The Confinement of Choice
“Authorized personnel!” Our Afghan guide pushed through the crowds. “Make way! Authorized personnel!”
“Vvvv-vvv…” The plane was hardly audible, and so, so far away…
“Authorized persons! Please make way!” The crowd grew thicker, and our guide shoved people aside to move forward.
“We’re authorized!” A man next to me yelled in passable English. “We’re authorized to freedom!”
“Make way! Please make way!” There were three of us, huddled around the guide, forced to listen to an assault of Dari and poor English.
I closed my eyes. “I can’t do this.” Someone bumped into me.
“What?” It was the reporter from the BBC.
I kept my eyes shut and shook my head.
The crowd pushed me forward. The plane was louder now then, the people louder too.
“Help us!” A woman far away screamed.
“Miss Ricard!” The guide’s voice was farther now.
A helicopter roared overhead, as if attempting to scare the crowd away from the planes, in my direction.
A man screamed.
The crowd rushed towards me.
Someone fell onto me, pushing me to the ground. The cold asphalt ground met my palms, pebbles embedding themselves into the crevasses of my hands. My eyes flew open.
All I could see were legs–hundreds and hundreds of them–spread across the gravel. My cheek was pressed against the hot, rough gravel, the smell of melting tar mixed with plane fuel infiltrating my nostrils. I tried to lift my face off the ground, but someone stepped on my back.
“Please help!” I tried to use my reporter voice, the one that was supposed to make the world listen, but all I could muster was a whimper. “Please help!” Louder now. Someone stepped on my leg. Someone on my arm. My back. My hair. “Help?”
“Hey! Are you okay?” All I could see were her black shoes, covered by a flowing red skirt.
I didn’t know how to answer.
“Alright. Let’s get you up.”
The mattress is too soft, the smell a mixture of fresh pita and rice. I’m not home.
I open my eyes slowly. The bed, topped with a patterned red sheet, is in the center of a room, elaborately designed purple-red curtains on all the walls. An Afghan design. Meaning: last night was not a dream. Meaning: My boss is going to kill me. And I’m stuck here. In a Taliban-infested war zone.
I roll over and place a purple, Afgan-designed pillow over my eyes.
“Miss Ricard?” The voice is high and child-like.
I roll over again. Red pillows frame three sides of the room, lower than I had looked before. On one, there lies a little girl, her head on her hands, wearing pajamas.
I sit up slowly, blinking. “Just call me Adi. Where the heck am I?”
She nods, then shrugs. She must only be six years old.
“What’s your name?”
“Parisa.” Her light brown eyes bore into me.
“That’s a very pretty name.”
“Risa!” A girl about my age, maybe a bit younger, enters the room. She wears short, western-style pajamas, and makes no attempt to tame her long black hair, which jumps away from her face as if by electrocution. “What are you doing in here?” My eyes open a bit wider. I know that voice. But from where?
Parisa shrugs. “I wanted to check something.”
“I’m sorry,” I sit up, pushing away the pillow. “What the heck is going on?”
“Oh, hi.” The girl turns to me and grins. Her English is as flawless as Parisa’s. “Yeah, one sec. Risa, adult conversation, okay? I’ll see you at breakfast.” Parisa sighs, pushes herself off the cushions, and walks out of the room. “’Kay, then.” The girl sits on the bed. “So, you’re Adira Ricard, right? A New York Times reporter? That’s super cool. You just don’t look that old.”
I laugh and move to sit next to her. “I’m here on a fellowship, actually. I just graduated last year. Where is here?”
The girl leans back on the bed. “Kabul, Afghanistan, obviously. This is my house, and I’m the one who brought you here from the airport. I’m Taara, and you just met my sister, Risa.” It comes back to me then. I heard Taara’s voice last night. Are you okay? “You were trying to escape.”
She nods, quieting. “It’s not a loss, though. I couldn’t live without my family.”
“But you gave up the potential of getting out to save me, didn’t you? You’re really brave, you know. I don’t- I know I couldn’t do that.”
Taara shakes away her frown. “Guess I’m just that good, then.”
“No.” My fingers move to a small jagged scar on the tip of my finger. “No one’s better than human nature. That’s why it’s called ‘human nature’. We’re all human.” I rub the scar. “There are so many psychological concepts that explain that, I mean look-”
Taara starts laughing. “How do you know that?”
“I was a psych major…until something happened. This isn’t funny!”
