By Tamim Ansary
[Note: This story is from a larger rumination about being or not being “Afghan enough”: I was born in Afghanistan, my father was Afghan, my mother was American, I grew up over there, I came here in my mid-teens, and I have lived in America ever since. So…it’s complicated.]
Some time in the nineties, long before 9/11 but after the Soviet invasion that drove millions of Afghans out of Afghanistan, my aunt and uncle came to town. They were among those millions of refugees and exiles, and they had put down roots in Colorado but they came to Concord that summer to visit some old friends from Afghanistan, people I didn’t know. My Afghan sense of etiquette kicked in, and I insisted they come to San Francisco so I could host them so lavishly that my generosity would become the stuff of legends for generations to come. The words “come see me” were scarcely out of my mouth when I realized I had stepped into a steaming pile of faux pas. It was quite rude of me, a youngster, to suggest that my uncle, an elder, come to my house. I should have gone to him. But it was too late, my uncle had already put his host on the phone to make arrangements.
The host, this fellow I didn’t know, said “Where is your house, Tamim-jan? We’ll come to see you tomorrow.”
I coughed in embarrassment. Actually, tomorrow was not going to be ideal. Tomorrow was my daughter’s birthday.
“Wonderful,” said the stranger on the phone. “My daughter was born around this time too. We’ll celebrate both their birthdays, all of us together.”
He didn’t understand. We were middle-class Americans. Birthdays were important family events. Our child’s birthday could not be demoted to an afterthought. We had rented a party room at House of Fun, invited a dozen kids, made up goody bags of party favors, created an elaborate birthday menu, organized games, hired a clown. We couldn’t just mix a bunch of elderly Afghan relatives into the event and call it Afifa’s birthday too. For one thing the Americans would assume they were supposed to have brought gifts for the other kid as well—a girl I had never met and they’d never heard of. But I couldn’t tell this guy that my aunt and uncle had to visit me on some day that would not inconvenience our six-year-old. I would never live down the insult. There was only one way to handle the problem.
“Tomorrow is too far away,” I gushed. “I can’t wait that long to see my aunt and uncle. Can’t you come today?”
And so it was decided: they would drive in from Concord and we would have a picnic in gorgeous Golden Gate Park.
I said to Debby, “Look, it’s four hours before they come, we’ve got just enough time to rush to the store, buy ingredients, and cook up a fancy Afghan meal to put in the refrigerator. Because it’s imperative that we fetch them home after the picnic and spread out a banquet.”
Debby was puzzled. Bring them home after a picnic for a banquet? It didn’t make sense.
But she didn’t know us Afghans. “Just take my word for it.”
We rushed about and by noon, when the doorbell rang, we had the food all cooked and hidden away out of sight..
My uncle introduced me to the engineer and his wife. “All these years we have lived in the Bay Area and you have never called us,” the engineer’s wife reproached me.
“How could I call you? I don’t even know you,” ” I protested. “We never met, did we?”
“Wai!” Engineer-sahib exclaimed. “You don’t know me? When your grandmother left the village, whose donkey do you suppose she rode?”
It sounded like a trick question. I blushed and said nothing.
“My father’s!” he burst out.
“How did our families know each other?” I was fool enough to ask.
“’Know each other?’ Our families? We’re the same family! What has happened to you here in the United States? Hamburger-hot dogs-coke!”
“How are we related then?” I just had to know.
“We’re both descended from Hajji Sahib, Sheikh Sa’duddin-i-Ansary, the never-forgotten, may his name always be green,” the engineer swore solemnly.
Sheikh Sa’duddin. My quadruple-great grandfather. That took us back to the mid-18th century. Our ancestral lines had branched apart only 150 years ago and yet I treated them like strangers!
I felt chagrined, and privately vowed not to let my hospitality fall short now that I knew who they were. Well, we went to the park and had a picnic and there, while my uncle was lolling against a tree and quoting a couplet from Hafiz, a terrible thing happened.
