I first met Maru in The Jungle camp in Calais, where I was running a grassroots filmmaking programme with Syrian refugees. He worked the café where we gave classes. Although he was constantly bring us tea when we asked for it; candles to light the table around which we discussed cell phone filmmaking; emptying the ashtrays that were filled up by the smokers amongst us and, when the time came, arranging our lunches; I didn’t notice him much at the start. He had a certain gracefulness that responded to our needs with discrete self-assurance. Although Maru was at our beck-and-call, you felt like a guest rather than a customer being served. This seemed to appeal to many of the foreigners visiting the camp, who featured heavily in the stream of people coming in and out the café. We all felt looked after, and the programme came off well.
Occasionally, Maru would sit down and join the class. His dark brown eyes focused hard on what we were saying. Sometimes he would smile along with the other students, or laugh. His elegant bone structure and the tone of his blushed-brown skin distinguished him from the Syrians. He was more Indian somehow, or Central Asian. I fact, Maru is from Afghanistan and he is Pashtun.
Back home I researched Pashtun history and their culture. Made up of more than sixty tribes, the Pashtun are described as a race of warriors. Most come from the mountains of the Indus and the Hindu Kush. Some are nomads, others Ambassadors: Pashtuns can be found throughout the social and economic spectrum. But what unites them is the practice of Pushtunwali, a code of ethics that includes hospitality and protection to every guest; the right of a fugitive to seek refuge, and acceptance of his bona fide offer of peace; the right of blood feuds or revenge; bravery; steadfastness; righteousness; persistence; defense of property and honor, and defense of women.
On the third day, a police blockade prevented us from entering the camp and we were re-routed across the stretch of scrubland to the east of the camp. When we finally arrived in the café two of the students, Saleh and Abu Waleed, were waiting for us rather pissed off. The others had gone back to their tents and dwellings: 10am was an early start after spending the night walking six hours to and from the Eurotunnel in the hope of making the perilous crossing to Britain. While Saleh and Abu Waleed left to collect the other students, Maru brought me a cup of tea and together we smoked a cigarette. I asked Maru to tell me where he came from.
‘Baghlan Province’ he replied, ‘In the north, in the mountains, by Pakistan’.
Maru fled Baghlan Province in fear of his life. He didn’t tell me why – at least not yet. But he did explain that Taliban fighters were coming over from Pakistan to the villages and living there. In attempts to take these men out, American and allied bombs were killing scores of civilians. The situation was very dangerous. But it wasn’t from the American bombs that Maru was fleeing.
As he gazed out, glazed eyes, thinking of his people and his country, I sensed how homesick Maru must be feeling. He left Afghanistan in 2008 and has been running ever since. He was fifteen then. Now he is twenty-two.
The heavy drums and playful pipes of Afghan music constantly filled the café, along with smells of shisha pipes and fruit tobacco. The tent was skillfully constructed and beautifully decorated, with pieces of material used as wall hangings. Some were shower curtains, others towels emblazoned with large floral designs. They gave the sense of being in a bedouin desert camp. Artificial flowers hung from the heavy wooden poles that supported the roof: bunches of yellow daisies, pink peonies bursting out. Sheepskin and carpet had been laid across a raised step, where men removed their shoes and sat cross-legged smoking shisha pipes and taking respite from the mud and dirt of the camp. Tables were covered in plastic tablecloths, some gingham, all brightly patterned and wiped meticulously by Maru after every guest. While sitting inside the cafe, our moods lifted as our heartbeats followed the rhythm of the Pashtun.
Later, I found this film on Youtube, shot in Baglan Province, of men and boys sharing vitality in the pleasure of sharing music. I particularly love the expression on the face of the child to the left, who sits worshiping the older boy as he sings and plays the drum with the skill of an oil painter.
This was the life that Maru had lived before members of the Taliban came from Pakistan and began teaching in the local school. As Maru accompanies me to the Women and Children’s Centre, where he recommends I use the Portaloos as they are cleaner than the others, he tells me a little of his story. Back home in Baghlan Province, most villagers were farmers. Every year they harvested cotton, watermelon, grapes, pomegranates. Some owned sheep and would bring four or five hundred to auction. Businessmen would source goods from the capital and sell them in markets and small shops: clothes, shoes, home appliances, kitchenware. Trade was healthy. Community gossip, Muslim holy days and Pashtun rituals provided entertainment and moments of joy. The Pashtun are noted for their commitment to the value of embracing pleasure. Women married young, rich men often had two wives and children were educated at school in the afternoons. Within the complex configuration of familial and communal relationships, life in the village was simple. Maru saw his future working in his father’s motorbike, bicycle and tractor shop in the city, which he would inherit when is father died. At that time, he tells me, his main ambition was to be a nice person. Sitting opposite me in Calais refugee camp now, Maru tells me he just wants to stay human.
