I am who I am because of Afghanistan

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.

No Instagram here. This is the real thing: an honestly faded photo of me on the foot of the Little Buddha.

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.”

Am I craving the sight of camels walking down the street? Or the interplay of ancient and modern, rural and urban, layers of time and place in my everyday life?

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.

I feel like I’m peering over the shoulder of that ten year old self, looking through her eyes as the Bamiyan valley imprints itself in her soul.

80 thoughts on “I am who I am because of Afghanistan

  1. Longing is always a complicated sensation. Where exactly is the line where longing stops being in an idealized reality and crosses over to affect what we think of as “reality”? It is then a short leap to when the longing creates the reality in which we live. There are too many stories of people living in their “fantasy world” to cite; it is also the basis of many films I like (8 1/2 has always been my favorite).

    Great post and especially poignant as those buddas have been destroyed by the Tailban and the idealized Afghanistan from our youth has been destroyed as well.

    Maybe we all want to be like DiCaprio’s character in Inception and make the fantasy world our real world (yes, I know it is a flawed movie, but the concept – while handled poorly by Nolan – is still rich). Do we take the red pill or the blue pill?

    1. Yes, exactly! And in our longing for this fantasy world, there’s always the danger that we’ll move in and take ownership (figuratively if not literally) of someone else’s real world, treating it as our exotic playground.

      The destruction of the Buddhas deserves its own post. It’s really amazing that we were there.

  2. Hi Amy, thanks for the acknowledgment. I always enjoy your posts, they are more worth reading than the usual E-mail I receive. This is quite a place, I will leave it at that, for the sake of brevity. Hopefully, my contribution to the cause will make a positive difference.

    1. Hey Dave! I’m glad you were able to see it; was hoping you would have internet access. At some point you should write about your experiences there and how you see the country. I know your contribution is a positive one.

  3. Amy:

    What a wonderful and powerful statement! It brought back lots of memories. I’m glad that you shared how this experience affected you.

    Dad

  4. I honestly don’t know what to say….this was so beautiful. And sad. I pray that some day, some how, Afghanistan will be free and restored for it’s good people to live without violence.

  5. I love this post!

    You so beautifully express something I have often felt but which sounds pretentious and unlikely….I lived in London, ages 2-5 (from Canada), in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. Each of these places have created a powerful longing in me for what each of them offers, and I have returned to each of them many times in an effort to re-connect with the feelings I had there and have when I think of them.

    Mexico had extraordinary history, physical beauty, music, art, food. The light! Like your Bamiyan photo (love it!!), I still remember driving through the mountains with my mom through clouds, through a coffee plantation. Many years later, in a tiny Venezuelan town, I was dancing in the clouds with a friend…

    I now live in a NYC suburb (!), but it has great physical beauty (Hudson Valley), light, lots of history. Those early moments instil/nurture a hunger in us. If we’re lucky, we recognize it and can capture (some of) it as adults.

  6. Places and times can have a powerful effect on us. I went to a couple places as a child at just the right time… and now I could not shake them if I wanted to. But I do not want to. They became part of my self-demanded identity that I could not even define and when they were not I desperately wanted them to be. It is funny the imprint a place can have on you. But maybe funny isn’t the word. Maybe it surprises us and maybe it shouldn’t.

  7. What a powerful and insightful account! I have always felt that countries I’ve visited, places I’ve seen have shaped (and continue to shape) my identity. My Afghanistan is I’m sure very different from yours, but it was magical to read about it nonetheless.

    Thank you,

    Yulia

  8. This is absolutely true and beautiful….i can relate to this since i am a pqkistani and was an exchange student to the states and then to japan….we really do find things exotic outside when we long for them in vain at home, well wrritten.

  9. I love your page about childhood memories. While I did not have as interesting locales as you did to imprint my memory, I know how you feel.

    I experienced WWII as a small child. Though I lived pretty safely in the countryside during those years, the vivid memories remain and I find that I was touched for life; things keep resonating just as you mention.

      1. I was three when Italy went to war in 1940. It is fascinating NOW to remember as much as I do. I wrote quite bit about my memories, but only a few friends have read those pages. That is why your post had such an appeal on me.

  10. Maybe you were ten. It wasn’t exotic to you. You were happy there, and it felt like home–because you were comfortable and safe and looked after, which is really what being at home means. The problem is that you felt at home and became attached to a place that no longer exists.

  11. I really liked this post. Not only because it gives a glimpse of a personal experience of Afghanistan (which I could feel the radiating love you have), it made me think of something of my own personal feelings about the country I was born. Though I came to the United States from Mexico as an infant, I went to visit the small pueblo where I was born several times in my youth. It was an incredibly safe and trusting community. Some of the old Mexico has disappeared I admit (politically, culturally, and landscape wise). And it seems the negative images (some justified, some way overblown) do take a psychological impact on a persons personal myth about a place and time. I know these two countries are totally seperate cases in terms of circumstances. Still it made me think about how a personal experience relates to public image. Thanks for sharing such a personal story.

