We’re a strange bunch. Those of us who grew up abroad but have made the decision to live in Afghanistan long term. And we’re strange for a variety of personal and collective reasons that could fill up pages (has anyone written that book yet? Or no wait, everyone has written that book). Sometimes these “quirks” make us look absolutely insane to friends and family who are not here and we’re often reminded of that on trips home. We sit over lunch on our brief visits back and it becomes very difficult to converse about regular topics because your contribution, as hard as you try, tends to have a splash of absurdity in it.
“So the other day my driver was saying…”
“Wait, what? You have your own driver?”
And suddenly the point of the story, whatever it was, is gone.
“Yes, we also have a cleaning lady…….a chawkidar is a man that opens the door and handles stuff around the house. Sometimes there’s more than one of them. Oh um… the office cook makes lunch…”
Insert sheepish look. Your eyes dart around the room for anyone who might be able to back you up here but they’re all back in Kabul or maybe in the same situation as you are.
You realize you’ve confused everyone because they probably assumed you wear a burka and quietly sneak cans of food to people in tents. There is a fine line between how luxurious our lives could be considered and on the other hand how we could be acknowledged as “roughing it” by living here. It’s all a matter of comparison, isn’t it?
Before I share how luxurious or sacrificial my daily life is, let’s remember there is a very broad spectrum. I will be the first to say that there are people who I consider “roughing it” that haven’t seen a soda or heard English in months. Then of course there are those in air-conditioned apartments that put Manhattan living to shame and the resident of this place has only “heard” of that scary world outside their walls. Let’s leave all that alone for now and I’ll just give you a list of examples from my own perspective.
Heating. I hate winter. I’ve recently pieced together that it’s because of my Eastern Afghanistan heritage. I was meant to be sipping cold yogurt drinks under palm trees, not participating in Toronto or Kabul winters. On one hand, I have a bukharee heating system in whichever room I’m in, pretty much for the whole winter (see earlier article “bukharee”). This is a life of luxury in a country where people freeze literally to death. Compared to my upbringing however, where central heating was not optional, here I feel frozen solid for at least 5 months of every year. And that is difficult to consider luxurious sometimes.
Food. We have a wealth of food and frankly most of it is better than you have in your grocery stores. I speak to anyone, anywhere outside of Afghanistan when I say that. I can also afford to eat enough food, treat myself to exquisite Afghan cuisine in restaurants and even to foreign delicacies like Cambodian, Japanese, Italian and Indian. I can stop at the vegetable and fruit stand and walk away with a car full of melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranates… you name it. And this is most certainly a luxury. I can afford it, unlike much of Afghanistan. But… on certain days I remember things like…. extra lean ground beef! Blueberries! Fruits and vegetables around ALL YEAR ROUND. We never have everything all at once and I’m not sure if I can even list certain products I miss because I have forgotten I miss them. Most raised-abroad Kabul residents can relate to this: I have anxiety when I first get back to the grocery stores I grew up with. Why are there so many different kinds of everything? HELP! I’d better buy all the blueberries and avocados before anyone else finds out they’re available! And if you saw my panicked expression when trying to pick out a cereal, you’d probably feel sorry for me instead of thinking I have a luxurious food life in Afghanistan.
Home! I love my home in Kabul. The garden is the kind that makes you want to write (or start to understand) poetry. Roses and fruit trees as far as the eye can see and even a volleyball net. The house itself is an adorable 60s style bungalow with a nice kitchen and a gorgeous zebra mural from who knows when. So yes, luxurious to no end, especially compared to the poverty around us. But just for good measure I’ll throw in that we often have no electricity (really often lately), we can’t catch a proper wifi signal and our roof is caving in. My room is so moldy from the damp ceiling that the white wooden closet has turned green. And we live with “there’s no water because the pipes are frozen” sometimes but it doesn’t seem to make the evening news the way it would in my Toronto community.
One more for good measure. Mostly for my girls. Grooming is in no way luxurious here, I can not pretend. But I can maybe surprise you. Eyebrows can be threaded cheaply, there are some places where you can get a good hair cut and OK there’s some makeup available in the more expensive shops. Should you want to be dolled up, it may not be the style you’re used to but there are plenty of fake lashes and beehives at your whim. There are some clothes here and there that I’m OK with. There are some brand name shampoos available. But unlike all the categories I’ve listed so far, this is the one where I don’t think lucky or luxurious is really a description that would pass. Maybe grooming is possible but glamour is certainly a difficult (impossible for me) task.
So except for that last one, which arguably shouldn’t matter at all (it does), I’m ok with all of the conditions. Depending on the mood of the day I, probably like most others who grew up elsewhere, shift from feeling lucky and feeling exhausted. But I try to remember daily at least one thing that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t here. And that list is long. We have calm yet adventurous, stressful yet rewarding, infuriating yet heartwarming lives here. And at the end of the day, I have the life I want and have chosen. I believe that choice in itself should always be defined as a luxury.