Afghanistan: The Center of the World : Throughline Afghanistan has, for centuries, been at the center of the world. Long before the U.S. invasion - before the U.S. was even a nation - countless civilizations intersected there, weaving together a colorful tapestry of foods, languages, ethnicities and visions of what Afghanistan was and could be. The story of Afghanistan is too often told from the perspective of outsiders who tried to invade it (and always failed) earning it the nickname "Graveyard of Empires." In this episode, we're shifting the perspective. We'll journey through the centuries alongside Afghan mystical poets. We'll turn the radio dial to hear songs of love and liberation. We'll meet the queen who built the first primary school for girls in the country. And we'll take a closer look at Afghanistan's centuries-long experiment to create a unified nation.

Afghanistan: The Center of the World

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FREDUN WAJEDIDI: All this world is like a tale we hear. Men's evil and their glory disappear.



Long, long ago at the center of the world, a tale was written of a father and a son. They were called Rostam and Sohrab.

WAJEDIDI: Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam, though it will be a tale replete with tears.

ABDELFATAH: Rostam was a great warrior, lauded by kings, feared by many. And on his travels, he met a beautiful woman, a princess from another kingdom, while looking for his horse who had run off. The princess told him if he helped her bear a child, she would return his horse to him. He agreed, and Rostam prepared to leave. But before going, he gave her a beautiful jewel and said...

WAJEDIDI: If heaven cause thee to give birth unto a daughter, fasten it within her locks, and it will shield her from evil. But if it be granted onto thee to bring forth a son, fasten it upon his arm, that he may wear it like his father.

ABDELFATAH: And with that, Rostam left. Years passed. He never returned home, never met his child and did not even know whether he had borne a daughter or a son until one fateful day on the eve of a battle between two great civilizations. Their paths crossed - Rostam and Sohrab, father and son, strangers and soon-to-be mortal enemies.


But let's not rush to the end of this tale, for it's a part of a much bigger story, an epic rivaling "Beowulf" or "The Odyssey," known as the "Shahnameh."


SHAH MAHMOUD HANIFI: Shahnamah (ph), Shahnamay (ph) - pronounced varyingly throughout the Persianate world.

ARABLOUEI: It means "The Book Of Kings."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Written in the 11th century, the "Shahnameh" takes you from the dawn of humankind, when warriors battled mythical beasts, to the arrival of Islam. The deeper you get in the "Shahnameh," the more complex the stories become and the more flawed its heroic warriors.

HANIFI: Rostam is the, you know, arguable hero of the "Shahnameh." He's associated with the region of Zabulistan...

ARABLOUEI: A region in southern Afghanistan.

HANIFI: ...Which is sort of the area around Ghazni, Sistan, Kandahar.

ARABLOUEI: Dr. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi also has roots in Afghanistan.

HANIFI: My name is Shah Mahmoud Hanifi. I'm a professor of history at James Madison University, and I have a book called "Connecting Histories In Afghanistan."

ARABLOUEI: The "Shahnameh" not only established the modern Persian language, which would remain the language of art in the region for centuries to come. It also captured something really important about Afghanistan.

FAIZ AHMED: Afghanistan is not an isolated peripheral place. It's actually at the center, historically speaking. It's at the center of civilizations, empires, trade routes, religions.

ARABLOUEI: This is Faiz Ahmed. He's a faculty member in the history department at Brown University and author of the book "Afghanistan Rising."

AHMED: From Buddhism and Islam and Zoroastrianism to Greeks to Arabs to Persians to Indians to, you know, Turks, mixing in this remarkable land of convergence.

ARABLOUEI: OK, to help you better picture it - Afghanistan is surrounded by what's now Iran, Pakistan, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It sits right in the path of the historic Silk Road that carries spices and all sorts of other goods from China all the way to the Middle East and Europe.

AHMED: It is very diverse geographically.

HANIFI: Afghanistan is a preponderantly rural place.

AHMED: Like the United States, like California, it has desert. It has tremendously lush and green areas.

HANIFI: Agriculture is by far the dominant productive activity and not just agriculture, but also minerals that were traveling around the world and therefore returning profits home.

ARABLOUEI: And all of that has led to incredible cultural mixing. But the last 40 years seem to have overshadowed thousands of years of history, and Afghanistan has become synonymous with chaos and conflict, a land where the Soviets and now, after two decades, the Americans failed.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan, as known in history as the graveyard of empires.

