I was 10 years old when 9/11 happened. Growing up in Australia in an Afghan family where war, the threat of extremism and politics was part of dinner table discussions and everyday conversations, I distinctly recall chills running down my spine as the planes crashed into the towers.
Around this time was also when I had started reading Harry Potter, and the dichotomies of good and evil were ingrained in my mind. As a child of refugees who fled persecution, it was clear that the same evil that drove out my family from their homeland – in its various shapes and forms – had now reached the US, a place where my mother’s family resided, and we often visited. It was simple really: in the battle between good versus evil, evil never wins and the world would unite to ensure this kind of terror was only seen in movies or read in books. At least as a child reading Harry Potter, that’s what I thought. And George W Bush made sure the rest of the world thought it too.
It was a strange time. I watched my family mourn the loss of lives and brace for what was to come. Our Afghan-American family would tell us of all the US flags that would go up on people’s front yards, while here at home my parents would warn my brother and me of staying vigilant and dealing with bullies. While the US and its allies geared up for the “war on terror”, it was the first time I felt embracing our Afghan-ness would be considered taboo.
Growing up I was intrigued by world affairs and would often watch my father play chess.
“Afghanistan is like this chess board,” he would tell me.
“This is another game where each of the pieces are world powers salivating for a piece of the action.”
The trajectory of global politics had changed. Afghanistan had gone from being my birthplace and a place of romanticised mountains to the mouthpiece associated with all things related to terrorism, Osama bin Laden and bombs.
As an Afghan-Australian growing up in the west, it was bittersweet being proud of a heritage that had been tainted by the politicisation of our identities. What remained for the diaspora was hope for a better Afghanistan and keeping the culture alive through language, storytelling, music and arts.
Meanwhile during my first visit to Kabul, 14 years after the US and Nato had been operating in Afghanistan, the progress on the ground was undeniable. While instability and corruption remained part of a culture of impunity, I visited female gyms, met with journalists from local media stations and played street cricket with children. They were the faces of hope I held on to. The faces of those who were failed.
I asked my father, who nurtured my interest in global politics and my hunger to understand the complexities of our homeland in a world that chose so vehemently to solely define it as the place that harboured Osama bin Laden, how Afghanistan became the cornerstone for terrorism.
“The Afghanistan you see and hear about now is not the one we knew. It was once a Sufi-styled country, home to Sikhs, Jews, the Buddhas of Bamiyan and renowned poet Jalaluddin Rumi,” he would tell me.
I would hear stories and read books about this land’s tumultuous history – proclaiming independence from the British, the role of Pakistan’s intelligence in propping up the Taliban, and the role of the US in backing proxy fighters during the Cold War. What once seemed so simple now feels like a nauseating cocktail, a perpetual trauma plaguing Afghans here and abroad.
Growing up I witnessed my visibly Muslim friends get bullied, and the not so visible ones outcasted by growing conservative groups. I watched my brother and husband be questioned when we would go travelling because that had become the new norm. And finally, the Taliban came back into power in Afghanistan – smarter, stronger and more sophisticated than when the US and its allies first went in.
When I think of the fight between good and evil, extremism in all its forms is the apparent evil. Only in this world, our birthplace and a stroke of luck remains the determining factor of who suffers from the consequences. We’ve borne witness to terrorism reaching our cafes, buildings and homes, meanwhile another generation is being born into a “war on terror” and as an international community we continue to turn a blind eye. In the words of Harry Potter’s Voldemort, “there is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it”.
So, what hope do we have to cling on to? Those who are bravely doing the jobs of world powers as they march through the streets in Kabul and protest for their freedoms. My fellow Afghans, Australians and community groups globally who have been working tirelessly to amplify the voices of the unseen and unheard. As foreign power plays shift and power vacuums leave room for extremists, so too does our fight for good.