An Elegy for Afghanistan

An exiled writer remembers a land forged in war and lost in peace

An Elegy for Afghanistan
An Afghan boy poses on a old Russian tank as his friend takes his photograph from below on Wazir Akbar Khan hill overlooking Kabul on April 10, 2012 / Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images

There is an old album in our house in Kabul that contains hundreds of pictures of my family members over generations. It originally contained pictures of my parents’ wedding, capturing them at different moments during their big day. But over time, as our family grew, more pictures were added to its pages. In addition to the photos of my family members, there are some photos of random people, mostly young women and children, or men with long beards and huge turbans, that even my parents have no idea who they were. Occasionally, my mother will point to a face and say, “that it is so-and-so’s daughter.” Nevertheless, my parents have kept them all.

It has always fascinated me that there is hardly a picture in the album without a happy face. My smiling parents, standing in our yard, showing their first born — my older brother Amrak — to my grandma and my uncle. My mother, in a purple dress, standing beside my grandmother on our porch, both happy and smiling. A black-and-white picture of my mother and aunt snapped in some photo studio in Kabul, when my family first moved there from Kandahar, both bareheaded, with short hair and smiling.

But by far my favorite is a small, color picture of my parents sitting on a bench in our yard. Sporting a handlebar moustache, my father is wearing a beige suit jacket on top of a white kameez partoog (tunic and trousers), and my mother is in a white dress, her wedding veil flowing down her shoulders and her henna-painted hand resting on her thigh. They have their arms around each other, smiling big and carefree, as they look straight into the camera.

Since a very young age, I have tried to make abstract concepts tangible by anchoring them to the physical world, associating them with an image. The word God, for example, always brings to my mind the image of the towering Zanborak Shah Mountain in front of our house in Kabul that looms dark and scary on moonlit nights. I remember how on hot summer nights, when my mother would put our beds on our roof or our porch, I would refuse to look at it, fearing that it would swallow me whole, a dread instilled by the imam of our mosque who always told us to “fear God”. Or when I think about happiness, I immediately recall the image of me holding my mother in my arms on the street after she had returned from a monthlong trip to Pakistan, visiting her parents. Similarly, whenever I want to conjure up the image of a peaceful Afghanistan, I close my eyes and try to remember that small photo of my beloved, young parents, which I have always associated with the long-gone times — the prewar times — that I, a man of 38 years, have no recollection of.

Peace for me has always been trapped in a past when life was serene and simple, and I have always tried to search for it in the faded color or black and white pictures of that old album and the stories that my parents have told me from that time.

When we were little, my father would sometimes tell us stories about his childhood in Kandahar and his time studying at a boarding school in Kabul. My favorite were the stories of him building night kites by attaching a small battery and two bulbs to the horizontal ends of the kite and flying them from the roof of their house. We also loved his stories about his classmates Lal Mohammed Shah and Noor Mohammed Shah, siblings, who during break time, unlike the rest of the class that would rush to the soccer field or chase each other in the schoolyard, would wrestle in the classroom and bite each other to the point that one of them would cry.

I remember how during the civil war years (1992-1996), every time a conflict broke out in our neighborhood, I would wait for everyone in the family to sleep and then, lying in bed, I would let my imagination fly free to the past and reenact all the things that my father and his older brother had done when they were teenagers. But, in my fantastical world, the heroes of those stories were not my father and uncle, it would always be me and my cousin Mirwais, and sometimes my brother Amrak. Here we were, dressed up in our best pair of kameez partoog, going to a late showing of an old Dilip Kumar film in the only cinema in Kandahar, on our own, without telling our strict grandmother. There we were jumping from the branch of a tree into the grand rapids of Arghandab River. And there we were finishing our last class of the week and hopping on a late-night bus to Kandahar to spend the weekend with our grandmother and stuff our faces with juicy pomegranates from her orchard. Occasionally, we would even attend a high-energy Ahmad Zahir concert, smoke a cigarette, clap ecstatically and tap our feet to each beat of the drum.

Unlike peace, war has never been an abstract concept for me, and I have never felt the need to build an imaginary world to comprehend it. War has always been tangible. I know it, I have felt it, I have smelled it. Yes, war has a smell. It is the stench of burned gunpowder and charred human flesh. It is more omnipresent than God, for there have been times that I have doubted God’s presence, telling myself, “If He were here, He would have not let this happen.”