She falls onto a pillow, laughter racking her body. “I-” She lifts her head off the pillow, and then falls back.
I giggle. “What?”
Taara sits up, stifling a laugh. “I was kidding, Miss Ricard.”
After Taara leaves, I dress, draft an article, and emerge from my room an hour later to find a similarly decorated, slightly larger Afghan-style room outside. A man with a turban, short beard, and traditional clothing sits in the center.
“Um, hi.” I pause in the doorway.
“Come on in, Adi.” He has a slight accent and a deep, commanding voice.
I walk forward and sit on the pillow across from him. “Thank you so much for letting me stay here, until things get sorted out. I’m sure it’s a little…weird.”
“Not at all.” He reaches towards the plate at the center of the room and grabs some nuts. “Would you like some?”
“Sure.” I talk a handful. “So…I’m sorry, I’m staying in your house, and I don’t even know your name.” I laugh, feeling like a middle schooler. I can interview people. I can’t converse with them.
“Rayi Ali,” he says. “Taara and Parisa’s father. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Bring! “Yours too.” Bring! I reach into my pocket for my phone. “One second, I have to get this. Sorry.” He nods and I walk out of the room.
“Hello? This is Adira Ricard with the New York Times.”
“I know that, Adi.” It’s my boss. She obviously didn’t get a good night’s sleep. “Some bad news. One sec.” I hear her put the phone to her chest. “John! You’re late again!”
I stifle a laugh. Obviously, things haven’t changed much.
“Okay, Adi, the bad news.”
“That plane you missed? That was the last one for the New York Times.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yep. It’s not the last one leaving the country, obviously, just the last one leaving with us.”
“When do I get out of here?” I rub my forehead.
“Mmm…” I hear typing on a computer. “As soon as we can figure that out.”
I bury my head in my hands. “I can’t do this.” The panic I had kept down all morning rises like bile in my throat. “I can’t stay here, watching the Taliban creep towards us. I-” I try to sound coherent, but nothing seems logical right now. “I-I-I-” I feel the wet on my hands before I realize I am sobbing.
“Shhh, Adi. It’s okay. It’s okay.” I have never heard her so reassuring. She’s a mother, I remember. She’s probably thinking of her kids now.
“I’m so sorry.” I take in a deep breath.
“No problem. Just hold it together out there, okay? We’re trusting you.” I nod and hang up.
“I’m back.” Taraa sticks her head in my doorway, unwinding a headscarf as she talks.
“Where’d you go?”
“School.” She walks into my room and sits on the bed with a sigh.
She nods. “I’m a senior this year.”
I glance at my watch. It’s only ten. “Shouldn’t you still be at school?”
She looks to the ground. “They shut it down.”
“They what?” I sit down with her.
“They shut down school until it ‘settles out’.” She puts her face in her hands and I can hear her sobs. “I want to be a teacher, Adi, and I can’t even graduate secondary school.”
I put both arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“No,” she shakes her head and wipes her eyes. “It’s more than just school. I’m afraid. It’s like-” She pulls away from my arms and gestures with her hands. “Like, all of a sudden, all my future’s gone. Poof. And now I don’t know what will happen. That’s the scariest thing. I might have to hide forever. I have control over my life, anymore.”
I put my arms back around her. “I’m scared, too.”
Later, on the way to dinner, I pass Parisa’s door to find her crying. I stop out of her view. She’s probably just crying over something most kids cry over–a lost teddy bear, a hard school assignment–but in psychology, that is called the ‘Defensive Attribution’. Or blaming the victim.
I take a deep breath and walk in.
Parisa doesn’t look up. She sits surrounded by pillows in the corner of her room, a toy dog hugged tight against her chest. She is still wearing the red headscarf she took to school, and I can only see her clothes, and hear only her sobs.
“Parisa?” I walk further into the room. “Are you okay?”
She doesn’t look at me but nods.
I cross the room and sit beside her, trying to see under all that cloth. “You sure?”
She quickly shakes her head.
“What’s wrong? Did your school shut down?”
She shakes her head again.
“Then what?” I fold the headscarf away from her face.
“A boy said I was dumb today ’cause I’m a girl.” She cries a silent tear. “And I asked the teacher-” She gulps and wipes away the tears. “And he said I wasn’t as smart as the boys.”
“They are so wrong.” I pull her into a hug. “You aren’t any different because you’re a girl.”
