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My War at Homeby Masuda Sultan
Chapter 1: The Second Most Important Day
At sixteen, I finally had the guts to make the call to my new husband. With my reluctant acceptance, my parents had arranged my marriage to a doctor fourteen years my senior.
I had been planning to call him for weeks now, trying to find the right opportunity, and backing out at the moment it was no longer a fantasy but a step closer to hearing his voice. I had to hurry because my mother was going to be back soon, and my younger sisters could come out into the living room at any moment.
As I dialed the operator, I felt a flash of hot fire spread across my face. It rushed through my body. "I'd like to make a collect call," I said uncertainly to the operator — I hoped she would tell me I couldn't and put me out of my misery. I had found the number under "Doctor" in the neatly written phone book my father kept next to the telephone. I hated that this was the way I was first to speak with my husband. I felt cheap, but there was no other way I could call him without my parents finding out. What if he didn't recognize who I was? They only ask your name on a collect call, and this wouldn't give me enough time to say, "I'm Masuda, the girl you married three months ago, remember?"
What if he knew who I was and still refused my call? Would he think I was a shameless American girl? After all, he had called my parents about once a week after the ceremony to see how everyone was doing, but had made my mother proud by never asking about me. That meant that he was either very conservative, too shy to ask my parents about me, or both. In any case, it was a very appropriate way to behave, according to Pashtun culture.
"Masuda Sultan." I rushed to say my full name before the operator's recorder stopped. Ring . . . Ring . . . I tapped the top of the black wooden entertainment system on which the phone was resting. I was somewhat disappointed he wasn't home on a Sunday afternoon. Could he be out with a woman? I knew nothing about his personal life but wondered about it.
On the third ring, he picked up. I rushed to fill the copper wires that connected us. "Salaamwalaikum. This is Masuda. I'm sorry to call you this way, but I just felt that we should be speaking, and um — if it's a problem I can hang up and we can pretend this never happened." I was so frightened that I wished I had never called.
"No, no, it's fine. Don't worry." I wanted to jump in the air. "So how are you?" he asked.
"Oh, not bad, just um, home."
He was sweet. I was ecstatic that he was happy to hear from me. This was my husband, but it felt like I was calling a secret boyfriend, which made it all the more fun. We went on to talk about his long hours at work as a doctor at the clinic.
I explained that it was already becoming too late for me to apply to college, but that my college counselor at school felt I had a really good shot at some top schools. My parents told me not to apply, to wait and see what happens. I brought up the college issue in particular to see if he really was comfortable with my attending school.
A few months back, when my parents asked me if I would agree to marry their choice, I had objected at first, saying that at sixteen it was too early for me to get married, and I wanted to go to college. My parents asked me who I would marry later on, and if I already had a boyfriend. "Of course not!" I said, feeling defensive, and under suspicion.
"Then who will you marry, if not our choice? Maybe you are too young, but this is an opportunity you may never have again. We think you're mature enough."
They were worried they would not find a good match for me if we waited any longer, because I would then be way too educated for most Afghan men from families my parents would have known in southern Afghanistan before the war.
Eventually, I caved in, seeing the merits of my parents' choice, and not having anyone else in mind. I only asked that I be allowed to continue my education through college. My parents agreed to request that Nadir's brother, who had approached them to ask for my hand in marriage, talk to Nadir about this one condition. Nadir's brother reported back to say this was acceptable.
Because there had been so many people involved in the agreement, I wanted to be sure that Nadir really valued my college education. I was relieved that he did, although he didn't give me much direction about where to apply. It was only our first call, and I had done a lot simply by achieving contact.
I had just had my first conversation with my new husband, and he suggested I call him back collect as often as I wanted. As I hung up the phone, I turned around to see my sisters in the living room. They were looking up at me curiously. I couldn't ask them what they heard or knew, because I didn't want to bring attention to it. I only hoped that they didn't notice anything, even though my face must have been red from the feeling of hot flames emanating from it.
