[lg policy] Afghanistan: Coming Home, as an Interpreter

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 22 21:56:54 UTC 2011

Coming Home, as an Interpreter


It was 1 in the afternoon. I was looking through the mess hall in
Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, scanning the faces to find Parween. I
had met her a few days before as she commented on a book I was reading
about Afghanistan; her first name was the same as that of the main
character. The book was “Lipstick in Afghanistan” by Roberta Gately, a
fictional account of an American nurse volunteering in Bamiyan
Province after 9/11. Unlike the nurse in my book, Parween had grown up
in Kabul in a highly educated family. Her father had attended Columbia
University and worked as an ambassador for Afghanistan to Ethiopia.
Now, she worked as a translator for American military forces in

I found her sitting at a small table, her black hair combed neatly
back from her forehead. She smiled at me and invited me to sit across
from her. Parween, who was perhaps in her late 40s, had beautifully
distinctive features highlighted by wrinkles of happiness. “I’m so
glad you had time to get lunch with me today,” I told her. “It is a
pleasure,” she said, rising from her chair to hug me. We settled back
into our seats, picking up our utensils to eat.

I asked her what it was like growing up in Afghanistan. “Well, my
father wanted to leave this country, but the government wouldn’t let
him,” she said. “My father was always abroad, but he raised us in the
Western tradition.” The government would not have allowed him to leave
again had he returned home, she said, so he stayed away, traveling for
the foreign service, until he finally settled in the United States.

But the Afghan government “kept us, his family, imprisoned here,” she
said. “My mother was incredible. She kept our entire family together,
all seven of us, raising us all without him.”

“We grew up during the Soviet occupation,” she continued. “It was
hard. Our family was used to electricity and the like. But every time
someone would repair it, the electrical lines would just be cut again.
It was a continual thing. I felt like I was on house arrest. In high
school, I decided to play tennis at one of the elite schools in Kabul.
They hired a Russian tennis instructor who drove us to the point of
breaking. I cried a few times, but I got to be on the first female
tennis team of Afghanistan.”

“Did you ever compete?” I asked. “Mostly we just played locally, no
one really wanted to come here, with the Russians,” she answered. I
asked her whether she still played. “Sometimes,” she said while
cutting off a piece of her chicken. It was silent for a moment as
conversations droned around us.

I asked her how she wound up in the United States. “One day I just
wanted to leave,” she said. “I didn’t like living in a war zone, and I
decided to apply for college in the United States. I left and never
came back here until after 9/11. I live in California now.”

She said she never married or had kids, shaking her head as if she had
come to terms with this long before. I asked her if her parents were
O.K. with that. She answered without pause: “If they weren’t, they
never said anything to me about it. They were always very Western in
their outlook.”

I inquired about how her parents met. “They were cousins from the same
village,” she told me with a glance that spoke of a struggle to
straddle two cultures.

I finally posed the questions I had wanted to ask all along: “What do
you think of us being here, U.S. forces? Do you think it is a waste?”

“Let me tell you a story,” she replied. “I went to the University of
California at Berkeley for college, and I was visiting there one day,
right after the U.S. forces had entered Afghanistan, when I decided to
go to a meeting called Afghans for Afghanistan. I was the only Afghan
there, though. One young man got up and started telling the crowd how
horrible the United States military intervention is in Afghanistan. He
was pounding his fist in the air repeatedly, like this.” She

“Then I got up, and told the crowd, ‘This is not true. No one wants to
be in a country run by a bunch of warlords, a bunch of thugs. Warlords
don’t give anyone any hope. It is like a blackness to the soul. No
sunshine. Americans have given us hope.’ When I told them that, the
rest of the group fell silent, in a hush.”

She went on: “I realize that 10 years ago things were more hopeful,
and Afghans are getting a little disillusioned with the United States
presence here, but over all there is still hope. It might just be a
little hope, but it is still there. I can see it in the eyes of my
fellow Afghans. Even in Kabul, my niece now teaches young women at the
university, and writes for the paper. She volunteers in her spare time
to help women, impoverished in the outskirts of Afghanistan.”

Her eyes had left the conversation; I could tell she was lost in her memories.

Then her shoulders shook as she came out of her trance. “One thing
that makes me indignant is that people don’t realize how beautiful the
civilization of this country is,” she said. “Rumi, one of the world’s
most famous poets, was born here. We have traditions and old
civilizations — places that the Western world doesn’t even know about.
In 2006 I was driving through Afghanistan, to the north, to see the
village where my parents were born. A friend of mine told me to go to
this beautifully carved rock. I can’t remember the name of it now, but
when I was there I knew it was magical. It was older than anything in
the West — practically biblical, like the tower of Babel. All of the
waters converged into one spot. There was even a legend surrounding
the spot of how an old war hero built it to impress an emperor so that
he could marry his beautiful daughter. I loved that day traveling
through my country, seeing the sights. I felt like I had come home.”

Then she asked me: “What do you think of your homeland? What
landscapes come to mind?”

Then it was my turn to become wistful, thinking about Kentucky. “When
I think of my birthplace, I think of rolling hills full of tinted blue
rainbow grass, of early morning sunrises on limestone cliffs, of
horses galloping through fields,” I said.

She nodded knowingly. “For me it is this dusty place, these high peaks
covered in snow. I can look out at them, and looking come back home.”

I looked around. The dining hall had almost emptied, a few lingering
conversations left behind. Afghan workers wiped down the tables and
emptied the garbage cans. “Is it sad for you to be here?” I asked.
“Sometimes, it is,” she replied. “I don’t know if I recognize this
place. I don’t think it is the place of my childhood. Sometimes,
though, I get so sad. I feel as if I could cry for a long time over my

There are times when speech is as insignificant as one blade of grass
in a field. I thought for a fleeting moment about all the suffering of
this country and the longing of exiles like Parween to return to their
homeland. And then it was time to get back to work.

She stood and embraced me like an old friend. “It is so nice to meet a
young woman who cares about the issues of this place,” she said. “I
enjoyed talking to you as well,” I replied.

I left without looking back, wondering if I would ever see Parween
again or whether I might turn her into a character in a book. And I
wondered about our mission here, about the war that surrounded us. If
it fed the hopes of some people, could that be enough? Is that enough?

The door to the dining hall closed behind me.



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