Telling her story in English

Farida first became a part of the InterestEng. family 4 years ago, when she could barely speak a full, short sentence in English.  She is now a senior at a private school in America and recently stood before an auditorium full of students and faculty members to tell her story—in near perfect English. She is a remarkable young woman—something that says much about the true character that is Afghanistan. We are extremely grateful to Farida for letting us publish her talk. 

WHEN I was a child, my grandmother would always tell my cousins and me stories about “the Afghanistan before the wars”. She talked about her garden, her peacocks, the big house they owned, her jewelry. Most of all, she was proud of her many friends. When they were young, they would gather every Friday. They would eat good food, dance, and sing all night. My grandma’s stories would end by saying, “and then there were the wars” and a big silence would follow.

My aunt would also tell us about her childhood and show us her college pictures. Some girls, in those black and white pictures, wore miniskirts and others wore jeans. Some of the girls had short, puffy hair and others had very long curly hair and next to them were boys who  wore suits. To me, however, the pictures of my aunt were just like a fictional movie. It was hard to believe that there was a building as beautiful as in the background of the pictures and women who wore miniskirts. That was not normal, I thought, because I had only seen women in burkas.

My mom’s stories did not make sense either. She would tell me about the Taliban and the wars. “I was carrying you in my arms and your sister on my back, when I was escaping the Taliban. I thought your dad had been killed,” she would tell me. I wondered how my mother could have done that at just 21-years-old. My mom’s exciting life sounded, to the young me, like a game of hide and seek.

With my three role models born at completely different stages of a rapidly changing Afghanistan, I began to question whose reality could be classified as “normal”. Was it my grandmother and aunt who saw their peaceful lives get destroyed by the wars?  Was it my mom who doesn’t know how life would be without the bombs? And where did my definition of normal fall into all of this?

My experience of “normal life” was in a Kabul that had bumpy and dusty streets, a few shops, destroyed houses that lacked either ceilings, walls, doors, or windows. There was no single building that looked nice, no peacocks, no electricity, not many cars, not many gardens, not even many educated people and books. However, when I was growing up, there wasn’t any Taliban to escape either.

The Afghanistan that I knew kept changing because I was part of a very lucky generation. I grew up seeing a country develop from scratch, from classes that took place outside where we sat on plastic mats to classes in tents and, eventually, to schools with buildings, libraries, and laboratories. I witnessed a country develop from not having any phones or TVs to one having internet and computers; from having foreign soldiers with guns pointed at us to walking in the streets without fear—despite the bombs. My life changed from gathering dead bullets for my collection to being a school student, from seeing women at home to being the girl who goes to school in the U.S. I am part of the lucky generation.

Although I did not know what normal was, I had concluded that my grandmother, aunt, and mother’s lives were not normal because they had lived in times of war. For them, leaving the house was illegal under the Taliban law. But twelve years after the Taliban had left Kabul, and women could go to schools, my life was normal because I attended the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan.

Then, in 2015, my definition of normal completely changed once again. That was the first year I came to school in the U.S.  I remember the very first day when my guardian and I arrived. A tall, big man, with a bigger smile on his face, welcomed us. Next to him was a woman whom I recognized from my interview. She was all I knew about the school and so I already liked it.

My first impression of American students, however, was that they were weird. As we drove up the hill to the school, we stopped by a group of students, who were screaming very loudly. Clearly that was not normal, and I had no idea what was going on. After an overwhelming orientation, I decided to call home instead of going to dinner. My mom picked up the phone and asked me if everything was fine.

-  All is well, I told her. Everyone is so nice here.

-  How is the food?

-  Mom, we had raw spinach for lunch.  They do not have naan bread for every meal and they do not drink tea after every meal.

My mom was shocked to hear it and worried if I could get used to not eating naan bread with my meals. My dad asked me if there were any issues other than food.

-  Yes, I told him. Their names are very hard; it is almost like a new English word to memorize each one.  As I was describing my day, there was a knock on my door. A prefect told me that dorm monitor wanted to talk to me.

