Thursday, November 28, 2013

Bargaining. That is the third stage of loss. Well I suppose that Black Friday in America will be the perfect time to move on to this stage. But all I can think of when I hear bargaining is Kabul, I mean we are basically the masters of the skill. You’re guaranteed to use this daily in Afghanistan, whether with the lounging vendors selling watermelon on the side of the road to Qargha, or with the rowdy kochi women garbed in shimmering scarves, trying to push a bundle of bangles up your wrist without your consent, hoping that once they make it painfully over your thumb bone, you would be stuck paying any price they ask since they’re impossible to remove. Bargaining is life in Afghanistan. It is a little bit of victory the people can enjoy in their lives of constant defeat trying to make ends meet. It’s a temporary relief, but it is a sweet one.

But sometimes it is more bitter than sweet. Every time I finally made a purchase after this back and forth price trade, I always had the sinking feeling that I’d been played. That whatever cost I paid in the end was more likely the actual price, and what the store keeper had asked for first was just a ridiculously higher price because he didn’t want the bargaining to bring the price lower than what he would accept. So really, with bargaining, you can never win. You can only ever let yourself bathe in the momentary satisfaction of your work and try not to concentrate on the obvious fact that you’ve probably been taken advantage of anyway. And maybe that’s true for Afghans too, that they know every win is not real, and that somewhere down the road they will discover how they’re being played.  Eventually it will out that lithium can be mined from our dusty mountains, and the reason so many foreign troops are “helping” us seems to make sense. Eventually it will be apparent that your bargaining was useless, it just gave you a placebo to the ugly reality.

“The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control.” This is how bargaining as a stage of loss is described. A need to regain control. How often have I looked back at my departure from Kabul and regretted something, wished I could change it, how many nights have I spent replaying moments that I mentally fine-tune and pray I can somehow rewind the clock and go back and get a do-over? Too many. 

The cliché is to say that I try to live my life without regret but it seems impossible, especially when we are raised watching movies about perfect moments that all align in the stars of destiny. In truth, these moments tend to pass us by more often than not. But one thing is for sure, regret has never creeped into my mind and heart for things I should not have done, but rather things I should have done. And in this way I suppose that when people tell you to “seize the moment” and overcome your fears, your insecurities; that’s all very correct advice. There is no worse feeling than to sit back and watch your life, your future, your destiny just walk right past you. What I have now in my mind is a string of moments that I wish I could have done differently. They play in my mind like that broken record everyone talks about, a haunting tune of moments I can’t get back.

I should have fought that fight. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would speak my mind, I would not hold back, no mercy. I would have defended myself rather than placating. I wouldn’t have stood aside with a smile while being walked all over. Because ever since it, I feel that I am screaming inside all the things I would have screamed on the outside.

I should have watched her more. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would spend hours in the kitchen with her, learning the art but more importantly sharing the moment. She would hum as she always does and I would peel the onions and help her with the dishes and listen to her stories and revel in her laughter. I would be there for every dish, until we had spent a decade of foods together. Because ever since it, I miss my mother and the culture that goes with her cooking.

I should have given that foot massage. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I wouldn’t be so tired and shrewish. I would have spent more time giving relief to those crooked toes on those cracked feet because they had stood every day to support me growing up. I would have given a small amount of my time to give happiness to him because he spent a lifetime giving us happiness. Because ever since it, all I can do is buy the pills when needed and ship them back home and that is the only relief I can give my father from across the world.

I should have stopped the car. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would have stopped it, turned it around, and come back to you. I would have told you everything and said goodbye the right way. Because ever since it, I can’t get that last painful image of you out of my head as the car left that night.

I should have been on that swing every night. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would spend every night on that swing, watching the stars and their reflection on the mountains, the soft grass tickling my feet every swish back and forth. I would sit in that yard with one of my best friends as she wagged her tail at me in that perpetual happiness that a dog can have. I would have whispered more secrets to her knowing eyes. I would have given her attention to last her a lifetime after I left. Because ever since it, all I can dream is nightmares of her being lost in the streets of Kabul, dying not of the cold or the fights but because she has no more love to feed her soul.

In the end, all we’re left with is a list of should have’s. We’d be here all night if I listed them all. This is the burden of the nomad kid, a lifetime of should have’s in different countries, with different people, and different situations. No matter if you are an individual with initiative, there is always that one moment you wish you could have at least just done, let alone done different. We spend our nights going over each one, bargaining with God or whoever or whatever controls the structure of the world, thinking of what we should have done, wishing for a do-over for an incomplete moment. Never able to change it, because every individual involved in our past life, lives somewhere far from our reach. We try so hard to bargain a change in our present lives but are setting ourselves up for disappointment, sitting here peeling a pomegranate thinking “let it be as good as at home, let it be as good”, waking up each day with the chant “let today be different, let today be different”, sleeping each night with “let tomorrow be different, let tomorrow be different”. 

