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In My Father's Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate

In My Father's Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate

4.1 17
by Saima Wahab

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Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, at age three Saima Wahab watched while her father was arrested and taken from their home by the KGB.  She would never see him again. When she was fifteen an uncle who lived in Portland, Oregon brought her to America.  Having to learn an entire new language, she nonetheless graduated from high school in three years and went on to


Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, at age three Saima Wahab watched while her father was arrested and taken from their home by the KGB.  She would never see him again. When she was fifteen an uncle who lived in Portland, Oregon brought her to America.  Having to learn an entire new language, she nonetheless graduated from high school in three years and went on to earn a bachelor's degree.  In 2004 she signed on with a defense contractor to work as an interpreter in Afghanistan, never realizing that she would blaze the trail for a new kind of diplomacy, earning the trust of both high-ranking U.S. army officials and Afghan warlords alike.           
When she arrived in Afghanistan in the winter of 2004, Saima was among the few college-educated female Pashto speakers in the entire country. She was stunned to learn how little U.S. and coalition forces knew about the Pashtun, who comprise 40% of the population and from whom the Taliban arose. The blessing of the Pashtun is essential, but the U.S. army was so unaware of the workings of this ancient, proud, insular ethic group, that they would routinely send Farsi interpreters into Pashtun villages.  As a Pashtun-born American citizen, Saima found herself in an extraordinary position—to be able to explain the people of her native land to those of her adopted one, and vice versa, in a quest to forge new and lasting bonds between two misunderstood cultures.
In My Father’s Country
follows her amazing transformation from child refugee to nervous Pashtun interpreter to intrepid “human terrain” specialist, venturing with her twenty-five-soldier force pro-tection into isolated Pashtun villages to engage hostile village elders in the first, very frank dialogue they had ever had with the Americans.

From her posting at the forward operating base Farah in Afghanistan’s blistering western frontier to the year she spent in Jalalabad translating for provincial governor “Hollywood Pashtun” Sherzai to the near-suicide missions of a year and a half in the Khost Province, where before every mission, she left instructions on how to dispose of her belongings, having to face the very real possibility of not coming back alive, Saima Wahab’s is an incomparable story of one young woman’s unwavering courage and undaunted spirit.


Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wahab's father welcomed her into the world with fanfare typically accorded the birth of a son—gunshots into the Afghan sky. Though his friends chastised him for celebrating a daughter in such a way, Wahab's father insisted his daughter would "do more for her people than one hundred sons combined." Three years later, in 1979, he was captured by the KGB for speaking out against Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. He never returned. After being shuffled to the care of her progressive grandfather, Wahab eventually wound up with her uncle in Portland, Oreg. Though she completed high school in only three years, Wahab could no longer abide her uncle's strict enforcement of Pashtun gender-biased codes of conduct, so she moved out. After college, determined to live up to her father's hopes, Wahab became an interpreter for American forces in Afghanistan. As one of the military's few speakers of Pashtu—a complex and heavily-coded language—Wahab became a spokesperson for her culture, educating her colleagues and helping them to establish relationships with her fellow Pashtun people. In vibrant but understated prose, Wahab vividly portrays a misunderstood culture, as well as the tense life on military bases where everyone must wear body armor and carry a weapon. While fighting to build a bridge of understanding between her "native and adoptive nations," Wahab admirably wages a more universal war—for gender equality, human rights, and peace. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"In vibrant but understated prose, Wahab vividly portrays a misunderstood culture, as well as the tense life on military bases where everyone must wear body armor and carry a weapon. While fighting to build a bridge of understanding between her 'native and adoptive nations,' Wahab admirably wages a more universal war--for gender equality, human rights, and peace."
--Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"Extraordinary....detailed, lively...A carefully wrought work that allows a rare look inside Pashtun culture."
--Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An extraordinary journey by a Pashtun refugee in America who was able to return gracefully back to Kabul. At age five, in 1979, Wahab began her life on the run after her father was taken from their Kabul home by KGB agents during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. At the mercy of male relatives, Wahab, her two siblings and mother were sent to live with Baba, the grandfather, first in Ghazni Province, then in Peshawar, Pakistan. Out of guilt, kindness or a promise to her father, Baba allowed Wahab to attend school, even though she was the only girl in her class and was already getting marriage proposals at age nine. At age 15, the three siblings were sent to Portland, Ore., to live with their professor uncle, who bestowed on them an American education but insisted on traditional sexist double standards at home, which eventually enraged the strong-willed teenager. After college, she finally moved out of the close-knit family when she'd had enough of being considered "dishonorable and dirty" for craving a life of her own. Being outspoken was a liability for a traditional Pashtun woman, and while she never lacked for American suitors, it invited loneliness. As a rare speaker of both English and Pashto, she was hired by the U.S. military in 2004 to help coordinate efforts in Afghanistan. She was sent to work among refugees and local leaders, and the bulk of her detailed, lively memoir delineates the stress and emotional toil she endured. A carefully wrought work that allows a rare look inside Pashtun culture.

