A Quaker Family in Afghanistan, 1949-51

In 1947 two young Quakers were looking for a way to make a practical contribution to world peace.

Like many of us today, they had been shaken by the wars around them. They were World Federalists and socialists, supported the League of Nations and consumer cooperatives, studied Esperanto, and were the first employees of the Experiment in International Living—but they wanted to do more.

Then Rebecca and Osborne Cresson saw this announcement in Friends Intelligencer: "The Ministry of Education of Afghanistan is hoping to secure 31 male teachers from the United States for positions in the capital city of Kabul and at Kandahar, center of Afghan history and Pushtu culture." It changed their lives and, to some degree, those of many others.

Afghanistan was opening its borders, one more turn of the wheel in its ages-old conflict over modernization. It wanted teachers. Osborne loved math and thought he would be able to teach it. Rebecca was a skilled homemaker and craftsperson and she could teach elementary school and write about what she saw. Their daughter, Wetherill (age eight), and son, Os (seven) were excited about meeting people whose lives were very different from their own. Although the Cressons did not speak any of the languages of Afghanistan, they were convinced that love would triumph—and it did for the two years they were in Afghanistan and the two years in neighboring Iran.

During this time they met people in many ways. Their home was open to Osborne’s students practically every afternoon. They had very close relations with a few servants and met more Afghans while walking on the streets of Kabul. During school vacations they took buses to distant corners of the country. Rebecca wrote journals, letters, articles, and short stories, and Osborne took photographs to record the culture around them.

Their experience shows us that we can build peace by going to people who are different from us and living near them, committing our lives to the simple proposition that goodwill toward others can carry us through any difficulty. Rebecca and Osborne opened their hearts to the Afghan people, and the Afghans responded in kind. It is hoped this example will encourage others to do the same.

Three Letters from Rebecca Saqao

When the Afghan sun shines with noontime heat, the compound gate opens and a water carrier twists through with his bloated sheepskin on his back. Saqao is very old, with long white tufts of sparse hair growing on his chin. His body is bent almost double under the weight of the bag. He leans heavily on a stick, his Mongolian features drawn in lines of strain. With mouth hanging open and beads of sweat running down the creases in his face he plods slowly toward the kitchen.

Saqao has been a water carrier ever since he was strong enough to carry a small skin. His father was a water carrier before him and his grandfather, too. Generations ago Saqao’s ancestors lived in the far north central part of Afghanistan. The last spreading fingers of the Himalaya Mountains rose high and snow-covered between them and their king, who lived in Kabul. During long years of isolation these people learned to love their freedom, to grow strong and clever in order to survive the rigors of their existence. Eventually they became too bold and too independent. When they revolted against the king, an army was sent to sack their villages.

The northern rebels were routed and defeated. Many men were brought to Kabul in captivity, some to be slaves, some to do the most lowly tasks. Water carrying, road making, and street cleaning became their jobs. There is no law now to prevent these people from entering other occupations, but most of the street cleaners, road makers and water carriers still have the typical, flat Mongolian faces, the broad cheekbones, slanted eyes, and scant beards of their forefathers. In contrast, bazaar keepers and government officials usually have narrow faces, aquiline features, and large round eyes. Class distinction, defined by facial appearance and added to poverty and the inertia of malnutrition, have kept the northerners’ descendents at their lowly work.

Saqao comes down the path with his empty water bag flapping. In the midday sun his turban is as white as his wispy beard. He stops under the window to salaam and smile, touching his forehead and then his heart, folding his arms across his chest and bowing, once to sahib [the master of the house], once to hawnum-sahib [the mistress], and once to the children. Malarial fever is not burning in his thin, muscle-knotted body today, so he does not ask for medicine. His smile spreads from wrinkle to wrinkle across the breadth of his face. He turns and, with a last low bow, shuffles out of the gate to come another day, as his son will come when old Saqao can no longer carry the heavy water skin.

To Faizabad and Back

[We set out to visit the northeastern part of the country accompanied by a good friend, Ezmari, who was one of Osborne’s students.] It all started off in typical Afghan style. We carried our blanket roll, small suitcase, kosai [white felt coat], and bag of bread and toys down to the corner where the lorry was to pick us up. We waited and waited, and finally Ezmari came to say that the truck we had expected to take us had been stopped by the police; presumably to save gasoline, which is very scarce these days. An army lorry going for a load of rice would take us on, but its cab would not accommodate us all and Ezmari, Osborne, and Os would have to ride in back. When it arrived at twelve o’clock (we had expected to leave at seven) the soldiers and passengers were friendly, but the driver was peeved at having a woman thrust into his cab, and he wouldn’t even speak to the children.