But we don’t go far with this bargaining, in the end you realize you’ve been sold something valueless for more than it will ever be worth and you have to deal with it, that even though you have won, you have lost. It is like the fake Uggs I bought from Walgreens for $15 that fell apart when I wore them out into the first Denver snow, realizing I bought a piece of shit, but accepting that it wasn’t surprising, after all it was $15 what did I expect? In this lifestyle, that is our reality. The only difference is that we’ve been sold the “American Dream”, and it was not cheap. And now that we have it, we see that the quality isn’t as good as it seemed, and understand that now the only way to go is forward because the planes have left and there is no going back.

We can spend our lives saying, “I should have bought real boots”, but where would that get us? $15 dollars out and nothing to show for it, that’s where. So instead we trudge on through the snow in our holed, cheap ass boots because to take them off and throw them away would be accepting defeat instead of at least getting our money’s worth. This is what we have now, us kids scattered around the world. We have moved on, I believe, from the need to be understood. We have begun to accept that many people just don’t care, and some people do, and it is all part of the fun to wait for those people to discover you. And we know that the only way to understand our lives is to have lived them, and we can’t expect that from America. I don’t expect anyone to walk in my shoes anymore. They’re falling apart anyway.

If we are going to make this work, America, it’s got to be unconditional. The way to doom something from the start is to make a relationship based on expectations, like the song that will soon be dominating the radios across the States says, “acceptance is the key to be truly free.”

It’s time for us to stop the bargaining, and know that there is nothing in the world, not even our souls, that we can trade to make things different. We are here. Chin up, sweetheart, like my Cali nomad tells me. Yes, chin up, trudge on. We can do this.

This thanksgiving I am not thankful for what I have, but for what I had. Because I did not spend enough time appreciating it. I am thankful for the love I was given by a country that did not need to recognize me as one of its own children, but who took me in and dealt with my hatred and my months of disgust, and eventually enthralled me to a point where the dust shimmers in my eyes. I am thankful for the constant care given to me by my mother when I was in Kabul, who is the embodiment of loving unconditionally. I am thankful for the challenges my father gave me, the arguments, the discussions, the stories, the advice, the patience, and everything that made me think twice. I am thankful for Haroun making sesame chicken with me in Kabul even though he was not in the mood. I am thankful that somehow all five of us ended up in Kabul and made my home complete after so long for that one year. I am thankful for the respect given to me by so many Afghans that has made me understand what it means to be worthy. And I am thankful for all the disrespect given as well, that has taught me what it means to be thick-skinned.

I am thankful for everything that I do not have anymore. I am thankful for every moment I can look back at and not think I should have done differently. I am thankful for that life that seemed too short and yet spanned an eternity. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The bargaining comes to an end, the bangles have already been pushed over the bone. It is time for acceptance now, before we spend the next decade regretting what we should have done today.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The streetlamps line the black street like a string of pearls,
Decorating the night far down the road before vanishing
At a spot that cannot be seen.
A distant whoosh of cars on a freeway. Flashes of headlights,
Brightening the darkness in short-lived,
The click-click of anxious heels against sidewalk,
She shifts her weight from one leg, to the other. And back again.
Humming an hopeful melody, head tilted back precariously, to see
The sky.
Stars fill her eyes, and the looming glow of the moon. Her gaze,
Flickers. From side to side.
Waiting to see.
An approaching rumble breaks the ritual. The bus skids to a halt, collecting her and her sigh off the street and away into the city.

The ladybug crawls across the bench, then stops, twitches her shiny wings as
A reflection bounces off her, a flash of light.
The shooting star makes a short trip,
Decorating her wings across her spots before vanishing,
At a spot that cannot be seen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The first stage of grieving is Denial & Isolation. Isn’t that just fitting, for what better metaphor for what us nomad kids are going through then loss. And indeed we have lost. Our home. Our Afghanistan. And so just like in any case of loss, we begin the road to recovery, stumbling along the path of grief.

Autumn seems to mimic the isolation, the land around us begins to shrivel and decay, the leaves stripped from the trees and tossed upon the ground like a shedding of skin. Everyone running indoors to huddle for warmth, nothing but golden red leaves and gruesomely carved pumpkins in the empty streets. This stage of grief could not have fallen on a better time of year, in this weather we can keep to ourselves without sticking out. Everyone is dwelling in their own thoughts during autumn, not just us. The city is quiet and rainy, people scurrying from their cars to their houses as fast as they can, as if lingering even a moment will give the wicked wind a chance to frisk them away into the icy air, never to be heard of again. And so we get a break, a break from all the questions and eyes watching us. We get a very cold, fresh breath of air. 

