Come Back to Afghanistan: Trying to Rebuild a Country with My Father, My Brother, My One-Eyed Uncle, Bearded Tribesmen, and President Karzai


The beautifully and prominently reviewed memoir by an extraordinarily courageous Afghan-American teenager, (now a student at Yale), coming of age in post 9/11 Afghanistan.

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Come Back to Afghanistan: Trying to Rebuild a Country with My Father, My Brother, My One-Eyed Uncle, Bearded Tribesmen, and Pr

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The beautifully and prominently reviewed memoir by an extraordinarily courageous Afghan-American teenager, (now a student at Yale), coming of age in post 9/11 Afghanistan.

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Editorial Reviews

Nathaniel Rich
Since so few Western journalists are stationed in Afghanistan and few venture outside Kabul, Akbar's observations are particularly illuminating. He shows how, since the early 1980's, "very modern warfare has reduced this country to a very primitive state," and laments the lack of resources devoted by the United States government to building roads and schools. He argues persuasively that the American military's practice of trading aid for intelligence has blurred the line "between militarism and humanitarianism," leading to the horrific attacks on aid groups like Doctors Without Borders; and through his encounters with rural tribal communities, we see how fragmented and bitterly divided the country remains.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Akbar's refreshingly unsentimental reminiscences of visiting his father's homeland as a teen make for an intriguing portrait of Afghanistan at a time of significant transition. On 9/11, Akbar, who was born in Peshawar in 1984 but grew up in the U.S., was living near Oakland, Calif., where his father ran a clothing store. After the attack, the elder Akbar, a descendant of an Afghan political family, returned to his country to take a job as President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman and, later, as governor of Kunar, a rural province. The author visited his father for three successive summers, and the result is this account, a closeup view of the creation of the country's post-Taliban democratic government, told from a perspective that's impressively both insider and objective. Akbar reports on chats with cabinet ministers and warlords, and sketches the lay of the land, visiting both sumptuous Kabul palaces as well as bombed-out villages. His youth and curiosity send him on some dangerous adventures (he retraces a mountain route between Afghanistan and Pakistan used by fleeing members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban), and that youthful flavor also infuses the writing with a hip stream-of-consciousness that is by turns funny, insightful and, occasionally, breathtaking. Agent, Jud Laghi. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Akbar, the lead author of this memoir, is exceptionally qualified to write about his subject. Growing up in California (he is now a junior at Yale), he combined his Pashto and Dari languages and a sense of his Afghan heritage with an American way of life. Between 2002 and 2005, his father, who had previously had strong ties with the country's president, Hamid Karzai, was summoned back to Afghanistan to serve as his press secretary and later as governor of the strategically significant and volatile province of Kunar, adjacent to Pakistan. Akbar, who accompanied his father, here provides a firsthand account of his trips back home balancing his observations and experiences of Afghanistan's sources of instability, such as tribalism and narcotics, with personal notations on American failures, such as a tortured detainee, unfulfilled promises, and a security detail that leaves President Karzai a "virtual prisoner." Overall, however, Akbar's tone is optimistic as he recognizes American officials who exemplify a "legitimate" presence and whose importance supports the quest for Afghan democratic self-determination. Coauthor Burton is coeditor of the NPR program This American Life, where portions of this book were first broadcast by the young Akbar as radio documentaries. Their partnership makes for a gripping story that is highly recommended for all libraries.-Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, Afghans living in exile began to return home in hopes of participating in rebuilding their war-torn country. Akbar's father sold his hip-hop clothing store in Oakland to join his friend Hamid Karzai, now the elected president, serving first as his spokesman and later as the governor of the remote province of Kunar. The author joined him right after he finished high school and spent three summers, first in Kabul and then in Asadabad, the provincial capital. The young man traveled through the countryside and across the mountainous border into Pakistan. Equipped with a microphone and recorder, he chronicled his experiences and his reactions for public radio's "This American Life." These immediate observations form the basis of this engaging and informative account of Afghan life and politics interwoven with a teen's reactions to his first visit to his family's native land. Because of his background and connections, his interest and knowledge of Afghan history and politics, and his language skills, Akbar was involved in his father's work in ways that most teens can only dream of. Readers are rewarded with an inside look at Afghan reconstruction that is both informative and appealing. The teen admires his father and his father's friends immensely; he dreams of being personally involved in nation-building. Readers will come away from this memoir with a strong desire to see into the young man's future and that of the country that has so entranced him.-Kathleen Isaacs, Towson University, MD Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596910683
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 10/31/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Lexile: 860L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 7.85 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Said Hyder Akbar is currently a junior at Yale University in New Haven, CT. He is also codirector and founder of his own nongovernmental organization, Wadan Afghanistan, which has rebuilt schools and constructed pipe systems in rural Kunar province. Susan Burton is a contributing editor of This American Life and a former editor at Harper's. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Come Back to Afghanistan

A California Teenager's Story


Copyright © 2005 Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-520-1

Chapter One

The guard peers into the open car window. "Where are you from?" he says.

