Our Shared Stories of Afghanistan

Our Shared Stories of Afghanistan
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It does not take much to qualify as an "advocate" for Afghanistan. As far as I'm concerned, when you decide that you will find the positive stories in Afghanistan, you've already joined a group that is small and has to fight hard. We fight against the instincts that mass media provokes. We are provoked to feel sorry for Afghanistan or to blame the country for its own problems. Or worse than that, we can end up sick of hearing about the country and all its doom. Within the Afghan community as well as outside of it, the tendency is to focus on what is still wrong rather than what has improved. So when you've made the choice to go against the easy route of pity or annoyance at Afghanistan, you have made the choice to advocate for the other side of the story.

Afghanistan's story, like any other, is not black and white. It's not just the negative countered by positive. It's not just about war or poverty vs peace talks and investments. The stories come from historical fighters, leaders, rich and poor women and men, children, and even non Afghans who have connected to a country that has become another home for them. I've shared some of my stories about leaving Canada to work in Afghanistan and how connected and impressed I am by what I see. The level of surprise I'm met with is worrying. What does the world think is going on in Afghanistan, if they are surprised that people work hard to build peaceful lives? Do they not know the first thing about what Afghanistan stands for? I suppose not. So we must keep sharing. The true resilience of Afghanistan's people has become common to those of us lucky enough to see it - but we must remember to keep our voices loud.

I am pleased to share with you an Afghan story different from my own. There are elements of the culture this writer has experienced that are starkly different from what I live and see. Which just goes to show, there are millions of lenses to look through when it comes to Afghanistan. This is a story by Joan Kayeum, an American woman who moved to Afghanistan in the 1940s and lived there for 25 years. It is one of many stories included in the book Our Shared Stories - An Afghan Diary, a collection of personal stories from around the world. The stories vary as the experiences do - but the thread that sews them together is a love for Afghanistan and a tie to the richness of its culture. It's a pleasure to share Joan's story with you:

What's in a Name?

By Joan Kayeum

It was the winter of 1948 when I arrived in Afghanistan. I was a young bride then. I had fallen madly in love with an Afghan scholarship student that I had met at the University of Chicago. His name was Abdul Kayeum.

"Call me Abdul," he had said. Like most Afghans in those days, he didn't have a family name, so he used Kayeum as his last name. His brothers who had also studied abroad had the same problem. Abdul Zahir, his older brother, was Abdul to his friends and acquaintances at Columbia University where he studied medicine. He used Zahir as his family name. Likewise, Abdul Ahad, another brother who garnered degrees in England as well as Canada, was Abdul abroad and used Ahad as his family name. It's confusing to this day, both for foreigners and for the new generation of Afghans that three brothers have the same first name and different last names.

My name change was easy enough for me to understand when I became Mrs. Kayeum. I was only too happy to replace my Greek family name, which required almost half of the alphabet, with Abdul's chosen family name.

"Geannopoulos - means son of Geannos," I had explained. "What does Kayeum mean?"

"Steadfast," Abdul answered. "It's one of the ninety-nine attributes of Allah. Abdul means the servant or slave of whatever attribute it precedes. Abdul Ahad, for example, means the slave of the one and only Allah. That's why so many of us are named Abdul. It's sacrilegious to claim an attribute of Allah without prefacing it with Abdul."

The problem of names persisted and became a bit daunting for me, however, when Abdul prepared me to meet his family.

"Everybody in this country has a laqab, a nickname so to speak," he said. "It's disrespectful to call people by their real names. We call Dr. Abdul Zahir, Shahlala, Abdul Ahad, Agha Gul, my half-brother, Abdul Ghafar, whom you haven't met yet, Shah Agha, and my step brother, Abdul Ahmed, Gul Agha."

My head was reeling with the repetition and switching of so many syllables that were meaningful in Farsi, but meaningless to me.

"I need paper and a pencil. There's no way I will be able to keep all this straight."

To relieve my confusion, Abdul advised me to temporarily forget about the real names of his brothers. I wouldn't be using them.

"You just need to remember their laqab when you refer to my brothers. As for their wives, you only need to learn one name, their laqab."

"What about their real names?" I asked.

I was not only surprised but shocked to learn that he didn't know their real names. Their husbands didn't know them either, not until the day of their nekah , the official wedding ceremony. That's when their names had to be revealed for the signing of the marriage contract. However, no one ever dared use their real names after that, not even their husbands. They were kept a secret from the rest of the family.

"I never knew what my own mother's name was," Abdul confessed.

Family names had been a problem that had plagued him the entire time he was in the States. At first, when filling out information at the registrar's office, he made up names for his mother and then forgot what name he had written. When called in, he had a lot of explaining to do. He finally solved the problem by filling the blank for name with Bobo (meaning mother) and Jaan (meaning dear). Throughout her lifetime and even after she had passed away, he had never once heard her name mentioned. Of course, Abdul knew his father's real name was Abdul Qadir, but even this was a problem for him, not only on campus, but in banks as well.

