The following semi-fictional piece was originally published in Italian on March 7, 2016 in la Repubblica. I wrote it in honor of International Women’s Day.
In 1979, when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan to begin a decade long invasion, my parents decide to stay in the United States and grow roots like the elm tree that shades our backyard. It is too dangerous to return to their homeland, they admit. Instead, they send my grandmother a photograph and she coddles my cousin, Jameela, born just three months before me.
“Are you happy you left Afghanistan?” I ask my mother, a civil engineer who will never work in her field, as she braids my hair into one proud plait that falls between my shoulders.
“You ask as if that is a simple question,” she says, wistfully.
I do not ask again, too busy singing nursery rhymes with other four year olds or eating orange slices during a half time break, my shorts green from an afternoon on the soccer field. I see my father, eyes tired from a two hour commute and clothes spotted with kitchen grease, scour the newspaper for word on the homeland.
They anxiously check the mailbox. The envelopes, blue onion skin paper with “par avion” stamped on the outside, sometimes bring good news. Other times, they reveal the death of an uncle, a home damaged by explosives, a plea for money. Even then, the letters don’t come often enough.
Jameela has memorized multiplication tables and recites prayers before sleep just as I do. Her two braids are tied with satin bows and she shines her patent leather shoes every day. As much as I hear about her, she is nothing more than a character in a book – the distance between us too great.
I spend my summer in the library, my back pressed to the spines of books. I ponder what Antoine de Saint-Exupery means in The Little Prince, when he writes: “What makes the desert beautiful…is that somewhere it hides a well.”
With rockets whistling overhead, Jameela hears stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Her family prays, like Scheherazade, to live another day. The Soviets will leave Afghanistan soon, they believe, and peace will return.
I learn to drive in a cemetery, my foot nudging the gas pedal as I circle the dirt road surrounding weather-beaten tombstones. I look, sidelong, at my father and he nods, a hand on the steering wheel to guide me through a turn.
Jameela’s parents watch her disappear into a burqa, forlorn. They reject two suitors, praying the Taliban will fail and there will still be time for her to go to school. Hush, they tell her, for the Taliban rage at the sound of a woman’s voice or the clicking of a heel. Women are sin, the Taliban say. It will be over soon, her parents promise but their promises are as thin as the blue paper on which they pen their sorrows.
I pack my bags to drift through the Alhambra, the architecture of a toppled regime. The blood is long gone here while Jameela is still in the throes of history.
Jameela’s family flees to India so that she can enroll in school, ride a bicycle and learn to negotiate a rickshaw fare. She sits with other teenage refugees and wonders if this country will be their new home.
I sit in a medical school classroom when the twin towers are struck down. The world, in one synchronized swiveling of heads, turns its attention to Afghanistan. For the first time in our lives, Jameela and I are connected by history. It is the first time Jameela feels noticed.
I press my stethoscope to the small chest of a child, his eyes looking up at me with a mixture of fear and amusement. I smile to put him at ease. You’re perfect, I tell him and his mother exhales a breath of gratitude.
Jameela’s family, deflated but hopeful, returns to Kabul since the Taliban have retreated into the shadows. She is studying to be a doctor in a country desperately in need of healing.
I watch the presidential debates, wondering if the billionaire will make good on his promises to keep people like Jameela or my parents out of this country. Jameela watches the female news anchor announce that the Taliban refuse to join peace talks. She thinks of the crumpled burqa in her dresser drawer.
And while I sit with my feet on an ottoman, a new story taking shape on my computer screen, Jameela presses her stethoscope to the chest of a girl who may one day become a doctor, a pilot or a president. Little girl, Jameela whispers, with a tenderness and confidence that brings the child’s mother to tears, you’re perfect.