The first thing I have noticed is the light. In the late afternoon the sun is low in the sky. Its light streams in through the window, and from where I sit the sun will traverse the gap between the top of the window frames and the top of the outer wall outside. The window frames, an elegant bit of fancy woodwork, hold dozens of panes of glass, and throw convenient shadows for my eyes to hide behind.
It is summer in Afghanistan, and the sunlight comes right through the window, directly onto me. I should cook, and yet through some architectural magic, the light is soft, cool, and diffuse. There is a notebook in my hands, and if I hold it one way, it is bathed in light. Tilt it slightly, and it plunges into shadow. Balance it just in between, and the texture of the paper pops up into high relief. Every fiber stands out, and the graphite letters all but glow.
It is tea time, and an informal ceremony has developed between me and the house cook. At this time of day, lunch is cleaned up, dinner is slowly cooking on the stove, and the kitchen is relaxed. I can visit him now, and his mute assistant serves me a little drink or snack. Today it is black tea and small sugar cookies. Every day we do this. On Sunday I had bread and grape juice.
We sit at a small table in the middle of the room. It is a very nice kitchen; inlaid marble floor beneath my bare feet, marble countertops, and wood cabinets to match the window frames. The spices in the meat he’s cooking and the cheerful Pashto music from the radio greet my other senses. It is pleasant in every direction.
Our cook is an artist, with an artist’s passion, and every day he asks me for new recipes to cook. So far, every day I have had to let him down. But recipes are coming. Things just move slowly in a war.
The war is outside, we are inside. We are inside, and the cook is learning English, with my help. He wants to learn to write, and we’ve scrounged an admirable collection of teaching tools. This is his notebook in my hands, and he’s transcribed the words of a Canadian writer I’ve lately come to admire. The text he has copied is from a haunting essay on lonliness, though my student’s purposes are merely to practice the mechanics of writing English words. His handwriting is clean, unadorned, and elegant; the handwriting you’d expect from a gentle, thoughtful, and artful cook.
And the sudden, searing fusion of talent stuns me. The light, so perfectly controlled by some unknown architect; the cook’s handwriting, with its careful, pretty letters lovingly scratched in humble pencil; and the words– those magnificent words from a mind living a world away. I sip the sweet tea and let in some bars of music and dwell in one of those moments that one wishes could last forever. I run my fingers across the letters of the page, my fingertips greedy to feel the beauty that they know my eyes can see. I completely forget to check for spelling errors, but I don’t really care.
Eventually, I have to hand back the notebook. The cook’s handwriting is fine, our task now is reading comprehension. He has my copy of Tales of Afghanistan (by Amina Shah, ISBN 0-900860-94-4), and we are slowly translating The Unforgettable Sneeze back into Pashto. He’s never heard of the story before. He doesn’t know any stories. Afghanistan has been at war for thirty years, and he has had no father to tell him stories.
The Unforgettable Sneeze is a story about a cook.
” ‘…once he was seated, the Amir Abdur Rahman did not expect to be kept waiting.’ What does it mean, this ‘expect’?” It means the things one thinks are going to happen. We discuss this, and I see a need to demonstrate. We both stand up, he plays the part of Amir Rahman, the king, and I am lowly Akbar, the cook. I tell him I will serve him, as he expects. “Rahman” sits down, and I humbly place the plate of cookies in front of him. So far so good.
He stands again so that I can do something he won’t expect. After he takes his seat, I slap the back of his head. He laughs out loud. “Expect!” he cries. He gets it. We end up laughing about this a lot, because the slap was actually very funny.
We work out some other ideas, and eventually he has a sentence in Pashto he is happy with. But now already the hour has passed, and the sun hits the concrete wall outside our house. Tea time is over.
I am happy with his sentence too. At the pace we are moving, it will be more than a week before we finish this simple, three-page story. But in his neat, clean handwriting, he will have a work that he can take home and read to his children. An Afghan work. An Afghan story written in an Afghan hand. One catches a glimmer of hope that civilization can rise here again.
How did I ever get to be at the center of such breathtaking beauty?
UPDATE: July 16, 2008
Yesterday, we finished translating The Unforgettable Sneeze. Here it is in Pashto. Alert readers will notice that the story title appears on Page 2. Don’t mind that; that was just part of the cook’s method for keeping his (increasingly cluttered) notebook organized.