“Slowly, Slowly, Beautiful Love.” On the polished parquet floor of Star’s function hall in Hamburg, Germany a couple moved slowly in rhythm to the music of Afghan singer Bashir Hamdard, “Maida, Maida yar Zeba.” In front of family and friends newlyweds Parnian and Abir danced: two Afghans, once neighbors and childhood friends now refugees in a foreign land, tonight married and in love.
“Slowly, Slowly, Beautiful Love.” I first met Parnian years ago at a Seeds of Peace summer camp, where teenagers from regions of conflict annually gathered along the wooded shores of a Maine lake to explore paths to coexistence and reconciliation. Parnian was a joy, immediately engaging and vibrant — smart, motivated, self-assured, full of promise with an irresistible, infectious laugh.
Phillips Exeter Academy recognized that promise and intelligence and invited her to join their community. Unlike most students who arrive on campus, Parnian was admitted without knowing what a graph was. She didn’t know how to ride a bike. She didn’t know how to swim. She mostly knew how to learn.
Parnian also didn’t know the meaning of “I can’t.” She was an inveterate maker of lists, mostly of English words she didn’t know.
She was fearless in tackling assignments and wasn’t afraid to ask for help, overwhelming critics and doubters with her efforts and good humor.
At Exeter, Parnian wrote about growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. She refused to bend to their authority and rather than submit she stayed at home and redefined what home-schooling means.
“My home became my school and I became my own teacher,” Parnian wrote.
“Of course, I needed books, which were forbidden to girls. I asked my male relatives for any books and I wanted some English ones. My father and uncles obliged and I now laugh when I picture my dad choosing English books for me without any knowledge of the language. I also wanted recorded materials, CDs, DVDs, tapes. Since the Taliban did not allow these, I had to ask my families (sic) and friends traveling outside the country to bring me English movies or recorded books secretly. A few of them agreed to take this risk. My uncle Sameh brought me the movie “Titanic.” It was the only English video I had, so I watched it over and over, learning every single word in it. I even cut my hair to look not like Kate Winslett but Leonardo Di Caprio. At age 11 it seemed like a good idea, especially since I wanted to speak English just like he did.” “After working on my English for three years, I started teaching it to seven neighboring young girls… I also learned Baluchi, a tribal language, from my mother’s uncle who lived next door. I practiced Urdu, Pashto and Dari by reading novels, poetry and any book available. I memorized suras of the Qur’an in Arabic and verses of Hafez poetry. I also became interested in arts and started drawing, cooking, knitting, and crocheting. The Taliban wanted to create a prison for me. Instead, I created my own school.”
Parnian hungered for the opportunity to leave Kabul to study in America. Her parents gave her permission to travel, first to Seeds of Peace, then to Exeter and Wellesley College and then on to New York and Washington where she has become a indefatigable advocate for Afghan and women’s rights.
With her parent’s permission I was blessed to be her guardian and to be witness to the remarkable journey of this young woman who became as a second daughter. Earlier this month, as I proudly watched Parnian and Abir dance in Hamburg I recalled another time I watched her dance, years ago, in Exeter.
After finishing the 10th grade in Kabul, where she was the only student to get a perfect 100 in all 15 of her subjects, Parnian was gifted with a special dress and jewelry.
Parnian wore that dress to a school dance: “I wore that special Afghan dress and jewelry, I entered the crowd with excitement. This was my first time wearing it in public … I was dressed in a silver mateka headband with colorful neggen jeweled stones covering my forehead. An intricate Afghan necklace and earrings reflected shiny light… the hand-crafted edges of my sleeves, and the flared bottom of the skirt shined beautifully as I danced the Afghan Attan. The other dancers followed me trying to mirror my movements.
“No one at the gathering had ever seen that dance or dress before. As we spun in circles of Attan the worlds of Afghanistan and the United States began to be merged. It has been my pleasure to take you to my part of the world just as you have taken me into yours. It is my pleasure to be here…;to study, and to be free.”
Thoughts of such freedom and courage, her commitment to her family and country and traditions flooded over me as we watched Parnian dance with Abir. Back home in Kabul her grandmother’s wedding lasted had seven days, her mother’s wedding party had lasted three full of merriment and music and her sisters’ weddings, carefully shielded to avoid the wrath of the Taliban, had been celebrated at home.
This night in Hamburg, far from the homes and memories of Afghanistan, Parnian and Abir wed; an Afghan imam married them in a Nikkah, a traditional Islamic marriage ceremony during which verses of the Qur’an were recited.
Buffet tables were filled with Afghan specialties, and salads, kebabs, naan, a variety of rice dishes, Kabuli Pulao, Qorma and exotic deserts satisfied the most demanding of palates. We danced into the morning, Sadly, as the wedding party unfolded, Parnian’s mother and brothers, unable to get visas to visit Germany, watched from Kabul small snippets of the ceremonies over a weak Skype connection.
That night, in Hamburg, surrounded by Abir and Parnian’s family and friends, mostly refugees unable to return to a broken homeland, I was overwhelmed with the poignancy of the moment, of the courage of these Afghans, dancing and celebrating through the night, anxious to celebrate the newlywed’s union, desperate to keep their culture and traditions alive so far from the now-scarred battlefields of their homeland.
Past midnight in Hamburg, dawn approaching in Exeter, a line in Khaled Hosseini’s novel about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner comes to mind, “God has granted you a special talent. It’s now your duty to hone that talent, because a person who wastes his God-given talents is a donkey.”
God granted Parnian special talents. She honed them all well and those of us gathered in her presence on a crisp Saturday night in Germany were bathed in the light that her gifts reflected upon us all.
“Slowly, Slowly, Beautiful Love.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.