Afghan Returns to Collect the Stories of Her People Maliha Zulfacar left Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded in 1979. She now splits her time between a teaching post in California and one in Kabul, where she's leading an oral history project that she hopes will help Afghans make sense of the impact of three decades of war.
NPR logo

Afghan Returns to Collect the Stories of Her People

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Afghan Returns to Collect the Stories of Her People

Afghan Returns to Collect the Stories of Her People

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Next, we'll meet an immigrant who leads a divided life. She lives in the world's richest nation but feels deep ties to one of its poorest. To finish our stories on immigrants giving back to their home countries, NPR's Jennifer Ludden spent time with an Afghan-American. By simply listening to people in Afghanistan, she feels she is helping them and herself come to terms with the country's turbulent recent history.


Maliha Zulfacar left Afghanistan as a young mother in 1979, the year the Soviets invaded. Today she teaches ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and her own experiences are often a case in point for the class.

(Soundbite of classroom lecture)

Professor MALIHA ZULFACAR (California Polytechnic State University): Imagine, of all the countries on this earth, in front of you somebody is standing from a dirt-poor country on this earth.

LUDDEN: Now in her mid-50s, Zulfacar is still stylish in black boots and a traditional Afghan-red chappan overcoat. She delights in making the students guess where she's from.

(Soundbite of classroom lecture)

Unidentified Student #1: South Africa?

Prof. ZULFACAR: South Africa? OK. You guys are really positive. What's the country that has been at war for the past 23 years?

Unidentified Student #2: Israel.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Israel.

Unidentified Student #3: Afghanistan.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Afghanistan. You--how many of you wish that, `Oh, God, make me born in Afghanistan'?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: For two decades, Zulfacar says she dreamed of her homeland but felt isolated from it. In the last years of the Taliban, she sought ways to reach out, even visiting once for a conference on women's issues. Then, when the US invaded in 2001, Zulfacar seized the opportunity to do what she could. She launched a fund-raising drive to buy chairs for a school. She helped open a day-care center at Kabul University. And she began teaching there herself part-time.

(Soundbite of busy street)

LUDDEN: This let her reconnect with her old city and neighborhood, and in that way, an oral history project took shape, almost by accident.

Prof. ZULFACAR: I was really searching for familiar faces, walking on the streets trying to, you know, greet people or--I looked different than everybody else. So everybody would look at me and smile.

LUDDEN: But when Zulfacar tried to speak with them, a crowd would form, so she started inviting strangers to her house for lunch, and that's when the stories spilled out.

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NAJIB (10 Years Old): (Foreign language spoken)

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NAJIB: (Foreign language spoken)

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NAJIB: (Laughs)

LUDDEN: Zulfacar interviewed anyone. This is a 10-year-old boy she found selling cigarettes on the street, so young, and yet she says the things children in Afghanistan have witnessed are stunning.

NAJIB: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: When Zulfacar asks about his family, young Najib says, `I have five sisters--two are dead--and five brothers--one is dead.' He describes attacks by Russian forces and tells of once hiding in the grass with his father when the Taliban ambushed the family car.

NAJIB: (Foreign language spoken)

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: For many she's met, especially the older people, Zulfacar believes telling their stories has been therapeutic.

Prof. ZULFACAR: It has been so difficult. Everybody is at the stage of survival, that you just have to keep on going in order not to die, that there's not much opportunity to go back and re--you know--think things through. And it was kind of luxurious for them for somebody to ask them what they have gone through.

LUDDEN: Listening to the interviews, Zulfacar does have a way of drawing people out, following with interest each dramatic turn in their harsh lives.

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAYLA (Domestic Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Here, a domestic worker named Layla is telling of her years as a refugee and the humiliating deprivations her family endured. At one point, Layla seems to lean in shyly and says to Zulfacar, `You're like a mother to me. That's why I'm telling you these things.'

LAYLA: (Through Translator) I have a tandoor oven, and I bake bread for others, but we didn't always have enough for ourselves. So I would collect the small hard pieces and soak them in water for the children to eat.

LUDDEN: Zulfacar says she's been amazed at the resilience of ordinary Afghans who've endured decades of conflict.

Prof. ZULFACAR: There was one particular old man that--he was--sometimes he would laugh about how he will run from one corner of the street to the other, as the rockets were flying in the air, to survive. And he would laugh and laugh and laugh. Then immediately he would say, `Yeah, buy my son died,' and immediately he would start to cry. It was between laughter and crying at the same time.

(Soundbite of elevator)

LUDDEN: This month, Maliha Zulfacar embarked on yet another project.

Prof. ZULFACAR: (Foreign language spoken)

FARIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: She managed to secure visas and scholarships for two young Afghan girls. They're staying at her house while they get settled.

Prof. ZULFACAR: How was for you, school today?

FARIDA: ...(Unintelligible).

Prof. ZULFACAR: OK? Yeah.

LUDDEN: Both girls are 19. Farida is tiny with a mop of dark hair. Olker is bubbly and blonde. While they fry chicken for dinner, Zulfacar helps them practice their English. She asks Olker, a Muslim, about her visit to the mission church downtown.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Akbar told me you went to church.

OLKER: Yeah.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Yes?

OLKER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Why did you want to go to church?

OLKER: I don't know. I like it, church.

Prof. ZULFACAR: Yeah?

OLKER: I go in there and I pray to God. I'm so cool in my heart, and I am so...

LUDDEN: Zulfacar is a single mother to two grown children, and her new activism, the long absences, have been difficult for them and her. So what motivates her? Partly it's guilt. She says she felt profound guilt for many years, cut off from Afghanistan. Now that's gone, but Zulfacar also insists her work helps her as much as anyone. She marvels at the stories of survival.

Prof. ZULFACAR: What it is about them, that they're so resilient, that they continue to smile. And I think to listen to their stories somehow stop me about self-pitying. It brought a different perspective about life.

LUDDEN: Maliha Zulfacar has hours and hours of taped interviews. She plans to use them for a book and maybe put them on a Web site. She's also put recorders in the hands of students at Kabul University who've collected their own interviews. Those transcripts are now being edited for publication to produce what Zulfacar says is all too rare, a history of Afghanistan as told by Afghans. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: That's the end of our series on immigrants giving back, and you can hear previous stories by going to our Web site,

You're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.