I've been in Afghanistan for five hours. Five hours total, ever. Until I crossed the border this morning, I had never been inside the country in my entire seventeen years of life. In my pocket is a blue passport stamped United States of America, issued just months ago by the agency in San Francisco, a forty-five-minute commuter-train ride from my home. I know what I should tell the guard. But instead I say the name of the Afghan province my family's from-where I feel like I'm from, where I want to be from. "Kunar," I reply.

"Pull over," the guard says.

The taxi I'm riding in-a '99 Toyota Corolla decorated with fuzzy dice and pictures of Indian actresses-pulls to the side of this checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul. The guard strides over and says-in Dari, the Afghan language we've been speaking-that he has to do a search. I unlock my bags for him, and he sifts through my clothes. When he checks my passport, he says derisively, "Oh, you must be one of those Afghan-Americans, huh?"

"Yeah," I say, trying not to get ruffled. "I'm coming back to see my country."

Then the guard opens a small bag in which I've packed some U2 CDs. Okay, a lot of U2 CDs-more than eighty. I'm going to be in Afghanistan for the whole summer, and I want at least one form of entertainment. I'm carrying all ten of their studio albums, their singles and B-sides, bootlegs of concerts.

"What's all this?" the guard says. "What if this is bad stuff? We should test this," he announces. Now he's really just posturing; there's no stereo equipment in sight.

When at last we're allowed to pass, our driver starts cussing the guard out. "They don't do this every time," he says angrily. "It's just because you said you're from Kunar." Being from Kunar means I'm an ethnic Pashtun; the guard was an ethnic Tajik. As we approach Kabul-where I'll meet up with my father-the driver continues his screed. Little does he know I could give him a lecture of my own. For months I've been reading at the pace of a Ph.D. student about Afghanistan. But this is the first time I've been directly affected by ethnic tension, and foreknowledge or not, the actual experience feels weird.

The whole day has felt weird. I didn't expect to be transformed the moment I touched Afghan soil (or did I? ...); but I thought I could reasonably expect to feel some connection to the place. Instead I'm carsick, dust-choked, and shocked by the barren landscape; I feel no affinity with the bearded men and shrouded women in our path. The only thing that's clear to me is that I'm a total outsider. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

What was it supposed to be like? I don't know. During all the months I've spent dreaming of Afghanistan, I've never been able to put into words what I wanted to feel when I finally went inside. A rush of excitement was the best I could do. It was easier to picture actual things that might happen later, scenes here and there: walking along a street in Kabul with my father, meeting Karzai in the presidential palace, driving through mountains in an SUV actually necessitated by the terrain. A lot of kids my age dream of playing football with the pros, or making the last shot to win the basketball game. I dream of going to Kunar and helping my dad land a big UN reconstruction project. That's the kind of stuff I've been thinking about all spring; it's what goes through my mind when I'm lifting weights or running on the treadmill in my garage.

For years Afghanistan has existed only in my imagination. My dad would tell me about it, and I would learn about it and read about it, but it was a story; it wasn't real. Not long after 9/11 I bid on eBay for a National Geographic that featured an article called "Afghanistan: Crossroad of Conquerors." The issue was from September 1968-a time in Afghanistan that now seems like paradise. Radical political movements had yet to gain significant momentum. There were universities in Kabul, moderate social mores, and European college students traipsing through as they wound their way to Kathmandu along the "Hippie Trail." There were archaeologists digging for Paleolithic tools instead of dogs sniffing for landmines; farmers tending wheat instead of poppies in the agricultural countryside. These were the days in which my parents met in Kabul and married. My mom can go on for hours.

I won the auction for the National Geographic, and when it came, I paged through it. A photograph of the Kabul stadium later notorious as a site of the Taliban's public executions offered no hint of the field's grim future; it was cheerily festooned as if for the Rose Bowl. Another picture showed a woman with makeup and a stylish haircut. But my favorite photograph in the issue showed a countryside landscape that seemed not to have changed for four hundred years. A man herded cattle along a path. In the background there were desertlike hills, but also green grass, and a rushing blue river. In the middle of the river was a rock with a house set on it. I'd stare at the picture, wondering how the person who lived in the house on the rock got home across the water.

