Hospitality is a wonderful thing to experience. Over the past few days I’ve received incredible hospitality from the most unusual sources.
In preparation for this work in Afghanistan I have been trying to learn a few words in Dari, one of the two official languages (with Pashto) of Afghanistan. Canada does not have a monopoly on bilingualism! Anyway, in order to learn Dari I have been having regular meetings with Akbar, an Afghan who is now living in Charlottetown. His is one of five families from the Afghan diaspora who has settled on the gentle island, and we are all the better for the diversity they and others bring to our shores.
Akbar comes to my house a couple of times a week, we drink tea and eat almonds, and he tries to help me get my tongue around the kh and other sounds of the Dari alphabet.
Last week I got a call on my cell phone. From the resulting polygot of English and Dari I learned that my caller was the father of the wife of Akbar, and he wanted to welcome me to Kabul. I invited him over to the office and he arrived with a friend, the father of the boy to whom Akbar’s daughter has been engaged. The boy is studying in Norway, and the girl lives on PEI, so the two families had the engagement party in Kabul and wanted me to take a CD of the video back with me.
Of course I agreed, and we drank tea and talked. The two men are engineers, responsible to survey the country and to locate sub-surface water which can be used for human consumption and irrigation in this dry land. Despite the difficulties of terrain, of security, and of resources to get out to the provinces, they have continued this work though the past decades of violence.
Before they left they invited my colleague Jim and I, and our interpreter, to lunch. We accepted immediately! A couple of days later we got in the car and drove to Akbar’s father-in-law’s house. Of course we had to tell people where we were going, and leave contact coordinates and cell numbers and the like, but that’s just a fact of life here and I almost forgot to mention it.
At the house we entered a living room filled with carpets, and carpet-covered cushions around the edges of the room. A wood stove provided heat, and there were large windows letting in light. We sat down and talked for a while, exchanging pleasantries. Then we moved into the next room, which was similarly furnished except for the lunch laid out in the centre. There was Kabuli pilaw, an incredible combination of rice cooked with carrots, pine nuts, raisins, and roasted lamb. There was roasted lamb in a sauce of spiced oil, tomato and pepper salad, fruit, thick creamy yoghurt – and, of course, thick rounds of naan bread! We ate, and talked, and ate some more. Everything was delicious, and afterwards we returned to the other room for tea and pistachio nuts, talked a little more, and took some photographs.
I was moved by the fact that I had been invited into the home of someone who did not know me, whose connection to me was tenuous at best. And yet, he and his family had provided a meal that will long stay in my memory.
The next evening I was a guest at the Canadian Embassy, at a dinner hosted by the Defence Attache. There were some other Canadians there, some guests from England and France, and two senior Afghan officers. We first met in a small living room, with a wood fire burning in the grate. There were fine paintings on the wall, with couches and armchairs placed around the edges of the room. Nobody sat down – we stood around and were introduced to each other. Then we moved in to the next room, which was similarly furnished except for the table set in the middle of the room. We had homemade soup and then a fish course, then beef Wellington followed by a pineapple mousse dessert. Coffee concluded the meal, which was also delicious. Afterwards we talked a little more, and took some photographs.
I was greatly moved by something I had never seen before. At the end of the dining table, separate from it but close by, was another table. This was set for one, with an empty chair for the absent guest, representing the comrades who had not returned. There were many symbols in the place setting – the white tablecloth representing purity of intention, the single flower to represent the families left behind, the slice of lemon symbolic of their bitter fate, the inverted glass because they are not here to join us in a toast. And the candle, a sign of hope, that through their sacrifices the world will be a better place.
Two houses, located only a few kilometres apart in the same city. In both houses a meal, shared by both Afghans and Canadians. I am grateful to be able to enjoy such hospitality, to enter in to such conversations. It is through having such social activities together that we can get to know the ‘other’, and to realize that we ourselves are ‘other’ to their world.