Afghanis, Islam and Making Skis in Boulder in the 70s

When I got out of college with a BA in English, I needed a job to support me and my then husband. We had to stay in Boulder because he had a year left of school. Hard to find a job there in 1974. I went to work at Head Ski. One night my supervisor asked me if I could give a co-worker a ride. She lived in town — as did I — and worked swing shift, as did I. No problem! From then on, I stopped every afternoon to pick her up and take her to work. We got along great and became close friends.

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I worked on the finishing line, skis, and I was a temporary employee. My co-worker was a permanent employee and she had a horrible job; she worked with the machines that cast the fiberglass into Head tennis rackets. Even though she wore a heavy apron and gloves well up to her elbows, the sticky fibrous dangerous crap of which those rackets are made still got on her clothes, so she wore old clothes that could be thrown away after a while.
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Her husband had no idea what his wife did. He came home shortly after she had already left for work and the babysitter was there. They had one little boy — two years old. One afternoon he came home early and saw his wife dressed for work. He was so sad and ashamed that they were so poor that his wife had to wear rags. He went out and bought her several yards of fabric so she could make pretty clothes for herself. From then on, when I picked her up (a little earlier) she was dressed to the nines in clothes she had sewn for herself with no pattern. We then went to 7-11 so she could change into the work clothes she left in my car.
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Right at Christmas, I got laid off (of course) but was rehired soon after to work in the mailroom, a permanent job for which I was deeply grateful. I brought home $500/month, about $2000 in today’s values. Of course Head Ski had a big employee Christmas party and my friend and her husband came with me and my husband. We had a good time and she wore a beautiful red dress she’d sewn for Christmas.
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A few years later, after I’d moved away from Boulder and they had moved to their native town, Russian tanks rolled through their city. I was terrified about what might have happened to them, but I never heard anything until the late 80s when I was in a restaurant in San Diego and the waiter — a man I’d known in Boulder — said, “I cannot believe to see you again. Did you hear what happened to Fahmia and Akbar?”
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I shook my head. I dreaded the answer.
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“The Russians they came and pulled them out of their beds — even little Omar! — and lined them up against their house and shot them.”
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I was devastated — but not surprised. Nothing more frightening to Soviet military conquerors than a USA educated architect and his little family.
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By the way, their hometown was Kabul.
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My life has brought many Muslim people to me from Muslim countries all over the world — from Egypt to Indonesia. Among the people I was closest to in the Peoples Republic of China were my Chinese Muslim students. One of them got me permission to visit the very old mosque in the center of Guangzhou by explaining to the girl guarding the gate that yes, my husband and I WERE Muslim because we were Christian and followed the law of Moses. If Ali’s logic had power in the world, we would have peace.
 ALL of them have known a great deal about Christianity and consider Christ to have been a holy man, a prophet, equal (get this!) to Mohammed. The difference between Islam and Christianity hinges on the question of whether Jesus was the (unique) son of God. Islam says, “We’re all sons of God, but some of us are chosen by God to help others find God.”
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But only God is God.
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During the 80s in San Diego, many Afghan refugees arrived. Some of them made their family’s living by selling at swap meets. It wasn’t a bad strategy. Since my husband at the time loved swap meets — and I like meeting people from other parts of the world — it worked out well. I would sometimes spend my time with a couple of Afghan men, sitting on a carpet that had been spread on the asphalt of a drive-in movie parking, eating grapes, drinking water and talking politics and history between watching them negotiate sales. One of these men was a university professor who’d lost his wife and children to the Russians. He asked me, “Do they teach you about Communism in school?” I answered yes, we learned about Marx, and he said, “No, no, that is beautiful, but I mean the real communism, where they drag you out of your bed and shoot you.” The other had been (of all things!) an Olympic prize fighter!
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He and his family got to be our (though, it seems, my ex doesn’t remember 😉 ) good friends, and one night we went to their house for supper so I could do my “Haj.” It’s crazy, but this man had been in Mecca the year before to do his Haj and he had a video that was for people who could not go to Mecca and do this important pilgrimage. “You can do TV Haj,” he said to me.
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I first learned of the Haj during my days of fascination with T.E. Lawrence (pre-teen years) and I always thought there was something beautiful about hinging a life on a pilgrimage like that. I have since decided that’s a timeless universal thing, to suspend ordinary life for a time and go on what really amounts to a ridiculous journey. The fact that it IS ridiculous is its beauty, the surrendering of self to the road and the symbol. It’s grand.
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So, for several hours I watched the Haj and Mohammed Ali Kabiri’s wife cooked dumplings. She was a brilliant woman, a scientist, and I think she thought her husband was pretty funny (it had been an arranged marriage) but also very lovable. Mohammed left the swap meet game and got into the more dependable occupation of driving a cab. Their two children now have advanced university degrees.
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It might be human nature to hate or fear what we do not know, but should not our better angels tell us to learn about what we do not know? I think that’s something to be ashamed of, being governed by fear is not courage. Calling ignorance knowledge is dishonesty. I agree there are elements of some Islamic cultures that I don’t like that much, but at least I can say that I’ve known Saudi women and have some idea of how they view their world; some like their traditional role, some do not. Is that any different from American women?
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It seems to me that the whole point is that we are already living together on this planet. That is a fact. The vast majority of human beings on this planet are doing pretty well most of the time living together. Our interactions are NOT with entire populations, but with individuals. I have yet to meet a person who was not affected positively by sincerity, kindness and good-faith. I have also never met a person who did not have the ability to convey those things. I believe that life is not easy for anyone. I don’t know anyone who has not suffered something terrible — cancer, the death of children, loss of a spouse, siblings; many have experienced the tragedies linked to war, many have survived the devastating loss of property. Many of us have had to rebuild our lives more than once. We need each other and most humans derive pleasure from helping one another.

