Memories from Afghanistan

JENNIFER HEATH – It is impossible to put a single face on Afghanistan, despite the West’s best attempts. 

Twenty-five years ago, the Afghan girl with green eyes haunted the cover of National Geographic, symbolizing the plight of the country’s women, caught between the Soviets and the Mujahadeen. What is the “face” of Afghan women today?

She represents only one face of Afghanistan: there are many different faces. Westerners often get caught up in whatever the media presents, and think of that portrayal as the “modern face of Afghanistan.” Afghan society is like the rest of the world, perhaps even more so, in that it is comprised of countless faces and experiences, especially now because there are so many people who have been displaced and spread throughout the country.

Afghans were, at one point, the largest refugee population in the world: Afghans travel all over the world, from Pakistan — which was the easiest destination — to Australia, Egypt, the United States. The foreign refugee is one “face” of Afghanistan. And within that group there are many faces.

Another face would be that of the people who are from Kabul. In the capital there is a not only a wide variety of people born and raised in the city, but also a great number of internally displaced people. These domestic refugees live amongst a large westernized population in Kabul.

And ultimately, although it is important to avoid identifying Afghans by tribal group, it is also necessary to understand that each of these groups has its own face and its own identity within the country. When we talk about “faces” we are talking about stories, and thus each group has its own legacy. The Hazara people, for example, are said to be descended from Genghis Kahn — and are certainly descendants of the Kushan Dynasty. There were peoples who were Buddhist before they converted to Islam: they created the great Buddhas in Afghanistan. These people have not only been traditionally oppressed by most other groups within the country, but are Shia rather than Sunni.

I could go on, but it suffices to say that there is not a single “face” in Afghanistan. It is very useful, in order to unify people, to have one icon. And the young girl on National Geographic was that icon during the Soviet period (1979-1989). She became the unifying face of Afghanistan, and she was found everywhere: on rugs, restaurants signs, and elsewhere. But the reality is that she is and was not the face of Afghanistan.

Even today, after the fall of the Taliban, the Afghan government has used, with encouragement from the United States, the face of Massoud, who was a commander of the Mujahadeen, as the “face of Afghanistan.” However, many Afghans do not agree with is actions; there is a great difference between the reality and the “logo.”

 You write that you “came of age” in Afghanistan, spending the formative years of your life in the country. How did Afghanistan shape your identity during this period of your life? 

My experience in Afghanistan is only part of my whole life traveling. Before Afghanistan, I was living in Bolivia. In many ways my identity was shaped less by Afghanistan but by being a nomad, from a nomadic kind of family, albeit a privileged and western one. My years in Afghanistan shaped my work a great deal, but I think it primarily shaped my thinking. I am more of a cultural relativistand broadly interested in all sides of Afghan culture.

You led an international life; why do you connect especially to Afghanistan? 

I spent my teenage years there, and because of that the country was incredibly vibrant for me. When I was a teenager, events and people looked quite different from the way I perceived them when I was little. Life and the intensity of Kabul felt romantic and vibrant. Who knows what I would have felt if my family had stayed in Bolivia, or had gone to Pakistan instead.

The connection to Afghanistan stayed because of the friends I made there. I never made many American friends there because I was not very pleased with the westerners living in the city. Many of the American children had just arrived from the US and had never lived anywhere else before, and were therefore recreating a little America in Kabul. I was a different kind kid; I had never lived in the States; it felt as if I was already a foreigner to the other American people. My closest friendships were with Afghan girls, and I think in that way my connection to Afghanistan became extremely solid. There is something about Afghanistan itself that draws me back: it is quite a magical place despite the violence. It feels like the “world’s watch tower.” Many people who are not like me — who are very Americanized — are drawn to the country.

What was the situation in these refugee camps?

At that time, they were not as big as they are now: today they have grown almost into cities because the wars have never stopped. Nobody could go home, and these people have built large, almost urban networks. But at the time when I was there, each camp was unique. I was in Peshawar, but there were camps in Islamabad and throughout Pakistan. The settlement in Peshawar consisted of an expanse of canvas tents, they felt very temporary at the time. But since the wars were extremely long, these people stayed.

Could you describe the people living in the camps — was there a desire to return to Afghanistan, or relief at having escaped?

There was a mixture of both of these emotions. This dual attitude was a result of the populations at these places. These camps consisted of primarily women, children, and old men. The younger men would come back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border because they were fighting against the Russians in the mountains. Sometimes these men would drag their killed or wounded comrades back into the hospitals in the camps. Many of these camps became headquarters for the Mujahadeen leadership: they became quite a mishmash of people and purposes as the war continued.

