and a black shirt.  The men and women had celebrated and danced in separate rooms.  A few days ago, Nazo had shown us the video of the men dancing in their room, and told us that she was having her friends at her girls’ school inquire about the man in the yellow pants.  There was no dating in Afghanistan, and chances were, Nazo would have an arranged marriage like Nafisa and her brother.  But if she happened to spot someone, she knew how to put the wheels in motion.  A vast and seemingly invisible network of women might contact Nazo’s mother, and the two of them might be able to meet in a formal setting, in the presence of the two families.  Nafisa had first encountered Nazo’s brother in such a chaperoned meeting.  The couple had consented to marry each other after a handful of supervised “dates.”

“What was Yellow Pants doing in your dream?” I said, and playfully nudged Nazo.

She shrieked from behind her hands and pretended to run out of the kitchen.  Then she returned, looked me in the eye, and deadpanned, “He was dancing.  Just like in the video.”

I wondered if she really meant that, or if “dancing” was a euphemism.  It was hard to know sometimes how innocent – or not – she and Nafisa were, what they understood of relationships, love, sex.  Nafisa and Nazo had asked me, Stephanie, and Laila – the three of us were all about thirty and unmarried – about our love lives, but American-style dating was unfathomable to them.  When Stephanie explained that she lived with her boyfriend, Nafisa and Nazo immediately started calling him her husband.  They could not imagine it being otherwise, if a couple shared a home.  As for Laila, she always changed the subject quickly, not wanting to tell them about the white American boyfriend from college whom she was keeping from her family.   I told them about relationships I had in the past – one with a man whom I wanted to marry, others with men I had no intention of marrying – and how and why they had failed.   Trying to explain this to Nafisa and Nazo, who furrowed their brows with compassion as I described various breakups, I started wishing that I had a simpler answer for them.

They watched Hollywood movies, but even those were viewed through the lens of their experiences.  After the Taliban were overthrown and movie theaters returned to Kabul, Titanic was a runaway hit, perhaps because the tale of early-20th-century American romance felt almost like early-21st-century Afghan one.  A young, upper-class woman, Rose, is forced by her family to marry a man from her social class, but falls in love with Jack, a poor man of whom her family disapproves.  Even the unhappy outcome – the two lovers are parted eternally by the shipwreck – rang truer to Afghans than the typical Hollywood fare.  Love-conquers-all endings seemed unrealistic to them.  Disaster, they understood.  Of course, the version that was shown in Kabul theaters was censored.  Scenes that American audiences came to think of as Titanic’s signature moments – Jack sketching Rose in the nude, or the two lovers fogging up the windows of her fiancé’s Renault – were unceremoniously deleted.

Nafisa showed me pictures of her and her husband, Nazo’s brother, at their wedding.  He was tall, square-jawed, and handsome, with a trimmed beard and deep-set eyes.  She wore the heavily beaded, multi-colored dress of a Pashtun bride, piles of gold jewelry, and a mournful expression.  “A bride must not smile, even if she is happy,” she said.  “She must act like she is sad to leave her family.”  Her husband had landed a lucrative wartime job with the United Nations.  He sometimes was on road for weeks at a time, as he was when we had arrived in Kabul.

Their wedding had been less than a year ago, and Nafisa was now in her second trimester of pregnancy, her lithe body just beginning to show under her shalwar kameez.  Did she miss her husband?

“Yes,” she said, sighing.  “But when he comes back it is very nice.”

A coy smile played on her face.  “Very nice?” I asked.

“Very nice,” she repeated, looking down and blushing.   She straightened herself up.  “Now I must go do the laundry,” and breezily took leave of me.  As she swung open the kitchen door, she glanced over her shoulder with her big brown eyes and winked.  Then the door swung back, and I couldn’t see her anymore.

A couple days later, Nafisa skipped her usual afternoon nap, took a shower, picked out a fresh outfit – a soft pink silk shalwar kameez – put on perfume, makeup, and tried on five different chador before settling on one.  As we all sat in the kitchen, watching her put the finishing touches on dinner, I caught her eye.  “You’re nervous today,” I said.  “And pretty.”

Inginir,” she said, using the family’s nickname for her husband – the Pashto word for “engineer” meant an educated man – “is coming home today.”

Then, turning to me so only I could see it, she took her delicate hand, balled into a fist, and bit down on her pinky knuckle.  She gasped softly, feigning breathlessness, grinned at me, then returned to stirring the stew.  This was sexier than all of the deleted scenes from Titanic combined.

We saw less of Nafisa after that evening, though the five of us still slept in the couple’s room.  She still joined us at night, just later than usual.  Nazo, on the other hand, announced to me that she was having friends inquire about another young man she saw at the birthday party to which she had taken us.  “White Suit,” she said, eyes dreamy.  I remembered him – he was, indeed, wearing an all-white suit with a bright red shirt.  He had a smooth face and was a flamboyant dancer.