HANIFI: The graveyard of empires is an imperial framework of understanding the imperial projects in Afghanistan. It's, you know, rather derogatory to say that we're living in a graveyard that's actually the cradle of history. And nowhere in that reckoning are the people of Afghanistan.

ABDELFATAH: The people of Afghanistan - their histories, their stories, their legends, their triumphs and their tragedies.

ZADRAN WALI: (As Rumi) Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam.

ABDELFATAH: Which brings us back to perhaps the saddest tale of the "Shahnameh."

WALI: (As Rumi) A tale replete with tears.

ABDELFATAH: By now, Sohrab is a grown man, and all he knows of his father is his name, Rostam, never having laid eyes on him. On the eve of a great battle, they sit in tents on different sides of the field. Sohrab has a growing suspicion that his father, the great warrior Rostam, is on the other side, and hoping to at last meet him, Sohrab crosses into enemy territory and demands to meet Rostam. Rostam's men refuse to let him pass, so Sohrab then challenges the shah, the King of Kings, to meet him in battle. None answer the challenge, except one - Rostam. He comes charging in and begins to fight Sohrab, neither realizing that the blood they seek to spill is the same blood coursing through their own veins. And then - a fatal blow. Rostam stabs Sohrab, and as he lays dying, Sohrab cries out...

WALI: (As Rumi) My father would draw thee forth from thy hiding place and avenge my death upon thee when he shall learn that the earth has become my bed, for my father is Rostam.

ABDELFATAH: When Rostam hears these words, his sword falls from his hands.

WALI: (As Rumi) And there broke from his heart a groan, as of one whose heart was wracked with anguish. And the Earth became dark before his eyes, and he sank down, lifeless, beside his son. And he said, bearest thou about thee a token of Rostam, that I may know that the words which thou speakest are true?

ABDELFATAH: And as he takes his final breaths, Sohrab pulls back his armor and reveals the jewel Rostam had left him all those years ago.


ABDELFATAH: Sohrab and Rostam may live within the pages of a fictional tale written long ago, but their struggle tells us something very real - a hero one day may become a villain another, and glory doesn't shield you from tragedy. Contradiction defines people and places.

ARABLOUEI: We all know where Afghanistan's story ends up. We're witnessing it now, the tragic images of people scrambling to flee their country as the Taliban return to power. But where does this story begin? And how did Afghanistan transform from a thriving civilization at the center of the world to a land we in the West perceive through the prism of war and violence? I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And in the next two episodes of THROUGHLINE, we're retracing the history of Afghanistan from the time of the mystics through the rise of the Taliban. Along the way, we'll meet Afghan poets and writers, musicians and reformers who sketch a portrait of its history from within and capture evolving ideas of what Afghanistan should be.


THERESE TUCKER: Hey, this is Therese Tucker (ph) calling from Helena, Mont. You are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


WALI: (As Rumi) What is the body? Endurance. What is love? Gratitude. What is hidden in our chests? Laughter. What else? Compassion.

ABDELFATAH: These are the words of the 13th century poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi, also known as Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, Mowlana or simply Rumi.

ARABLOUEI: Maybe you've come across that name in recent years. His books have been on bestseller lists in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Anything you lose comes round in another form.

ARABLOUEI: His quotes are all over Pinterest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What you seek is seeking you.

ARABLOUEI: And if you're a Beyonce fan, you know that she named one of her twins Rumi. I also named my son Rumi. But to be clear, I did it first and even have a tattoo of his name on my hand to prove it. I digress. Anyway, growing up in a Muslim family, especially a Persian-speaking one, Rumi is more important than Shakespeare or Whitman. His writing picks up where the "Shahnameh" left off, fusing Persian poeticism with Islamic mystical thought. It was revolutionary, and his influence continues to be felt in literature, music and even politics across the Muslim world.

ABDELFATAH: But what many people don't realize is that Rumi began his life in northern Afghanistan, in a town called Balkh that was once captured by Alexander the Great - although that was ancient history by the time Rumi arrived in the world in the year 1207.


WALI: (As Rumi) A voice out of this world calls on our souls not to wait anymore. Get ready to move to the original home, your real home, your real birthplace.


HANIFI: His history is tied, really, to a period dominated by the Mongols.

ABDELFATAH: It was the height of Genghis Khan's rule. And he and his Mongol army were sweeping across the Islamic world...


