Updated: Mar 18, 2021
By Palwasha A.
“You guys remember Afghanistan? From war?”
- Hasan Minhaj, Patriot Act
The 21st century narrative of Afghanistan is relevant to the lives of every Australian. Stereotypes and misperceptions plague the public discourse and have stifled positive, and even wholly truthful, accounts from reaching the mainstream. The war directly correlates to the displacement of over three million people and the ongoing theft of natural resources and culturally significant artefacts. It is difficult to empathise with facts and figures so here is a collection of stories and insights from our writer, who visited Afghanistan for three months with an Australian not-for-profit two years ago.
افغانستان /Ahf-ghaa-ni-stan/ Afghanistan
Vivid red juice stains through the skin of my palms as I focus on navigating the tiny knife’s blade through the hard shell of the pomegranate. As the conversation moves around me, I finally rip it open, little red pearls cascade onto the sticky glass plate at my knees and bounce off the dastarkhwan spread haphazardly on the ground beneath us.
We are sitting in a scraggly garden with threadbare pomegranate trees growing a metre apart from each other in every direction. The garden is in a small village off Panjshir valley, with mountain ranges stretching into the sky all around us. The ground rises and falls, causing our hosts to step carefully. They bring us chai sabz in a metal teapot as the high sun filters through the leaves and glances off the glass of our plates.
The lady I have been travelling with sighs happily as she picks up a pomegranate. “Eat up girls!” she exclaims to her niece, Masooma, and I as we attempt to section the fruit. “These are fresh, organic pomegranates without any of the chemical stuff they put on them in Australia, picked straight from the tree. You couldn’t be eating anything better for you!”
Masooma considers this as I notice a hashish plant growing behind me and do a double take. “Wee, neh” she exclaims, “actually anything grown in Afghan soil is really bad for you. It’s because of all the decades of bombing, so there’s not much nutritional value in anything grown here.”
We pause. I finish every last seed and examine the empty husk in my hand. Everyone looks away for a second and then, as with every bit of bleak news about our country, we do what we can to brush it off and keep talking.
Yak/ One/ یکی
To attempt to write about my experience in Afghanistan, as a child of the diaspora, started off with the intention of salvaging Her from lifelong attacks and thinly veiled racism. Afghanistan hasn’t felt the quiet that comes with peace in the past four decades. As an Afghan girl growing up in Sydney I had internalised a lot of the rhetoric justifying the invasion of my country and distanced myself from my heritage. As I grew older and did the work to dig these thoughts out of my head and nurture seedlings of acceptance, I steadfastly protected the grounding talisman of my heritage from further attack.
If I had to write this piece, I didn’t want to put any more into the world about a country that’s been desecrated and stripped in every possible way. The beauty Afghanistan emits is born from pain so excruciating that legions of Her inhabitants were forced to break their hold on Her and escape before they lost everything. They tore their roots out of the ground and planted themselves across the world, but I’ve never met an Afghan who could scrub Her from his heart.
The time I spent there is the most treasured of my life. While I hope to return soon, three months is long enough to get a true well-rounded taste of something but not at all a full experience. My experience of Afghanistan was of a land that does not follow the system I had grown to understand as lawful and correct. A country where right can be very wrong and what cannot be real in any logical sense is, without question, existing in the very same present as you.
Do/ Two/ دو
A family gathering.
That’s the only way to describe the atmosphere inside the small plane heading to Kabul. The tray tables around me are tested immediately with huge containers of kabuli, the cardamom smell of chai cutting through the conversations of people who were strangers, but are already trying to figure out which aunt they have in common, and do they know Hamid? The situation is a far cry from the plane rides I’m used to, where I once stressed my bladder to the point of explosion because the woman seated next to me didn’t return my smile when she sat down.
This is my first true experience of “real” Afghans. Growing up, my mother would joke that we weren’t true Afghans because an Afghan living in a country other than Afghanistan has been stripped of the most quintessential aspect of their Afghan-ness; the land. Because an Afghan not on Afghan soil is devoid of the very thing that has been stressed by ancients to feed their beings and fan the flame that at any moment may erupt into a raging fire.
It is in a distracted moment that I look out of the small plane window and my eyes first fall upon the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. Below me, where before there were clouds, is now a never ending expanse of jagged rock that stretches into the horizon as far as I can see. A landscape so aggressive and breath-taking that I had never before seen anything it's measure.
A zinging starts up in my blood, charging through my veins. This is wholly unexpected for me, because I’d never had any desire to go to Afghanistan. All I had ever known of it were the wasteland images that had been paraded on screens as far back as I could remember, the only thing resisting their message being my parents’ stories of the country that had raised them. I’d never really craved to see the place where my family came from, nor imagined what it would look like. I’d anticipated connecting to the people of course, and was excited about it. But recognising the land, it’s bones and its soil, was inexplicable.
Se/ Three/ سه
When we stumble out of the airport and into the dry sun, it’s a stark difference to the ridiculous and somewhat endearing contrast of everyone’s extremely polite manners as they mercilessly pushed at every shoulder and squeezed through every tiny gap in the crowd at Baggage Claim. As the man who’s offered to help us starts off with our bags, I notice that the ground is the exact colour of my skin.
