Intimacy, Safety and Family: An Ethnographic Experience with Afghan Cultures

Yesterday, my family and relatives Skyped me and sang a birthday song in 3 languages. It was a simple call, but it moved me tremendously. That same night, my best friend called and spoke about sacrifices — the things he did all in the name of love for his family. Then I started to wonder what I’ve done for my family. Not much, methinks, as I’ve focused largely on my own self-actualisation goals throughout my adult years. Left the country years ago and pursued my MA. Left the country again, years later, to pursue my PhD. Left my institution quite abruptly to work in an NGO for research and to seek out a new life experience — even though it had been part of my plan.

To some, it may arguably be a selfish ambition. What am I doing for the family, I ask myself? In many Asian contexts, looking after one’s family is the core duty of every child. So when internal voices come crashing in and self-doubt appears, it is a good point to take stock.

Having lived in Kabul for almost a month now,  I have discovered that nobody here lives alone; they all live with their families (and sometimes extended families). But I also realise the notion of “family” goes beyond kinship, beyond blood relations. There is a shared camaraderie with each other that makes one feel a sense of belonging. I could meet a new acquaintance for 10 seconds, and he could share his sense of excitement and warmth chatting with me, even though we spoke no common language. He would place his cheek against mine as an Afghan greeting, shake my hand tightly and hold it there longer than my cultural upbringing would perhaps allow. Sometimes he would grasp my hand and do a wrist-lock, as if we had been buddies for a long time. It’s hard to decipher the meanings behind these gestures of physical intimacy. In Singapore, we see men in Little India share almost the same degree of friendship, holding hands while they cross the streets, oblivious to curious eyes who read between the lines a tad too much.

As a foreigner, cultural differences, I say, should not be understood with the head but with the heart. I have become touchy-feely with my Afghan friends — because I feel the need for cultural reciprocity. It is not just an awakening of my kinesthetic sense, but also a reservoir of emotions — namely, as an act of filling the loneliness experienced in a foreign land that had been ravaged by war. It is an undefinable series of lonely estrangements which, to some expatriates, have caused sex to happen with anyone anywhere, be it in fantasy or reality. Two of my expat colleagues work out to kill the intense boredom. Some party religiously to decompress the stress. I have not found what works for me, but I enjoy the company of my Afghan friends, even if meaning-making remained in the realm of sign language. I like to laugh with them. Or to ask “How’s your health?”, “How are you?”, and “How’s your family”. Some might think it’s idle chat because it can be easily dismissed as superficial greetings. I doubt it. These are, however, acts of physical intimacy that breed very deep bonds, very meaningful friendships. When one takes the time to listen, respond and make eye contact, magic happens.

Intimacy is forged, also in large gatherings around food. Besides the sharing of rice and the breaking of bread, Afghans love a good laugh, at ourselves and at each other. But what impressed me the most, again, is the hospitality of the hosts. In my pre-birthday gathering at a friend’s home, thirteen of us were tucked away quite comfortably in a rectangular room, warmly carpeted and cushioned. In came trays of food, which everyone gobbled up rather quickly. It is known in Afghan cultures to cook a lot of food for guests. Sometimes, I feel guilty because I fear food wastage, having witnessed the numbers of (presumably hungry) children out in the streets, selling sweets or washing cars. I am not sure what families do with these leftover dishes. Perhaps, guests have their share first, and families eat the remains? Or perhaps, the food is kept for the next day? Or perhaps thrown away? I am not sure, but I would like to find out.

Picture is blurred because of the frost on camera lens. But I reckon it's best to be anonymous since I have not sought their permission.

Picture is blurred because of the frost on camera lens. But I reckon it’s best to be anonymous since I have not sought their permission.

Intimacy in Afghan cultures — and also in many other South Asian cultures — as described above makes one part of a larger “family”. It is true that blood relations are the most important identity markers, and the household in which we grow up constitutes the original family unit. Not only do we bear the name of our father, we also bear the mark of a cultural heritage. Yet to some, one’s adopted “family” may just be as real and important as the natural ones.

Tonight, a Singaporean friend found me on Facebook and we chatted a little. After finding out that I am in Kabul, he asked if it was peaceful. I replied:

Peace is relative. So far so good, even though I hear of bomb blasts in the city. But Kabul is huge. As long as I’m safe, I guess it’s peaceful. LOL.

For me, a family protects. Even though my Afghan friends sometimes joke about kidnapping me, they have time and again demonstrated the kind of “sacrifice” and “love” that should be unexpected (see my first blog on Omar, and my recent blog on Farhad when I was stopped by the Kabul police). Through their humour, it has fostered, for me, a sense of belonging, familiarity and intimacy that far surpasses the relations I have with non-Afghan friends. They have kindly accepted (or even adopted) me as “family”, and I humbly and gratefully embrace and reciprocate their love.