  12. The impressions made upon you in Afghanistan (and the beautiful way in which you relayed them) helps to make a connection between cultures. For those of us who have not been anywhere that exotic but have lived in various parts of our own country – we experience and assimilate to different ways of speaking , dressing, etc. We can only benefit from seeking out and soaking in all of the diversity we can in our lifetime!

  13. Hi Amy,
    Such a fantastic post! I enjoyed reading about the days when you were a young girl and how you remember it with romanticized ideas to literature. Your thought of “craving the sight of camels walking down the streets” made me think of the day when I was in Egypt on the desert where camels were walking around with tourists riding them.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Your cousin,
    Phyllis Borden

    1. Hi Phyllis! Thanks so much for reading my blog. I had no idea you’d been in Egypt; you must tell me about your experience, either in writing or when we’re next all together.

  14. Beautiful post. I really enjoyed reading the effect that life in Afghanistan has had on you, particularly in the face of the public’s perception of the area.

  15. The history of Afghanistan seems a pity only to us westerners. To them it is a difficult but glorious history – they were NEVER conquered, and many tried, from Alexander to our days. You can see their pride and strength in their beautiful eyes.

  16. Thank you for your most thought provoking blog on why we are human. You have captured a vast array of folk, touched by your writing. congratulations on being FP, another recognition , richly deserved

  17. I have been blessed to visit Afghanistan three times… in 2004, 2005, 2006. My first summer there as a grant writer, I lived for two months in Kabul. The city was largely still in ruins. Each year back, it was extraordinary to see the city come back to life. Some of my most jaw-dropping travel stories are from my journeys overland through the Hindu Kush to the Tajik border. Afghanistan is an amazing country full of remarkable people. I dream of returning. Thank you so much for sharing!

  18. A very evocative post. Can you write more about life there as you remember? To us Indians, Afghanistan has always been sort of ummm troublesome. And yet there’s no way to understand these people because there’s very little indigenous literature that comes out internationally, and establishment politics always unfailingly paints a twisted picture.
    My brother spent around six months in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban were routed – he went there for a job. While he loved the hills, he was pretty astounded by the gutted, ruinous state of its main city Kabul. Arms were easily available, and he decided he’d had enough when one morning he came across the carcasses of half a dozen dogs. One of the night guards in his hotel had shot them down because they were barking and disturbing his night’s sleep.
    I like your post enough to add yet another something: Owing to my keen interest in painting, I have learnt that the ancient cities of Afghanistan, especially Herat, were great centres of miniature painting and cultural exchanges across east and west. Of course this was several centuries ago.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. Please tell me more about the miniature painting history of Afghanistan. You’re so right that we need more indigenous literature to aid our understanding; Columbia University Press has just published a book of poetry by the Taliban (which I haven’t read) and I personally would love to read literature by women. Your brother’s experience is far more realistic than my own very romanticized depiction. I will write a bit more about my experiences, but they are admittedly rosy portraits from memory.

      1. Just looked up the Columbia University Press blog and discovered some translations… they’re powerful, very contemporary, and much needed, I believe, for people to connect across countries and cultures. I would dig up more on that, thanks for the info.
        As for miniature paintings, they’re commonly understood to have originated in Persia (modern Iran), and was well developed by the 14th century. It spread as far as Turkey and India. Usually groups or schools of artists migrated to whichever country patronised art, and it was during the Timurid dynasty (approx 1500 c.) that Afghanistan saw great advances in miniature art – esp in the cities of Herat, Tabriz, and Kandahar. However, frequent wars impoverished the state, and many artists migrated further east to India and flourished under the Mughals.
        So if you were to see miniature paintings around the world, you’d find the older Persian ones with distinct Islamic themes and motifs, Afghan ones with Mongolian and Chinese influences, and Indian ones with Hindu/Indian themes.
        There’s a lot if info and images on the web, but if you wanna read, I’d recommend Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. It’s fiction, though.

      1. Hey Amy, I know thi is late in replying back and I couldn’t find your reply to me, so I am replying this way. Looking forward to seeing you all again. Shirley and I have a little cottage rented at the end of October at the Barren River State Park for the weekend, so come and join us. Phyllis

        On Mon, Aug 27, 2012 at 9:17 PM, The Vale of Soul-Making wrote:

        > ** > valesoul commented: “Thank you! They have a warm authenticity if not > professional style.” >

  19. I recently bought the Metropolitan Museum catalog about the Afghan treasures that went on exhibit a few year ago. It is a stunning testimonial to the power and sensitivity of the Afghan civilization, and its long history. I recommend it to anyone interested in art, human thought, and history. If you go to the Met store and search Afghanistan: hidden treasures… you’ll find it. On Amazon too.

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