Saturday, September 24, 2011
Afghan Affair – Woman with Dreams
Ameena Bibi found me slipping and sliding down a steep scree covered hill, the trail that led directly towards her house with a mud wall. She stood outside suckling an infant to her breast. She must have noticed me long ago, as I was literally skiing down the hill from far above with massive dust storm of black and brown following at my heels. I have just had close encounters of the Afghan kind all over the village outside of Eishkashim, where young kids had taken me through green fields of peas and maize, where women had invited me inside their dark gloomy houses for tea, where men and kids have posed for me to take their pictures and where old and young, men and women alike have given me countless reasons to smile.
I must have seemed like a madman intent on killing himself to the woman (though that isn’t that far from the absolute truth). Braking with my battered knees isn’t easy and I had almost zipped off into the sizeable stream to which the trail led when I came to a halt with sufficient laws of motion redefined. The woman was looking at me with a smile on her cherubic face.
I have been laughed at and with all over the world; it’s nothing new, if I wasn’t me, then I too would be laughing at my nonsensical antics. A lone woman suckling her baby in an Islamic nation is not to be tampered with, my brain cautioned me, so I just smiled back at her guardedly and dusted my clothes and made to go. But even before I had taken a step or two, I froze on my track as the woman spoke to me lyrically in chaste English: Hello, I am Ameena Bibi. Would you like to come in!
You could have knocked me down with a dove’s feather. I approached her and told her my name and country of origin. Even at close quarter she did not seem abash being alone with a foreign man. She wore no veil and did not attempt to hide her baby under her bodice. It seemed perfectly natural for her to be chatting up with a complete stranger outside her house with a baby at her breast.
She preceded me through the gap in the mud wall that must serve as the door, and I followed.
The inside was taken up by an open courtyard where several clay bricks dried in their cast, a pile of dry woods took up another corner and at one end lay a room without roofs. My husband is a brick layer; Ameena said. Thereafter she led me through a dark door to enter a kitchen where I found three more women, one baking fresh naan on clay oven, and a small girl. Ameena spoke in Persian introducing me to the ladies and in turn introduced them to me in English.
None of the women showed any surprise, embarrassment or dismay to have a lone foreign man in a house full of women. They welcomed me, offered me naan and steaming chai, made me sit on the bare floor. I was even allowed to take a picture of the lady baking naan. As I spoke to Ameena and learned more about her, I kept wondering if I was relearning all my notions and knowledge about Islamic culture as far as women are concerned. In Ameena’s house I find women who are independent, outspoken, happy and cheerful, curious and generous to a degree rarely found. They don’t seem to be in any need of a man around the house and seem to have taken control of their own lives.
As I munch the delicious naan, Ameena tells me her story. She studied in CAI school and now teaches kids in her village. She dreams of traveling around the world, visiting India as well. Her husband is a poor brick layer, doing hard labor all day. He wanted many kids, but Ameena has only the one and is trying to persuade her husband to go for birth control procedures. She teaches the village women handicrafts and sustainable sources of employment while being at home. She leads villagers into making irrigation and agriculture projects. Being the most literate in her village, she heads the community development projects, writes proposals for the Governor and often has to travel to other villages raising awareness about sanitation, women’s and children health, pregnancy, etc.
My wonderment only grew with every passing minute as I listened to her. Here I was in one of the remotest, poorest and least developed spots on our entire planet, where radical Islam rules the day, where woman almost have no significance in the social echelon, and amidst all that Ameena stands out like a shining beacon of hope, a lighthouse amidst raging storm and anarchy.
She is full of confidence, optimism and cheerfulness. I couldn’t understand where she found them. I spoke to her at length telling her about Afghanistan at large, the way we look at her country and what we believe about Islamic culture and ways of life. Ameena counters me at every point, specifying that it all depends upon the individual and since individuals make up the society; it is up to the individuals to act collectively and change the society at large. That is and will always be her agenda in life. A lone woman, emerging from nowhere, and going against all norms of her people to stand and face everything that she has been told not to. Her life is in danger from the fanatics and Taliban and she has been severely beaten up on many occasions by religious leaders. She is a devout Muslim and firmly believes that her country can and will change one day.
No one outside of her world knows her, but I felt she should be featured internationally to let people know that there still are women like her. As we parted she asked for my phone number, which I wrote down in her diary. As she bid me goodbye, she said; one day I will come to visit you in India, how I don’t know, but I will.
I promised her that if she indeed came to India, I would be her host and guide and she can stay at our place as long as she wished. I didn’t believe her but was swayed by her supreme confidence and optimism. She has no money, no passport, she has never been outside her valley, she has never even seen an aircraft in real life, she has a kid and an illiterate husband along with relatives and other responsibilities. It seemed impossible that some day she could actually get out of her world and come into ours. And I wondered why did she open her heart and home to a stranger from nowhere!
With my head buzzing with new ideas and thoughts and her beautiful face, I returned to my guesthouse for the night. I had promised Ameena that on our way back I would certainly look her up but for shortage of time and our rush to cross back into Tajikistan before our Visa expired, I didn’t and couldn’t. I am not sure if she had been waiting for me to return or what would she think if she later came to learn that we had indeed returned from the mountains but never bothered to visit her house, which was barely 5 km from our guesthouse.
I regret today that I didn’t see her on our return trip and I wonder what Ameena Bibi is doing now, the woman with dreams. But I hope that one day my mobile will ring and on the other end will be Ameena Bibi with her dreams, cheerfulness and optimism. My friends say I inspire people with my life and words and way of living; but they don’t realize that I find my inspiration from people like Ameena Bibi and countless others I meet at the most obscure and remote places on Earth.
Thank you Ameena, you have rekindled within me my faith and belief that come what may, hope must never die.