“What do you mean you gave away our seats!” Mr. Incredible asked the man at the ticket counter with barely restrained anger.  The Ariana Afghan Airlines employee merely shrugged and said “you never called to re-confirm your tickets.”  Thus began an extra week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan waiting for the next available flight back to Kabul.  Sometimes the most important question is the one you never thought to ask.

I have enjoyed hearing your questions, and working on simple answers to complicated issues.

The following questions were asked by my friend Becky.  Becky has a real heart for the country of Haiti and has been there a couple of times and has organized different relief projects for Haitians after the earthquake, helping to rebuild homes.  So, this question comes straight from her heart about how people live.

What are the houses like? What are they made of and how large are they? Do extended family members live in the same house or is it the small family group we are accustomed to in America?

Afghan homes come, for the most part, in three varieties: simple, mud brick homes with rooms added on here and there as the extended family grows, camel-haired tents that nomadic groups use or, gaudy, concrete multi-storied homes painted bright colors and very garish and badly constructed — almost always homes of war lords, commanders and those doing well in the opium trade.

We called these “birthday cake houses” and they are springing up all over our neighborhood in Kabul.

typical Afghan village home of mud brick.

The common denominator, between cities and villages, war lord houses and mud huts is the wall.  Every Afghan home has a ten foot tall (or higher) wall surrounding it with a gated entrance.  They can be lavishly decorated or plain adobe, but the wall is, in my opinion, a cornerstone of Afghan culture — who is inside and who is out.   Men who are not family members are not permitted inside the wall without an invitation and only when all the ladies are out of sight.  The walled yard and the house are the woman’s areas, strictly guarded with complicated rules, that as a foreigner you have to learn.  If it’s a small yard and a one room house, there is a curtain down the middle to make sure there is always a way to separate men and women.

typical city street — no glimpses of the houses or life behind the walls.

Most of our Afghan friends were poor, but not destitute, and none of them had an indoor bathroom or kitchen.  Bathrooms are usually a pit latrine in a corner of the yard, some with walls and a door, some with just a curtain!  Kitchens are outside, with an open fire and if they can afford it, a small propane burner.  Women squat on the ground and do all their preparation on a plastic mat in the yard, even in winter in the ice and snow.   Dishes are washed with water hauled in from the neighborhood well or ditch.  If you are a young girl around seven or eight, your main job, all day long is to haul water.

little girl carrying water up the steep mountain streets of Kabul

Afghans live in large extended families.  Married sons bring their wives into their parents homes and daughters go to live with their husband’s family.  Most families either live in the same compound or on the same street connected by walls.  My friend Anifa lived in a two bedroom mud house they rented.  She lived there with her husband, his elderly parents, her oldest son and his wife and their baby and her younger NINE kids.  In the winter she cooked in the little hallway connecting the two rooms.  She was one of the most gracious and hospitable people I’d ever met and despite their poverty, they always had room for a guest.

Some of Anifa’s family and ours in their main room where they ate and slept. It has been newly painted to welcome her oldest son’s new bride.

My houses were the mud brick type (although for about 10 months we alternatively froze and melted in a Russian style concrete house with no insulation — local building methods, much better in this climate!) with some western modifications.  Mr. Incredible worked very hard to make each of our houses a home for me and the kids.  We had running water and indoor bathrooms (although not always a toilet seat), indoor kitchens with a counter for me to stand at (but if I hired an Afghan lady to help, she always preferred to squat on the kitchen floor to peel vegetables and wash dishes!) and some furniture.  But, we also wanted to make it a place Afghans would feel comfortable sitting and visiting, so we had a front room that had Afghan rugs and cushions along the wall and served meals and tea on the floor.  We also strictly observed “purdah” the separation between men and women.  If Mr. I had friends over I stayed in the kitchen and he came and got the food and served it and if I had friends over, he disappeared all together to the office or neighbor’s house.  If families came to visit the men sat in one room and the women in a different room with curtains drawn and a young daughter was the go between for telling me they needed more almonds, or tea.

Families we knew very well, who adopted us into theirs,  the rules and the curtain came down, so to speak, and we could all sit together for meals and visit late into the night.  These are some of my sweetest memories.

The “before” bathroom when we first rented this house

And the “after” when it was done.

Once I had a large group of women come to visit, relatives of our landlord.  There were a lot of them and I didn’t have any help, so Mr. I stayed in the kitchen and washed dishes and handed out plates full of food.  One of the ladies glimpsed his hairy wrists stick out from the curtain and demanded to know who was in there.  I told her my husband was helping out and they were all amazed and scandalized.  They twittered and giggled about that for the rest of evening and we all agreed that it was a good, but very rare husband who would do such a thing!

Hosting Christmas dinner at our home in Kabul. The men were on the other side of those doors, enjoying their own meal.

Thank you Becky, for your great question.  I had so much fun finding all these pictures and walking down memory lane a bit.  Next week, in the series, I’ll answer some questions about the Taliban and the view of women.