Despite tiptoeing through the feces drops, I was very excited to get started with my new pupils. I didn’t really know how we were going to communicate, what materials I was going to use to teach them English, or if I was going to be blown up along the route or at the schoolhouse, but I was excited. After the day of initial introductions in the English Department, Salar was displaced to hang out with the principal and vice principal in their shared office space, drinking chai. Although this move would not make it easier for the Americans and the Afghans to communicate with each other, it was important for the Afghans to practice English without the temptation to fall back into their native tongue. No safety nets. And we wanted the women to be comfortable with us; we wanted them to trust us, and we wanted to prove ourselves trustworthy. Although Salar had been effectively neutered through his familial ties, he was still an Afghan male in a room of Afghan women. He had to go.
On this day, our convoy traveled through the streets of Kabul again, entered the tin gate again, and we were enveloped with joyful children in the courtyard again. There were only three of us working with the women on this visit, two Colonels and me, a Captain. The introductions took longer without Salar there to translate, but the women were also much more talkative and demanding without him around. The demure attitudes were just an act. After the initial ritual of cheek kissing and head nodding, we got down to serious business with phonic flashcards. While looking at pictures of white faces with orange hair holding things like apples or pears and cards of pigs with curly cue tails that none of the Afghan women could identify, the woman who was introduced as the head of the English department called me over to her group.
Her Afghan name began with a B, but I never learned to pronounce it properly, so I asked her if I could call her Big Bertha. Big Bertha was the hardest one to win over and the most demanding and unrelenting in her requests and expectations. She once asked me if something was a gerund, and I had no idea. After that, she barely tolerated me for weeks. Luckily for me, she liked the nickname Big Bertha.
“Naaanceee,” she began, drawing out the letter “A” in my name, “I ask you to write me the names for things. Do you do that?”
“Of course I can write the names down for you, B. Which names do you want?”
“I ask names of this,” she states as she points to her mid-section.
Easy. Give me a hard one, Big B. “Stomach,” I say matter-of-factly.
“No!” She ordered and rolled her eyes. She rolled her eyes! Did that do that in Afghanistan, and does it mean the same thing as it does when I do it in America?
“Not this,” she jabs at my stomach. “This!” She kept pointing at what I refused to acknowledge was anything other than her midsection. I looked around helplessly for Nazaneen. Where was Nazaneen?! She will know what Big B wants from me. I will even allow them to break our rule of “English only” so that Big B will be pleased and I will stop sweating. After several minutes of Dari or Pashtu, Nazaneen translates, “She wants you to write the parts under your clothes.” No safety nets.
If I could have a picture of my face in that second, I imagine it looked like those reveal moments when it’s dawning on someone that she is on a hidden camera show. I was paralyzed and still in total denial of what she was asking me to do. Write down the names for “the parts under our clothes.” How do I make sense of this? Just last week I was witness to the principal of the school lecturing a young Afghan girl for not wearing socks under her black Mary Jane’s. Even though the student had on floor length pants under her long shirt, she was showing about a half an inch of bare skin on her feet. The principal was concerned because girls at another school not far from Zarghona had acid thrown on them for showing bare skin. She warned the young girl that she was putting the entire school in jeopardy with her racy exposure. Where did Big B’s request fit into that world? I wanted to make sure she was asking me to name what I now realized she was asking me to name.
“The parts under our clothes? Stomach and back?” I asked, pointing to my stomach and then turning around and showing her my back. She signed with deep disgust.
“No! Pens. You know, pens. Forget it. You cannot unnerstan me.”
We had worked very hard to establish trust with the women, and we had worked hard to build relationships with them as equals in a society where they were not treated equally at all. We worked diligently to empower them. Why would I not give this 40-something year old woman the names for her private parts? Doesn’t she have the right to own those things by naming them? But I didn’t want to give them to her because I was afraid. I was scared that someone in her household, a male, would find the piece of paper with the words written on them and she would be harmed; or worse, the school would be attacked because of what we were teaching them. The two Colonels had gathered around me now and I looked to them for help. They looked back at me, blink, blink, blink, blink. You’re the English teacher, their expressions read. I took a deep breath and felt like I was stepping out into the street again.
I slowly put my pen to a scrap piece of paper and wrote down penis and vagina in clear, legible, careful handwriting.
“Yes! Yes! Thank you,” she giggled behind her hand.