Your titled one of your novels about Afghanistan: “A House White With Sorrow.” How did you associate “white” with sorrow?

I did not make that association: it is from a famous Afghan poem. We published two versions of the novel: in regular book form, and as a large pamphlet. I made the latter so that they could be sold on the streets in Kabul, giving children a chance to make some money. These kids would dash in and out of traffic — at great personal risk — to sell the novel. The poem from which I drew the title is included in this revised edition, and it was written by a famous Afghan poet following the suicide bombing that killed Massoud, the Mujahadeen commander.

You were most recently in Afghanistan in 2005. How had the country evolved since the time you lived there as a child; could you describe what it is like to watch a country to which you have such a strong connection evolve in this way? 

In many ways the country has devolved. During the 1960s and 1970s, the capital, Kabul, was moving towards the adoption of western technologies, for better or worse. If you think of the situation from an ecological or political standpoint, this shift was for the worse. But for many people this change was good, as it provided more economic opportunities. The situation illustrated the idea of many Afghanistans: there was a westernized and western-mediated capital city, but the rest of the country was changing at slower rates of growth, or not at all; in rural areas, many people were living as their ancestors had a hundred or two hundred years before.

Suddenly, the whole picture changes when the Soviets invaded in 1979. For many people, the invasion marked a devolution: they were being bombed and slaughtered. In Kabul, the westernized piece of the Afghanistan, the situation was particularly bad. Religious fundamentalism grew out of this period in which people were in despair: they begin to believe that God is the only one who can save them. Piety and religion becomes a comfort. There is, of course, a political aspect to this development, with the emergence of fundamentalist mullahs. The wars go on, and the country continues to devolve. The Soviets leave, and there was a civil war that many people claimed was worse than the Taliban, since there was a massive increase in the number of religious fundamentalists vying for control of the country. Afghanistan has always been traditionalist, but it was not known as a deeply fundamentalist country before the Soviet invasion. The radicalization of the country can largely be traced to the US policy of bringing in conservative Arabs from across the region who had not traditionally been part of Afghan society to counter the Russian threat. Meanwhile, as this civil war is raging, in Pakistan the refugee widows of the men killed cannot afford to send their children to the regular schools, and wind up sending their boys instead to the Political Madrasas where they were radicalized. These boys eventually became part of the Taliban. Many Afghans welcomed the Taliban because they were able to end the civil war, and brought a semblance of peace. They were not the only group in Afghanistan, but they did have the best organization: they were the orphans of Afghanistan coming, it seemed at the time, to bring peace. The Taliban marked another devolution towards the murder and oppression of women, but also an evolution towards peace. Interestingly, they would cut out the human faces from the books: ironically, perhaps this is a good illustration of the “face” of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

You write in the introduction to Land of the Unconquerable that in some regions women would prefer the old, Taliban regime. Could you explain why? 

Because of the peace. The government in Kabul was not very important to Afghan women living in a rural setting: they would live in their traditional tribal setting and boundaries. They were far less affected by Taliban laws than women in Kabul or the surrounding areas. All these rural women wanted was simply to live in peace, and the Taliban provided that environment. There were no doctors or education opportunities for these women before the Taliban: they did not know any different situation. But now, the wars have started again.

Now that American policymakers are planning for a drawdown of US troops from the country, what future can Afghans expect? 

I am sorry to say that I do not know. Given the riots and anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan today, the US presence may very well disappear far quicker than previously anticipated. There are many people, particularly in Kabul, who do not necessarily want the soldiers to leave. These soldiers create a sense of stability. Yet this stability is transient: there is a great deal of corruption among the American and European contractors tasked with rebuilding the nation, and therefore few schools, hospitals, and other key infrastructure projects have not been completed. This failure means that when American soldiers leave, there is a great potential for the country to descend into chaos, a reality that would most directly affect those living in Kabul. People in Kabul are afraid that after the Americans leave, the Taliban will come back, leading to more civil and internal war. I think the US has a responsibility to protect those people whom it led to have great expectations for the future, and with whom it worked. The Taliban will pay a young man $300 per month, while the Americans are not providing any jobs or opportunities.


JENNIFER HEATH is an independent scholar, curator, award-winning activist and cultural journalist, author/editor of nine books, including A House White With Sorrow: A Ballad for Afghanistan, The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics, and Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women (co-edited with Ashraf Zahedi).  She is the founder of Seeds for Afghanistan and the Afghanistan Relief Organization Midwife Training and Infant Care Program.


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