She twists to look up at me and sticks a thumb in her mouth. “Then why don’t they like us, Adi?”
“I-” I wish I could make the world seem right for her. But it isn’t. What kind of child grows up in this life? I wonder if she is a child at all. “I don’t really know. I don’t really think there is a reason.”
“Well then why doesn’t someone tell them they’re not being nice?”
Bystander bias. Just world phenomenon. The psychological terms I learned long ago flash in my mind. But why, really? “I don’t know, Risa. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay.” She puts her arms around me. “I guess no one knows. Maybe that’s why no one helps.”
I pat her back slowly. “You’re very smart, sweetheart.” I try to blink away the tears in my eyes. “Very, very smart.”
“Okay. Can we go to dinner now?”
“Course.” I take her hand and she leads me to the room where I had found Mr. Ali.
“Adi! There you are!” If I hadn’t been with her, I would never guess that Taara had been crying that morning.
“Hey, Taara. Mr. Ali.”
“Just Rayi.” Rayi does not glance up from his food. Parisa scampers to join Taara and eat, but I linger in the doorway.
“What’s wrong?” Taara sets down her fork.
“Um…” I look at the ceiling, deeply inhaling the steam of rice and lamb filtering from the kitchen. “I’m really sorry, and I can leave if you want, but I can’t get a flight and I have to stay here a little longer.”
Rayi chuckles. “Why are you sorry, Adi? You are always welcomed here.” I smile, unsure how to word my thanks, and join them at the table. “Girls, there is a serious discussion we need to have.”
I start to stand.
“No, Adi. This concerns you as well.”
I turn again and sit on a cushion across from Rayi, next to Parisa. She shifts towards me.
“Three cities fell today.”
Taara’s fingers freeze, her fork clattering to the table.
“They fell down?” Parisa asks.
“No, azizam.” I make a mental note to look up the meaning of azizam. Rayi takes a forkful of rice. “They were taken by the Taliban.”
“Sar-E-Pul, Kunduz, and Taloqan.” I list them off on my fingers. “And this is only two days since the first city was captured.”
Rayi nods. “In Taloqan, they forced all government officials to flee.”
Parisa shoves a thumb in her mouth. Taara stares down at her food.
“I’m sorry,” I say, putting down my fork. “But why is that important to you?”
Rayi clears his throat. I notice, for the first time, the dark bags under his eyes. “I recently resigned from the Afghan parliament.”
I place a hand over my mouth. “No.”
He nods. “I was, as others, vocal in my disapproval of the Taliban.”
“So they don’t like you, daddy?” Parisa reaches across the table to pat her father’s arm.
“No, azizam. They don’t like me at all.”
2 Days Later – August 10
When Parisa comes home from school the next day, I follow her to her room. “How’d it go?”
“Okay.” She unwinds her headscarf slowly. “When I grow up, I want to be a writer now. Like you.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“’Cause then I can make sure the world listens to us next time.”
I ruffle her hair. “It’s not over yet, silly.”
“It’s almost over.”
I find Taara in the hallway, her head on the door. “She won’t be able to do that.” It is dusk, and tears glisten like stars in her eyes. “She can’t have a future like you, can she?”
My eyes water. I wrap my arms around her. “I hope so. I really hope so.”
2 Days Later – August 12
Two more cities were overtaken today. Ghazni is so close to Kabul, they are less than a finger’s distance apart on my map. Firus Koh surrendered without a fight. The Taliban will win. There is no question.
I close my computer and shut the curtained windows to welcome the night.
Bring! Bring! I glance at the phone screen: ‘Phoebe Adams.’ “Hello?”
“Hey, Adi. Good news.”
“Don’t sound so surprised.” I hear ruffling papers in the background. The sounds of the editing office in New York make me long for home.
“It’s getting worse here…” I trail off.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. We’ll give you a nice, easy assignment when you’re home.”
“Gosh.” I wait for the catch. We never get easy assignments. “When I’m home?”
“In two days. Actually, probably three, since you’ll be exhausted when you fly in.”
“Oh my God.” I lean back against the wall behind my bed. “I’m coming home.”
“Yep. Took a little maneuvering, but we got you a flight for Sunday.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Mm-hmm. One sec.” She puts a hand over the phone. “Shut up Mary! Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“Sorry about that. I’ll forward the plane tickets to you. Glad you’re coming home.”
She hangs up before I can thank her.
