A Journey to Kandahar

From the Series: Decameron Relived

Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron published in Venice.

Day was breaking and Safia and I were clearing away the plates. We’d put out all your favorite things—not just our everyday bread and white cheese, but the little extras you loved on special occasions: barbari bread with sesame seeds from the good bakery, thick cream, honey, and Mother’s pumpkin jam, all served in little china bowls. And green tea with cardamom instead of black tea. But nobody had been able to eat much. Just as Safia was wiping down the plastic tablecloth we always spread on the floor and folding the uneaten pieces of bread into it, the taxi arrived. We left the teacups and teapot in disarray on the floor and threw on our coats and headscarves.

You were already in the courtyard saying your goodbyes. You kissed the Qur’an that Mother held out and passed under it. The neighborhood girls wiped tears from their eyes, flowery chadors clutched tightly at their chins, and the six of us piled into the taxi. Then, as we slowly pulled away down the lane, someone poured a bowl of water after us. The water flashed orange in the headlights of an oncoming car and seemed to freeze in the light for a split second.

You’d witnessed this farewell scene with fascination so many times before, and now it was for you. I'd refused to count down the days, but the day had come, and we
were finally on our way to the train station to see you off. You turned back to look at the receding house, eyes wide. I wondered how you’d remember it. The sun rose as we slipped past the spring blossoms of the orchards behind their mud-brick walls. I imagined that I was seeing them for the last time, as if I, too, were going away. But the thought gave me a crawling feeling in the pit of my stomach and I pushed it away.

No, we three siblings and Mother were just seeing you off: you and your mother. Soraya was distant that morning, already mentally elsewhere, fussing with the things in her bag, checking her tickets and the contact numbers in her phone. We joked and tried to keep things light, crammed as we were in the back seat, which hardly lends dignity to any situation.

“So, as soon as you arrive, we need a new fridge, a new computer, and a new TV. Got it?” we teased.

“And don’t forget a smartphone for me!” laughed Mohsen.

Then Safia launched into the latest teenage gossip. We wanted happy memories of us to accompany you in the godforsaken places we imagined you would pass through. Mother couldn’t bring herself to joke, but she betrayed no other emotion. She stared out of the window in the front seat, whispering prayers under her breath for your physical and moral safety—a more worthwhile way to fill a spare moment than empty talk.

You sat quietly in my lap, your warmth and weight still reassuring in its presence, and I buried my face in your curls.

“Are you excited, khaleh?” I said brightly.

“Yes,” you replied, but solemnly; perhaps you thought that’s what I wanted to hear. I could see bewilderment in your eyes. You must have sensed all our contradictory emotions.

“Will Baba come to meet us in Tehran?” you asked. Soraya pretended not to hear.

“No, my dear. You know he’s already in Europe,” I said, well-practiced at sounding cheerful.

At the station it was all din and hubbub and it all happened too fast. In such places we instinctively hunched our shoulders and wrapped our shawls a little tighter, as if trying to take up as little space as possible. Only Mother stood a little taller than usual as we walked towards the gate where the uniformed officers would check your documents. She was proud of her parting gift to you: the relative luxury of a train ticket, rather than the cheap clattering overnight bus we usually took. She’d worked many long nights at her sewing machine and took on more and more tailoring jobs, even after the smugglers had been paid off for your onward journey. She knew little of how the journey would look beyond Tehran, but she was at least familiar with this leg and was determined to give you this last bit of comfort. She’d insisted even when I pointed out the minor bureaucratic nightmare we’d have to go through to get the refugee travel permit needed to take the train. But I had to admit that with the travel permit, you were less likely to be harassed by the police.

We had to say goodbye at the checkpoint—the rest of us couldn’t go down to the platform without tickets. We hurriedly kissed your cheeks and squeezed you goodbye and wiped away the tears. “Safe journey, sis,” I whispered to Soraya. All the beautiful parting words I’d planned to say to you had dried up—there was no time, and they felt hollow anyway. Just, “I love you, ok khaleh?” You hugged the little blue bear I’d bought for you. It made you happy, and that eased the pang in my heart for a moment.

But now as Soraya clutched her documents, ready to pass through the checkpoint, she suddenly looked pale and terrified.

“Mother . . . ” she began.

“Surely this isn’t a journey to Kandahar?” Mother cut her off with a dry laugh.

We just smiled bitterly and said nothing.

