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The volatile embers of memory

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see my grandmother’s face in those of elderly men and women searching for safety in Afghanistan today.

By: /
20 August, 2021
The author’s grandmother (who he discovered was his great-grandmother), Bibi, with his brother Amrak before civil war began in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Memory, I have learned, is like a never-dying ember. It always has the potential to become a fully-fledged fire once again. The sight of a familiar place, colour or sound, or a particular scent, sparks a memory that is buried under the grey ashes of time, and you travel back years or decades to a time when a particular memory was chiseled in your brain. An image floats before your eyes and you see a familiar face or faces, you hear a chime of laughter, someone’s pleasant words echo in your ears, or you feel a touch that had once caressed your skin like a gentle breeze, sending a pleasant shiver throughout your body. Suddenly, you long for that moment and wish you could twist the handles of your life’s spool backward to that time so that you can relive that moment one more time. 

But what if it is a memory that you, not time, have deliberately, and against its will, exiled to the junkyard memories? 

Then you shudder when you watch, with horror, as that memory wakes up from its long sleep, yawning and stretching, and before you know, it stands before you in all its ugliness and in all it is terror, roaring and screaming in rage.  

Two photos that recently moved on social media sparked a terrible memory that I had longed buried in the graveyard of my bad memories. They depict a crying Afghan grandmother fleeing fighting in Kandahar, my ancestral province, in southern Afghanistan. She is sitting in the back of a taxi covered in a spotted white chadar namaz. Beside her are some clothes, neatly wrapped in a checkered sheet.  In one picture, she is holding on to the side of the car, blowing her nose and looking at something or someone outside the car. In the other, she is dabbing her eyes with the corner of her big scarf.  

I have seen similar scenarios in my own life, many times.  

Growing up during the Afghan civil war (1992-1996), I watched my father and uncle — with whom we shared a house — move our families from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, searching for stability and security. There was a pattern to these frequent moves. It would start with adults having a serious conversation, followed by either my uncle or my father disappearing for days (we later learned that they were searching for places to rent). Then our mothers would go around the house and start wrapping things in sheets and packing our suitcases. By this time, if the war had reached our neighbourhood, we children and our mothers would pile with our belongings into the back of a donkey cart and flee to our new home. My father and uncle always stayed behind for a bit longer, hoping to protect our belongings from looters. 

We didn’t have many belongings to begin with, and every time we moved we left more behind. Once, it was my older brother’s bicycle that my father had bought him during his brief visit to Moscow, where he was studying to become a civil engineer. Another time, we left our carpets and curtains and my favorite round pillow. 

Every time we moved to a new neighbourhood, we had to decide which of our family’s two ethnicities to hide and which of the two languages we spoke to use based on the ethnicity of the neighbourhood’s residents — or, more importantly, the ethnicity of the warlord who ruled it. For me, as a child of eight or nine years, moving to a new neighborhood, more than war itself, always meant a period of nerve-wracking anxiety and fear to the point that I would wet my bed. I feared getting into fights with the neighbourhood kids, most which would end up with me and siblings covered in bruises with black eyes and broken noses. 

As I stared at the photos of the Kandahari grandmother, memories started flaring up in my mind, one after another, and images of the past began to form in my head. Suddenly, I found myself in a distant time and space, surrounded by memories I had long tried to suppress.

* * *

My father and I were in the yard of the house that we had moved in some three months beforehand. A grey day with dark clouds moving rapidly from the east to the west. A cold wind flapped pieces of an old plastic sheet that my father and older brother had nailed onto our only room’s window for insulation. We both could hear the buzzing sound of bullets flying overhead, and the occasional interruption of a rocket whistling over our house before it exploded somewhere in the distance, shaking the cold ground under our feet. I was holding a wooden box that my father was trying to mount on the back of his old, Made-In-China bicycle with bungee ropes, fear and anxiety painted all over his face.

By this time, my family had moved at least 20 times. We had fled our last home in the dead of night and moved to a small neighborhood near the Kabul airport that was considered the last safe one in the city. It was a one-storey, flat-roofed house with three rooms. My uncle and his family lived in one of the rooms; my parents and siblings occupied the second room, which was also the biggest. The third one, containing the belongings of the owner of the house who had left the country at the start of the war, was locked. It took us a while to get used to the gigantic scorpions and huge, hairy spiders that lived with us. Soon, however, we made friends with our neighbours and started getting to know the area. We thought we could live there for the foreseeable future. But the flames of war reached our new home, too. 

Militiamen loyal to two allied warlords got into an argument over a pack of cigarettes. Before anyone knew what was happening, a full-fledged war broke out. Two rockets hit our house. The first landed in front of the gate, missing my uncle who had left to do some grocery shopping by five seconds. The second hit the roof the room where we all slept, including my elderly grandmother. 

I still remember the sound of the explosion that jolted me awake, the smell of burned gunpowder and smoke in the room, not knowing for a few seconds whether I was dreaming. The rocket had landed where the roof met one of the walls and smashed its way to the top of a wooden cupboard where my mother kept her china set. I could see parts of the rocket stuck to the wall our room. 

My father moved quickly through the smoke and dust to make sure we were okay. We all had escaped the explosion unhurt, except my grandmother. The explosion left her hemiplegic, with half of her body paralyzed. 