My first encounter with war was in second grade when, after an Indian handicraft master taught us how to make paper flowers from newspapers, a group of deminers, dressed in their scary protective gear and carrying strange devices, arrived in our class to teach us about the dangers and varieties of mines. They showed us pictures of children with ravaged faces and missing limbs who, we were told, had mistaken a mine for a toy. For a long time, I never picked up anything from the street on my commute to and from school, always fearing that they might be laden with explosives. I saw my first dead body when I was 7. He was a bearded man with long, curly hair, and there were holes in his blood-soaked, green kameez. He had a rope around his neck and his body had swollen, his pale tongue hanging from between two blue lips. Someone had killed him elsewhere and then dropped his body in the backyard of our local mosque. Then, when escaping the civil war my family moved to the countryside, I saw war in the framed photos of relatives and their neighbors’ loved ones who were killed during the Soviet occupation of the country. I saw it in the missing limbs of men, women and children in every village I visited. I saw it in the many rusting Russian tanks and mounted artillery that lay silently rusting in the wheat fields, in the snaking back alleys and the vineyards.

In 2009, when I quit medicine and started working as a reporter for American and European media outlets, my new job brought me even closer to war. Before I was only a victim of war, but now I was also a witness to it. I started traveling extensively around the country and reported, among many other things, on the victims of the U.S. and Taliban violence that was ravaging entire families and villages. I met women who were raped by local pro-government strongmen. I cried with bereaved fathers who had not seen their sons for years after they were picked up by American commandos in the dead of the night. I listened to young Hazara men in Bamyan who, as teenagers, had miraculously survived Taliban massacres in the 1990s. I covered hundreds of Taliban suicide bombings and explosions in Kabul and reported the details of the carnage they left behind. I lost relatives, colleagues, acquaintances and close friends to both American and Taliban violence. I buried cousins and distant relatives, all of them farmers, who were killed in night raids by U.S. special forces. And I buried a dear journalist friend, Sardar Ahmad, whose entire family, except for his 18-month-old son, were massacred by Taliban suicide bombers at the Serena Hotel while having dinner on the eve of the Afghan new year.

But violence and bloodshed are not the only symptoms of war. It also uproots entire families, separates parents from children, brothers from sisters, and scatters them across the globe. In my family, it started with my older brother who left the country for Europe when I was 18. I later followed him in 2014, going to the U.S. and then settling in Canada in 2016. And when Kabul fell to the Taliban last month, our family went all in, pulling together all our resources to get my siblings and cousins — who were, one way or another, involved with the government or media — out. A sister and a cousin went to the U.K., two sisters and a brother went to the Netherlands, and another cousin made it to the U.S. In the space of four days, our large family home that once teemed with young professional men and women with hopes and aspirations became empty. My mother is still in shock, thinking that she is trapped in a bad dream. When I called her a couple of days ago, she complained about how empty and lonely the house feels. “It howls like a wounded mother who has lost a child,” she said. And my father told me how he has stopped calling my sisters or answering their calls. He prefers texting them. “My heart will burst with sadness if I hear your sisters’ voices,” he told me between sobs.

Among my family members who were forced to leave the country was also a cousin who was scheduled to get married on the same day that she and her soon-to-be husband left for the Kabul airport. While our families’ guests were attending their musicless and joyless wedding in their absence, the bride and groom were waiting at one of the gates of the Kabul airport, hoping to get inside. They felt the ground shake when a suicide bomb went off in the place where they had been standing minutes before. When they finally made it through the gate after 45 hours of waiting, my cousin sent a selfie of herself and her husband with the caption, “they say today was our wedding. How ironic that neither of us was invited.” In the picture, I can see a film of dust covering their faces and heads, their eyes sunken with exhaustion. There are no smiles. There are no festive clothes or henna-painted hands. When I looked at that picture, I couldn’t help but compare the tragedy of my generation with that of our future children: We were born in war, but we had an Afghanistan, whereas our children will be born in peace, but they won’t have an Afghanistan. They will be strangers to the country of their parents’ birth.

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