Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Chapter 4: Steeping the Soul

Late summer, 1968

"You were home, Dad. What was it like?"

"We had a new job, a new house, a new car, a newly broken ankle, I was working on a new degree, and--we had a new baby. You."

My father has listed all these 'news' many times for me, like a sub-theme in a symphony, popping up over and over; perhaps not the only theme, but an important one. He was now twenty-six, and by this time had married, got a BA and teaching credential, gone to Afghanistan, moved back across the world to California, enrolled in a Master's of Education in Administration, and now had two daughters, bought a new car, and broken his ankle falling in a hole out while monitoring kids on the playground at the school where he worked in Concord, California.  I don't know if this theme of 'many new things' is a sub-theme of adventure, or of overload, too much responsibility weighing on a young man; perhaps it is both, shades of the same color, the same theme, clues to his identity.

Adventure--stepping outside one's own comfort zone--and service--creating order out of chaos, allowing an institution to fulfill its own identity--I think these two ideals are deep inside my father, and are themes within him, his identity. The search for identity lies deep within each soul and the formation of identity happens inexorably--one cannot stop it, like the formation of rock deep within the earth under forces of heat and pressure, or like a tea bag steeping, becoming part of the water around it, the water changing it--and for the human soul, it happens through idealization, most deeply in childhood and young adulthood; one who travels as he did begins to understand just how deep identity lies, though in my parents' case, this lesson has had to be learned through a lifetime of joys, deep discussions, bridges of understanding built, and hardships with their own daughters.

When he left Afghanistan in 1968, he and my mother had not thought of returning; he had become interested in administration as service, and says, "When you feel a great interest in something, it is probably also because you have a skill set for it." He enrolled at UC Hayward and lived in a suburb, and let life unfold. In 1970, Dr. Herb Friesen, the ophthalmologist who had started the Noor Eye Hospital in Kabul and gave his entire adult life to serving the Afghan people, a board member of Ahlman Academy where my parents had taught in 1966-68 and where his own children attended, stopped by to visit my parents on furlough. Knowing my father was working on a administration degree, Dr. Friesen asked if my parents would be interested in coming back to Kabul, to Ahlman Academy, with my father as the Director.

The entry back would prove difficult: "I found going back to Afghanistan, when we got there, hard; I found that I'd built up this idealized view of it, and then when I got there, the reality sank in. During my three years away, I remembered it as an exciting place to be; this time it would be a new challenge and a new job, and it was adventuresome to be there, because it was so different. I mean, we knew what we were getting into, but I had much more of  a culture shock than Mom did, in terms of the ideal that I had in my head about how exciting it was--and then the reality hit when we got there. It was just so, so different--the bazaars, the way people lived, the donkeys and was just so different. I just felt that--I don't know, confused is the wrong word--but it was a feeling that came out of having a view of it that had built up over three years and then facing the reality of the culture and of what was going on...why did I return to such a place?! This was kind of, well, 'Are you kidding me?'"

I said to him, "Traveling was for you, also part of your identity, and when you idealize something it also becomes part of your identity--and then the reality can be, when you return, or go for the first time, destructive to your own self-identity, built of expectations and ideals--"

"Well, it doesn't take very long to re-adjust and learn to understand the reality."

This exchange makes me laugh, and helps me see my father, to see his identity, and the differences between us; I am busy digging deep underneath one spot while he is practical, taking each moment as it comes, looking for the best response to difficulties, staying in the particulars and not creating universal principles around every corner. On the one hand, I was--and am--a watcher, a thinker, a sponge, looking always for deeper truths, and on the other, he was--and is--busy creating order in every situation; he teaches me a lot via his differences from me, and I understand our infrequent lack of understanding--specifically, as a child, I just assumed everyone thought the way I did, philosophically, and when he made the life choices for adventure and service in the moment, I could not always understand or follow along easily, and often I was not able to process the lightning-fast pace at which he lives his life.

Yet, I have learned, taken, a great deal from him, especially in the area of service and simply 'getting on with it.' His identity, his vocation, has also been to search for, define, articulate, and realize the identities, or missions, of the various educational institutions he has worked within; this he sees as service, defining and nurturing not his own vision for a community, but defining and nurturing the identity it already has. He understands, and somehow, even when everything was 'new' he understood, that leadership is servanthood of a communal identity bigger than oneself, that true leadership cannot exist within the selfish person.

"There weren't people in Afghanistan who had a lot of personal experience or training in educational administration, so it often happened people were put into the wrong positions, particularly in remote places where you have to utilize the people you've got who may not have the inclination or training to actually do the job; this was the case with Ahlman Academy; it went through this period when it grew, but it didn't have people with background or training on the administrative side. So, when we went back to the States, I felt like I had an interest and inclination towards administration. When you have a strong interest in something, it often follows that you have some ability to do it. But if you want power, forget about it. Once you get into it, you realize that administration is not a power position; you are a servant--and if you don't go into it with that understanding, you won't do well and you probably won't last very long.

"When we returned in '71, I was administrating, in Afghanistan, in an apostolate. What had to be solved there was organizational issues, and the purpose of the mission.The administrator needs to help in defining the purpose, but also in carrying out the purpose, and keeping that purpose in front of the people who work for the institution--ie, 'where here to do this, not to do that, etc'--at Ahlman, we were not a Christian mission school. There were, in other parts of the world, mission schools: teachers were trained by and sent out by mission organizations. Ahlman Academy was not supported by mission organizations, but by the tuition. So there were many different kinds of students: some were children of missionaries, some were children of embassy employees, or aid organizations, the UN, etc.. In that sense, we were there not for the International Afghan Mission Organization, but for the wider community.

"However, we didn't have Afghan students, because the Afghan government did not allow them to attend our school, or any foreign school, Christian or not. I think the Afghan government felt responsible for educating the children of their own people, in their way, and that any break down in that system would not be good; it was both a Muslim issue and a civil issue...we had the same issue in Russia; Russian children would not attend the Anglo-American School, and they were atheists; it was an issue about the children becoming Westernized--it was about loyalty to the culture and system of their own country."

When he says this, I sense again a certain major cultural difference between an Eastern, traditional, fundamentally communal culture like Afghanistan and the more secular, 'loose,' almost lost, identity of many Westerners, and I immediately wonder if an international education for younger children has a certain inherent danger--a danger to the identity of each child and to the culture at large. My father confirms this out of his twenty-eight years of experience in international schools:

"It has that aspect to it; an international education, wherein you are serving a lot of different countries, does contain a certain danger. At the UN School in New York, where we served 130 different countries, I always used to tell the parents that we were limited in terms of what we could do in terms of their own countries, their own culture. I would therefore tell them that they had a much larger responsibility if they wanted their children to understand their home culture, if they wanted their children to be German, or Australian. So no matter where the international school was in the world, the inculcation of language, culture, religion, or values was the responsibility of the family;  I also tried to impress on them that it was important to create that identity for children, because their identities will already be more global than normal, a 'looser' identity."

He says, when I ask him how he understood this  'loose' or 'third-culture' aspect in terms of my sister and I, "We didn't think about it that much; we thought more about our experience than yours--'wow, we are going to go home to the States'--but it wasn't home for you, necessarily."

In talking with him, I also understand now that perhaps due to his practical, 'get on with it' side he didn't know just how deep, how formative, the results of his choices were on his own children, the choice especially to traverse cultural boundaries. I can imagine that it would be like, perhaps, realizing that the bottom of the lake is actually a subterranean cave that leads to the ocean, to eternity.

"There was a lot of literature that came out about third culture kids, but it came out much later--I don't remember a book or anything at the time we were in Afghanistan; there was no discussion about it; we just assumed that when you were younger, just being with us at home was enough--and when we were in Afghanistan, when you were 3-6 and 5-8, that was enough; but when we went to Greece, we needed to have done more talking about it, and particularly when we moved back to the States, we needed to talk about it a lot more.

"This is why, when you and Marylynne graduated from high school, we felt that we needed to go back to Greece, after we'd been away for a number of years; we knew you'd built up an ideal of it, and to go back and see the reality, and to know that you really weren't Greek; you know, your identity is--well, you can't be Greek, unless you lived there long-term. It is hard for people like you and Marylynne, who live somewhere else like Greece, and then you come back to your parents' home country, but you don't really fit; it is hard. You don't fit anywhere."

In the pause, something wells up in me in response, and I say to him, "As a little child, the culture around you is like music--it goes right into your soul--there are no filters, and so what is around just simply becomes part of who you are. When you are little, there are no narratives around these experiences of life around you, so you have to spend the rest of your life trying to figure out the narrative."

There is a short silence, as he takes this in, and then he replies: "Yes, when you live in a home culture like I did, growing up in one place, you understand your identity--you have a base identity; when you move, then, you have a base from which to understand other places.

"So third-culture kids can find themselves confused--it can be difficult. Looking back now, at you and Marylynne, we didn't regret going there, but regret not preparing more for the return from overseas, particularly from Greece--when we were trying to actually move back permanently to the States--this cultural shift back was an added burden on you girls. We could have done a lot better to help you through this, but we just didn't know; we didn't have the background to understand what was going on that way, in terms of identity, being a third-culture kid, and the re-entering process for all of us--though it was much harder for you and Marylynne. I think giving some--or knowing what was going on, getting a better feel for it, talking about it--would've helped. I guess that is our only regret. We didn't think about this issue that much."

