Saturday Story 27: History repeats itself
by Rashmi Bansal
Waking up on a cold November morning in Kabul is possible only under the influence of hot, sweet, milky tea. We are almost ready now. My sister Shamsa is getting her hair plaited, even though she will be wearing a burkha and no one will see anything. Except for her pretty green eyes, which are always alert. For danger could be lurking around the next corner…
“Hurry up, children. Eat your bread and off you go… or you’ll be late,” said Mother.
Did reaching late to school really matter, as long as one reached there? My poor sister Shamsa, only 4 years older than me, but she had matured into a young woman. The Taliban had declared that she – and all other girls – need not attend school anymore. Just like that. Shamsa cannot even step out of the house, without a male family member in tow. How unfair is that!
I take one last look at myself in the mirror and see a handsome young boy in a light blue shalwar-kameez. My sister is going to school – a secret school. And I am her alibi. We slip out of the house, our hearts beating a little bit faster. Walking at an unhurried pace, our eyes always cast downward. For who knows which guard might get offended…
Each day, we take a different route. I knew the gullys and alleys of the city like the back of my own hand. Sometimes, we go in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. In case we get stopped I say we were going to the market, to buy eggs. My aunt in Herat is shocked when she discovers the risks we take each day.
“Growing up without an education is a bigger risk,” my mother said to her, matter-of-factly.
It is a makeshift school, in the living room of a woman who was once a professor at the university. There are too many girls, sitting in cramped positions, straining their eyes (for curtains must remain drawn). In the winter it is actually quite cosy; the summer months are suffocating. But each one is eager to learn, and that’s all that really matters.
This charade is even more dangerous, for the teacher. A woman running a school just like ours recently got a public lashing. Why, even my father, a renowned doctor, lives under the shadow of fear. He is no longer allowed to treat female patients. But when a desperate husband rings our doorbell in the middle of the night, how can he possibly refuse?
As I walk my sister back after school, the sun peeks out from behind a cloud. For a moment, I forget everything. I want to skip along the stone path, eating chilgozas from my pocket. I want to go to Charahi Sadarat and visit Shah Book Co, where the air is filled with the fragrance of stories. I want to go to Baghe Babur for a picnic, with my sister wearing her frilly pink birthday dress.
“Shuker… you are both back safe and sound,” my mother said, as always.
Outside, it is still light, the boys in the neighbourhood are playing cricket. Shamsa raises her eyebrows, as if to ask, don’t you want to join them? I laugh and go into the other room, to practice my penmanship. I can spend hours, dipping my pen into ink. Writing and rewriting my alphabets, until they are perfect.
There is a knock on the door – Father is home early. And he has a special treat. A video cassette of an Indian movie, oh how we love watching them! Today, we will sleep later than usual. We will laugh and cry with Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. We will huddle around an old television and forget our troubles for a few hours. Until it is time once again.
To head out to school… not knowing if we we will come back.
A young woman is on the TEDxWomen stage, her eyes sparkling, hair loosely tied in a headscarf.
“Between 2001 and 2005, the Taliban banned education for girls in Afghanistan. For all those years, I dressed as a boy, so that I could take my sister Shamsa to a secret school.”
Homeira smiled as she replayed the YouTube video. Thanks to that ‘little boy’, Shamsa was now a doctor and she was a high school teacher. But this morning her class was almost empty,
“We are leaving Kabul,” read the terse message from a parent. “Aren’t you?”
Inspired by the real-life story of Shabana Basij-Rasikh, narrated in a TEDx talk.
Don’t miss the audio file: Inside the Author’s Mind: ‘Why I wrote History Repeats Itself’.