However Tall The Mountain
By Awista Ayub
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $23.99
America, June 2004
That summer evening, the sky was ablaze with stars, the air humid and cloudless. Pacing the lawn outside my friend Barbara Goodno's suburban Washington, D.C., home, I asked myself: Are they ready?
Eight months earlier I had come up with the idea to sponsor a group of eight girls from Afghanistan to the United States for a soccer leadership camp. Now, they were here for six weeks, spending two weeks in Washington, D.C., the remaining weeks in Connecticut where I'd organized a soccer camp, and then finally traveling to Cleveland, Ohio, to represent Afghanistan in the International Children's Games.
After only two weeks in America, with just a handful of formal practices, the girls from Afghanistan would be playing their first-ever public soccer game.
Laila. Freshta. Samira. Miriam.
Deena. Nadia. Ariana. Robina.
Earlier, the girls prepared their uniforms. Each had folded her red jersey with the white numbers facing up. Underneath the shirts, they tucked red socks, black shorts, and cleats. The neat piles were lined outside their rooms in a row down the hall.
The next day, these eight girls would be competing in the Seventh Annual Fourth of July Afghan-American Soccer Cup tournament, sponsored and organized by the Afghan Sports Federation. Founded in 1997, the three-day event drew Afghan-Americans from as far away as California and Canada not only to compete in soccer and volleyball, the two most popular sports in Afghanistan, but also to enjoy Afghan music and food.
But this was the first time there would be an all-girls soccer competition.
i drove the girls to South Run Park in Springfield, Virginia. It had rained earlier in the morning. The fields were still damp, the sky overcast. The girls were quiet. They spread out, surveying the vast green playing fields before them.
The perimeter of the park was lined with the colorful tents of vendors. Afghan kebobs of marinated lamb, chicken, and beefwell seasoned with paprika and garlic, and skewered with tomatoes, onions, and peppersslowly turned on their spits. I was looking forward to a bowl of shor-nakhud, chopped boiled potatoes, and beans mixed with vinegar, garlic, and spices.
A crowd mingled on the grounds, lining up five or six deep around the edges of a field where a game was due to begin. Others picnicked in family groups, sitting on lawn chairs and multihued quilts spread on the ground. Older Afghan women, with their flowing trousers and hijab, or head scarves, took charge of laying out the food.
Pashto and Dari, the two principal languages of Afghanistan, could be heard everywhere, along with the traditional Arabic greeting of peace:
"Assalam alaykom!" Peace be with you.
"Alaykom assalam." And with you.
"Stari me shey!" — a Pashto hello.
"Che hal dared?" How are you? (Some of the girls turned toward the familiar Dari phrase.)
"Khub astom tashakor." Fine, thank you.
The Afghan girls drew curious glances as we meandered around the park. They were wearing their jerseys, sleeves below the elbow, long shorts hanging below the knees, and socks pulled up under the shorts.
I didn't think the stares were because the players were from Afghanistan; more likely they were because this was an all-girls soccer team.
Miriam and Deena walked with their arms around each other's waist. As we strolled, the other girls turned around and around, as if unsure how to react.
Aware of the attention, while pretending to ignore it, they all brushed lightly against one another as they moved through the crowd — eager, excited, and probably a little anxious too. In their bright red-and-black uniforms, they were linked together and looked like a team.
How far they had come as a team we would find out later in the day.
A tournament organizer informed me that we would be playing on the main field, just before the start of the men's championship soccer game.
"There will be a big audience because of that," he said with a grin. "More excitement for your girls' match, don't you think?"
I smiled and agreed.
More pressure too.
Since there was some time before our game, we headed toward the game field for practice. The girls' coach, Ali Zaka, a local Afghan-American, sent them to jog a few laps for a warm-up, then started them dribbling the ball around the field.
On the other side, the girls on the opposing team were practicing too.
The players stole quick, nervous looks.
Then Samira put on her goalie gloves and took her position in the net. After observing her quiet, wiry toughness during practices earlier that week, Ali had chosen her for this crucial role.
"She reminds me of a goalie on my team," he told me when I asked him why. "She seems like a goalie."
I watched Samira. Ali was right. Her movements were precise, steady; she was fearless — unafraid to dive to make a save.
Her teammates lined up to take shots on her. Laila's shot was smooth and strong. She could generate a surprising amount of momentum with her kicks, but Samira remained on secure footing, alert and ready.
Twenty minutes passed. The loudspeaker coughed: "The all-girls soccer team from Afghanistan is about to begin an exhibition match with an Afghan-American girls' team. This precedes the men's final on the main field."
The crowd came to life, a mixture of murmurs and shouts greeting the news.
"Did the announcer say girls from Afghanistan?"
Yes, I thought. Girls from our homeland.
Here to play soccer.
Ali blew the whistle. We huddled in the middle of the field.
It was hard for me at this key moment. I couldn't understand what Ali was telling the team. I had come to the United States as a very small child, and English was my strongest language. I spoke and understood Pashto, because my family was from Kandahar. But Dari was the dominant language of Kabul, where the girls were from; it was the language they all had in common. Ali spoke Dari.
I was envious. Waiting for translations put me out of the loop, as though I were watching an out-of-sync movie.
