I was one of thousands of “embedded” reporters in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 years—only I didn’t embed with a military unit, I lived with a family in Kabul (and traveled with them to their rural village in Ghazni) for nearly a month. This family and my experiences in Afghanistan with them formed the central narrative of my hybrid memoir, The Four Words for Home.
We’ve officially withdrawn U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and we’re left with a vague feeling that though the Taliban were overthrown from official leadership, our understanding of this complex nation is more tenuous than ever. Perhaps it was easier for the U.S. government and the American Mind to perceive “The Afghan People” as mysterious and inscrutable. That way, we could throw up our hands and chalk up any nation-building failures to the inherent fierceness and ungovernable nature of the Afghan people. Just ask Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. or the Soviet Army in 1988 A.D.
So in honor of Little Patuxent Review’s forthcoming theme issue on Myth, I offer my personal debunking of five myths about Afghanistan and Afghans I’ve commonly heard.
- There is such a thing as “The Afghan people.” The country is home to at least half a dozen ethnic groups, each with its distinct roots, traditions, interpretations of Sunni or Shia Islam, and, in many cases, language. The family I traveled with, the Shirzais, were proudly Pashtun, and would speak of their ethnic group before their national identity, though they didn’t consider nationalism and tribal loyalty in conflict with each other. Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbek, Turkmen, and others expressed similar patriotism. But it’s nearly impossible to generalize about one people, because there simply isn’t.
- Being a woman in Afghanistan: It’s about the burqa. No one I met in Afghanistan, male or female, denied that the Taliban era was terrible for women. But Amina, the matriarch of the Kabul household in which I stayed, told me when she went out, she preferred to wear a burqa over the headscarf most women adopted after the Taliban overthrow. “It’s easier to carry things on my head because I don’t have to keep adjusting the scarf,” she said. “And if I don’t wear it, the women in the neighborhood might talk.” Women were more concerned about infrastructure (running water and electricity across the country), education, and safety than what they wore or didn’t wear.
- Afghan women are either blatantly challenging gender oppression at great cost to themselves, a la Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, or they have been silenced into obedient submission by husbands and fathers. Many women, especially middle-class women in major cities, are finding their own ways to challenge convention and live their own lives. An excerpted chapter of The Four Words for Home, “Learning to Pray” (online as a Gold Medal Solas Travel Writing Award winner), focuses on two Afghan women—one married, one single—who are each navigating their lives, their sexuality, and their partnerships in their own ways. They don’t have the apparent freedom American women do, but they have a sense of sisterhood, community, and extended family they feel is even more important. I don’t for a minute believe that things are all good for Afghan women, especially the poor and those in more-restrictive families and marriages than those of the women with whom I stayed. But I wanted to shed some light on the complexities of the matter.
- The Afghan People resent the U.S. presence and are anti-American. Amina, who was in her sixties and illiterate, reflected the mixed feelings of most Afghans best: “The British. The Soviets. The Americans. The warlords. The Taliban. The Americans again. We didn’t ask for any of them. All we ask of the Americans is that maybe, this time, you don’t leave things the way the others did.”
- The Afghan People are passionately extreme, and have no capacity for contradiction. Afghans revel in contradiction. They are proud of and ashamed of their country. They are grateful to and distrusting of the Americans. They embrace progress but fear the loss of traditional values. Americans may have trouble fathoming such oxymoronic thinking, but it is written into the culture of Afghanistan. Rumi, the 13th-century poet often claimed by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey alike, said it best: The cure for pain is the pain. / Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both, / you don’t belong with us.
Online Editor’s Notes: I met Angie Chuang in November 2014 at the Baltimore Writers’ Conference held at Towson University and purchased The Four Words for Home after hearing her read. At that time, I wasn’t yet LPR’s Online Editor. Worlds sometimes collide as they did for me when in January as I browsed through the LPR website, I saw Angie’s name. An excerpt of The Four Words for Home, “Thanksgiving with the Shirzais,” had been published 2012 in LPR’s Audacity issue. Her story resonated strongly with me, so I took the chance she’d be willing to share once again with our readers. The Four Words for Home just became available on Kindle in July. Published in 2014 as the winner of the Willow Books Literature Awards Grand Prize in Prose, it is also available in paperback. The book recently won the Independent Publisher Book Award Bronze Medal in Multicultural Nonfiction.