My Afghan Friends
Let me introduce my Afghan friends the Khans. They are a family who live in a more affluent suburb of Kabul. The time is the spring of 2025; after years of conflict the country is at last settling down. Improvements in communications of all kinds has enabled most people to see and judge others with better understanding than in the awful Soviet and Taliban years, and the intermissions during which tribalism was responsible for so much destruction and conflict. Most Afghans have come to admit that for all their faults, the various foreign ‘invaders’ were generally well meaning even if their methods were crude and their understanding sometimes piteous.
The father runs a small clothing business and employs about half a dozen girls making and adapting garments for men and women. He maintains the tradition of making quality Afghan style burqas in silk, and has done well in the face of great competition from China. But the line is tenuous; comparatively few women wear them with any regularity nowadays although he has noticed (or at least heard about) an increasing number of men who wear it. He is not very religious (he has witnessed the worst that it can do for people) but he rather abhors this trend.
His wife has also been leavened by turbulent history and has become very philosophical. She has had the benefit of some education, denied to almost all women and girls during the Taliban years and she keeps herself up to date with world affairs. Between them all they have one computer, and she can cope with Emails, word processing and Excel (at least to enable her to do simple accounting). At last the power cuts, earlier very lengthy and unpredictable, are almost a thing of the past and she doesn’t have to spend inordinate time saving or backing up; in any case her son Ahmed can help her.
She has four burqas of her husband’s manufacture and drips frequently about the chore of ironing the tiny pleats. She cannot stand those of man made materials; the silk is soft, light and cool. She has unpicked and removed one of the tiny embroidery flowers on the ‘ruband’ front panel of each of them, as being the only way acquaintances can recognize her. She wears one regularly to prayers, and to the local shops when she is in a hurry and cannot be bothered to do her hair, paint her lips or otherwise tidy herself which Western women do perforce.
They have three children, 21, 19 and 18; the son Ahmed is the eldest and has done well at school. He is learning to take over his father’s business although he has a scientific turn of mind and often wishes he could explore something new. He is a great footballer.
Sonia is the eldest girl and although she has done well at school, and tolerates rather than enjoys her clerical work she is very plain and not very well proportioned. She has difficulty making friends. Many of her contemporaries have done well, but some have taken to wearing burqas again, making her wonder why.
On the other hand Soraya is very lively, very beautiful to look at and with a figure to match. She loves dancing and wearing the kind of clothes that enhance the attractions of that activity. Friendships come easy, but she (and her mother in particular) worry that they are often pretty insincere. She is ogled and cat called in the street and the whole situation has developed to a point where she has become very self conscious, expensive in clothes and cosmetics. But she is just as intelligent as Sonia and could easily be as well educated if she didn’t spend so much time decorating her lips, eyelashes, finger and toenails etc, much to the discomfiture of her father. She has also started to get very bored by the attention she gets in the street and occasionally has borrowed one of her mother’s burqas, providing a most welcome escape and a return to some normality of her life.
The result is that the sisters have tended to grow apart from each other; Soraya being self consciously beautiful and Sonia self consciously depressed. She cures such depressions from time to time by borrowing another of her mother’s burqas, providing a most welcome escape and a return to some normality of her life.
Parents have been discussing this for some time, with increasing concern. The one daughter was increasingly in danger of some kind of relationship which could end in pregnancy, and the other of some depression leading to eating disorders or worse. Mother found that the simple act of lending them her burqas actually improved the conditions for both, as on each occasion the one came home with a sense of relief and the other with some manifest improvement in her self confidence. So they decided to hold a party to which some of the girls’ contemporaries were invited, on condition that they brought and wore (owned, begged, borrowed or stolen) burqas. Father had six burqas made for each of the daughters, in the finest silks he could buy (without pleats, so that they didn’t need ironing) and would present them at the party. One set had embroidered flower no. 19 removed from the ruband to aid recognition, the other embroidered flower no. 20.
So we leave them at their party; Mother and at least 20 young ladies (some beautiful like Soraya, others less so like Sonia) all dressed in beautiful burqas of many different colours, and self conscious only in regard to the beauty and sensuousness of the garments they wore. Nobody knew what their figure or faces looked like.
As for Ahmed, he thought the whole affair way over the top. Like many overgrown teenagers he thought of his sisters as – mere girls – and while he admired Soraya for her beauty and femininity he thought Sonia was rather a bore. He sulked for a while over the computer and then, attracted by the sounds of fun and the prospect of something nice to drink from downstairs, he went to find out what it was all about. He found almost everybody dancing and draped in burqas, the beautiful materials shimmering with light and movement. There was a pile of them by the door; on a whim he grabbed one and put it on, helped (?) by two giggling girls. One was wearing one of the same colour, and he danced with her. He had the time of his life. The girl danced beautifully, using the burqa as though born with experience of how to use it. He longed to see her face, to see whether his smile had been reciprocated. Perhaps she also longed to see his! He looked at the front panel and noticed that flower number 19 had been cut away!! SONIA!!