"How come your name isn't the same as your father's or mother's and why are all three last names different?" was the inevitable query by bankers who suspiciously eyed the swarthy young foreigner.

A few days after we had settled in Agha Gul's and Nafas Gul's house, where we remained for nine months, Abdul came up with a suggestion that I never dreamt I would hear.

"We have to find a name for you, honey."

"Me? Oh no! Not me! Why?"

"Because it's rude, insulting to use a woman's name in Afghan culture. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because using a woman's real name implies too much intimacy. I don't know. If you don't want to have a stressful life here, if you want to be a part of this community, you're going to need a laqab."

My thoughts leaped to a book I had read long ago by William Saroyan, My Name is Aram, in which a dog went crazy because the owners changed its name.

"Honey, I'll go nuts if I have to go by a different name in this culture. Tell everybody to call me Joan. Rest assured, I'll not feel one bit insulted."

It was conceivable that Abdul's brothers who had spent years abroad would have been comfortable calling me Joan, but for their wives, the rest of the family and Afghans in general, it proved to be exceedingly awkward and difficult. My sisters-in-law couldn't force themselves to use my name. For them it was the ultimate insult. They referred to me as khanum-i-doctor sahib (the wife of the doctor) - doctor because Abdul had a doctoral degree, a rarity in Afghanistan at the time, and sahib (sort of like sir). This reference to me fulfilled the requirement of respect and was acceptable when Nafas Gul would call the houseboy to fill up the bukhari in khanum-i-doctor sahib's room with more wood. It was an unsatisfactory reference to me, however, when she spoke to family members because it was too formal. It sounded cold and distant. When she needed to address me directly, to invite me to join the family at dinner time, no words at all were forthcoming. She would simply look me in the eyes, nervously flash a big smile and squeeze my hand as she led me to the dining room.

It wasn't long before the entire family approached Abdul with the question:

"What should we call your wife?"

"Just call her Joan," Abdul answered. "I've already discussed it with her. That's her wish and she won't feel offended."

Sensing everyone's disappointment, I turned to Agha Gul before leaving for our quarters to say, "I'm sorry. I just feel like I would be losing my identity if I adopted another name."

"I understand," he responded sympathetically, "but you might give some thought to Shakespeare's words as he playfully recited, "Name? What's in a name? A rose by any name will smell as sweet." I was touched by his kindness and amused by his wit, but I remained unswayed.

Having lived abroad, Agha Gul was keenly sensitive to the social requirements of foreigners, one of them being that of privacy. He had, therefore, instructed his three sons, ranging between 3 and 6 years of age, never to enter our living quarters without being invited. The rooms were actually a part of their home which he and Nafas Gul had so generously vacated for us. They were a combination of bedroom and playroom for the three older boys with an adjacent indoor bathroom, a rare luxury in Afghanistan in those days. Their baby, Baba, was eight months old, still nursing and sleeping in his mother's bedroom.

When Zalmay, their six-year-old was caught peeping through the glass pane of the French doors leading to our bedroom, his five-year-old brother Zmaray went screaming to his parents and their guests that Zalmay had trespassed the quarters of zan-i-khariji-i-kaka-yum (the foreign wife of my uncle). That did it for me! Unless I adopted a laqab, I'd forever be a nonperson, at worst, a foreign lady in the midst of a loving family, at best, the wife of Doctor Sahib. Where was my identity, now? Where was the individuality that I had sought to maintain? I decided to adopt a laqab, not only to put an end to the confusion and awkwardness my real name was causing Abdul's family, but for the sake of my own selfhood as well.

Abdul was ecstatic. He promptly announced that I had agreed to choose a laqab after all. This we did with the help of Nafas Gul, who cited a long list of seemingly nonsensical syllables to me that were loaded with meaningful possibilities in Farsi. Of all the choices, Gul Jaan sounded closest to Joan to me.

"Gul Jaan," I repeated. "That's the one I'll have. What does it mean?"

"Flower dear!" Abdul and his brother gleefully responded.

Everyone congratulated me with "Mubarak bashad (may it be blessed)," for my new name. I was hugged and kissed and in an instant became a true family member.

When we retired into our quarters for the night, Abdul informed me that jaan also means 'life', 'soul'.

"Like jaan-um (my life, my soul)," he said. "Jaan-um," he repeated.

More than half a century later, now an aging widow, I still remember how romantic the syllables of my laqab sounded to my ears that night.

Joan Kayeum, a first generation Greek-American, lived and worked in Afghanistan from l948 to l972. Her late husband Dr.Abdul Kayeum served Afghanistan under the reign of King Zahir Shah as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Minister of Interior, Minister of Communications, Governor of Helmand Province and President of Darulmualemeen, Teachers Training Institute of Kabul.

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