Shorba Birang: Recalling tastes of Afghanistan and a lifesaving trek

The Anwar family during their trek from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The Anwar family during their trek from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Who can forget the many harrowing scenes in Khaled Hosseini’s novel about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner. One I will never forget is how the protagonist, Amir, and his father, along with a dozen or so others, escape from Afghanistan by hiding in an empty oil tanker. When the truck reaches Pakistan, they find that one of the boys traveling in the tank has died because of the suffocating fumes.

Parwin Anwar, who now lives in suburban Detroit and teaches English as a second language in public schools, has an equally dramatic story of escape from a disintegrating society.

I met Parwin in May at the installation dinner for WISDOM–Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue in Metro Detroit and the authors of the book Friendship & Faith. Both of us were new board members. She told me she had come from Afghanistan in 1985, but I didn’t know the details of her story until a month later, when she invited me into her home to watch her cook some traditional Afghani foods.

Leaving home

The Anwars liked to picnic at Qargha Dam near Kabul on Fridays.

The Anwars liked to picnic at Qargha Dam near Kabul on Fridays.

Parwin and her husband, Qadir, university graduates, had been living a comfortable life in Kabul. Parwin taught Pashto, one of the main languages of the country, in a high school. Qadir worked in a bank.

In 1978 the government was taken over by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was vehemently anti-religious, anti-elite and anti-intelligentsia: three strikes against the Anwars. Less than two years later, the Soviet army invaded. The Anwars, devoutly religious supporters of the anti-Communist Mujahideen, knew they were in danger. They resolved to leave and seek refuge in the United States.

Parwin’s uncle, a professor of engineering, had lived in Michigan for more than 30 years. Her father joined him in 1983. “He had been working for the United Nations in Sudan, and after the Communists came to power, we told him it wasn’t safe for him to come back to Afghanistan because he had ties to the previous government,” said Parwin.

The Anwars had two children, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, and Parwin was six months pregnant.

A 150-mile trek

In a group of 17 that included an elderly couple, six teenagers and three children, they left Kabul and walked 150 miles to Pakistan.

“We had to leave everything behind. We couldn’t take anything or tell anyone we were leaving. We didn’t even say goodbye to our family,” she said.

It was late July and very hot. No one in the group had good walking shoes. Everyone wore traditional clothing, complete with bangle bracelets and henna for the women. Their cover story, in case they were stopped at a checkpoint, was that they were going to a nearby village to attend a wedding.

The group had a horse and two donkeys, one of which was used to carry their meager belongings. Because of her pregnancy, Parwin sometimes rode the horse, but mostly she walked, eight to 12 hours a day. The men carried the children on their backs.

“We took some cooked food with us but after a few hours in the heat, everything was spoiled. We used up our water quickly too. Whenever we came to a river, we drank and filled up every bottle we could. Sometimes villagers gave us food and water, but most days we had very little,” she said.

The power of prayer

They came to a tall mountain, but there was no road around it. “We had to crawl up the mountain,” said Parwin. Some members of the group lost their toenails in the climb. Parwin fell several times. Once she was getting off the horse and her dress caught on the saddle. She fell and suffered a deep scratch the length of her torso. More than once they heard the Soviet army bombarding a village nearby.

“I was so tired and in so much pain,” she said. “One day we stopped in a village and I wanted to give up. I told everyone else I would stay there. But my son – he was only 5 years old – said he would walk behind me so he could catch me if I fell. So I kept going. Every night I was so sure I was going to have the baby that night. I prayed every night, and the next morning I would be fresh. That’s the power of faith and prayer.”

It took them five days to reach Pakistan. Everyone in the group survived.

In Pakistan the Anwars stayed with family so they didn’t have to go to a refugee camp. After eight months they were granted refugee status and came to the United States. Parwin’s younger daughter was born in Pakistan. She had a fourth child, a son, in Michigan.

New life in America

The 10-year Soviet occupation resulted in the deaths of between 850,000 and 1,500,000 Afghan civilians. About 6 million fled to Pakistan and Iran. By the end of 2011, there were about 300,000 Afghanis in the United States. The largest communities are in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.

Parwin cooks many foods from her homeland. Dinner often includes a vegetable soup, made with with rice or noodles, that’s fragrant with herbs and spices. Parwin usually mixes parsley, cilantro and dill together and freezes the mix in small quantities – the size of a large ice cube –  until she needs them. She does the same with a mixture of turmeric, garlic and fresh ginger.

