By Robin Fasano
There are no parks, barely a blade of grass. Kabul is wide open sky and rugged blue mountains. My driver, Latif, has been with me since I arrived. His familiar profile greets me each day. His eyes focus on the unpaved streets as he swerves around potholes and swaths of dust.
A couple of months ago when he picked me up at the airport he told me his name means “gentle.” I told him I came to here to teach English. His face opened, his chocolate-brown eyes lit up, “My granddaughter wants to be a teacher,” he said, proudly pulling out crinkled faded photos of his grandchildren. His voice animated, lively, just like my neighbor Susan back home when she shows me photos of her grandchildren.
This morning his silver hair is slightly damp from a shower as he picks me up at the house.
“Hello Miss Robin,” he says, as I tighten my headscarf and slip into the backseat. We drive under a cloudless sky, a faint waft of kebabs in the air. Cars, rickshaws, goats, donkeys all converge into one. There are no stop signs, traffic lights, or sidewalks. It’s chaos and order all whipped together.
We careen around sharp turns and abruptly halt to jarring stop. “Best naan in Kabul right here,” Latif points. “Salaam, hello,” I say to the ragged breadmaker who apparently works and sleeps in the same dough-laden clothes in his makeshift stand, placing his sandals next to him on the floor mat where he dozes. The warm dough is comforting on my fingers. “Good, huh? Glad you like it,” Latif says, satisfied as if he baked it himself. “Tomorrow we come back.”
I look out the window and see children as young as five—on the dusty streets, in the pitted decrepit alleys, standing up to their knees in gorging potholes, their tiny arms unfurled begging for money.
A boy of six weaves from car to car amid exhaust fumes, tapping on car windows, selling packs of chewing gum in his tiny hands. No one buys. No one stops.
Soon we pull next to a steel door with a metal sliding peephole. Everything in Kabul is behind a concrete wall, shut in; hidden, out of sight. Houses, schools, hospitals, buildings, offices—everyone lives behind a wall.
We enter a dank, windowless cinderblock structure barely the size of a living room rug. Twenty children, aged five to seven, are sitting shoulder to shoulder on wobbling knees blanketing the floor, rustling their pads of paper, dangling pencils in their padded fingertips, whispering in muffled tones to each other. I sit outside the small low-hanging entrance, to observe.
In exchange for attending this once a week class, each child receives a bag of rice and a bottle of cooking oil for his or her family. It’s essentially a bribe, for parents to encourage their children to attend school instead of working on the streets to help support their family.
An Afghan teacher in her early twenties is standing in front of a donated chalkboard, chalk dust spraying as she scribbles, clacking the white chalk stick against the board. Her voice lilts like a choir as she sounds out words and letters, opening her mouth wide then stretching the corners of her lips to her ears.
A young girl with a round face and brown marble eyes brushes next to me. She’s late and there’s no place left for her to sit, so she plops down beside me, partially outside the doorway. The marble-eyed girl gazes up at me, a radiant white smile shining across her face. It’s rare to see children smile here.
After class, a woman draped in dark layers with thinning hair peeking out from her headscarf walks over to marble-eyed girl and clasps her tiny hand. The young girl is her daughter, she tells me. She has seven children with her husband who at age 60 is 30 years older than her. Her billowing black layers are somersaulting in the wind, lines crinkle and crease around her eyes as she tells me her daughter works on the streets selling trinkets to make money for the family. She only brings her daughter to this program, she says, because she needs the cooking oil and rice.
Latif and I head to car to leave. He presses his foot to the gas and we start to veer through clogged streets. Mid-afternoon sun bears down on us, shimmying off the rattling metal cars, absorbing the soiled, sticky streets: people, fumes, sheep, baked bricks, children are digging through piles of trash for food or items to sell.
On the bare dirt near the side of the road, a begging, burka-clad woman is sitting cross-legged, her covered body is like a tent as she swaddles her unwashed infant in her arms. Her two young children with dust-smudged faces, wearing knee-worn pants and ragged long sleeved shirts flank her, their palms are facing upward as they’re begging for spare change along with their mother.After a while, Latif pulls up in front of the house. The muezzin bellows throughout the city. “Prayer time,” he says, closing his eyes, sitting still as stone behind the wheel. We’re sitting in the hot, idling car, exhaust chugging, windows rolled down. Latif’s face is solemn with concentration, his lips form a straight line, eyes shut. I let the call of the muezzin sink deep in my bones, in my veins. Hot desert air brushes me. I exhale. And I start to pray too. About the Author:Robin Fasano has written for Spirituality & Health, Berkshire Magazine, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. She has spearheaded cause-driven campaigns for over 16 years and traveled throughout the Middle East and Africa. Most recently, she’s been living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan.