From New York to Los Angeles, Seattle to Phoenix, to the nation’s capital, I stood before Americans for the last year and told the story of Afghanistan’s drug trade, the story of its women, its drug lords, its heroes and criminals. I told my own story of an exile returning to my homeland, traveling in the region for seven years and finally, bidding farewell to Afghanistan. But my spirit’s still there.
After dozens of talks at bookstores, libraries, universities, on TV shows and radio programs, I spoke to whoever listened, reminded them that even though American troops will be leaving Afghanistan, Americans still should care. Why? Because it’s too easy to forget, and too deadly. The two countries are intertwined now, should be a part of each others’ conscience. Eleven years so far, 2000 US troops dead, thousands of Afghans slaughtered and an Afghanistan still in chaos. How can you forget?
In ritzy Carmel, people laughed at my quips and in hippie Portland, they cried at the tales of indignity and desperation facing Afghan girls and women today. Most Americans asked, “What can I do to help Afghans?” Become aware, do not stop reading about Afghanistan, become involved through a charity, and if you dare, go there and train Afghans in a professional field. Whatever you do, do not bury the story of Afghanistan just in the pages of history.
If I’ve become preachy, it’s out of desperation. The US has a short memory span – the places and people it bombs disappear from public discourse as the next international crisis develops. It’s a nagging calling for me to stop the amnesia, and this book tour gave me that chance. I was bursting to share what I had witnessed in Afghan villages from the mountains to the deserts. Speaking up was cathartic.
Some would say perhaps it’s better for the US to stop meddling and forget. I know better. The Afghan civil war of the 1990s was the result of that American abandonment.
Did all those words repeated to thousands of ears do any good? You tell me.
Critics praised Opium Nation and I beamed. I worked for seven years against all odds to make sure the stories reached the world. I lost money to write this book. I risked my life to get the details, to hear the stories few were reporting. It became a bestseller in Australia, a PEN award finalist in the US, and something to talk about over dinner in Italy. Some readers called it “corny” while others loved it. The most supportive and most critical were Afghans in the US and abroad.
They were hurt and shocked at the title. Tired of all the negative headlines in foreign news, how could one of their own title her book Opium Nation, as if Afghanistan had nothing else to offer. I understand the critiques. I explained over and over that the publisher chose the title. My choice: Where the Poppies Bloom – that became a chapter title. The fact that Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world’s opiates did not help my case. Some Afghan men who attended my talks stood up to deny that opium brides are a real problem, one man verbally attacked me in a library and another wrote a column defaming my name and work. Incidentally and not accidentally, they were all men.
But the majority of Afghans encouraged me, gave me a voice in the Afghan media and shared the book and its stories with family and friends.
This last year was filled with a flurry of moments and a mix of emotions: exhilaration, exhaustion and exasperation. It was my first book and I had no idea what to expect. But I wouldn’t take back any of it.
The success of the book matters somewhat, but if I could save one opium bride from being sold into slavery, if I could convince one addict to stop using heroin, if I could help one farming family to wean from poppy cultivation, then my hard work will have been worth it. My job as a journalist is to simply tell the story, but my job as an Afghan, as a human being is to be an advocate of justice for those who opened up to me, let me into their homes and pleaded for help.