I longed to know who my husband really was. I blamed the discomfort I had felt at times, the dead silence on the phone, on the way in which we had met. Or perhaps it was because I was a complete amateur and had never been in a relationship before. Maybe he was being nice by not saying much, and giving me an opening with his silence to talk about myself and ponder any random thought I desired. Nadir was probably the smartest man I'd ever met, so I trusted his instincts. I also knew that our children would be very intelligent, if nothing else. But I wished that he could have told me how much he enjoyed speaking to me, that he looked forward to our wedding, and our life together.
I remembered the first time I met him. He came over to my parents' home for dinner, with his brother and his brother's wife. As in most melmastias, or occasions where we had guests, we had spent two days preparing for their arrival. The first day my father, or Agha, had shopped for fresh halal meats and groceries, while the rest of us cleaned all day, making the entire house spotless. The day of the melmastia, we rose to the comforting aroma of sautéed onions, a task that Moor, or mother, had begun long before we had come to our senses. We soon joined in, washing sprigs of mint and cilantro, using the mortar and pestle to squash garlic into a paste, and stuffing chopped meat into mantoo, spicy Afghan dumplings over which mint yogurt is poured before serving. We spent the day cooking enough food for at least twice the number of guests expected, fretting over whether it would be too little. The worst embarrassment in melmastia is not having enough food. That point is not marked by people leaving hungry, or whether the food is finished, but by whether anyone eating must question their desire to reach for a particular dish because there may be someone else who wants some. In other words, the guests must eat freely and to the greatest extent possible. Guests must also never exert themselves or be left wanting anything. They must sit and be catered to, although female guests who feel close to the family often insist on helping to clean up.
I greatly enjoy serving guests, probably because our whole family has always considered it a pleasure. Like an orchestra, our family would manage all of the details and minor crises together. This is when our sense of being a team was perhaps strongest. When it's time to serve dinner, Agha checks on the food constantly as Moor heats it up, and we are all assigned tasks. In the race to get all the dishes out at the same time so that they remain as hot as possible, we maneuver around one another in the kitchen. As I duck to avoid the large tray of aromatic basmati rice being passed over my head, run a mitten over to my mother to handle the pot, and ask Agha to remove the Afghan bread toasting in the oven before it burns, we each try to be our best and most efficient. All this is done with the goal of making minimal noise and trying to appear smooth to our guests. Sara decorates the eggplant and tomatoes with chopped peppers and fresh cilantro, like a skilled artist proud of her craft. I try to catch what's been forgotten, like bringing out the pickled lemons Agha has jarred weeks ago in preparation. My youngest sister, Aziza, helps with the easiest chores, like preparing the salad, while nagging our mother for more adult responsibilities, such as preparing a whole stew of chicken and curry.
The night of Nadir's visit, my mother asked me to bring drinks to our guests, so I walked to the living room balancing a tray of glasses filled with orange juice and placed on saucers with a napkin folded into a triangle under them. One never served a drink to a guest in our house without a saucer and napkin for the glass to rest on, and the glass on top of a decorated silver tray. On another occasion, I had carried a glass of water to a guest with my bare hands, only to see the look of desperate shame on my father's face. He shrunk before my eyes, but I felt I couldn't turn back. I was already standing in front of the guest with the glass of water.
As I walked over to Nadir with the tray of orange juice, I noticed the front of his foot was perched on the coffee table, his toes curled around the top corner. How rude! I thought. While it was customary to take off our shoes inside the house, putting your foot on the coffee table was bad manners by any standard. As I got closer I hoped he'd make room for my tray, but he didn't budge. I couldn't bear to look at his face. I stared at his foot as I walked closer and closer, getting nervous about what I would do if he didn't move. I fixated on his big toe, which was clean and well groomed, but hairy. I didn't want to have to tell him to move his foot. That would have been confrontational, and I was too shy to point it out.