* * *

For a long time, I didn’t know what my grandmother’s real name was. We simply referred to her as Bibi. It wasn’t until after I had learned the basics of reading and writing and accidently, stumbled upon her national identity card that I learned her real name: Mahboba. 

She was a short woman with a slightly hunched back, the bluest of eyes, and a flat nose that was dotted by two moles on the right side. It was a face that I always associated with dignity and strength. I later found out that she was not actually my grandmother but my great-grandmother. Family legend had it that when my grandfather — my father’s father — was stabbed to death by some distant cousins and when my grandmother — my father’s mother — died of kidney complications a little while later, Bibi picked up my father and his three siblings from Zabul, where they lived, and brought them to Kandahar. She raised them as her own children. She fed them, clothed them and, against almost all her relatives wishes, sent them to school. 

My father and his siblings, the first among our relatives to go to school, grew up to be doctors, engineers and prosecutors. There is a running joke in my family that if not for Bibi, we all would be farmers somewhere in Zabul or Kandahar. If there is one woman in the world that proves true the expression, “Behind every successful man, there is a strong woman,” it is Bibi. Except she is the strong woman behind many successful men and women in my family. 

My early memories of Bibi are of lying half-buried under a warm blanket in the winter as my siblings and I listened to her tell us stories about Just Kings, Handsome Princes, Enchanted Queens and Princesses, and Mean Stepmothers. She was the first old person I ever met, and I was fascinated by the wrinkles on her face and the tone of her skin. Sometimes, she would let me pinch the skin on the back of her hand into a fold and then watch it slowly returning to its usual state. 

Bibi was a smoker. She had a long chillum water pipe that she would fill with tobacco and smoke it on our porch. My job was to refresh the water in her chillum and wash its ceramic tobacco holder by the well in our yard. She was well known as a healer of sore throats. People said she had a “blessed hand” for the sickness. Many times, I watched her shove her index and middle fingers in sick children’s mouths, pressing the top of their distended throats with the tip of her fingers. The stale water from her chillum was a sought-after commodity in the neighborhood by parents whose children contracted mumps, using it as gargle. 

No one, not even Bibi herself, knew how old she was. Sometimes when we asked if she knew when she was born, she would say that she remembered the ascension to the throne of Amanullah Khan, the young Afghan monarch who declared independence from Britain in 1919, as if it were yesterday. Her long life and decades of experience made her the matriarch of our household, someone who could move people and things with the slightest movement of her forefinger. She was the one my father and his brothers, as the men of the house, most feared and respected. No one in the family raised their voice or stretched their legs when she was in the room. I had seen my father, a dignified man who had hundreds of other men working under him, melt and apologize when she stood between him and my mother in the middle of an argument.  

* * *

“The woman we carried in a wooden box the morning of the rocket attack was not the same Bibi I remembered.”

The woman we carried in a wooden box the morning of the rocket attack was not the same Bibi I remembered. Years of war and multiple sicknesses had taken a toll. She looked frail and her voice did not have the same strong tone that I was used to growing up. And now, unable to move half her body, she seemed vulnerable and helpless. 

We had almost reached 4th Macroryan — the Soviet-built apartment building near Kabul airport — when the fighting intensified. I saw armed men exchange fire in the distance and rockets hit the grey apartment buildings on the side of the road. We dropped into ditches or ducked under whatever we could find. At one point, standing beside Bibi’s box, I saw her reaching for me with her healthy hand. I felt it shake as I held it. I looked at her and she smiled. I couldn’t tell whether it was a genuine smile, telling me that everything would be okay, or if she was scared and forced that smile to hide it. 

Two weeks later, despite all our efforts, Bibi died while sleeping under a woolen blanket in our relatives’ house in Shakar Dara, a village north of Kabul. Her body was covered with bed sores and she was demented to the point that she couldn’t recognize most of us. Every once in a while, in response to our, “Bibi Jani” (beloved Bibi), she would open her eyes and slowly mutter “A’Jani” (Yes, beloved). She stopped eating but not smoking. My father would light a cigarette and put it between her blue, parched lips, and she would take one or two deep puffs. 

Even before the war started, whenever she would bring up the topic of her death, Bibi always said that her only two regrets about dying would be if she did not first see her two grandchildren — my uncles who lived in Europe — and if she were buried anywhere but Kandahar, her real home. The war robbed her of both wishes. She did not see my uncles and we buried her in a small cemetery in Shakar Dara. 

Our only solace after her death came from one of our relatives, an old lady herself. She said the reason Bibi rested in Shakar Dara, despite coming from Kandahar, was because when God created her, He took the handful of dirt with which he later sculpted her with from where she was buried now. 

We often think of war in terms of winners and losers. There is rarely talk about the human cost. The war that displaced my family more than two dozen times took a toll on millions — children like my siblings and me, men like my father and uncle, old women like Bibi. That war may have ended for those who fought it, but it never ended for us civilians. We still carry physical and emotional scars no matter the time that has passed and how far we have travelled. 

I may live thousands of kilometers away from Afghanistan in the safety of my home in Ottawa, but a day doesn’t go by that I don’t see my own reflection in the faces of the crying children searching for safety in Afghanistan today. I see my mother’s face in the faces of the desperate women that are holding tight to their children as they flee. The desperate and helpless fathers remind me of my own father. And the exhausted elderly men and women always remind of my Bibi. 

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