I close my eyes and rest my head in my hands. I’m almost home.
“Adi? Are you leaving?” Parisa stands in the doorway.
“Were you listening?”
“Come sit.” I pat my bed. She walks slowly, her nightdress trailing behind her, and sits on the bed. “I have to go home.” I put an arm around her shoulder. “You know I can’t stay here forever.” I think I’m right. Or is this just cognitive dissonance, the act of changing an opinion after acting against it?
Risa sucks in a breath. “Yeah. Is everyone leaving?”
“All the foreigners.”
“Oh.” She puts a thumb into her mouth. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“I know, but-” She puts both hands over her ears. I pull them away. “It’s going to be okay, azizam.” I looked that word up yesterday. It means ‘my dear’. “I can call you all you want, and they’ll let you stay in school, I think, and-”
“You don’t know if it’ll be okay!”
I squeeze her shoulder. “It will. It will.” But in psychology, that’s called the just world phenomenon. And the world isn’t always just.
She wipes a hand across her face, pushes my arm away, and runs from the room.
Am I abandoning her? Am I just exhibiting all the human nature I’ve spent years fighting? I rub my scar. And then I have to think about it. I look out my window, watching all the men passing by, and lie my head in my hands. It comes in a rush.
“Alright, kids. Class dismissed. Semester exams in two weeks! Almost halfway through college! Don’t flunk it.” We laugh. “And remember: don’t exhibit those concepts we talked about today! Just because you learned them doesn’t mean you’re above them.”
The sound of shuffling papers and giggles fills the classroom.
“Not funny! Philp Zimbardo, the famous psychologist, exhibited half of our lesson in one experiment.”
The entire class bursts into laughter. We make our way outside into the early-winter air. My nose and ears alight with cold once we step through the doorway, and our class sticks to cement pathways to avoid the dusting of snow on the ground.
There is a crowd of students ahead. I stand on my tip-toes to glimpse what they’re watching. Two teens, in identical black hoods, are fighting. I watch as one kicks the other in the stomach, the other retaliating with his fists.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” The crowd chants. I try to move around them, towards the road, to avoid the snow.
“Get ’im!” Someone calls. Over hooded heads, I watch as one boy is pushed to the ground, and rolls onto the road. The crowd moves with him, towards me.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Snow starts to fall. I’m going to be late. I walk quicker, skirting the edge of the group, tuning out the sounds of fighting.
“Ow!” I glance back at the students. One boy fell, and now he lies in the road, snow falling around him. “Someone help! Please!” The boy he was fighting backs away, pushes through the circle and starts to run.
“Help!” The boy on the ground rolls from side to side, clutching his stomach. “Oof, that hurts!” I watch a drop of blood drip down his waist, onto the snow-dusted gravel, spreading like wine across a carpet.
The crowd looks at each other.
And then it happens. So, so quickly.
A car rushes towards us, perhaps in a hurry to make it to class. Visibility is bad, the snow falling harder.
I jump backward, towards the curb.
The crowd runs.
The boy lies. On the road. Alone.
“Please help!” He tries to push himself off the ground, only to fall, grasping at his stomach.
The car rushes forwards.
Woosh! I reach out, almost frozen, as the car passes, my thumb catching in the car’s rear view mirror.
I jerk my hand away.
I heard he lived.
I heard he never fully recovered.
I heard he kept his major. He was a senior, one week from graduating, the first in his family. They rested their hopes on him. But he can’t provide for them now. Now, he goes to the hospital weekly. The medical bills have gotten more expensive than college. He can’t get a job. He sees a psychiatrist weekly, too. But he won’t recover, mentally, either. His broken life rests in the hands of us all.
All that I learned in the school newspaper. I never saw him again.
I switched my major at the end of the semester, a week later. If a psychology major can’t overcome basic human psychology, why be one? I’d rather try to make the world listen. In journalism, it isn’t about you. It’s about the people you report on, the world’s reaction to your story.
So I tell myself.
One Day Later – August 13
Four more cities were overtaken by the Taliban today. They included Kandahar and Herat, the two biggest cities after Kabul. There is only one day until my departure; only one more interview.
“Alright.” Rick, our photographer based in Afghanistan (with a flight out this afternoon), adjusts the camera. “On air, live, in three…” I take a deep breath in and smile at the camera. “Two…” He winks at me. “One…we’re live.”
