The Necessary Disguise
By Camille Kistner
I stepped to the edge of the worn concrete steps leading up to our apartment. Warm, dust-filled air lifted the hair off my shoulders and my hair danced in front of my face. I tucked my hair away behind my ear and bent down to pick up a dirty newspaper that was dated July 17th, 1992. A bolded headline read, Hekmatyar Refuses Peshawar Accords. Bombs Falling. As I turned to walk back inside with the bucket of water I had filled at the faucet, I heard a whistling sound that had become all too familiar in recent months. There was an ear piercing explosion and the ground beneath my feet rumbled. I hurried inside. My parents had moved our family to Kabul during a time of peace, but things had changed quickly. Rival militias had begun to fight for control of the city and it was no longer safe to be outside. Women and girls were not even allowed to walk the streets without a male relative.
For months, I had been cooped up in the small apartment while my father attempted to arrange our family’s passage back to the U.S. Then suddenly, my father didn’t return from work in the evening as usual. We spent days wondering if he was alive until a man he had been working with stopped by to inform us that he had been arrested. We were practically starving and had already consumed all the food we had stored. My little brother and sister were so hungry they had stopped playing and spent the days just laying around. We had a small amount of afghani but it would do us no good since my mother and I didn’t dare to venture into the streets alone to purchase food. If we were to be seen, we would be arrested, beaten, and most likely killed. I couldn’t just stand around and watch my family starve to death. I had to figure out some kind of plan.
Sitting on the pile of blankets I sleep on, I watched out the hole in my wall where a window once was. Black puffs of smoke linger in the sky where puffy white clouds should be. All I could see from here was a city in ruin. I knew that there was a market nearby where men would sell and trade food. I’d seen a boy named Khalil who lived on the floor above us bring bread and rice back to his family. I didn’t think it was fair that he could go out and earn food when I couldn’t even leave my apartment. My mother had a few items I could trade if I could just get to that market.
“Mom, I need you to cut my hair short. Like a boy.”
She was confused at first, then quickly understood that this was probably the only way we could survive until my father returned. I convinced Khalil’s little sister to give me some of his clothes. The clothes hung loosely on me which worked well to hide my feminine body. I selected a small, exquisite vase that my parents had been given as a wedding gift and tucked it into the waistband of my pants. My mother handed me the small pouch of Afghanis that she had saved, kissed my forehead, and told me to be careful. My legs trembled like those of a newborn colt as I took the first few steps outside the safety of my home.
I tried to appear confident as I made my way to the marketplace. I walked down the narrow streets, brushing shoulders with men of all ages and climbing over debris from recent bombings. I kept waiting for someone to stop me, but apparently my disguise had worked. I made it to the market and my stomach lurched at the thought of speaking with one of the strange men selling food. My nose was filled with the scent of fresh bread and my hunger overpowered my fear. I casually strolled up to a man behind a table filled with dried fruits and bread. I handed him the pouch of afghanis and the small vase. He studied the vase carefully and counted the money. He held out a small loaf and two packets of of dried fruits. I bowed my head to him and tucked the bread and fruit into my waistband. Then I ran as fast as I could back to my apartment, my heart beating like a bass drum. We were going to be okay.