During the summer of my tenth year my family lived in Afghanistan and it stole into my heart. I am convinced that my fashion sense for scarves and bangles was born there, as was a love for eggplant, chickpeas, and dramatic landscapes made up of stark craggy mountains that end in startlingly blue lakes. If we want to get mystical, I’d argue that I was even drawn to meditative practice from sitting on the foot (not at the foot, mind you, but on it) of the Buddha–the Little Buddha of Bamiyan, that is.
How do we become who we are? How does a place, an aesthetic, a spiritual geography, get into our being?
It’s easy to romanticize Afghanistan in 1975 (pre-Soviet invasion, pre-Taliban), especially through the nostalgic eyes of a 10 year old who saw it all from a distance: from a modern house shielded from the street by a wall, from a compound where we swam, took tennis lessons, and watched American movies. My uncle Dave is there right now, in a much more precarious situation, and would probably give you a mighty different take on the scene.
As Alain de Botton defines it in The Art of Travel, I find Afghanistan–and the self I wanted to become because of Afghanistan–exotic.
Now, before the accusations of Orientalism come hurtling toward me (I already know; why do you think I study it? Aren’t our subjects always ourselves?), let me express my love, even if it seems absurd or boringly conventional. As de Botton writes, we find ourselves “anchoring emotions of love to the way a person butters bread or turning against them because of their taste in shoes,” but we cannot ignore “how rich in meaning details may be.”
It could be that what I found exotic about Afghanistan arose from mere novelty and change (there were no camels on Izard Street in Omaha), but what de Botton gets at is this more precise understanding: that we may find pleasure in exotic locales because “they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide.”
“What we find exotic abroad,” he writes, “may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”
I’ve “wrestled my story” (as Kathleen Norris puts it in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography) out of my formative experiences in Afghanistan. This is in part pure: aesthetic joy in ornament, righteous hunger for a homeland that won’t wantonly pave over and render invisible signs of the past. But this story is also very complicated, for I want the imagined–the imaginary?–Afghanistan of my youth, to be wrapped up in my own private Afghanistan.