Who would play what position was clear, however. Ali had appointed Robina, fourteen, as a forward. She was fast, her kick sure. Robina had emerged as a natural team leader: first one on the field, last one to leave. She often had the last word, because she didn't compete for airtime. She'd help the younger girls make sense of Ali's coaching.
Ali put Freshta, also fourteen, as the other forward. Her playing style was a cross between courageous and untamed, always at the ready to take the shot but unfocused on where she aimed her kicks. Nonetheless, Freshta's aggressiveness and flair made her a natural scorer.
Ali positioned Ariana, Miriam, and Laila, Freshta's sister, as defenders. At sixteen, Ariana was the oldest and biggest of the girls, and her height and strength made her a protective wall. Laila's unruffled demeanor and quick intelligence enabled her to stay calm in the crises that constantly erupted around the goal, and fourteen-year-old Miriam's steady, careful game was well suited to claiming and defending a small, clear space.
Ali was choosing well. He put the two youngest girls, Nadia, twelve, and Deena, eleven, as midfielders, where they could scamper after the ball wherever it took them.
Roya was Ali's youngest sister; an Afghan-American, she'd joined the Afghan team as the ninth member after the girls arrived in the United States. Ali placed her as an anchor on offense.
"Stay together as a team," he instructed them. "Don't everyone run after the ball. Play hard."
I understood that much of what Ali had said, and hoped that the girls would be able to act on it.
The game was being played on a less than full-sized pitch. Still, it was plenty big for these girls. It was a 6 versus 6 tournament, which meant that not all the girls would be on the field at the same time. Soccer is usually played with eleven players on each side, but on the youth and amateur levels that number can be lower.
The six starters — Robina and Freshta as forwards, Ariana and Laila on defense, Roya as midfielder, and, of course, Samira on goal — ran out onto the field as the crowd erupted with cheers.
On the sidelines, Nadia tossed me a grin, her large green eyes like saucers, and Deena bounced up and down as if on a trampoline. Miriam stood at strict attention. We were a little team ourselves.
The whistle blew: The game was on!
I was praying for a close score. Would I be able to reassure or console them if it wasn't close? Pride can be a fragile thing, and the girls' teamwork was still a work-in-progress. If they didn't win, would each girl blame herself, or would they take out their frustrations on one another?
Then it hit me.
I was expecting the girls to lose.
Robina and Freshta penetrated the defenses downfield, whacking shots whenever they drew close to the goal. Freshta launched wild kicks that soared wide and high — right into the goalkeeper's hands. But she shook off each lost shot, unfazed.
Laila, though, frowned over each of Freshta's misses, miffed that her sister's errant play had cost the team a precious goal.
Ariana drifted around her team's net, batting the ball away with almost languid strides. Samira remained focused, waiting to be tested.
Parallel to Ariana on defense was Miriam, who'd been subbed in for Laila. She squinted at her teammates scrambling after the ball. They kept bunching up, instead of spreading out to set up plays toward the goal.
Miriam yelled at them, in Dari, "Pass the ball, pass it to me."
When no one heeded her, Miriam dashed off the field straight toward a startled Ali on the sideline.
"What are you doing? Get back in the game!" he shouted, shooing her back onto the field.
Miriam said something to Ali and then trotted back into position. She was attempting to carry out Ali's instructions, but no one passed to her. Even waving her arms and shouting brought no results. She stood on the left side of the field alone.
I hadn't gotten to know Miriam very well. On the field she was quick to anger. During her flashpoints, though, I thought I saw a softer sadness in her face.
Nadia had also been subbed in. The stress of the game did not much affect her, and her eagerness to start playing was uncomplicated. For Nadia, it was enough just being on the field with her new friends.
She took the game seriously, though. But not quite so seriously as eleven-year-old Deena, the youngest and the smallest of them all, a spunky four feet six inches tall. Off the field everyone thought she looked like a doll, with her sunny personality, oval face, and cute button eyes. When she played soccer, however, she became tenacious, going after every ball and not at all shy about bumping and shoving other playerswho were all, inevitably, much bigger than her.
A miniature train in constant motion, Deena's petite body housed a natural athlete. She had gifts that could not be taught: confidence, scrappiness, heart, and an ability to reach the "zone," where nothing exists but the player and the game.
Possession shifted between the teams as each goalie faced shots, saving all of them. After fifteen minutes, the halftime whistle blew, and seconds later a goal was scored on Samira.
It had come after the whistle. Even so, Ali and I spent most of halftime trying to explain why it hadn't counted. The girls were unsettled. They glared at the other team and listened to us skeptically.
Robina and Samira were especially agitated, waving their hands and talking intently to their teammates, who kept their heads down. Again, I couldn't follow their Dari directly, but across the language divide, I felt for Samira. As a goalie it is difficult not to alienate yourself from the team, to feel helpless. You stand alone in your crease, alert to the other team's break past your defenders, aiming their drive directly at you.
Finally Ali and I convinced them: They were still in the game.
The second half began. Samira's hands were up and she balanced on her toes, her goalie gloves tightened to her wrist with Velcro bands. Her body language read, You're not going to score on me again.
For some reason I found myself thinking about how meticulously Samira brushed her hair, pulling it back into a ponytail, with every strand in place. This minute attention to detail might serve her well as a goalie.
Samira pointed and shouted directions to her teammates.
"Stay here! Shoot, shoot! I can handle it!"
But I wondered, being so new to the position, if she really could handle the pressure.
The game ended in a draw.