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Life in Disguise (This is No Life)
My feet were caked with dirt - the skin dark, cracked and rough. I had only ever owned two pairs of shoes in my life. Climbing out of the doorless, one room mud-shack I called my home, and one of the many that filled the slums of west Kabul, I winced as my bare feet pressed against the cold ground. I glanced back into our house to see that my younger brother and sister were still asleep on the ground, a thin coat of dirt covering their hair and clothes. The sun had barely risen yet, the soft orange glow barely visible on the horizon above the mud walls of our compound. Dark clouds moved lazily across the pale morning sky, blanketing the distant Hindukush mountain range. I thought momentarily of my childhood friend, Mehri, a Hazara, who I hoped was still alive and living in the mountains. I knew the chances were slim though. The Taliban had been raiding Hazara villages to carry out ethnic cleansing, slaughtering every Hazara they saw. Even now, I could be shot for my friendship with Mehri.
I immediately willed the thought away, curling my toes into the dirt and wrapping my burqa tighter around my starved frame. My burqa had once been bright yellow and orange, but was now faded, torn and frayed. My mother had bought it for me on a Friday afternoon in a bazaar in east Kabul. She told me that it had been woven with threads of fire from the sun. A year later, the Taliban cornered my mother and forced her to kneel in the street, claiming that she had committed adultery. I had run away as fast as I could, leaving my younger brother and sister in the bloodied Afghan dust. Not even the pounding of my heart had been able to block out the deafening gunshot.
“Ameera!” my father shouted suddenly from within the house, his thick Dari accent catching my attention. “Yes father?” I called back, rushing inside. My father sat in a dimmed corner of the room, his devastatingly absent left leg illuminated by the soft candle glow. “We have no more money, there is no time to salvage garbage this time - you must go to the street today. Do not come home until you have earned enough for bread.” “Yes, father,” I replied sadly, stealing a glance at my siblings who were still fast asleep before scurrying out of the house.
Clutching my burqa, I slid down the mud-ridden hill that led to the closest exit of the slums. I passed a group of children playing some sort of organized game with an old, tattered soccer ball. The smallest of the children was wrapped in a large, dirt-ridden, pink jacket. In the middle, the faded remnants of a teal American logo could be seen. Her hair was cut short, and unevenly cut bangs poked out from beneath the hood. When one of the taller boys kicked the rock in her direction, her face immediately lit up, a shy grin sprouting from her chapped lips. It was not often that you saw a smiling child in Afghanistan these days.
I rounded the corner, nearly tripping over a large piece of brick that had broken off of the wall that lined the east border of the slums. I ran out into the middle of the street without looking, dashing between the speeding taxis and bicycles. One of my favorite things about Kabul was the constant bustle. Even the Taliban had not been able to permanently suppress the spirit of a busy Afghan street. The long, unpaved road was lined with old shells of crumbling buildings that had been bombed out and never restored like the Taliban had promised us. Instead, the Taliban had taken to hiding in them, holding secret meetings and watching the street for anybody who would pose a threat to them. It was rumored that the buildings also served as dumping grounds for all of the “un-Islamic” goods that the Taliban had confiscated from the local population. We all knew that they were just using their authority to steal though.
A ways down the road I came across a woman sitting at the corner, just a block south of the bazaar. Her blue full-body burqa was concealing all but her barely visible eyes that peered through the thick netting. She was moaning and holding her hands up towards the sky. As I passed her, I heard her cry, “God has forsaken Afghanistan! God has forsaken us all! We have been forgotten by the world!” A moment later, two military-clad men rushed over and began to beat her until she fell silent, then threatened to arrest her if she ever spoke such sacrilegious words again. I felt a lump form in my throat and my heart began to pound. I watched as the men abandoned her and went rushing towards a man who had apparently done something to offend them. “God save Afghanistan,” the woman said quietly, cradling her head in her gloved hands. “Someone save Afghanistan.”
I picked up the pace and kept my eyes focused on the busier portion of the street ahead of me. I was safer from the Taliban if I was in a crowd. I entered the bizarre and wove through the massive throng of people as traditional Afghan music blared from a nearby speaker. I shivered at what the person responsible for playing the music would face if the Taliban were to catch them. The bazaar was especially crowded this morning. The older Afghan men were arguing with the vendors, trying to get a better deal, while the women dragged their screaming children along by the hand. I found a less populated area and decided to set up shop. “Alaykum sir!” I exclaimed, catching the attention of a hard-faced man who was passing by, carrying a small child. “Please, my father has no money,” I began, widening my eyes for effect. “He stepped on a mine, and can no longer work.” The man stared down at me, his black eyebrows knitting together as he studied me. His dark face was etched with deep lines that resembled the valleys of the Hindukush, and he looked as if he had not slept in days. After a moment his expression softened and he grunted, tossing a two Afghani coin into my hands. “Tashakur! God bless you.” I said, grinning up at the man. His face hardened again. “Salam aleikom,” the man replied in Farsi before turning to walk away. I stared down at the coin in my hand, deciding that it was better than nothing.
As time passed, more and more beggar children were beginning to occupy the street. Some pushed wheel barrows filled with salvaged garbage, while others carried stacks of old books and magazines. I quickly dropped my earnings into my pocket, as while many would appear to be harmless beggars, many of them were also thieves. Several more people passed, all of which ignored my plea for money. I decided to move on to another area of the bazaar, just to be on the safe side. The Taliban did not like beggars.
