Afghanistan has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks, as the Taliban take over the country once more and the US and UK evacuate troops and civilians in an unplanned, chaotic dash – but not, in many cases, other people who have links to them and who will now be left vulnerable in their home country. Activists, for example, promoting women’s rights or democracy: according to some reports, the Taliban are going house to house seeking out people with links to foreigners and the government. Twelve people have died simply trying to reach the airport in Kabul to get out of the country this week, from stampedes or gunshots.
You may be reading this and wondering what this has to do with my usual ramblings, and may be inclined to point out that this is hundreds – possibly thousands, given my tenuous grasp of world geography – of miles away.
You may be reading this and wondering why I am venturing into the world of international politics, given that I am usually going on about crochet and dressmaking and lovely ‘hello clouds, hello sky’ walks, with only the occasional rant about free school meals and things.
Well, this week I had one of those moments when world politics ended up within a few feet of me, in the shape of a small girl and her dad, and a pile of those blue blocks my colleagues and I have been carting round east London since the beginning of July.
This week we were at a children’s centre in Whitechapel, at a family play day, meeting children and parents from the local area to do some building and playing. The majority of the children we encountered were pre-schoolers: very small when the pandemic started, who had missed out on many of the baby groups to which they would usually have had access. Language and social delays are common.
We set up the session with figurative structures, which they could either interact with as they were or rebuild to make something else. We had a rocket car, a tunnel, a den, and I had great fun building a castle. We built very tall things and knocked them down, we engaged in Godzilla games, we made a finish line and cheered when people came through it. We wondered where you could go in a rocket car and we pantomimed and clowned around.
After a while a dad and his daughter arrived. She was clutching a doll which she wouldn’t let go of and her dad was trying to get her to build something with him, which is quite hard to do one-handed. So I began to build a castle, big enough to get inside. One girl from another family decided it needed a door, so she added one and after going in and out a few times she wandered off.
The dad came and started helping me to build the castle taller, checking it was OK: of course it was, and we built it taller and taller and then added a fabric roof. His little girl crept into the castle and stood there with her doll, so I began to play ‘peepo’ with her through the gaps between the blocks and the holes in them. It took a while to get her to respond, although she watched me very seriously to see where I would pop up next. Eventually she smiled when I appeared in a different hole and even, at one point, giggled.
My castle needed something to make it less blue, so I started using the gold foil cutouts to link some of the holes and to make tubes. Marble runs had been very popular, so I found the small plastic balls and began to roll them through the tubes. At first, my new friend just pushed them out through the gaps between the blocks, but after a few minutes of watching me roll them through different tubes each time she started to join in, and to try and push the balls back to me before they could drop. I added a second ball and she put the doll down so she would have both hands free to play.
Her dad began to talk to me: he had very little English, and he told me that her name was Raya, and her English was better but she didn’t talk much. She knew the animals and colours, he said, and she talked at home. She didn’t know many people. This was the first time she had been able to play outside safely, he said. She’s three. I assumed this was because of Covid – isn’t everything, after all?
After a while Raya came out of her castle, leaving the doll behind, and came over to her dad for a cuddle. He picked her up, so I made another foil tube and used it as a telescope – dad joined in the game and moved her closer and further away from the end, and she giggled some more. It’s hard to resist a giggling child, so we carried on playing.
A pair of the bigger boys – Eastern European, again with very little English – asked me using gestures whether it was OK to knock the castle down. Of course, I said, and we cheered as they demolished it thoroughly.
‘That is what they are doing in my country, too,’ observed the dad. ‘In Afghanistan. They knock things down.’
As we were packing away the kit, one of the children’s centre managers came over for a chat and was telling us that they had been phoning a local hotel where a group of newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan were staying, to try and get them to come along, but she didn’t think any had. The penny dropped and we talked about Raya and her dad, and how it had taken a while to engage the little girl but we’d got there in the end.
A new country. A new language. Three years without being able to play safely outside. Three years.
Raya and her dad, and our play session, have stayed with me all week. This country isn’t perfect, heaven knows, but I can take my kids to the park and they can play outside. They haven’t been displaced from their home, although if you listened to them for the first couple of years I’d ruined their lives by making them change schools.
What else has remained with me is that play truly is the universal language: you don’t need words to play peekaboo, or peepo, or whatever its name is where you live. And that sometimes the world lands on your doorstep in the shape of a small girl and her dad.
Normal service will resume next week, I’m sure.
What I’ve been reading:
Moving Pictures /Small Gods – Terry Pratchett
The Sandman – Neil Gaiman (Audible)
Addlands – Tom Bullough (from the Shelf of Shame)