This United States of America feels like a house and not a home. I live here, but I do not feel like I belong—it does not pull at my heart strings. I came to this country as a refugee. While I feel blessed to be here and acknowledge all the privilege I carry, calling this place my home doesn’t come easy.
As an Afghan American, I have always had to straddle two worlds. My forty years on this planet have been shadowed by endless wars, violence, and chaos in Afghanistan, the country of my birth. This still-unfolding violence, including twenty years of failed war and occupation by the US, coupled with post-September 11 anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments and policies, leaves me feeling like I’m hanging on the edge, alone.
We have been present in the US in large numbers for more than forty years, but we are assumed to have arrived only recently. Our histories, our stories, have largely been ignored or told by people who are not Afghans. We have operated outside of the mainstream, trying to make this place our own and assert and maintain our sense of identity in what feels like an increasingly anti-immigrant country.
The latest exodus of Afghan refugees began in August 2021 when, after a long, brutal war and occupation, the same forces the US had sought to eliminate walked effortlessly into Kabul. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were displaced, fleeing for their lives. But they were not the first. Many Afghans came to this country in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s and 90s. Afghan communities have flourished for decades in cities throughout California, Virginia, New York, and elsewhere.
It has been a year and a half since the fall of our beloved Afghanistan and the end of America's longest war. I am no longer content with other people telling our histories and our stories. With sincerity and conviction, my work aims to illuminate Afghan Americans by bringing to the forefront our voices, our experiences, and our culture beyond headlines and beyond an increasingly unrecognizable Afghanistan, and to begin nurturing our voices from within the fabric we are a part of.
Half of me, half of all I know, half of all that I love is there in the yesteryears of the 1980s Kabul jaan. Born there on a cold winter’s night on the heels of the Soviet invasion, I came into this world amid absolute chaos. It was unfamiliar terrain not only for a newborn, but also for the local Afghans who could barely make out the scene unfolding before them.
Since the late 1970s, Afghan sellouts, men who pimped out the country for their own ambitious agendas, had murdered, imprisoned, or exacted vengeance on anyone who didn’t agree with them. Eventually one Afghan man killed the other for power. Meanwhile, in their private quarters, behind tall compound walls, the Afghan people lived in fear of having a finger pointed their way. Thousands went missing, disappearing in the middle of the night. That’s what happened to Baaba. The puppet government supporters rounded him up along with other Afghan men, accusing them of conspiracy to overthrow the government. They took him from our home, handcuffed and blindfolded. He was shoved onto a camouflage-patterned truck. Baaba told me that he kept saying to himself, on the drive to wherever, “AllahuAkbar! God is Great!”
Maadar had no knowledge of Baaba’s whereabouts for a long time. She and other family members cautiously searched high and low, inquiring with local police officials and anyone willing to speak, but everywhere she and other family members went they were met with silence—the kind of silence that lingers well after the exchange, the kind that haunts you for days.
Years ago, while I was documenting this era of tragedy for a research project, one Afghan woman said to me, “Their eyes spoke volumes of what was happening behind closed doors, beyond the public purview—and yet, everyone knew something so tumultuous was happening in this Afghanistan.” Fear became the new normal: the gripping fear that someone could disappear and never be heard from again. Stories traveled from home to home, whispers that, once heard, disrupted sleep and tormented families.
The trauma of the 1970s and 80s in Afghanistan is still with our people: the mass exodus of countrymen and women, the government buildings and prison chambers used for executions and torture, and the mass graves in hollowed earth trenches. All of this amid the arrival of the Soviets and war, fighting, raping of our women, pillaging of villages, and landmines concealed as toys.
Baaba was missing for 365 days before Maadar even learned of his whereabouts. The elders sought to comfort the sorrow my Maadar felt. They told her she was lucky that she even knew he was alive. She was lucky that she was given a bloody pile of clothing from the Pul-e-Charki jail house—a hallmark of the regime’s control over human bodies. A young married woman with children was apparently lucky to know her husband was being beaten and tortured.
Later, when I was a teenager growing up in California, my father shared what he endured inside that prison. He and other Afghan men would come together in our living room, drink green tea infused with cardamom, and weep, remembering the names and faces of those who were taken from their jail cells and never heard from again. Their experiences became my own in some ways. The inner contours of my heart still ache for all that was and all that my country could be, and all that Baaba endured.
I was too young to comprehend any of what was happening during the Soviet war. When I was old enough to ask questions, we were far from Afghanistan. I was the child my parents had after my father was released from prison, after the baby my mother had been carrying when he was taken came into this world dead. I became part of the generation of American Afghans who, despite being born in Afghanistan, existed in a hyphenated mishmash of flourishing cultures and languages, with no sense of long-term outlook.
At home, there was a beautiful culture I embodied and a language I found poetic and yet struggled to speak, just as I struggled to learn English. But the other half of me, the American half, is all I have ever been familiar with. I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen and Cindy Lauper in the 1980s and 90s. My love for basketball and Michael Jordan, Bird, Magic, and Kareem consumed me. I was observant. I saw my parents’ worry and anxiety. They couldn’t speak this English language. All they had ever known had been turned upside down and inside out. Every night brought something they couldn’t make sense of, couldn’t quite process, and so there were eruptions in our house—sometimes violent with physical force, other times with the venom of the human tongue. Trauma has a way of robbing people of their daily lives.