“This is Adira Ricard, reporting for the New York Times from Kabul, Afghanistan. Joining us today is a very special guest, a member of the former Afghan parliament, who will remain anonymous for safety precautions. Thank you for speaking with us in such troubling times.”
“Always a pleasure.” Rayi crosses his legs and looks into the camera. Our viewers will only see a shadow of his profile, for his anonymity.
“You have two daughters, who have watched the Taliban take over this country by your side. Do you worry for them?”
He looks down. “I worry for my daughters every time I hear those words: ‘the Taliban’. I would give anything for them. If this were just a governmental transition, where only former government officials’ lives were in jeopardy, I would not have these bags under my eyes. I might be shot, but my daughters would still have a future.”
“How will the Taliban put your daughters’ futures in jeopardy?”
“They are not people now. They are just women. My daughters, they are not less than anybody; they are not less than me. Now, though, they come to me crying about the boy at school who told them he is better because he is a boy, and I cannot tell them that the world knows he is wrong. This country believes he is right. So I worry daily; for every woman here.”
“What should we have done differently?” I glance at my notes. “Could the world have saved your daughters’ futures?”
“Can. The world can save my daughters’ futures still. They can save the future of every girl here. They must only listen and answer our plea.”
“But is that really an option, still? I mean, look at how-”
“It is always a choice.” He looks directly at me, and I have to look away. “There is nothing that isn’t a choice. If we turn the other way, that is a choice. But mainly, in this world, we have two choices: we must choose what is easy, in our best interest, or we must choose human lives and futures; what is the best interest of the people.”
One Day Later – August 14: The Day of Departure
Three more cities fell today, the closest, Pul-E-Alam, just over forty miles away. Some say Kabul could fall tomorrow.
Parisa climbs onto my bed. “You’re leaving today, aren’t you?”
I pull her into a hug. “I am.”
Taara walks through the doorway. “What time?” She sits heavily next to us.
I put an arm around her. “I have to leave soon.” Parisa hugs a toy dog to her chest.
Rayi walks past the doorway. “Is this a party?”
“A going away party.” Taara leans heavily against me.
“I’m glad you can get out.” Rayi walks in and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Really.” He turns to leave.
“Actually,” I take a deep breath and stand. “I have an announcement. Don’t leave.”
He raises his eyebrows, turns, and sits slowly on my bed.
My heart pounds in my chest. Why am I so nervous? I face the three of them, and take something out of my jacket pocket, handing it to Rayi.
“What is this?”
Taara looks over his shoulder. “An American VISA! Oh my gosh, Adi, that’s amazing!”
“Thanks.” I twist my hands behind my back, staring at the floor, waiting.
“One American VISA,” Rayi says after a minute. “The name is blank.”
I nod, still staring at the floor. “I’m sorry, it took a lot, and I could only get one. It’s for one of you. I couldn’t choose who.”
There is a deafening silence. I let out a deep breath I hadn’t known I was holding. In psychology, there is something called the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’; basically meaning that people will do what is most beneficial to themselves, even when it hurts the group, even when it hurts them in the long run. These are three of the most inspiring people I have met. But I shouldn’t have expected even them to overcome basic human nature.
“It’s Risa’s,” Taara says. I look up slowly. “I want her to have what I had. And I can’t abandon this place.”
Rayi nods. “I will never abandon this country. My wife is in America, completing her college education. She can take care of Risa. I could never choose one daughter over the other, but yes, Parisa needs it.”
“But why doesn’t Taara need it?” Parisa looks at her father.
“Because I want you,” Taara reaches behind Rayi to tickle her sister. “To become a famous author! You can only do that in America! Maybe I can come for college one day!”
Parisa giggles and I sit back on the bed. “Do you wanna come home with me, azizam?”
“Sure!” She’s still laughing, and I realize it is the first time I have seen her laugh without restraint. I laugh with her.
“You were right, you know.” I reach over Parisa to squeeze Rayi’s shoulder. “Everything is a choice.”
He nods, a smile alighting in his eyes.
Everything is a choice, I decide as I laugh with Parisa. Human nature is a choice. If we listen to a plea for help, that is a choice. And everyone, no matter their profession, what they look like, or who they are, makes that choice daily.
Aisha O’Neil is a young adult and a previously unpublished writer in Durango, Colorado. She was inspired to write The Confinement of Choice while studying psychology and watching the current situation in Afghanistan in horror.