Like Mumford & Sons says almost speaking from my soul, "And I'll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways/I'll know my name as it's called again." We just need the space and time to recover ourselves.

Sometimes the best solution to a broken heart is simply to let it hurt and hurt and hurt itself into a closed wound. Blood clots, skin heals, and the worst that is left is a faded scar to remind you of a time you wish to forget. But what is wonderful about nature is that it works regardless of how much you help it. Many of us nomad kids get the lectures and the advice and the “it will be okay”'s. But we don’t get the R&R. The two cents come without enticement, the people who love us will always notice when something is wrong, but sometimes I’d just like a refund. Keep your change and I’ll take back my feelings. Sitting with my mom during one such session of coin exchange, I finally blurted out what I felt would help her understand. “Mom,” I said, “If someone you loved just died, is the first thing you need to hear, ‘it’ll be okay’, or ‘it’s just temporary,  you’ll get over it’, or ‘you can move on’, or  ‘there are worse things that could have happened’? No. No, you just want to scream, and cry, and hurt, and pound your fists against a wall til they bleed, and feel the full weight of the grief slam into you. All the ways to recover, all the advice, that is meant for after the pain, when it is time to move on, when enough is enough. It’s the same concept for me leaving Kabul.” I would be in awe of the person who tried, “there are worse things that could have happened” on a woman who just lost her husband. Or even a few months after he’s passed. So why does everyone need to try it on us? An emotional or social or mental or spiritual wound is as important as the physical one. It needs the same kind of treatment, care, and time. Especially time. If denial is the first stage of grief, then let it be. Let it be and let it heal. For once that is through, and autumn has passed, and the leaves have crumbled away and those last tendrils of summer that we tried to cling onto so fast have slipped away with the rains into the gutter….then and only then will the first stage pass and the second begin.

As Halloween approaches, I watch the people of America rush to find themselves costumes with such enthusiasm and delight that it becomes quickly apparent how sacred these holidays are to their sanity. I find myself falling into the culture, for once upon a time in a land far away we had our own holidays where life stood still for a moment to let us dance and sing and celebrate. And even before that, I used to be a part of this culture too. I remember the last time I celebrated Halloween in America, seven years ago. Can you guess my costume?

I recall it vividly. It was a bright blue Afghan dress with sequins and mirrors embellishing the waist, sleeves large and exotic hanging around my elbows, the ching-ching of my ankle clad in a traditional Afghan anklet, bangles tumbling down my wrists and arms. A turquoise scarf clipped delicately to the top of my head so that I could pull it across my face and flutter my eyelashes at people from behind the veil. I told everyone I was a gypsy, for that is the closest thing I could relate my country to in my mind, and everyone marveled at the aura of my costume as if they knew nothing more exotic than that kind of Disney depiction of brown people. They saw Princess Jasmine, and Esmeralda the gypsy girl, and for that one day my pride was swollen to know what kind of wonder I could evoke from people with my heritage.

I wore that same dress two years ago to an Afghan wedding and an elderly Afghan lady asked me why I wasn't dressed up. 
She clicked her tongue at me and turned to watch the other more outrageous yet magnificent outfits the girls were wearing. 

How long ago it seems. Now I feel myself inclined to the festivities of Halloween, as if trying to recover lost years where I could have grown up simpler. A typical high school experience, prom and homecoming, trick or treating every year, Christmas lights decorating the house starting every November, a multitude of friends that may be shallow but are always in abundance to pick and choose from, concerts and shows, summer jobs, dating the boy next door, a hoard of clothes and shoes that have been carefully purchased over the years…..and a blissful ignorance to all the things in life that can make your older than you need to be. 

I sat for half an hour in my car parked in a neighborhood, watching. Watching what could have been. The sunlight poured out over the trees. Trees that were red, and orange, and yellow, their leaves catching onto the cold wind and dancing away into the streets. Each house covered in Halloween décor, like a kind of neighborhood competition of ghosts and gremlins, pumpkins and skeletons, cobwebs and critters of the night, every kind of decoration you could imagine that would bring some magic into the children’s minds. Soccer mom vans revving up their engines in the mornings, the smoke wafting from the exhaust waiting to take their bundles of joy to school, where no doubt a teacher would teach them how to carve pumpkins, and they would decorate their autumn-themed coloring books with new, creamy crayons. Their eyes would sparkle with wonder listening to Mrs. Something or Other read them stories about Jack-o-Lanterns and witches on broomsticks, and they would rush home to jump on a broom and chase after black cats, counting down the days til Halloween.  I saw all this in that little neighborhood, and after realizing how creepy I looked parked there, simply gazing with misty eyes over the houses, I turned on the car and sighed. That sigh billowed up before me in the cold air, and as I drove away, it slipped through the window and stayed back there in a place and time I can never experience.

