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.