by Dr Hakim in Kabul
I asked 15 year old Habib what he thought
basic human needs were,
and he replied without hesitation,
“First water, then food!”
Habib’s sensible and thoughtful nature was forged
in the streets.
His voice was pre-pubertal then, baby-like, not innocent, but pure,
resounding along Pul-e-Surkh road,
with a half-smile and full-tedium,
In front of him was his family’s livelihood tool,
a weighing scale.
His eyes were level with the skinny legs of passers-by,
and when he got hungry while ‘at work’,
he would “buy half a piece of bread”
and munch away.
If his younger brother, Sami or Abdullah, was with him,
he would first say, “Bukhurid! Eat!”
I did not know his story,
like the many pedestrians who walked by,
till his mother came with a shrapnel chest wound still unhealed
from the “wind of a bomb”, she said, that killed her husband,
Habib’s late father, breadwinner, Uzbek, Afghan, laborer, pillar.
His father was selling oranges
from a wooden cart which he pushed and pushed daily,
calling out for customers like his sons did,
not expecting charity, or death.
She said sincerely but with invisible distress,
“Thank you for bringing him here to study.
I hope, someday, he’ll become something…”
“Hunger is difficult,” Habib said, and to solve it?
“I want to go to school, and when I grow up,
I want to be a doctor…
and get out of this poverty.”
He was seated in his tarpaulin tent ‘home’
which had cooking utensils and a squeaking parakeet in the corner.
His grandma was the anchor,
a washerwoman, resourceful, a survivor.
When Habib left, she was shaking her head
and complaining about how a ‘foster’ uncle
had stormed into their hardly livable space,
and ‘snatched’ Habib and one of his three younger brothers away,
from their panicky and depressed mother,
to Faryab Province in the north, “far away in the mountains” the mother bemoaned.
The doctor prescribed IV saline infusions plus ‘medicines’ for a month,
to tide Habib’s mother through
not caring that love’s anxiety is not assuaged by salt or drugs.
“What could we have done?” the mothers asked.
I could imagine Habib’s unwilling falsetto
remotely resisting from a ‘madrassah’ ( religious school ),
missing his mother and grandmother,
enveloping the squabbling and fighting
waged by those who are hungry not for food,
but for power and territory and dollars.
I saw his childhood slipping out of the physician’s coat
into the robes of a ‘mullah’,
his heart receding from change and ambition
Fate? “We’ll still deliver Habib’s portion of food
to his ‘tent’ family,” the street kids teachers decided,
signifying solidarity with Habib,
“You are not here, but we are with you.”
In war zones, it may be
lighter on our sentiments
not to expect ‘return’, for life to sort of ‘move on’.
But, Habib turned up again,
and I tried to look beyond his older features and voice,
to understand the intervening emotions.
“The daily lessons were too routine…
and there was unrest and violence,
so I called my mom,
and said I wanted to come back,
He was a fraction more distracted,
but I could sense that the affections of home
were renewing his energies.
“My mother is grateful for your support,”
Habib said, “I’ll be coming to classes from now on.”
His reading and writing improved,
he found friends from other ethnic groups,
the street kids would have their momentary fun,
releasing their feelings
through their young bodies,
searching for happiness.
When recently Habib didn’t turn up to collect his food rations,
Ghulam and I got on our bikes to his ‘tent’ house.
“We’re vacating our space
as the landlord wants to refurbish his yard.”
The ‘tent’ which housed six persons was emptied.
The next day, Habib collected his food gifts from Ghulam,
“Food comes from the land.
Allah ( God ) owns the land.”
But Habib has no land,
because the ‘strongmen’ confiscate or claim the land,
leaving none to the farmers,
that is, leaving the people food-less,
“I’ve found some temp work
with a telephone company…
of course I’ll go to school.
I was third in class last year!”
Habib said with a jaded spark drawn across his eyebrows.
As if petitioning the world for throwing away 33% of all its meals,
he added, “We shouldn’t waste food.”