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I was welcomed into this world with gunshots.

In Afghanistan, when a son is born, tradition dictates that the father rushes into the street with his pistol and fires a few rounds into the air to celebrate. My father did this for Khalid, my older brother, his firstborn, as was the Pashtun custom. A little over a year later, minutes after I was born, my father rushed outside with his weapon and did the same. His friends appeared and congratulated him on the birth of another son. My father laughed and said, “Oh no, my beautiful daughter was born today.” But nobody celebrates the birth of a daughter with gunshots. His friends shook their heads at such eccentric behavior. “You will see!” he told them. “I promise that my daughter will prove that she is better than many Pashtun sons, and will do more for her people than one hundred sons combined.”

I carry one of my father’s picture with me always. It is a photograph of him with the three of us—­my brother, my sister, and me. It is small, black and white, and bears a collection of tiny holes, puncture marks from the pins and small nails that, over the years, have fixed it to my walls in Kabul, Ghazni Province, Peshawar, and, finally, Portland, Oregon. In his pictures he is a young man with sideburns and big, black-­framed eyeglasses, wearing a diamond-patterend crewneck sweater and listening to the radio, while my brother, sister, and I are draped all over him. My brother, Khalid, who is now roughly the same age our father was when he disappeared, has a collection of sweaters with this same motif, most of them given to him by my sister, Najiba, and me.

In the background you can see our bunk beds pushed against the wall. It is not uncommon for Afghan families to sleep in the same room, and despite my father’s Western tastes, despite his forward-­thinking education—­he was an attorney—­and his radio program that explored Pashtun music and culture, our family was no different, and we all slept in the same room.

Even though I don’t remember when the picture was taken, I cherish that moment. It brings me great comfort when I am faced with self-­doubt, and reminds me of what he had predicted at the time of my birth, declaring my destiny to the world.

My father became one of the first prisoners of war during the Soviet occupation, taken from his home by KGB agents when most of the world didn’t even know they were in Afghanistan. I became one of the millions of Afghan refugees of that war at age five, when I still had most of my baby teeth. I have flashes of memories from that nightmare, like taking my pet cat to a settlement of mud houses outside Kabul, leaving her in the center, hoping someone would take care of her because we had to flee the city and couldn’t take her with us. I remember turning around in the car, trying to get one more glimpse of her before saying good-­bye to her forever. Even today the sight of people with their pets fills me with sadness.

I remember getting on a donkey to cross the border into Pakistan, and being afraid that it would take off and I would lose the caravan of other refugees, leaving Mamai and Najiba behind with them. The journey to Pakistan took almost ten days. During that time we were at the mercy of kind strangers for food, shelter, and safety. I vividly remember one house where, in the true spirit of Pashtunwali, the ways of the Pashtun, they gave us their only two eggs, cooked in real butter. So delicious, I can close my eyes and instantly taste that butter. But after a while, what I return to most is not so much each individual painful memory but an ever-­present feeling of certainty that I would not survive my childhood. I see effects of that overwhelming presence of terror in my childhood in me today, and I know I will feel it for the rest of my life. What is devastating is that there are thousands of us Afghan children, young and old, who suffered through the same journey, and who will forever bear the scars of those years of constant fear.

