Kim Lateef is a Perth-born emerging writer whose work has appeared in Southerly Journal and Voiceworks Magazine. In 2019 Kim participated in the Saga Sisterhood project through the Centre for Stories and in 2016 Kim was selected to take part in Express Media’s Toolkits Program. She is passionate about uncovering the hidden stories of marginalised individuals and groups within mainstream historical narratives.
My Grandfather’s Beard by Kim Lateef
I buried my grandfather’s beard the summer I turned seven.
The vendor’s brown gloved fingers pushing the white cotton candy in and out of plastic bags triggers the memory. His brown gloved fingers became my grandfather’s brown fingers combing through his white fluffy beard.
“I want cotton candy! Pleeease!”
Children plead for the sticky confection in the stifling July heat. The overwhelming weather was no opponent for the ghosts of the past who had now chosen to incinerate and boil the stable foundations of my mind. A few days earlier an Afghan-American writer wrote a story about a djinn, spirit, that haunted the very same amusement park where I stood mesmerised by the cotton candy vendor. Who would have thought that ghosts favoured crowds? I became aware of the milling bodies on the crowded Coney Island boardwalk and suddenly felt a strong desire to escape the noise for a quieter place. I exchanged papery bills for a bag of cotton candy and the sugary scent rushed out to engulf and soothe my senses. Tossing the light bag from hand to hand, I walked down the boardwalk with the thought of my grandfather persisting within my mind. In thinking about my grandfather, I found myself mulling over that one Perth afternoon when my grandmother’s iron sewing scissors had felt so heavy in my seven-year-old hands. It was the very same day I would use them to snip off the tail end of my grandfather’s long beard.
Savouring the last bits of cotton candy, I move to find a bin and a cursory glance at the “Coney Island Cotton Candy” label across the empty bag caught my eye. I began to notice how quickly I had accepted calling things by a different name now that I was in America. “Fairy floss” was now “Cotton Candy”; and there are certain words where the “u” is dropped, such as colour to colour, or where “z” is replaced with “s”, such as realized to realised. I wonder then how it must feel to arrive in an unfamiliar country with unfamiliar phrases and having to not only learn a whole new language but also having to articulate a whole new life. My grandparents never grasped fluency in English. The few English words they memorised always felt alien to my ears as a child, as though the words could not quite fit into their mouths. How strange it must have felt for them to have grandchildren like myself who could not communicate fluently to them in Dari, considering how they lived for generations where everyone spoke one language. Only now as an adult looking back onto my childhood, I understand that I was unable to articulate how it felt to have my mind, my internal voice, moving fast in English and my tongue, my external voice, unable to keep up in Dari – like it were a constant game of chase between two languages competing to take place of the “mother tongue”. Since only my ears could fluently understand my grandparent’s Dari, my parents would translate my speech to them. I could say “Bale, Neh, Lutfaan” just as they could say “Yes, No, Please”. At primary school, I would proudly tell my classmates that my “Grandpa and Grandma” were coming to pick me up after school, which were rare moments, but those words felt alien in my mouth because I knew internally that they were really just “Baba and Bibi”. I suppose that provided my grandparents with some comfort to hear me refer to them in Dari. All we had left was our gestures, facial expressions and the dimming and brightening of light in our eyes to articulate how we truly felt to one another.
“Baba jaan is an old man and old men like to grow beards”
My mother’s impatient response to my nagging questions still could not satisfy my curiosity as to why Baba chose to grow his beard long. My only other reference for grandfathers was the Polaroid of a smiling and beardless man. He was my father’s father and whom everyone referred to as the Shaheed, a martyr, in oral family stories, for being assassinated by the Afghan Communists at the age of 46. I learned that he was shot through the back with an AK-47 Kalashnikov and that his bullet riddled waistcoat was delivered to his wife, my father’s mother, in place of his dead body. When I was first told about my paternal grandfather’s fate, the graphic details of his assassination did not grip me as much as the curiosity as to why he was beardless compared to the grandfather I would see after school who wanted to let his beard grow. And so another question would begin to bloom in the inner crevices of my mind: why was one Baba killed by these so-called Communists and the other Baba left to grow his beard in peace? As a child, I developed a habit of storing my parent’s memories within my mind and then revisiting them to add certain embellishments when my parents repeated the same memories in a different vein. I became the archivist of my parent’s inability to let go of their past. In a sense you could say I was already accustomed to the presence of ghosts since my adult relatives either kept family secrets or bluntly told us truths. The occasional glass of Coca-Cola mixed with water was the only diluted version of anything my siblings, cousins and I received when visiting relatives, whose drink of choice was the iconic soft drink and chai sabz, green tea, infused with Cardamom.
“Baba, why is your reesh, beard, so daraz, long,?”