Though he now has more understanding of the challenges my sister and I face in terms of our identities, it is interesting that my father doesn't speak about my sister and I going back to Afghanistan, to see the reality in terms of what it really did to form our identities; he says often that we were just too little to really be affected by Afghanistan. This does help me understand him--and just how much he doesn't, or I don't, understand about identity. I sense, underneath the way he has learned to understand his choices and the resulting story of our family, a questioning about what actually happened, and the meaning of it all: what is there to regret, what is there to feel confident about, what is the meaning at the heart of things? I believe now we will find it together, all of us, because we four are, in a sense, and will always be, a living unit, a domestic church.

So I think about my response, if he indeed is asking those deeper questions: He doesn't know about, hasn't stepped inside, the deep crevasses of guilt and sadness I feel about never going back to see Mir Ali, or to help Afghanistan; he doesn't know that as a young child, the world of Afghanistan entered my soul like music and continued the forming begun at conception, that my soul was more like a sponge with many pockets filled, simply, by everything around me. As he says, his view of the return to Afghanistan was through the eyes of a young, adventuresome, American man,  and I see him then as a man who had basically lived in one house his entire childhood, whose identity had been largely set in one US state. His cultural shock, upon return to Kabul in 1971, was ensconced within a certain identity, from a soul steeped in a certain Christian, American, Washington, Olympian, context, with specific Wrye family lore and habits, thousands of sights, smells, concepts, attitudes, crises, sufferings and their solutions, tastes, peas and carrots, choral music and rock-n-roll, large steel automobiles, hamburgers, and highways, friendly police and pastors coloring the gospel, the deepest things within us, prayer and repentance.

Marylynne was five and returning to Kabul, and I was three, when we left what home we'd known in California (mainly our mother's arms,  our father's joy and rough-housing, our grandmother, and each other, and the red ball and small pool in our backyard) and sat on our parents' laps and watched the land become an anthill, then a blue expanse, then after unknown stops across the globe and the small deaths of sleep, a brown expanse on the other end. But that brown expanse became particularized as a house within a city, having its own unrepeatable smell and taste, a house with a large yard and nine-foot walls, within which I silently watched my dachsund Lucy keep a scorpion half her size away from me, within which I listened to the sounds outside and knew I could not venture alone for fear of stray packs of dogs, within which we began to make moral choices, to leave the ego behind, within which my understanding of family included my Afghan grandfather, a man I simply took into my heart and soul as family, who spoke to me in Farsi and watched over my sister and I the best he could. I was loved by those with pale skin who spoke English, and loved by those who had darker skin and spoke in tones like music, or water falling from a great height. In my soul, an ideal developed, among many, but a theme, a steeping of my soul: Love has great forming power even beyond language, culture, color, custom. It is the deepest river in human life, in the universe. It is where we find God in each other, no matter our backgrounds, and language can, simply, get in the way.

I go and speak now, to my soul-twin, my same-pressed intaglio, my sister, because we share so much more than genetics, more even than the same loving parents: We share the same third culture, and there is no other person who claims citizenship to the same culture; we are alone, in a sense, two small blonde girls, hand in hand, taking in the same journeys across the globe; still, now in our late forties and early fifties, we reach across invisible signals bouncing off cell towers and find each other's hands again, and silently grasp: "I'm here, too. Are you here?" I need her here to speak to me in our own language of fractured memory, at times fractured identity; I ask her: "Do you feel a connection with Afghanistan? What comes up for you?"

"What comes up for me is that I feel Afghan. I've been realizing that. That doesn't have anything to do with what Afghanistan is like now, I don't imagine: but I certainly don't feel American. I don't really even feel Greek; I think a lot more happened in Afghanistan in terms of my identity than even what happened in Greece; that's not something I have really figured out yet, but I feel like there's truth in that, and it helps me think about my life, and how I am relating to the world.

"It shows up when I look back at it in Dad's pictures, I found it in a lot of the pictures. I realize now I have a connection there that I didn't know about before--and the interesting thing is that I don't think I am forcing it; I think rather I am uncovering it. I am finding a touchstone that I didn't know was there--so let me think of an image. Dad has multiple portraits of men, and he has some really good ones of women and children; I guess it brings up a feeling of connection. I mean, I wasn't part of the Afghan culture--"

There is a pause, ever so slight, but yet enormous in the language of the soul, and with a deep strength, "---but I was. And so was Dad, and so was Mom, and so were you. I think people don't realize how powerful that is.

"The other day, when I heard Dad talking to you, he was saying something about when you and I came back to the States; well, we never came back to the States, because we were never in  the States. Mom and Dad naturally still think of us as originating in America as Americans; I guess that is a natural thing to think because we are so inseparable from them, but I think the moment I was born there, I was separated from them, and I don't think that separation is something that Mom or Dad can understand--and it is not something I can easily describe, either; but the more I think about it, look at pictures, try to describe it, the more strongly that comes back: what does it mean to be me? I've found myself saying to myself, 'I'm more Afghan than anything else.' It is kind of extreme, isn't it? It sounds extreme when it comes out of my mouth, but it doesn't feel extreme."

When she is speaking about her birth in the American Dispensary in Kabul in the winter of 1967, an image of her bursts forth: it is an old photograph, the colors slightly hued blue, pink cheeks and blankets a slight, rich purple; My mother is looking happy and relieved as she holds a tiny bundle; what strikes me is my sister's face; I have never forgotten this image of her. Her eyes, like blue stars in a tiny, perfectly symmetrical face, are looking out towards the world, searching, open, her soul right at the surface, drawing in the new intensity of life outside the womb.

I know she is right; I know, have always known, that something momentous happened in her soul, and in our family, and to my parents, because she was born there. I don't know what it means, but I tell her that "I resonate with you in that: I wonder if there is a time in the life of a child, when you go from a pre-rational state to a fully rational state, and you were in Afghanistan at that time; I might have been on the cusp of it, but I really had that turnover in Greece. So, though Afghanistan is a part of me, I really feel I wonder if that is part of why you feel the way you do."

But my own musings do not satisfy me, because this is her mystery--so then I ask, "How did the Afghan get inside you?"

She hesitates, and says, "That is a great question. I have to think about it...I understand it now, I guess through the identification I start feeling with the people in the photographs Dad took; I have mostly the people to look at, although he took some pictures of the landscape--I tend to write about the  particular person in the picture, and I am thinking about their life, and my life, and their life there, and my life when I was there, and how we were connected at the time, but I don't really know the answer--and when I start writing about my feelings, it becomes more concrete.

"It is interesting to think about how memory works; if you read Proust?, for example, that is such an interesting explanation about how memory works; I guess memory--for me it is more uncovering a foundation that I didn't know was there, rather than a specific memory, although specific memories can be a part of that. The way I would describe my emotion about this foundation of my memories, my identity, is a certain kind of fierceness--as if I need to protect it--I don't know; it is just incredibly strong."

I wonder if it is the same fierceness I feel, though perhaps fainter and more fractured than hers, or the fierceness she recognizes in the eyes of those Afghan children, men, and women who were painted onto a slide in a sudden flash of light, captured pieces of their souls, and the soul of Afghanistan. Perhaps, like when one looks at photographs of a grandparent long gone, Marylynne recognizes herself in their eyes, recognizes that deep foundation that is contained partly within memory, but reaches much deeper, past memory, into her identity, her soul. I ask her about any specific, strong memories that come from that foundation:

"A specific memory that comes to mind, over and over again, is Mir Ali. I just feel like that was an important connection for me, and you know, it was a place where there was a lot of trauma and fear that people had--you know, pushing up against the culture, you know the risk of evangelizing, for example; I remember that overall feeling, coming also from hearing about people being killed, and the church being torn down...that stuff was very vivid, because those things were over-arching for the community we were in; and it is interesting to talk to Mom and Dad and to hear, not only Mom's more rosy approach--yes, you know that is very strong in her; it is a bulwark--but then to hear Dad's frankness about how much he disagreed with how people were doing things, and he hated the dishonesty that was often happening--and how adamant he was that Ahlman Academy wasn't a Christian school and that it was an international school; Mom will refer back to it as "Christian" and he will correct her: "It wasn't a Christian school." Yet he also says that "we were called.' Well, the idea of a calling probably changed quite a bit because of that experience--I'm not sure how it worked out for Mom."

In response, I say, "We must also look through Mom and Dad's views; we were small enough that these views were of course part of us, too, right?" 

"Yes, in terms of Dad's view, I am looking at the pictures that he is taking--as a photographer, what I know about myself is that when I pick up a camera, I don't know what I am going to get, I am searching, I am asking a question and I feel like that is what he was doing...I feel like he was investigating what it meant to be there and what a calling from God really means. That process that he was going through is very interesting to me. I write in response to this, and the most interesting piece of writing about the photographs I've done is the one where I start talking about him in the third person, and then I end the piece of writing talking in the first person, as myself, which is strange. So, I am saying about him, "He's taking this photograph, he's new, he's there, the first time he's been outside his own culture, he's asking the question" and then I'm starting to describe what is like there; I remember writing, "He has his first child" I remember writing, and then, "Everything that he left behind is changing without him, and he's changing too" and then for some reason, it turns into me, and I'm describing what it was like--yes, a few details about how I felt about being there."