In the morning, Maru would accompany his father to mosque and the two of them would make their way to the city where Maru would help to open the shop. Maru’s father was a successful man: he owned land in the village as well as the shop. Maru saw his father’s passport once, filled with stamps from Syria, Lebanon and Russia. At lunchtime Maru would leave the shop to go to school. It was an Islamic school and initially, lessons were taught by local people. But then members of the Taliban came to teach and the anti-governmental rhetoric started.
‘They wanted to make a fight against the government’ Maru tells me.
But Maru and his father had little problem with the government. The president was a Pashtun statesman called Hamid Karzai, who was trying hard to make it work. But these Taliban guys were on the path of jihad.
Never do Maru’s eyes light up more than when he talks about his people, the Pashtun. Hamid Karzai is an elegant example, dressed in traditional clothes: the embroidered shalwa kamize and long sleeved cotton shirt hung over baggy trousers, his distinguished hat. The Pashtun often wear turbans tied in such a way as to indicate tribal identity. Many of the men who frequented Maru’s café wore these hats and turbans. They entered swathed in robes that surpassed the degradation of the camp. Their hats, expertly made to withstand cold, reminded me of photos of Pashtun fighters in the 1980’s taking on the Russians and winning. Their faces are kind, paternalistic and yet at the same time, etched with lines and crevices of ferocious strength.
Soon the Taliban teachers began approaching Maru’s father and insisting Maru join jihad. But his father refused. No one will ever truly know the reasons for what happened next. Perhaps to make an example of him, perhaps to instill fear into others, the Taliban burned down Maru’s family home with his father, his sister and his mother inside.
The Pushtunwali code of ethics dictates that death of a family member must be revenged. As this would fall to Maru, the chances of the Taliban killing him first were great. Knowing the danger he was in, Maru’s uncle took him immediately away and told him to flee to Turkey. So it was that Maru embarked on the long journey through Iran. He was fifteen years old.
This is a short video is about a young man who did join jihad after being brainwashed at school in Syria. Maru was never brainwashed, but this would quite likely have been his fate.
The last day of the training programme fell on the Muslim celebration of Eid. Traditionally, Eid is when people give presents. With all the determination of the human spirit, men walked through the camp handing out slices of bread to passers-by. Others called the muezzin, the tinny yet expansive call to prayer. In the café an enormous man, with the stature almost of a giant, whirled in with a large cardboard box which he dropped with a loud thud behind the plywood counter. The students and I were sitting at the low table, drinking tea after sharing lunch. We all assumed the man had stolen the box from one of the distribution vans. But seconds later, with the help of Maru, the man was passing Eid gifts across his gigantic arm span to men waiting outside the door.
Outside the Afghans had wired up a battered speaker and the same pulsating rhythms of the Pashtun villages rang out. In a break from teaching, I wandered outside and saw the men were dancing, just like they must have done in villages since they were little boys. With every movement of their bodies and every clap of their hands, they praised their God together.
‘Can I film?’ I asked Maru. There was a lot of anxiety around revealing identities and many lived in constant fear. But he smiled and said ‘Yes. They are performing. They will be pleased you want to film’.
A month later, I returned to the camp. This time it was just me and the interpreter, a sassy Egyptian woman called Salma who was keen to visit the Syrian students still stranded in the camp. Reading my diary entry for that day, I came across a reference to Maru. ‘In the café we are greeted by Maru and the guy who cooks. I was so cheered to see their faces lighting up as we walked in. It was a really heartwarming feeling and I felt good about coming back. Consistency is important. Somehow it reaches somewhere very deep inside humanity’.
Like old friends, Maru, Salma and I sit down together and take a cup of tea. We all light cigarettes. Maru sweeps up an ashtray and empties its contents in the bin, wipes and gently and places it between us. He then gives us the update on the camp.
As I hear about the constant new arrivals, the lack of showers, the pressure on the toilets and the building that continues everyday, I wonder what it must be like to spend your adolescent years in refugee camps. While the rest of us are turning gradually from children into adults, Maru has been surviving on his own. When I ask how it felt to be surrounded by strangers for the last seven years, he smiles and replies,
‘When people live the hard life, they love each other. Everyone needs a friend in dangerous places’.
It was at that moment I recall deciding to be Maru’s friend. It wasn’t the pity of a woman feeling shocked by exposure to the heartbreaking conditions in which these decent people were being forced to live, although that was very much inside me. It was instead the realisation that human beings have the power to support each other through dark times and sometimes, that can be all that is keeping them afloat. From time to time, it is all that is keeping them alive.
Each time I visited The Jungle after that, I saw Maru. I would ask him how he was, try to help him figure out his options. At this point he was considering returning to Afghanistan, and finding his young brother who was hiding in Kabul.
To Be Continued…