Finally, as I stopped and stood before him, his big toe moved. This was my introduction to Nadir. The next time I saw him, we were married, through an Islamic ceremony called nikkah.
Once, when I was ten and my extended family came to my parents' home for a wedding party, a wise elder relative told me that marriage is holy within Islam. The women of the family were lounging around Afghan mattresses set on the floor, lying on our sides with our arms thrown over large velvet pillows. My mother's grandmother Koko leaned in close and whispered to me: "There are three days that are the most important in your life. The day you were born, the day you are married, and the day you die. These dates are marked by God and cannot be changed. Only God knows when they will occur."
My mind began to race. I certainly couldn't remember the day I was born, and I might not be conscious when I'm dying — but the day I got married would be the most important day I could live through. At ten I already knew this, but Koko confirmed it, and learning the role of God made it more profound.
Koko's words rang in my head every time I performed another ritual that brought us closer to the end of our journey.
Being married at sixteen had been awkward but filled with mystery. In some ways, we were only engaged. We weren't living together and had yet to perform the ceremony at which I would wear my white gown and read passages from the Qur'an with Nadir while our families held a large green shawl over our heads like the roof of our new home. But we had already done our nikkah, or Islamic wedding ceremony, where I wore a green dress and agreed to accept Nadir as my husband.
This was the most confusing thing for my friends. Under Islam, we had been married, but culturally, we were merely engaged. In Afghan culture, this is a special time in a relationship when you can get to know the other person, but you are expected to refrain from intimate relations. Depending on the attitudes of their families, couples would date, speak on the phone, or have no contact at all.
Our families held our nikkah ceremony in a hotel in Flushing, Queens. The green dress I wore was the color of Islamic devotion, as well as the color of prosperity. I sat in a room with the other women, waiting to be asked my approval to marry Nadir. My father had asked to represent me as my wakil, or person to whom I give my permission to be married. Some Muslims believe that the marriage contract should be agreed upon between the groom and the closest male relatives of the bride, rather than between a man and his wife. My family believes that the bride should agree to the marriage, but should be represented by a male relative during the ceremony, rather than appear in person before the groom, which would be immodest.
At the ceremony, my father had arranged for two witnesses, male members of our extended family, to come to my room. Speaking to these witnesses would be my only participation in the ceremony. Although women under classical Islam are allowed to represent themselves in marriage, conservative families appoint witnesses as go-betweens to confirm the intent of the bride to the mullah, or religious leader. I couldn't confirm my own intent to the mullah because traditional Pashtun culture does not permit unmarried women to show themselves before men, even their religious leaders.
My two witnesses spoke a very formal phrase of Pashto, asking whom I would appoint to represent me in the ceremony. I was very nervous, and I didn't quite understand all the words they were speaking, although I knew what they were asking. But Agha had told me the formal, proper way to say that he could represent me, so I repeated what he taught me. Then my witnesses left. A few minutes later, my mother, sisters, and other relatives in the room collapsed in joy, hugging one another and crying because a girl of their family had finally grown up and "reached her place," in my mother's words.
A minute later my new husband entered the room and the music started playing. We did the traditional first walk as a married couple, slowly and in time with the music, entering the main room to join our families and guests. I did not show expression, and kept a serious straight face as we walked through the crowd of people. I could not bear to look at anyone's face, but I knew all eyes were on me. On stage my mother and father gave my new husband a gold ring and watch, and his family gave me a set of gold and bejeweled earrings, necklace, and a ring. Without ever speaking, we had been married.
Right after the ceremony, Nadir literally had to run to the airport to return to the hospital where he worked as an internist. He shook my hand and said good-bye. I hadn't spoken one word to him on the day of our engagement, or at any other time for that matter. The whole episode had been arranged by our families. My father and grandfather knew his father in Kandahar, and our families met again in Brooklyn as refugees from the Soviet bombing of Kandahar in the 1980s. Our fathers and grandfathers, and their fathers and grandfathers, were fellow members of the Popalzai tribe, the tribe of the current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. Our families made a great match, but would we?
