Updated: Aug 29, 2021
“Sola now muborak [sic],” I remembered, from a napkin-scrawled note on a workday in Arlington, Virginia, mid-1980s.
Dr. Latifi was dictating, making me repeat the phrase again and again, correcting my ear and speech until I seemed to say it right. I jotted down, phonetically, how I’d seemed to say it right.
Happy New Year, the end of Ramadan, in Farsi.
He and his extended family always celebrated with us American Unfamiliars (with Ramadan) in that office-space on Columbia Pike. To these refugees, we were automatically and deeply family. They had all escaped, in turn, before or after the Russians invaded around Christmas of 1979. They were all educated – the ‘intelligentsia,’ for whom a radical insurgent group would likely come to kill first.
When we all worked together for about $5/hour, I hoped we deserved that family bind, or approached deserving it.
I loved being their family. Hearing their escape stories. Their language, with each other. Sometimes a chance to speak French, with Dr. Latifi. Or asking his daughter Moheba, who answered the phones, what does “Balay?” (sp?) mean? (Sorry, say again?) I heard her say that so often. (Just, ‘scuse me?’)
This week, I can’t stop thinking about them, each one of them. My not-forgotten family.
11 days. That’s all it took, in Afghanistan, after a 20-year American ‘war’ for the Taliban to slide into control. Oh, that war-weary country of so many flags and constitutions and bombs – just in my own lifetime. Not to mention the Russian invasion in 1979, or the British invasions, 1838-1919, or that of Genghis Kahn (13th century) or Alexander the Great (330 BC) or more.
This week, my country’s President, who tried to set down that ‘engagement’ lightly, spoke:
[I] ‘inherited a deal that President [Donald] Trump negotiated with the Taliban’ to have U.S. troops out of the country by May 1 of this year. "The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season," he said.*
True enough. Conservative leaders acknowledged that this would have happened even if our former President had been re-elected.*
But wait. What was that, he said? My ear, unfamiliar with the phrase “spring fighting season.”
If I had read the phrase, rather than hear my President say it (on NPR), it might have landed like ‘spring fishing season.’ Or some other spring-ly season – lettuce-involved, maybe asparagus-wise, or seersucker jacket-wise? even with a taste for chocolate bunnies, or, lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise, a taste for tiny bottles suspended from trees or bushes on Easter-brunch fam-day, in a dear cousin’s spectacular English-country backyard garden, in Annapolis, Maryland?
But I digress. So, there’s a season for fighting war. Acknowledging that my ignorance of this equals my privilege of being born in a country where war does not – often – ever -- land. For Afghanis, that season may mean weather-related? Given their spectacularly varied geography? (I remain none-the-wiser, even though I was once considered Afghani family.)
Hearing that seasonal phrase, I felt triggered and heartstrung. Mute and horrified, by memories of TV video from another war/conflict, as it concluded in the mid-70s: helicopters, lifting desperate humans off an embassy roof in Saigon.
(Where my father had escaped, some years earlier, via ‘nervous breakdown’ (more directly, ‘suicide attempt’).)
War is never "over."
Just ask any surviving soldier, any airman, Seal, sniper.
Just ask any of their family members, decades later and shattered, still.
For my Afghani family, 10 years post, as a presumable ‘adult’ myself, we worked in Arlington, Virginia.
During the infancy of ‘online searching’ and ‘document retrieval’ from libraries, in process of an historical shift from paper-index-card-catalogues to ‘automated’ (electronic, toward-the-future) library holdings.
I was still forming as a human. I had been a babysitter, a lifeguard, a college Resident Advisor, a Teacher-Aide at my university’s medical Children’s Rehabilitation Center. A singer/actor/guitarist/artist throughout. Then a busker, in the London and Paris subway systems, with my guitar and my eclectic singer-songlist. I had very little sense of a profession at that time. And I had no more preparation for a profession, at that time.
I knew nothing.
