“Nanawatai or protection must be given to all who ask, no matter the circumstances.”
The second great law of the Afghans


It was almost dawn when we pulled up to an adobe compound near Peshawar, Pakistan. Sattar, the man who rescued me from the horrific car accident that had just killed my husband Zeman, pounded on the wooden door in the compound’s wall. A sleepy servant answered, and words were exchanged. The servant’s master Nasir Khan who never liked me appeared. Before he could speak, Sattar took the edge of Nasir’s tunic, pressed it to his forehead and asked for asylum.  Once the law of nanawatai had been invoked, Nasir could not refuse me. Sattar did this since he knew my relatives were searching for me to bring me back to the women’s quarters for the rest of my life to be honored as the widow of Chief Zeman, never to remarry.

Nasir called his womenfolk, looked at me and stiffly said in Pakhto, “Welcome to my home. May peace be upon thee.”

And upon thee and thy family,” I croaked. My throat was raw from all the dirt, stones and glass that had hit me when our Volkswagen Bug struck a truck at ninety miles an hour.

Nasir’s wife Razia and her servants appeared, shocked to see someone in my condition. They clucked over me, half carrying me into the women’s quarters. One of the servants prepared chai (tea) laced with opium. I was grateful for the warm liquid and began gently sliding down into a soft sea of sleep. In what seemed a far distance, I heard the clatter of cooking pots and the women’s hushed conversation as they dressed my wounds.

Reliving the impact of the accident in my dream, my body jumped awake. The room was stifling as I struggled to consciousness. I opened my raw grainy eyelids with an effort and sat up.  Assailed by intolerable aches and pains from my various cuts, sprains, and bruises, I sank back on the bed. Reality in all its harshness closed in on me as I was struck with the full impact of Zeman’s death. My sorrow was unbearable until I remembered that I still carried his child inside of me. I smiled gratefully through my tears and vowed to bring the child up as a true Pakhtun among Zeman’s family. 

Unsteadily, I made my way to the bathroom under the gaze of Yasmeen, a silent young Pakhtun woman, one of the household servants assigned to watch over me. When I was urinating, I noticed a piece of cotton string hanging out of me. Fear seized me and my mind was jammed on one repetitive phrase, “Oh my God!” Hundreds of fragmented thoughts collided in my head. In sheer terror knowing that my baby was dead, I stumbled out of the toilet. Yasmeen seeing the agony on my face streaked down the stairs on bare feet. She returned with Razia whose eyes were anxious mirrors.  I began to sob and Razia took me in her arms and rocked me back and forth. She asked Yasmeen to bring chai with opium.” 

Then Razia said, “We could do nothing, my child. You were hemorrhaging. The dai (the village midwife), removed the fetus. He was already dead. She washed you and packed you with clean cotton. Your menses will resume in several weeks.”

I sobbed harder, not only was I robbed of Zeman but even of his son!


Excerpt from book 2 of Afghanistan: A Memoir from Brooklyn to Kabul by Cat Parenti


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