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First Person: Memories of Afghanistan

Where people were too proud to beg and God was sent with us on every trip

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

By Donna Klaput

Thirty-four years ago, my husband and I departed for Afghanistan to work as teachers in the Peace Corps. Memories dim in 34 years, but certain images persist as clear as the sapphire-blue skies of Herat, where my husband, Bob, and I lived for 18 months.

 
   Donna Klaput teaches English at Leechburg Middle/High School and lives in Ford City (wedpix@penn.com). 
 

I remember forbidding brown mud-and-straw walls facing the brown dusty alleys, giving no hint of the unexpected treasures within. Well-tended and irrigated gardens nurture spectacular pomegranate blossoms and some of the most luscious peaches in the world.

I remember traveling on the local mass transit, the ramshackle buses painted gloriously with delicate flowers and verses from the Koran. They were filled with veiled women, kids and men with their ever-present rifles; boxes and rugs and live chickens tied onto the roof. Before departing, the driver's assistant would jump on the back bumper and call out "borabakhai," signaling it was time to leave and entreating God's care for us on our trip. No journey would be begun without that exhilarating prayer that we all "go with God."

Once in a while in the bazaar, there were a few floating clouds with women's shoes protruding demurely. Some young women would confide that they didn't like wearing the "chaudry," but others admitted it gave them a certain amount of freedom. Some young girls, anonymous, could see and observe and even act kind of silly in their invisibility.

There was the exquisite Masjid-i-Jama (Friday Mosque) whose blue tiles mirror the sky and lovely tiled designs stood for centuries. And every day, five times a day, especially compelling and peaceful at dusk, coming from loudspeakers in its tower was the voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

Sometimes outside of town camped the "kuchis," the nomads who wander the desert. At their camp we sat in their black wool tent, sipping sweet tea and looking out at their sheep, which survived on the scrubbiest of grasses one can imagine. The women are leathered and, as with most of the Afghan people, it is impossible to guess their age. One carries a young child on her hip and extends her best hospitality to these odd-looking strangers.

There are the friends and students who invite us to their homes. Always there are mounds and mounds of rice, with hidden globs of chicken or mutton buried in them, plus numerous small dishes of local fruits and vegetables. No matter the wealth or poverty of the family, they extend gracious hospitality.

And there's Fatah. He was our cook, housekeeper and faithful helper. It was Fatah who went outside and shinnied up one of the big pine trees that lined the street near our house and cut off a couple of big branches so we could stick them in a vase and call them a Christmas tree. He did all kinds of things that he must have considered ridiculous or at least eccentric, but he did them with dignity and good humor.

And it was Fatah who had tears in his eyes as Bob explained to him that we were leaving Herat for a couple of weeks to go to the United States, because I had just received word on Herat's one community phone that my father had died suddenly of a heart attack. He took care of the house whenever we were gone. We always knew we could count on him and his quiet faithfulness.

Of course, all was not sweetness and light. There were the cripples, blind men and poor in ragged clothes in the streets. But they never begged. They were too proud for that. The entire country took pride in the fact that, while they were poor, they were not starving. They would never sacrifice their dignity in order to tug on a foreigner's clothes (or heartstrings) to obtain a few extra coins.

These are a few of the images of Afghanistan that I see in my mind and heart. I know many of the places -- the great Buddhas of Bamiyan, much of the city of Herat -- are now destroyed. I don't know if Fatah or any of the little girls or students I remember are alive. But I do know that people like them -- real people, good people -- must still exist.

While our war has just started, theirs merely continues. There has been no substantial peace in Afghanistan since the 1970s. The shelling and bombs just come from different sources.

No Afghans have committed acts of international terrorism. The Taliban save their terrorism for their own people. In an aberration of their praiseworthy custom of hospitality, they protect international terrorists. They won't give up bin Laden and his al-Qaida, and so the tragic drama plays out.

Some day, "inshallah" (God willing), there may be peace in this land. Yes, God, please bless America. But maybe you could spare a few blessings for the people of Afghanistan, too.



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