“What is life?” asks the 1970s Persian-language song of the same name by the Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir. It was a question asked by many Afghans throughout that decade. Afghanistan underwent a series of coups – both bloodless and bloody – that took it on a winding path from monarchy to republic to Soviet-controlled puppet state. It culminated in 1979 with a full-scale invasion – or failed liberation, depending on one’s politics – by the Soviet Union.
Zahir’s answer to the question reflected the forlorn mood within the country. Life, the song concludes, is the process of “dying under a wall of your own hopes”.
The singer, who remains a unifying figure in Afghanistan, was killed on his 33rd birthday, in the same year as the Soviet invasion. More than three decades later, his lyrics continue to resonate.
In the past three weeks, Afghans both inside and outside the country have faced a series of questions about what they want their future to be like. Much has happened, and failed to happen. On February 18, the results of the country's presidential elections were released after five months of uncertainty, only for the outcome to result in even more uncertainty. On February 29, the US, Afghanistan's most recent liberator, signed a deal with the Taliban that included a reduction in violence, only for new waves of violence to follow almost immediately after.
It is widely expected that, if the conflict in Afghanistan ever ends, the Taliban will come out with some share in the country’s governance. The group of militants, which has a brutal history of oppression, already has de facto control over large parts of Afghanistan, where it imposes its own taxes, security infrastructure and justice system. By most accounts, these systems are considered by many people living under them to be more effective – or at least, more efficient – than those offered by the central government in Kabul. That fact is one of the great failings of America’s state-building project in Afghanistan. However, it is a fact nonetheless.
Many factors play a role in the Taliban’s resilience, including incompetence on the part of the Afghan government, flawed American military strategy and enormous financial and tactical support for the group from Pakistan and Iran. Most important, however, is the perception among many Afghans, particularly in rural areas, that the Taliban offers a more traditionally “Afghan” way of life.
There is only a kernel of truth in this assumption. What it means to be “Afghan” has changed over the course of decades of conflict.
When the British sought to invade Afghanistan in the 19th century, and when the Soviets invaded in the 20th century, and when the US again invaded in the 21st century, all three powers invested considerably in educating their forces on the anthropology of the Afghan people. Their first point of departure was – rather patronisingly – the notion that there is no such thing as the Afghan people.
Afghanistan developed its sense of place by being a land on the margins, comprised of Central Asia’s leftovers – Persians outside of the Persian empire, Pashtuns left unconquered by British South Asia and Turkic peoples living beyond the boundaries of the region’s khanates or chiefdoms. Moreover, the country is divided along religious lines, between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Never mind that there are also Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
In a simpler world, these were relevant talking points. They seemed to clarify Afghanistan’s cloudy politics and its complicated web of tribal conflict.
But if, today, it seems overly academic – even orientalist – to describe Afghanistan in such anthropological terms, that is because it is.
Much has been made about how the US’s war in Afghanistan has become a generational conflict. The youngest American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, it is often said, were born after the 9/11 attacks that spurred their country’s invasion in the first place.
But Afghans, it must be said, have been at war – with Russians, Americans and themselves – for 40 years. For them, it is a multi-generational conflict. Ninety per cent of Afghans in Afghanistan today are under the age of 55; barely 10 per cent reached adulthood before mass violence began.
This experience has had an immeasurable impact on the country’s demographics and psychology. It has traumatised a majority of the population and cast nearly a quarter of Afghans into a life abroad.
In the midst of all of this fog, ethno-nationalism, religion and ideology begin to matter less. Deeper, more basic instincts come to the fore – survival, the pursuit of happiness and a desperate craving for community.
Globalisation has had its own impact on the country, too. While electricity and internet connections remain inaccessible in much of Afghanistan's villages and mountains, in its urban centres it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without Google, Facebook and a host of Indian and Turkish television dramas. International phone cards – used to keep up with relatives’ lives overseas – are among the most popular products in corner shops.
Afghans within and outside of Afghanistan were, for many years, almost two separate populations. But in an increasingly globalised community, shared experiences are merging into broader, sometimes unexpected conversations.
My father was 14 years old when he left Afghanistan – and the city of Kabul – for the first time. Like millions of other Afghans, he grew up somewhere else – in his case, Pakistan and then the United States. Eventually, his idea of Afghanistan became less of a lived experience and more of a distilled memory. He passed it onto his children, including me. Like other second-generation members of the diaspora, I grew up with an understanding of Afghanistan that was a combination of my father’s stories and my own projected fantasies.
I was 19 when I presented my American passport to apply for an Afghan one at the embassy in London, in 2009. I remember the look of surprise on the consular officer’s face. Most Afghans were desperate for an American passport. He asked me if I had any plans to travel back to the homeland. At the time, I did not. I just felt a pull to the place where my father was born. At the time, the eight-year-old Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had not yet circulated its own passports; the one the officer issued me still bore the name of the Republic of Afghanistan my father was born into.
His question, however, naturally made me insecure about whether that passport really belonged in my hands. Even when I visited Kabul two years later, I felt awkward handing it to the immigration officers there.
In December 2015, during the peak of the migration crisis in Europe, I was on a reporting assignment in the so-called “jungle” – a refugee camp in Calais, France. Walking through the camp in sub-zero temperatures under a hail of rain, I came across an Afghan boy of about 12 who was sitting alone on a wooden bench, shivering. I don’t know what saddened me more – the frozen tear on his cheek or the stinging idea that this was a version of my father, 30 years later. But I sat down next to him, showed him my Afghan passport and said hello.
He was Pashtun. My family is Persian. He was Sunni, and my family is Shia. None of that came up. We talked about food, dancing and Ahmad Zahir.
In his naivety, he asked me if it was possible for him to get a boat to Canada from Calais. He also asked to use my phone, so that he could go on Facebook and tell his brother in Kabul that France was cold and miserable. He had made the journey to France alone, but in me, for that evening, he had found a brother.
Whatever happens in Afghanistan in the coming months or years, the government and the Taliban alike will have to reckon with the reality that the country has changed. The old ways are not long for this world, and many Afghans expect something different out of life.
Ahmad Zahir was right about one thing: there is an element of life that involves building a wall made of one's hopes. For Afghans, it will have to incorporate everything the nation is, and what all sections of the community aspire for it to be.
As the country’s politics struggle to match its new realities, the wall will have to be built brick by brick.
The one thing Afghans must keep in mind, however, is that we do not have to die under it.
Sulaiman Hakemy is deputy comment editor at The National