Rahela Nayebzadah is the author of Monster Child.
The first time Mother cooked eskhana kachaloo, potatoes mixed with eggs and mint and a milk-based stock called sher roghun, I crossed my arms and huffed.
Being the sassy nine-year-old that I was, I pushed my plate away and said, “There’s barf on my potatoes.”
I expected Father to slam his fist on the dining table and bore his eyes into me. Instead, he coughed to prevent himself from laughing. Like my siblings, he too looked disgusted.
My mother is from Herat and my father is from Kabul. Both come from rich and vibrant Afghan cultures, yet growing up, it was Mother’s that was overlooked and disparaged.
After that meal, Mother never dared to cook Herati dishes again, with the exception of kicheri, a short-grained sticky rice with mung beans that is only bearable with qoroot (a reconstituted dairy product) and meatballs. And she only cooked it because Father enjoyed it.
Months later, our uncle came to live with us in Edmonton. She spoke Herati with her brother, a dialect I’d never heard of. At first, I was intrigued and impressed by the fact she spoke another dialect, but it wasn’t until Mother slipped Herati into her everyday Kabuli speech that I felt betrayed. Was Mother suddenly ashamed of the dialect her children and husband spoke? The more I heard Herati, the more jarring it became. My siblings and I began teasing Mother to the point where she no longer spoke it with anyone.
It wasn’t just her culture that we ignored, but also her family lineage. Aside from knowing that my maternal grandparents were wealthy, I knew nothing else about them – not even their names.
“My father was the first person in Herat to own a radio and my mother had a chest full of golden jewellery. Every woman envied her,” Mother would always say, which now makes me wonder if she shared such information with us to impress us and seek validation.
When, as an adult, I finally asked Mother the names of my grandparents, she was suspicious.
“You must be writing another novel – why else would you be interested in your grandparents’ names?” she said. “You never met your paternal grandfather, yet you always knew his name. Why? Did you forget that he abandoned your father at a young age?”
I was speechless. I knew this conversation wouldn’t be easy. “I’m sorry” was all I could say, as I watched my mother cry.
My guilt led me to take matters into my own hands. I wanted Mother to know I cared about her history, so I reached out to her side of the family, many of whom live in Kabul and Herat, through social media. Barely speaking my mother-tongue, Dari, I introduced myself as their distant cousin or niece. Some were pleased to hear from me, thinking I’d be able to get them out of Afghanistan, while many were skeptical and insulted. “Family? Where were you all these years?” one distant cousin asked me. “Now that we are dying, your guilt has pointed you to us.”
After spending months trying to build a relationship with my mother’s family in Afghanistan, I decided to tell her. “Thank you,” she said as she held my hand.
I listened as Mother shared stories of her parents, aunts and uncles. She also recounted stories of her childhood, along with her favourite scenic places in Herat. I also asked Mother if she blamed Father or had any regrets for trading her culture for his.
“No. It’s common for women to adapt to their husband’s way of life, whether you’re from Afghanistan or not,” she said. “I still have my culture – no one can take that away from me.”
As I embrace my mother’s heritage, it’s also important that I learn her mother tongue. At 37, I’m finally learning to incorporate Herati in my daily conversation, not just with my parents, but with my children. I want my children to not only take pride in their Afghan roots, but to know that being Afghan isn’t a homogeneous identity, for they are just as much Kabuli as they are Herati. With the passing of Eid al-Fitr earlier this week, I made sure to include Mother’s customs and traditions. I served guests grapes, naan and tea, alongside traditional Kabuli desserts, such as haft mewa (a dish consisting of dried fruits and nuts) and gosh-e-feel (elephant ear-shaped pastry).
As Mother’s Day approached this year, I found myself thinking a lot about the ways I dismissed Mother’s culture when I was younger, and about the patriarchy that I’d subconsciously learned to value. This came at the same time I watched in horror as the Taliban once again began cracking down on women’s rights – a unsurprising development, considering what occurred when they ruled the country the first time around. The Taliban are known for their misogyny and violence against women. Celebrating Mother’s Day, therefore, is not only about honouring mothers of Afghanistan, but also a political act.
The Taliban not only oppose women, but anyone who is not Pashtun or Sunni, which is why I’ve purchased myself and my mother two sets of manto: a flower-patterned one strictly for praying, and a black billowy one for everyday wear. The loose overgarment, which covers the entire body from head to toe, is a common dress which embraces my mother’s Herati (and Shia) origins.
I wish it didn’t take the horrors of Afghanistan for me to grow an appreciation for the Herati dialect. I wish it didn’t take the ethnic violence in Afghanistan for me to realize that Herati is a beautiful culture worth celebrating. But now that it has, I can stand against the Taliban by honouring my mother and the countless women of Afghanistan who have been robbed of their voices.
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