Gurbir Singh and her husband guided us through the tight gate to their castle-like home on the hill overlooking the El Camino Real corridor in South San Francisco. Here we would pause for three nights, including a fundraiser there at the house and a few forays into the city by the bay. This was yet another entirely new experience. Gurbir and her friends and family are associated with an aid organization Goodwill Without Borders, and they like to dance. In fact our presentation for the fundraiser was relatively beside the point, as the entire affair was scheduled to be a series of dance instruction courses outside on the tennis court. It was a wonderful stay for our Hindi film loving girls, especially when a vocalist who trains many of the Bollywood stars showed up and did some Hindi Karaoke with them.
For the Saturday event many of the Afghan community had followed us and joined with the eclectic group Gurbir had invited. It was truly pinch myself amazing to find all of us dancing just like in the movies, that aerobic Hindi group symmetry that is so infectious. Young and old, fat and thin, we all did it. Mohsan and Eraj were hilarious as they wiggled and jabbed their way through the moves. Hala was by far the most adept, but Maria and Lida quickly improved and only I and Nasrin were left behind, eventually bowing out to converse with some of the spectators. Then, after the third instructor one of the volunteers that I had invited to Kabul the year before arrived, Miriam, a Berkeley grad shooting for medical school. It was a wonderful connecting of dots and reunion. Another young Afghan American couple also arrived and together we hit it off, making further plans to spend time together.
The presentation went very well. Among the Afghans many tears were shed. Following this another talk show host for Afghan network television arrived to give us an on the spot interview. Other Afghans showed up with goods for the bus, especially the kindest man who had been going through a very difficult time with his wife battling cancer. He loaded the bus with juices and fruits and cakes and gave the children more and more gifts of jewelry and clothes. They all wanted to take the children shopping, so off we went to the mall.
The bus was already full to the brink with gifts from Boston to Philadelphia to Washington to Florida to Phoenix to the Gold Coast. I was beginning to wonder just how we were going to get everything home.
The next day we took the train into Chinatown, where we met the young couple and their little girl. In each place we visit I do not strive to “do” the city and all it has to offer. I only schedule things that compliment what the children have already seen and done. In this way we don’t repeat experiences but also don’t overextend. A cohesive population ethnically identifiable occupying an entire section of a city is something we had yet to see. You couldn’t get any better example than Chinatown. We took a trolley car from the Bart train to one end of the neighborhood and walked down the main street. When we saw the signs for 5$ T shirts we couldn’t help ourselves. One thing for certain, the children have become smart shoppers in America. Their favorite store by far was the Dollar store.
After Chinatown we met another sponsor, Allyn Rosenberg for dinner. He had invited a filmmaker from LA to join us, along with some other people interested in AFCECO. He had it in his mind to make a documentary about me, leading into an expose on Andeisha and AFCECO. To me, like the book I have just finished and am hoping will find a home, my story is beside the point. I do not wish to be the center of it, only the lens. Not yet another story about a westerner (always a white male) in desperation from his own life going to the land of the barbarians to save them, discovering himself instead. How many of these stories can we take? The name of my book is Undestroyed: notes from an American Volunteer inside an Afghan orphanage. I do not appear in it until page fifty-six. Periodically Ian disappears from the text throughout. It is, I pray, a different book about the heart of Asia. To me, watching Maria engaging with these people, asking questions, actively approaching her experiences as learning opportunities, this is the real story. Here is a girl who survived rocket fire, witnessed death and extreme poverty, the Taliban era and the complete loss of hope. Here is a girl embracing life like no other. Later Allyn noted how much he was impressed by Maria.
On our final day in San Francisco we said our goodbyes to Gurbir and her family and made our way to the Golden Gate Bridge. The vista set up for visitors at the SF side is indeed exhilarating. It was Lida who noticed the other view, a perfect sunny blue sky above the cleanest skyline in America. We discussed the island prison and some of the stories of the men that lived there. We talked about the time a very long time ago I left America for the first time, traveling on a ship that sailed out to the Pacific through that gateway. “It is true,” Hala yelled. “This is the most beautiful bridge.”
We crossed over and then wove our way down to Muir Woods. I had given the children to think these would be the biggest trees in the world, which they are not, so they were desperately looking for the one big one. We skipped our way through the trails looking, until we found one sizeable specimen that required all six of the children with outstretched arms to encircle. The forest is a place that still holds a lot of folklore for Afghan children, and with that a bit of fear. Fear of the darkness, of strange bears and wolves and beings. My hope was that this visit would inoculate them with the nurturing I feel from the woods, the holding close to Earth and the protection of Nature. I think to some degree this was achieved, as I watched them huddle inside a cavity of one tree that had been struck by lightening.
Now we were off to spend a night with Shokoufeh Hanjani, an Iranian American who for some years has been caring for an AFCECO boy, Khalid, while his unique medical condition is treated by curious doctors intent on getting to the bottom of it. Khalid suffers from a strange immune disorder. Mohsan and Eraj were terribly excited to be with one of their brothers from the orphanage. Finally they would not be so outnumbered! When we pulled up to Shokoufeh’s home the boys leapt out of the side door and flung their arms around Khalid who was waiting in the street to greet us. I remember Khalid from my first year teaching in Kabul. He was one of the small children in Sitara I. He remembered my classes, and even my lessons, which made me smile.
Shokoufeh had company visiting so most of us slept on the bus that night. It was a delightful evening with Persian cooking and deep conversation about Afghanistan and about America. Here was yet another re-mixed American family, with links to Paris and other places around the world. The children talked and shared stories and watched videos on Youtube. Shokoufeh and Nasrin sat talking late while I took time to be alone on the bus, playing my cittern, trying to form a new song.
What will it be? I have been changed by this journey, deeply affected. It is so easy to stop growing. So alluring is everything we know. I had once again abandoned myself to the unknown, this time with some of my Afghan family. I think perhaps this new song will be about these arms embracing the unknown.