I could barely see out of the white veil in front of my face. I may as well have been unconscious. I couldn't feel anything. Drowning in harsh lights pointed at me, all I saw were brightly colored blurs of people crossing in front of me. All I could hear were snippets of laughter and tashakors (thank-yous) in Pashto.
It was the second most important day of my life, the day of my formal wedding. This time, my husband and I would go home together.
We were in Karachi, Pakistan. I was seventeen, and it was the summer after I graduated high school. I had done well and graduated a year earlier than scheduled, and it was time to get married. Almost a thousand people attended the open-air garden wedding of the last remaining bachelor of six brothers. It was my wedding, but none of it was mine.
One woman came up to me and called me an American doll. I got up when they wanted me to, sat down when they wanted me to, and remained as still as possible.
The light on the large video camera set up in front of me felt unbearable in the sticky Karachi heat. Every so often, the light would be pointed away from me, and I could feel a cool breeze on my arms and neck.
I made sure not to look up too much, lest I should appear to be without shame. Sometimes I would look up, especially when my older brother, Babai, was taking a picture, not only because I wanted to be looking at the camera for the pictures but because I wanted to show the other Afghan girls that it was okay to look around. Besides, I had grown up in America, and American girls couldn't possibly be held to the same standards.
But I didn't want to look up too much. I wanted to show the groom's family that the fact that I had grown up in America didn't mean I would be arrogant or a bad wife to their brother.
Nadir's eldest sister, Bibi, was the master of ceremonies in Karachi. His mother had died a refugee in Pakistan. With his mother gone, Nadir's eldest sister was the obvious choice to organize the wedding. She had a high, squeaky voice, so her true power in the family did not come across at first. Her long nose reminded me of the bird Toucan Sam from the Froot Loops commercials.
Sometimes Moor would call me a Bibi. It was like being called an angel. Bibis are the most respected women in Pashtunwali. They are full of a deep sense of shame, almost always complying with the wishes of their husbands and families, and are essentially good-hearted for trying to keep the peace in their relationships. They don't complain, and they certainly don't fight. Everyone loves them. I had always aspired to be a Bibi, though the title was often bestowed by the mother-in-law. It is the mothers-in-law who pose the most significant challenge to a young wife's Bibi-dom.
Older women are almost always called Bibi, followed by their name or another term of affection, like Gul, meaning "flower." I don't know how so many old women became Bibis, but perhaps it's because their mothers-in-law died and the standards were relaxed. Many older women who arrived in America, brought over by their U.S.-citizen sons and daughters, had the first name Bibi, followed by the family name. An American woman once remarked how incredible it was that there were so many women named Bibi in Afghanistan.
To a clapping audience, Bibi displayed all of the new gold jewelry sets, bangles, rings, and earrings that Nadir's sisters and aunts had adorned me with. Over the previous six months, I had traveled with my mother to most of the shopping areas we knew in New York City to buy things for my wedding, including sparkling beaded evening gowns and matching shoes on Thirty-seventh Street in Manhattan, and elegant Indian outfits from Jackson Heights in Queens.
After arriving in Pakistan for the wedding, my mother and I had visited Sadar, the gold market in Karachi, to buy jewelry for the wedding. There we passed beggars on the street as we left our car. Outside the store there were men with automatic rifles who opened the door for me. Inside, the store was glowing in the reflection of beautiful, rich gold. For Muslim women, gold is the prized possession that is a sign of wealth. In fact, gold is usually the only storage of value and financial security for a woman, especially in poor societies. Gold is also considered holy, so my seemingly superficial shopping experience felt strangely spiritual as well. I loved feeling connected to my ancestors through this beautiful natural element. The shopkeepers, sensing that they were going to make a big sell with these foreigners, especially a young girl like myself, spared not an iota of energy in showing me all their wares. They could tell we weren't local Afghans, but had come from the West. As soon as they knew what we wanted, they stacked rows and rows of gorgeous red velvet jewelry boxes and opened them for me one by one. I would either nod, indicating it should be put to the side, or shake my head in disapproval. I picked out the most expensive items in the store. Most of the gold in the bazaar was 22-karat, something usually unheard of for most girls I knew in the United States. I was never able to do this in America. Here, I was royalty.