“It’ll be ok, Maman!” you piped up in your little voice, standing up on tiptoe to kiss Soraya’s cheek. You were always doing that—comforting us so firmly and confidently that we had to believe you, as if your tender age gave you a special insight into the unknown.

Suddenly the terrible thought that I’d been keeping at bay took a swipe at me: I was losing you.

And then you were gone in the sea of people heading toward the platform. We shuffled toward a glass screen alongside the platform, from where we were able to mutely watch and wave as you found your places on the train. You waved and waved through the window until the train pulled away.

We came home and dispersed to different corners of our three dark rooms to nurse our stricken hearts, as if we were all ill. Mother said she had a headache and went to lie down. Safia, your youngest auntie, swallowed down her sobs as she sat on the cold metal chair at our ancient computer, scrolling insistently through every photo album she could find of you. Sitting listlessly on the carpet, I caught a glimpse on the screen of your frilly princess dress at your third birthday party, when you giggled with delight at the sparklers on your birthday cake and tore around the house with your train of little friends. The women of the family, friends and neighbors gathered to dance and we ate peaches so big and ripe their juice ran down our arms all the way to our elbows. What a good day that was!

I wished then that it had been a journey to Kandahar. But the Kandahar of old that we always heard fantastic tales about, whose ripe red pomegranates were the size of a child’s head. Not the Kandahar whose children’s heads split open like pomegranates, scattering their ruby jewels.

* * *

You came to live with us during a difficult year. Father had just passed away from complications of diabetes, and though I hated to admit something so frivolous by comparison, I was also nursing another loss: a boy I’d loved had married someone else. Soraya’s husband Ahmad—your Baba—had decided to go to Europe. Life under sanctions in Iran was increasingly unbearable. But adding to his misery, his refugee documents had been confiscated for no reason a few years back, and he’d had enough of life without papers and all the fear and anxiety that brought. The plan was that he’d work for a while and send money so you could join him.

So Soraya came back to us with you, barely two at the time, and you quickly stole all our hearts. If Mother had been our rock—nursing Father’s ulcers when he could no longer walk, changing his dressings daily without complaint—you were our ray of sunshine in the gloom. Mine especially! Soraya got a job at a vegetable canning factory and worked long hours. Safia and Mohsen were still at school. I was at home studying for the university entrance exam, though actually learning very little due to my ongoing depression, so I looked after you most of the time.

Nobody called you by your official name—to the family, you were Pari, or fairy. There was something magically healing about your exuberance and your peels of laughter. Even your naughtiness gave me a focus outside myself and made my grief more bearable. When we folded away the cotton mattresses and quilts in the morning, forming a tall, neat pile in the corner of the room, you loved nothing more than to knock them all down and jump up and down on them giggling, curls flying. You annoyed me by sitting in my lap when I wanted to study, asking too many questions, and building dangerous stacks of glass bowls and teacups on the carpeted floor. But I could never be angry at you for long because of that uncanny air of maturity you had. If I scolded you, even when you had barely learned to talk, you would put your little hand on my shoulder, look me in the eye and say with concern, “You ok?” Totally disarmed, all I could do was laugh.

At night you would pull up your little mattress next to mine on the floor and sometimes slept hugging my arm as if it were a stuffed toy. I would lie awake just finding solace in your peaceful breathing and your soft, velvety temples. If Soraya was ever jealous of our bond, she didn’t let on. She often said how happy she was that you had so much love to fill the void left by your father. When you grew old enough to use paper and crayons, we worked quietly side by side for many happy hours. I taught you your first letters. “Ba ba,” you wrote over and over, having learned that each syllable looked like your grandmother’s cane turned upside down. Baba.

I came home one day from the math class I taught at the underground refugee school to see Soraya slumped on the floor in a dark room, hugging her knees. Her eyes were red and swollen.

“What happened, my dear?” Not wanting to worry the rest of the family, Mother in particular, we told them little of our troubles. But Soraya and I were close in age and back then were still confidantes and best friends.

She sobbed in my arms. “I can’t bear it any more. I didn’t tell you . . . but it’s been several months now. Ahmad hasn’t called.” The last I’d heard, Ahmad had reached Athens after a difficult journey. He’d been living at a refugee center in the city and had been able to make some money through informal work, though I didn’t know the details. When he had money to top up his phone, he called and messaged her regularly. Bit by bit I pieced together that the calls had become less and less frequent and then had stopped altogether. That was three months before; she hadn’t heard anything since. He hadn’t updated his Facebook in that time either.