I knew my grandfather would understand the essence of what I was asking, and to add further gravity to my question, I mimicked his act of combing his long beard and gently tugging on it. I knew my grandfather understood because he laughed aloud and whispered into my ear “the longer it is then the tiny invisible angels which hide there will increase my blessings”. He had then pensively brushed his beard with the little black plastic comb before returning it to his right breast pocket and then poured a small amount of Coca-Cola into a glass of water before offering it to me. I had cautiously looked around for my parents before accepting. I knew my grandfather preferred consuming Coca-Cola in glass bottles rather than in cans since my mother explained to me that is how it was sold and drunk in Kabul during the 60s and 70s. Even if our local supermarket would run out and could only offer cans, Baba did not mind the walk to the closest petrol station to procure some. I suppose it reminded my grandfather that he still had control over his choices – he was still that handsome suited gentleman working in a government office obsessed with the trickle of American branded imports into Kabul. Did he truly believe that tiny invisible angels were hiding in his beard? I would later learn as a teenager, that the one thing which had saved him from the Communists was the growth of beard on his face. For some reason, in the start, the Communists did not find religious expression to be as dangerous as the explicit support for Western sentiment. Beards were this visual and external symbol of religious expression. Hence my paternal grandfather’s lack of a beard could partly explain his early demise. My maternal grandfather was a man of silence and often after giving me a verbal sentence, he would go even more silent like a stone from a pond, and another adult would shoo me away to the garden where all the other children played.
In any case, my grandfather’s response to my question of why he grew his beard long only served to feed my curiosity, and my limited grasp of understanding Dari led me to imagine that his beard held secrets; that of magical powers or blessings and tiny invisible angels who were beautiful creatures, unlike the invisible djinn. In fact, I had imagined the inhabitants of my grandfather’s beard to look exactly like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, characters from my favourite childhood stories about two tiny babies who live inside the gumnuts that flower on the Eucalyptus trees. After sharing my findings with my younger cousins, I had that rush which children get when suddenly the world makes sense. This revelation also increased the distance I felt from my grandfather, because I felt that the mystery which surrounded him and his daily rituals were similar to those of the Saints and Prophets whose stories I heard and who I felt could never be at ease on solid ground.
It had happened so quickly. Even now, two decades later, I remember distinctly the feeling of disappointment, which weighed heavier than my Bibi’s iron sewing scissors. I had even recited Bismillah, which all the adults recited when starting a task of importance and yet no tiny Australian gumnut babies or tiny angels emerged from the clumps of white curls that were wiry and not at all soft like puffy fairy floss. Not completely deterred by my failure at uncovering the secrets of my grandfather’s beard, I felt there was still a way to absolve my guilt. My grandmother would often lament that one should bury all cut strands of hair in the dirt or risk the invisible djinns spiriting them away, which was akin to having one’s soul possessed. My grandmother would repeat her lament when I would visit her with a fresh bob cut and my mother would shake her head at her mother’s idea of asking to collect the strands of my cut hair from the local hairdresser. And so that is how I came to conduct a quick burial for my grandfather’s beard under his favourite pomegranate tree during that dry West Australian heatwave, where the only other attendants were fat buzzing flies. Looking back, perhaps the trouble started due to my childhood inability to separate superstition from reality. In my world, they were all blended. Could this have been the reason for my fascination with my grandfather’s beard?
This incident was the beginning of a thirst to unravel the secret histories of my family that began to tug at my mind as I grew up realising our origin story was not quite the same as our neighbour’s in sunny suburban Perth. Sadly, this thirst to know more about my heritage disappeared as quickly as it came when I was patiently waiting to turn nine. A newspaper’s front-page image of the Twin Towers sinking into itself in an implosion would forever be the imagery of my childhood transition from single digits to double digits. Now my cousins, siblings and I wanted to be known as only Aussie. No hyphens attached. The pig’s head stuck on the pike of my primary school’s fence served to strengthen the idea that the tiny invisible angels of my grandfather’s beard were never real. How could they exist in such a confusing and dangerous world? It made sense that the nefarious djinn could only exist here. During this decade, my grandfather’s beard began to look like murder rather than reflecting his gentle spirituality and on his usual daily walks, my grandfather would ignore the shouts of “Osama! Terrorist! Go back to your country!” yelled out of cars. For someone who had escaped wartime violence by walking on foot and through the mountain passes from Kabul to Peshawar, these racist taunts did not make my grandfather cower in fear but walk with his head held higher so that his long white beard was visible for all to see. By the time I began to feel less fear at expressing my Afghan cultural identity, it had already been a few years since my grandfather had passed away and so I began to feel regret that I had spent my teenage years suppressing the urge to ask him more questions about his life in Afghanistan, before he became a refugee. In the absence of my grandfather’s oral stories, I felt that terrible thirst from my early childhood returning, the persistent thirst to learn more about my Afghan heritage and my family’s history. Around this time, I had heard from my uncle’s wife that the family who bought my grandfather’s house had cut down the pomegranate tree and built a swimming pool over the garden which my grandfather had planted.