ABDELFATAH: ...Conquering city after city. But Rumi wasn't aware of all that just yet. In his home, he spent his days learning Arabic, studying math, philosophy, history, astronomy and reading the Quran.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Signing in non-English language).

HANIFI: Afghanistan was kind of the eastern edge of Islamic lands.

ARABLOUEI: Islam had arrived there a few centuries earlier. Until then, the country had largely practiced Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But generations of Muslim rulers had converted much, but not all, of the population of Afghanistan to Islam, and a particular form of Islam called Sufism took hold there.

HANIFI: There's a deep history of Sufism through the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, as it were.

ARABLOUEI: You can think of Sufism as a kind of Islamic mysticism. The path to God is through internal spirituality and connection, not external rules and laws.

HANIFI: Sufism, broadly in the history of Islam, has been a phenomena you find in Islamic borderlands, geographically and historically. Afghanistan was a borderland between Islam and Hinduism, and Sufism helps bridge that gap.

ARABLOUEI: Rumi's father was widely known as an accomplished Sufi scholar and passed that worldview on to him.

WALI: (As Rumi) Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it. It will turn to gold. Resurrection will be now. Every moment, a new beauty - and never any boredom. Instead, this abundant, pouring noise of many springs in your ears. The tree limbs will move like people dancing who suddenly know what the mystical life is. The leaves snap their fingers like they're hearing music.


ABDELFATAH: As the Mongols inched closer and closer to Rumi's hometown, his father decided it was time for them to leave Afghanistan. They traveled to various places in what's now Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and eventually ended up in Turkey. But keep in mind, none of these countries were countries yet in the way we think of them today. So, for example, people wouldn't have thought of themselves as Afghan. They would have identified with their local tribe or province. As an adult, Rumi seemed to grow less and less attached to a single place.

WALI: (As Rumi) Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen, not any religion or cultural system - I'm not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless - neither body or soul. I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know - first, last, outer, inner - only that breath-breathing human being.

ARABLOUEI: Rumi was at once deeply religious and deeply open-minded. His devotion and passion for Islam didn't translate into a rejection of all other thought, and his interpretation wasn't seen as a fringe form of Islam. It was widely practiced and embraced and felt. Dance and music and poetry were all considered forms of worship.

ABDELFATAH: Perhaps the most pivotal moment in his adult life came when Rumi met a fellow mystic by the name of Shams al-Din, a wandering dervish who would dance for hours, spinning round and round, connecting with the divine.

WALI: (As Rumi) Dance when you're broken open.

ABDELFATAH: They were like two souls who had found each other.

WALI: (As Rumi) Dance if you've torn the bandage off.

ABDELFATAH: Time faded away. And poetry flowed from Rumi.

WALI: (As Rumi) Dance in the middle of the fighting.

ABDELFATAH: He became completely consumed by Shams al-Din. And soon, Rumi's students and family grew jealous.

WALI: (As Rumi) Dance in your blood.

ABDELFATAH: Then, one day, Shams al-Din vanished. Some speculated he had been murdered, others that he had simply wandered off. He was the wandering dervish, after all. And for the rest of his life, the poetry continued to flow from Rumi, forever feeling the bitter sorrow of loss and the joy of dance.

WALI: (As Rumi) Dance when you're perfectly free.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: Rumi died in 1273 at the age of 66.

WALI: (As Rumi) We have such fear of what comes next - death.

ARABLOUEI: His words would long outlast his body.

WALI: (As Rumi) This body and this universe keep us from being free. Those of you decorating your cells so beautifully, do you think they won't be torn down?

ARABLOUEI: Rumi understood that power is a fleeting companion. And though he may never have returned to his hometown in Afghanistan, the Mongol empire that had driven his family from there eventually came to an end.

WALI: (As Rumi) The eventual demolishing of prisons is a given. Fire change, disaster change - you can trust that those will come around to you.


ABDELFATAH: As time carried on and more empires passed through the center of the world, Rumi became almost like a ghost, a presence you know is there but that becomes harder and harder to see. His ideas of mysticism and spiritual openness were replaced by a different interpretation of Islam, where devotion was expressed more through social and political rules.

ARABLOUEI: And still, more empires came. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was divided between multiple civilizations, including Persia and Delhi. Meanwhile, rulers within Afghanistan were vying for more power and trying to create a regional Afghan identity.

ABDELFATAH: Those empires also eventually faded, and by the 19th century, interest in controlling the crossroads of Asia shifted from regional powers to those in the West. And so began the Great Game.