It was dark by the time we got to Zehr-i-Shibar (Under Shibar). From the few teahouses that compose the village, the road winds straight into heaven, or so it seemed as we drank tea and ate nawn [a whole-wheat bread in flat sheets] and cheese. We could see the lights of several trucks that were climbing the road. It truly seemed as though they were going straight up into the sky, and when we did it ourselves, we could almost think we were too, for the road is quite steep; the double-S curves, one after another, on and on and on interminably.

[Later, after a rest stop,] when we arrived at the lorry it was securely locked, and the driver sitting at a chai hawna [tea house] across the way made no move to go. He sat drinking tea with his hat, coat, and shoes off. Ezmari stewed and finally went to see him. Shortly they all came to the truck, and such a change you never did see. Everyone bowed and scraped and the driver even asked if we were comfortable and wanted Osborne and both children to ride in front, which Osborne refused to do because the change came about when the driver discovered that Ezmari’s father is his superior [in the army]! That
is very typical of this country where wealth and position bring attention and favor. From then on our trip was more comfortable. We didn’t hit so many bumps, and the driver even pointed out spots of interest to me and was pleasant to the children. But I don’t believe he thought he made much headway in correcting a bad impression, for even Wetherill and Os were cool to him and gave their attentions to those who had been pleasant in the beginning.

[The next day, having driven since 3 a.m.,] lunchtime was at 10 a.m. in a most attractive little village. Along the entire left-hand side of the road were chai hawnas. They had open porches spread with rugs, a stove and samovar in one corner, trees shading them, and a stream gurgling behind them. We crossed the stream and sat on beds placed under a mulberry tree. There were no forks in town, so for the first time we really had to use our fingers and found we could catch on to the system quite easily—after Osborne discovered that he was trying to do it upside down. The children paddled in the stream, and we felt quite refreshed when we went on.

[Early on the third day] we could see the trees of Khanabad at the base of a mountain, and before long we were there. There are two streets of bazaars, unpaved, narrow streets except for one stretch that is wide and tree-shaded and leads to the hotel. A UN malaria unit had taken over the hotel, but a student from the French school helped us get one room with three beds in it. We slept almost all day while Ezmari visited his cousin, who is the governor of Khanabad.

[The next day] the local doctor, a bright, thoughtful, earnest man, entertained us for lunch at a sumptuous meal of delicious chilau [steamed rice, served with sauces], various meat cakes and stews, baked custard in a thin layer with chopped pistachio nuts on top, and bountiful fruit. Only a few hours later we were invited to the governor’s house for supper. It is two miles from town beside a little river, and the table was set on a terrace under some trees. There were two large Chinese porcelain vases of flowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions arranged artistically; thin, fried, plate-sized wafers with spinach and chives between the paper-thin dough; broiled chicken; meat cakes; and a pastry made of wheat flour, then dusted with sugar. The mulberries were so big and juicy they had to be eaten with forks. The nectarines and apricots were delicious, and I suppose the cucumbers, which they always serve with fruit, were too, but somehow I didn’t want cucumber at that point.

While we were having breakfast the next morning, the governor phoned that we would leave right after breakfast for Taloqan, and from there we could decide what to do. It was ten o’clock when we heard a motor, and there was our lorry, a gaily painted wheezing affair with a crown of turbaned humanity riding on top of the cab. I got in front while Osborne, Ezmari, and the children ended up on top. One family stayed down below when a big load of reeds was picked up. They were walled up so that when they wanted to get off four miles from our destination, they had to break open their bundles and pass them out piecemeal. Unfortunately, the people could not do that, so they had to ride on to the end and walk back!

[When no vehicles were available in Taloqan we resorted to horses.] Wetherill rode the baggage horse without saddle or stirrups and with an adult behind her. Ezmari, Osborne, and I took turns riding with Wetherill, and part of the time the two men who went along, walking a great part of the way, would ride behind Os or someone else. [We were supposed to ride two hours to the next village,] but that village didn’t materialize and it was six hours later, at eleven at night, before we got to a stopping place.

Our poor, unaccustomed muscles ached; Os groaned and complained in his uninhibited way; and when I complimented Osborne for his patience, he said that he was just too tired even to lose patience! When we finally wound through all the shadowy valleys with the owners of the horses as our guides and arrived at the tree-shaded village of Kishim, we had to be practically poured off the horses and our legs scarcely held us up. Our laughing so hard at our predicament gave the natives a chance to laugh with us as well as at us, and it evidently erased much of the memory of the discomfort of the trip, for the next morning even Os was ready to go on.

