Saturday, July 20, 2013

Leaning closer to Afghanistan

 There is an Afghanistan that is constantly changing but for those who migrate, it feels like a moment frozen in amber. They carry those moments and I get glimpses of them. Sometimes I don't know if what I glimpse tells me enough about their country. I just spent a day with a wonderful researcher who has worked with the Afghan community in the U.S. and Afghanistan. It felt like a pilgrimage. Replete with photographs, anecdotes, and the opportunity to imagine that wondrous land and its people.

So I asked this learned researcher, what seems to be in store for the Afghans in Afghanistan? Knowing about ground realities there always helps me know the source of tensions for my  participants in the U.S. She said that the return of the Taliban is imminent and people are just gearing up to find ways to adapt to those realities. We, the people outside Afghanistan, should be ready to receive those who will begun to flee a few months after the U.S. pulls out. It's easy for spectators to think the Afghans can't survive without the U.S., that the Afghans 'need' the U.S. The truth is far more complex than that. She said that the most painful part is knowing how much hope everyone had when the Taliban fell in 2001. To me, the Taliban's resurgence is a tragic and grotesque mockery of that hope.

It seems like the people who continue to live in Afghanistan dwell less on hope or hopelessness but more on how they will make things work. Water will seep into whatever space it finds, that is it's job. That is the nature of freedom too, people will exercise whatever freedom they will find.

We talked about our work and saw the different vantage points we had both gained by virtue of the different times and spaces in which we did our research. She in the 90's whereas I did mine post 9/11. 9/11 was when the destinies of both countries intersected in terrible ways. I read a tribute to New York at the Seattle Center, where a rock was inscribed with the message "To the people of New York City, Washington DC and Philadelphia. Here is Seattle. We are very far from you physically but near in our hearts. Sept 11, 2001". I remember reading it and feeling this lump in my throat for all that the U.S. had lost of its innocence on that terrible day. And a little later my thoughts went to Afghanistan. That tragic day had also started a new chapter in their history. A chapter marked initially by hope (even though the bombing killed many innocent people) and later by unrelenting violence. 9/11 was when the war on terror began whereas the war for Afghanistan simply began a new chapter.

I remember thinking that there is no tribute to the Afghan people who had to withstand severe bombing after the attacks on the World Trade Center. They experienced death and destruction too. Where is their memorial site? And how do the Afghans in the U.S. reconcile their sense of loss for what happened to Afghanistan AND  the U.S. after those planes crashed those towers.

She and I agreed, no matter where they were, the Afghan people always stood alone. They had each other and that was all.They didn't just share war stories but also a macabre humor that war fosters. As the troops pull out, Afghanistan threatens to fall out of our collective consciousness. And that will be a terrible tragedy too. There were good Kharijees who came and turned up the volume on those voices that nobody heard. Or atleast they tried.

Now it is time for people like you and me to stand in solidarity with the Afghans. You have the luxury of saying 'we will not negotiate or cooperate with the Taliban' but remember, you will have to find ways to support every ounce of resilience that the Afghans have shown and will continue to show. If you want the Afghans to feel less alone, they need to know that we are here and they have not been forgotten.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fitting dynamic pegs into linear spaces

I recently chanced upon this word, kharijee, in the course of an interview with a man born in the U.S but with roots in Afghanistan. He told me that the word meant 'the outsider' and was frequently used to refer to the foreigners living in Afghanistan. There are also repatriated Afghans who are called Afghan-e-Kharijee, the outsider Afghan, a choice phrase to refer to people who belong but also don't.

So when I went searching for Afghan identity, I found myself hunting for traits/values/behaviors that made one feel more Afghan. But then I realized, just like there are infinite ways of being Indian, there are infinite ways of being Afghan. So my real question needs to be what helps one claim the label, 'Afghan' (not any kind of Kharijee). So that is my question now.

By opening up the space for everyone to be called Afghan if they claimed the label, I was able to include what they frequently left unspoken out of the fear that they would expose their outsiderness. But there is no outsiderness to expose. We are all insiders/outsiders most of the time.

Khaarijee: The Outsider

I came across the word 'Kharijee' again, from the title of a book by Malcolm Garcia about a journalist who travelled to Afghanistan and discovered something. I am intentionally vague because I am weary of what people discover when they go to Afghanistan - do they discover themselves? People? Cynicism? Faith? But the word stays with me and I bring it to my own mind very often, as the outsider trying to enter the phenomenological world of Afghan immigrants in the U.S.

