By Alma Begum*
On the corner of the alley where I live is a mansion that is secluded and mysterious. Its large gate is always locked and its tall walls, shadowed by trees and barbed wire, seem out of reach. There’s a tiny door for the mansion’s occupants but it has been closed for years, keeping people at such a distance that they don’t even feel the urge to touch its rusted iron. Until yesterday, I didn’t know that people were living in that mansion. That’s when I encountered Bibi Haji*. When she provided details about the mansion – “We have five rooms and a huge basement” – I couldn’t visualize it.
Bibi Haji is an attractive 68-year-old woman from northern Afghanistan. To paraphrase Dostoevsky: “The remnants of a lost beauty can still be seen on her face.” Her black eyes, arched eyebrows, and, most notably, her focus when talking draw people to her. Bibi Haji lives with her daughter, son-in-law, and her granddaughters. Though her sons have all emigrated, she chose to stay in her hometown. Now that her youngest daughter and grandchildren intend to leave Afghanistan, she has reluctantly agreed to migrate.
When I ask why she’s relocating, she hesitates, then says, “This house is like the Kaaba to me, but because of the girls, I have to go.” Since the Taliban takeover in 2021, her granddaughters have tried to stay strong and cope with the upheavals. Bibi Haji’s four granddaughters are each more beautiful and captivating than the other. One has completed university, and the others are either in university or finishing school when their dreams vanished due to the Taliban decrees prohibited girls from higher education.
But then an event worse than the closure of schools and universities happened. The four sisters stubbornly refused to explain what occurred. However, a close family acquaintance told me that a newly promoted Taliban commander, who already has three wives and fifteen children, fell in love with the eldest sister. He sent proposal after proposal to the family living behind that closed door. They respectfully declined every offer, but the warlord persisted, repeatedly voicing his desire. Feeling they had no choice, the family decided to flee.
Initially, they thought about going to Pakistan, but Bibi Haji preferred anywhere over Pakistan. Then they considered Iran. Again, Bibi Haji was reluctant, stating she didn’t have a good feeling about Iran when questioned why she didn’t want to migrate there. After much deliberation, the family unanimously chose Uzbekistan. From there, they will try to move to Germany.
To move to Uzbekistan, they needed more money than they would if they were migrating to Pakistan, they mortgaged their house. A friend of mine (let’s call her Sara) took the mortgage. I encountered Bibi Haji as she was coming to her old house to give final instructions. Bibi Haji tried to hold herself upright, but her back was bent with age and work. She gave the new occupants instructions regarding the trees, grape vines, and most importantly, her basement. “I built this house brick by brick with my own hands. When we were setting it up, there was no one else in this alley with a house. But now, surrounded by tall buildings, our house seems the smallest and the lowest,” she says. Bibi Haji sighs as she gazes at the foundation of the house.
Beautiful lanterns were embedded in the ceilings. The vibrant colours of the walls were captivating. Everything in this house was lovely but old. This age added value to items, making it harder for Bibi Haji to part with them. Yet, to help finance their journey, she had sold many of her belongings for a pittance.
She wanted to stretch her hands to touch the walls, carpets, lanterns, windows, and everything else, but she was advised to hold herself together and bid the house a firm goodbye. She kept reminiscing, delaying the inevitable farewell. She spoke of her sons’ attempts to take her abroad and how she had always chosen her home. She lamented, “The girls in this land are oppressed. It’s their time now. I’ve lived my life. There’s no school, no university, no jobs …” She clearly wanted to mention the marriage proposals by the Taliban commander but didn’t.
Every breath she took was painful — the pain of leaving a house where she had lived for 40 years. “Haji stays here,” she says with deep sorrow. She is referring to her husband, who passed away years ago and was buried in Kabul.
“We must leave for the girls’ sake,” she finally says. Her granddaughters dream of living in Germany where they can pursue their desired fields of study. Bibi Haji’s face would light up and she seemed a bit more resilient when she talked of those girls. She is a strong-willed woman who placed her memories, love, keepsakes, and assets in the future of her granddaughters. She is leaving a place she loves so that her granddaughters can grow and prosper, rather than remaining trapped here, forced to become a second, third, or fourth wife of a Taliban commander.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writer. Alma Begum is the pseudonym of a journalist in Afghanistan.