I was catapulted into the second stage of grief. But the grief was not for myself this time. It all started on a night that I wasn’t thinking about how much life sucks. Mostly because I was busy working.

The job I have is a kind of bittersweet haven. Bitter because I make falafel for a living. Sweet because I am not alone. A kind of almost ISK (International School of Kabul) culture exists in my workplace, with spats of drama, times of fun, times of hardship, and a kind of connection I thought I’d lost forever. It is, arguably, not the same. But honestly, when will it ever be? And if we sit here constantly waiting for it to be the same, we’ll miss out on all the things it could’ve been. Working at a Mediterranean restaurant already puts me closer to home, but the kind of place I work at is another advantage. Perhaps it is the fact that my boss is an Israeli Iranian Jew, or that I was only given an interview based on the knowledge that I was Afghan, or maybe because it is such a small place that I couldn’t help but work with immigrants and nomads like myself, but for whatever reason that the world spins on its axis, I was given a place to be a little bit more myself. I work with two Mexican ladies, one Iraqi girl, two girls from Ethiopia, one very hippie American woman, and one, well, white girl. I find myself in heated discussions about the world with the Ethiopian girls, who know the kind of poverty and corruption that exists outside of America. We spend hours just talking about things that we mutually are annoyed and disgusted by and wish to see changed. The Iraqi girl is even closer to me in this way, as she has seen the same kinds of harassment to her people, and knows the “real world” as I would call it. The Mexican ladies are so compassionate, and do what no one else does; they listen. Listen, understand, relate, and then they share their own pasts, their struggles with immigration and surviving in a foreign land for they went through the same process of loss. I see the way they speak of Mexico and the people they left behind, with a kind of fog across their expression as though there is a part of them no one can truly understand. And I smile because I know.

But we’ve veered off track. Here’s where the catapult comes in. I have spent… so. much. time. thinking and pondering and pining and complaining and just being totally oblivious to everything around me. 

One night, my co-worker got a call from her husband, and I almost reflexively asked her afterward how he proposed. I was waiting for the fairytale. It never came. She began in her quiet voice saying that she was pregnant, and so they got married, very simply put. I had automatically been pushed towards her since we first started working together because we are both quiet people. We need not fill the silences with idle useless chatter, and no moment is every awkward. We enjoy snippets of conversation, and they are always meaningful and genuine. What I have always loved was how much of a good, good person she was. She was always happy, always kind, and carried a kind of innocence that made you think she had never experienced a bad thing and you prayed she never would.

She adds that she met him at the restaurant we work in, years and years ago. She gave a shy, sad smile and shrugged. I didn’t know what to do with that and so I tried to relate, and said well my parents were pregnant before marriage, but it was after their engagement, and so it was okay, but my brother was born soon after they were married, and so they didn’t get a lot of time together and did she think she would’ve wanted more time? If I hadn’t been playing with my phone while talking to her, I may have noticed a glint in her eyes about something below the surface hitting home. But of course, when does anything work the way it should? And I didn’t notice. She began to speak about her marriage, and her children, and how she met her husband, she slipped in at one point that he yells a bit, and is a little jealous. She continues to talk about how they split up for a year, constantly shrugging shyly at these facts as though they are typical, and as if she is required by etiquette to be shy if I ask her these questions. 

But I haven’t asked. Not for half an hour. I haven’t said a word, and though she is blushing, she continues without any questions, and little by little as she speaks I realize perhaps she’s been waiting her whole life to say these things. She still speaks softly but with a faster pace, and smiles sadly, and continues on about her life, and how she was always a quiet girl, and how an assertive man asked her on a date once, and got her pregnant months later when they had dated a while, and how she had only had sex with him once and yet was pregnant, and she continues on how he promises to support her and how the nuptials come to be, nothing romantic but all pragmatic. And she speaks of how he started to be a shouter, how she would sleep in a separate room with the baby so that she could keep them quiet always for her husband hates the crying. She tells me of how she is pregnant again, and jokes that he did it to keep her there forever, smiling sadly again. Shrugging again.

