California Teen Returns Home to Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai and Said Hyder Akbar. Credit: Bloomsbury Publishing

Said Hyder Akbar interviews Afghan President Hamid Karzai during one of his summer visits. Bloomsbury Publishing hide caption

itoggle caption Bloomsbury Publishing
'Come Back to Afghanistan' cover. Credit: Eric Fuentecila, Stephanie Sinclair/Corbis, Bloomsbury.

The book is based on audio diaries that Said Hyder Akbar kept during several summer trips to Afghanistan. hide caption

itoggle caption

Radio Diary

In 2003, Said Hyder Akbar's radio Diary was excerpted on 'Morning Edition.' The diary originally appeared on the show 'This American Life.'

After the fall of the Taliban, California teenager Said Hyder Akbar traveled back to the home country he'd never known: Afghanistan.

Hyder Akbar was still in high school when his father agreed to take a job with the new government in Afghanistan. He spent three summers there with a tape recorder. An audio diary of his time in Afghanistan was broadcast on the radio program This American Life.

Those audio diaries are now the basis of a new book, called Come Back to Afghanistan. Hyder Akbar, currently a student at Yale, co-authored his story with Susan Burton.

Renee Montagne spoke with Hyder Akbar about his summer encounters with Afghanistan.

Read an excerpt from Come Back to Afghanistan:

Prologue

Kabul International Airport, August 2003

The letters look like they are going to fall off the airport. That's what you notice as you approach the terminal by car. By air the approach inspires even less confidence: you fly over rugged mountains only to arrive at a field littered with airplane parts. You descend right into this dump. Taxiing toward the terminal along a U-shaped runway, you take in the wreckage strewn across the grass: planes with pieces snapped off, a huge wing all by itself, a crashed helicopter.

You know, rationally, that these were shot down or bombed. But the scene is so surreal that you wonder, Who put these things here? It doesn't look like something humans could have done. Instead you picture a giant monster stomping down the runway, scooping up everything in its path, crumpling the aircrafts and hurling them to the ground like garbage.

You realize immediately that this is a different kind of airport.

***

Today I'm driving to Kabul International in a white Ford Ranger pickup with my dad. Afghanistan is scruffy in the summer; the place just keeps kicking up dust. But you can't always tell from pictures: in a video I show to the rest of my family back in California, the air looks brisk and clean. I don't understand where the dust goes, how it disappears. When you're here, it's impossible to ignore: from the powdery ground up, the country is constantly on the verge of falling apart.

But it may be years before the dust settles in Afghanistan, and in the meantime the country's roads will be characterized by its presence — and by checkpoints like this one up ahead. We pass five or six guys standing around with guns. It's a couple hundred yards from here to the airport; usually you see a few people making their way on foot. Most people who can afford to get out of Kabul can afford a taxi to the front of the terminal, so anyone walking probably isn't really leaving the city — just here to meet someone, or on their way to work.

Near the end of the road there's a big circle in which you might expect to see a burbling fountain. Instead there's a Soviet fighter jet mounted on top of a pole, looking like it's about to fly off. It seems out of place, this monument left over from an agonizing era. I have no idea why it's still here. There's so little left standing in Kabul that it seems like it must have required a lot of effort to preserve this. You can see someone thinking about knocking it down, but deciding not to, because at least it still exists. When so much has been obliterated, it's hard to know what to save.

***

I've been in Afghanistan since June — mostly in Kunar province, where my father, Said Fazel Akbar, is the governor. Like almost everyone gainfully employed in Afghanistan, he's new to his job. This time two years ago he was standing behind the counter of the hip-hop clothes store he owned in Oakland. Then September 11th happened, and the Taliban fell, and everything changed. My father sold the store and left for Afghanistan; at the end of my senior year of high school, in May 2002, I joined him. That was the first time I'd ever been to Afghanistan — by the time I was born, in December 1984, the Soviet war was well under way, and my parents had already left the country. Last summer my father — who was then working as President Hamid Karzai's spokesman — and I lived together in a room in the blasted-out Kabul Hotel. Now we sleep on rope beds on the balcony of the governor's house in Kunar. So this is my second summer vacation in Afghanistan. That's what I like to tell people: that I'm here in Afghanistan on vacation.

