Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Happy Birthday, Afghan style

First of all, Afghans do not celebrate birthdays.  We asked our chakador, Gulrahman, how Afghans celebrate their birthdays.  He responded, "No, we don't celebrate birthdays.  Only births and weddings.  But maybe now we should start."  This might explain why many Afghans don't know their own age and wrinkle their forehead when you ask and respond, "Hmm...I think....28?"

Yesterday was Joey's birthday.  I won't tell you how old, but it's what my Zia Maria called a circle birthday.  Although Afghans do not celebrate birthdays, we certainly do.  Since I can't drive here and all my options were too far to walk to, I decided to ask our cook, Aga Gul, to bake a cake.

Let me tell you a little about our cook.  We really like his food and we really like him.  He's a precious old man who speaks very fast, very bad English.  I made him a cappuccino last week and he drank it in one giant gulp (Afghans don't drink coffee, Aga Gul has never tasted coffee before) and he proceeded to tell me (I think) that he's really good at sewing buttons on shirts...but then there was something about climbing a hill in the story too, and helicopters...and then he asked if the machine was cheap, from Afghanistan, where coffee came from, and a slew of other questions.  When we talk to Aga Gul, we mostly just smile and nod and say thank you.

I went down to the kitchen on Tuesday and found Aga Gul wearing an apron, humming to himself as he wiped down the counters.  Here is the conversation that followed:

Julie: Salaam, Aga Gul. How are you today?
Aga Gul: Salaam. Very good. Very nice. Very good. (X5)
Julie: Tomorrow is Joey's birthday. Could you make a cake for him?
Aga Gul: (Long pause, turns and stares at the pantry) I buy vegetables, some spices, (opens freezer) chicken, meat, meat. Tonight I make boulanee (an Afghan pierogie). For tomorrow? Something different?
Julie: Oh, just the cake for tomorrow.
Aga Gul: (Long pause, looks at pantry) Very good. Very nice.
Julie: (Not sure if he understands what I'm saying, but at least I tried) Tashakur, Aga Gul.

At 5:00 on Wednesday, Habib (another chakador) found me and said that Aga Gul had left me a message, "The cake is hidden in the cabinet."

Going out to eat in Kabul is definitely different than going out to eat anywhere else I have been.  You don't just walk into any restaurant and sit down.  There are three questions asked before going to eat. 1) Is the food safe to eat?  As we have mentioned before,  it is very easy to get sick here.  There are no food sanitation laws in Afghanistan. 2) Is it still open?  Due to the situation here, restaurants open, close, move, reopen, etc.  3) Is it secure?  This involves not only the security at the restaurant itself, but of the surrounding area and neighborhood. There is a fine balance between going someplace that is too high profile and not secure enough.

We went to a Mexican restaurant called La Cantina.  Yes, that's right, there is one Mexican restaurant in Kabul.  After three security checks in three separate rooms and finally getting into the restaurant, our time was quite enjoyable.  The food wouldn't be termed authentic, more like an interpretation.  The beans were delicious, but almost tasted more Indian than Mexican.  But it was great to sit outside and laugh and relax with our housemates.

When we returned home, I searched the cabinets to find the hidden cake.  Sure enough, Aga Gul had come through with a cake glazed, frosted, and decorated with marshmallows.

The times that I miss friends and family most are the days that are meant to be spent with friends and family.  Weddings, important events, birthdays, holidays; these are the times when I know I will feel far away.  But last night, sitting around the table with Steve and Sari and Gulrahman, eating cake that was ridiculously sweet and celebrating Joey's circle birthday; I realized that slowly but surely, we're building friends and family here too.  I love the line from the Kimya Dawson song, My Rollercoaster, "And if home is really where the heart is, than we're the smartest kids I know.  Because wherever we are in this great big world, we'll never be more than a few hours from home."


Dara said...

He did a great job on the cake, especially considering what it sounded like it was going to look like.

Ailsa said...

this is my favorite post yet - and you look really happy in the photos!

Cynthia Chessman said...

Happy Birthday Joey! - from someone who has kicked at least two more circles than you have!!

Mary said...

Happy Birthday Joey - a bit late, but still with lots of feeling. Hope the gift you received here still has a lasting effect.

Thanks for keeping us posted so that we feel we're right there with you.

Love you both!!!!!!!!!!!!