The Unfamiliarity of the Night

In this blog I recall how far I have come, literally, to be able to run at night, sleep on my own, and deal with memories of life in a war zone.

A quarter of my long red scarf touched the dusty road and covered my big, long, greasy brown hair. The dust covered every inch of my personal space as the first luxurious car with black windows passed by.

“My eyes, my eyes,” I yelled to my friend, Basmina. She clapped with excitement.

“Soon all the Americans will come.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You don’t know shit. Why are you asking so many questions.” Basmina impatiently squinted her eyes as she looked into the distance. “Americans are very different from us: some are impolite and rude, but others throw water bottles and candy from their cars.” She continued to share her findings about Americans over the past years, ever since American soldiers had started arriving in Afghanistan after 9/11. Basmina exemplified a wealth of knowledge and expertise on this topic since she had lived in Afghanistan all her 10-years, longer than I had.

“Yes, they throw candy whilst giving you the thumbs up…” She hid her mouth in shame, whilst my eyes widened at these reports of unheard-of public displays of what amounted to a highly obscene gesture in Afghan culture.

“Here, they come!!,” Basmina yelled, as she held onto her flip-flops.

There it was: the famous American car: a humvee, half of the soldier’s body out in the open, the other half stuck inside. A quarter of his face was covered with his black sunglasses, a big combat helmet, and a small handkerchief covering his mouth and nose. He gave us the thumbs up, smiled and threw us a water bottle along with two pieces of candy. The dust covered our faces, and I yelled, “Hellooo Sir, Hello Sir.” The excitement of seeing such a gigantic vehicle with a human on top made me run toward them. The red warning sign with English words didn’t mean anything to me. I ran along the convoy and was absolutely thrilled to hear an American speak. I parroted his every word, until the gun was pointed at me.

The humvee cars behind me and in front stopped. The soldier’s voice still sounded normal, and the car doors slamming were the only sound aside from his voice. Shocked, scared, tears rolling, hands on my head, I stood rooted to the spot. His gun was pointed exactly at my head now. A warm and tingling feeling ran down my thighs and legs, it filled my flip-flops and soon the dust underneath my feet turned into mud. The soldier still sounded normal. I heard someone yelling in Farsi, sounding anything but normal. “What are you doing?” the middle-aged man yelled as he ran toward me.

“Aaaa,” the mud underneath my feet, the tears, the running nose, and relief at hearing my own language.

“What’s your name? Why were you running after these cars?” he bent down.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. Let me go. My mom will be mad at me.” I tried to hide my wet pants.

He also gave a thumbs up to the other soldiers. “Take these candies with you and give it to your friends too. But remember, they can shoot you next time if you come this close to them, okay?”

§ Later that evening, lying on a thin mattress in my house, while thinking about the incident, the man next door beating his wife interrupted my thoughts: I heard the sounds of slamming doors, screaming women, slamming doors, wailing of children, more screams of pain, hush hushing, his feet striking her body, and the first gunshot of the night. Even the first gunshot of the night did not make him stop…

The pillow covered my ears and tears. My dad started to clear his throat and talk more loudly, as if he felt guilty that men like this existed, or perhaps he was trying to hide this other man’s violence. He woke me from my trance by gently wiggling my feet. My mom almost tripped with a tray of rice and I got up to help her. I whispered in her ear, “can you go to the toilet with me?” I gave her that puppy-faced look. She saw my crossed legs, rolled her eyes, squeezed my hand and put on her shoes again. “I don’t know how you have the guts to get yourself almost killed, but can’t go to the outdoor toilet alone.” I just held her hand as I crossed my legs even more urgently. Another gunshot, followed by a rocket, shook the house. Standing in the middle of the yard, a familiar warm, tingling feeling ran down my thighs and legs, it filled my flip-flops and soon the concrete underneath my feet was marked with lines of my pee. She squeezed my hand harder, took a deep breath, gently rubbed my back, and said, “You have to take a shower now.”

The intensifying fight between Taliban and the government, or one warlord and another (who knew and who cared?) became so heated that everyone left the rooftop. Sweat dripping everywhere, in the middle of a hot summer evening without electricity, we sat in our living room and ate with our hands from the same tray of rice.

“Nights are scary, nights bring out the worst in people, nights are painful. Night = shooting. Night = no sleep. Night = monster.” These were the last words going through my head before going to sleep on that night, so typical of all the nights spent in Afghanistan during my teens. The very next day, I took the same path to get to my high school, proudly holding the soldier’s water bottle. There was no humvee car, no soldier, no one. It was just me and the memories of a soldier pointing a gun at me.

§

That same scene still replayed in front of my eyes as the airplane balanced its wings over the mountainous country in which I had spent the first 14 years of my life. As I flew towards the United States, I thought about that soldier and wondered how my new life would be amongst people who I thought would all look like that soldier. The soldier who had sounded so normal until he pointed a gun at my head. Soon I knew. Life in New England, attending an Episcopalian boarding school, required adjustments that went far beyond adapting to the masses of food available in the dining hall, the speed with which everyone spoke, the uniformity of clothing acceptable under some unwritten code, and the meaningless chatter about the weather.

Nights in Afghanistan had been anything but quiet. The unusual quietness of my new room scared me infinitely more. I spent the first night sleeping on the floor: unconsciously I thought if something were to hit my window, then I wouldn’t get hurt. When I caught myself doing this, I continued sleeping on the floor because it gave me a sense of being at home. I stared at the white wall and every once in a while gently slapped my face to convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming.

Since my English was quite rough, the majority of my free time was spent with Mrs. Bickford who helped me with everything from academics to the new boarding school life. Each day at 8:00 PM, I had to head back to my dorm from the library, which was a two-minute-walk, maximum. I slowly packed everything, thinking how I was not ready to walk alone to my dorm. With my broken English I explained. Mrs. Bickford walked me back to my dorm. I held the straps of my backpack so hard and was surprised to realize how fast my brain was coming up with different scenarios and ways I could survive in case of an attack.

Even there, in a secure compound in America, I carried the fear of the dark. It took months to be able to walk in the dark, sleep in the dead silence, and not be scared in a room that I had all to myself.

Today, I don’t think twice about going on my long runs in the early mornings or late at night in the dark. But every now and again, my fears catch up with me. The sound of fireworks will always remind me of the late night gun fights in my hometown that would keep me up in terror. These are the memories I embrace, as a constant reminder that we all carry around our experiences and fears to find new strengths.​


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