When she says, "Everything he left behind" I suddenly see that small, blue-starred face in the old photograph, and I wonder if, because Marylynne felt separated from our parents the moment she was born in Afghanistan, that somehow, she was, or part of her, was also left behind and continued changing and growing there when they left in the summer of is a feeling that resonates with me, both about her and about myself; can part of your identity be left behind? Is that part of that feeling of being in exile, or long-term homesickness? Is it part of the human community, as we are all homo viator? Is St. Augustine on to the same thing in The Confessions:

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him… Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face.

What is our identity? The sum of our environments? Our sense of place? Isn't it deeper? The answer must call on the mystery of the incarnated soul, an eternal being who must be formed partially in time, in the body, by many hands, choices in time of others and ourselves, through sight, sound, smell, touch.  What happens to children who live between worlds, those we now call 'third-culture kids' of which I am one? Are we multi-steeped souls, those who, like tea bags moved from cup to cup,  are left with a tepid identity, relativists, un-rooted souls? Or are we simply steeped in a meta-cup, and become ourselves an ideal for a small world, a global reality, like the tea bag the American and British staff pinned up above the hot water in Ahlman Academy's faculty room as a joke because tea bags were not available in Afghanistan, a curiosity, an odd, in-between thing, a soul of multiple-steeping of sorts?

Or are we blessed beyond the norm, able to move between worlds, philosopher-children like Socrates who could see his own culture from the outside, and thus could see that "all I know is that I do not know"? Do we see mystery more easily, or become tepid, rootless, angst-ridden creatures, unable to know any culture? Are we those in the strange position to choose our own identities, all the while not really having the power to choose to be Afghan, or Greek, or American? Is identity really ever a choice?  Is our identity also formed in the purging fire between the ideals we form in our youth and the reality we must continue to confront as we age? What did my parents inadvertently give us, as all parents inadvertently, along with the purposeful forming, give to their children's souls? The inadvertent things, the implicit ideals passed on, are for the believer in a personal God who works "for the good of those who love Him" openings, theophanies, through which providence enters into the soul: these are all the things given us, things beyond our parents' knowledge or power or sensitivity, good things and painful things, ideals of joy and suffering, things that profoundly shape our view of the world, and shape, in a sense, our choices--perhaps they help unfold the destiny God has planned before we were born.

What all this does tell me is that the soul reaches out beyond, far beyond the body, and like a steeping tea bag, bleeds out into the surrounding water, and is also changed by that water in turn. Thus the Great Rose, the image of the Empyrean at the end of Dante's Paradisio is truth, a true poetic image that teaches us our own identities as those creatures who are made to live always within the soul of a civitas, a polis, a family, an order, whether we make that an inferno, or we live under the Creator in a purgatorio, or within Him in paradisio.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chapter 3: Beyond a Clash of Civilizations

Summer, 1966

The plane touches down at Kabul Airport. The dust rolls around lazily in the bright sun and in that intense, dry heat one finds at 6900 feet above the sea. A little dazed and bumped around, two young people descend the stairs onto the tarmac, and suddenly the mountains are changed from brown and black undulations far below to the towering sentinels that ring the high desert.

My father tells the story of their first few hours in Kabul:

"We were picked up by Ginny McCully, the principal of our school, Ahlman Academy; she needed to pick up some meat at the meat bazaar; of course neither Mom or I had ever seen a meat bazaar before--the kind of open air bazaar like that. It was our first introduction to--well, the number of flies in the country, because the butchers hung the meat outside--and of course, the flies hung out all around the meat, and on the meat. I remember Ginny McCully asking the guy for a certain cut; he pulled down a huge carcass, hit it with an axe, cut off some meat, wrapped it in some newspaper, and gave it to her. On the way out, there was blood running down the ditches--they called them 'jueys'--where the meat drained. Of course it was summer, so it was warm. Mom just lost it because she was pregnant; she ran to the car and threw up in the mail bag."

I wondered aloud to him about the wisdom or courtesy lacking in someone who would take new arrivals to Afghanistan, one of them pregnant, to the meat bazaar in Kabul. If anyone has ever been to  one of these in older parts of the world--there is still one in Athens that I remember sauntering through, about to throw up at any second--the memory of the pungent smell of dead flesh surely comes crashing in as soon as I unfold the term "meat bazaar."

"Well, you know, Ginny had been there for three or four years; when you are in a place like that, you get used to it yourself, and then you don't expect visitors to have any problem--no, I don't blame her; it was just the nature of the situation. You got used to it."

I also wondered, immediately, about how one survives in a place where the flies get first dibs on meat, a place where fruit may be covered in bacteria, and city water is definitely not safe. My father was sick a lot that first year, and he says getting infected was as simple as getting water in your eyes or mouth when you took a shower. How did they survive? How did they remedy these multi-faceted health issues?

"The meat had to be cooked for a certain amount of time in a pressure cooker; that was the safest way. Fruit you had to wash in Clorox or iodine; we got our water from a deep well at the US Aid compound. We had a big yellow container with a red top--do you remember that? It was really hard to learn--I don't know if you totally learned it--but yes, the water was bad, and of course, in the summer the air was hot and dry and there was no basic toilet system in the country, for most houses, so the general population went into alleys and did their thing. Of course that would dry and then blow up into the air in the summer. That also was a source of illness. There was just a lot of unsanitary--at least, what we would call in the West 'unsanitary conditions.'"

Of course, as I think about my young parents trying to keep themselves from getting staph infections, or amoebic dysentery, I wonder about the Afghans themselves; did they get sick?

"Well, I think though they did get sick, although their systems began to get antibodies to fight it; I think they generally were able to fight it, but that is a good question; there were a lot of eye problems in the country because they got repeated eye infections from the blowing dust. The amount of eye problems was incredible, and of course there wasn't a lot of medical help. I remember the old movies set in Europe with the slum conditions--that's kind of how it was.

"You end up having a certain cultural reaction: I remember washing my hands all time. You do things in reaction to the conditions around you. It was like going back 2000 years; it was definitely exciting, interesting, and stimulating in a sense, but you saw so much poverty and people living under what we would call terrible conditions. I'm not sure they would think so, but from my perspective, it weighed on me. From a mental standpoint, I slowly adjusted to the conditions, and we went out and explored and did many things. We were foreigners--in a very different culture from our own--and so the gap between us and the Afghans was quite large. Honestly, people tended to stay with people like themselves--foreigners and Afghans--so initially it was hard to get to know the Afghans. Our real contact with them was with people who worked for the school; if you went outside the city as a foreigner, you would get followed--not like in Russia, where we were followed by the KGB, but followed out of curiosity. It was kind of irritating, in a way. You felt your difference--but we were young, adventuresome, rode our bikes around..."

As my father speaks, memories well up in me; I remember that dust whirling around me, the flies, the small pebbles one had to watch for in the naan we'd get from the bazaar; I remember my mother buying us naan for a snack on the way home from the bazaar, as I buy my children a chocolate milk at Safeway, because the naan "was safe to eat." I took it for granted that one never picked up a piece of fruit without asking Mir Ali or Mom if it was '"okay." When my father reminds me of the yellow water tank we got from the Embassy, my nightly toothbrushing routine comes back to me in a rush: a glass given, water taken from the tank and carried upstairs, and then toothpaste on the brush, the tap dry and quiet, a symbol of danger, like a silver snake, a symbol of all that could come in and harm us. On the other hand, the beautiful noises and sounds, the gentle smiles only given across cultural and religious and political boundaries to a tiny, blonde, Western child, the delight I shared with Afghan children in color and sweet things, all draw me back.

But I also felt the abyss between us foreigners and the Afghan people. It birthed in me a lifetime hunger for communion with those who are different, because it was left largely unsatisfied there. How do you relate to people who live in a land more like Palestine at the time Jesus lived there? How do you share yourself with those who would not think it strange to see Genghis Khan or the armies of Mohammed come into the bazaar, like the dust borne along by the wind? It was an abyss, my father says, not only between material lifestyles, standards of living, technology, or religion, but something much deeper. My father says something revealing, when I ask him about the various government missions like US Aid, Christian missions, projects to build hydropower dams, roads--was any of it helping to change the country, to aid the poverty and to bridge the abyss?

"I think that the situation Afghanistan was in, is in, is the case for about 80% of the world: poverty; it is only about 20 or 25% of the world that lives with the same standard of living that we in North America and Europe live in, and even in Africa there are pockets of real wealth; but in terms of why there is this poverty around the world, this huge gap, it seems to me that it all goes back historically--you know, that is a big question--but I think the difference in our case goes back to the history of Europe. You look at the way Europe and the US developed, that is, the process by which people gained a certain freedom. Over centuries, people were able to develop--people were able to go out and start businesses, and as the modern age developed, more and more people were able to get education. People were able to improve their standard of living--even though of course we have poverty in this country--but not to the degree they had there in Afghanistan."

I ask, "So you sensed that there was a lack of freedom there inside people? What exactly was it that was missing?"