Unlike my Afghani-refugee colleagues, who’d fled their country around the Russian invasion of their country. (An invasion that prompted my President at that time to Boycott the Moscow Olympics, when my friend Molly’s swimming Olympics would have happened.)
Colleagues who knew too much. Like Moheba, Dr. Latifi’s daughter -- a school psychologist in Kabul. My coworker and friend, whose toddler son and infant daughter had fled, via Pakistan, by camelback. As modernized and educated city folk, Moheba, her husband and kids, were unfamiliar with camels, much less their opportunities for transport. But as capital-city educated professionals, she and her husband, and their new children, would surely be killed, next, by the ‘mujahideen’.
En route to Pakistan, Moheba told us, “a camel sat on my infant baby,” during a rest stop.
Wait, what? A camel. Sat on your baby?
“But her bones, so baby and soft, were not ruined.”
We sat, our jaws meeting the carpet of our Arlington office.
Unimaginable. And so grateful, personally, for any human infant’s babyness! and soft bones! sweet Jesus.
How hard the whole escape – and that by-camelback through Pakistan, just the beginning -- must have been.
Moheba’s father, Dr. Latifi, had been the Dean of the Medical School at the University of Kabul, before the invasion. He had fled first, foreseeing the life-threatening, danger. He had to leave his wife and kids and new grandkids, knowing he would be targeted and killed, first.
“They go for the educated people first.’” We understood that part. (And unimaginably, we made the same hourly wage now. They all had advanced degrees. I had been an English major, and served as a Teacher Aide in a rehab facility for children; I had railed or thumbed around a continent of Western-Civ-familiarity, mostly, played my guitar for passing change.)
Not sure how or why, but I understood the insurgent approach of killing first those who had an understanding of history, culture, the larger world, even in my 20s. I tried not to be triggered by my father’s stories of friends he’d visited, in Vietnam.*
I’m trying not to digress right now, 60s-ward, this whole very triggered Kabul-wise week. I have had it so good, relatively! Despite the Vietnam of it in my childhood household. (And I can hear my therapist asking, 'Why might you minimize that impact, Mary?') (Right. Worth considering, war-wise, family-wise. Also me-wise. Still-wise. The human of the war-wise.)
Right. There was also Moheba’s and her father’s friend Farid, an engineer in Kabul. Same life-threatened status, after the Russians invaded. Farid had become, in our $5/hour company? The guy in the mail-room. Along with Sultan. Such good men, compassionate men, deserving much more than a mail-room.
Meanwhile and also, my best friend’s sister, Molly, captain of her Yale swim-team and qualified for the Olympic trials?
Denied. President Carter would deny American participation in that Olympics in Moscow, in protest of the Russian invasion in Afghanistan. As much as any athlete may have understood, theoretically?
My guess: they all somehow crumpled -- once denied their shot at an historical medal, if qualified at Trials. And Molly was a crumpled one. At an age where this one Olympics (1980) would be the one when she could not throw away her shot.
(We swam together in summer-league. Somehow I was the 2nd-fastest butterflier to her legit year-round Olympic-trial times, but I never felt like a butterflier and never managed more than 3rd-place in any summer meet. I begged our summer coach to let me swim IM – a bit of each stroke – but he shook his head and said “we need you in butter.” I bowed down to Molly in every way, and thought I suffered, then. Just.
(Suffering! So much, still, to learn, as a swimming teenager. I had no idea.)
(Molly, and her husband Walt, became ‘case examples’ of surviving – or not – exposure to carbon monoxide. You should def read my dear friend Lyrysa’s book about their, and their family’s, journey: https://www.amazon.com/Normal-Life-Sisters-Odyssey-Through/dp/1483996875 I am so proud of my friend Lyrysa, who managed to articulate, book-length-wise, what being ‘declared dead’ and about to lose one’s organs to transplant coordinators, meant to this one family. Please read her book! And get a carbon-monoxide detector.)
