This summer, I went home.
By Fariba Nawa
Saudi Aramco World
After 22 years of exile in the United States, my father and I returned to Afghanistan to renew family connections and explore the 5000-year-old culture and its people. I was eight when my parents took me, my brother and my sister west from our home in Herat to flee the 1979 Soviet invasion, thus joining the six million Afghan refugees who spread across the world.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where some 60,000 Afghans now make up the largest Afghan community in the United States. Immersed in this enclave, I often wished to see what had become of my childhood home. The first time I returned was in October 2000, but I only stayed for seven days. Under the Taliban, Kabul and Herat were silent cities, with no music and no laughter, only whispers of discontent.
This summer I returned for three months, and it was sounds that I noticed first. Indian pop music was blasting from the shops. The click of women’s heels echoed on the sidewalks. Girls giggled and teased on their way to school. Most important, people talked freely and passionately. While Afghanistan remains a much-troubled nation, I found that a cultural revival was sweeping it from Kabul in the east to Herat in the west, moving at an amazing pace because people have been so starved for self-expression. Afghans also are afraid that the peace may not last, and they have to seize this moment.
To take the cultural pulse of the country, I did a rather American thing: I took a road trip from the capital, Kabul, 1050 kilometers (650 mi) west to Herat, to see the revival through the eyes of the people I had been missing for two decades.
It was early June when I arrived in Kabul. The city of two million was growing daily with the flow of returning refugees (and more than a few fellow journalists). Everyone was tuned in, either through palm-sized radios or shoebox-sized television sets, to the proceedings of the loya jirga, the meeting of 1500 representatives from across the country that was forming Afghanistan’s transitional government, the political embodiment of the country’s new beginning.
Everywhere, it seemed, people were working on or talking about reconstruction. They were rebuilding war-ruined homes, schools, libraries and museums—including the world-famous National Museum, from which most of the artifacts have been stolen over the last 20 years. There were also new institutions: One of the most dynamic is Aina, the Afghan Media and Culture Center, founded in June by Iranian photographers Reza and Manoocher Degati, and funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and several other international aid groups. It is the home of at least 30 media-oriented projects, including cinema production, newspapers and magazines. These are run out of 20 offices, and there are a printing press, radio and video production units and photographic and language-training laboratories. Already more than 100 writers and others have found a voice in these new publications, which are virtually free of censorship. Aina has become a central point for innovative ideas and expression.
It came as little surprise that young people, who make up 40 percent of the population, seemed the most impassioned, and this was especially true among the repatriating refugees. My talks with young Kabulis were full of hope, and these days everyone, it seemed, was a reconstruction activist.
On one sizzling morning, I visited the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority (AACA), the clearinghouse for reconstruction money. I was supposed to meet a friend, a returning exile like myself, but instead I met Akbar Quraishi.
A soft-spoken 28-year-old, Quraishi came back from Pakistan in January, three weeks after the interim government had been installed. He had been studying computer science. Now, he works in the technology department at AACA to earn some money; on the side, though, when he’s not fixing computer glitches, he’s running a youth center or he’s writing poetry. He sneaks in the fun work when his bosses aren’t looking.
Dapper in slacks and a collared shirt, Quraishi sported a neatly trimmed beard. His concentration and eloquence showed his literary passion.
“Literature and poetry aren’t practical,” the closet artist said. “So I had to find a more profitable means for supporting myself. But this is where my heart is.”
While still a refugee in Peshawar, he published a bimonthly magazine in the two major Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, called Youth’s Desire. He funded it from his own pocket for about a year, until he could no longer afford it. When he came back to his native Kabul, Quraishi opened one of the first youth centers in the city, this time using money raised from private donors.
Now, he’s hoping his projects can tap the flow of reconstruction aid coming through the AACA, which so far has amounted to $1 billion of the $4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo last winter by 61 countries and 21 international organizations.
He described his youth center with a big smile and sweeping hand gestures. It’s a two-story house where more than 100 boys come to play chess and pool, take recreational classes or just hang out. He wants to start league sports, get another youth magazine going and expand so that there will be a place for girls as well. Although there were a few such places during the Soviet-led regime, the demand has never been greater than now.
“University students come knocking at the door even when we can’t fit in any more people. They’re starved for free fun,” he said.
