“Stories are like these onions—like dried experience. They aren’t the original experience but they are more than nothing at all. You think about a story, you turn it over in your mind, and it becomes something else.”
Today, increasing numbers of people are living outside of their ancestral homelands. Many immigrants fear that their children will assimilate into their new home and lose their connection to their cultural identity. How do people learn the history of their group and their culture when that group is spread around the world? Can rituals, memories, and stories replace a physical community? In her memoir, The Storyteller’s Daughter, Saira Shah recalls listening to her father’s magical tales while the two of them cooked together in their British kitchen, surrounded by the smells of Afghani spices rising from their pots. She writes:
My father understood the value of stories: he was a writer. My parents had picked Kent as an idyllic place to bring up their children, but we were never allowed to forget our Afghan background.
Periodically during my childhood, my father would come upon the kitchen like a storm.
During these cookery sessions, we played a wonderful game. We planned the family trip to Afghanistan that always seemed to be just round the corner. How we would go back to Paghman, stroll in the gardens, visit our old family home and greet the relatives we had never met. When we arrived in the Paghman mountains, the men would fire their guns in the air—we shouldn’t worry, that was the Afghan way of welcome and celebration. They would carry us on their shoulders, whooping and cheering, and in the evening we would eat apilauthat eclipsed even the great feasts of the court of our ancestors.
My mother’s family background, which is Parsee from India, rarely got a look in. As far as my father was concerned, his offspring were pure Afghan. For years, the mere mention of the Return was enough to stoke us children into fits of excitement. It was so much more alluring than our mundane Kentish lives, which revolved round the family’s decrepit Land Rover and our pet Labrador, Honey.
When I was fifteen, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan. During a pilau-making session quite soon after than, I voiced an anxiety that had been growing for some time now. How could my father expect us to be truly Afghan when we had grown up outside an Afghan community? When we went back home, wouldn’t we children be strangers, foreigners in our own land? I expected, and possibly hoped for, the soothing account of our triumphant and imminent return to Paghman. It didn’t come. My father looked tired and sad. His answer startled me: “I’ve given you stories to replace a community. They are your community.”
“But surely stories can’t replace experience.”
He picked up a packet of dehydrated onion. “Stories are like these onions—like dried experience. They aren’t the original experience but they are more than nothing at all. You think about a story, you turn it over in your mind, and it becomes something else.” He added hot water to the onion. “It’s not fresh onion—fresh experience—but it is something that can help you to recognize experience when you come across it. Experiences follow patterns, which repeat themselves again and again. In our tradition, stories can help you recognize the shape of an experience, to make sense of and to deal with it. So, you see, what you may take for mere snippets of myth and legends encapsulate what you need to know to guide you on your way anywhere among Afghans.”
“Well, as soon as I’m eighteen I’m going to go to see for myself,” I said, adding craftily: “Then perhaps I’ll have some fresh experiences that will help me grow up.”
My father had been swept along on the tide of his analogy. Now, he suddenly became a parent whose daughter was at an impressionable age and whose country was embroiled in a murderous war.
“If you would only grow up a little in the first place,” he snapped, “then you would realize that you don’t need to go at all.”
This reading contains excerpts from Saira Shah’s, The Storyteller’s Daughter: One Woman’s Return to Her Lost Homeland.1
- assimilate : to conform or adjust to the customs, attitudes, etc., of a host group or nation and give up a former national identity.
- pilau : is a Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian rice dish often spiced with saffron.
- 1 : Saira Shah, The Storyteller’s Daughter: One Woman’s Return to Her Lost Homeland (New York: First Anchor Books, 2003), 5–7.