My house in California is on a cul-de-sac, and I get there the regular way teenagers in California do, whipping around the corner, playing music loud in the car. I usually park on the street, because our garage is filled with gym equipment and extra kitchen stuff for my mom-a second freezer full of meat, sacks of rice so big I'm the only one who can carry them inside. We live in a town house, meaning that our house shares a wall with the house next door. I'll come in and sit down in the living room. Sometimes my sister-in-law Sofia will be over, playing with my little nephew, Ali, who's one. Ali will take a Tootsie Roll from the bowl on the coffee table and try to eat the wrapper as well as the candy; Sofia will reach inside his mouth and pull the wet paper out. Sofia and Ali and my brother Omar, a mortgage broker, live nearby. (I also have two sisters: Mariam, who's twenty-nine, and Zulikha, who's twenty-five.) Omar's thirty-one, fourteen years older than I am, and I've really looked up to him. Sofia says that when I was about eight years old, I would follow Omar everywhere-even to the bathroom, where I'd stand outside the door and wait for him to come out.

Omar's one of those people everyone looks up to. On his very first day at an American high school, a girl left a note with her phone number and the message "Call me" under the windshield wiper of his car. "This girl left me a note. What should I do?" Omar asked my dad. "Come back to Afghanistan over summer break," my father responded immediately. (It was more of an order than a suggestion.)

As a teenager, Omar sometimes traveled in Afghanistan with my father; one summer they went along with some rebel troops my father financed. We have a home video with footage of this trip and others. The beginning of the video is messed up-someone accidentally taped part of an episode of Chicago Hope over it. When the action begins, you see a line of mujahedeen-holy warriors-hiking up a mountain trail; Omar marches behind my father, grinning at the camera. His pakol is pulled over his eyes at a purposely odd angle, like a kid with his baseball hat on weird. When the mujahedeen come to a stop and launch rockets at the Russians, the sound explodes into our living room. A man prays that the missiles will hit their targets. In another scene men nibble at hunks of snow they cup in their hands. They ate a lot of snow, Omar says; it was a condiment for biscuits. Sometimes they'd be sitting there eating, and Russian helicopters would buzz overhead and everyone would drop his biscuit and just start running.

To regroup, they all might stop at a cave. "Like a regular room," Omar says, "but a room in a mountain." When you slice open some rocks, you find crystals inside; if you cut away these outcroppings, you'd find generators, refrigerators, and microwaves. One day Omar visited a cave in the province of Paktia outfitted with a sofa, maps for strategizing attacks, and flowered teacups.

That same day, Omar tells me, the mujahedeen captured a major Communist post. Their commander was Jallaluddin Haqqani, who was then a close friend of my father's, and had invited him along on this trip. (Haqqani now appears near Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar on the Americans' most-wanted list.)

The Communists captured that day were to be killed on the spot. At the time my father was reporting for Voice of America, and he had a tape recorder with him. Before the prisoners were killed, they were brought to my father to be interviewed. He asked them a couple of basic questions like "Why do you fight against the mujahedeen?"

The prisoners trembled. They said, "Could you please turn your recorder off? I just want to tell you something personally."

"I'm innocent," they said, the minute the tape recorder was off, the words tumbling out of their mouths. "I'm not guilty. So if they kill me, you're going to become guilty."

"I've never seen human beings like that," Omar told me. "In their eyes they were almost already dead."

Before the mujahedeen killed the prisoners, they gave them a banana. The minute they had eaten their last banana, the soldiers took them behind a rock. Then they shot them.

Haqqani tossed a gun to Omar. "Here," he said. "You want to kill one?" It was a hospitable gesture, like offering a guest tea and snacks at your house.

"No," Omar said.

"They are going to get killed anyway," Haqqani said.

Omar understood; he just didn't want to do it. Though he had a personal stake in the conflict-he'd grown up in Afghanistan, been uprooted by the war-it wasn't the same for him as it was for the mujahedeen, who had been fighting for years and had lost brothers, fathers, and families. As certain as Omar was that he didn't want to kill a Communist, they were certain that they did.

Conservative estimates of the Afghan death toll during the Soviet war hover around one million, but the figure is probably much closer to two million. During those years, approximately one third of the population (then between 14 and 17 million) fled the country; at one point half of all refugees in the world were Afghans. My family and I were among them.