TIAB JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) The time for poetry and versification is over. The time for magic and sorcery is over. Now is the age for effort, action and striving.

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, Afghanistan enters a new era.

DAVID JONES: This is David Jones (ph) from Farmers Branch, Texas. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2: The Experiment.


JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) Now is the age of motor, rail and electric. The age of the camel, that slow-gaited creature, is over.


ABDELFATAH: When a place becomes a nation, what actually happens? How does the land change? Who gets to decide what the nation stands for? Is a shared identity something you can create, and at what cost? In the 1800s, people around the world were beginning to ask these questions as the idea of the nation-state emerged. And that would eventually happen within Afghanistan, too. But the age of colonialism wasn't over yet. First, the people of the region had to figure out how to escape a game, the Great Game.

AHMED: The Great Game is an imperial competition between the expanding Russian Empire in Central Asia and the expanding British Empire in South Asia.

ABDELFATAH: This competition for land, for resources, for empire would last for nearly a century. And long story short, Afghanistan was never colonized by the British or the Russians, but its borders and political operations were set by these foreign powers. And the people of Afghanistan fought back.


ARABLOUEI: Some took up arms, waging two wars against the British in the 1800s. Others took up the pen, like Mahmud Tarzi.

JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) The time for poetry and versification is over. The time for magic and sorcery is over.

AHMED: He is a very prolific poet and writer and journalist.

JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) Now is the age for effort, action and striving.

AHMED: This line of poetry is drawn from a remarkable book called Modern Persian Literature in Afghanistan by Professor Wali Ahmadi of UC Berkeley.

JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) Now is the age of motor, rail and electric.

ARABLOUEI: It reflects the world that Mahmud Tarzi was born into, a world where Western colonialism and industrialization were clashing within Afghanistan of many different traditions, cultures and languages.

AHMED: He's a polyglot, you know? This is before Google translators and all those types of gadgets.

ARABLOUEI: Here's a quick rundown of the languages Mahmud Tarzi spoke, Turkish, Arabic, French, Urdu and the two main languages of Afghanistan, Persian and Pashto.

AHMED: These are keys to multiple worlds.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Pashto, by the way, is an eastern Iranian language spoken by ethnic Pashtuns, who mainly come from southern and eastern Afghanistan. They are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Since the early 1700s, nearly all of the monarchs of Afghanistan have been ethnic Pashtuns. Mahmud Tarzi was also a Pashtun and had royal blood.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: If you're wondering why he spoke so many languages, it's because his family was exiled from Afghanistan for decades. So he spent a lot of his young adult years traveling around the Ottoman Empire. But he held out hope that he would one day return home to Afghanistan. And in 1902, when he was in his 30s, that day finally arrived.


JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) To the black smoke that rises from the chimney of my homeland, why did we end up this way? To the flames that swallowed us from the left to right, why did we end up this way? Jesus or the church did not cause the disconnection and weakness in Islam. Why did we end up this way?

ABDELFATAH: Looking around at his homeland after all that time away, Tarzi saw it in a new light, flaws and all - a place of beautiful diversity, yes, but also a lack of cohesion, where some were running towards an industrializing future of nation states and others were clinging to a past where tribe and region defined who you were.

ARABLOUEI: And where had the mysticism of Rumi gone? There seemed only to remain rules and regulations in its place.

JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) Once, Europe existed in a dark age. And Islam carried the torch of learning. Now we Muslims live in a dark age.

ABDELFATAH: And what was Tarzi to make of these new borders? The British Empire and Afghan monarchy had been hard at work for years, carving up various regions of Afghanistan. The most dramatic change was a new border with what would later become Pakistan, still a British colony at this time. It was called the Durand Line. And it cut right through the middle of the ethnic Pashtun areas of southeast Afghanistan.

ARABLOUEI: What is a nation? And who gets to decide? Those questions haunted Mahmud Tarzi. All he knew was that it shouldn't be up to the British, so he set his sights on independence.

JAZUR: (As Mahmud Tarzi) Our hopes for the future of Afghanistan are well-timed and virtuous. For this, we will have to struggle with multiple forces. They're almost going to make brothers fight each other. We're walking on a very delicate and thin line.


ARABLOUEI: Tarzi began publishing his ideas about independence in the pages of a paper he founded and built support for the idea in Kabul, the capital among other intellectuals, journalists and activists - radicals who called themselves the Young Afghans.