The history of Afghanistan that has been written in English has been written by Khaarijees like me, Afghans have been represented in the written and visual media by Khaarijees like me and we have frequently just caught fleeting shadows of this reality that reveals itself but also hides. There is an entire painting hidden behind those half-opened doors but we (academicians, researchers, intellectuals, novelists) have content ourselves with the partial views we see. We know very little about Afghanistan and calling her the graveyard of empires is the closest thing that comes to describing our sense of awe. But like Fariba Nawa points out when citing Thomas Barfield, perhaps Afghanistan is not a graveyard but a cradle of empires because it has been a site for varied conquests and an opportunity for myriad cultures to mingle. Perhaps its time for us to bring a sense of awe and humility as we try to understand a country and its people beyond the frames of war and destruction within which they have been forever framed.

Even as I frequently describe my Afghan participants as survivors of war, there are parts of me that cringe and simply say 'I'm interviewing people who migrated from Afghanistan and U.S.' and delete the reference to war. When I hold a microphone to the lips of Afghan Americans I meet, and ask them what they would like me to see, I'm attempting to write about who they are out when they are not simply survivors of war. I go with a small bag of questions so that I don't look dumb and fumbling. I ask about culture and identity, and in whatever half pieces I am offered as answers, I accept as tools for my painting. The effort to represent how Afghans represent themselves, that is the attempt.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Buddhas of Bamiyan

I went back to De Afghanan today for a farwell-to-Fremont meal.  I almost don't want to leave it without photographs but I wasn't carrying a camera and I am also frequently frustrated by my inability to truly capture places because cameras have limited dimensions. Either ways, I did the next best thing, I ordered a memorable Firni. Gorgeous dessert and its familiarity then and memory now lingers on.

Sitting by myself at de Afghanan made me look around at their artwork and I realized I was sitting in front of the Buddha of Bamiyan (yeah, singular). An artist had recreated it on one of the walls of the restaurant. I was reminded of how when people recreate Afghanistan in the U.S., they pick up what they want to showcase as Afghan. And I felt warm in the realization that for someone the Buddhas were worth re-creating. The Buddhas were relics from Afghanistan's ancient past, relics that were destroyed by a government that tried to fit the multidimensional Afghanistan into a singular space identified purely by their narrow definition of Islam. The destruction of the Buddhas were the most visible example of the Taliban's relentless attack of all symbols. But there is someone in the U.S. today who represents Afghanistan in its wholeness as a country where myriad cultures mingled (and empires didn't just go to die.) 

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Little Kabul", Fremont, CA

Fremont, CA is legendary. I was told it is a Little Kabul because of the number of Afghans who live here. I was waiting to visit it and immerse myself in its sights and sounds.

People migrated from Afghanistan to the U.S. in three major waves; first around the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, not just in response to it but also in preparation for it. The pro-communist turn of Afghanistan's political landscape started pushing a lot of people to consider leaving the U.S. and when the troops arrived, the exodus began.

A few years ago I met an Afghan man who corrected my version of Afghan history according to which the Soviets 'invaded' Afghanistan. He explained that the Soviets had not 'invaded' Afghanistan, they were 'invited' by the pro-Soviet government. I understand what he meant, he was pushing for the historians of Afghanistan to point the finger at the Afghan rulers who made Afghanistan vulnerable to Soviet interference. Following that conversation, I feel very aware of the position I take when I refer to the Soviet period as an 'invasion' and not simply a 'period' or 'presence'. Even as the Afghan government had enabled the Soviet presence, they had not invited the destruction that the Soviet troops brought.

The second wave was during the period of Civil War, the Soviet troops had withdrawn and left behind a power vacuum that was filled by a chaos of political opponents who had previously united against the Soviets but now bickered to decide who would be on top. Some say that the destruction of the Civil War outdid the destruction by the Soviet troops because the arms and ammunition they had all been provided to fight the Soviets could now be used to fight each other.

The third wave of migration was inspired by the Taliban. Against a backdrop of human rights violations against women, ethnic and religious minorities, people scrambled to find their way out. The world saw what the Taliban did to Afghan women, but what the world does not always know (or talk about) is that the Taliban also broke down the spirit of Afghan men and Afghan minorities. For example, according to Ahmed Rashid (author of 'Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia'), the exports of fake beards to Afghanistan rose to an all-time high during the Taliban regime for the benefit of men who could not grow their beards well enough to satisfy the Taliban militia that identified men's adherence to Islam on the basis of how well they grew their beards.

However, beyond the frontlines of this war were the households that people made constant efforts to run. Against the backdrop of bombs and missiles were the regular lives that people strove to lead. People still cooked their food, visited friends, got married, had children, buried their dead. They lived with a sharp awareness of their own mortality. And when they had the resources, they migrated. I almost used the word 'escaped' instead of 'migrated', and I meant it in a good way but the word 'escaped' can also have strong negative connotations because of its proximity to its hedonistic cousin word 'escapism'. However, escapism underestimates the challenges of leaving Afghanistan. They left the bombs and the fear of death but they still carried Afghanistan and its memories. They escaped but also did not.

