It is the third day of Ramazan. It is a brutal time of year for the fast. The days are long, and to fully follow the requirements of this holy month, Muslims must rise and eat before dawn, and then endure some 13 hours of heat, without eating, drinking or swallowing, before Iftar, the breaking of the fast, when the sun sets. Even then, those who wish to please Allah will eat only a date, before doing evening prayers. The month of Ramazan follows the lunar cycle, so it is 10 days earlier every year: when we first came to Afghanistan, Ramazan was in February, a cool month with short days. Not so now, and next year will be harder.
This evening we have had guests, and given the heat, I cooked a Gazpacho soup, served cold, followed by a warm chicken salad, and home made ice-cream. It was quite delicious. I see our guests to the gate at 9.00, and then our watchman approaches me.
‘Phil-jan’, he says. He is tentative. ‘I am wondering if this year, you will pay the winter fuel allowance.’ I am confused for a moment. Why does he want this now? Then I remember that our agency has had the practice of giving the staff money for their winter heating fuel now, in the middle of summer, when wood is at its cheapest. If they buy it at the beginning of winter, prices will have doubled.
‘Yes, yes’, I say. ‘We will pay it.’ The truth is, I had forgotten about it. Our watchmen are not agency employees, but private, and they are on a confused salary scheme, owing in part to the fact that we share this house with another family, who had their own practices when we moved in here.
‘You see, Phil-jan… I was shopping last week, on Wednesday, in Mandaie bazaar. I had … ‘ He pauses as he speaks. ‘…bought more than 6000Afs worth of food – the things we needed to get us through Ramazan. Then… I stopped to make one more purchase and when I came back, all the things I had bought were gone. I searched and searched…’ There is a gap in his words. ‘My wife doesn’t know what to do.’
It is dark, and it is hard to see the face of our old watchman, but I can see he is crying, silently. His entire salary for a month is only about 7000 Afs.
‘I don’t know how it happened… It was there, and I was just buying onions, and it was gone. I searched the whole bazaar. I searched.’
I don’t ask him for details. It doesn’t matter. ‘We have some money we save. I will give you some. Don’t worry about it. It will be ok.’
He nods, tears still on his cheek. A few months ago, his young son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and he is now taking him to the Red Cross to learn how to manage this, how to support and help his boy. There is not, and probably will not be for decades, any other help available to him. Somehow his story is so typically Afghan to me. Hardship, followed by tragedy, followed by loss, followed by more hardship. An ordinary Afghan story.
I go upstairs, and count out $160US, about 7500Afs, and take it down.