My father's in Kabul this week for some meetings with Karzai and others, and after spending so much time in Kunar — a remote tribal area with scant electricity and ample rocket fire—my perspective is all askew. I actually catch myself thinking, Kabul's tight, man. For example, here we drive on paved roads. The roads outside the capital are so bad — in places, nonexistent — that the 150-mile trip from the governor's house to Kabul takes eight hours.

The trip from California takes two to three days — a long time, too, but one that at least bears a more reasonable correspondence to the map. I don't know for sure, but I think that Rahman, a friend of mine from high school, may be arriving with his family this afternoon. Now we approach the terminal, and I get out of the pickup and start looking around, hoping Rahman will pop up. As usual, there's a crowd out front — as many as a couple hundred people have gathered to meet the arriving flight — because the guards won't let anyone go inside.

The guards in Afghanistan never seem to have uniforms that fit them. Mostly they are really, really baggy. Just about all of the guards are carrying AK-47s. They seem stressed, hollering contradictory commands at cars — Park here! — No, don't park here! — and at people — Stay here! — No, don't stay here! — No, you can't come in! They're jittery, heightening an already emotional situation. It's not like the vibe you get at an airport in America: a girlfriend waiting for her boyfriend to show up, casually shaking her car keys; a wife flipping through a magazine, glancing up every now and then for her husband. Here the whole family comes, and the people they're coming to meet are probably other family members whom they haven't seen in years, maybe decades. Women in burkas sit on the ground, looking raggedy and hot. In a little while you know that someone — an aunt or a cousin or a sister — is going to walk out of the door of the terminal, wearing nice clothes, looking fresh and very clean. I keep picturing how it will be when they greet each other, the one who managed to get out and the one who stayed back.

The guards harass the anxious families, literally pushing them from one area to another, and as the tension escalates, I realize that they have no idea what they're doing. Afghanistan's new police force is in desperate need of training of all kinds. Some of these men are probably barely used to being in a big city. My father tells a story of riding in a taxi through Kabul. The traffic was bad, as always, and a policeman was trying to get control of the situation; but he was saying, Usha, usha, which is what you yell to an ox when you're trying to slow it down. It's not a command you give to a car or a human; it's a farming term. (Imagine an old-time cowboy trying to make the merging cars on the Los Angeles freeway do his bidding with whoops and hollers.) Many of those charged with restoring order in Kabul are completely unprepared for their responsibilities. But after twenty-three years of war, there are few qualified people left in Afghanistan.

I get worried that I won't see Rahman when he comes outside, so I ask my dad if he can do anything to help me get into the terminal. We look around a little bit and see an official we recognize from last summer. Back then he had a mustache, but now he's shaved it off. The official tells me that he can get me in, and I follow him behind the building. We're right by the runway, but it's not like other airports, where you'd hear the rumble of planes pushing back from the terminal, or feel them exploding into the air at regularly timed intervals. Here it's practically silent.

I notice an unusually luxurious array of cars, a few Land Cruisers, maybe three Mercedes sedans. A small pack of men is crossing the tarmac toward a plane.

"Who's the VIP?" I ask the official.

He looks over. "Oh, him? That's the national murderer," he says casually.

I can tell he's joking — making a play on the phrase "the national hero." The national hero is Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander who was assassinated just days before 9/11, presumably as a preemptive maneuver by Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and his deputies wanted to weaken the Northern Alliance, Afghanistan's only functioning anti-Taliban military force, before the retaliatory strike that might follow their suicide hijackings in the United States.

"The national murderer," the official says again, "you know — Ismail Khan."