     Of course I did not know what a dorm monitor was, so I did not expect to be in any sort of trouble. He asked me if I had gone to dinner. I was so impressed that he noticed that I hadn’t gone to dinner! Clearly the school wanted every student to stay healthy, I thought. “Don’t worry, I told him, I have food in my room.” He told me that he was glad I had something to eat but his concern was that I hadn’t checked-in. I did not know what that meant but I said that I was sorry for not going to dinner and I thanked him for coming. Later when I opened my email, I found out that I had gotten my first warning on my first day at school. It’s alright, I thought, every movie starts with a dilemma.

    My first year at school was like a movie. It was so different from home that it seemed like a fake life where I had to act like a sophomore girl from Afghanistan. The most shocking thing in this movie was, that there was not much difference between the adults and the kids. They all acted crazy: adults would dance in the school assemblies, and students did not call their teachers sir or madam. Instead they called the teachers either by their first or last names.

    However, to the “strange Americans,” I was the weird one. For example, when I was walk- ing to the sunset bench by myself, I saw a girl and boy sitting together. They seemed to enjoy the sunset view. They gave me a weird look as I sat on the chair next to them. I smiled and started gazing at the sunset but they stood up and left the bench. It wasn’t until I figured out that the boy and the girl were dating that I realized that I was the strange one. I was the one who had never played any sport.  I was the one who would try anything for the first time—and the one who was so used to wearing scarves that I could not, not wear them even if I did not believe that women had to wear scarves.

Afghanistan is also considered a strange country to the rest of the world. When I meet people in the U.S, as soon as I say I am from Afghanistan, their attitudes change. Some people start asking many questions—and while I really appreciate their effort to learn about my culture, sometimes it feels strange to have people be so interested in a place that is just home to me. Others will just say, “Oh, nice . . .” and we never talk again. My normal Afghanistan to the rest of the world was a war zone country, where men were aggressive and women were victims. Afghans were all very religious Muslims who disliked westerners and to them we were the “abnormal” people.

But the truth is, that the Afghanistan I know is different. My family does not represent the Afghans that the world knows. I am the daughter of a mom who went to school after the birth my fourth sister with the support of my dad. Although she could only continue her school until the tenth grade, she never stopped fighting for her kids’ education. My mom is not an oppressed Afghan woman; she is, in fact, the bravest and the strongest woman I know and she continues to impress me. I am the daughter of an Afghan man who works for women’s rights and who treats his wife equal to himself. My dad loves his daughters just as much as he loves his son and he values his daughters’ education just like he values it for his son. If it wasn’t for my dad, in fact, I would not be here at school today.

I’m from a country where women got the right to vote before women in the U.S. In my country my mom’s bravery and my dad’s love for us are normal. Girls wearing scarves, schools with- out classrooms, and teachers who don’t have their bachelor’s degree are normal. I’ve grown up in a country where people do not show their affection in public, where the majority of people struggle with poverty, gender issues, and wars. Afghanistan is home to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and even atheists. In this country, however, not many people know what peace is. My six year old brother telling me the number of people killed in an explosion is normal. The bombs are normal and protesting them is normal. Weddings with nearly a thousand people are normal. Helping strangers the way you help your family is normal. Resiliency and being hopeful is normal. Happiness, love, and education is normal. Working for a better life is normal. In my life missing home almost everyday and wishing that I could see my family is normal. Loving my country and being proud of it is normal.

But also, it seems to me that in America mass shootings are as normal as the bombs in my country. Being involved in war, for decades, is normal. Having only three female justices in the Supreme Court is normal and not having a female president is normal. The definition of “normal” conforms to the typical and average standard.

Maybe there is no “one” normal. Because, for example, I love my parents, my grandmother, and my aunts even though their lives were very different from mine. Although I am from Afghanistan, my “normals” are not just Afghanistan. Even more, not all Afghans are like me. Most of them are better than me, smarter and nicer than me. Many of them do not like scarves, and do not wear scarves, and many of them are more athletic than me. There is no “one” normal because my American school has become my second family. 

My school has showed me that there is no single definition of normal. And so, the next time you find yourself in a situation where you meet “different” people, accept the difference. Do not judge them because to them you are the different one. And, above all, do not try to change to fit into their “normal,” because there is no universal definition to normal.

Thank You. —Farida

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