10 thoughts on “Afghanis, Islam and Making Skis in Boulder in the 70s

  1. You bring up so much stuff with which I agree, I don’t know where to start. So I’ll “go small” on this. As much as this country has a legacy of being a melting pot, we also have a legacy of hating the people we supposedly welcome. Who we hate depends on time and history. It’s always someone. \

    Is it our charming, mean-spirited Pilgrim/Calvinist roots gnawing away at our better selves? I Hate is more American than apple pie. We are good at it. Creative. I don’t see it changing . Sad hardly covers it.

    • Xenophobic hatred is not uniquely American. I think it’s human nature. The “welcoming” of immigrants is mythology, propaganda, a reminder of what we should do even though it goes against everything we feel. (Mine is better.) It’s easy to blame our roots but those guys (many of them) came here because of what they were experiencing in their native lands — and they were d$#@^ themselves. The research for the third novel showed me things I’d rather not have really KNOWN, that’s for sure. The “Dark” ages were not nearly as “dark” as the Reformation, IMO.

  2. The story of Akbar’s family brought shivers. Humans can create heaven and hell both according to his faith and fate. Very thought provoking piece. I feel sad when people hate someone just because he belongs to a particular community.

    • Me too and my experience with Muslims has been universally positive, kind, loving and accepting. Fahmia and I were like sisters for the whole three years they and I lived in Boulder. I really hate the mess in the world right now. It’s heart-breaking. Two of my Kuwaiti students went home to fight during the Gulf War of the 1990s. They were identical twins. Months later ONE returned to school. I’ve taught young Americans, veterans of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, permanently damaged physically and/or mentally. I don’t see any reason for this.

  3. I do not understand what has happened to the muslim faith over the last 40 years. When I arrived in Switzerland I worked for a muslim chief for 2 years who had his own small company. His wife was Swiss and he had three children, aged 3, 8 and 9. I was working in the office, had my own room but lived in with the family as it was a large apartment building owned by the family in Zürich. They also had an Indian restaurant and I would help out serving in the evenings now and again. There were no problems with religion. I worked with muslims later in my job, I was responsible for our office apprentices, some of which were muslims. Something changed somewhere. It has nothing to do with religion, just people with criminal minds, fanatics.

    • I agree with you; it’s just fanatics with criminal minds. I think that the vast majority of Muslims are the same as they have always been. I think there are some powerful and paranoid fundamentalist schism groups that don’t represent true Islam. I think Islam is a victim of this insanity

  4. It hurts my heart to know that so many innocent people–like your Fahmia and Akbar–are slaughtered in the culture of war that has enveloped so much of our planet. What a waste of human potential!

    The Muslims that I’ve met and known have turned out to be much like me. We want the same homely things for ourselves and our children: a peaceful life, a chance for our children to make something of whatever potential they have, a roof over our head and food on the table, the opportunity to love and be loved.

    ISIS stands for TERRORISM, not Islam. I think it’s very important that we maintain this separation in our thoughts. Like you, I think Islam is a victim–and unfortunately often the scapegoat–of this ongoing insanity.

    • I agree. I wish some of the all-to-eager haters who have never known an actual Muslim person and know nothing about Islam would be less rabid and more curious. Those guys scare me, too.

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