When I reached Fremont, CA and entered the Little Kabul grocery store (, I felt a lump in my throat and I avoided eye contact with anybody. I was taking in the little bits of Afghanistan that people were recreating beyond its borders, thousands of miles away. I saw how Afghanistan had traveled. An Afghanistan that exists despite the bombs and the political chaos. In doing the study that I am doing, I am trying to see THAT Afghanistan. I want to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.

I am getting to do a bit of that each day. I met someone who graciously accompanied me to De Afghanan ( We ordered Bolani, Qabili Pallow, Firni and Sheer Yakh. The last two were dessert. When the Bolani arrived, I spontaneously said 'oh it's like Indian Parathas' and my companion said 'but it is Bolani'. I smiled inside and reminded myself of what Jiddu Krishnamurthi said about treating each experience as unique instead of trying to connect it what you already know. It's important, Bolani is Bolani, not like or unlike anything. It is Bolani.

As I sit at my laptop, writing this blog, I  think of my dinner companion who said he misses Sheer Yakh and I think of the man who started De Afghanan (which means 'Afghan village') saying that it was his attempt to recreate the flavors of Kabul. Food helps you travel to lands you cannot touch but so deeply crave.

I am thinking of what I flavors I associate with Afghanistan. I think of Nuqul , sugary with a roasted saltiness, and a touch of rose water. I think of Sheer Yakh, cold but with deep flavors from the milk and nuts. Bolani, wheat bread stuffed with vegetables that remind me of home. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013


What do we take, what do we leave behind, who we were there and who we become here, and through it all what remains...what continues to live in and around us, or in our children....
Gauri Gill, Photographer, discussing her project 'What Remains’, 
which looks at the displacement of the Afghani Sikh and Hindu community 
from Kabul to Delhi, over successive waves of migration.

Jan Salaam!

I have never been to Afghanistan. But I must have. In some lifetime. More than thirty years of war have ravaged a country that was once, like my home country India, surfing the tide of change and readying itself for a new era in its history. But India and Afghanistan, like two siblings, headed into the new world bearing very different destinies. Afghanistan sailed into stormy seas when it was first invaded by the Soviets, followed by a period of Civil war, then the  Taliban, then the Nato-U.S.-Taliban counterstrikes. Whereas India weathered the challenges of being a postcolonial democracy.

A few years ago I travelled to the U.S. to pursue a PhD under the chairpersonship of an American professor who had worked in Afghanistan. Working with her seemed like an ideal opportunity to stay close to populations that were culturally similar to India's. I did not know then how deeply I would connect to the Afghan people, not just for what they could teach me about India but for what they could teach me about resilience.
I spent three years studying the Afghan diaspora through its men, the men who had been severely misunderstood post 9/11. From being a country that people barely knew, it became known as a country that bred terrorists and brutalized its women. This perception demonized the Afghan men and branded them as perpetrators, with a scant understanding of how they too were victims. Victims of a war that has to still end but, depending of the newspapers you read, is also a war that has supposedly stopped and restarted numerous times.
My study of Afghan men was supposed to be a project in itself but now the study has expanded into a larger exploration of the Afghan diaspora in the U.S. I decided I want to also  interview Afghan men AND women to see how identity, gender and culture intersect / integrate/ collide when people migrate from Afghanistan to the U.S. I especially wanted to know what being Afghan-American means at a time when Afghanistan is constantly in the news because U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. Right now, my blog is not a space for me to express my point of view for or against the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Despite my deep connection to Afghanistan, I feel like my views about what is good for Afghanistan are irrelevant. However, this blog is about centerstaging what I am learning about Afghanistan through its diaspora. As an outsider, I am offered glimpses that I feel compelled to share.

I remember when I was preparing to present a proposal of my study to esteemed scholars, I kept asking myself why this study was important. The answer that rose from somewhere deep inside was that there is a history of Afghanistan that its immigrants and refugees carry, a history that is unfolding on Afghanistan's soil but also beyond its borders through the lives of its more than 3 million immigrants (a catchall term I use for economic immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, etc). I felt like this history needed to be documented and though I could not completely document it, I hope that by exploring their experiences I would be able to share how Afghan immigrants have fought to preserve what they could of the Afghanistan - or the Afghanistans - they left behind.

I hope you will join me on this journey to the field and hold Afghanistan in your thoughts as I meet its sons and daughters who learned to live outside its borders.