I’m sure many of you can imagine that — as an American international development worker — it was a bit difficult to get out and about in Kabul. Compared to previous visits, it was obvious that the insecurity was greater and that we had to take many more precautions. This meant that we had fewer opportunities to see much of the city and the people who live in it outside of work-specific activities.
I was, however, fortunate to be invited to dinner with one of my colleagues, Baser, and his family. We are not often given the opportunity to socialize with our Afghan colleagues in this way because of the security context. Personal homes of staff may not have the protections and security features of the compounds where international workers live and work. But just as important, we would never want a visit to a staff member’s home to draw the attention of anyone who might disapprove of their association with the US or international forces, placing them at risk. Personal visits are carried out with extreme caution and in circumstances where everyone’s safety is part of the security plan.
Therefore, I was delighted when I and a few other expat colleagues were not only invited to Baser’s home, but the security team approved the visit!
In the days leading up to the dinner, Baser was clearly excited to have us visit his home. He repeatedly reminded us of the invitation and told us about the meal preparations. Since I and another colleague are vegetarian, there were going to be specific vegetarian dishes for us. And for anyone who remembers just how much Afghans love their meat and rice, this was special indeed!
One afternoon, Baser was explaining why he was putting together a dinner party at his home for expat colleagues. He told me a story of how he had worked at another organization with a man from an African country. Eventually, the African colleague’s contract finished, and he was preparing to leave. As they said farewell, his colleague mentioned that he felt he never really got to know Afghans. Baser asked him why he never visited anyone outside of work, and his colleague replied, “No one ever invited me to their house!” In that moment, Baser explained that he not only felt guilty for having neglected his poor, lonely colleague, but he resolved to invite all future expat colleagues to his home, so that they could know and better understand Afghans. Baser is also a friendly, outgoing person with a great sense of humor, so I also expect that these dinners are also an opportunity for him to get to know his international colleagues better as well as have a fun evening!
The evening of the dinner, several colleagues and I traveled to a part of Kabul that I had never visited before and found ourselves in a set of houses with high walls. As we climbed out of the car, we were immediately greeted by Baser, his father, and his daughter, Nastaran, who is around seven years old. The welcomed us warmly and inquired about the journey as they ushered us into a lovely courtyard garden, where Baser’s mother grows flowers and vegetables. Baser happily pointed out that the vegetarian dishes contained vegetables grown in the home garden.
We left our shoes in a pile at the front door, and we were ushered into a front room that was carpeted from wall to wall with traditional, red Afghan carpets. Around the walls of the room were placed comfortable golden cushions for sitting and leaning back. We settled onto the cushions, and Baser introduced us to his family, including his father, brothers, and daughter. They served us green tea and candies, and we sat talking for a long time while the final dinner preparations were being made. As we sat talking, more expats arrived, as the invitation had been extended to his brother’s colleagues and other friends who were working in and visiting Kabul, so we represented a very diverse group. It was very interesting to learn about everyone’s backgrounds and their friendship with Baser’s family.
As we sat and talked, Baser’s daughter, Nastaran, flitted in and out of the room. A beautiful and very intelligent girl, she understood English but didn’t speak very much. She was a bit shy — which is completely understandable in a room full of adult strangers — but Baser was clearly very proud of her and would gently encourage her to stay and talk with us. She would leave and then bring back a toy or her drawing book, and she felt more comfortable engaging with us one on one, showing us her doll or her drawings.
Eventually, it was announced that dinner was ready, and we were led upstairs to an even larger room, which was longer and more rectangular. It was also carpeted from wall to wall with traditional, deep red Afghan carpets, and golden cushions also lined the walls of this room. But down the center of the room was a long table cloth or liner, and dishes of food had been placed all the way down! We walked into a room and were presented with an absolute feast. There were plates piled high with lamb and chicken kebabs on skewers, marinated and grilled specially by a family friend who is praised for his chef skills. There were dishes piled high with traditional Afghan naan bread as well as large plates of kabuli pulao (a rice dish that is traditionally made with lamb, raisins, carrots, and spices). There was vegetable salad as well as plates with fresh fruits — bananas and apples.
Baser directed me and the other vegetarians to one end of the feast, indicating that our special vegetarian dishes were waiting for us there. Knowing my love of bolani — an Afghan vegan flat-bread that is baked or fried with a vegetable filling, often sold by street vendors — there was a full plate of them made fresh by his mother! There were also several plates of mantu, a dumpling that can be made with beef or veggie filling, topped by chickpeas and a yogurt sauce. And bowls of dal, a spicy red lentil dish. Yum!
Before tucking in, we were introduced to Baser’s mother, Amina, who had cooked much of the amazing food. She greeted us warmly with hugs and kisses, making us feel welcome despite the fact that she didn’t speak much English. We all sat down on the cushions, and Baser’s father invited us to join in a pre-meal prayer. One of Baser’s other friends may have a background in theology because he was invited to pray, and he offered a brief non-denominational (but based in the Judeo-Christian tradition) thanks for the food and our hosts. After the prayer, there was a friendly conversation about Islamic pre-meal prayers and Christian pre-meal prayers, and we found quite a few similarities as well as a few interesting differences, noting that Islamic prayers tended to offer more general thanks and not identify specific people in the room.
We then enjoyed our meal together. The food was fantastic! But the company was even better. Baser’s wife, Jamila, joined us, and she settled down with Baser and Nastaran to eat. Jamila was very kind, but reserved, and she glowed with a quiet pride as Baser proudly explained that she was in the final year of her Master’s degree. Not only was that a huge accomplishment, but Baser explained that when they were first married, Jamila had not been educated, so he had not only helped her to receive a basic education, but that he had supported her continuing on through college and a graduate degree. When I asked her what she’d like to do next, now that she will graduate, Jamila shyly told me that she planned to find a job and work while Baser goes back to school. Baser agreed and laughed saying that they were taking turns, and that he had his Master’s and was hoping to go back and complete a PhD.
Over the course of the evening, I was able to have conversations with different members of Baser’s family, and they are all fascinating people and were incredibly kind and generous hosts. I am grateful that Baser invited us to his home and gave us the opportunity to enjoy a family dinner and meet his wonderful family. Inevitably, the evening ended too quickly and we had to depart, but everyone was laughing, hugging, and expressing genuine affection as we said good-bye.