Half an hour becomes an hour and a half, yet I haven’t said a word, I simply watch the woman before me unfurl and lay before me all the horrors of her life. The shouting becomes hitting. She tells me with a little conventional laugh how her daughter would just sit in the corner with her thumb in her mouth and her hand covering her ears. Sad smile. Shrug. She tells me she would plead with him not to hit her in front of the kids at least. Smile. Shrug. It’s been two hours. My awkward smile to make the situation less tense has long faded, and I no longer try to keep a wall between us. But she continues the shrugs and smiles and I wait for it. Here it comes. 

She begins with the same determination to keep it all together, but her words form into a tale of how one day, her four year old son stood between her and her husbands upraised fist and told him to sto-….and on this word, her smile breaks into a sob, and that face that for three months I have only ever seen in a perpetual expression of joy cracks into a wimpering broken reflection of her soul. The glimpse is momentary. She quickly reaches for a napkin and tries a very feeble smile, rolling her eyes and saying how this always happens when she talks about it. But I don’t allow it, I do what I would in any situation, the same thing I did to console my Afghan friend who lost his little brother last winter, or to any other soul I have supported, and I wrapped her in my arms and didn’t let her try to build that wall back up again.  I would not smile for her. I would not make a change of topic. I would not give her that chance to save the distance between us as people. I did not give her the option to still put me back in a category of “acquaintances” for as much as she needed for so long a person to listen, I have needed for so long now a person to be real.

The next week I watched her and the other Mexican lady discussing Halloween costumes for their kids. I watch her tangle her fingers lovingly into her son’s hair, and I watch him bury his face shyly into his mother’s lap as if he didn’t even know how to speak, let alone protect. What kind of horrors could provoke the shiest kid in the world to become a little soldier? And it is now that I see everything I did not see before. Just like how you won’t notice someone’s obnoxious chewing until someone points it out, and then you hear every single munch….I went through the same phase with my co-worker. Suddenly I was aware now of those calls she gets almost ten times a day, and how I can just hear a deep voice yelling on the other side though she presses the volume button down so that no one can hear this part of her life. Suddenly I see her eyes wracked with depression certain days she comes to work, though the smile just on the other side of her face masks it all. Suddenly I question why her kids come into work so often, and it doesn’t seem so normal anymore. And she knows that I see it all. To some degree I think she is embarrassed that she let me in, and that now I can recognize all the symptoms that I used to be blind to. But I also see the relief, that in those moments we catch each other’s eyes when her phone rings, or when I am gazing at her son in silent awe, that somebody knows what she deals with every day. And someone cares.

Suddenly Halloween is a survival tactic of Americans. Of the women and men who suffer abuse, loneliness, depression, stress, and hurt. Everyone is rushing to buy costumes, no….masks. Masks to hide the different kinds of horrors they see in their private lives. Here comes a sexy witch on a broomstick hiding the fact that she can’t be or have fun without the alcohol coursing through her system. Watch the Plug and Socket couple smiling with the wittiness that masks the loss of romance and intimacy they have felt since their kids were born. Observe the Miley Cyrus look-a-likes that prance around with that infamous foam finger in the hopes that the joke on the celebrity will veer attention away from their own vices. See the boy dressed as a firefighter covering up the need in his soul to be something stronger so maybe one day he can truly protect his mother from his father. The ghosts, superheroes, sluts, nuns, jokes, ironies, zombies, celebrities, nobodies, characters, sorcerers, masquerades, as they pass you by with their baskets for candy, see if perhaps what is created on the outside is a cry for help on the inside. See if you can see through the one night of celebration into the other 364 days of struggle that they are trying to hide in a closet where no one can see it. What mask will you don? For I have seen them all. And as the countdown draws closer to All Hallow’s Eve, everyone is waiting to see the masks. I, on the other hand, am waiting to see everyone’s true faces.

So far I have seen one, and it haunts me. As I hand the restaurant phone over to hers the other night and hear the muffled rage that bounces out at her ear, I am thrown from my Denial & Isolation into the next level.

I look down at my costume for Halloween and smile wryly at the utter perfection of how life fits every piece into its place at the right time; it’s just waiting for us to see the patterns.

I decided to be one of the deadly sins. Welcome to the second stage of grief.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


I blame all issues of the world on expectations. This seems like hardly a valid conviction, but as the days pass it tends to make more sense to me. We constantly burn with the desire for others to please us, agree with us, act and speak a certain way, and we pout and hate when this need is not met. On the receiving end, the expectations hold a clammy grip on a person’s soul, the constant awareness that we should, that our present actions are displeasing. What faster way to weaken a person but throw expectations on their mind to drive them to madness. Expectations weigh down heavy on all of us, consumed with our daily struggles, already burdened by the need to survive in an ever-changing world, only to take on more weight from others. Every step we take another ball of steel is chained to our ankles, dragging us back. Is this helping us? Is life trying to see our full potential, or rather see how far we will go before we break.