Ismail Khan is one of Afghanistan's best-known warlords. Some Western journalists might write that sentence differently: describe Khan as "notorious" and cite his recent, abominable human rights record. (Khan's men have reportedly administered electric shocks to political dissidents and virginity tests to women.) But among warlords he's not particularly known for his brutality. For a time after the Soviet withdrawal, he was even considered a hero: he stayed out of the civil war that consumed many of his peers, and he maintained relatively peaceful conditions in his province, Herat. Later he escaped from a Taliban prison and sought sanctuary in Iran. Now he is seen as Iran's man in Afghanistan. These days he stubbornly resists sharing the revenue he collects with the central government in Kabul, making him in this, and other ways, a major obstacle to reconstruction. (Many government employees — including those of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the policemen out front — haven't been paid in recent months.) So I could be wrong, but I interpret the "national murderer" remark not as an assessment of Khan's savagery but as a measure of the threat he, and other warlords, pose to national unity. After a quarter-century of turmoil, people are desperate for stability, and the prospect that someone like Ismail Khan might wreck the chances for everyone else inspires powerful anger.

***

The official and I continue along until we reach the back side of the luggage belt. I'm surprised to see that it works — the last time I was here, they just dumped all the bags in a pile. Some men are unloading a dolly of suitcases. It's the same kind of luggage you might see anywhere, except there are almost no small bags. It's funny: when Americans talk about an upcoming trip, they never mention the weight limit, but that's always the first thing Afghans bring up. (On international flights it's usually seventy pounds per bag.) Wherever you go, there are lots of relatives, and lots of stuff to take them, and I've never gone on a trip, even domestically, where the weight limit hasn't been an issue: squatting down and moving two pounds from one suitcase to the other at check-in, stuffing the overflow into a carry-on bag. And you don't get a break coming back, either: by the end of the trip you have your own load of presents for everyone on the other side, plus you've accommodated various requests — for my mother, dried fruit, certain spices.

The official looks at me, looks around, looks at the belt, and looks around again. "Sit on this belt, and it will take you inside," he says.

"No way," I refuse. "What if they say something? I don't want to get you in trouble."

"No, no, no," he says. "It's fine, it's fine. I'll stand here until you get across. I'll watch you get off."

"Okay, then," I say. The belt is the regular black rubbery kind that loops around. It enters and exits the terminal through holes cut into the wall before us. The holes look to be about three feet high. As I lower myself onto the belt, all I can think is, I'm going to hit my head; I'm going to be really embarrassed. I squat, tuck my head, drive a knee down, and I'm off.

It's a short ride — a matter of seconds — and before I'm even all the way inside the lobby, I see faces, people peering right into the hole I'm coming out of. Everyone's leaning in, anxious to get their bags, but as soon as I emerge, the passengers jump out of the way. I straighten, and one goofy small guy, maybe eighteen, spazzes out and starts pointing. "Oh my God!" he says. "Look at that!"

I'm wearing my regular Afghan clothes — a kameez partoog, which is a long nightshirt top and baggy pants. On my head I have a pakol, a hat with a flat top and a rolled brim, like the puffy edge of a pizza crust. I haven't had a haircut in a while — my sideburns are sticking out a little bit — and it's been a day or two since I shaved, which means I have a strong shadow growing. It's strange to realize that people are scared of me. You carry with you a certain image of yourself, and it's never occurred to me that I might inspire fear. But to a new arrival, I guess I do seem frightening. They've gazed out at the wreckage on the airfield, are already on edge, and then here I come, ready to leap forward and launch whatever they're primed for — a hand grenade, an uprising, a terror attack.

If I screamed "Allah-u-Akbar" right now, there would literally be a stampede toward the door, I consider. Instead I hop off the belt and start weaving through the lobby. Soon nobody's even giving me a second glance. That's the other side of it — for every terrified person, there's another who couldn't care less. In the United States the entire airport would shut down, and you'd tune in to breaking news about a security breach, but here nobody even bothers to report the incident. After so many years of chaos, they employ the shoulder-shrug approach: This is Afghanistan, what do you expect?