I grew up with stories, and the stories became my own memories, as if I had been older and had witnessed firsthand all of the chaos of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in Afghanistan. Many Afghans like me, who were born there and came to this country at a young age, tried to make sense of ourselves during school hours because at home we endured our parents’ trauma. The Russian war left our parents defeated. It and the civil war that followed in the 1990s continued to open wounds for Afghans everywhere. As young children we saw it all. We heard it all. We felt everything. We struggled to find our own voices and our own sense of place.
I never quite fit in. I was sometimes not Afghan enough for Afghans. I didn’t speak the language fluently; I didn’t maintain my hair a certain way; I didn’t act like the other girls. Afghans at school imposed the measurements and expectations of the older generation who feared losing their children in this new country. At the same time, I wasn’t American enough, either. I wasn’t sure what that even meant, but from movies and shows I understood it as being White. I was placed in ESL classes for most of elementary and middle school. I was mocked and ridiculed for my clothing, for the color and texture of my thick wavy black hair, and for my facial hair. Kids didn’t know the difference between an Afghan and a South Asian Indian. We endured their jokes about the way we smelled, the ways we talked, the ways we walked.
The feeling of never being enough, of never quite fitting in, takes a toll on a person. I longed to be in the beloved Afghanistan from my father’s stories. I studied maps of Kabul, memorized major streets and landmarks. I listened to stories told by elders, and the stories became part of my fantasy. There I was walking in Sar-e-Naw Park, or enjoying the rich fragrance in Babur’s Garden, eating kabob along the Qargha Reservoir while listening to tabla, rubab, and dutar, all while drinking qimack chai, sitting on a toshak, and appreciating words of phenomenal lyrical ecstasy sung by my favorite musicians: Nashenas, Ustad Hamahang, Qamar Gula, Naghma, Ustad Rahim Bakhsh, Beltoon, Faiz Karizi, and Sarban. I allowed myself to live in exile in and with and away from my own body for years.
On September 11, 2001, a new war arrived at my doorstep. This one showed up with all sorts of misunderstandings, anger, and racial and religious hatred. I was a college student, living away from home. I remember turning on my little television set and watching it all live. An informed and educated man, Baaba called me and warned me, Keep your opinions to yourself. They are saying the people on the planes who did all of this are Muslim. It's scary to think a war might be declared.
On October 7, the United States invaded Afghanistan, launching the longest war in its history. Afghans in America found themselves forced to support or oppose the war, to be with America or to be against America. I felt like everywhere I turned, everything had changed overnight. Afghanistan was in the mainstream news again, but not in the ways we would have hoped. Nobody knew our histories, our cultures, and in the US people didn’t even know we existed. Soon after, many Afghan parents—who had sacrificed so much, who had survived the 1970s, 80s, and 90s and done everything they could to keep their children safe—left the comforts of their lives in the United States to go back and (re)build their broken home country. The War on Terror left me feeling lonely as my parents moved back to the Motherland. Meanwhile, Afghans throughout the world returned for the first time to reunite with family and friends. For many, a necessary healing took place: old wounds seemed to soften just by being back in the country with people who look like us, speak the languages we speak, and eat the foods we love. Afghans exchanged stories of happiness, of sorrow, and of the pains of yesteryears. Sadly, it all came to an end when the US abandoned the country and its people after two decades.
Throughout that war and the occupation by international businessmen and foreign powers that followed, I stayed quiet. I didn’t have the tools to make sense of it all. I stayed quiet because I felt it wasn’t my place to speak for anyone but myself. I committed myself to making a difference in my own backyard. Over four decades of war and forty years of being in this country, I am finding myself in a completely different realm of life. I was a child who was born in war, someone who came as a refugee to the US and struggled for many years to make sense of myself and my journey. But what happened in August 2021 shook me out of my silence.
This Afghan American woman will no longer live with shame and trepidation. This is my personal Afghan American manifesto. I am unapologetically Afghan American. I will not believe that this house is not my home. To be unapologetically Afghan American means to associate Afghanness with positivity. To be unapologetically Afghan American is to occupy a spiritual realm—one that no government and no headline can take from us. Many of my fellow Afghan and Afghan Americans no longer need to respond to negative narratives as told by non-Afghans just to prove we aren’t like the fanatics controlling Afghanistan. Nor do we need to prove our citizenship in the US. We work, we pay taxes, we contribute to community building, and we embrace being good neighbors. We have such complex histories, we have so much to process and heal from, and still, we embrace the nuances of our culture that has been preserved despite all of this hardship. We assert ourselves for who we are and what we want to become: a people finally liberated from the bondage of war, violence, and chaos.
TagsBelonging, Family, Identity, International, Global and Local, Language, War
1 comments have been posted.
This is an extremely compelling story/manifesto. Many Americans, and likely American Afghans, may have felt or considered, these things in a more peripheral context. Yet, you have been able to articulate this in such a full throated, direct, yet compassionate manner. Thank you for bringing more understanding into my life!
Gordon Stemple | April 2023 | Fresno, CA