Parwin often makes this soup during Ramadan. Here’s how to make it. Just be aware that Parwin never measures anything, she just knows what works! These quantities are my estimates. Don’t worry about it too much. One of the joys of making soup is that whatever you throw in a pot will probably taste good!

th Food-writer-Bobbie-Lewis-in-her-kitchenA NOTE FROM YOUR FEED THE SPIRIT HOST, BOBBIE LEWIS: Please help us to spread word about Feed the Spirit. Use the convenient social-media icons with these columns to share with friends. The most important is the blue-“f” Facebook icon. Just click and “Like” this column so others can find it. Thank you!

Bolani: A vegetarian treat from Afghanistan for Ramadan

Feed the Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis

Feed the Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis

Parwin Anwar’s suburban Detroit home was bustling. She had offered to show me how to cook some of the dishes her family eats during Ramadan, which falls during the longer summer days this year. Her two daughters-in-law had come to enjoy the fruits of her labor, bringing with them two friends and three toddlers. The room hummed with activity and love.

In addition to learning how to make some Afghani foods, I wanted to get a sense of how Muslims cope with the month-long fast, especially when Ramadan falls in the summer when the days are so long. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, with no correction to bring it in sync with the solar calendar, Ramadan occurs approximately 11 days earlier every year.

Ramadan: It’s a long, hard fast in the summer

Going without food and drink between dawn and dark would be hard enough in the winter, when there are about 10 hours of daylight. How much more difficult it must be in the summer months, when—in Michigan anyway—the fast stretches on for more than 15 hours. And, when it often is hot enough to easily dehydrate anyone, let alone a fasting person.

In Muslim countries, schools, stores and offices close or modify their hours so that people can eat and do their business after dark and sleep during some of the daylight hours. In countries where Muslims are a minority, Ramadan is a challenge.

Parwin Anwar with a platter of bulani.

Parwin Anwar with a platter of bolani.

Parwin says many women start shopping and cooking weeks in advance for Ramadan and for Eid al Fitr, the festival that marks its end. She often makes curries, soups and other dishes and freezes them for use during Ramadan. Then all she needs to do to make a meal after the fast is defrost something, cook up some rice or noodles and throw together a salad.

Iftar: Breaking the Ramadan fast

Muslims like to break the fast by eating dates and sipping water—something the Prophet Muhammad did to break his fast. Many then get together with family or friends for the iftar meal.

Parwin and her husband, Qadir, are empty nesters with four adult children. Every night during Ramadan they go to communal prayers at the mosque starting about an hour and a half after the fast. That doesn’t leave them much time to have a large meal.

“By the time we get home it’s close to midnight, and we don’t want to eat a lot,” said Parwin. “So we eat something simple before the prayers, then rest for a few hours. We eat our big meal for sohor (the pre-dawn meal)—around 2:30 or 3 a.m.—so we can be finished before daybreak.”

Parwin fries the stuffed bulani.

Parwin fries the stuffed bolani.

The Anwars’ Ramadan meals usually start with a soup. They often eat pakora—thin slices of potato dipped in a chickpea-flour batter and deep fried—and bolani, a pan-fried turnover filled with chopped scallions, pumpkin or potatoes. The meal often ends with fresh fruit.

Ramadan iftar favorites—
cooked with love … and memory

Getting a recipe from Parwin posed a problem. Like many traditional cooks, she does not measure her ingredients using standardized cups or weights. She knows from memory how much of what should go into each dish and she cooks by sight, feel and taste.

This week’s Feed the Spirit recipe for bolani—the Afghani stuffed fried bread that they enjoy in their home—was adapted from what I saw Parwin do in her kitchen and recipe resources I found online. The best online recipe I found comes from an Afghani family in Australia. The web page includes a good video showing how to make bolani and links to other Afghani recipes.


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Wish your friends and colleagues well in Ramadan

To all my Muslim friends and readers: “Ramadan mubarak!” (That’s “A blessed Ramadan!”)

Would you like to greet Muslim friends and colleagues? All this week, the popular Our Values column is reporting on 5 surprising things about Ramadan—and the first column is about how to greet our Muslim neighbors. Want to read more about the holiday itself? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column has a complete report on the fasting month and the way it affects communities around the world. Finally, if you like this recipe, today, please share it with friends: Click the blue-“f” Facebook icons and “Like” this column and recipe; or you could click the little envelope-shaped icons and email this to a friend.

Enjoy a good movie after dinner? Film critic Ed McNulty serves up A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith, which includes Hollywood favorites as well as one feature film about fasting in Ramadan.

Come back next week!

Come back to Feed the Spirit next week, when I’ll share another one of Parwin’s recipes, along with the dramatic story of how she and her family left Afghanistan.