Back in Afghanistan, Dean of Medicine at University of Kabul Dr. Latifi escaped into Germany, then France, then the U.K., I think? Then to the U.S., around its capital. A year or more afterwards, his wife, and daughter Moheba, with her family, made it, eventually, to Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A. Just before I carried my guitar (Clarence) back from “busking” in London and Paris.
They celebrated the end of Ramadan with all of us on Columbia Pike, no matter our ignorance about things Afghani, no matter our various faiths or beliefts.
This family considered us family. I can still smell and taste, over 30 years later, the fast-ending and celebratory dishes they brought in to our office-space, as Ramadan concluded. Rice-and-meat-and-raisins-and-spices. Salad-and-grains-and-herbs. Legumes, leisurely marinated. Yogurt drinks. Their old-country’s life, mere years ago, now so very far away.
I once asked Moheba and her father, “Do you imagine you can ever go back to your home country?”
They looked at me with the empathetic pity reserved for children.
“No,” they both said. “We don’t imagine.” Ever going back, to the country of their birth, country, culture, origin, ever.
Dr. Latifi, Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Kabul, worked for the same measly hourly wage I did, driving all day, searching in libraries (NIH, NLM, LOC) for full-text documentation that might help a pharmaceutical company/library somewhere make a fortune in imminent prescription drugs. (Depression, HIV, for example.)
I was, what? 24-25? (And clueless, with so much personal work to do, via individual psychotherapy? And so grateful for that onset, with a therapist named Kit?)
Dr. Latifi was, what? A patriarch. A grandfather. A ‘thought-leader,’ as they say now, in his country, now ravaged and war-torn.
Moheba, mother of a son, approaching kindergarten, and a younger child who’d been sat-upon by a camel, while escaping through the mountains into Pakistan for their very lives.
Farid, an engineer, who’d managed to escape as well, and make it to Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA, with his (eventually) wife and kids.
They brought their children, their wives, their grandchildren, their meaningful others, to us, there on Columbia Pike. In a surreal, peace-living country called the U.S.A.
And embraced us. We did not deserve their communal love.
They tried to understand! How one of us would tender our resignation there, to hit the road, gigged by an agent, in a cover-rock-band, in 1986. They all chipped in to buy me a set of monogrammed luggage. To go sing on the road, out front on stage, playing electric-rhythm guitar and singing lead. Amazing to me, still, now in a Biden Administration. Just, so grateful.
Sola now muborak.
I learned sometime later that Dr. Latifi landed a job at the DC university where I now work. His dear daughter landed a job there, as well. Farid called me to chat, grateful to hear we were connected still. (I confess tears, at hearing Farid – our ‘shipper’ engineer’s voice. Just. His voice!)
Moheba’s daughter, not killed by a squatting camel with her bones so young and soft? She thrived, and graduated with Moheba’s tuition benefits! From the University where I now work. She survived, then thrived, and I will confess to loud sobbing and copious tears, to learn of this, when I first started working there, too many year ago.
Sola now muborak. Happy New Year, out of season, my family.
My lost but not forgotten family. My meaningful community, when my own brain still tried to mature. In a strange world, that is still a strange world, as the Taliban (formerly known as the mujahideen, funded by the U.S. against the Russian invasion) has taken control, this very week in 2021.
I miss you all, still. I acknowledge that my country’s support of the fighters who fought the Russians have just now, this very week, become the de facto leaders of the government you could not imagine returning to, any day, any time.
And I can only imagine how the (perverse?) spiralization of their resistance has now become, the same toward our shared America, so many years later. If I have any bandwidth to imagine, I cannot imagine how you are feeling, this week.
These 11 days.
Lovelovelove to you and yours, wherever you are this week. If it helps to know at all, I have never, and will never, forget your embrace, back in the ‘80s. And I will never forget my grateful embrace of you, and yours.
Thank you for all you gave me, and for the love I still doubt I deserved.
Moheba – Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown: https://www.uoguelph.ca/ccsaw/sites/default/files/Newsletter_6.pdf