Public Comment

Commentary: My Uncle’s ‘Accident’—Pride and Shame in Little Kabul

By Mahtab Shabzad, New America Media
Friday September 01, 2006

UNION CITY—“He got into an accident. That will be our story,” my father said to me. “You can’t tell anyone what really happened. It will shame our family. Your uncle was a coward. He didn’t think of anyone but himself. But he was sick, I suppose. He had to have been to have done what he did.” 

When people asked me how my uncle died, I lied to them. My lies were contradictory and they left many loose ends. People in the tight-knit Afghan community in “Little Kabul,” California, were suspicious. They knew something had happened other than what my family was telling them.  

My uncle lived with bipolar disorder. He lived in a world where his uncontrollable mood swings dictated his life. During his manic periods, he was euphoric. He would work day and night and never feel tired. But then, as quickly as he had climbed to the top of the heavens, he would fall. He would become irritable, confused, and feel enclosed in a prison.  

My uncle never spoke of his illness. None of us did. Often, in the Afghan community, issues that are taboo are swept under the rug. 

My father thought if he hid the way my uncle died, people would talk less. He thought he might be able to sustain my uncle’s pride even in death. He was wrong. People made up their own stories. In some of the rumors, my father’s hands are tainted with my uncle’s blood.  

Suicide is a sin in Islam, and mental illness is taboo in Afghan culture. Often, those who have mental disorders are frowned upon. They are called “daywana,” a foul word for insane. Antidepressants are considered pills that Western doctors give patients to make them crazy. Anxiety attacks are defined as occurrences where evil Jin—spirits—take over the body. 

Because of this attitude, even to this day, I am bound by this secret. That it is why I cannot, for the sake of my family, publish this piece under my real name. 

My uncle’s illness went untreated primarily because his disease was ignored and misunderstood. He was ashamed, as was the rest of my family, to admit to an illness involving the mind. 

I squint my eyes sometimes, mimicking the dazed sensation I had that night when my uncle called. I repeat the deep breaths I took, try to feel the cold of the room, and even make my heart race just as it had when my dad handed me the phone while I was still half-asleep. I want to relive it, so I can understand it.  

I can hear my father’s voice repeating, “Mahtab, your uncle is on the phone. Mahtab, wake up, he’s sick!” I hear my dad saying. 

I had not talked to my uncle in two years. I had so much pent up anger toward him. As my dad handed me the phone, I couldn’t remember what I was angry about.  

The pit of my stomach felt cold and hollow because I missed him, but my pride stood in the way of forgiving him. It is this pride, “ghairat,” at times excessive, that will forever define an Afghan. Ghairat kept my uncle from seeking treatment and my dad from voicing the problem and the truth.  

“I love you, kaka jaan.” I spoke the empty words to try to make things better again. 

“How are you my little, mosecha (bird)?” His voice was soft and hopeless. 

“I miss you kaka jaan.” I felt tears gathering in my throat. 

“I am not good, jaan eh kaka,” he said. 

“Be strong kaka jaan,” I stuttered. 

My uncle was often a pessimist. I never knew him to talk kindly of many people. I do, however, remember his smile, the way he would gaze at me as if he were genuinely happy to see me, and tell me he loved me. Frustrated, I handed the phone to my father. 

My father quivered like a child. His veins were visible in his eyes. My uncle handed the phone to his wife. I could imagine her tall slender figure and dark hair. She was only 23 years old. She had been married to my uncle since she was 17.  

“He has been like this for a week now,” she said rapidly. 

“Why? I don’t understand?” said my father. 

“He lost his job,” she said. 

“People always lose their jobs,” my father said. “Does he have to lose his mind as a result of it?” But now I know my uncle hadn’t lost his mind as a result of losing his job; he had lost his job as a result of his low from his disease.  

My uncle got on the phone one more time that night. “Mahtab, send your dad tomorrow. I am not well. And promise me you will come tomorrow.”  

The next morning I awoke to my uncle’s phone call. “Where is your father?” he asked without salutations. “When are you coming to Florida?” I could not have guessed that would be my last conversation with him.  

He had a plan. He had arranged for my dad to come to Florida so my dad could take care of his wife when he killed himself, and for me to join my father so that I could support him. But my father went alone. 

When my father arrived in Florida he intended to take my uncle to the hospital. Instead, he was fooled. My uncle seemed fine. No one spoke of the conversation from the night before. No one spoke of mental illness or bipolar disease. They went to eat together.  

The next morning, my uncle took the keys to his car and said he was going to the post office. Instead, he jumped off of a five-story building. To this day, my extended family holds on to the story that my uncle died in a car accident, burying his disease along with the truth.