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The Book of Trouble: A Romance Excerpt from The Book of Trouble: A Romance

by Ann Marlowe

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During my childhood, my brother and I never really became friends. The nearly six-year age difference had something to do with that. Loulou and Siddiq are close enough in age to play together. But part of it has to do with cultural expectations. My parents expected sibling rivalry-all the Freudian-influenced baby books told them it was normal. They were also brought up in a Jewish American subculture that encouraged frankness, informality, and open airing of conflict. Afghan culture is very different.

"They are taught to call each other sh'ma," Nabila tells me through Humayon. Sh'ma is the formal "you" in Persian, the sign of respect -- not only Loulou to her lala (older brother) but also Siddiq to Loulou. I know that a girl in Afghanistan would defer to her older brother, but I am surprised that they would also tell Siddiq to call Loulou sh'ma. Maybe Afghan society isn't as sexist as the stereotypes have it.

This society, maligned in America as unenlightened, seems to have better ways of raising children, at least small children, than we do. Of course there is a price to pay for this tranquility and warmth. Loulou and Siddiq play only with each other; and they know very little of the world, even their local world, compared to American children of their age. Afghan kids don't have play dates, and they socialize only with their relatives. I've also read, though not seen, that Afghan infants are quieted with opium, that toddlers are discouraged from asking questions. When I give Humayon a picture book for Loulou and Siddiq, he's uncertain what to do with it; he's never read them a book in their lives and likely never will. This is the first book either child has ever owned; by five, like most kids of my background, I had a shelf full of children's books.

And yet Loulou and Siddiq are unusually bright and curious. Siddiq is charming and quick; he loves tinkering with the Western technology I bring into the house. I have to tell his parents that it's okay if he tries typing on my computer or taking a picture with my camera; they're afraid he will break the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce.

Loulou is my favorite. She's just turned three, bubbly and outgoing and physically tough, like the 60 percent of Afghan kids who will make it to age five. Remarkably bright and observant, she takes her first photo with my digital camera almost unaided. Later, she shows me an ad in one of the National Geographics I've brought over. It's for a battery recharger like the one she's seen me fiddle around with every night when the power comes on for a few hours. Loulou is also a natural performer. When there are visitors, which is most nights now during Ramazan, she's often called upon to dance for her elders to a crackly Uzbek tape on the family boom box.

Some time into my stay I realize Loulou and Siddiq don't have any toys. My first reaction is to buy them a tricycle. I intend it more for Loulou -- as a boy Siddiq will have more opportunities for exercise as soon as he starts school. But they both ride it around the courtyard. I wonder what other gifts might be good. I still remember the toys of my childhood: the little Wedgwood blue and white plastic desk, the dollhouse my father built me, the beige Lego castle, really my brother's. My brother and I had always had a lot of toys, perhaps because when my mother was growing up, she felt deprived. She and I talked about it just before I left for Afghanistan.

"I only had one doll, and all the other kids had more. That's why you had a Barbie when you were three."

"When I was three? What was I doing with a Barbie when I was three?"

"The little girl next door you used to play with had one."

Looking at Loulou, I was horrified to think of her playing with a Barbie. I was horrified to think of me playing with a Barbie at that age. But I understood what my mother was trying to do. We were supposed to be modern American children, full participants in the consumer society she had felt excluded from. My mother's family rebelled against the same traditional world that I was drawn to. My mother's father, Abe, whom she hated bitterly, was the first rebel in her family, dropping out of yeshiva to become a carpenter and immigrate to America, where he was briefly a successful real estate developer. Abe not only refused to become a rabbi like his ancestors but turned stubbornly irreligious. He didn't go to shul or keep kosher. These were drastic steps. He was only a few generations removed from ancestors who had presided over a rabbinical court.

Abe and his wife, Becky, my mother's mother, had been born in small towns in Belarus, and they hadn't had any toys, either. Like Loulou and Siddiq, they'd grown up in large families of eight or ten children. They had never been alone. When my mother was small, Abe had been rich; if she didn't have toys it wasn't because of a lack of money. It simply hadn't occurred to her parents -- I now think -- that toys were what childhood happiness was made of.

The problem, though, was that Abe and Becky were too unhappy themselves to provide the warmth that surrounded Loulou and Siddiq. According to my mother, her parents were depressed, and her father was mean and selfish. She didn't like them and didn't talk with her father in the last years of his life. He never saw me, though I was born two years before he died. But unlike my mother, I didn't believe that adopting American ways was the answer, either. I felt lonely much of my childhood, despite the many toys I had to keep me company. Loulou and Siddiq have the happy confidence of children who have always been surrounded by love and easy intimacy. They have no toys, yet they're the least needy kids I've ever known. I decided that buying them toys wouldn't necessarily be doing them a favor.

Instead, I talk with Humayon and Farida and Nabila about taking Loulou to New York for a year. I dream of helping her become bilingual, exposing her to selected American ways, grooming her to be the first woman president of her country (and Afghanistan might just have a woman president before we do). To my surprise, everyone likes the thought, though on reflection we all think a few months is a better idea than a year. But I'm afraid her spirit would wither in the thinner air of my city, that my love and the attentions of my friends would not begin to compensate for the absence of her parents and aunts and uncle and grandparents who all live with her here. I'm both disappointed and relieved to learn that until the American Embassy in Kabul opens a visa section, it's very unlikely Loulou will be visiting me.

But I promise to return as soon as I can, and I mean it. Despite the many ways this life grates on me, it's offered me a vision of family life as more than a zero-sum game. I know that I'm supposed to be able to take this insight and apply it to my own life in New York, but I'm not optimistic about the chances of this happening. It's enough for me that this other world exists and that I can return to it.

Copyright 2006 Ann Marlowe