What I see around me is a world of kids struggling under expectations. We’re only fresh from the bliss of high school, feeble and more naïve than we accept on how adulthood works. America is a land where not much is there to support you but your own sense of motivation. This independence is a powerful weapon here in the land of opportunities, one that you can go far with, but without it there is the opposite extreme. There may be only this independent motivation to help you, but there are many things to bring you down. Bills, schedules, paychecks, social acceptance, social pressure, the “mode”, the indifference that the society seems to reek at newcomers, and our own insecurities that make us see America as far more intimidating than it actually is. You would think this is enough for what I like to call "us nomad kids", to juggle with in our lives. But no.

All these kids, for yes, we are all still kids, no matter how high we hold our quivering chins…all these kids are dealing with piles of expectations given by family, society, or whatever other kind of power governs their lives. I hear from my friends scattered around the globe how anxious they are of their grades, exam scores, bills, appointments, and now as fall approaches, their midterms. One after another, it’s always the same story, no one is getting the grades they expect with a highschool mindset. And it scares them shitless. One friend’s entire scholarship relies on passing the semester with flying colors. Another will be cut off from family’s financial support without A’s and B’s, and there it is, the first one to rear its ugly head: an expectation. Expectation or threat? One can hardly distinguish the difference anymore. And it both agitates and disappoints me, because I know what they are all going through.

To toss all of them into a strange land, expecting them to suddenly change 18 years of stability into adaptability, at the same time learning how college (which in itself is a world of difference from high school) functions , and then on top of that expecting no failure, this is asking for divinity from a mere mortal. What person in their right mind would put such a heavy thing as expectations on people struggling as it is to stand upright. Key term being “right mind”.

What is missing is understanding. The generation before us has seen a different kind of battle in their lifetimes, a physical battle in a country torn apart by expectations of tradition, religion, tribe, and pride. A kind of fight that weakens the body, batters the tangible skin, an onslaught seen by the eyes and heard by the ears. It is hardly acceptable for us to judge them for not sensing the invisible battles we see every day. It seems like it’s been ten years that “Afghanistan has undergone thirty years of war” from the way this sentence is tossed at me and others as if it suddenly destroys any argument we have, stating bluntly, “You have it good. We’ve seen worse. Rub some dirt on it and get back on your feet.”

After thirty-... oh to hell with it, fourty years of battling for life and who knows how many more, it’s not a wonder that some silly kids going to college doesn’t seem like a big deal. But what of the invisible battles?
What of the martyrs whose names will never go down in history, the one who fortify themselves behind the barricade of textbooks, ducking from the gunfire of deadlines, agendas, and standards that are impossible to reach. What of the kids armed with independence, but no motivation? Like a bow without an arrow, a blunt dagger, stumbling along and hoping the beating of their heart is enough to protect them from the relentless hopelessness that creeps in like mustard gas to suffocate them. What of the heroes that are shot down every failing exam, every C- on a quiz, every homework submitted too late to salvage, wound after wound bringing them to their knees because like young soldiers drafted too soon to understand the ways of the world, these students crumble trying to understand the system. Who hears the battle cry of 2 hours of sleep, innumerable cups of caffeine, disheveled minds marching into battle the next day and hoping that somehow, by some miracle, they will remember all the battle strategies? Who feels the desperation as the walls close in from all sides, as these students fall deeper and deeper into a prison they will never be rescued from? Hostages of a standard that sets them up for failure, with no one to bail them out but many to bar them in. And who will nurse the lacerations of each failure that we bear like battle scars. No one, for ours are hidden and can’t be seen on the skin, deep in a pit of despair where we try to cram our insecurities in hope that no one will see how far we are falling, how much we are failing, and how far gone we are to the point of no return. No bruises on the surface, but on our spirits that falter like a light bulb ready to fizzle out and surrender up the fight. Each nomad kid I hear from is humming a different war tune, but the same melody threaded through the notes. We’re failing. All of us are, and not from the difficulty of our battles or because we are on unfamiliar territory. It’s because we are all still a group of high-schoolers, but with even less resources to succeed in this education system. It’s as ludicrous as enlisting boot-camp kids into the military and wondering why, as they enter the warzone, they fall so easily. A combat that is not apparent to the eyes is not necessarily unimportant. For when something is not obvious on the surface, it is indication that it is far from shallow. It is ridiculous the kind of competition we are at, brandishing our sorrows off to prove we are in “more pain” than others. From the way so many people act, you would think there was some kind of tool to measure grievances, as if we could compare our soul wounds and see who hurts the most. It’s obvious from never ending arguments over 9/11 versus every day in Syria, or a school shooting versus a war, a child murdered versus a lifetime of children murdered. How is it that we have arrived at an arena where we are fighting to prove whose fight is more the fight?