“What about Yellow Pants?”

She laughed.  Yesterday, we had contemplated some questionable meat in the freezer after one of the city’s frequent power outages.  I taught her the word “expired,” explaining the labels in American grocery stores that indicated when something should be discarded.

“Yellow Pants,” she said, flipping the end of her chador dramatically over her shoulder, “has expired.”

* * *

Our weeks in Kabul passed quickly, and we had spent our final days saying goodbye to everyone, having last meals, exchanging last gifts, posing for last pictures.  By the time the five of us retired to our room together one last time, I was relieved.  We were sprawled across our sleeping mats and cushions.

Nafisa looked impatient.  She kept trying to catch Nazo’s eye.  Nazo was making a list of qualifications for her future husband – among them “a little fat” and “a lot of money” – when Nafisa interrupted her.

“I think it is Angie’s turn,” she said.

I felt my cheeks grow warm.  “I don’t have a list.”

“OK, Nazo and I will help you write your list,” Nafisa said.  “Number One: Name begins with ‘A.’  Ends with ‘D.’  Do we know anyone like this?”

Nazo giggled.

“Nafisa!” I said, face growing hotter.  She was talking about Nazo’s older brother Asad, who had escorted us to the family’s rural village.  He was a few years younger than me, fluent in English, had long-lashed dark eyes and a regal profile – and was clearly off limits to me.

“You like my brother?” Nazo said.  Her cartoonish green eyes danced.

“He is very nice,” I said carefully.

“She says he’s very nice,” Nazo said to Nafisa, as if she were an interpreter.

“You like him,” Nafisa said, leaning close to me.  “You like us.  You should marry him.”

Nafisa’s face could look so serious, with those big eyes, that naturally downturned mouth.   But surely she’s joking. Nazo nodded, looking earnest herself.  I turned to Laila for a hint, but she just had a close-lipped smile on her face.  Stephanie sat next to her, whispering, “I sure am glad I have a ‘husband.’ ”

“What?  Marry?”  I said, my voice sounding strained.  “You’re kidding.”

“No,” Nafisa said, her uncovered black ponytail flipping emphatically over her shoulder.  “You marry him.  You will be our sister.”

“I can’t marry him.  I hardly know him!” I protested.

“You have known him for twelve days,” Nafisa said.  She had counted the days since our roadtrip to the village. “That is more time than I knew my husband before I decided to marry him.  And look, we are happy.”

They were.  After her husband left again, Nafisa had moped the entire day.  One the one hand, it was hard for me to imagine how this kind of attraction – and yes, love – had developed after they had married barely knowing each other.  It felt ludicrous to discuss Asad and marriage with his sister and sister-in-law when he and I had only had a handful of conversations, never alone.  Could they be that naïve?

But then I thought about the day I watched her bite down on her pinky knuckle in the kitchen and gasp softly.  I looked at the slight swell of her pregnant belly under her shalwar kameez.  All this, with a man she had only known from a few hours’ worth of supervised meetings.  So who was the naïve one?

“Well?” Nafisa said.

I had no answer for her.

“We just want you to be our sister.”

Nafisa had said “sister” once already, but now I began to understand.  Nafisa and Nazo, their rapport so easy, like a married couple, even when they bickered.  How they moved in the kitchen, never bumping into each other.  Nazo told me once that she and Nafisa would have a say in whomever their remaining single brothers married, because they would be taking on a new sister as well.

“You already feel like sisters to me,” I said, meaning it.  I had never become so close to women in such a short time.   But with this talk of marriage, why had they not brought up the obvious?  “I just can’t marry your brother, because I’m not Afghan and I’m not Muslim.  I wouldn’t be acceptable.”

“It is no problem,” Nafisa said. “You will not have to become Muslim right away.  You can take your time.  I will show you how to pray.  Then you convert, and it will be OK.”

I had not grown up religious nor been particularly drawn to religion, but Nafisa made it sound so simple, so essential – a foregone conclusion.  Learn to pray, and the rest would come.   Speechless, I rolled my head back on the pillow, meaning to make a playful gesture of surrender to my interrogators.  But I realized just then that I was tired.  We all were.  Even Nafisa and Nazo looked sleepy.

Nafisa tilted her head toward me sympathetically.

“You think about this.  When you are ready, you tell us your decision.  Yes or no.”