Among Pashtun families, the bride typically didn't pick her own jewelry, especially not the jewelry bought by in-laws as wedding gifts. But in my case, we suggested that I help choose the jewelry, because I knew that Nadir's family would buy me a huge gold necklace reaching to my waist, which I would have no use for. I was lucky. I was one of the few girls allowed to pick out her own jewelry, and I felt like a princess the whole time.
I didn't have to do anything at the wedding except be careful not to laugh, or even smile, or move my eyes too much. I had promised my mother back in New York that I wouldn't smile. We had just purchased my veil and were standing on the street waiting for my father to pick us up when she warned me not to do it. I wanted to cry, but instead I insisted I knew that rule already. Of course I wouldn't smile at my wedding.
In Kandahar in my mother's day, the more a bride cried, the more she was loved. The sadder she was about leaving her family, the more she loved them. For me, it wasn't sadness about leaving my family that hurt, but the sadness of feeling that every bit of my fate would be decided for me, and yet not knowing what would happen to my life. It was for the best, I thought, because I would certainly make everyone happy. I wanted to be perfect in that way. Besides, adults had wisdom that I could not understand. Maybe I would love my husband. I had always wanted to marry an Afghan man who would respect our family and embrace our culture.
The wedding was a typical mix of Western and Afghan customs. The women and the men were kept separate, and the wedding party was held in the women's section. The women wore traditional shalwar kameez, a long shirt with loose pants. Their outfits were all very festive — like the hard candy your grandma keeps in a jar. Red, yellow, purple, green, with gold embroidery, mirrors, and large chiffon silk shawls over the head, and around the neck and shoulders.
I noticed a woman in a black sparkly pantsuit walk around me and stand next to me for a picture. When she walked away, I realized it was Homira, my new sister-in-law. I had never seen Homira in a pantsuit, even at weddings in the States. In fact, I had only seen her in traditional ethnic clothes.
Following tradition, I lifted a pinch of salt into Nadir's mouth, and we briefly gazed at each other in the mirror for the first time as husband and wife. Then we read passages from the Qur'an in Arabic about how God created men and women from "one soul," and placed love and care in their hearts toward each other. The mirror and Qur'an ceremony (aina mosaf) is the centerpiece of most Afghan weddings I have attended. Many Afghan couples, including many in my parents' generation, had never seen each other prior to this ceremony. In the old days brides may not even have seen themselves before looking into the mirror at their wedding. For a bride who had already seen herself in a mirror, the ceremony let her see how beautiful she looked all made up on her wedding night. Even then she may hardly recognize herself, as most Afghan brides do not pluck their eyebrows or wear a speck of makeup before their wedding day.
I felt a hand pressing down on my right shoulder. "Sit down!" Another hand propped me up by my left arm. "Noooo!" Nadir and I were standing in front of our chairs on a raised platform, facing the wedding guests, preparing to be seated.
This was one of the rituals to determine who would be more powerful in the marriage. It was often a fun game for the in-laws, trying to persuade the groom or bride of the other side to sit down. I was sure my mother wanted me to sit first, to show that I would be an obedient wife. But I wouldn't. I held my shoulders up and planted my body as firmly as possible. I wouldn't let a good old competition go without a battle. Everyone was cheering, shouting words of encouragement to either the bride or groom, depending on whose side of the family they belonged to.
When the cheers became very loud, Nadir bent his knees and leaned to sit. I followed, but made sure to go slow so that I'd sit down after he had reached sitting position. As soon as I sat down, everyone burst into applause. I won. Although I felt a real sense of accomplishment, I knew that simply winning this game did not prove that I would be the dominant spouse. And I hoped his family would understand that I could still be a good wife.