I call a truce. I call a truce by admitting it's our fault too.

I admit that the other side of the battle is communication. Where our aforementioned “governing powers” do not see our battle for what it is, we do not take the time to share it either. And maybe we have reason to hold ourselves silent. Perhaps we’ve gone on too long being strong and persevering.
My father once said that I look too serious, that my face was older than my age. I didn’t know how to fix that. I talked to a friend recently about it, about the way we nomad kids look out into the world. She said looking naive is overrated anyway. We laughed it off, but I still held the gnawing feeling that something was wrong with our clockwork. I observed others. Indeed, “normal” people don’t look like we do. They carry with them the great ability of being able to look upon the world as if nothing bad existed in it. You see girls who seem to always be smiling, even in the moments when no one is watching. I see the people sitting on the lightrail, or listening to their music in the car, or walking down the snowy streets, all these moments when no one is paying attention and where they aren’t bound to a social rule to look happy. But they do anyway. And when I see them, they look almost as innocent as children, watching the world like it still was pure, lost in some daydream that puts a barely perceptible grin on their countenances.

But I can’t do that. When did we lose that innocence, I asked my friend. When did we look out onto the world with caution? The answer is simple, but ugly. Ugly because we each had a time where we did look out with expressions that were open and carefree, but vulnerable. Maybe we lost it the first time we smiled at someone from the cover of a headscarf and were rewarded with dirty, lusting glances in return. Maybe we lost it the first time a stranger “accidentally” touches you in the busy streets of the bazaar, or the time when you realize someone is laughing at you in another language and you can’t understand anything but you feel the shame, or the time a guy at school categorizes you as easy because you come from the land of easy women, or the time you watch a foreign lady giving hugs to street boys only with good intentions and see the way they snicker and press up against her enjoying their little joke and knowing she would never understand the simple way they were taking advantage of her. Who knows when we lost it, but we did. Any nomad kid has built a protective shield around themselves; we hold it up against the world for protection. Life the way we have lived gives no room for weakness or vulnerability, just as the childhood tears dried up long ago, the ability to look so vulnerable is impossible now. It’s as if we sleep with one eye open, and the "old face" we present keep us surviving.

And perhaps in this same way, we don’t want to admit our failures, and struggles, weaknesses, and vulnerable points. We don’t want to roll up our sleeves and lay bare our marks. How can my fellow soldier say, “I got a D on my exam”, or my other comrade admit, “I’m failing my class”, or my teammate state, “I can’t find a job”, or my other warrior friend say, “I’m falling under debt.” How can we, in the threat of expectations, show where we cannot meet them. Here, communication on our part fails and understanding on their part dies. All we are left with will be the aftermath, and when it comes… the casualties will be greater than if we could simply learn to work together.

Let us stop expecting from others, and start to allow others to expect for themselves. Let us ease the burdens off of their shoulders, to give room for wings to stretch out and expand. Let us learn that the path to success is not wide for naught, it is simply not meant to be walked alone. And let us see that every battle may not be the same, but every human bleeds red. Let’s sacrifice a little bit of our expectations for the happiness of others.

Happy Eid-e-Qurban. Festival of the Sacrifice.

Monday, October 7, 2013

When did I stop writing?

It’s October 2013, marking the three month anniversary of my shattered sense of belonging. Yes, I am exaggerating. And yes, I may even continue to do so throughout this post.

Isn’t life funny. And it knows it too. Flip the pages back six years from now and I was in exactly the same situation, just on the other side of the world. Having just moved from Denver to my parents’ hometown, Kabul, Afghanistan you can imagine the kind of culture shock I was experiencing. Torn from a life where everything comes easy and tossed into the world of a very naked kind of every day struggle is a recipe for experiencing shock. Except….I wasn’t….

Indeed I never really understood what culture shock meant; I read the definitions, the examples, studied the expats around me who were apparently “going through it”. I knew all the symptoms, but hadn’t caught the pox.

Now, I get it. Flip the pages forward. High school graduation from the International School of Kabul gave way to a flight back to Denver, where I could study college in the comfort of a town I should be familiar with (since I was born and raised here before the big Afghanistan move) and the support of extended family we had left behind. All that sounds fine and dandy and it sounded fine and dandy all the months leading up to the flight out of Kabul, and it sounded fine and dandy on the flight, and it sounded fine and dandy when I touched down in Denver six years after I’d lived there. Well let me tell you something.