The screeching of gulls overhead brought me back to my current reality. Peering at the crowded beach of Coney Island, I realised how far away I was from home. Following that thought a sudden pang was felt within my heart, and I missed the eerie emptiness of Western Australia’s pristine shoreline. Sitting on a bench facing the ocean, I mused on how the tides of time had pushed and pulled my extended family so that we all held differing levels of religious expression, identity with culture, and lifestyles. That is when it hit me. The realisation that the Dari word for beard is reesh is similar to the Dari word Reeshah which means roots. So was my childhood fascination with my grandfather’s beard the beginning of my fascination (that terrible thirst) to learn more about our roots? In the end, my grandfather was carried in the belly of a plane over the Indian Ocean to be buried in his Bagh-e-Bala, garden-up-above, where I imagined the noise of Kabul’s bustle below would melt into a gentle hum and be carried to his grave by the wind. When my mother told me he was laid to rest under a grove of trees I remembered feeling disappointed that his burial did not take place under a pomegranate tree. My grandfather had once told me of an Afghan superstition that one of the many jeweled seeds of any anaar, pomegranate, holds the cure for any illness, be it physical or emotional anguish. Over the years, I began to understand and admire deeply the courage of my elders for trying to articulate a new life in an unfamiliar land. Their lonely existence scattered around the world in whichever country accepted asylum seekers or immigrants was akin to the lonely existence of fragmented artefacts that are also far from their original homes and scattered around the world in museums, alone in their memories. Sometimes I wish I knew my grandfather before the loss of his city gnawed at him from the inside and the salty Indian Ocean winds made him yearn for the sweet air flowing from the mountains of Kabul. The displacement I often feel in the Australian landscape could not compete with the displacement within him. I could imagine him standingon the porch of his whitewashed house in Kabul, where at the time he still held firm control over his life.
Moving away from the bench and towards the shoreline, I waited for the sun to set as I washed the sticky cotton candy residue off my hands into the ocean. The sounds of the waves lulled me into the ocean depths of my memories, where in my mind’s eye, I saw my grandfather listening to his beloved radio featuring broadcasts in Dari and Pashto. He would wind up the silver antennae, gesture to my cousins and I to play quietly, especially because we would be drawn like magnets to the crackling airwaves emanating from the speakers. We liked to pretend that my grandfather was communicating with aliens on a distant planet. It may have well been a different planet because my eldest cousin informed me that our grandfather was communicating with people in Kabul, and even then it seemed the intermittent crackling silence followed by loud shouts mirrored his mysterious phone calls to Kabul. In my child’s mind, any effort at communication and contact with this closed-off Afghanistan seemed laborious at best. While I had a close relationship with my grandmother, where I absorbed the intimate stories of women that would haunt the domestic interiors of most Afghan homes, I missed not being able to ask my grandfather about his world, the exterior space of working for the government in pre-War Kabul.Every child of Afghan refugees knows by heart the summary of the War in Afghanistan. We are told stories about watan, homeland, where we hear about our aunts and uncles as children playing in plentiful orchards, as teenagers sneaking to watch the latest Bollywood and Hollywood movies after school, my grandparents with their siblings enjoying picnics with chai sabz infused with cardamom by honey-scented rivers and my parents listening to Ahmad Zahir, their equivalent of Elvis Presley, as they drove through the streets of Kabul to meet friends and dream about their future. But inevitably, the story of the War and of Life as a Refugee, seep into these stories and warps them into a bitter sweetness. These stories have taught me that War and Peace is so much more than the title of Tolstoy’s classic – it is bits of historical fragments floating in my blood and interwined in my heritage.
One cannot understand the trauma of War without understanding the Peace that came before it, and as a descendant of a war-ravaged land it is tiring to bear the weight of a past I did not live through and which is heavier than all of the fragmented family heirlooms I own (a couple of creased photographs, a handful of lapis beads, my paternal grandfather’s bullet riddled waistcoast, a great aunt’s vintage ruby ring, the table cloths hand-embroidered by my great-grandmother, musty Farsi poetry books and a darkened silver jewellery box). These objects speak of my families heartbreak, isolation and the ghosts of the past that inhabit them. My grandfather became elderly in Perth, separated from his network of Afghan peers, and was always waiting for either his children or grandchildren to visit and break the monotony of his daily routine, similar to how the many other Afghan grandparents in different places were waiting. Waiting, and also hoping, that one day they would all return home to Afghanistan. As the sun sets across the North Atlantic ocean, I close my eyes gently so I can see my grandfather chasing me down the wooden stairs of his brick house into his garden, grabbing me gently by the waist and throwing me up in the air so high I could touch the swollen pomegranates hanging heavily and my grip on the cut fragment of his beard loosening. I still remember how my fear turned to relief when I heard my grandfather’s booming laughter, for his rare happiness was worth more than the miracle of finding the invisible tiny angels in his beard.