I was angry, sad, and hopeless. I felt lonely and confused, like an alien who'd been brought home by the friendly citizens of a new and strange planet. One of my youngest cousins, Bashir, who was lucky enough to go to school during the day for a few hours, asked me the English words for apple, grapes, chicken, children, TV and all the objects around him, but not for women. While the men were amusing themselves, their wives and sisters silently replenished the tea. The men didn't even acknowledge them, much less thank them. It was unthinkable that they would ask their wives and sisters to join us. I felt sick, as if I were giving the entire family the impression that it was okay for these women to be treated this way. There and then I decided that I was going to ally myself with the women. If they woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning to milk the cows and bake bread, then so would I.
The next morning I rose in the dark with my cousins. I found Auntie in the courtyard, milking the cows.
"I want to help with everything. For one day I want to be like your daughters," I said.
Auntie wiped her hands on her pale gray dress and peered at me kindly, over the black cotton scarf she'd wrapped around her head and mouth. I think she sensed that I was struggling to try to fit in with the other women in the compound. She took me to the corner of the barn where the cows were stalled beneath an overhand made of dried branches. Shafika was already at work, squatting on her haunches in her lilac-colored purdugh, milking a skinny brown cow. She looked up and gave me a brilliant smile. I thought she was amazing to be able to smile like that at 4:00 A.M.
Auntie told Shafika to let me have a turn. She demonstrated how to pull on the udders, then stepped aside. I squatted down just as she'd done, grabbed the udders, and started tugging. I'd make the mistake of wearing my platform flip-flops, and every time I got some momentum going I couldn't help rocking back on my heels. Not much milk was coming out. The cow exhaled, as if it had lost all patience with my ineptitude, and stamped its foot. It seemed as if the more I tugged and squeezed, the less milk came out. After almost fifteen minutes of struggle, there were a few inches of thin milk at the bottom of the pail. I tried to remember how much milk they used in a day, and thought that if you added up the production of all the other cows, this was at least respectable. Like my cousins I wore a shalwar kameez, and as I stood up I stepped on the hem of my kameez, lost my balance, and kicked the bucket over. The milk made a little puddle for a moment before vanishing into the parched earth.
I grabbed the bucket and righted it quickly, but it was too late. Auntie saw my distress and began to laugh. She rushed over to help me up and told me that it happened to her all the time. I knew she was only saying that to make me feel better, and that the last time she had wasted milk like that she was probably a young girl. I felt bad, but since I knew that it was no good to cry over spilled milk, I decided to do something very American: I would replace the milk with store-bought. I sent one of my little male cousins to the local shop with 100 Afganis and told him to get a half gallon of milk.
The next morning when my cousins woke up in the dark I pretended to be asleep. After my failure at milking the cow I realized it was best to stick to my role of honored guest. Once the men went off for the day, I escaped up to the roof to get some alone time, an American habit that becomes a luxury in an Afghan house.
Excerpted from In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab. Copyright 2012. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House.