AHMED: That will sound familiar, very familiar, to terms like the Young Turks. There's also, you know, a version - Young Iranian, sort of political constitutionalists - and that's not accidental. There is a lot of learning from each other and being mutually inspired.

ARABLOUEI: The time was ripe for change across the region. And in 1919, on the heels of World War I, the King of Afghanistan was assassinated.

AHMED: And his son, Amanullah Khan, was, you could say, a member of the Young Afghans. He was certainly sympathetic to it, to its goals. For the Young Afghans, this is a golden opportunity. They have this young Afghan prince on the Kabul throne. And indeed, he carries the country forward.

ARABLOUEI: At that point, things move fast. The new king, Amanullah Khan, demanded full independence and then declared jihad, holy war, on the British, which began with the invasion of British India.

AHMED: Which London didn't take well, needless to say.

ARABLOUEI: For the third time in a century, British and Afghan fighters battled it out. And in the end, Afghanistan gained full, equal independence.

AHMED: For Afghanistan, this was a tremendous victory.

ARABLOUEI: It's hard to say exactly how they pulled it off. But one clue is the geography of Kabul.

AHMED: As you're flying there, you know, you see these towering mountains. And you're like, why are we flying so close to the mountains? You realize, like, that's the highest the planes can go. It's just these mountains are so high. You're surrounded 360 by mountains, which is remarkable. It's just, like, a perfect fortress before airplanes.

ARABLOUEI: In this new Afghanistan, Mahmud Tarzi became King Amanullah Khan's right-hand man for two reasons. He was chosen as his foreign minister. And Tarzi's daughter, Queen Soraya Tarzi, was married to Amanullah Khan. And over the next decade, the three of them worked together to answer a seemingly simple question. What should this new Afghanistan be?


AHMED: This is the time steamship and railroads and new kinds of armaments and other kinds of technologies, the printing press, et cetera. What does Islam have to say about modern technologies?


ABDELFATAH: It was the beginning of an experiment, an experiment to create an Islamic nation fit for the 20th century. Mahmud Tarzi, Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya all agreed that the path forward was through a kind of Muslim modernism.

AHMED: Which I would define as the desire to engage the challenges of modernity, how we're defined, but from within an Islamic framework - right? - without jettisoning their religious and cultural traditions that make up Islam.

ABDELFATAH: They proposed things like abolishing slavery, making polygamy illegal, burqas optional, outlawing bride prices and improving divorce laws to make them more equal for women.

MARYA HANNUN: Women's rights were really central to the state-building project.


HANNUN: Partially because women around the region at this time were central to a lot of the modernizing projects.

ABDELFATAH: Not just around the region. In the West, the 1920s were also a time when women were pushing boundaries. Women in the U.S. got the right to vote in 1920. In Afghanistan, no one was more vocal in pushing for the rights of women than Queen Soraya.

RHADO AKBAR: Do you think that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it?

HANNUN: This, you know, remarkable woman, educated - and she spoke publicly. Her words were printed in the newspapers of Afghanistan throughout the 1920s.

AKBAR: (As Queen Soraya) Women should also take their part, as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam.

HANNUN: She looked at the sort of women around the prophet - like Aisha, the prophet's wife, who had given her legal opinion on things - and said, well, if Aisha could give her legal opinion on things, then women can be judges in Islamic courts.

AKBAR: (As Queen Soraya) From their examples, we must learn that we must all contribute to our development of our nation, and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge.

HANNUN: Which was a pretty bold move at the time.

ABDELFATAH: Bold because the majority of women in Afghanistan then were still very much confined to the home and subordinate to the men in their lives. Queen Soraya was arguing that it was time for women to have a say in how Islamic sources were interpreted.

HANNUN: If we look at the sources and not at the way the sources have been, like, misunderstood by all of these men, we see that women do have a lot of rights within the Islamic tradition.

ABDELFATAH: By the way, this is historian Marya Hannun.

HANNUN: I'm currently a postdoc, postdoctoral fellow, at Georgetown University.

ABDELFATAH: Beyond the courts, Queen Soraya and her husband, Amanullah Khan, were also changing social norms for women. At one public event, Amanullah Khan announced that, quote, "Islam did not require women to cover their bodies or wear any special kind of veil." Then Queen Soraya removed her veil. And the wives of the other political elite followed suit. In pictures, she could almost pass for a flapper on the streets of New York City - the short hairdo, the glamorous dresses and a no-nonsense expression. Despite all that, this is how one British paper described Queen Soraya.