[For three days we rode up and down in the mountains.] Each day at about noon we stopped at a small serai, a walled enclosure for animals with mud platforms just inside the gate where men could stretch out to rest and a man would serve tea. We spent a night in one serai where the light was a small, flittering flame from a lamp like Aladdin’s. We were beginning to feel as though we had the makings of horsemen in us by the third day when we spotted Faizabad way down below us, across the broad Kokcha valley. The town is a beautiful spot at the curve of the river, with high hills all around and snowcapped mountains in the distance. After crossing the valley we had to thread along beside the river, the full length of the town to get to the only bridge that crosses the torrent into Faizabad. Then we had to go all the way back through town with staring crowds of friendly people all along the way until we came to the governor’s house high on the hill. The governor invited us to dinner and gave us a good picture of his area, even if Wetherill and Os did fall asleep before the meal was over!

[Faizabad was a fascinating town, protected by the mountains and river just as Marco Polo described it. We were fortunate to find space in a truck to begin our return journey.] The Kokcha Valley as we rode back toward Khanabad was the most picturesque part of the trip, for the valley narrowed to a mere slit between rocky crags in places and every bend brought a new, entrancing view. The road was no highway, and we often had to get out to walk up steep slopes or across rickety bridges. At one bridge we even unloaded the entire truck, down to the last bundle of bread. That evening we stopped beside a small village of Uzbeks with their round bent-sapling and mat summer houses. A gray-bearded patriarch let us sit on his 45-year-old Chinese rug—a handsome item—and provided us with tea, eggs, fruit, and nawn that was coarser than the usual Kabul variety, but yeasty and good—just hot from baking stones. We all slept on the ground around the truck.

[Back in Taloqan we were lucky to find a bus headed toward Kabul.] The busload consisted of 28 adults, 13 children, 3 birds, and 1 rooster! When they tried to fit us all in, there was a great to-do. They wanted to put the woman and sick baby next to Os who sat on the end of our row. When Osborne moved Os to his other side, placing himself next to the woman, everyone had a fit. Osborne explained the baby was sick and they surprisingly acknowledged the justice of keeping Os away. The child was woefully thin and had pussy eyes. They moved the woman back to the corner where she had been and put the bird-boy next to her with a folded blanket between them. At the height of all the arranging, when every man in the bus was raising his voice, all the babies started to cry and the three birds began to screech. What a hubbub!

[Finally, on the home stretch:] By three o’clock we got to Doab, where we stopped for tea, apricots, and sleep for about an hour. It was here we wished Osborne a happy birthday. It was light enough to see as we churned along toward Shibar Pass. I was so sleepy I could hardly hold my eyes open, but I did enjoy the narrow gorge, rushing water, and high, steep, rocky cliffs that pressed so close. We had our last melon, tea, and nawn for breakfast at Booloola, then even I slept, nodding over the sleeping children most of the way to Ghorband where we had lunch. Dark-ness was just falling when the bus stopped to let us off at the corner where we had embarked on our trip 18 days before. Some of the passengers got out to say goodbye. Everyone salaamed, shook hands, and we closed one more chapter of interesting experience.

Dinner in the Women’s Quarters

"My stepmother wants you to come to our house for dinner," Ahad told us one morning.

That evening, while Osborne and Os lounged in the men’s tea room with Ahad, Wetherill and I sat on floor pads in the women’s quarters behind the purdah wall [the point beyond which no unrelated man may pass]. We were surrounded by a blur of faces to which we could not talk because we knew no Pushtu, the ancient language of Kandahar [where we were] and our hostesses knew no English. We smiled and waved our hands as expressively as possible. Ahad’s beautiful sister smiled back, and gradually the blur of faces began to take on identifying characteristics. Some were pretty faces, some were plain; they all were friendly, curious and excited for this was the first time that these women had ever entertained Americans.

The beautiful sister sat opposite us with her white-clad legs folded. Her black hair was brushed smoothly into a pompadour. The length of it, hanging down her back, was covered by a white gauze scarf that went over her head, then was thrown loosely around her shoulders. Her dress was rich red satin with a tight, square-necked bodice attached to a full, knee-length skirt. At the neckline and on the pockets, gold beads were sewn in a pattern of birds and flowers. A heavy gold necklace, small earrings, and thin bracelets ornamented one of the loveliest girls I have ever seen.

Close behind the Beautiful One crouched two of her friends. The first was a broad-faced girl with such a lively expression that one easily ignored the roughness of her pockmarked skin. I became aware of the second girl when Ahad entered the room. Immediately, the two friends hurried to cover their heads and hide their faces with a bright green woolen shawl. Each girl took a corner and peeped laughingly at Wetherill and me with the shawl held as protection against Ahad’s glance. He was not beyond noticing them though he wandered about pretending, at first, that he didn’t.

"Those girls want to be married," Ahad finally remarked. I did not know whether it was proper to ask if they wanted to marry him so I merely stated that I thought they would make nice wives.