"Well, it has to do with the laws, it is the way in which the government operates; there are also the religious factors. In Afghanistan, historically, the religious groups have not allowed this freedom. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have a kind of individual freedom, whereas in Afghanistan, it was more about control, and the political aspect of it is also about control--well, almost a fear of letting people develop. It was--and is--a tribal society, and so the tribe or clan was the controlling factor, along with the religious aspects, like the strict control of the mullahs [These men are loosely comparable to parish priests, but they have almost total control over interpretation of the Qu'aran--unlike Catholic or Orthodox priests over the Bible--and thus over the daily lives of their people]. Also, people were isolated in the high mountains--so over a long period of time, they didn't break out of that tribal or religious system to create new systems, whereas in America we had immigrants coming from all over--there were different pockets of that same kind of cultural and religious control, but in general, the idea of personal freedom developed. Of course, that is a great strength, but of course, as we know, that can be a great weakness. But it is a strength in terms of development.

"But it goes deeper--in Afghanistan, in such a traditional, tribal, largely Moslem country, they had a hard time thinking in any other way. Russia was a good example--I remember in Russia, I first thought the Russians who worked for us were lazy, but actually, they wouldn't do anything unless they were told to do it--so their mentality was that 'unless I am told to do it, I won't'--so in the end there was no initiative. In a way, I found the same thing in Afghanistan; people were mentally and spiritually tied into a system. The 'baksheesh' system in Afghanistan was an example of this, and held down the poor from development as well.

"We call it bribing, but I called it 'baksheesh'--you couldn't get anywhere without money. For instance, I needed 122 signatures to get a driver's license. That seems like a bizarre amount, but the reason was that every time I got a signature I had to pay something; these amounts were small--10 Afs here, 20 Afs there--and if you had no money, you couldn't do those simple things. It inhibited development and mobility."

As a child, I did not know anything about development or mobility, except now I understand why Mir Ali would place me on the handlebars of a bike and take me round, instead of in a car; however, I did see, or sense, a lack of freedom, and at times, the wondering, piercing look at my clothes and my obvious wealth (relatively speaking).  I see now, though, the massive, thick wall of history, tradition, and culture facing my parents, facing the many attempts by foreign nations to influence and change Afghanistan. My father tells one story that highlights this difficulty. There was a customs house, held at a 'sarai' or 'caravanserai' which is a resting place for caravans; it was the customs area for the whole country: everything had to pass through here; thus, US Aid had to pass all of their supplies through this customs area, and everything was carried by the 'coolies'-- most likely the Hazara people. This was, of course, in the eyes of US Aid workers, very primitive and inefficient; at times, it was objectively cruel, because a man's back was his only means to get food, and this broke easily against the heavy loads put together in Europe on the assumption of forklifts at the receiving end in Kabul. So, US Aid bought several forklifts and shipped them to this lonely caravanserai on the edge of endless dust and sky-touching peaks; the lifts being brought in must have looked like Han Solo's space ship as it roared over Mos Eisley. However, it was all for naught: the forklifts sat in the sarai and rotted there, on the edge of infinity. They faced hundreds, even thousands, of years of tradition, an economy that was rooted in the souls of the people who made their poor living by breaking their backs. It was who they were. It was their Allah-given identity.

Which of us in the West truly understands, as deeply as an Afghan, that unity between tradition, culture, and personal identity? How long ago did our ancestors see themselves not as individuals but rather as an atom in a communal molecule, an integral part of a whole, a whole that cannot be broken without breaking the parts into unrecognizable elements?  Is it a weakness? Or a strength? Is it despair, endless poverty? Or the richness of knowing yourself by knowing your culture, your tribe, your community? Mother Teresa appears in my mind's eye, saying, "In the West, you have a poverty. It is loneliness--and this is a greater poverty than any other poverty."

How does one unwind this polarity between a fundamental, communal, ancient Eastern view and the fundamental Western development of the individual and through innovation, the bettering of the community, to find the true balance or the ideal community, the ideal culture for a human community? How to find the balance that is a moral, communal kind of freedom and is also a freedom from an evil poverty, a poverty of loneliness or one of disease, death, and fear of doing anything new? In order to find the balance, I believe, one must first recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the opposite polarity in the same way one understands the Aristotelian 'courage' once the extremes of rashness and cowardice are experienced. Further, one must be able to imagine the goodness in the other as well as the weaknesses within one's own worldview, to step outside one's own imago mundi: not as easy a task as it may seem. This must have been especially hard for those, like my parents, who would have found it very easy to assume superiority based on many outward signs, in the face of poverty and inefficiency and the suppression of whole classes of people for the sake of the tribe.

But in every culture, there are meeting points, openings in the wall that one may look through and see, finally, a kind of ideal, beauty found amidst the confusion.

Perhaps there was a place in Afghanistan which held enough beauty to draw a person out of his or her own paradigm, that kind of lingering natural beauty and a peaceful spirit left from a communal, monastical life that can astound us and allow us a glimpse of the heart into another world-view, like the solitary caves dug out, lived in, prayed in, and left, or like the enormous carvings of Buddha in the valley of Bamiyan, near the center of Afghanistan.

Whenever I ask my parents about a special place they, or we, visited, they always begin with Bamiyan. "Oh, Bamiyan...beautiful..." The valley is on what was a major route from Samarkand in the north--now in what is called Uzbekistan--the great trading post on the Silk Road, and one of the oldest inhabited cities in Asia,  and south through the Hindu Kush to India. Bamiyan is not far from Kabul, though it is said that it took a British military expedition a month to reach it from the city; the road to Bamiyan is therefore not easily passable except by strings of caravans and nomads, those able to travel in single file as needed; it is still often snow-bound in early May.

The valley is "rivers, lakes, trees" but this was perhaps done at some early date via irrigation, as the surrounding land is nearly bare of any vegetation except the very toughest sage-like plants. The contrast, then, is between the soft aspen-green and cobalt-blue of the valley, and the sand-colored, bare mountains, their contours open to all like an enormous naked person laying down, curled around the valley. Peter Levi says that the sun sets, in summer, perfectly positioned on the west end of the valley so that the light is gently, spectacularly drained out of the valley, the bare, colorless mountains receiving the gold, iridescent orange-pink, purple, and blue in full measure because of their own maximum exposure and colorlessness; the slopes become, at sunset and sunrise, perfected, perfectly open sponges or mirrors for the light as it is refracted and separated at the beginning and end of the days. The valley, like an enormous green, living carpet, becomes a place to sit and observe the sky and the light speaking to the hills and mountains, which live away from biological life in a realm all their own, a higher, more pure realm.

On the northern side of Bamiyan valley, two massive Buddhas were carved into the sand-colored cliffs; they presided over the beauty and the light, each over 100 feet high; surrounding them, like tiny courtiers, are little caves carved into the cliff, some of which provided access to the Buddhas themselves, even at the height of the faceless heads. These Buddhas were eyeless, noseless, lipless, their faces cut off when Islam swept through Afghanistan between the 8th and 10th centuries, AD, mutilated in the service of God, their graven eyes, staring across the valley, made blank to ensure there were no graven images to supplant, to compete, with the identity of a God who is beyond a human face, the all-powerful, all-seeing, Allah. My parents, and my sister and I at one point, climbed up through the caves and saw them in this condition; now, there are only gaping, empty niches in the cliffs at Bamiyan, as the statues were, finally, completely destroyed by iconoclastic Taliban leaders in 2001.

In the late 60s, the statues without faces, but having human form and feet planted firmly on the valley floor,  were halfway between the mineral meditation of the mountains and human life; they were separated from the cliff, yet part of it, more so as one reached the head without an individual face. Even in their decay, perhaps especially because of it, they were perfect symbols of the pure-to-the-point-of-harshness of Gautama Buddha. His story is one of my favorite religious stories, a reverse Cinderella story, with great parallels in thought to Socrates (they lived in time periods of close proximity), and even to Christ. A prince protected from the suffering in the outside world, he finally experienced it and his great and empathetic heart broke when he encountered the real life of his people. Giving everything up, he taught a simple message of endurance and forgetting-of-self, an ultimate transcendence of the suffering world into a higher realm of the spirit; this was done through radical retreat from the desires and draw of the world, and benevolence to others less fortunate. Like Socrates' teaching, Buddhism is more a philosophy and way of life, and less a religion; unlike Socrates, or Christianity, Buddhism does not talk about an afterlife or final judgment.

The Bamiyan Valley was an enormous monastery; people came there to practice the 8-fold path to Nirvana, or happiness; compassion and wisdom were the goals, and thus a transcendence of suffering. Most people do not think of Afghanistan as having Buddhist roots, but there was, it is said, a Buddhist king in Bamiyan as late as the 10th century A.D.. It was a communal place, where the self is forgotten, and individual gains or exploits were, simply, not the goal, in service of a higher goal--of a happiness that comes from serving others, from a wisdom that comes from receptivity and experience of compassion in community. The monks who slowly carved out beautiful arches and ceilings in the cliff-caves meditated and fasted and gave up everything else, except the light of the sun passing through their valley, the refreshment of the rivers and the simple produce of the valley. It must have been something to see, if ever anyone from the outside got there before it was overrun--first by Islam, then Genghis Khan, who is supposed to have killed everyone in the valley after his grandson was killed at the Bamiyan fort--and later again by Islam.