I do have some happy memories from my childhood. One of the very few cherished ones is of my brother, my sister, and me standing at the window on the second floor of our house in Kabul, waiting for my father to drive up in the Soap Dish—­what we called his white Volkswagen Beetle—­and running down to open the door so he could park, step out, and gather all three of us in a group embrace. He would then place Khalid on his shoulders, and Najiba and I would drape ourselves over his arms as he walked into the house, greeting Mamai with a smile.

On Fridays my father liked to cook big lunches for his family and friends. His lunches were legendary. He had many friends, and they would gather around our huge marble table, which sat thirty-­eight people comfortably. Here they enjoyed his excellent cooking and shared many laughs at his expense. Even in Kabul, during the progressive mid-­seventies, when women walked around the city in miniskirts and the latest European fashions, men never even entered a kitchen, unless they were searching for their wives to ask them what was for dinner. But my father not only loved to cook, he designed our kitchen to suit his strange methods. Traditionally, Afghan women squat on their heels while cooking because everything—­the burners, the food—­is on the ground level, but my father realized how much easier it was to cook while standing. So in the late seventies, we were the only family we knew in all of Kabul who had kitchen counters, and Mamai cooked standing up.

On one hot Friday afternoon in 1979, according to my mother, my father was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the meal when there was a knock on the door. It was one of our relatives, who’d arrived with a “friend.” The relative asked my father to step outside for a moment. My father paused. He was wearing his slippers. Still, he did not want to insult his relative, so he stepped outside, closing the door behind him. The KGB had just begun secretly kidnapping and imprisoning people who spoke out against the Soviet Union’s covert involvement in the Afghan government. My father was among the first to openly talk about the danger the Soviet presence in Kabul presented to Afghanistan. On his radio show, he announced to his listeners that the Soviets had arrived in Afghanistan with no good intentions. He let everyone know: They wanted to destroy the country of the proud Pashtun nation.

The food got cold while his friends sat around the big marble table, awaiting the return of their host. He never came back. Not that day or ever. I was too young to know what was going on, but Mamai and my uncles were crazy with worry—­how could a grown man disappear in the middle of the day, out of his front door? No one seemed to know anything about it, and several family friends distanced themselves to the point of shutting doors in my uncles’ faces, and telling them there was nothing they could do to help us. My father had been sold out by his countrymen, who were collaborating with the KGB. Several days later word arrived from one of my father’s friends that my father had been taken to Pul-­i-­charkhi, the infamous prison on the outskirts of Kabul, for questioning.

What questions? Mamai wanted to know. She was frantic. But even in that more modern part of Afghanistan, a woman would never be allowed to visit a prison with her small children. Instead, every week my uncle would take my father a change of clothes and his favorite food. This went on for many weeks. Then one day my uncle showed up at the prison, at what had become his regular time, and the guard told him that there was no one there with my father’s name, Taher. Mamai’s nightmare recurred: My father had vanished again.

For a while, we remained in our large house in Kabul, hoping my father would return or that at least someone would bring us news of him. Khalid and I took to standing all day at the second-­floor window, in order to be the first ones to spot him coming home. Najiba was still a babe in arms. Perhaps because she felt Mamai’s anguish, she cried a lot.

That December, in 1979, Russian tanks openly rolled into Kabul. Every day jets tore the sky overhead. We would hear their sharp hissing, then an eerie moment of silence, then explosions that shook the walls of our house and hurt our ears. At the time, our house was one of only a few two-­story houses in Kabul, and whenever we heard the piercing squeal of the jets I was sure that our house was the logical target for the bombs, and that it was going to collapse on our heads at any moment.