The lobby is hot, hotter than it was outside, and loud, with everyone crammed into an area the size of a single gate at JFK. Most of the travelers seem to be Afghans returning from abroad, the rest are foreigners, and almost everyone from both groups is wearing Western clothes. I position myself so that I have a view of the arriving passengers. Hopefully I'll see Rahman as soon as he gets off the plane.

***

A few days ago I called my friend Matin in California. It was the first time I'd talked to him all summer. Matin was at someone's house playing video games, and he told me that Rahman had just left for Afghanistan. Rahman's sister was getting engaged, and our friends had teased that his parents were actually secretly lining up some crazy arranged marriage for him. I told Matin I was coming back to California soon, in just a little more than a week. Matin said that they were planning a hiking trip to Tahoe for right around then and that I should come along. I thought back over my summer, of trekking with my uncle across the border to Pakistan up terrain so steep I thought I would fall backward, and I joked, "I don't think that's what I want to do when I get back from Afghanistan, hike some more mountains." But I hoped I'd get back in time to go with them anyway.

***

I watch the passengers lining up, the guards flipping open passports, checking visas. Beside me two American guys are talking. They seem like foreign correspondents — khaki pants, button-down shirts with rolled-up sleeves. I notice that whenever Western-looking people walk by, these two guys lower their voices and quiet down their conversation. But I'm standing right on top of them, and still they keep going in their loud voices, clearly never thinking that I might understand. It's almost voyeuristic: these people have no idea that I'm hearing every single word they're saying. Then suddenly, they notice me.

"Like look at this guy," one of the guys says. "Now, this is a light-skinned Pashtun from the eastern region. You can tell because he's wearing that hat, a pakol."

I turn to face them. They're the same height as I am, five eleven, and we're at eye level. "Actually," I say, "I'm from northern California."

They become completely silent. They literally just look at me in shock. I wait for them to say something, and when they don't, I turn around. They just stay quiet. Now I feel awkward — do they think I'm mad at them? Or maybe I didn't speak clearly, and they think I've just told them off in Pashto. But I'm pretty sure they've understood me. Except for a mellow note of California teenager, my English is accent-free.

***

Do you feel more Afghan or more American? I get asked this a lot. It's a fair question, and the simplest answer is, more Afghan. My first summer here, I worked this over in my mind a good deal — identity is a powerful thing — but at this point it's more of a low-level backdrop. When I arrived in Kabul in June, I took off my Ralph Lauren polo shirt and khakis and slipped on my kameez partoog. I spent the summer in the middle of nowhere, sitting around a fire with a bunch of people with pakols and long beards, and the only weird thing about it was that I didn't feel weird, and when I think of changing back into my khakis a week from now and spending the fall in Concord, California, sitting around a big TV with a bunch of friends, I don't feel weird, either.

So I'd rather answer that question by saying this: My identity itself isn't intrinsically interesting; it's the perspective it gives me that's compelling. I probably don't totally understand either world, but I understand more of both than most.

***

Rahman and his family are literally the last five people off the plane. I'm waiting and waiting, and then I see him, fifteen feet away, in line for his paperwork. I stand there, and stand there, and Rahman's eyes come across me about twenty times, and he doesn't notice anything. Then he looks at me really hard. I nod my head — Yeah, it's me — and his face shows surprised recognition — Oh my God. He points me out to his family — Look, there's my friend Hyder — and then finally he's finished, and I'm helping him and his family get outside.

As soon as they see each other, the women in the family start crying, and I feel like I should get out of there. Rahman and I exchange local phone numbers, though things are so hectic that we probably won't meet again until we're back in America.

Then I say goodbye and I head off through the crowd, a light-skinned Pashtun from the eastern region wearing a pakol. The American guy nailed it: he was right about everything.

Excerpt from Come Back to Afghanistan reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Come Back to Afghanistan

A California Teenager's Story

by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton

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