I often wonder if the Buddhist, or tribal religions, all of which came before Islam in the 8th century AD, and their radically communal way of life which is more like a bee hive than anything else--hold within them at least part of the ideal for human community. To know oneself as a community, to not know oneself outside of it, holds something deeply beautiful and comforting to the human heart. If we imagine human beings without sin, or greed, human beings who always acted within the will of God, would we not naturally form ourselves into a unified body? I think of my own heartbreak at the failures in unity within the communities I have lived. I think of historical political philosophies, which always, always hold moral and religious content couched in the nature of an organic body--they indeed are external signs of religious belief about ultimate things--such as the political body that Plato and Socrates understood, such as Christendom and the Body of Christ, such as the more modern and radical philosophies of Hobbes' Leviathan, and finally this deep human concept broken apart in the new radically individualistic conceptions of both religion and politics. Has the West left something behind, something essential, even as it has developed important areas of social justice and innovation, raising millions out of material poverty?

I see now in a more layered way the tension I felt being in Afghanistan as a small child; the acceptance of the beggar by the roadside, 'the way things are,' was, in a sense, a deep way of life that I experienced as tragic. In many ways, it was; the understanding of the person in relationship with a personal, loving God--the center of all--was missing, and all the social justice and care that comes from that simple truth; but the endurance and patience, the radical attempt at acceptance and humility, the tightly-woven nature of the community, had and has a depth I am just beginning to understand, along with the certain kind of wisdom this produces. It is a strange conglomeration that is shown so dramatically in the landscape and culture of Afghanistan, that mixture of cruelty and beauty, depth just off the mark of the deepest kind of love, but depth nonetheless, the radical receptivity, even to the point of accepting cruelty as part of life, of Babur.

My father's experience reflects this. As we speak about the culture clash between Western aid organizations, political entities, missions such as the one my parents worked within, and the Afghan, Eastern, nomadic, tribal cultures, he says, "There was a mentality that was if you are a Muslim, then you are Afghan; there isn't a separation of church and state, so the religion is the tribe, it is your identity. An Afghan cannot remain Afghan as a Christian, so if you convert as an Afghan, you become a traitor to your tribe, to your family. You are no longer who you were. You are a non-person. That is the mentality, it was that also at the time--that radical identity between who you are and who you are expected to be, whereas in the West, you can be many different things and be a German, or especially an American."

I say, "Then people coming into Afghanistan and trying to evangelize must have been extremely difficult."

"Yes. It was because you are encountering a whole mentality in terms of people's identity, and so forth, and so the message you are giving is not seen in the same way you are giving it."

I say, "So the underlying propositions underneath language can be completely different?"

"Yes. So typical--even with US Aid, like that story with the unused forklifts. The whole system was built such that the new machines, meant to help, would actually destroy a whole way of life, a community. This system that they were in was very limiting, in terms of what people could do to advance themselves, and it was very difficult to move from one situation to another, once you were born into something. We have some of that, of course, in the West--I mean, think of England--but most Western countries have more opportunities and generally a higher standard of living--so communicating through these foundational differences was difficult."

Another foundational difference, or proposition I have wondered about is the proverbial "Life is cheap in the East." I asked my dad about this.

"I think it was cheap was because so many--maybe half--the babies died before two years old; so, people expected that. Life was not valued as highly as it was in the West; they would have a lot of children because they wanted to have enough to end up with some children. Speaking of large families, we went to a wedding in Mir Ali's family, and we knew a wealthy Afghan family who invited us over; but generally, we didn't have much opportunity to get to know them, because the gap between our standard of living and theirs was so enormous, along with the different understanding of communication itself, so it was difficult to mix. For this same reason, again, it was also difficult to evangelize; proselytizing was actually illegal and dangerous for us, and also for the Afghans. We were there to serve with our lives but not to outwardly try and proselytize.

"And then, sometimes we just did dumb things culturally. Once, I got on an Afghan bus and I was wearing shorts; all the men were pointedly staring at my legs, so I quickly got off the bus. That was very insensitive on my part, but there were many fantastic people who were there to serve; we knew a couple of astute ambassadors, and the Friesens who ran an important eye hospital, the Blumhagens--also doctors--and Colonel Norrish, who had been in the British Army in India in previous years; he was at that point the head of the International Afghan Mission, which coordinated all the different medical work in the country.

"Politically, the Western embassies were there because Afghanistan has always been an important passageway from Central Asia to the Indian Subcontinent; at that time you had the Russians--the Soviet Union was in expansion mode-- and so the Western countries had made friends with Pakistan, Iran, India, to keep the Soviet Union in check and Afghanistan bordered these places; therefore it was, as it has been for centuries, an important piece in the game. So the embassies were there to look after their country's interest and the geo-political interests in terms of what their country was trying to do. Conversely, Afghanistan had also been a worry for Russia for decades, as even the Tsars in the 19th and early 20th centuries had been worried about the British moving against them from India through Afghanistan. Both Russia and Britain had been, thus, for decades, even more than a century, trying to influence the Afghan government, and in the 60s and 70s, the players had changed as the global players had changed: it was then largely the American-Russian competition to influence whatever  Afghan government there was--since 80% of the tribes did not know they were even part of a larger country with borders. So the two nations would provide aid for infrastructure, education, medical help; the Americans built the road between Kabul and Kandahar, and built the Helman Dam, and did a lot in education; the Russians trained the military and built the Kabul Airport; then the Americans built the airport in Kandahar; and the Russians built the road through one of the highest passes in Afghanistan. One can see the typical diplomatic tit-for-tat principle, here, and the Afghans would also, at the time we were there, play off the Americans against the Russians, and in so doing, would get things from both governments, and from the British, too. The Afghans were smart about getting all this.  So you have had all this intrigue going on, called 'The Great Game' and at the time we were there, it changed to the game of the Cold War. But once the king, Zahir Shah was deposed, the whole thing fell apart. The Game changed again.

"Afghanistan has never been conquered, however, because of the tribes--the loyalty, and their isolation. Also, the high mountain passes and harsh climate are elements of this. One can't quite get a handle on it, militarily. So much of the traveling is kind of no-man's land; it was beautiful country, in a way, but certainly there were places you didn't want to stop in. It was dangerous. But--you just did things. I never felt frightened; we were used to being careful, to taking precautions. There could have been danger, but I didn't know it."

In January of 1967, my mother gave birth to my older sister, Marylynne, in the American Embassy dispensary. My parents dealt with all the newness of a new baby, along with the foreignness of Afghanistan, as they taught classes and shopped, and tried to keep warm in the frigid temperatures of winter. In the spring of 1968, my mom found out she was pregnant again, and as their contract ended with the school that June, they decided to go back to the US. My sister began her existence in the US, and was born in Kabul; I began mine in India or Afghanistan, and was born in the US. We would all return, for a second tour, in 1971.

Their journey home from this first tour, in the summer of 1968, turned out to be yet another cultural journey; sometimes the journey back, once you've been changed, means another cultural shift.

This is perfectly summed up in the adventure at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

"We went through Uzbekistan; we flew from Kabul and went up to Moscow; then by train to East Berlin, on our way to West Berlin. We got out at a huge station, but it was empty--totally quiet; we realized this was not West Berlin: We had got off the train in East Berlin at the wrong station, and so we were in the Communist sector, and we didn't have visas. We went out front and there was a taxi there, you know, one of those old Russian Lada-type cars, and I only knew how to say "Checkpoint Charlie." The driver took us within a few blocks; he couldn't go any closer. So, we walked the rest of the way with our bags to the guardhouse on the East German side. We put our passports through this little slot in the wall, and then this East German guard came out and asked, "Was maschst du hier?" Fortunately, we had Marylynne, so we looked fairly innocent. He asked where we'd been, and I told him we'd come from Moscow. He quipped, "How did you do that?" and then waved us through. We had to walk through a kind of cement gauntlet, all fenced in so people couldn't drive across the Wall area. We got to the West Berlin side; there was a big Marine, an American who came out of the gate in the wall on the other side to meet us. I walked up to him and held out my passport; he looked at it and said, 'Welcome home.'"

My father's voice quavers as he says this, and even after all these years, I can still feel and experience the relief the little family experienced, small in the cement and barbed-wire realm where ideologies clashed and people died trying to escape communism. He laughs, and continues, "So we went and got in a Mercedes taxi; East Germany had been almost sterile--absolutely quiet and kind of empty, but West Berlin was like New York City; the contrast was unbelievable. We went to The Ambassador Hotel; someone in Afghanistan had told us it was reasonably priced. It turned out to be a first class hotel. They took us up to the room; there was chocolate on the pillows, and bubble-bath in the bathroom."

He is reliving this moment, this sudden turn from East to West, this microcosm of a larger contrast. I can almost see them, feel him darting around the room, delighting in soap and chocolate and water one didn't have to be afraid of, while my mother, pregnant, sits down with heaviness on the soft bed.

"Mom wanted a ham sandwich and a banana--because she couldn't have ham in a Moslem country. The doorbell rang; in wheeled this cart with a white table cloth, silver dome plate tops, the works; the waiter pulled up the top and there was the ham sandwich and a banana. We were in reverse culture shock.

