When we first came to Afghanistan, we lived in Mazar. Like most foreigners here, we soon employed a local woman to help with cleaning our home. While the idea of regular domestic help remains repugnant to me (I kind of think you ought to be able to keep your own house in order), we were persuaded that in Afghanistan it was a good idea. For a few reasons – it gave a poor woman employment, and unquestionably, in those days, the widows of Afghanistan needed it. It gave Julie an easy way to make friends with local women, and in Taliban times, that was helpful. And, we were here to work. We were not here simply to ‘be’. Having someone help keep things in order meant we could both work, full-time. When Pietà was born, having no family here, our khala-jan became a defacto auntie. Over time, Fatima, who was calm and gentle, became a dear friend to Julie and a loving nanna to Pietà.
Then, when we returned to Mazar after 9/11, Aziza came to work with us. She was more animated than Fatima, and sometimes brought her grandson, Quorban along to play with Pietà. She too, became a loved part of our home.
In Kabul, in the later years we had S. work with us. We inherited her from the previous family, she kind of came with the house, and she quickly made it clear who was really in charge. We didn’t get on with her so well, I think it is safe to say. Lastly, Nooria worked with us. Julie knew of her from earlier times, and liked her, and she had a lovely manner, though her life was very difficult and she was well acquainted with grief. Her husband had some kind of mental illness, based almost certainly in trauma, and was often violent. Particularly, and for no obvious reason, he very hostile towards to their 10 year old son. It was so bad the son could not be in the house, and this was very hard for Nooria. Julie helped get the husband some medication, through one of the expat Doctors here, and like many mental illnesses, as long as he kept the dosage stable, he was much improved. When he forgot, or ran out, things got awful very quickly.
He died a month ago. I saw Nooria a week back, and after the usual salaams, I said, ‘I know your husband died. Razi- Khudawand bashed.’ May he be welcomed by God.
Nooria began to explain, in a matter of fact kind of way –
‘Yes, it was very odd. He began to swell up, first his stomach, and then his chest. He couldn’t easily breathe, simply to draw breath was difficult. We spent so much on medicines. Then he got a little better, but his feet swelled and he couldn’t walk. Then his chest swelled again…’
Nooria stopped talking and buried her head in her hands. It was a while before she could speak. I sat and waited.
‘Wa, baz faut shud wa bas.’ ‘And then he died and that was the end.’
After a while she continued. ‘My son, he doesn’t accept it. He has said, “where is my father? When is he coming home?” He just sits and waits for him to come. He has said he will not go to school until he comes, and that is 18 days now. He is just waiting for his father to come home. I do not know what to do, and we have spent everything now on doctors and medicines and now we have nothing.’
I am able to give her some money.
Later I think about this thing of giving money. Many expats here do not give money to poor people here, at all. The rationale is that it doesn’t help in the long run. Better to train people, give them jobs, advocate for social reform. I agree. But those who say giving money to poor people doesn’t help, have never, I think, been so poor.
Fatima with Pieta, 2001. Julie was able to visit Fatima in Mazar last year as she was dying of cancer; she died a few months later. Razi- Khudawand bashed.