HANNUN: It is difficult to realize that this charming lady has, according to our standards, been virtually a prisoner all her life. She lived in the strictest seclusion in Kabul. The narrative about her that was sort of perpetuated in the European news was that she was a prisoner until she traveled west. And I think, you know, it's amazing that those narratives were so prevalent even then.


ABDELFATAH: Above all, Queen Soraya made it her life mission to educate girls across Afghanistan, from the cities to the countryside. She was named the country's minister of education and built the country's first girls' school in Kabul.

ARABLOUEI: You've probably noticed that a lot of this story of independence has been centered around Kabul. It was the focal point of everything during this era, and where the political elite of this newly independent Afghanistan were based. So Kabul was kind of a bubble.

ABDELFATAH: And if Queen Soraya wanted to reach women throughout Afghanistan, she faced some serious hurdles. And that was partly because different parts of the society viewed the issue differently.

HANNUN: A lot of the debates in the 1920s centered around not whether women should be educated but where and under whose authority. So more conservative opponents thought they should be educated in the home under the domain of the family or of the community and not of the state.

ABDELFATAH: Of course, women themselves also had different views on all these issues.

HANNUN: I think this is why it's always so difficult to talk about women as - not only difficult but dangerous to talk about women in monolithic terms.

ARABLOUEI: However you look at it, there was a clear divide forming in the country between those who liked the old way of doing things and those who wanted change. Under the new nation-state umbrella, people needed to reach some sort of consensus on things, but the ideas of the political elite weren't resonating in many places beyond Kabul. In part, that was because the country was so ethnically and culturally diverse - a positive thing for most of its history, but now a complicated maze to navigate, especially because of the way the country was laid out.

AHMED: You know, there's a lot of talk now about two Americas. There's actually multiple Americas - right? - and there's always been. Where am I going with this? The same complexity - you may say contradictions, but I think complexity is a better term - applies to Afghanistan.

HANIFI: We've been maybe misleading the audience by working at Afghanistan through major urban locations. Afghanistan is a preponderantly rural place where agriculture is by far the dominant, you know, kind of productive activity - not just agriculture, but also minerals that were, to be simple, traveling around the world and therefore returning profits home.

ARABLOUEI: Profits that weren't filtering back down to the countryside.

AHMED: What if you only had the taxes and the conscription, but you don't get the paved roads and schools, and, you know, you only get the receiving end? In fairness, that is the experience of a lot of Afghans outside of Kabul.

HANNUN: One thing I always say is, like, the women in Kabul who were pushing these reforms had much more in common in many ways with their counterparts - their educated, elite and mobile counterparts in Egypt, in India, in Syria and in Turkey - than they did with women who shared their own national frames, you know? So I think the class dimension is a big part of why their reforms didn't take root across the country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Anarchy started suddenly inside. The tribes still want a healthy and problem-free life. They must be guaranteed that this will be achieved.


ARABLOUEI: In 1928, tensions within Afghanistan reached a boiling point, and tribal leaders led uprisings against Amanullah Khan.

HANNUN: A sort of anti-elite movement took place against him, and he was overthrown and driven out of the country in 1929.

ARABLOUEI: Mahmud Tarzi left the country and lived out the rest of his life in Turkey. The girls school Queen Soraya opened in Kabul was closed, and the veil was reinstated as law.

ABDELFATAH: The question - what should Afghanistan be? - hung heavy in the air. The modernizing experiment that Amanullah Khan, Queen Soraya and Mahmud Tarzi set in motion had been derailed. But as with any experiment, more than one trial is required. And for Afghanistan, the experiment wasn't over just yet.

WALI: (As Rumi) Even if the whole world's harp should burn up, there will still be hidden instruments playing. So the candle flickers and goes out. We have a piece of flint and a spark.

EM LEO: Hi, this is Em Leo (ph) from Occupied Youth, Arapaho Cherokee land, otherwise known as Denver, Colo. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3: Separation.


MEJGAN MASSOUMI: My grandmother - she's from Badakhshan, which is in the north, and she was about 11 years old when my grandfather married her. And so she migrated to Kabul. Through the years, she - I think she heard on the radio the lyrics of Mowlana's "Masnavi" being played.

ARABLOUEI: Remember Rumi? Mowlana is an honorific term for him.

MASSOUMI: Someone was reciting his poetry, and she fell in love with it.