“Maybe he’s been ill?” I offered, wanting to calm her down. “Or he can’t get work and money is tight? His phone was lost or stolen? Or . . . maybe he’s making his way to Sweden now and the smugglers want him to lie low?”

“That’s what I hoped. But he would’ve told me. He would’ve got a message to me somehow,” she countered. I knew he’d done that reliably before.

“Do you think . . . ?” I faltered.

“I don’t know.”

She paced the room. Ahmad and Soraya had been happy together and he loved his daughter, but could he have met someone else? Was he dead? Neither of us wanted to contemplate that. But Afghan networks in Europe were extensive and news traveled fast. Nobody had been able to tell her anything, nobody had seen him, alive or dead. She started to weave fantasies of coma or memory loss, a jealous girlfriend, maybe even drug addiction and shame. Doubts were planted by the fact that his phone wasn’t dead—sometimes it rang for a long time, and sometimes someone answered and hung up. Then there were mysterious WhatsApp check-ins, but no replies to her desperate messages. What became increasingly clear in the weeks that followed was that she had to go and find him.

I understood, how could I not? I even helped her make her arrangements and gave her what money I had. Many people were going, women and children too, and the lure of a good education for you, Pari, made much more sense than staying in our current misery. Maybe you’d even see your Baba again. I didn’t want to keep you from that for selfish reasons.

But that summer, a school friend of mine drowned in the Aegean and everything turned a shade darker. I begged her to reconsider, or at least to leave you behind and send for you through more formal channels later. But she wouldn’t hear of it. Should I have told the rest of the family that Ahmad was missing and wouldn’t be there to receive you? That Soraya had sold all her wedding gold to fund the trip? Would they have talked her out of it? But Soraya had become the true head of the household since Father died, and nobody had ever talked her out of anything. My heart hardened a bit against her then. She was still my clever and beautiful big sister, doing what was best for you, and I would miss her terribly. But Pari, I could never forgive her for giving you to me, then taking you away.

* * *

I woke with a start from a fitful sleep. It took a moment for my mind to remember where it was and for the stab of grief to return. It was already dark—after our farewell vigil the night before, we’d slept most of the day. I stumbled toward the kitchen, but a sound from the courtyard drew me there. I saw Mother’s dark silhouette against the light of the rising moon. She was standing by the small vegetable patch that you’d tended together, under the two blossoming plum trees. She reached for something: a small bracelet of pink plastic beads that you’d dropped among the cucumber vines. She had tied an amulet around your arm before your departure: now here was the amulet you’d left for her. She held it up in the moonlight and let out an unearthly sob.

Would you arrive safely in Athens and then journey on to Stockholm? Or would your bodies be sucked into the dark waters? We didn’t know yet. But I think Mother already knew. They say mothers always know.

From the series “Waking Dreams” by Elyas Alavi. Image and poem reproduced with kind permission from the artist/author.


This story is a tribute to the many farewells and journeys experienced by Afghan migrants and refugees, one of the largest migrant populations in the world today: “A journey to Kandahar” is a Persian idiom for a long, difficult journey. It was inspired by a poem of the same title written by Elyas Alavi, one of the young Afghan poets I worked with in Iran (Olszewska 2015). There are close to one million officially registered Afghan refugees in Iran and an estimated two million more are undocumented. Their story has been one both of opportunity (such as access to education and an improved status for women) and deprivation, such as heavily restricted access to any formal employment other than manual labor, and other discriminatory treatment. Such economic and social marginalization has led to a large-scale remigration in recent years, primarily to Europe via Turkey, but both the land and sea routes they follow with the help of smugglers remain very dangerous. A few kin terms appear in this story: Baba (daddy), Maman (mummy), Khaleh (maternal aunt). In Iranian Persian, adults often address children by the kinship term appropriate to themselves, so a maternaI aunt addresses her niece or nephew as “khaleh.”

Journey to Kandahar

By Elyas Alavi

Translated by Zuzanna Olszewska

We hugged each other tightly

and quickly let go.

With no hope of seeing each other we cried,

“Hope to see you soon.”

Mother laughed:

“Surely this isn’t a journey to Kandahar?”

And we, too, smiled bitter, bitter smiles.


the train’s whistle blew, mournfully.

A thousand yearning travelers waved from that side,

A thousand yearning friends waved from this side.

We went home

and sought refuge in the dark rooms.


threw her arms around the porch

took one look at the blossoms in the orchard

and loudly, loudly sobbed.


Olszewska, Zuzanna. 2015. The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.