They were royals, a long time ago. Now they just played pretend.
The court of the Abdalis and later the Durranis held power in Afghanistan from 1747 to 1842. But to me, the descendants of this “dynasty” simply compromised of four sisters, three brothers and their mother living in a creaky house in the old walled city of Peshawar.
My mother was one of the sisters. And while most of the sisters had left the house, there was one that was still there. After ten years of marriage, she was waiting for her husband to return and collect her.
I was introduced to my mother’s life when we moved from London to Peshawar at the age of 13. Since I had still not entered puberty, I was allowed to wear what I wanted. I chose an array of long cotton maxis as my uniform.
Everyone lived together. The courtyard was large and had a red hexagonal fountain. With the sun beating down on us, Sami (my cousin) and I would strip down to our underwear and jump around in the water. Then, tired from play, we’d go to the servant girl and get dusted in talc, put on ironed clean clothes and fall asleep by the fans.
By nightfall we were recharged enough to cause mayhem again. Without a backward glance, Sami and I would leap from the charpoys and run out into the dusty lane in the search for boiled corn, hitching free rides from the tangas that passed by.
We wouldn’t stop there, always pushing the boundaries. We’d walk bravely up to the milk stall.‘Give me some milk,’ Sami would shout. The milkwala knew who we were, so without even asking for money he would leap into action. While he rummaged around for clean cups we’d throw the ladle of the yogurt into the milk churn and run off.
That night didn’t end well.
‘So you think this is clever. A simple shopkeeper comes to the house and dares to question us because of you two!’ screamed Uncle Top Dog. He was my youngest uncle. Sharp tongued and handsome, he assumed pride of place in the house. Barking orders, hitting the servants and controlling the lands. He paraded his fair newborn son like a trophy of manhood.
‘Learn some manners, never let this family down. Do you understand?’ Panting and sweating as his hands rained down on us.
He held the Pathan code of your guest is a gift from god and your responsibility.
Whenever male guests arrived they went straight to the batak for hookahs and drink. The female guests came into the courtyard and peeled off their chadors, airing their sweaty armpits. They sat and gossiped about marriage, money and their kismet while tucking into pulao and roast chicken. The elders ended up in Nani’s room.
She reclined there with a hookah. Bano rocked back and forth, pressing her legs.
At that age, you didn’t notice the cracks.
For us, the days were filled with running under the house in a warren of tunnels filled with large vases, crockery, old carpets and trunks. We were of the stories the elders told us, constantly reminiscing about a past long gone, Sami and I never bothered to look into the trunks. We coughed and spluttered in the dusty confines. Nani told us that when she was younger she ate off nothing less then gold or silver plates. For her, as a baby, it had been normal to play with them.
A wedding invitation came from the neighbours. The elders decided not to go. In their eyes the neighbours weren’t of our class, but Sami and I were children and the rules didn’t apply to us. So we went.
Almost forgetting I was a girl, I scowled when Sami and I were separated in the wedding house. He went downstairs while I was led upstairs. Most weddings had a professional come in and dance. The music blared out, a signal for her to enter. She came in with hips gyrating and hair swinging. The women of the house looked down from the balcony, hiding behind rolled straw curtains and covering their mouths to stop any whimper escaping to the men below. They looked on wide-eyed and almost in admiration at this brazen hussy of a woman. Secretly, they all wanted her freedom. She danced towards the men and snatched the money away from their hands. The men placed the notes in obscene places to titillate and play with her. The women gasped above.
Strolling back with smiles on our faces, Sami and I went to our respective mothers bosoms and lay on the charpoys put out in the courtyard. The fans whirred and my aunt stirred a pot of boiled corn. Kawa was served and I watched Sami licking his red lips at the prospect of food.
By the summer of 1991, I had left Peshawar. Now my family is spread all over the world, from Nice to the USA. We don’t meet often, but we carry our past with us. On Facebook, I sometimes send Sami a smiley emoji to say hi.
– Najma Yusufi