My Routines, Her Dreams

 
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Nahid Rauf

Art by Mohsin Taasha

The following story is the third in a series of seven stories by Afghan women writers from the GOAT Pol (the Geopolitical Open Atlas of the Polity of Literature).

 
 

Three months ago, while I was sitting on the balcony with a cup of coffee in my hand, a car stopped at the gate of the house next to us. Five people got out of the car with suitcases. They were an older man with a white beard, a middle-aged woman with a black shawl covering her hair, two boys, and a girl covering her hair with a blue shawl. I thought the girl was my age, maybe twenty or twenty-one, and the boys seemed two or four years older. The old man took the girl’s suitcase and one of the boys took the suitcase of the middle-aged lady, whom I guessed was their mother, inside. My grandma, who had been standing behind me for I don’t know how long, said: “So these are the Afghans who were supposed to settle in our neighborhood.” Leaving the balcony, she added: “Julia, don’t get in touch with them, you know that they are not like us.”

Afghans, those who were willing to fall into the ocean and drown to reach Europe. Although this year was different: our country legally helped them get here by plane. They must be very happy.

Days passed and despite my grandmother’s warning that I should not approach the family, something caught my attention in my new neighbor’s house. I watched what the girl did every day. Every evening, she sat on a wooden stool on the small balcony of their house, which was a few stairs away from the grass of the yard, and read a book or wrote something in a green notebook with “still waters run deep” written on the front in big white letters. Every night she went for a walk in the park next to our house, alone or with one of her family members.

What was strange was that she was completely like us. How did I know this? I’m not sure, only sometimes curiosity makes you see patterns in the lives of other people. One night, curiosity caused me to return home at 8 o’clock just as she left for her walk. I was walking on the park sidewalk and she was coming toward me. As soon as our eyes met, she smiled and continued on her way. I unconsciously turned back and said “Hello.” She turned towards me and answered “Hi” with excitement in her eyes.

“I think you are our new neighbor.” I tried to start the conversation.

“Yes, we have been living here for a month,” she answered.

We both stood awkwardly until she continued.

“Would you like to go for a walk?”

During the walk, she did not say anything about herself. She only talked about the weather and the beauty of the sky. The next few nights when we walked together, our conversation was the same. When I talked about someone, she listened beautifully, but I understood that she was not curious about any human being, as she never asked questions about other people. I thought it was because she could not trust me enough to talk about her ideas on others, until I finally brought it up. This was on a night when it was raining and instead of saying “Let’s go get an umbrella,” she said “Let’s go get two glasses of tea.” As we walked with our glasses of tea and our clothes showing the increasing footsteps of rain, I finally asked her:

“Are your conversations always like this? You don’t ever tell about yourself.”

“I think the less I say about people or even about myself in a conversation, the more relaxing it is, this makes me not judge anyone. Maybe you have also understood that every word we say about a person is a kind of judgment, sometimes good and sometimes bad.”

What she said was pleasant and rare at the same time. It made me search my memories for conversations in which I did not judge anyone in any way, but it was not easy to find them.

 

Two months passed since we started walking together at night. A strange friendship had formed between us. In a way, talking with her was like a therapy session for me. I liked the little things about her, like the night we were sitting in the park and her mom called and she said, “I’m with Julia.” I got excited and asked, “Do they know me?” She smiled and replied, “As my new friend.”

One day she made us walk two kilometers to reach an area full of daffodils. I said to her, “Did you really bring me all this way to see these?”

She laughed and said, “Now you have something special in your life CV, you walked two kilometers to see daffodils. I’m sure they will mean more to you and you will appreciate them more than other people.”

She said these words as a simple joke while laughing, but I could not let them go. My grandma was right, she was not like us. She was different, but not different in the way we expected.

The first time I saw a serious look on her face was when I asked, “When you got your visa, you must have been very happy to be able to leave Afghanistan, right?”

The smile disappeared from her lips. She replied with one word: “No!”

That night, after her answer, she said that she should go home and we never talked about it again. A few nights later I changed my question to “How was Afghanistan for you?”

She stayed quiet a bit and then a gentle smile appeared on her face. She answered, “It is a place where I could breathe. For me, traveling out of Afghanistan was like being underwater and after a while, to be able to continue swimming I needed to take my head out of the water to breathe. Afghanistan was that breath for me. When a trip took me away for more than two months, something inside me would make an excuse to come back, like a child who remembers her mother. Although I never considered Afghanistan as my mother. I was more like a mother to it. For most of my life, I was unhappy with Afghanistan, that’s why I thought I had no feelings for it, until the day Afghanistan fell. August 15, 2021, that day I cried like a mother who cries for her child.”

“But a mother does not leave her children.” I said it without even knowing if it was true or not. It was something I had heard from my grandmother when my mother left me at the age of twelve to remarry.

“I didn’t leave it. Although it had left me a long time ago, I did not leave Afghanistan. I left the war,” she replied.

“But war is nothing new for Afghanistan, you lived there for more than twenty years, didn’t it become normal for you? Didn’t you get used to it?”

