There are so many stories and lessons to be reflected upon during the nearly five months hosting these nine strangers — strangers to us and to one another. Everyone told me to keep a journal while the Afghans stayed with us. But when you’re in the thick of it, nothing really seems worth writing down because everything is just happening all at once, and it all seems simultaneously worthy and unworthy of documentation. And certainly the last thing I wanted to do at midnight after spending so much time with them during the day, was to sacrifice what remained of my personal time in reflection. And I mean, it certainly seems at the time, how could I forget? But sure enough, the details slip away.
But occasionally, there are those moments that just stick. And you’re not quite sure how to describe them because there are so many factors that play into a single moment being extraordinary. I knew when I got home, I needed to jot down some thoughts from this particular experience so that I could later offer it the reverence and energy it deserved. I offer this one vignette below, written back in January. The names have been changed to respect anonymity.
I’ve been driving the Afghans around a lot lately – to school, errands, appointments – and it’s usually a car load, since they’re all just wanting to get out of the house for any reason. They’re attending English classes at the Community College, but currently their English is limited to the alphabet, “Ok,” “No problem,” and “Nice to meet you!,” which has become the catch-all phrase for almost any exclamation, most often delivered alongside an aggressive spike on the neighborhood volleyball court — admittedly some pretty top notch trash talk, regardless of your English fluency. As such, we can’t really have car conversations, so they love having the music up really loud, whether it’s their Afghan music over Bluetooth or just top 40 radio (I’m guessing the [often elderly] Catholic Charities volunteers don’t play the radio, or perhaps they keep it at a soft whisper).
So, there’s a vulgar, but cleverly-written breakup anthem with a chorus that belts out “a-b-c-d-e-F-U!” It’s on Top 40 radio at least once an hour these days. So when this song comes on I turn it up extra loud at the alphabet part, and I say “it’s time to practice English!” And at the top of their lungs they’re all screaming, “A-B-C-D-E-F-G!!”
I haven’t corrected them, and they haven’t noticed that it’s not a G at the end.
And I’m so curious what they think this song is… like some kind of Sesame Street song or something to learn the alphabet?
The oldest of all, Ibrahim, is always riding shotgun. He’s career military, an MP. Thirteen sons back home ranging from toddler to mid-20s. He’s got a deep, commanding voice, barrel-chested, his hair slicked back, beard well-manicured, always has his shirt tucked in — you’d never suspect he’s illiterate in his own language, having never attended grade school.
When we’re listening to Afghan music, he will start to sing along with that fluctuating Indian vocal that’s popular in that kind of music (I don’t know what it’s called). But he’s really good at it and he has a really good voice, and it doesn’t sound anything like his speaking voice.
So last night, there was some older top 40 song from recent years, like a Katy Perry song or someone similar, that had a fairly long instrumental part. This is a moment I wish I had recorded because words can’t do it justice. Ibrahim broke into this melodic riff of that type of fluctuating singing on top of the top 40 instrumental and it sounded SO INCREDIBLE and the timing was impeccable and it all came to a crescendo at just the right moment that the song ended. Everybody in the car erupted with applause and a cacophony of praise in their native Pashto, leaning over the seat and jostling his shoulders like he had just scored a winning goal, and shouting a congratulatory, “NICE TO MEET YOU!!” in perfect English.
Five complete strangers just two months ago, ages 17 to 44 — lives intertwined by the forces of happenstance, imperialism, kindness, and Allah — experiencing a fleeting moment of sheer joy together on New Leicester Highway just after dark. Returning from an otherwise mundane Walgreens run for acne face wash, mustache scissors, and Just-For-Men black hair dye — essential tools for the few aspects of their lives still within their control.