By Fariba Nawa
July 14, 2002
London Sunday Times
EDITOR’S NOTE: As an Afghan living in exile in America, Fariba Nawa was drawn back to her homeland as the Taliban were ousted. She found hope amid the ruins of Herat.
I can hear the hope in my home town. The once-forbidden sounds echo through the city. In the bazaar, women’s high-heeled shoes clip rhythmically on the pavement and songs from Hollywood films play in the ice cream shop.
It’s a world apart from the forsaken city I fled as an eight-year-old in 1981. Different, too, from when I first returned here, in October 2000, after 19 years in exile. Then the Taliban were still in control and the city was hushed but for whispers of discontent.
Now, having spent a total of 21 years away from my birthplace, I’ve come back as a reporter to witness the phenomenal transformation from war to peace.
My observations differ from those of the other foreign reporters, coloured as they are with memories of a childhood tainted with bloodshed.
I was born in 1973 on the day Mohammed Zahir Shah was ousted from the throne. My father worked for the national fertilising company. We lived in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, nicknamed Little America for its modernity.
The night of the 1978 Russian-sponsored coup I was at a wedding with my family, wearing a spaghetti-strapped blue dress with patent leather shoes, digging my five-year old fingers into frosting. Then the wedding singers stopped. “The communists have taken the capital and killed Daud Khan — this is war,” a woman whispered.
Nobody could have imagined that war would last 23 years. My family moved to Kandahar then to Herat. But I didn’t spend much of my time at home. Most days were spent playing with my cousins in my maternal grandfather’s orchard house across town.
In my memories our laughter is drowned out by the reverberations of rockets and helicopters flying over the city. On some days the bullets barely missed us.
One winter my family was sat around the table together when a stray bullet flew over my mother’s head and pounded into the wall. The next summer I witnessed my classmates die when a rocket hit my school. My sister and I stopped attending classes after that.
At first my father refused to join the mass exodus of middle-class technocrats and intellectuals. Then, in 1981, the communists killed his favourite brother and he received death threats — two events that convinced him to pack up his family and flee, in a six-hour donkey ride, across the Iranian desert to Pakistan.
We spent a year among the burgeoning Afghan refugee community of Islamabad. Our original plan was to join my brother Hadi in Germany, where he had fled in 1979 to escape conscription. But because my father had worked with Americans in the Peace Corps in Herat, we also applied for political asylum to America.
The day of our interview, my mother braided my blonde hair — there are many fair Afghans — and held my hand tightly. We looked like a westernised, nuclear family and the bald American man who held our future in his hands stamped our papers and said: “Okay.”
A fortnight later we were on a flight to Texas. Then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, now called Little Kabul.
In California I led a double life, torn between the conflicting cultures of my family and adoptive land. I didn’t have many friends because my life was enmeshed with the family. Sometimes I longed for a family whose values were those of the American ones on television.
My parents were liberal by Afghan standards, but while they had no problems when I wore shorts, relatives would tell my mother I was losing my Islamic values. I would never bring male friends home because I was not supposed to be friends with the opposite sex.
I was aware that I had to be more conservative than my classmates, that I could not have boyfriends and attend school dances. I often obeyed to keep my parents content, whether I actually believed in the rules or not.
Just as I rebelled from it, however, I was drawn to Islamic culture, too. When I moved across the country to college at Amherst, Massachusetts, it was to read Middle East studies.
There my memories of Afghanistan weighed on my mind and in October 2000 I succeeded in visiting my grandmother in Herat.
I travelled across the same desert through which I had fled as a child, but this time in a taxi and enveloped in a burqa. My guide admonished me when I wrote in my diary. “The Taliban are more scared of the pen than the gun,” he explained.
Traditionally Herat was the cultural capital of Afghanistan, known for its poetry, art and scholarship.
Remnants of this history were still visible in the historic sites — the minarets, shrines and bridges — but now the intelligentsia and artists had become potato vendors and taxi drivers. Wearing the burqa was useful as I could observe the sad faces of men without the interruption of their gaze. The feeling of invisibility was empowering but I had to walk slowly not to fall over the flowing fabric. I avoided the Taliban and instead I focused on rediscovering my family. On the last day of my trip I visited my grandfather’s orchard home. I climbed the roof overlooking the city and wept cathartic tears. Less than a year later I would be stood on another roof, this time in New York, watching another devastating scene.
By the time the September 11 attacks happened, I was studying for a masters degree in New York. I watched the twin towers collapse from the roof of my apartment on the opposite side of the Hudson River, little imagining that the next site of destruction would be my homeland.
The dual identity I had constructed came crashing down as my two countries went to war. I was the embodiment of what so many perceived as the clash of civilisation between the West and Muslim world. Two weeks later, I took a leave of absence from university and flew to Islamabad to cover the war from Pakistan.
On the phone I got minute-by-minute updates from commanders on the front line in Afghanistan, but I could not contact my relatives in Herat to check they were still alive.
But the fall of the Taliban was a consolation. This summer I returned from America to Afghanistan. I now wanted to see it not just as a journalist with a reporting job to do, but also as an exile coming home to see how my countrymen were coping with the transition.
I took my 72-year-old father with me. This time I crossed the border wearing an Iranian hijab, a headscarf tied under my chin, and a long summer coat.
I left my father in Herat and travelled to Kabul to cover the loya jirga. Across the country I witnessed hints of a cultural and political revival. Whether it is taking off the burqa or going to school, men and women are both busier than ever taking advantage of what they see as an opportunity.
Their response to the American bombings is oddly positive. There’s a high tolerance for casualties here if the long-term result is peace. But that tolerance is wearing a little thin as US-led forces keep bombing civilians by mistake.
Afghans are impatient for reconstruction to pick up. They want the basic infrastructure such as telephone lines, electricity and water.
Their response to exiles like me coming back is mixed. There’s a resentment that we have abandoned them to suffer while we led the good life. But they also are grateful that we want to come back and rebuild the country.
Strangely, I feel more comfortable in this new Herat than my father. He came back hoping to feel at home but is leaving a month before he planned, disillusioned. “There are no intellectuals left here. Men sit around in their traditional clothes and their beards spitting tobacco on the streets. This is not the city I came from,” he said as I tried to persuade him to stay. “I don’t even want to be buried here.”
I truly believe Herat could again be the enlightened centre it once was. I believe in the young people here. Since I have come back from Kabul, I have been enjoying what the oasis city has to offer. I sleep on the balcony under a sky lit up by shooting stars. The 40C heat is cooled by the famous 120-day winds.
Nearly every house in Herat has a garden with pomegranate trees and vegetable fields. We eat three meals a day, which begins at sunrise with morning prayers. To cool off, we savour the fruit in season — watermelon and peaches.
There is a wedding and a funeral every day and families invite hundreds to attend. Ismail Khan, the warlord in charge of Herat, is considered a moderate in comparison with the Taliban but young people still want more freedom. They want cinemas, parks and restaurants. Khan has promised them all that but he swears to keep the city Islamic. Last week the police shaved the heads of a group of young men caught drinking alcohol in public. The men were shown on television as clerics preached for two hours about the ills of alcohol.
In Kandahar last month Wasil Hasanyar, a shopkeeper turned poet, released his first book, The Candle and I, a series of romantic poems dedicated to the Afghan enlightenment. “I have come out of the darkness and the candle’s flame is giving me strength,” he said at an opening ceremony of a literary association. I feel the same sense of hope about having come home at last.