*  *  *

I cried big, fat tears, like a baby’s, when I said goodbye to Nazo and Nafisa the next morning before we left for the airport.  Nazo hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe, which only made me cry more.  The sensation of so much moisture in my eyes, on my face, dampening Nazo’s black and white school uniform, my breath coming hard and ragged, shocked me, because I hardly ever cry back in the States.  Not at movies.  Not at weddings.  Rarely over a man, and only when he’s not watching.  I was so preoccupied with my own tears that I was doubly surprised, as I pulled away from her, to see her own electric green eyes swimming and feel my own scarf damp with her tears.  We both wiped at our runny noses and laughed.

And then she was gone, late for school, as usual.

Then Nafisa approached, leaning in for an embrace.  Then she stopped herself, straightened up, and eyed me sternly.

“So,” she said.  “Did you make your decision?  What is your answer: yes or no?”

My jaw dropped a bit, and I studied her face.  Her gaze was unrelenting, but the corner of her mouth curved upward.

Nafisa,”I said, feigning exasperation.  I wanted to say, “I can’t marry your brother-in-law,” but I didn’t want that to come off as a slight, that I was rejecting him or, worse, her and Nazo.  And the truth was, he was extremely handsome, and I had enjoyed chatting with him.  “How about a first date?” I want to quip, but I knew the joke would be lost on her.

“Should I ask him if he wants to marry you?” Nafisa offered.

“NO!” I said, too loudly.  “Please don’t.”

“OK, OK,” Nafisa said.  She grabbed my hand with her slim, cool fingers.  “But I would like you come back and see us, and if you married him, you could.”

Touched, I told her I’d come back and see her and Nazo even if I didn’t marry him.  I felt myself getting choked up again.  Then our driver pounded at the courtyard door and yelled something in Pashto.  Nafisa’s eyes widened.

“Oh no,” she said.  “The driver was in traffic.  You are late for the airport!  You and Stephanie must go now.”

We let the driver into the courtyard and rushed to get the luggage into the car.  My goodbye to Nafisa was hurried but tender; as we hugged I could feel the swell of the life growing within her beneath her loose-fitting clothes.  I hesitated, feeling tears coming on again and wanting to say something meaningful in parting.  Nafisa, eyes moist, shook her head and pushed me toward the waiting car door.

*  *  *

A week after I returned from Afghanistan, I dreamed that Nafisa was teaching me how to pray.  She appeared in my dream exactly as I remembered her in real life: heavy-lidded dark eyes, straight nose, and slightly downturned mouth.  Calm elegance.  Long black hair swept up into her chador.

Sitting on my heels at Nafisa’s side, on a crimson patterned rug she had rolled out for me, I rehearsed the flow in my head – stand up, bend down, stand up, prostrate, kneel, prostate, stand up.  “Don’t worry,” she murmured in her accented English, words clipped just so.  “You will know what to do.  I told you I would teach you.”  Her voice comforted me.

Dawn bathed us in its soft light and we heard the call to prayer from a distant muezzin.  I turned to Nafisa, searching her face for her promise: You will know what to do.

And then, as unexpectedly as it had come to me, the dream ended.

I woke up, groggy in the pre-dawn gray of Portland.  I was alone in my small apartment, with beige walls and tan hardwood floors – not nestled amid the plush red carpets of the Kabul house where I had stayed with Nafisa and her family.  It was so quiet.  Gone were the sounds of them padding barefoot through the house, murmuring in Pashto to each other, whispering in Arabic as they prayed.   Unable to fall back asleep, I glared at the ceiling.  I should have been grateful to return to American life, one without daily power outages, limited clean drinking water, and the NATO tanks rolling through the city.   But I missed Nafisa and Nazo.  Now, they had found their way into my dreams, which only made me miss them more.

I felt a lot of nostalgia and sadness during those first few weeks back.  The dream about Nafisa teaching me how to pray was a bright spot.  I mentally replayed it before I went to sleep in hopes of having the same dream again.  I never did.  And over time, all my dreams of them, and of Afghanistan, faded as I found my way back into the rhythms and comforts of American life.

I didn’t realize until later that, in my dream, I must have already made the decision Nafisa had posed to me before leaving Kabul.  She was, after all, teaching me to pray.  I must have said yes.

#

The names of the Afghans and Afghan Americans have been changed to protect them and other family members in Afghanistan, who have been threatened for collaborating with an American journalist.


Angie Chuang is a writer and educator based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Lonely Planet’s travel-writing anthology Tales From Nowhere, the Asian American Literary Review, Washingtonian magazine, and other venues. She is on the journalism faculty of American University School of Communication. She was a journalist for thirteen years, as a staff writer for The Oregonian, The Hartford Courant, and the Los Angeles Times. She is working on a nonfiction book manuscript centered on her relationship with an Afghan American immigrant family and travels with them in Afghanistan. She has received residencies at Hedgebrook, Jentel, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Caldera.

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