"When we got back to California, I remember going into a grocery store and seeing forty different kinds of cereal; in Afghanistan, you could only buy cornflakes. It was kind of shocking; I thought to myself, 'This is why we have insane asylums in the West, because people have to make too many decisions.' In this country, you've got all these decisions to make, and you can begin to lose your identity; in Afghanistan, there was--is--all this poverty, an inability to change, but you knew who you were."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Chapter 2: The Light Garden

This highway of archangels,
this theatre of heaven, 
the light garden of
the Godforgiven angel king

These words are Afghanistan; they are from the great Babur's point of view, and those who loved him and feared him, and caused these words, among other pure, stark words, to be cut into the grey marble of his tomb outside Kabul. Zahuriddin Mahomed, or Babur, the founder of the Moghul Dynasty in India, one of the many warlike prince-descendents of Tamburlaine, loved this city nestled among barren hills, 6900 feet above sea level, the city which lays like a snow leopard in a high valley, unaware of the harshness of its habitat. He made it his retreat, the place of his heart, in the early 16th century, after having lost his father's kingdom: Kabul became the moment, the turning point, of his life, as from this conquest he was able to move upon India and establish one of the great political and cultural dynasties of the world, a golden age of India. 

Perhaps if there is a soul of Afghanistan, and Kabul in particular, it is that of Babur. The young British Jesuit, Peter Levi, traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1960s and I am indebted to him for his poetic soul and his classically-trained mind which found a kin in Babur. Levi includes excerpts from Babur's writing, and lauds his "innocent objectivity." Levi continues, "There is no invisible influence of a classical literary form as there is for example in the narratives of Julius Caesar, and there is no popular technique like those of Herodotus, there is not even any influence of epic...for Babur's individual sensibility there is no analogy...Babur is not like anyone else. His morals are conventional although notably kindly. He violently disapproves of the practice of keeping catamites, hates betrayal and cruelty and hates talking about them at length, admires princely virtues and human accomplishments with a personal intensity. But what makes him tick seems to be a rooted passion for everything that grows, and for all the qualities and products of gardens...other princes of his time wrote poems and had fine gardens, but his taste was bred more in the desert than theirs, his devoted planting of fruit-trees and roses and big plane trees, at difficult moments and at every moment in his life, is, as far as I know, unique...he remembered an individual apple tree he once sat under for as many years as his first lost battle" (Levi 2000, 23-25). 

Babur seemed to be a man of contrasts; deep, rich, fruit and stark, hard fighting and living. For example, in his autobiographical writings, he describes a moment of justice with simple, harsh objectivity:

He put him a few questions but got no good answer. Indeed Darwesh Muhammed's was a deed for which no good answer could be given. He was ordered to death. In his helplessness he clung to a pillar of the house; would they let him go because he clung to a pillar? They brought him to doom, and ordered Ali Mirza to the Greek Sarai there to have the firepencil drawn across his eyes. 

Conversely, he describes his father's death in a landslide with poetic, Eastern delicacy:

It has been mentioned that the castle of Akhsi is above the ravines; the king's house is on a ravine. The Mir flew from the mountainside with his pigeons and the house of his pigeons, and he became a hawk.

Around the grey marble pavilion just outside Kabul where Babur rests, in a forgotten garden of mulberry and enormous plane trees, the hills of Kabul stood silent, staring down at the city of the late 60s, with its wide, tree-lined avenues and timber-frame, clay-and-stone houses creeping up the hillsides. Retreating 400 years farther back, I imagine Babur, thundering forward, one with his horse the way the Afghan nomads are still, out of his Kabul palace to meet a Chinese merchant laden with gifts for him: a robe of silk, dyed in rich pinks and blues, with silken, voluptuous chrysanthemums embroidered in a ordered pattern. I see him delighting in the color and the flowers and wearing it along with his Moghul cap and his curved sword at his side; he is a rainbow, a garden, in the midst of the ochre dust and the sky that fell in pieces as lapis lazuli, strewn among the dun rocks and the volcanic lakes. 

This great man seems to me to reflect, to pull together into one person, my scattered memories of the soul of Afghanistan; it is, was, a strange conglomeration of danger and dignity, fruitfulness in word and culture, and a certain, barren forgotten state; the forgotten, untended, almost wild garden of Babur's tomb that Levi describes, where the guards lazily picked mulberries and slept in the summer but might have raged at you if a line of respect was crossed, encapsulates it in part. The rich, methodical, ardent, yet stark Islamic call to prayer from thin minarets still stirs my soul; I still carry the wounds in my soul from the helpless look I shared at eye-level with a sitting beggar: I, the helpless child, he the helpless old man; I still remember the callouses on his feet and the dun dust that was everywhere in Kabul, clinging to the sores and creavases that mottled his leather-skin. I remember the rich smells of naan and curry mixed with urine and offal in the bazaar, and the magical day in summer, when the land was all that Babur, that desert-bred nature-lover could have wished, laden with green aspens and enormous yellow sunflowers and blood-red poppies and cerulean sky, when I drank sweet, rich tea in a clay and stone one-room house. 

Afghanistan: a crossroads of many highways only the bodiless, sexless archangels can travel comfortably; Afghanistan, of the high Himalayas hiding the ancient peoples cautiously mixing in the streets of Kabul, a microcosm of the world after the Tower of Babel, that ruined theatre of heaven; Afghanistan, where truly, light grows, the roots of light, falling, growing down in pure, unseen form like a being morphing from spiritual to embodied as it becomes pregnant with the water of lower lands and implants itself in the rich soils beyond, south and north and east and west, India, Russia, China, Iran. 

In my life since my beloved Mir Ali, my surrogate grandfather, bade me promise to return someday, I cautiously peer for images of Afghanistan on the internet, or in books, the way I look at a healing wound; I probe them cautiously and feel the blood coursing underneath the scab, ready to break free again if I probe too hard. Why? The pain, the grief is real; I met Afghanistan, meet her, in Mir Ali's delicately wrinkled, dark, gentle yet firm hands, with their slightly long fingernails, carefully lifting me up onto the front of a bike the way one would lift a jeweled crown, in the closed, dark stares from strained and sad eyes I saw almost daily, in the government-ordered wreckage of my parents' church, in the stately and impossibly beautiful gardens of the British Embassy, in the proud poverty of paint-crusted buildings and bombed out shells of places of which I have shadowy memories, and later in the dignified yet humiliated, desperate faces of women staring out from international magazines about broken human rights.

I compare the writing of Babur, the thoughts of his heart and mind, as Peter Levi describes them so beautifully, with other autobiographical works of leaders and travelers Levi mentions, like Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars and the Greek Herodotus' Histories, and there is something that comes to me from that comparison which captures the essence of Afghanistan, that ancient nation of crossroads. Julius Caesar, that distilled Roman, strong and heady, writes with a direct style at times like Babur, but without the true, humble objectivity born from being one with a horse in the high, wild desert, not just surviving but also reverencing, respecting, and relishing the land only angels can conquer. Herodotus writes as an Oriental Greek, full of that morality of twists and turns, writes like a many-spindled vine creeping up the trunk of a tree, while Babur delights in simplicity and rejoices in the vine and the fruit-tree from the years in the verdure-poverty of the high-mountain passes full of bandits and forgotten, desolate valleys. To me, Afghanistan is this simplicity and sometimes harshness, almost rage, at the heat and the cold; she is the starkness of Ariel, "the god of the others," her eastern part named without forgiveness, "Kafiristan" (land of the unbelievers) by the arrow-straight people of Allah; she is all of this coupled with impossibly wine-laden air in the spring and early summer, rich rice dishes laden with the joyful and sweet bright orange carrots and purple raisins, the plethora of multi-colored coats sold in the bazaar that could easily have been Joseph's 'coat of many colours,' the intricate delicacy of Miralee's inflected Farsi. She is the horror of the bloated skin of a sheep standing against the sky, holding milk or curd coupled with the dance-in-stone of the delicate arches of enlightened Islamic architecture. She is the beauty of the horsemen, fluid like water and exuding that gold-ringing joy of battle as they play Buzkashi with the limp, broken body of a goat. She is wild beauty edged always with the resignation to an ever-present, faded distress and fear, a primitive resignation my young Western soul railed against one night when I watched the lightning from the mountains mercilessly attack the helpless flat roofs and pitiable attempts at technology haphazardly perched on the rat-a-tat buildings. 

Yet, like Babur,  in my direct child's way, I have loved Kabul; I cannot bear to see her now, but I must remember that ever has Afghanistan been the transitory crossroads of the East, ever has she been thus a target for empires; ever thus has she been a battleground; never has she been conquered. Some of her ancient peoples live in places still only accessible by foot, and her mountains and people have repelled all attempts to conquer her, from the incessant, intrepid Ancient Greeks to the most recent bomb-heavy Russians and Americans. Only Babur conquered her, and perhaps because he loved her, because he was Kabul, the way we become something or someone we love. 

Afghanistan was, and is, home to four identifiable groups: the aforementioned, most-ancient Kafiristanis, now Nuristani people (renamed as 'enlightened' after their forced conversion to Islam not long before the 60s)--Peter Levi says that "their territory is a tangle of high mountains only accessible by foot"; the more Semitic Tajiks who were once the peasants of the Persian Empire in what is now Eastern Iran; the most recent addition, the Hazaras, eastern Turks whom Levi calls "the labourers who would do tasks done by animals elsewhere in the world"; the Uzbeks from the Russian border, with their "sweeping mustaches," the finest riders in a nation of riders, fabled at the time Levi wrote to be the richest men in Afghanistan; finally, the ruling class, the Afghans, the Pathans, with their characteristic serious, dark, proud, and sometimes benevolent expression. 