Nadir sank into his chair and complained of the heat. Pearly beads of sweat had formed on his forehead and above his upper lip. The heat in Karachi was as thick as Moor's rice pudding. The humidity made it feel like a sauna. Women's beautiful new silk clothes would stick to their bodies, sometimes leaving the mark of the dye of their clothes on their skin. An outfit only once worn would look like it had weathered a storm.
My eldest brother-in-law told the women to hurry up. "We have to rush. It's almost midnight." Weddings were banned from lasting after midnight at the time, due to civil unrest in Karachi. A few gestures and motions later, my father walked up to me, kissed me on the forehead, and tied a festive emerald and gold sash around my waist. Earlier, when I had asked why a green belt was needed for my wedding night, I was told it was to make me strong. Next, a large white chiffon scarf, with scattered green sequined dots sewn on, folded thick with many layers, was draped over my head, covering my face.
The corners of the scarf, each tied in neat knots, were opened by the men of my family. Inside the scarf's layers, there was fresh cardamom, raisins, sugar-covered almonds, and even some dollar bills. The gifts were meant to signify prosperity in my future.
Now that my face was covered, I could barely see anything. Midnight was at hand, and my eldest brother-in-law was now telling the entire wedding party to rush. We were whisked away into a white sedan decorated with pink and white ribbons and flowers. When we drove away, I caught my last glimpse of the men armed with automatic rifles, some still standing on the rooftop of the entrance to the wedding garden. The guards were necessary due to the strife in Karachi that was killing hundreds of people each month that year.
As we drove, humid air rushed in through the window but could barely penetrate the veil covering my face. I gently lifted the white chiffon and let the cooling breeze kiss my neck. I hoped no one would object. The drive felt very long, even though we ran red lights and didn't slow down unless a car was clearly in our way. In Karachi, nobody stopped at the occasional red light. When we had first arrived in the city, my father remarked that all the traffic goes by the grace of God. We had all laughed at that.
As long as it seemed, the ride ended before I was ready, as the car pulled up to a modern-looking apartment building. I was nervous, and I could not concentrate. In fact, I didn't want to think about what my night would be like. Bursts of color and shots of emotion crisscrossed through my mind. There was a solid part of me that felt it would be a good opportunity to really get to know my new husband. As I stepped out of the car a jug of water was spilled by my feet, a ritual to wish good luck to a guest. I was welcomed as a new addition to their family. They made me feel honored and wanted.
As the other cars pulled up, everyone became more excited. I looked up at the building that would be my new home while in Pakistan. Once white, it had turned a light gray. I held my dress up so that I wouldn't trip, and my father and husband helped as I walked up the many flights of stairs, in the open air, to get to the top floor, where my temporary new home would be.
As I walked through the doors, many smiling faces of women greeted me. The women guided me to a red velvet mattress on the floor and offered the best seat in the house, with a large matching red velvet pillow pressed against the wall on which to rest my back. My new husband came and sat next to me. And as the rest of the large extended family, both mine and his, filtered into the room, warm expressions of mubarak, or congratulations, were shared.
"Mubarak seven thousand times!" they exclaimed, one louder than the other.
"May God give you seven sons!" another woman cried. The jolly women tried to outdo one another with well-wishes.
Although it was one o'clock in the morning, trays of hot tea, cookies, and sweets were brought out to serve all the guests. Many guests insisted that they should leave, for the bride and groom must be tired. As is customary, a few close female members of my family would stay overnight, sleeping nearby to make sure I wasn't completely alone in a house full of strangers. My mother, her sister Lailuma, and Shakoko, my father's older sister, stayed with me.
As I sat in my new bedroom for some last pictures before my relatives left, with the skirt and train of my wedding dress swirled around the bed, I wondered what it would be like when Nadir and I were in the room alone. Finally, the moment I had thought about for as long as I could remember was approaching. Copyright ©2006 by Masuda Sultan
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