Amid the chaos of the Russian invasion, we held out hopes that our father would somehow return, restoring us to a complete family, ready to make plans to survive the Soviet invasion together. No word ever came. With each passing week, Kabul became more and more dangerous. My Baba, my father’s father, wanted us to come to his village, just a few hours away from Kabul, but Mamai resisted. She tossed and turned at night, worrying that if we left the city, my father wouldn’t know where to find us, which was a silly fear since we had nowhere else to go but ­Baba’s village. Eventually, Baba, who was gentle but persistent, convinced Mamai that we had to go. In Kabul, children were starting to go missing. Baba said that if she didn’t leave, she would lose her children. One day the front door would be unlocked and someone would snatch us.

It was rumored that the Russians had started kidnapping children my brother’s age—­Khalid was six—­and sending them to the Soviet Union to train them to be spies for the KGB. After several little boys disappeared from our own neighborhood, Mamai had to accept that Baba was right. We packed up very few belongings and left.

Khalid was at the age when Afghan mothers begin to entertain the hope that their child might survive to adulthood, to marry and have children. Pashtuns believe that at this point a child is old enough to be separated from his mother, if necessary. Some uncles on my father’s side were heading across the border to Pakistan and took Khalid with them. There he would begin his schooling. Later I would learn that schooling was actually not the deciding factor for sending Khalid off to another country without us. The Russian soldiers were especially ruthless in killing off male children because they didn’t want these young boys to grow up and pick up weapons against the Soviet regime. Mamai, Najiba, and I went to live with Baba in Ghazni Province, where both my parents were born.

My grandfather was the mullah of his village, the religious authority and most esteemed elder. During the late seventies, mullahs were still respected and well liked by communities, and as such he was the true speen gerai—­“white-­bearded one”—­that I would, almost twenty years later, seek out in each village I visited. He was an accomplished learner and teacher—­he taught the male children in the village and at home taught my aunts how to write their names. He had traveled to Saudi Arabia to memorize the Koran. He would make us read it every evening and would translate into Pashtu the parts that he wanted to point out to us, since we could only read the Arabic. Because he was our elder, our Baba, I never knew his name when I was growing up, and it would have been disrespectful to ask. I never knew my own last name until I moved to America. People would ask what my last name was, and I would be confused, thinking they were asking me for a name I had had before. I would say, But I’ve always been Saima; that is what I was called last, too!

Baba was no taller than five feet six, but when I was a little girl, he seemed like a tower. He always wore shalwar kameez, a white cotton turban, and a light-­brown patu, a shawl worn by men. Even now, as you pass through villages all over Afghanistan, you can see men squatting by the side of the road, their patus tossed casually over their shoulders. It’s an unsettling sight for the American soldiers, as patus are often used by suicide bombers to hide explosives strapped to their chests. But when I was five, I used to go snuggle in Baba’s patu and feel invincible, like nothing—­not even the Russian bombs falling from the skies—­could touch me.

We arrived in the village as winter was approaching. I remember a wonderful fur coat that Baba wore. Against the bitter, bone-­chilling cold of Afghanistan, that fur coat was the only defense he had. He was the only man I had ever seen in a fur coat; he had inherited it from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and so on, so that no one remembered the original owner. It was gold and cream-­colored, probably sheep shearling. I could pet his arm for hours, it was so wonderfully soft. In the evening, after he’d spent the day teaching the boys, he would call Najiba and me, open his coat wide, and let us crawl into his warm embrace. He told us stories. He asked after our day. He teased us. Two little girls receiving the love and undivided attention of the most respected man in the village was unheard-­of in Pashtun culture.

At best, Pashtun parenting can be described as benign neglect. Children are largely ignored until it’s time for them to do something for their parents. A son is barely spoken to until he reaches the age of fifteen and is told to go to Saudi Arabia or some other Gulf country to get a job and make some money. A daughter receives less attention than the cow in the yard, which at least needs to be milked every morning; then one day, when she’s thirteen or fourteen, she’s told that she’s going to marry somebody on Friday. Her opinion in the matter is irrelevant.