ARABLOUEI: Amanullah Khan had installed Afghanistan's first radio transmitter in Kabul in 1925. After he was overthrown, the transmitter was destroyed, and silence filled the airwaves. But by the time Mejgan Massoumi's grandmother got married and moved to Kabul, it was up and running again.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: "Listen to the reed as it tells a tale, complaining of separation."

MASSOUMI: She would listen to these lines speaking about having to be separated from something that she loved, and she would say, those lines are for me.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

MASSOUMI: This is a woman who was illiterate. And she grasped and owned those lyrics, and she said, those are mine. It's an example that goes to show the power of words that people don't have, but they could find it in something, in art, to express themselves and then feel a certain amount of ownership with it.

ARABLOUEI: This is Mejgan Massoumi.

MASSOUMI: And I am currently a teaching fellow in the civil, liberal and global education program at Stanford University, and my work and research is on radio in 20th century Afghanistan.


ABDELFATAH: The radio was a groundbreaking technology around the world. In Afghanistan, it helped tip the scales in favor of modernity as the struggle continued between those who opposed change and those who embraced it. It brought old ideas of a forgotten time, like those of Rumi, back into Afghan life. And by the 1950s and '60s, new ideas from outside Afghanistan were also seeping in.


AHMAD ZAHIR: (Singing) It's now or never. Come hold me tight.

ABDELFATAH: This is the voice of Ahmad Zahir.


ZAHIR: (Singing) ...My darling.

ABDELFATAH: His floppy dark black hair, half-unbuttoned shirts and round-faced smile made the ladies go wild.

MASSOUMI: He has people that love him and people who abhor his, you know, thick sideburns and his bell-bottoms.

ABDELFATAH: Artists like Elvis and the Beatles influenced Zahir's music, but he also drew from music around the world.


MASSOUMI: He sang Bollywood songs.


KISHORE KUMAR: (Singing in non-English language).


UMM KULTHUM: (Singing in non-English language).

MASSOUMI: He had influences from the likes of Umm Kulthum.

ABDELFATAH: An Egyptian singer and my mom's personal favorite.


UMM KULTHUM: (Singing in non-English language).


ZAHIR: (Singing in non-English language).

HANIFI: This was a very fluid time geopolitically, with new great powers - the United States and the Soviet Union - really looking to sort of capitalize on their global military sort of presences and develop new allies.

MASSOUMI: I think Afghanistan is kind of like, you know, the jewel in the crown, so to speak.

ARABLOUEI: At the center of Asia...

AHMED: The country is balancing the U.S. and Soviet Union and receiving aid from both as a non-aligned country.

ARABLOUEI: ...Afghanistan was one of the largest recipients of aid in the world.

AHMED: Now, most of that aid is literally concentrated - right? - like physically in terms of banks and cash and then the use of those funds on the major cities, Kabul, of course, being at the top.

ARABLOUEI: That meant new roads, bridges, hospitals and government buildings. The U.S. built an elaborate irrigation system. The Soviets built a tunnel from northern Afghanistan to Kabul. But it also meant new ideas about how to govern a nation. Communism, democracy - how would those forces factor into what Afghanistan should be?


SHAILENDRA SINGH: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: This was a time of political and cultural experimentation, a return to the spirit of the 1920s.


SINGH: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: During the 1960s, the country would draft a new constitution that introduced democracy in Afghanistan. Women got the right to vote. They could go to school, and restrictions on dress were lifted. And through it all, Ahmad Zahir sang.


ZAHIR: (Singing in non-English language).

MASSOUMI: He captures the experimentation. He captures the defiance - you know, experimenting with speaking about explicit love.


ZAHIR: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: He sings, "my life has come to an end while deprived of your ruby red lips."

MASSOUMI: I think he had this uncanny ability to recognize what might an Afghan listening audience like to listen to if I took this beat, if I took this rhythm, introduced it in a new way.


ABDELFATAH: Afghanistan was modernizing, finding its voice and its place in the world. And then...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Reports from India says there's been a coup in Afghanistan.

MASSOUMI: There's a coup in '73.

ARABLOUEI: Daoud Khan, a general who served as prime minister of Afghanistan 10 years earlier, led the overthrow. He got rid of the monarchy and named himself president.

MASSOUMI: This president is becoming increasingly autocratic. As the political climate of Afghanistan starts to change between '73 and '78, when Daoud Khan is in power, once again, Ahmad Zahir is taking to the airwaves, and he's singing of society's social ills.


