Salaam. Chi tor hasti? Khob, tashakor. (Hello/Peace. How are you? I am good, thank you.)
After our customary greetings, cheek hugs, and triple air kisses, Aqilla followed me upstairs to my private campus apartment. She never lowered her hijab (headscarf) even when safely settled on my rug while I served the tea. Not wearing the world-recognized Afghan blue burkha, Aqilla dressed in culturally acceptable dark colors and wrist-to-ankle clothing of modern-day Kabul women.
Coming into a foreign woman’s home was not outside her experience, but she was selective about such visits. She knew my husband would be away at his workplace, and it would be just the two of us.
Our conversation was lively, only occasionally stalled for translation or further explanation due to our language limitations. She spoke English quite well, having worked for international organizations several years prior to our meeting in 2005. I knew no Dari (Afghan national language) except basic greetings.
As principal of the American International School of Kabul (ISK), I was Aqilla’s boss. I hired her to teach Dari to our diverse student body and expatriate staff members. I spent more hours training and mentoring Aqilla than any other teacher at ISK. Although firmly ingrained in Afghan educational pedagogy of drill and memorization, she tried to embrace modern interactive, student-centered instructional methods.
There was a horizontal piece to our relationship also. We were mothers, close in age and family seasons. Her children were beginning to launch out on their own as mine were doing back in the U.S. She knew my heartache being so far from home and family. I remember holding hands as we talked after school, sharing our family concerns, and searching one another’s face to fill in the meaning when language fell short.
Today in my apartment, she displayed photos from her oldest son’s recent wedding in Tajikistan. Aqilla had successfully navigated the mysterious visa process out of Afghanistan to attend the celebration. I had one married daughter and we compared Western and Central Asian wedding traditions.
“The people greeted me so warmly there,” she reported. “I cried tears of joy as I watched the beautiful ceremony in that church. I experienced such love all around.”
In Afghanistan, the groom’s family foots the full bill for engagement parties plus the main event with all the guest hospitality expenses. After the day-long Muslim wedding, the new couple moves into the groom’s family home and the bride leaves her relatives behind. Aqilla’s new daughter-in-law became the fourth female in the Khalq Kabul household, along with a maiden aunt and Aqilla’s grown, single daughter.
Our relationship grew close in the seven years I lived in Afghanistan. I knew I could count on Aqilla’s cultural counsel and personal help when needed, even as she followed traditional respect and never called me by my first name, instead always, Mrs. Goolsby.
“You must not wear red so much. It is not good for women, only small girls,” Aqilla told me one day in my office, privately. She had a serious, concerned expression.
“Really?” I responded as I looked down at my ankle-length skirt with matching jacket, cut in a conservative style. I selected this outfit specifically for wearing in Kabul. Yes, it was red, my favorite color but nothing shiny or patterned, just solid red polyester.
“I am sorry, but in my culture, this color is not for respected women, certainly not for principals,” she insisted in typical Afghan politeness.
She was looking out for my interest, saying what other Afghan women on the ISK campus were thinking, but would not speak to my face. I sadly put the offensive garment away and joined the sea of browns, blacks, and other subdued hues that Kabul women wore. But one day, my friend gifted me with a lovely Pashmina headscarf–soft, beautifully woven, and red.
My husband and I enjoyed several evenings of delightful Afghan hospitality in Aqilla’s home during our Kabul years. Many English-speaking family members allowed a flowing conversation over pre-meal nuts and tea, continuing through the traditional Kabuli Polau (rice with carrot slivers and raisins plus chicken, lamb, or mutton pieces), and into the fruit dessert with more tea. Whenever one of my family members or American friends visited Kabul, Aqilla insisted that we bring them to her house.
Occasionally Aqilla permitted me to break Afghan hospitality customs and bring a pie or muffins from my kitchen to the dinner event. With sugar more affordable for foreigners than Afghans, I worried they had no taste for sweet treats. Not so! I remember her husband holding out his plate for a second slice of my apple pie.
I was not the first Christian woman to engage with Aqilla. Other foreigners had shared the Gospel message with my friend years before I came to Kabul. Her English skills enabled her to ask questions and discuss faith issues as she wished.
When Aqilla needed prayer, she came to me. Sometimes she utilized her headscarf to wipe away tears of anxiety or gratitude as I lifted up health, safety, housing, jobs, and grandchildren concerns in spoken prayer.
During personal conversations, I shared openly how my faith impacted my life, my mothering, and my role as a female leader. I never asked Aqilla to convert, which would have been illegal. I tried to live my testimony, leaving the transformation process of her heart to God.
In December 2011, my time was over at ISK. The four Khalq women came to my Kabul home for our last gathering. We all wept, not knowing if we would ever see each other again. Thankfully, Facebook is our connection these days, covering the distance from Kansas to Kabul so our cross-cultural relationships can continue.
Afghan to American, our life differences formed a long list. Still, our similarities as women with challenges of families, work, health, and a changing world cemented our friendship. My life is richer with the experience of our precious relationship.