He insisted that she answer the interview questions in English, mumbling audibly enough for us all to hear that he felt Nazifa should take a stand to represent educated women in Afghanistan. If I had to guess, he was just under six feet and perhaps a little older than forty. Looking slightly too young to be Nazifa’s father, he clarified that he was her uncle, upon introducing himself to our film crew, and that he was back from London, just visiting Kabul for a few more days.
As the five of us entered Nazifa’s home, our fixer and friend, Najibullah automatically explained who each of us was and our role in creating the documentary, Afghan Cycles, to her mother, uncle, little brother and even smaller sister. He also explained why we had chosen to interview Nazifa, carefully choosing his words to convey that we thought Nazifa added in a different look to our story, (possibly mistaken as an American – if she were to take off her headscarf and remain silent) while also being one of the strongest cyclists on the women’s team.
Once introductions were complete, Nazifa served us all tea and Sarah and I began to set up the two cameras, microphones, and lighting required for the interview, while Claudia spent time outside capturing Nazifa’s portrait in her courtyard, before the rain came. He watched carefully from the corner of the room, keeping one eye on Nazifa and Claudia, and the other on the intensive set-up process. Occasionally he would shift to lean against the back wall, but he primarily sat erect, and at the ready – for what, I didn’t know.
About to begin the interview, Najib instructed everyone to silence their phones and that there must be no talking during the interview. Following Najib’s instructions, the coach of the women’s team immediately not only received, but took a call, causing us all to roll our eyes and share a laugh. Yet, only a mere smile graced her uncle’s face, and I wondered why?
As the interview began, I asked a series of questions that had become routine for each of our interviewee’s, such as “Where are your parents from?” and “How many siblings do you have?” As I asked the question, “What does your father do?” I noticed an uncomfortable pause, not only from Nazifa, but from the side of the room where her uncle and mother were seated. It took Nazifa a moment to answer, and in her broken English, I realized that her father was dead.
Moving quickly to the next question, my heart and mind stayed with the uncomfortable moment in the room. I uttered the next few questions and engaged with Nazifa as the interview proceeded, however simultaneously, I mentally recapped the uncle’s “odd” behavior and listened to my inner-dialogue list all of the reasons her father couldn’t be dead: Nazifa’s too young, her brother and little sister need a father, her mother must need financial help,how is Nazifa able to attend school …it went on and on. Continuing to engage with Nazifa with more audible questions, I pieced her uncle’s actions together with this new realization that her family really couldn’t function without him. In Afghanistan, many women do not work, especially those that have young children still at home. Quite often, it is the role of the husband to work, outside of the house, while the women maintain the home-life. Not having a father, generally meant poverty, no education, lack in general and a very limited life. I immediately realized that her uncle was ‘at the ready’ to do his job, as her “father.”
As the interview came to a close, we packed up our gear and invited the family to lunch. Nazifa’s little brother and sister were delighted to go out to eat, while her mother chose to stay home, which was typical choice for a woman in Afghanistan. Her uncle joined us as well and we soon were all bouncing along to the rhythm of the Kabul roads, on the mini-bus to lunch. I asked the uncle a few more questions, while Nazifa smiled and laughed with Sarah and Claudia. He had taken over complete paternal responsibilities and was working as a taxi driver in London to keep “his” family afloat. Nazifa intermittently chimed into our conversation and smiled adoringly at her uncle.
With so many more questions presenting themselves in my head, I decide to let the uncle rest from my curiosities. Admiring his decision to become a father to his sister’s family, I sat back in my seat and smiled, grateful that Nazifa has such a wonderful mentor, teacher and uncle to support her. Unlike so many young Afghan women, Nazifa is loved, cared for, financially supported and seems to genuinely know how fortunate she is, to have such a caring uncle. As we neared the restaurant, I looked back at her uncle again and told Nazifa that I believed in her, and that everyone on this bus knew that she was going to go places. And, as a father would do, her uncle smiled back at me, shook my hand and said thank you.