Oceans Away from My Soul...
In this blog I write about my illiterate Dad fighting for an education for his nine children and why I cannot return home to Afghanistan any time soon…
My dad—whom I’ve always referred to as Atim —grew up in the heart of Asia, in a mountainous rural village in northern Afghanistan. He was an only child, which is very unusual in that part of the globe. He lost his father at age 12 and had to be the breadwinner. When he was unable to go to school, he made a promise to himself, which he has has kept ever since: to send all his children to school regardless of circumstances. Atim was forced to be an adult at a very young age. He became a farmer, took care of his mother, built a house, saved enough money to marry my mother and start a life. But, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the words of Atim, “They came and destroyed everything that had taken us forever to build. They took and took till there was nothing left to be taken from us.”
“Atim, is here,” we all scream from the top of the stairs.
Atim always comes with loaves of bread that we can all smell from a set of stairs away. He carries his construction work bag, that my mom has made out of her old scarf, on his back. Sweat dripping down his forehead, his pants are covered with dust, his toe is bleeding in his plastic sandal. He waves at us. “Come and get this bread,” he says.
“We have guests - the ones you don’t like - and moms asks you to be nice to them for once,” my sister Naz spits out these words way too loudly. My mom from the living room starts talking even louder, so the guests won’t hear my sister’s insolent comments. I can see my mother’s face. She gives me a death look, covers her mouth, takes a long breath and shakes her head. I know Naz is in big trouble.
Atim kisses Naz’s head and peacefully says,“ okay, you guys can have one piece of the bread now. The rest is for dinner.”
Naz is the worst person to divide the bread: she always takes the largest portion for herself. Six of my siblings and I sit on top of the stairs, slightly to the right to avoid being seen by my mom - Apim - or the guests. As my hand reaches out for the bread, Naz slaps it and starts her usual rants which roughly translates to: “You are are not hungry; it’s your eyes that are hungry. Control. ”
“Go, bring your notebooks,” my dad says as he makes his way to our living room where all the guests are.
Two months after building a kitchen all by himself, Atim witnessed the collapse of all the clay walls as the rocket not only shuttered the kitchen but his dream. Soon, Atim lost his cows, his donkey, his horses, his mother, and his twin sons to the war. Atim rocked the dead bodies of his twin sons in the middle of the yard as his injured dog was guarding the door. One rocket had knocked down four months of his continuous construction work, one bullet had forever ended the life of his mom, and insufficient medical care took the lives of his two sons. Sitting there, Atim wondered what else was going to be taken from him? How much more would he have to give?
It is normal for Atim, after a long day of work, to demand from all of us to show him our homework. He runs his hand over the lines, counts the number of pages that we have written and asks us to write a few more pages. This is his joy and his happy hour after work. As we all drag our feet to the living from one of the two rooms that houses the eleven members of my family, the voice of the male guest echoes in the entire house. He is preaching to my dad.
“You are going to die from hunger if you keep sending your daughters to school and throwing money at their education. Girls are properties of other families, other men. They will marry and won't be able to help you. Just send your two boys,” the male guest says as he gesticulates very close to my father’s face.
In a matter of months after the Soviet invasion, Atim and Apim packed their lives and ran both literally and figuratively in search of a new place to raise their kids. With no transportation option left or available, my parents and my then three sisters started their journey to the unknown on foot. In the middle of the night, when the Soviet soldiers were asleep, they walked from one village to another, crossed a border and then another. There he was, in the middle of the night, leaving behind everything, running away from war, with his self-declared promise in his head, carrying my sisters on his back, holding my mother’s hand, running and crossing borders. He slept with an empty stomach, cried in the dark over his losses, all because he truly believed in his promise.
Atim keeps counting the number of pages in one of the notebooks presented to him and every once in a while licks his index finger with his tongue to turn the page .
“Bring your notebooks. How many pages did your teacher tell you to write?” my dad asks Naz. All my siblings are lined up in the living room with our notebooks ready to be checked. The guest clears his throat and starts again. “Look at your cousin, he asked his son in law to pay him $1,000. His daughter didn’t even go to middle school. She knew how to read and that was enough. You have two daughters who are ready to be married right now. I care about you.”
With no high school degree, no training, no mentor, an orphan, Atim realized at age 12 that education was the way to go about a better life. His intuition convinced him that educating his children would mean giving them tools for stable lives, helping his country that had been at war for the past decades, and perhaps himself living off of the joy of his children being able to write.
At age 62, Atim learned to sign his name. Today, my parents sign their names constantly on every empty space of used notebooks. Every once in a while, I print random documents and ask them to sign them.
The guest starts again.
“I am your friend that’s why I am telling you this.” It seems like he couldn’t shut his mouth.
Atim stops counting the pages, hits the notebook to the ground and says one phrase over and over again.
“Get out of my house right now. Get out, Get out right now. Get out, Get out.” His handkerchief is wet from all the sweating. He has got black bags under his eyes, a bleeding toenail, and his rough hands are shaking.
Fast forward fifteen years. 2018. Atim’s voice shaking as he repeats one phrase again and again. “ Don’t come home. Don’t come home.”
“Don’t come, the security is not good. You won’t be able to get a visa to go back.” My 65-year-old dad is breaking and all I can think about is going home to see them.
“But Ata,” I protest. “I have looked at tickets from the U.S. to Afghanistan.” I speak without further thinking about his shaking, breaking, depressed voice that traveled across a phone line thousands of miles away.
I started talking again before Atim could say anything. “I can’t, Atim. I can’t. I wasn’t built for this. I am in a constant indescribable state of homesickness. “ I miss you, Atim, being home. I don’t know how you look like any more. Four God-damn years.” I reply as I look for tissues around the room to blow my nose.
“Listen, I know. We miss you here too.” He cries over the phone.
“Don’t cry, Ata. I won’t come home this summer.” I give in, purposefully ending the call and turning my phone off. I sit in a quiet living room, in the middle of the night, and cry. My voice covers the entire room and echoes back. There is a sense of comfort in that. That night, I close all the pages of my Safari browser and it is the last time I will look at airplane tickets. I am a third world country girl, oceans away from her soul.