A dull-witted sister brought the tea tray. She, poor thing, seemed to do most of the work and was mercilessly teased about her affliction. Beautiful Sister poured two small cups of tea with the usual ceremony of first rinsing cups and spoons with the hot liquid. Wetherill and I were slightly embarrassed about drinking alone while the assembly watched us. We forgot to sip loudly, as it was polite to do. The women watched us and commented frankly in Pushtu about our appearance and each item of clothing.

Everyone had gathered around us now, a typical family group. There were Ahad’s two stepmothers, their children, the sister of one of the stepmothers, her little son and daughter, three of Ahad’s sisters, a small puck-faced niece, as well as a pudgy, moonfaced baby with a bracelet of blue beads strapped around her wrist and laced between her fat fingers. The four-month-old baby of Beautiful Sister was wrapped in swaddling clothes. She had mascara lines drawn around her eyes with long points at the corners.

Again Ahad came into the room, accompanying his two elderly aunts. I have some hesitation about calling them elderly for when they asked my age and I told them "39" there was a funny expression on their faces! Maybe they, too, were 39. One of the aunts was sharp-featured, looking worn with pain and illness. The other aunt had a flat, Mongolian-type face with small twinkling eyes. She spoke Persian, the language of Kabul, so that we could now converse—to the extent of my limited Persian vocabulary!

The dull sister brought in a water jug and basin that she took to the first wife of Ahad’s father, who tested the warmth of the water; then it was brought to us for hand washing. A small napkin was ready for drying. Os wandered in, so he washed his hands too. He was allowed in both the men’s room and that of the women since he was only eight, but when dinner arrived Os was taken back to eat with the men.

A white cloth was laid on the floor in front of us. Mounded plates of rice were put in the center. Half-moon sections of thin, flat bread about 15 inches long were placed before each person. There were bowls of soup: clear soup for us, soup with bread soaking in it for the finger eaters. Morsels of stew were picked up with bent pieces of bread; spinach was dealt with the same way; rice was eaten with three fingers of the right hand and so were pomegranate seeds. Everyone dipped right into the serving dishes using no plates, though Wetherill and I were given small plates and forks. The children crowded in around the cloth for their supper, the elders eating around and over their heads. Our interest in watching the finger-eating was slight compared to the open-mouthed wonder of all the women as they watched our antics with our forks. I suppose it does look ridiculously awkward! The eldest niece, about four years old I presume, watched us using our forks and was soon discovered with a large serving spoon, trying to ape us. When she couldn’t manage to get anything into her mouth with it she tried pouring pomegranate seeds into her tiny hand, with no greater success!

Partway through the meal, Ahad appeared to check on our progress. The two unmarried girls had separated and were sitting at opposite ends of the cloth. One snatched up the useful green shawl, the other crouched against the legs of the first wife who stood behind her, with the end of the wife’s shawl shielding the side of the girl’s face that was toward Ahad. Perversely, Ahad moved around to the other side so the girl drew the wife’s skirt across to hide the other side of her face and squatted there laughing with us at her predicament.

When everyone had eaten all she wanted, the serving dishes were removed and the leftover pieces of nawn and spilled rice were rolled up in the cloth and, I believe, taken to the kitchen for the servants to finish. One bright-faced little girl swept all the rice off the rug with her thin, long-fingered little hands, grinning with a wide-mouthed grin whenever she could catch my eye. I didn’t find out her identity; perhaps she was a cousin.

After dinner the women sat back to stare and comment again. Wetherill and I admired the babies some more, though we were not allowed to cuddle them. There was horror in the beautiful sister’s face when I asked to hold her baby. Perhaps it was not proper for an infidel to ask to hold the healthy, contented little Mohammedan.

Three of the women nursed their babies at frequent intervals; no wonder all the little ones are so fat. The women inquired about the number of my children, unable to believe that two were all that I had. They courteously offered me one of their babies and said they would pray that I would have more of my own.

Once more we had tea, then Ahad came to tell us that Osborne and Os were ready to leave. We shook hands with all the friendly women, and though only the one aunt understood our Persian thank-you, I think the others sensed what we meant, just as we felt their kindliness though we could not understand their words.

Os Cresson

Os Cresson is a member of Monteverde Meeting in Costa Rica and a sojourning member of Mount Holly (N.J.) Meeting. The letters are excerpts from the book, We Felt their Kindliness: An American Family's Afghan Odyssey, 1949-1951, edited by Os Cresson, to be published by Emerald Pademelon Press, summer 2002, for the purpose of raising funds for American Friends Service Committee's Afghan relief programs. See http://www.emeraldpademelon.com. © 2002 Os Cresson