SHOCK. LITERAL SHOCK is what they mean by “culture shock”. It’s like sitting through an icy cold blast of air pummeling straight into your face, giving you just enough breathing time to know you’re alive but not enough to be anywhere near comfortable. Who knew America was this scary? I thought I knew this place, but uh guess what? No. Now I’m in that strange place where I neither belong to Afghanistan nor to America. Now I’M one of those people that no one understands. Every day at college makes me feel  like one of those odd items found around the house that can’t be categorized and are eternally doomed to the “miscellaneous” drawer so people feel as if they’ve accomplished understanding it, when in reality they have no clue what the hell it is and are too afraid to ask.

One kid tried talking to me a few weeks into school, remarking on the new tattoo I have; the word “nomad” in Persian script. I had my shoulder adorned with it, sometimes wondering if it’s less like a defining characteristic and more like the brands you see on cattle.

Nevertheless, he boldly approached me, unhindered by the waves of “introvert” I was trying to radiate, asking me what my tattoo said. I mumbled something about nomad, and then realizing that it wasn’t in English, I added that it was in Persian script. And then I realized he wouldn’t understand why I would have Persian script on my body, and I decided to blurt out that I was Afghan, as if that would suddenly tie up all the loose strings for him. I added a feeble, “So yeah….” After which I decided to leave it at that and walk away awkwardly. If you have to look crazy, you might as well look full crazy. I gave him a piece of my life he neither asked for, nor knew what to do with, so I just left it there with him and he, mostly likely, left it out in that empty hallway.

That’s America for you. I was trying to describe to my father what’s missing from life here in Denver that I had in Kabul. All I could think is….I can’t find the color. I can’t find the color. What does that even mean? Either I’m psycho, or colorblind because Kabul is hardly the place anyone would describe as “colorful”. And yet I stand by the statement. Something very genuine and true is missing from the West. Some other Kabul friends and I sat down to lunch at an Afghan restaurant in Denver, as if suddenly the kabobs would be authentic and the bread wouldn’t be knock-off Indian naan and the tea would taste of musty, green tea gossip like it used to. We tried to pinpoint this color that was missing. It was a brown sense of community. I mean of course, as the world is well aware, we are a people of conflict. There are divisions between tribes, gender, even the different branches of Islam. But in times of need…when the chips are down, we become one. Every single person is a part of a living, breathing entity. A purpose higher than our little lives. Not divine, but rather very, very human. Vulnerable. Mortal. The country is like a thick-skinned mother, bruised and battered from victorious fights as well as those she has lost, wearing her scars proudly as if they were both a lesson to others, and a lesson to herself. She stands in the relentless wind, in the middle of the Hindu Kush, feet planted firmly upon the ground, chin set high, breathing steadily and assuring her children that the dawn is just over the horizon. That is what we are a part of. Were a part of….

So where does that leave me now. Stranded in a land where fashion is more important than compassion, money above matter, social rank more than social ties? The looming towers of commercial goods, so many choices that the choosing is no longer fun, a place where every day is a fight to step over someone else’s accomplishments, it seems the goal never reaches beyond the edges of the wallet.

And yet…

That kid who asked me about my tattoo addressed me by my name. In a class of 30 students, he still managed to remember that (the agenda behind that aside) it was an attempt to show me he thought I was important enough to remember. And me? I still don’t know his name. I didn’t even ask. I was so consumed by the “tragedy” of my own life that I couldn’t open my narrow mindset and learn to let America get to know me. Who’s missing “the color” now, Sabrina. Maybe in the end all our problems boil down to ourselves. It’s easier to sit back and judge than it is to point the finger the other way.

All I know is that I keep hearing that it will get better. And I hear that I’m not the only one. And I hear that others have it worse. I acknowledge all the advice, but it all kind of slips out of the place that should retain important information. That place is still drowning in memories. How do we reach in and dump out a piece of our heart to make room to embrace new memories? Does the soul have a set capacity from which we can’t exceed, are we obliged to empty out pieces of our past to make space for the future? Or do our souls expand to take in as much of life and the world as we choose to carry.

Time will tell.

A favorite singer writes, “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart.” Indeed, all of us do. All of us kids thrown around the world on an adult’s whim. Here’s to the ones who have it worse than I do for they are plenty.
Here’s to the kids who don’t have the gift of family like I do to guide them through this journey. A second for my classmate who cries herself to sleep two states over. A minute for my friend on the East coast who won’t be seeing her family for months to come. An hour for my friend near the South who tells me, “Let’s all go back” in a sad voice I don’t recognize on him. A decade for my girl whose life has been packed into a suitcase for the millionth time, looking dejectedly into my eyes and saying that she thought she’d eventually be numb to the goodbyes.

Here’s to us all and our thick skins and our elastic hearts. Three months in, we haven’t snapped yet.