I just finished Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s an intense read, well worth it, and not quite as brutal as The Kite Runner, though it comes close. It involves the lives of two women in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban comes to power. The horror these people endure is beyond my comprehension. The cruelty people can inflict on each other never ceases to amaze me. When I finished the book, I had to go look in on my sleeping daughters and think about how wonderfully lucky they are to grow up in a country where they will be seen as their own entities, and able to pursue whatever dreams they may have. They will, hopefully, grow up without institutionalized violence.
The book reminded me of a man I meant in Japan. I had only been in Japan for about six months, in 2002. 9/11 was not that far back, and the Iraq war was in early phases. One night, I was riding the train. A foreign man in a long coat, holding a can of milk tea, turned to me and said in an unfamiliar accent, “Well hello, gaijin, where are you from?”
“I’m from America. And you?” I asked.
“Oh! How lovely for you. I’m from Afghanistan.”
I was taken a bit aback, wondering if he would want to talk to me further, given what my country was in the process of doing to his. Everything I knew about his country was the horror inflicted on their people, especially their women. I braced myself and said, “Oh, really? I haven’t met anyone from Afghanistan before.”
“Not many people do,” he replied. He waved me closer and said, “I’m grateful to your country.”
I was surprised. “Really? Why?”
“They’ve driven out the Taliban. You don’t know horror until you know the Taliban. They destroyed my country, destroyed my life.” He pulled another can of milk tea from his pocket and handed it over to me. “Tea is good for the soul. The Japanese understand this well.”
I took the tea and listened while he told his story.
“You have to understand my country was beautiful. Our life was hard but beautiful, too. Then the Taliban came. They destroyed our cities, destroyed our people. My friends were killed my bombs. A woman in my neighborhood was stoned. My family knew someone who flew airplanes, and we made a plan. We drew for the chance to leave. I won. I hid in a cargo box, and they put on a plane. I didn’t know where it would go, but I hid in silence, terrified they’d find me. They’d torture and kill me if they found me. They opened that box in the airport in Japan, and I climbed out and cried at the feet of the man in the airport. I begged him not to turn me in. He was kind. He took me to the embassy, and they gave me a refugee visa. I could stay, they said, if I became a translator for the consulate. And here I am. I speak Japanese and English now, and I have a nice apartment, and no one will hurt me.”
He drank his tea for a moment, then looked back at me with a look I can’t describe. Sorrowful, but serious, too. “When I left, the Taliban erased me. They erased my birth record, my marriage, my education, my work. All that I had ever done, gone. I don’t exist. I pray you never know what it’s like to be erased. I can never go home. I don’t know if my wife of children are alive. I never will. I miss them every moment of my life. but,” he added, “because of your country, maybe my daughter can go to school. Maybe my daughter will have an education and come to Japan, like you, and live her life someplace safe.”
I don’t remember exactly what we said after that. He told me about how he wasn’t afraid of American bombers, because his whole life had been someone’s bombs. We talked about 9/11. “No one’s fault but the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” he said. “The people never want that violence. We’re a peaceful people ruled by a violent few. People all over the world want the same, you know. They want to go to work and eat dinner and play with their children, and they want to wake up in the morning.”
At the end, he held up his can of tea and said, “To future peace. Maybe not in my life or yours, but in those of my grandchildren and your children. Goodbye and good luck, friend.” He got off the train and I never saw him again. I don’t even remember his face that well anymore, though I remember how old his eyes were, and I remember his voice. What incredible courage and desperation he once had. I hope that my children will never have the need to act on that kind of fear. And I hope that his children, if they are still alive, have the life he wanted for them.