Weaving our Stories — by Seema Jilani

September 28, 2010

Weaving Our Stories Into the Carpets of Afghanistan
Huffington Post. September 17, 2010
written by: Seema Jilani

I am as American as it gets and a bit too Texan for my liking: “y’all” occasionally creeps into my colloquialisms. But originally, my family hails from Pakistan. In my culture, we have a great love of carpets. Carpets, spicy food and colorful, kaleidoscopic clothes with too much bling. Yes, it is because of the fine embroidery, but mostly it is because some carpets can take generations to make. Between the carefully knotted silk threads you will find our family histories. Carpets function as anything from a prayer mat to a dining table, but really, they are breathing, animated family photo albums.

My mother taught me how to shop for carpets:

  • Double-knotted are always woven tighter. Each knot carries the burden of the other, so the carpet will last longer if it is tightly interwoven.
  • Make sure the colors are made from vegetable dye and not chemicals. Natural is always better.
  • An intricate design doesn’t make a fine carpet. Simple is more meaningful.
  • Look at the back, not just the front. It’s where you can see the carpet’s depth and it’s where the character lies.
  • The carpet should not be perfect. Flaws indicate that it is man-made. Asymmetry makes it valuable and lends it authenticity. Some flaws will make you cringe, but they are a reflection of humanity.
  • The rug is not just for you to place in your living room, or to be trampled upon by high heels at a cocktail party while people swirl martinis. Women have sewn their lives into it. They have whispered about their husbands, gossiped about in-laws, and exchanged riveting hopes and dreams while their fingers diligently worked the loom. Take your shoes off and don’t tread heavily. Respect their stories.

As I left Afghanistan, I felt how humans are woven together — sometimes a bit too closely, sometimes not closely enough. I realized that this stunning tapestry of life we find ourselves in unravels when we are not intricately enmeshed. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst my patients — that sentiment that I will carry you, and you will carry me. It is something we could all stand to learn from. Each knot carries carries the burden of the other, so the carpet will last longer if it is tightly interwoven.

We cannot come to the negotiating table with false promises, fake alliances and mouths full of venom. It takes genuine, wholesome attitudes of sincerity to make honest deals that will pave the way for progress. Natural is always better.

I recently assisted in a surgical procedure in Kabul on a young boy. The chief surgeon was an Afghan man. I didn’t know how he would respond to a woman in the operating theatre with him. At the start of the case, our fierce Asian eyes met over surgical masks. He handed me the scalpel and stepped aside from the patient, offering me the prestigious first cut on the patient. The simple, powerful gesture showed his immense respect for me and his willingness to yield to an outsider, not to mention a female physician. Simple is more meaningful.


The back is where the depth is.
It is not in burqas or in the front page news. It is in the details: the back stories of women helping other women succeed, or how Afghan doctors extended their hospitality to a Pakistani-American, or how Pakistan’s borders are open to offer medical care to Afghan children. It’s in the story of a widow who buries her ten children, but also in the one where a young Afghan couple in love rejoices at the birth of their daughter. It’s when Afghan doctors are ecstatic over a few medical textbooks an American doctor bought for them. It’s in the fact that everyone is a victim, but no Afghan is consumed by their victimhood.

The chronicles of Afghanistan will continue long after military forces withdraw. It is up to us to decide whose narrative we choose to engrave in our carpets. We cannot continue to paint this region with broad strokes of rhetoric akin to re-runs of Three’s Company: massive amounts of chaos and confusion (Jack), interjected with a few sleazy references to women (Larry), some emotional blackmail (oh-so-cute-Chrissy), and a smart alec quote (Janet), followed by a hollow, yet authoritative one by a General (Mr. Furley). Afghanistan has more substance than “X amount of people killed again in Blank-abad Province,” and a cliched reference to Alexander the Great and the Soviet invasion. Tread lightly and respect their stories.

Some flaws will make you cringe, but they are a reflection of humanity. I struggle with the idea of sharing my faith with a people whose vision of Islam is vastly different than mine. Until we Muslims collectively recognize that our religion is being raped by zealots who are ignorant of the progressive texts of Islam, all our future holds is more atrocities committed in the name of Islam.

The flaws lend a degree of authenticity. There is something to be said for my Afghan colleagues who initially suspected I was a Pakistani spy, but who later realized that I was just a doctor treating Afghan children. As much as I complain, I like having to prove myself to the Afghan people. I respect the fact that they are a bit suspicious and that their threshold for fake niceties is low. I enjoy rising to the occasion to prove that my intentions are pure, and not poisoned by ulterior motives. I admire the intelligence it takes to cultivate such a seasoned litmus test for people. Their refined radar for artificiality resonates with me.

As I close this chapter in Afghanistan, I hope I have approached my medical work and my writing with a sense of responsibility. I hope I have told a few Afghans’ stories with truth and allowed their dignity to flicker through, that I have done their magnificent and inspiring stories justice.

I chose pediatrics because I wanted to advocate for a forgotten population, and perhaps I was a delusional, young hippie when I thought I could be the voice for the voiceless. Shoved to the periphery, children are the most marginalized demographic of the world’s population, but also the most insightful. My pediatric patients are the colors in this great tapestry and without them, there would be no vibrance, no depth to my life. Natural, simple, and innately keen judges of character, children have taught me more and healed my heart more than I could ever hope to do for them. They understand things we struggle with, like dying young. “I’ve been chosen to leave this world early because the walk home is easier when you are younger. I have less suitcases than you grown-ups,” one of my patients with cancer once told me. She was 9 years old. They get it, more than we ever will.

Now back in the U.S., I am honored to have received several letters from my Afghan colleagues asking me to hurry back. We are woven together now. The way to keep this great carpet brilliant and strong for decades is to continue to hold the Afghans up, to continue to advocate for their children. We must do more than begrudgingly allow them a few crumbs from the table. We must sit on their floors with them, drink their teas, eat together, share tales of our families, and shower affection on their children. When we step up to the plate we will we be accepted as friends and more importantly, sewn into the tapestry of their lives. If we can weave our stories together tightly enough, what a magnificent carpet we would share – one we could all be proud of, and one that holds tender tales that we can pass on to many generations

photo by: Majid Saeedi -GettyImages

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