Finding Common Ground in Our Diversity

HUMAIRA GHILZAI

Ten years ago when I started a blog about Afghan culture and food, Afghan Culture Unveiled, I had to come to terms with what culture means to me.

I had to ask myself, after living in Northern California for thirty-three years, was I proficient enough in Afghan culture as it’s practiced in the country today, or was I only allowed to dip my pen into my family’s memory well from pre-1979 Afghanistan? How does war, repatriation, famine, and oppression affect cultural beliefs? Is Afghan culture anchored by the cement of scholarly writings, poets, and authors or is it fluid like the rivers that run through villages cut off from the world?

As one of the millions of displaced people in the world, I realized I could weave a colorful fabric from threads taken from my Afghan ancestors, my Afghan family, and my Afghan-American immigrant experiences. I was merging several narratives to construct the newly created culture of the Afghan diaspora.

Once I accepted that my family’s stories are part of the bigger cultural context of our changing world, I let my mind run free to allow myself to remember stories from our journey out of Afghanistan in 1979, as political refugees, leaving all our worldly goods, family, friends and the truths that had dictated my parents lives up until then. Our ten-month journey to safety took us from Kabul to Peshawar, Islamabad, Frankfurt, Queens, San Jose, and finally, our resting place, Fremont, California.

Pork Eating Afghans, is the first short story I wrote of my Muslim family’s accidental run-in with the forbidden meat, pork, and the trials of resettlement in a foreign land. The first time I recited this fictionalized short story in my writer’s workshop, I was terrified that it wouldn’t resonate with my audience. To my relief, many people shared that they too had similar experiences of feeling disconnected and out of place, not to mention a few juicy SPAM stories that were hiding in other people’s closets.

It made me realize stories have the power to bring us together, even if we grew up worlds apart.

PORK EATING AFGHANS: MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH SPAM

It is our family’s first week as political refugees in Germany. Food stamps safely tucked in her purse, Jeja, my mother, scans the shelves of the German supermarket with awe and confusion. We walk up and down the endless aisles, our mouths agape; we have never seen so many varieties of chocolates, sodas and breads.

When the social worker handed Jeja the bundle of food stamps, my eleven-year-old mathematical mind converted Deutschmarks into Afghanis. I am overjoyed at our wealth. But soon I realize we are not so rich after all.

In the unwisely chosen Ambassador Hotel in the red light district of Frankfurt, Afghan refugees are crammed in rooms too small for their families.  Most of these Afghans come from well-to-do families with big homes, servants and walled in compounds where family secrets are kept safe from outsiders. In 1979, when the Russian tanks rolled into Kabul the educated and wealthy Afghans were pushed right out of the country into foreign lands. Now, the Ambassador Hotel is a stew of frustration, discontent and lost hopes, wafting its foul smell through halls brightly lit with fluorescent lights.

Among the refugees, a thin, tall and self-important woman has appointed herself as advisor to all newcomers. We called her “Bossy Lady.” She gives advice on how to navigate the streets of Frankfurt, how to ride public transportation without paying and how to shop wisely to make food stamps last.

In Afghanistan, we ate fresh food, but living in a hotel room without a refrigerator or a stove, Jeja has to be creative with meals. Which is how we learn about canned food. Bossy Lady gives us sample cans of garbanzo beans, kidney beans, and a special meat called Spam, which she raves about; it is delicious, very cheap and it doesn’t go bad.

That night we had a feast: German rye bread, garbanzo beans, yogurt and sliced Spam. We love the salty and creamy texture of Spam and ask for seconds. Not knowing German or the ingredients of this magical meat, Jeja wonders how on earth did they make this beef so tasty, so long-lasting and so pink.

As we find our footing in our safe new world we slowly lose fears of exploding bombs, entrapment or being shot by Russian soldiers on the side of the road.  Since most of us are just passing through here on our way to our final destinations, we live an amorphous life.  Our days start and end without much structure except for breakfast.  Every day between 7:00-8:00 am all residents of the Ambassador Hotel meet for the only meal where we sit in a dining room with tables, clean starched white tablecloths, and proper serving dishes.  The servers offer tea, coffee or milk with soft warm rolls, eggs butter, and jam.  Since most of us left lives where we were served and treated with dignity, we cherish this one meal.

But on a random Tuesday, we again lose our footing.  We emerge from the elevator around 7:30 am to find a major commotion in the breakfast hall.   Women are wailing. Men look like they are mourning the death of their first-born son, and children are looking down into their hands with shame.  The Bossy Lady is in the center of the room, eyes wide open with the whites showing, hands flailing as she shares the horrible event that brings us disgrace.

It turns out a young Afghan man has befriended Germans and learned that Spam is not beef. Spam is short for Spiced Ham. This young man and his family sit in the corner of the room, far away from everyone, looking guilty, as if the whole Spam incident is their fault. You see, eating pork is a major sin in Islam and right there we have 300 pork eating Muslims.

The Afghan mothers who are expected to be the protectors of piety are tormented every day when they leave the hotel with their children in tow and have to pass windows dressed by nude prostitutes selling their bodies. Now they have to face the extra sin piled upon their families: the consumption of pork.

Finally, the Bossy Lady helps us find a way out of our conundrum by declaring that since everyone unknowingly participated in the Spam gluttony it is not a sin in the eyes of Allah. Her statement gives us all permission to accept our innocence. From that day on not a single can of Spam entered through the doors of the Ambassador Hotel, but it was too late for me. I could not forget its delicious taste.

* Bossy Lady is a fictional character built from a conglomerate of real do-gooders that helped our family during our three-month stay in the Ambassador hotel.

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Humaira Ghilzai is a writer, speaker and Afghanistan Cultural Consultant. Humaira opens the world to Afghan culture and cuisine through her wildly popular blog, Afghan Culture Unveiled. She shares the wonders of Afghanistan through stories of rich culture, delicious food and her family’s traditions. Humaira is a member of Women’s National Book Association, the MENA Theatre Mares Alliance Network, and a reader for the 2020 Bay Area Playwrights Festival. She’s currently working on her first novel, Unraveling Lives, which is set in San Francisco and Afghanistan.

Humaira’s writing has been published in Encore MagazineMataluna: A book of 152 Afghan Pashto Proverbs, and the Medium. Humaira is a contributor to Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories, sharing her tips on writing and a family story.

www.humairaghilzai.com


Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.