In 1966, when my parents, clinging onto the wooden folding chairs and watching the oranges shifting uncomfortably in their crates by the open cargo door, touched down at Kabul Airport, this was the place and the people they came to serve; Afghanistan had its modern borders and a khan, or shah, who did not quite rule but rather managed a delicate tension between the different tribes, some of whom would not recognize or have been aware of political boundaries at all; the politics and boundaries could be suddenly, violently changed like the turning of the wind or a landslide touched off by an errant boulder. Afghanistan looked like a leaf on the political map my parents studied as they traveled, but they had yet to see the complicated veins and changing, bright colours of this fall leaf they found laying on the earth.

Work Cited:

Levi, Peter. The Light Garden of the Angel King: Travels in Afghanistan with Bruce Chatwin. London: Pallas Athene, 2000. 

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Barrels Have Already Gone, Chapter 1

1: "I Am Going to See the World"

The old steel barrels, about four feet tall with mysterious shipping numbers spray-painted on them, are like ancestors to me; they sit in the basement of my parents' home on Orcas Island, silent sentries on the memory-door of wild lands in Southeast Asia, the wild lands of my childhood, the top sealing levers on those barrels like guardians of the past, only moveable by my dad's strong arms. On slow summer days when we are visiting my parents, I sometimes sneak away from the younger generation and seek the past. I ask Dad to open the barrels, and we unpack them like Christmas presents; they are full of memory-sacramentals wafting out mothball scent: Afghan burkas floating out like angel-wings; hand-woven turban caps embroidered in orange and red thread, winking with tiny mirrors woven into their rope-like fabric; Greek flocati rugs, whispering that they remember my once-small hands creating patterned-partings in their copious goat-hair; fret-patterned cloth from the mountains in Northern Greece, and pottery from Bulgaria. I listen to my parents asking each other, “Where did we get this?” and “Remember when we went to Mazar-i-Sharif and found this?”

My own memories are fractured, like the small mirrors in the turban caps, flash-sights of a larger, deeper picture, a narrative of our life overseas; from my child's point-of view, I cannot tell the story the way he can. So, I asked my Dad to use his strength of sight to open the deeper barrels held within the steel ones, the barrels of narrative and memory, the love and suffering that we experienced, from within and from without our family.

We sat down this morning, in Lander, Wyoming—which oddly enough, echoes the terrain of my first home in Afghanistan, for in Kabul, like Lander, the aspens flutter in the breeze, and the mountains tower on the periphery of sight, stone and snow giants overlooking sweet and gentle valleys like parents over children, over the harsh high desert, the land like the surface of the moon. I asked my dad to go back, back to the days, the inception-moments, of his choice to go somewhere like Afghanistan in 1966 with a young wife and child on the way.

Somewhat shy, but more talkative and open as he ages, my Dad is opened up by my interest.

My father, Kenneth John Wrye, was born in Olympia, Washington in 1944; his Wrye-roots are only known via a fatherless pioneer, Francis Wrye, who followed the northern trail across the country from Missouri to Tacoma, a man who fathered fifteen children (11 of them boys), a man who worked his way across America in the late 1800s as a farm labourer, carpenter, and miner. My father's paternal grandmother was born to a woman who immigrated from Denmark; she traveled across the Atlantic alone and across America alone; on the other side, his maternal great-grandfather left home at fourteen, left a family struggling with a father in debtor's prison, became a merchant marine, made the the trip around South America and began a successful feed and seed business in Tacoma, Washington; finally, my father's maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Wales.

By the time my father was born, during WWII, both sides of his family had been settled in Washington for over fifty years. They were building businesses and the community; they were creating culture in their adopted land: Thus, unlike his forebearers, my father did not travel much growing up. He describes a moment, when he was about twelve or thirteen: “My grandparents, and everybody, were sitting in our living room in Olympia. I came down, and for some reason said, 'I'm going to see the world.' They all laughed—I mean it was supportive, but they laughed. So I have no idea where that came from, but it stayed with me—I mean, I said it, they laughed, and I thought, 'I'm going to show them.' I had no other reason.”

What he doesn't say, in this peaceful and golden moment together in my Lander kitchen, is that his family was struggling and would struggle with difficulties far beyond the norm; the thirteen-year-old did not know that at eighteen, he would be dealing with a father's mental illness, and would have to—emotionally--take over the family. Even at thirteen, he was struggling with un-diagnosed dyslexia and his family was often struggling and none were college graduates; thus, to me, the steps leading up to the silver bird from a tarmac, on the way to the world, were the last rungs in a ladder that began many years before. Perhaps this first “I'm going to see the world” was an expression of adventure, of a wider dream than the norm, of another form of pioneering and discovery that he inherited from his ancestors; perhaps it was simply the drive to find his identity beyond what was handed to him. From his stories over the years, I have an image of him at just eighteen getting in his yellow '49 “leaded in the back” Chevy “the very night I graduated from high school, the last time I lived at home” and driving in the night, while his friends partied with family and friends and savoured their last summer at home, to Seattle to work so that he could pay for college. He would be the first in his family to go to a four-year institution. It was the first step, though he didn't know it as he drove into the night, pulling around the last corner, his home slipping out of sight for the last time.

That summer, in the midst of trying out his own wings, he had to return and commit his father to a mental institution, and he visited him there every week; he has recounted before, to me, a day when his father sadly told him that he'd been put in solitary confinement for smoking. The quiet suffering and humiliation of his father still registers in my dad's kind hazel eyes, and he cries when he talks about it. This experience did not break him or make him too afraid to stretch into life; it says something important about the man who would, eventually, build, or run, or heal educational institutions all over the world. It did not break him—and not because he did not feel, or because he ignored or denied the pain of another or himself. He took it in but saw beyond it to his father's dignity and humanity no matter what, just as he saw beyond disorder and pain in people, institutions, and lands, to the hope in what could be done, practically and with prayer. He was already a man, at eighteen, who had begun to live St. Augustine's exhortation to “pray because all depends on God; act as though all depends on you.” Of course, at eighteen, he did not have the depth of spiritual sight he would gain, but his spirit ever had hope in the Good; “It'll all work out” is his simple expression of this wellspring of hope and faith. So, at the end of that summer, his father still in the hospital but improving, he was able to take the yellow Chevy across the barren places of Eastern Washington and matriculate at Whitworth College in the fall of 1962.

“I did well; surprisingly well—which is surprising, because I got in by the skin of my teeth,” he laughs. His eyes light up again when he describes meeting my mother, who is, as always, deftly, gently, moving around the kitchen behind him and reminding him of words and moments. “We were working in the student union, and I was in the back working while she was in the front flirting with all the guys who came in.”

“Oh, Ken, I was not.”

“We never dated anyone else, did we dear?”

He also knows how to be diplomatic in tight places.

In common my parents shared a desire to see the world, to serve—it was a draw to adventure and service. My mother's mother had dreamed of being a missionary, and both my parents had listened to many missionaries speaking to their respective churches, and so 'service' meant, to both of them, fulfilling Christ's Great Commission. But my father does not speak of a 'clear sight' or a laser-like knowledge of what he wanted to do. He says frankly, over and over, “I didn't really know what we were supposed to do.” As I live, I begin to understand him; he lived in the moment and was more open to it, to the possibilities in each rich, grace-laden moment, looking for God there; so it was for my mother and right from the beginning of their meeting: she, a well-known pastor's daughter and two years older, agreed to go out with a young and penniless boy from a struggling family. She wanted, even more amazingly, not to lead him out of her more cultured status, but rather to support him and follow him: she trusted him, and she is a sharp woman. She saw something. She saw a rare mixture of risk-taker and honor, of courage and care.

After marriage, when my father was finishing his teaching courses, they went to a talk given on campus one evening by the missionaries, the Drs. Blumhagen, who were looking for young couples to teach in a mission school in Kabul, Afghanistan. When my father finished his teaching credential and graduated, they signed a contract, packed all they had in those shipping barrels which now sit in their basement, and watched them loaded on a truck bound for a ship in San Francisco, a ship that would take the barrels containing their worldly possessions across the Pacific and then transported overland, perhaps on a tough and ancient truck decorated with mirrors and evil eyes within an inch of its life, from a port in India or Pakistan and then up over the Khyber Pass through the highest, most ancient, mysterious, mountains in the world, the Himalayas, to the high desert plain upon which lay Kabul. The barrels would be deposited either at the American embassy, an enormous compound surrounded by gardens, tennis courts, and a swimming pool, or at Ahlman Academy, the Christian k-12 school where they were contracted to teach. The barrels would wait for them there, taking weeks to get there, and weeks waiting, as my parents made their way slowly across Europe and the Middle East—Scotland, Germany, Greece, and Lebanon.

Just after the barrels left on their journey to the ends of civilization and the other side of the earth, they found out that my mother was pregnant with my older sister.