In the same moment I realise that I had never seen anything that was the colour of my skin. Except for the dirt on the ground of the country that had grown me and my people for centuries. Dirt that was a brown that was not really brown and yellow that was not really yellow covered the ground everywhere in Kabul. And no matter how much the sun changed my skin over those months, the land always matched.
Chaar/ Four/ چهار
Every time I picked an apple off a tree in the garden of the orphanage I was working in, the kids would pull it out of my hand and rush it to the tap to wash the griminess off before I took a bite. When I’d take them out to buy street food (there was only so much eggplant my privileged stomach could take) they took me to vendors that they knew were clean and nowhere else.
Over the course of my time there, without maybe consciously meaning to, I became riskier and riskier with what I would consume, not wanting to eat the food that had been sanitised to within an inch of its life. I did this because I didn’t want to feel like an outsider in my own country anymore. The fact that I couldn’t fully understand what people were saying to me in my own tongue bothered me, not just because of the communication issue but because it used to be my first language. Why had I let myself forget so much of it?
Walking in Kabul, I saw things that have stayed in my head two years on. I crossed paths with a little boy in the Bazaar once who didn’t have a face; when he looked at me, he looked with eyes rounder than they should have been because they didn’t have eyelids to normalise the size of them. I looked for a second at what the acid or fire or whatever had done it had replaced before I was pulled away. No one else turned. I remember seeing children in the arms of mothers in blue burqas, beseeching people for money and for three months wondering to myself why the children were always asleep.
At the end of the trip I found out that instead of being placated, they were sedated. When I realised this, I understood that I could never conceive the struggle a mother has to experience to knowingly drug her child. The brutality of war has no gender, no politics or religion, it preys indiscriminately and the trauma borne from it lasts lifetimes and generations.
Paynj/ Five/ پنج
I had my first glimpse of the Panjshir valley from the boot of a black SUV with several children crowded around me, all our hands pressed against the back window, staring out for over an hour at a sight that was making our hearts sing. The music playing in the car blared out of the rolled-down windows, our fellow passengers clapping loudly to Ahmad Zahir as we sped down dirt roads, our energy rising as we passed schoolgirls running home in groups with stark white chaadars, young boys leading laden-down donkeys and men working fields.
I looked out at something I hadn’t known existed in Afghanistan. The valley we were driving through was lush and fertile, green overcoming brown and with a wide, sparkling green river crashing through the valley, as though in a race with the kids. Everything glowed because, I think, the place was so clearly embedded with the spirit of its people.
When we exited the car we had to walk through a forest to get to a graveyard to pay our respects to a relative who’d passed on. On the walk through I strayed from the group, as I did at every semi- safe opportunity in Afghanistan, trying to take in fully what I was experiencing, to ensure that my memories of it would be seared into my brain forever.
I was walking through greenery that seemed untouched, beauty that hadn’t been pulverised by the decades of bombing. Everything was quiet, and still and beautiful.
I turned my head quickly when I heard clanging behind me to see an annoyed cow trying to get past. Behind him a herd was lumbering forwards, shepherded by a young boy who was guiding them with a stick. I smiled at him but he didn’t have time for my reshkhandi, a tiny professional somehow navigating this group of huge beasts through this delicate mountain forest, the cows slipping and sliding on the rocks as they went.
While I lived in Afghanistan, I would climb to the roof of my building almost every morning to watch the sunrise behind the mountains. I’d heard talk of the mountains all my life but honestly nothing could have prepared me for their presence. Sydney, though beautiful in a different way, has a significantly mountain-less landscape, but at every turn in Kabul, the cliffs would overwhelm me. The building I was standing on was four stories high, and looking out on ragged peaks that rose above valleys of green trees.
Over the course of my time in Afghanistan I came across many more areas that were green and beautiful and unexpected. I drew enormous strength from the resilience of the land itself, the absolute refusal to give in to anything that tried to force Her to Her knees. I remember how strong this feeling was one day as we sped across desert, night falling around us, me leaning out the window of the car with the wind stinging my cheeks, thanking God with my whole heart. My pride in who I am was cemented forever into my being and I understand now why when people leave her, they can never forget.
One more story comes to mind, from May 2018. Two friends and I were travelling through Greece, standing atop of a beautiful vantage point overlooking Athens when an elderly couple approaches us for a photo. They ask where we were from and we tell them we are Australian. The man proudly tells us that he’s a photographer, angling his camera towards us, naming all the places he’s shot as they come up.
He comes to a photo and stops. “Now this is my favourite I’ve ever taken,” he says softly. It’s of a man praying in a mosque in Jordan with a shaft of sunlight illuminating his face. I get excited and ask if he’d like to see my favourite photograph. I pull out my most beloved photo from Kabul, featuring five children from the orphanage grinning at the camera, holding a stray kitten. “Where is this?” the man asks, examining the photo.
“Afghanistan” I reply.
His and his wife's faces harden. “When were you there?” he demands, with an air as though they were suddenly dealing with a dangerous object. “Oh, for three months last year,” I say. Silence. “Okay well, we’d better get going then.” They hurried away as though I were going to pull off my face and expose a bearded Talib underneath. I can traverse the world and somehow with the mention of my country, people feel they have a right to insert themselves into a space they don’t belong.
They were Americans, they were delegates to the US Embassy in Pakistan and in 2001, their President, the vanguard of democracy, the so-called Leader of the Free World, began this ‘War on Terror’ with a declaration of ‘crusade.’
Lead editor: Irisa R.