Meet the Author

SAIMA WAHAB was born in Afghanistan, went to Pakistan as a refugee, and moved to the United States as a teenager. Since then she has become one of the only Pashtun female translators in the world, and—among other consequent roles—has returned to Afghanistan several times to work as a cultural adviser with the U.S. Army. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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In My Father's Country: A Pashtun American Daughter's Journey to Afghanistan 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Samia I wish to thank you for sharing your story, I could not put the book down. When reading about your first and subsequent deployments it was as if I was there in Afghanistan with you and my husband! You arrived at BAF the same month my husband left BAF to go to Ghazni in 2004. I learned more from reading your book than I have from my husband, military personnel tend to not share deployment information. Even if a reader does not have a connection to the military READ this book! You will learn so much more about the highly respected and very much needed interpreters who accept to be deployed to a combat area, without them our military would be lost. Kudos to all interpreters both those who are deployed from America and those who accept the assignment in country. Thank you Samia Wahab.
Compelled-to-comment More than 1 year ago
This was an amazing story! I found it to be informative and educational. I was eager for it to continue, I want to know where the story goes next. I was mesmerized by they detailed descriptions of the country and the people. Loved this book!
ccinnc More than 1 year ago
I learned about this book from Jon Stewart during his interview with Saima Wahab on "The Daily Show." This book was such an eye-opener for me. By living both the life of a young Pashtun girl in Afghanistan and then moving to America and experiencing the liberties we so easily take for granted, Saima was in a unique position to understand both cultures and do good for both of our contries. This book clarified significant difficulties our troops have had in making much progress with gaining the trust of the Pashtun people in Afghanistan. If only there were a hundred Saimas to facilitate authentic and respectful communication between our people and theirs. I really enjoyed reading this book and felt so comfortable with Saima's voice presenting her story. Her stories also gave me such a sense of pride in our troops, their true American friendliness and their willingness to be advised by Saima in ways to respectfully approach and aid these proud but rightfully suspicious people. I saw the best of what Americans can offer. I only wish she could have reached more of our armed forces to guide them. Saima Wahab is a remarkable woman. Her remarkable father and grandfather would be so proud of her.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Facinating. My son served four deployments in special ops at many of the fobs described in this book. I am glad i read it after he got out a few weeks ago. Now i can better understand what this war is about and the experience of those who serve. A wonderful book that will not be forgotten.
KPinBR More than 1 year ago
The author takes you on her journey from Afghanistan to the United States and reminds us how much of our fate is determined by where we live and our family's support. Despite losing him early, Wahab's life has been clearly driven by her father's vision for her despite other family members wanting to hold her back. Enjoyed learning more about Pashtun culture and the issues in Afghanistan which present challenges for our troops. Would have preferred a little less time on Wasab's personal relationships but overall enjoyed the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Should be mandatory reading for any us citizen in afghanistan .. it is so interesting that i read it in 3 days! I hope that her mission continues for many years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful! I couldn t put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a beautiful book
Pen12 More than 1 year ago
This book taught me a great deal about Afghan/Pashtun culture. I liked the honesty with which Ms. Wahab wrote her book. Even though there were times when I thought she wasn't very nice I appreciate that she was able to open up and share her experiences publicly. Wahab is a very conflicted and complex person and this is clearly shown in the book. She goes back and forth between being an American and a Pashtun. These two cultures are very different with respect to how women must behave and are treated, but she attempts to adopt both so as a reader you may cringe a little for the people affected by her doing this. She also talks about why Americans are perceived negatively by Afghans. I would have never guessed why this is so from watching the news, but Wahab explains it well. I found this book to be very informative. The downside for me was that it ended too suddenly. I would have liked if she would have included an epilogue explaining if she achieved her goals for going to her father's country and/or what she learned from her stays there.
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Great read!!!!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I saw Saima Wahab interviewed on tv about this book and bought it immediately. It's a real eye opener on how Americans are perceived abroad and the misunderstandings we have about other cultures....and that other cultures have about us. I admire the author's dedication to helping US troops improve relationships in Afghanistan, and her tenacity to a difficult job.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I learned a lot about Afghan culture, but the author's incredibly huge ego was distasteful and obnoxious.