[Jesus] was told, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see You.” But He replied to them, “My mother and My brothers are those who hear and do the word of God.” (Luke 8:20–21)
The other day, a neighbor dropped off some food for me. Actually, it was Fatemah’s eldest daughter. Bashira is eleven—skinny and a little gawky, beautiful brown eyes and a shy smile. Her hijab is a pale pink and she waves to me through her apartment window when I walk by. She knocked on my door and gave me a large piece of “pizza”: thick, pillowy bread with a slightly oily crust. It was topped with all sorts of things: shredded chicken, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, peas, onions, a smattering of cheese, more oil. The flavors were familiar and yet different. It was pizza, Afghan style. It was something I had never eaten before. It was something I now love. It was a gift, and I ate it as such.
Many of my current neighbors are from Afghanistan. The men are vapors in my mind, shadowy presences who work all night at the 7-Eleven and sleep all day while their children bang and shriek in the living room. The men, I have been told, all speak good English because they were translators for the United States in Afghanistan; this is the reason they and their families were resettled here. The wives, my friends, don’t speak very much English, but we are still able to have a good time together. They are funny and bright and surprising and moody, and they are always, always together. “In my culture,” one young pregnant wife recently told me, “it is not good for a family to be small.” She was on her way to eat dinner with Fatemah and her husband and four children, along with another neighbor, Razia and her son. If she had been at home eating by herself while her husband worked, that would have been considered a tragedy, an unbearable sadness.
My friends and neighbors carve out spaces for themselves here, on the outskirts of Portland. Their apartments, painted low-income beige just like my own, are decorated with faux-Turkish rugs on the floor. The pressure cooker is always on, cooking some sort of meat for the evening meal. They boil water for tea and drink it in china cups and eat spicy snacks from India. My next door neighbor, Razia, has a large TV and a Roku account, which enables her to watch music videos from Afghanistan on a constant loop. Her almost two-year-old, Burhan, stands transfixed in front of the TV and dances. My children, ages five and one, are also entranced, although eventually the blaring sounds get to them and they cry to go back home to our quiet, albeit more boring, apartment.
Anytime I go on my back porch, a cement square leading into a communal courtyard, Razia pops her head out her window. “Come in, come in,” she calls and beckons, and even if I had plans for a moment of solitude, they vanish in the sight of her friendly smile. More tea and snacks and videos, more hanging out and sitting in silence, or basic and casual conversation. Usually one or two more women trickle in, beautiful dresses and shimmering headscarves on, several young children with them, alternately sleeping or breastfeeding or screaming. They talk to each other, and the sounds wash over me.
I drink my scalding tea and squint at a home video recording of a concert in Montreal. An older Afghan man is dancing with a beautiful young singer with luscious black hair and a bejeweled gown. “Is that okay?” I ask to no one in particular. It seems a little odd given the nature of Islamic rules when it comes to male/female relationships. “Oh no,” my friend Razia says. “In Afghanistan, this is not good.” And then she pulls her finger across her throat, nodding at me. I stare at her. “In America, in Canada, this is okay. But in Afghanistan . . .” Again, Razia slashes her throat with her finger.
She looks at her two friends and they all giggle. I do not giggle. I stare at the TV, the loud and fuzzy music blaring, the hot tea in the small cup, the children rolling on the floor and clutching the knees of their mothers, and I wonder what it would be like to come from a culture that would execute a woman just for dancing with a man. As they laugh to themselves, I grow quiet, and eventually leave to go back to my place.
Much later I realize with a start that the reason they invite me over all the time is because they think I come from a small family. They don’t ever want me to be lonely. They are trying to minister to me, one Afghani music video at a time.
I watched a movie last night that was a little bit about Afghanistan. Really, it was about a white Western woman who was a war reporter for several years in Afghanistan, but this is about as good as it gets for American cinema. As we watched the movie, my husband and I were interrupted by the sound of singing. We paused the movie and went outside. Upstairs, our neighbors were having some sort of gathering, some sort of house church. They are from Burma, and they were singing hymns in beautiful harmony in words I had never heard. We smiled at each other and then went inside to finish our movie, again feeling gratitude for where we live.
As I watch the movie showing bits of Afghani life and culture, I begin to feel an uncomfortable mix of emotions, mostly about the different ways we all process trauma. In the movie, the war reporters and photographers are obviously traumatized by their experiences, and as a result abuse alcohol, drugs, and sex. It is hinted, but never explored, that the Afghan people themselves are traumatized, by their own government and the occupation of the United States and strict religious codes and constant violence. Like I am supposed to, I identify with the main protagonist, Kim, who ultimately makes the healthy choice and leaves Afghanistan for New York. She leaves behind the adrenaline-seeking world of on-the-ground reporting, and she learns to move on in spite of all she has seen. But what about everyone else? Those who couldn’t leave, who have no choice? The movie doesn’t help us there. The Afghan people are not the stars of the show.
I am not a war reporter. I am a girl who is trying to be a good neighbor, and many of my neighbors for the past ten-plus years have been refugees. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Bahai. The stories they tell me—through pictures, gestures, perfect or broken English—add up. So much death and displacement and oppression, so many loved ones lost or left behind. I hang out with women, so the stories take on an even more desperate edge. What does it mean to survive so much? In the dark of the night, I wonder: how are they to move forward?
When the movie is over, my mind is a whirr with questions. As my husband is trying to go to sleep, I feel compelled to go over the news of the day. I try to explain to him what happened in Nice, the terrorists and the truck barreling down the street, killing and crushing people. I tell him what is happening in Turkey, the military attempting a coup, a battle between the powers with important and possibly dire ramifications globally. I grew up with a bent toward the charismatic, and sometimes I get very apocalyptic.
In a rush I tell my husband, “Everything is accelerating, it feels like the end of the world.” I am having a moment, what we affectionately refer to as a staring-into-the-sun moment, a moment where all I can see is death and destruction and war and trauma.
“Did you know,” I say out of nowhere, “that North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world?” Though he has remained silent next to me, my husband finally speaks. “Everything is just awful,” he says, his voice low and heavy, and a part of me is pleased that I have shared the burden of my fear and despair with somebody else. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.
We are quiet, in the dark of a midsummer night, our baby sleeping in his tiny crib, our daughter tucked into her bed in the next room. I feel so alone in my head, in my thoughts, as though it is me against the burning of Rome, me against the end of the world. After a few long and silent minutes, my husband turns to me. “Well,” he says, “tonight we could hear hymns being sung by people who survived war. That’s pretty amazing.”
Instantly, a knot inside my chest was loosened. My head stilled. “You are so right,” I told him. “And also, people who survived war made us pizza today.” I smiled into the darkness. If trauma surrounded the world everywhere, so, too, did the survivors. Even if I couldn’t quite laugh at it yet, I knew: we lived in this world, the one where it was both burning and being repaired all the time. And we were surrounded on all sides by people who were trying to enfold us into the larger story of community. We were surrounded on all sides by people who were trying to save us from our own small fears and beliefs, people who were trying to save us from our own small families.
I took it as a gift, and closed my eyes, and went to sleep.