I look at my dad, knowing now as a mother of three, just what that meant. He looks at me, and at my mother, and says, “The barrels were already gone.” My mother nods. I think to myself: Would I have, at twenty two and twenty-four, backed out? Or would I have gone? Was it ignorance, selfishness, the naivete of youth? Or something else about them? Do I share in whatever that is? I am of a different culture from my own parents; the culture they gave me, a result of their choice to follow the barrels, was not their own culture. Not only am I not strictly American, I also see the world differently because my sister and I began life in the midst of a tribal, foreign, Muslim culture, with all its intricate and simple beauty, and in a politically unstable and dangerous land. So I cannot answer my own question. Nevertheless, they followed the barrels—this may sound like a bad reason to go, and I do not know what I'd have done, but it was of course more than that. It is something about they mystery of God's call on a life; as Thomas Merton says to the Lord, “I do not know, Lord, if I am going the right way; all I know is that I desire to please you, and I hope that my in my desire to please you will be with me, will make my way straight.” Perhaps this is the doorway to an answer about the mystery of their choice, and what mine might have been: It is, in a sense, offered again and again to each of us, through the myriad experiences of our lives, and through the mystery of a personal God who calls in His ways, the ways that are beyond our understanding yet take us, our experiences, our pains and joys, our mistakes, our sins, our dreams, into account. It is the work of omniscient love.

My father says, “I didn't know what exactly we were doing, but we were called. We were called.”

They traveled the opposite direction the barrels had gone; they flew to New York, and then to Edinburgh where they met my mother's parents then living in Scotland, and where my father played his first-ever round of golf—at St. Andrews. One's first game of golf at the Mecca of golf! This is typical of my fairy-dusted father: from often getting bumped into first class, to running into many fascinating and famous people, he has certain magic following him. Fairy dust aside, though, my father was fulfilling his statement, his challenge to his parents and grandparents, that he would see the world. His first taste of that world, Europe in 1966, was not yet in the aftershocks, the cultural nuke clouds with a life of their own, of the Summer of '68; it still had that tweed-plaid keds feel, and one could hear soft, far-off echoes in cafes and museums of the cerebral but passionate intellectual and spiritual revolutions of the artists and thinkers of the 19th century overlaid with the plasticine, bouyant positivism which burst forth after the horrors of two wars. Technology (stuff we would now laugh derisively at, or pay high prices for based on retro-style value) and tradition jostled for place still relatively amicably in the West; my parents carried a transformer in their baggage ( Afghanistan was on a 220 system—and the barrels had already left), and flew in sleek prop airplanes. However, the transformer weighed twenty-five pounds. “Stupid,” was what my Dad says, an apt reflection of all the back-aches and nonsense it caused. In the years that followed, my parents would witness the massive changes, the consequences, and underbelly of the late 60s and the 70s. They would live for five years at the bitter end of the Hippie Trail that frayed, finally, in the traditional Muslim and opiate -heavy contradiction that was Afghanistan. 

I asked him how it felt to be on that first airplane soaring out of the United States. He said, “Well, I was a little shocked; I mean, I was sitting next to a Scotsman who was speaking English to me, but an English I couldn't understand. It was strange.” This tells me about his state, and his experience: he had never pondered the fact that others who spoke his language might actually not be understandable; he'd never experienced anything beyond his own. It is one thing to know about cultural differences and the variety out in the world; it is another thing to live with them. This process of culture shock got progressively more intense: His journey out to see the world went from Scotland, where they spoke a foreign English, to another Western nation, Germany, where they didn't speak English, to the gateway, the liminal place between East and West—Athens, where “it really got strange.”

In his memory, Athens of 1966 comes alive again: poor, dirty, lively; I ask him why the first taste of East, in general, presented itself this way—a richness in tradition, a depth of culture and beauty intermixed with the masses of the desperately poor and the elite classes. He thinks, as carefully as ever, with that strange mix of slight irreverence and deeper empathy, and says, “In Greece, and probably in many Muslim countries, it has to do with the religion. In Greece, for example, the Orthodox church had at that time—and still does, in many ways—a real hold on the politics and culture, and they are of course focused on maintaining tradition. This is what they see as the foundation for the maintenance of religion, culture and morals, and this creates a cultural, innate suspicion of change. Traditionally, societies in the East had an elite or upper class and a larger class of poor, and so changing that with those cultural attitudes was—is—difficult for them. They also do not see a black line between state and church, politics and faith. Religion is communal primarily, not private. This also changes how they see individuals and rights.”

When we were in Greece last, my parents showed me the little hotel they had stayed in on that long ago foray into the unknown, in the Plaka neighborhood just off the archaeological digs and remnants of the Roman era in Greece, and just below the towering cliff-walls of the Acropolis. I imagined them, just kids really, with one on the way, looking wondrously at this ancient city and the centuries which, in that Greek way, did not only, stonily, look down on them, but invited them into that past to become heir to it, to own, to celebrate it. They must have felt somewhat small and new in the face of such heavy and exhilarating cultural wine and I imagine my father in the night, laying next to my mom who had just fainted in a taverna, hoping upon faith, saying to himself, “It'll all work out” and then flopping over sideways on the bed in the Athens heat, falling deeply asleep. This reminds me that my father shares a practical spirituality with Julian of Norwich, who would say, “All will be most well.” In the years of my life, I have often wondered concerning both my father and Julian, where is the line between Pollyanna-ism (the bad kind—well, I actually like Pollyanna, so I guess I'll revise to say 'blind optimism') and the Hope that is the well-spring of the Holy Spirit and thus deeply realistic? The proof, as I'll say, comes after the pudding has been spilled, cleaned up, re-made over and over, wrecked in the oven, re-made yet again, and is what you finally see and taste from a long-term chef—the kind that was Julian of Norwich and is my father. We know our beginnings, our meetings, our first and primary hopes and dreams, more and more intimately as life goes on, as we suffer; we meet ourselves, our real selves more and more intensely, and our hopes and small virtues and our vices are judged sometimes harshly, sometimes mercifully, by our deeper knowledge of them as we circle around again to the same lessons. My father now laughs with that young man he was, and is, and cries for him, and mainly has mercy on him. He has not grown bitter as he knows himself better, through all that was both sweet and bitter.

But in that hotel room in Athens, that young man was just starting out in the school of hope, and their journey to its first tough lesson, Afghanistan, still had one more step. They stopped in Lebanon, like Athens a gateway between East and West, but in a different way. Beruit, particularly, my dad says, was “spy heaven.” In other words, this was a major meeting ground of political forces, because a major pipeline—perhaps in those days, the major oil pipeline—snaked its way out of the infinitude of sand and was loaded in barrels on ships heading for the West. Thus, in this new age of burgeoning transportation and machines for all, the pipelines were essential, and the tenacious balance of political forces which have historically since ancient times erupted, that cyclical conflict between Abraham and Ishmael, between Jews and Arabs, between Rome and the East, the Church and Islam, between the newly secular West and the traditional East, was intensely present in Beirut. In this swirling city, they stayed with a daughter of friends who had taught at a college for Christian missionaries; the daughter had married a Lebanese Christian named Benzih Nadjim. His job was to monitor the oil pipelines coming out of Iran and Iraq to Sidon, on the Lebanese coast; he worked for a company that was in charge of the end of those pipelines and had to monitor for sabotage.

Dad says, “They had a lovely home, and took us down to the Mediterranean.”

“You were easing into Afghanistan, then, huh?”

He laughs. “I guess so. I bought Mom an 18-karat-gold watchband; I don't know why I did it, but somebody told me to buy gold in Beirut, so I did. I went to the gold bazaar; I still have it, and of course I forgot what I paid for it...” He puts a phantom watch around his wrist, and I see him doing the same as he wandered about in the gold bazaar and practiced his new bargaining skills. “ then we got on the plane; it was Ariana Afghan Airlines out of Beirut.”

My mom interrupts, “We called it 'Scariana Afghan Airlines'—three frights a week.”

I say, “But at that moment, you didn't know this; you were thinking, 'Oh look, we're on an Afghan flight. Can't be too bad if they have an airline. Cool.”

Dad laughs, “Yes. Well. This was a DC prop-plane, and we got into it, and they had these wooden, fold-out chairs backed up against the wall with seatbelts; they had the door open—the cargo door was open with a mesh across it, with stacks of orange crates up against the mesh, oranges they were bringing back from Lebanon. It was a five-hour flight and they served us an orange. From the stash.”

Again, I have that stomach-pit feeling, that question arise: Would I have got on that flight once I saw they'd tried to mix seatbelts with wooden folding chairs? I mean, doesn't that presage a whole frame of mind that is suspect? What were the Afghans thinking? What were my parents thinking? Poor Marylynne, my sister, who was blissfully unaware—or maybe that's why she is so acci--

My Dad is happily continuing: “The interesting thing about that flight was that we were flying along these really high mountains, and it was like—brown—no trees—and down there were these little villages, and there were these lines—I mean, there was a little village, and then a line across the land, and then a kind of hole in the ground, and another line and a hole in the ground, and then a line, and a hole...we learned later that they took water out of the high mountains and they ran the water along these lines, into the cisterns—they created these tunnels and then a well, tunnel and well, and so on. It was so dry, and I thought to myself two things: one, that—well, because I came from a country of trees, I had never been out of the trees and the green. So I looked down there and I thought, 'This is really bizarre. There are no trees down there on these mountains'—I mean, there wasn't a tree. It looked like the moon. And the second thought was, 'What are we doing? Are we crazy?'”