She took a deep breath. Her face changed from its usual calm state to a smile that I felt like came from suppressed anger.

“You know? On the one hand, what really bothers me here is people’s behavior based on your words, everyone thinks that because there has always been war in Afghanistan, then this is normal and its people must’ve gotten used to it. On the other hand, I would like them to think like that because it means that they do not understand war and have not experienced it. This is a good thing. But I want you to know just this much, that nothing is normal about war and humans never get used to war.”

We ended our conversation here. She had never talked so much about anything in the time we had known each other. After this conversation, I had a strange feeling inside me. Something like regret, despair and emptiness, but for myself, not for her. I felt like I shouldn’t have given an opinion on something I hadn’t experienced. As she used to say: “Humans may be able to guess what they have not lived or experienced would be like, but they do not understand it.”

Three nights passed after our conversation, and then it was the night of their first new year here.

It couldn’t be better than to surprise her with some juice and a small picnic. I thought that we could sit together in the yard until the moment of handing over the year.

With a wooden picnic basket in my hand, I rang her doorbell. For the first time I was going to meet her family. I never asked to meet them and she never invited me home, same goes for me, too.

She was excited to see me at the door of her house as her new friend, but in her own way. She stood calmly and her eyes were shining. Her response to my invitation was different than what I’d imagined. I had worried that since it was midnight her parents wouldn’t let her leave the house. But after finishing my invitation, she looked at me with a half-smile, and her parents, who were standing behind her, looked happier than she did and encouraged her to accept.

Everything was contrary to what I knew. This meant that in her land, the parents of this house were not the ones who restricted her. Maybe it was something outside of the house that restricted her there, something that is not outside of her house here.

 
 

We opened our picnic tablecloths on the green grass behind their house. If you tried to see it through her eyes, the sky was dark blue with stars that were brighter than ever, or maybe I only noticed them that night. The atmosphere was calm. The night seemed to resemble her.

I asked her:

“What is your wish for this year?”

“I achieved many of my wishes this year.”

“What wishes?”

“To walk in the park at night. To do so knowing my parents won’t worry when I come home late.”

She didn’t understand what I said. Maybe it was because of the language difference. I tried to make it more clear.

“Look, these are very beautiful wishes, but I meant bigger dreams.”

“Like riding a bike? I haven’t done it yet, maybe next year, when I achieve my biggest dream.” A big smile appeared on her face.

“Biggest wish?”

“University admission. After I get my residency, I can go to university by bike every day, what can be more amazing than this?”

After seeing my judging eyes, she smiled and said:

“Were they very simple?”

She knew that none of them were similar to a dream, but the truth was those were her dreams. They were so unlike my dreams, more like my daily to-do list that I tried to get rid of every day.

I answered with a smile, “No,” and continued:

“It’s twelve o’clock, the party starts now! You can’t imagine how beautiful the fireworks will be!”

She startled and shook at the sound of the first fireworks. Then she got pale. I asked her, confused, “Wasn’t it beautiful?”

With a worried expression and a quiet whisper, she said, “Its sound!”

I was wrong about why she never said anything about herself, and she was right. Even in the few sentences she shared with me, I had many judgments about her, as she told me, maybe good ones or maybe bad. She had filled in twenty years inside her, and after twenty years of life here, maybe she could only fade them, but wouldn’t draw something new.

I thought of my grandma who said she was “different.” The world was different to her eyes. A sound of fireworks reminded me of a new year, while it could only remind her of shooting guns or explosions.

We were the same age but she was older in mind. She loved her family more, she smiled more, she recognized the color of the sky every day. She was kinder with a softer voice and thoughtful words. People were more precious to her.

She had a dark twenty years inside her, which made her bright and strong.

One day I told her: “War made you so brave!”

She smiled and replied, “I never wanted to be brave.”

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Nahid Rauf

Nahid Rauf is an Afghan soul whose journey through medicine was disrupted by the Taliban's ban on girls' education. She continues to travel the globe in search of freedom and education. Rooted in a passion for humanity, Nahid's vision extends beyond words—she aims to make everyone feel their existence is valued (in her own words, she wants everyone to touch their existence.) Nahid Rauf was awarded The Modest Goat Prize 2024, providing support for the completion and publication of her first book, a novel.



Mohsin Taasha

Mohsin Taasha (BFA, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore) is a visual artist from Afghanistan, based in Nice. His paintings, drawings, videos, and installations have been exhibited widely, including at Galerie Nikki Diana Marquardt (Paris); Documenta 13 (Kassel); the 56th Venice Biennale; NordArt (Büdelsdorf); Mucem (Marseille); Kunstmuseum Thun; and artgenève. Taasha produced the multimedia series “Rebirth of the Reds” following the 2016 Deh Mazang suicide bombings in Kabul, to which he lost many of his friends. A painting component comprised of forty pieces in four parts narrates the history and culture of the Hazara People. (Additional thanks to Art at a Time Like This.)



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