ZAHIR: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: In 1978, a new Afghan communist government took over the country. They considered themselves radical leftists and aligned themselves with the Soviet Union.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Western press reports that the recent coup was inspired by the Soviet Union.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'm very sorry that you call it coup. It was not a coup. It was a revolution.

MASSOUMI: The communist regime came into power with a coup, a bloody coup. I mean, they killed Daoud Khan and his family in, you know, the most horrifying way one can imagine. I think majority of the Afghan people were not in favor of this regime change.

ARABLOUEI: Some feared their violent tactics. Others considered them godless. This was a devoutly Muslim country, after all. And what would Afghanistan look like without Islam? Tribal leaders were particularly concerned and began arming themselves for battle. They would become known as the mujahideen, fighters in the name of God. Tensions intensified as the communist government implemented new social and political reforms.

MASSOUMI: There was so many restrictions at that time. Everything was censored because the establishment was very much trying to control sound and lyrics, in particular, for musicians. It's either escape your country, or sing in the name of the regime.

ABDELFATAH: But Ahmad Zahir chose neither option. He continued to sing songs of liberation, freedom, of dissent. On June 14, 1979, Ahmad Zahir died in a car crash at the age of 33. Some speculate he was killed, a harbinger of things to come.


MASSOUMI: The sentiment of feeling hopeless and feeling rage and anger in that moment, I think, is symbolized on that unfortunate, eventful day when he died.


ABDELFATAH: Over the next few months, the rage and anger continued to build. Some people were frustrated with all the changes that modernism had brought to the country. Others were plotting to challenge this brutal new communist government, which was plagued by insurgents. Things were getting more and more unstable. So on Christmas Eve 1979...


ABDELFATAH: ...The Soviet Union decided to intervene.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: Some Afghans fled the country, fearing what lay ahead, and Mejgan Massoumi's family was among them.

MASSOUMI: My father was a government bureaucrat. He worked for the Ministry of Finance. My mother was a teacher. At the time, the communist regime was sort of profiling government employees and looking to see if they were dissidents or not. My father was jailed for two days, and then shortly thereafter we made plans within 24 hours to leave Afghanistan. It was my mom and my dad, my aunt, who came along with us - my mom's younger sister - and then five children, five little girls. I was all of 9 months old when we left.


MASSOUMI: We escaped out of Afghanistan literally, I mean, on camels, on rafts.

ARABLOUEI: Thankfully, her whole family made it out OK. They first went to Pakistan, then Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, then the U.S., where they lived first in Minnesota and finally settled down in San Diego, Calif.

ABDELFATAH: Mejgan's family had gotten out just in time, before things in Afghanistan got really, really bad.


WALI: (As Rumi) As long as you are alive, you must try more and more to use your wings to show you're alive. These wings of yours are filled with quests and hopes. If they are not used, they will wither away. They will soon decay. You may not like what I'm going to tell you. You are stuck. Now, you must seek nothing but the source.


ARABLOUEI: Next week, in part two of our Afghanistan series - how the Soviet invasion sparks a war between fathers and sons, brothers and neighbors...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: And it is at this time that you see - you start hearing grumblings about this new movement of young students who are being referred to as Talibs.

ARABLOUEI: ...And eventually leads to the rise of the Taliban.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...





GREG VALDESPINO, BYLINE: Greg Valdespino (ph).


ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Miranda Mazariegos, Adriana Tapia, Farhad Azad, Alina Selyukh, Samim Abadi (ph), Nishant Dahiya, Andrew Sussman and Greg Myre.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Coleman Barks for his translations of Rumi's poetry in the book "The Essential Rumi," published by Harper San Francisco.

ABDELFATAH: And a special thanks to all of our voice-over actors.

JAZUR: Hi. I am Tiab Jazur (ph), and I played the voice of Mahmud Tarzi.

AKBAR: My name is Rhado Akbar (ph), and I played the voice of Queen Soraya. I'm mentally still in Kabul and Afghanistan but physically in France. With the help of my French friends and the embassy, I was able to move to the embassy in the very first hours after Kabul collapsed.

WALI: I am Zadran Wali (ph), and I played Rumi.

WAJEDIDI: Hello. My name is Fredun Wajedidi (ph) - migrated to America from Afghanistan in 1985. I grew up in a household filled with the love of poetry, especially the poems of Mowlana Rumi. And we are hoping that we can go back, inshallah - God willing - that we can produce people like that once again.


ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks to Alex Drewenskus for mixing the episode.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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