When I think “Afghanistan,” I think of a faraway country in the middle of nowhere, a yellow desert where rare people are all covered in gray sheets, protecting them from the hot sun. I’ve never been there, and I’ve never met an Afghan person. I know nothing about that place—at times I even wonder if it truly exists. I’ve never checked it with my own eyes, never felt it on my own skin.
But Afghanistan moves something inside me, a feeling, a motion, a disturbing sensation. Afghanistan is more than a place under a killing sun. It is a feeling from deep inside me. On the surface, it may comprise various geographical references: countries like Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, or Saharan Africa. We are so far apart, so alien to one another, and yet, thinking of those places, I feel as if a strong and old experience of them hides somewhere deep inside my body.
My Afghanistan feeling is a complicated emotion. It’s not anxiety. It’s more like a lurking apprehension, as if I’m in hiding in a dangerous place that I cannot escape, as there is no exit. Maybe that’s what it is: my fear of locked places, my claustrophobia?
I felt Afghanistan that morning last year when I learned about US troops leaving Afghanistan. The beats of my heart slowed for a few moments, and my mind spun: What happens to Afghanistan?! Then I minded my small, little life, and my Afghanistan feeling faded away. Me here, Afghanistan on the other side of the planet or on a totally different planet. I’ve never been there; I know no Afghan person…
Indeed, I felt Afghanistan again last fall. That feeling was right there, awakening from the depths of my guts, rising from so far inside me that its exoticism could hardly even touch me, and yet it was so close that I could smell it. You cannot avoid smelling Afghanistan. It is the odor of dry COVID. It blocks your nostrils and fills your lungs with unbreathable, scratching flows of air, until you feel like you are bleeding from your trachea, suffocating.
Late last fall, on a quiet morning, I was reading e-mails, including the October issue of ROOM, which published letters from young students from Afghanistan—cries for help and hope. They wrote about how they were getting locked outside the planet Earth, how they were refused education. Again that Afghanistan feeling reared up inside me, confusing my thinking, like a thick fog engulfing my brain. All sounds faded away in my ears, lost far away.
The words started dancing on the screen; I couldn’t read anymore. In a flashback, I saw my mother as a fourteen-year-old, in 1959, heart trembling, looking for her name on the admissions list in the yard of the best high school in the city of Bucharest. I tried to read on her face the emotion she felt when she saw her name, the third from the top: Admitted—No Place. She’d passed the exams to go to high school, third-best result, but there was no place for her. Daughter of a kulak, born and raised in a village in the middle of nowhere in South Romania, my mother was refused, at fourteen, the right to higher education. Like the young girls today in Afghanistan.
People who knew nothing about the existence of that daughter of a hardworking peasant family, with her blond hair braided in two thick tails and her innocent sky-blue eyes, had ruled that she was not allowed to study at any high school in the country, despite her academic excellence. My mother was punished because her father owned lands: he was a middle-class kulak.
And a kulak he remained: he never signed up for the collectivization, for the loss of his lands and all his tools and carriages and horses. Yes, the horses… They took away his beautiful black horses, ripping his kulak heart from his chest… And he took a job in town.
The Russian occupation imposed a Communist government in Romania after World War II, and they bound my mother away from school before she could even understand that her father’s creed of belief in hard work, the Good Lord, and the mighty king was not state policy anymore. The new political regime demanded that they change their beliefs, forgot about God and the king, and replaced them with…nothing.
My grandparents continued to believe in the Bible and in the king. My parents taught me, too, about Christ and the kings of Romania. Never in words—it was too dangerous to be spoken aloud—but they showed them to me: every year on my mother’s birthday, May 10, we took family trips to the Royal Cathedral and the kings’ tombs. I learned only later that there were kings buried there and that it so happened that May 10 was also the last Romanian king’s birthday. But I was always aware of that Afghanistan feeling lurking around these special days and special places. There was this thick sadness, although we were supposed to celebrate, as if we had to stay in hiding, in a place with no exit. Maybe a tomb?
Still striving to give his fourteen-year-old daughter a future, my grandfather bribed a principal of a technical school to leave the “kulak origin” mention out of my mother’s file. For two years, she trained to manufacture matches. At sixteen, she was rewarded for being such a hardworking student: they gave her a red booklet that said she was a member of the Communist Party. Eventually that allowed her to go to high school, but only for night classes. That was her purgatory.
When all doors are closing, you open new ones, they say. At sixteen, my mother became a hard worker in a factory two hundred miles away from home and kept going on with her life. But she would never train for that academic career she had dreamed of.