After the loya jirga concluded with the election of President Hamid Karzai and the plan to draft a constitution, I left the capital in a minivan in the company of free-lance photographer Natalie Retiring; Chicago Tribune correspondent Laurie Goering; her interpreter, Farouq Samim; and our driver, Naseer. We drove out at dawn, as the muezzins were beginning to recite verses from the Qur’an, before the call to morning prayers. We carried two spare tires, a few boxes of mineral water, our cameras, travel bags and not much else. The road to Kandahar was gravelly at best and bone-rattlingly rocky at its worst, all 550 kilometers (350 mi) of it.
I talked to Samim. Charming in his manner, with tanned skin, a thick head of black hair and a mustache, he is part of the educated middle class that is desperately needed to rebuild the country, but which is also deeply frustrated by the lack of job opportunities and training. Now 26 and a full-time interpreter, he was in his last year of medical school when his education was interrupted, and his training has been too poor to allow him to treat patients, he said. He spent most of the 23 years of war in Kabul, where he learned to speak fluent English at a language institute. In our conversations, however, we spoke in our native tongue, Dari, the common language of the northern regions.
As the hot air and dust blew in our faces, he and I admired the vast landscape of smooth-rolling hills and dry desert. We rode past nomads on their camels in Ghazni province, home of the Ghaznavid Dynasty of the 10th century. After three years of drought, rain is again nourishing the acres of green here, and so Afghans who had become refugees because of the drought are returning, too. We could see orchards of apricots and peaches.
At intervals during our talk, Samim helped Naseer fix first one, then another, and another—in the end, seven flat tires. “I want to find a way to go to an English-speaking country, re-study medicine and then come back,” he says. “Of course I’ll come back. I put up with war for this long; I want to be here to help heal the country.”
As night began to fall, we had still not arrived in Kandahar. Luckily, there was no curfew there as there had been in Kabul, where residents had to be in their homes by 11:00 p.m. Finally, 17 hours after leaving Kabul, we entered the historic gates of the city. Despite the late hour, shops were still open. In the streets, three-wheeled motor rickshaws whizzed by, and men in striped turbans strolled on paved sidewalks.
Kandahar is the second-largest city in the country, with 450,000 people, and the central, ethnically Pashtun city, complete with old and new quarters that reflect several eras. The old city, much of which has been destroyed by the wars, is classical Afghan, with its mud-baked walls, its dome-ceilinged rooms, its central courtyards and its fountains. The new city, which emerged during King Mohammed Zahir’s modernization project in the mid-19th century, boasts whitewashed three-story buildings with balconies and windows all around.
Kandahar was the first capital of Afghanistan at its inception as a separate country in 1747. Before that, western Afghanistan was governed by the Persian Safavid Empire, and the eastern region was part of the Mughal Empire. The founder of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, whom Afghans affectionately call Ahmad Shah Baba, built an Afghan empire that stretched from Mashad to Delhi and north to Samarkand—about twice the size of Afghanistan today.
The city still has four gates, which open onto the highways to Kabul and Herat. There are numerous historical sites, including Chihil Zina, a monument of 40 stairs propped on a hill overlooking the city. Atop a steep stairway is a chamber with Arabic inscriptions on its wall testifying that the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, built the monument in the 16th century.
The next day, the Ministry of Information and Culture invited me to the opening of a new literary association and told me that Wassel Hosanyar, a clothing merchant turned poet, was going to read. He had just published his first book, Za ow Sham (The Candle and I), a series of romantic poems dedicated to the current Afghan enlightenment.
“I have come out of the darkness and the candle’s flame is giving me strength,” he said. The candle, of course, symbolizes for him the new peace in Afghanistan. A close translation of one of his poems echoes the same message.
“The heart of my nation has burned with missiles and weapons,
But I fell on the sand in this storm still content,
Because these weeks, I see new revolutions.”
Comfortable in traditional starched, white, loose pants and a knee-length shirt, Hosanyar sat cross-legged outside the ceremony on a plastic chair, his deep brown eyes gazing back at his watching fans.
At 30, he has been writing poetry for eight years in exile in Pakistan. He’s self-taught, inspired by renowned Pashto poet Khushal Khattak, the Greek philosophers and Shakespeare. For Hosanyar, every image is a poem. Fans say he owes his popularity to his upbeat subjects of love and romance.
