One by one, the women came up to me as Abdul Faisal wrote their carefully picked piles of saffron stigmas. He made small corrections on where they cut the stigmas – some were too long. He said to me, “The women are doing very well so soon. Already you can see the difference.” Indeed there was. The women were getting faster at it, so they were able to more skillfully pluck the quickly-fading flowers and thus produce longer and plumper threads. A heavy scent of saffron and flowers filled the room along with the low hum of ladies-talk.
The ladies all wore the Rumi Spice hijab, or head covering, as per custom. They usually do not allow pictures of their faces, although far-away photos are okay. Showing your hair is like showing cleavage. Afghan women value modesty above all else. My headscarf was always in disarray, and the ladies laughed about it constantly. They’d come over and fix it. In ten minutes it’d be back to chaos.
I sat myself next to a group of younger ladies, who stared at me as a stranger and looked away when I looked back. “Khob asti,” I said in my best Dari, which basically means, how are you? I grabbed some flowers and began picking the stigmas. It’s very dexterous work – thank god I took piano lessons for so many years. The girl next to me, Zarlasht, showed me how to separate the stigmas better and faster. Gradually they began to smile, then fight over my help so that I would contribute to their piles. They asked me to play Beyoncé and Selena Gomez on my phone. They knew the words, or at least what it sounded like to them: “I love you like I love some baby.” Not the words, but definitely the sass! Heads started to bob. Then I introduced some new dance moves. Then a few girls got up, giggles all around, and closed the door. Then the party started, and they showed me new dance moves. We took each other’s hands and felt joy.
This moment of kinetic happiness came to a halt when the door flew open and Abdul Faisal looked very confused. The older ladies laughed and the young ladies hid behind me. So, we had to get back to work, and I had to leave the room because I was being too distracting. Oops. I banned myself for an hour, but every time I passed by the doorway, some of them would wink, smile and motion for me to sit next to them.
One of them, Sheikelah, stole my heart. This girl (about 16 years old) was a ball of sass and energy. She’d blow me kisses and say, “Excuse me! I love you!” very loudly. With a mischievous smile on her face, she’d say something very rapidly in Dari, full of gestures, and cause all the women in the room to snicker or shake their heads. I badly wanted to understand. She didn’t belong there sifting saffron. Sheikelah belonged on stage somewhere, with lights in her eyes charming a theater full of people. At one point, she grabbed my phone and took a burst-full of selfies, before getting scolded by her mother. Sheikelah said to me, through Abdul Faisal, Take me with you to America. I’ll work for you, and I’ll give you all of my money. She had her hand over her heart. This broke my heart quite a bit. Her look was very tender. I convinced myself that what I was doing Rumi Spice was enough. I’m not sure if it is sometimes.