She kept her creeds to herself, and she did as she was told. She closed up and became dumb to the world, never understanding the Communist ideas and never contradicting them. She followed her path, opening greedily and eagerly every single door she could open: the factory, the night-classes high school, and later her family.
The image of my mother reading that admissions list faded away. The letters on the laptop screen came back together in words. I could feel the despair of those Afghan women. I could feel Afghanistan. Doors locking the world away, far away, to another planet.
The beats of my heart ran faster and faster as a new painful thought lit up my mind, pulling up from the depths of the past a new stream of memories. This time I saw myself walking down the street in the sad city, my nose blocked by the stink of the days-old garbage spread all around, taking big steps to avoid debris and holes left by the reconstruction enthusiasm of a totalitarian regime. I remembered, deep in my lungs, the feeling of the gray-iced air of my adolescent winters, in the freezing, unheated apartment we called home. And I realized how much Afghanistan I experienced in the first years of my life.
I saw again the large ground floor of Eva Department Store downtown, with only one model of shoe: it was half shoe, half sandal, closed in front and open at the back, an elegant, fashionable leather model, with sharp points and low heels and a small leather bow under each ankle to mask the elastic bond that made them just a little more than slippers.
The shoes came in two colors: blue on the left wall and brown on the right, perfectly aligned on the glittering mirror shelves. I remembered my mother inviting me to choose, with the same Afghanistan expression on her face. We still had the freedom to choose between blue and brown! That shade of blue was the color of my school uniform, and I saw it again, years later, on the blue burkas of the Afghan women. Yes, it was exactly that burka blue, but on shoes… I hated blue: we wore identical blue uniforms at school every day—like blue burkas. It felt so Afghanistan!
I chose the light-brown ones. Boring brown shoes, like the brown shadows on the walls in my room when I lit the gas lamp to study for medical school—in the late 1980s, in the large cities of Romania, they were limiting electricity and heating every night at dark. It made me feel like I lived in a tomb. Or maybe in Afghanistan.
I pushed back those memories. I almost shouted out loud, “No! We cannot go back there! It will never happen again! I refuse!” And I felt I needed to know more about the place those cries for help came from: I googled “Afghanistan.” I found pictures of Afghanistan in the 1970s, with women wearing their hair and faces free, with big smiles and big bunches of books in their arms, and then I found the blue burkas of the Taliban regime. What happened to Afghanistan?!
Those burkas are the concrete representation of my Afghanistan feeling: hiding, with no exit, no escape. I am trying so hard to forget (while I am so unable to forgive) my mother’s confusing despair when reading, Admitted—No Place, my own despair choosing between blue and brown for the unique model of shoes, or my freezing in the black nights in the dark unheated apartment, and the despair of the young Afghan girls writing these letters. I have to. I need to. I need to forget, to survive, and to enjoy my life today. So, when I feel Afghanistan, I feel that thick fearful sadness of those special family trips to special places on those special birthdays of my childhood, and I keep faith.
I wrote the lines above, about my experience of reading the letters from Afghani readers in ROOM 10.21 just a couple of months before Russia invaded Ukraine, on February 24, 2022. I wrote about my Afghanistan feeling on a quiet morning, living on the free side of Earth. Writing, I was thinking about how people living in the free part of Earth wear their own burkas of denial of the existence of evil. We prefer to ignore what happens outside those narrow circles we keep drawing daily around our small, little lives, the same way Taliban Afghans prefer to ignore the evil temptations from the women hidden under the burkas. At times, that ignorance becomes the official policy of the very state… Or even of the States…
We willingly ignore evil, unless it directly harms ourselves, even here in Romania, where only three decades ago we wrote letters like those coming from Afghanistan today. And yet what am I to do with this struggle inside me against my Afghanistan feeling every single time I remember it? It is my burka, my inescapable place; it stays with me wherever I go on earth or on another planet. I grew up feeling Afghanistan. It fuels my hopes and my power to look for the next open door.
How do I feel today, living in Bucharest, only two hundred miles from the border with Ukraine? I feel, again, Afghanistan. Or maybe today, I feel Ukraine… But I will write about my Ukraine feeling on another quiet morning, maybe.
- Daniela Andronache holds degrees in foreign languages, law, and psychology. She is a professional translator (Romanian, English, French, Italian, and Portuguese) with a large portfolio of psychoanalytic and psychological work. Currently, she is translating the Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of the IPA. Following a twenty-year career in management, she has, since, 2009, been dedicated to the study of psychoanalysis. She is now a psychoanalyst in training, living and working in Bucharest, Romania.
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