“You don’t need a formal education to be a poet,” he said. “You need to have talent, creativity and a variety of books to read. Every word of my poetry is a part of my body. I don’t like just one or the other.”
From Kandahar, I traveled with a Spanish writer and a German photographer on the three-hour drive west to Lashkar Gah (“Place of Soldiers”), a city in Helmand province. My earliest memory of Afghanistan is from my family’s two-year residence in this historic city, which in the 1970’s was called “Little America” because of its rapid modernization. I was four, and I recall a narrow trail along the clear water of the Helmand River. On the other side were fields, probably of wheat and barley; villagers were washing clothes in the river, and I ran with other children, barefoot. I remember that once, during a rain, there was a rainbow over the farms and the river.
Lashkar Gah is home to Qalai Bost, the vaulted gateway to the ruins of a fort and castle dating from the Ghaznavid era. So famous is it that it appears on the 10,000 Afghani note. In the 1970’s, the late President Mohammed Daoud Khan filled the gateway to the top with bricks as a stopgap preservation measure, in order to keep the fragile structure from toppling.
Rosta Malang is the semi-official guard of the gateway, and he spends part of each day leaning against its side, crouching on the red dirt. When I approached him, I found that his life was a history in some ways as rich as that of the structure he attends. Malang had lived through all the regimes, all the bombs and rockets, sitting in the same corner, fingering his tasbih, or prayer beads.
He believes he’s 80 years old. He has been widowed three times. Each wife, he said, he loved dearly, but all of them died in childbirth. After his third beloved died, he bid farewell to the material world, and he found peace near the ruins of the great kings. “I gave all my love to them. Now I give it to God,” he said in a voice that quavered with age.
He said he wanted to die under the archway, which was indeed in danger of collapsing, despite the bricked-up doorway. UNESCO is spending $3 million to refurbish about a dozen historical sites in Afghanistan, including this one. I hoped they got here in time. I squinted under the sun to view the grand structure before me, and I felt privileged to be one of the few tourists around. Malang said that this year they have had about 50 tourists, the most he had seen in six years.
My final destination was my hometown, Herat. My father was already there, enjoying time with our family. My love and fascination for this city of 330,000 people comes partly from my personal connection, but also from its rich history. Located on the border of Iran and Turkmenistan, Herat was the cradle of culture and civilization in the region, especially in the golden 15th century, during the Timurid Empire. Art, architecture, poetry and literature flourished there.
More than anywhere else, national reconstruction and the cultural renaissance are visible here. On a drive around the city, I saw workers paving roads, building a state-of-the-art addition to the old public library and creating a new park.
Herat is the wealthiest province in the country, which partly explains its rapid development. The Afghan transit trade, which has been going on for millennia, begins in Herat and ends in Pakistan, daily transporting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods ranging from electronics to fabrics. Each truck pays customs fees to Herat province.
Though Herat was destroyed during the war against the Soviets, it was rebuilt after 1992, and the Heratis, as the people are called, are not as worn as residents of the other Afghan cities. They come to the present day with zest and a seemingly insatiable motivation to produce and create. Age-old Herati crafts now blossoming again include thick blue glass, silk shawls and tilework. Many of the craftsmen work in the vicinity of the magnificent Friday Mosque, and from morning until evening prayers they try to meet the demand of their customers.
The city is a haven for art, including students such as one I met, Roya Hamid. At 24, she seemed to personify Herat’s energy and will. She was accepted at the local medical school, but joined the faculty of fine arts to follow her artistic aspirations. During the six years when women were forbidden to work or go to school, Hamid took art lessons at home. She now has reentered the university as a third-year student. Her most prized work is her oil painting of a woman, shown behind bars; a tear, her symbolic cry for help, falls on an image of the Ka’bah at the center of the Holy Mosque.
“This is how I have felt for the last six years. But we have been freed now,” she said.
Hamid uses every free minute to work, even though she does not have a studio. She lays her papers and colors on the family carpet and hunches over them to draw. But her love is drawing intricate miniatures on blue glass goblets. It takes her a month to finish a gold-bordered design, brushing delicate, detailed strokes of color on the curved surface.
“I used to draw half-heartedly, not knowing who would see my work, but now I’m better and quicker. It’s this sensation, this time. We feel that if we don’t take advantage of it, somebody might take the opportunity away from us. I don’t dream of returning to 15th-century Herat, but that time inspires me to make the 21st century an even greater era.”