I stepped back into the flow of human traffic, the sharp scent of musk and spice overwhelming my senses. I came upon a table covered with large plates, upon which generous portions of rice were piled. “Do you have any to spare?” I asked the bearded man who sat on the ground behind the table. “I have nothing to give you, go away!” he barked at me, rising to his feet in anger. I had not been the first to ask him for a handout this morning. I nodded and quickly walked away. As I moved further down the road, I noticed that the hum of the bazaar was beginning to decrease quite dramatically. The music ceased, the arguing stopped, and the screaming children fell silent. I looked up to see what had happened and saw a large, red, foreign truck driving down the center of the tiny alleyway that housed the bazaar. People were jumping out of the way, cowering as the truck passed them. A large automatic gun sat propped in the bed of the truck, and several Taliban soldiers sat behind the gun, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. As they passed me, I shut my eyes and focused on the sound of the gravel crunching beneath the tires. I did not breathe, I did not move. As soon as they were gone, the bazaar was back to life, and I exhaled, relief washing over me.
I spent the next eleven hours on the streets of west Kabul pleading with shoppers to donate their spare change to my family. When I ran out of luck in the bizarre, I tried the smaller surrounding neighborhoods and again had little luck. As I was heading back towards the bazaar to see if any vendors would be willing to give me their unsold bread and rice, I was stopped by a heavily bearded man who was wearing a turban. I immediately realized that he was a member of the Taliban and my heart sank. “You are not wearing your burqa properly,” he spat, taking a fistful of my visible hair. I winced and closed my eyes. “Look at me!” the man demanded, and I slowly peered up at him. He sneered at me and shoved his hand into my pocket while grabbing my right arm and twisting it. “Please,” I gasped, trying to break free of his grip. It felt as if my arm was going to snap at any moment. The man let go when he discovered that my pocket was filled with coins. “I am taking these,” he declared, stuffing them into his own pocket. “Please,” I begged, “I need those to feed my family.” The man shook his head and pulled out a small knife from his pocket. He kneeled down so that he was face-to-face with me. “Listen to me,” he hissed, his putrid breath washing across my face. “The Taliban will provide for you – you have no use for this money.” I swallowed and nodded furiously. The man gave me a toothless grin, rose to his feet, and walked away. I stood there for a moment while my entire was body shocked with rolling waves of uncontrollable shaking. I then took several deep breaths, bit my quivering lip, and continued on my way back to the bazaar.
Most of the shops had closed for the evening, and the steady flow of customers had turned to a light trickle. I approached the same vendor I had asked for rice earlier. “Lutfan dhost, do you have anything that you can spare?” The man grunted and glared at me. “Lutfan,” I pleaded. “I need to feed my family.” The man stared at me for another moment, and in one swift motion grabbed two pieces of stale, mold-covered bread and thrust them at me. “Tashakur,” I said, snatching the bread from his hands. “And don’t come back!” the vendor shouted after me as I dashed off down the road.
As I neared home, the sun began to fall from the sky, covering Kabul in a blanket of black. There would be no stars in the sky tonight. The ailing rays of gold and dark red drizzled through the ruins of the concrete buildings, casting ominous shadows in the street. I rounded the corner and hurried through the maze of crumbling walls and piles of trash that was my home. I could hear echoes of children’s laughter in the distance, accompanied by the voices of parents demanding that they come inside for the night. I ducked beneath the mud-constructed doorway and crawled into my house. My father was in the same place he had been when I had left, cradling the Quran against his chest. My brother and sister sat on either side of him, picking at the dirt floor. “Salam!” I exclaimed, pulling out the two pieces of bread I had acquired. For a moment, my father looked as if he were about to cry. Whether it was because of the meager amount or because of the fact that I had been able to get anything at all – I wasn’t sure. My brother and sister immediately rose to their feet and rushed over to me, grabbing for the bread. I held it above my head and carried the pieces over to my father. He took the cleanest piece for himself and broke the moldier piece in half, giving one half to my sister and the other half to my brother. He stared up at me apologetically. I smiled back, pretending that everything was okay. What was another night without food anyways?
Everyone finished their piece of bread quickly. I found comfort in the fact that at least tonight I would not be thirsty like them. Clean drinking water in Kabul was a rare commodity. As my father, brother, and sister all prepared to go to bed, I slipped out of the house and climbed up onto the wall that served as the border for our “yard,” which doubled as both a bathroom and a kitchen. The far off voices of laughter were beginning to fade, and the sound of mortar rockets and gunfire in the distance was becoming more prominent without the livelihood of daytime Kabul to mask it. For a second, I allowed my burqa to slide off of my head, exposing it to the cool night air. I shut my eyes and took in the moment, and then quickly pulled it back in place. I wondered about Mehri, and whether or not she was still alive. I thought about my mother, wondering if she had made it to heaven. For a moment, I wondered if there was a heaven at all. My thoughts then shifted to my living family. My father would be dead soon, whether it be by the hand of the Taliban or the hand of sickness and poverty. I would be left responsible for my family. Would it be by my own unwilling hand that my siblings would starve? Orphanages were not an option – the Taliban would often take children, and they would never be seen again. I sighed and climbed down off the wall and headed back inside. My father was already sound asleep, while my brother and sister were stirring restlessly on the cold, hard ground. I curled up against the far right wall, away from my family. I was living a life in disguise, for this was no way to live. A bomb when off somewhere far away and military tanks could be heard growing to life in response. “God save Afghanistan,” I whispered as I clutched my burqa and wrapped it tighter around myself. I could almost feel the threads of the sun burning my raw, dirt-covered skin. “Someone save Afghanistan.”