I looked up just in time to realize it was going to happen. The younger daughter of these distant relatives of mine stood at the edge of the road, poised like a sprinter waiting to hear the gun. A car was coming, and I saw that the little girl was judging the speed and distance of the car, and then, even from fifty feet away I could tell she had decided she could make it, she could bolt now and get across the road safely. And even from fifty feet away, I could tell she was wrong.
But fifty feet was too far away to intervene. What happened took about half a second to happen—the girl bolting, the car hitting her, that little seven year old body flying through the air and landing in the grass with an audible thump, the car belatedly screeching as the driver applied her brakes.
Then—a moment of stillness. Then—a flurry of hurry as we and several dozen strangers rushed to the girl. She was crying and struggling to sit up. Her mouth was bloody and her front teeth were gone. Someone looked for them in the grass, as if that would help, but found nothing.
My uncle, great and gentle soul that he was, realized that the seven year old was not the only one in trouble there. The teenaged driver who had hit her was sitting by the side of the road with her head in her hands, in deep shock, rocking to and fro. My uncle kneeled next to her and put his coat around her shoulders to stop her shivering. An ambulance came and loaded up our girl—who was walking and talking by now. It was agreed that her father and I would go to the hospital. The others would go to our house and await the news. Before we parted ways, I whispered to Debby, “Make sure to get the food into the oven and warmed up. There had better be a hot meal waiting when Engineer Sahib and I return from the hospital.”
The news was better than it could have been. The girl had suffered no internal injuries, no concussion, no broken bones. The blood was all from where her teeth had been knocked out. She had come out of this okay. She was given a powerful sedative, which put her to sleep in the car. We carried her into the house and set her in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Debby had covered the table with the sumptuous spread we had cooked earlier, and the company sat down to eat. The parents of the injured girl assured us they felt much relieved, now that they knew their child would be okay, and that it was best to let her sleep a while. A sociable air appeared out of the rubble of the day’s events. Poetry was spoken. Food was praised. Eventually, jokes were cracked and a song attempted. A few times the father left the room–to use the bathroom, I assumed, but actually, it turned out, to make discrete phone calls. After a couple of hours had gone by, and after a whispered consultation with each other, the girl’s parents apologetically stirred in their seats and with much embarrassment for ruining this cheerful occasion, begged leave to set off for home. I automatically did salah, the generosity ritual: “Where are you going at this hour? Stay! This home is your own. Spend the night!”
Shamefacedly, Engineer-sahib then revealed the information he’d been keeping hidden, something he had learned at the hospital. The girl hadn’t actually lost her front teeth. When she hit the sidewalk, they’d rammed up into her gums. When the father slipped off to make those discreet calls, he was talking to her dentist, describing the situation, and asking if the teeth could be saved. The dentist was telling him that very likely yes, they could be if they could be drawn down, but it would have to be done that day. If they could arrive before the office closed for the day, he would do the job. Engineer Sahib felt he then had an ethical dilemma. He didn’t want to insult my hospitality by running off in the face of the feast we had prepared.. He had an obligation to be gracious. So he told me nothing, he and his wife hunkered down to behave like good guests, all the while dying inside as they calculated how thin to cut the measure of their staying or leaving.
I was angry that he had kept me out of the loop—angry that he and his wife had risked making me the reason their child might lose her teeth, angry that they had not given me any role in the decision about what I would or would not cause. But I saw that I still had a reputation to save: I couldn’t let my anger show. We went out onto the porch, and there the Engineer’s wife began to clap her hands with delight.
Because a magpie had landed on their car. There it stood on the rack, swinging back and forth, balanced over its skinny legs, its black and white tail extended for balance. “It’s a magpie,” she said.
“When a magpie comes to your house, it’s good luck,” her husband quietly informed me. “Now, if God wills it, we don’t have to worry so much.”