Lessons in Growing up in Afghanistan by RPCV Caryn Giles Lawson

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Lessons in Growing up in Afghanistan by RPCV Caryn Giles Lawson

Lessons in Growing up in Afghanistan by RPCV Caryn Giles Lawson

Lessons in Growing up in Afghanistan

Boy on Bicycle
[photo by Dennis B. Armstrong ©]
"Boy on Bicycle" (detail)
Herat, 1971

By Caryn Giles Lawson
April-June 2000

I was neither born nor raised in Afghanistan, but I grew up there. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became a grown up there.

I was raised in New York City in a solidly middle class family. Like most children in my circumstances, I took just about everything for granted. My one disappointment in life at that point was that my parents felt strongly that I should not go away to college because at that time the City University of New York provided a free education to all NYC residents.

So after living at home during my college years, I felt the need to break free. I joined the Peace Corps and despite the fact that I spoke Spanish very well, I was assigned to Afghanistan.

My parents were very relieved; "Those Latin American countries are so unstable! Who even knows where Afghanistan is?"

I arrived in Kabul in the summer of 1977. The sight of the Hindu Kush mountain range, so dry and barren, surrounding the plateau of Kabul was both awesome and frightening. I was very scared and fairly sure I'd made a big mistake, but I felt so strongly about proving my independence, that I took a deep breath of that beautiful air and vowed to stick it out. I tried to clear my mind of all doubt and hoped that I could let go of enough of my Western perceptions to get something positive out of this great adventure.

What I got was more than I could have ever imagined. It was a gift so great that I will never be able to adequately thank the Afghan people who shaped my life over the next two years.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I wanted to feel that I was "helping" in some meaningful way. Yet, due to the nature of my job assignment, I wasn't convinced that what I'd be doing was really what the country needed. I was the English teacher for employees of Ariana Afghan Airlines. Not as glamorous as it sounds, and certainly not something that fulfilled basic human needs such as public health programs or agricultural assistance.

Still, I did the best I could, and probably accomplished very little. What I didn't expect is what I was given in terms of learning about life and experiencing a people and a culture, which would forever change the way I looked at the world and the human condition.

Afghanistan, even in better times, was a materially poor country. But what it lacked in material wealth seemed unimportant compared to what it had that couldn't be bought. I experienced a type of hospitality that I believe exists no where else in this world. Besides other volunteers, most of my friends were Afghan. When you were a "meman" (guest) nothing was too good for you. And it was sincere, too. So deeply ingrained is the manner in which one treated a guest, that everywhere I went I felt like a queen!

The generosity of the people was humbling, considering how little some of my hosts had. But never was a second thought given to offering all they had to a guest.

Guests were also welcomed at most anytime, without the need for invitation. Dropping in without calling was not only acceptable, but expected! This took a bit of getting used to, but was further evidence of the open hospitality of the Afghans.

Lesson one in becoming a grown up: Be generous with whatever you have. What material possession could ever replace the company of friends?

At first glance especially because I arrived in summer, I did not see a lot of physical beauty in and around Kabul. Dusty streets and whitewashed walls hiding the homes within, vegetation that was brown and straggly. Did I mention the open drains that ran along the streets?

But I opened my eyes and really tried to see with my heart. I learned that beyond the stark walls were beautiful gardens. That a man walking down the street with a rose in his hand held a world of beauty in his finger tips.

The ikat dyed silk of a chapan rivaled the beauty of the finest textiles produced anywhere in the world. The embroidery on shirtfronts was so exquisite, that you couldn't tell the back from the front. Not to mention the one of a kind works of art that were the rugs and kilims. Never had I seen such fine work produced under conditions that most Westerners would consider primitive and not in the least conducive to creativity.

Lesson number two in becoming a grown up: Look beyond the surface for true beauty. Yes, you've probably heard this or something similar a million times, but do not roll your eyes. It is one of the great truths in life and if you don't believe it, then you're missing much of life's beauty.

I was not quite 21 years old when I came to Afghanistan. I had what I thought were some very clear ideas about life, particularly with regard to how people should act and react within society. I came of age in the USA during the tail end of the Vietnam War, student unrest and women's liberation. I was sure I knew all the answers.

A neighbor of mine in the USA said to me, "Make sure you tell all those Afghan women that they don't need to be dominated by men! They can do whatever they want."

Luckily, I did not heed her advice. I chose to open my eyes very wide and really tried to see, I opened my ears and tried hard to listen. Not speaking Dari very well was a blessing, because it allowed me to observe and absorb.

I chose to keep my mouth closed until I could begin to see and understand things that were not like my own. And the non-judgmental welcome that I received from the Afghan people taught me not to judge. I had all the time and opportunity to learn to see the world from someone else's point of view. It was not always easy or pleasant.

To learn to not pass judgment until "you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes", is a gift beyond compare, as is learning that so much of how we act and react is due to the context of the society in which we are raised.

I know that without my time in Kabul, I would have become much more narrowly focused on my own life and world. Empathy might only be a little used concept. But empathy and understanding does not always mean approval. It does however mean acknowledging the right for others to live in their own way. This is lesson number three and it needs no further explanation.

I had a cook named Mehrdad. He came from the Panjshir Valley and had worked for Peace Corps Volunteers for many years. The fact that he worked for Peace Corps Volunteers meant that his English was almost non-existent and he didn't cook all that well.

His wife had given birth to six babies, three sons and three daughters. All the sons died. We're lead to believe that in such a male dominated society these daughters would be less cherished than sons. Yet Mehrdad's love and pride in his daughters were enormous. It was the first time I understood the magnitude of parental love. He used to bring his eldest, Rabia, to visit us.

She was a beautiful child with blond hair and green eyes. He beamed when he looked at her, almost as if he couldn't believe that he had created such a treasure. And seeing this made me truly understand and appreciate my parents love for me, something which I had taken for granted. It also made me see the deep common bond that all people share as parents who only wish the best for the generations that follow us. So this was lesson number four.

So much more was learned that there are probably not enough words or space to say it. But I will always be grateful to that wonderful land and its wonderful people.

So when you hear about Afghanistan on the nightly news or read about it in your newspaper, take a moment to remember that there is much more to know if only you're willing to see.

Inshallah, peace will come someday soon.

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