My parents settled in Peshawar, Pakistan, not long after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. Among the Russian troops' targets that night was Kabul Radio, which was run by the government and was headed by my dad. Now, whenever I go to a bookstore, the first thing I do with any new book they have about Afghanistan is turn to the index and look up Kabul Radio. The books describe that first night and the ten-year war that followed. Peshawar became a sort of staging ground for the resistance, a place where people came and checked in and then went back into the country to fight. A baby photograph of me dressed up as a mujahed-a rocket launcher positioned behind me in our living room-embodies the spirit of the times.

Of course, I remember nothing of Peshawar; I left for America in 1987, when I was two. A young cousin of mine had been kidnapped, and though he was safely returned, my brother and I were at risk; the abductors had been after us. My mother wanted to get us out. Leaving my father behind to continue his work, we flew to the United States and moved into an apartment near relatives in Alexandria, Virginia. Many Afghan refugees lived near San Francisco, and we soon moved to the Bay Area, too.

My father came to visit when he could. I didn't like to be alone with him; he was unfamiliar to me. My mother and father both speak the Afghan language Pashto, but they grew up in different provinces, and there are regional variations. On one visit-I must have been about three-my father asked me to close the door. I was confused; I didn't understand the word he'd used for door. "Close the door," he said again. Then he thought I was ignoring him, and he got a little mad. "Close the door!" he yelled. I ran to my mother, crying.

Back in Peshawar, one of my father's closest friends was a famous mujahedeen commander named Abdul Haq. After Kabul Radio, the next thing I look up in any book about Afghanistan is Abdul Haq. If it means anything to say you have a hero, mine would be Abdul Haq. Most of the mujahedeen commanders weren't able to explain their struggle to the world. They were fighters, not great communicators. But Abdul Haq was a visionary. He understood both Islam and the West and saw how they could exist together. He met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House and with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London. His intelligence was equaled by his bravery. One night during the war he stumbled into a landmine. Hours later, with a knife and without any anesthetic, a doctor amputated Abdul Haq's foot. (Now, many years after the Soviet war, Afghanistan is still one of the world's most heavily landmined countries.)

In 1989 Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in defeat, but for the next few years a Communist government still controlled the country. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Communist regime in Kabul finally crumbled. My father assumed a diplomatic position in the new mujahedeen-led government. He was posted to the Afghan embassy in India and asked us to join him there. It all happened in a span of just weeks. "Sell everything," my mother told my aunt, giving her the keys to our apartment. But in Delhi we monitored the nightly radio broadcasts from Afghanistan with increasing despair. The Communists were gone, but now the mujahedeen were ruining everything by fighting among themselves. My father observed as much on his trips to Kabul: civil war was raging, and the prospects for a resolution were bleak.

When the Taliban emerged, my father sent us back to the United States. My mother and I returned to California and moved in with my grandmother. She lived in a home for the elderly, and we all shared a single room. I was about eleven years old and don't have good memories of that place. I was having a hard time in general. My cousin Yossef, who'd been my best friend when I left, seemed a lot different from me. He-and everyone else-now listened to this new thing called rap music. In school the teacher asked me to read aloud, and I embarrassed myself by standing up to do so, as was the custom in India. But I was so young that it was easy to adjust. Soon I was playing football, renting video games at Blockbuster, and trying out snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.

Meanwhile the Taliban were taking over Afghanistan. Though they at first seemed like a collection of upright religious students determined to restore order, their repressive ideology soon revealed itself. (So did the extent of their financial and military support from Pakistan, a country that has long been working against Afghanistan's best interests.) In this political climate, my father's life was at risk, and in 1996 he, like many of his peers, resigned himself to the fact that the long struggle for Afghanistan had, at least temporarily, reached a dead end. My father joined us in the Bay Area, and this time he was here to stay.

We moved into our house in Concord, a typical suburb with a Starbucks, a Safeway, and a Barnes & Noble. By the standards of the Afghan community here, my family is moderate-politically, religiously, socially. (For example, the women in our family do not cover their hair, but if I had a girlfriend, I wouldn't be able to talk about it.) At home our family speaks Pashto. My mother knows little English; my father taught himself during his years in Peshawar, and though he has a good grasp of the language, he underestimates his competence in it, often deferring to me to help him find the right word. (Though usually he will ignore my suggestion, or get impatient waiting for it, and decide to speak up himself.)

One day in the summer of 2001 I was up in my room, looking around for some live U2 concert tapes on eBay, when I heard my father calling me.

"Hyder!" he yelled. "Stop playing at the computer. Come downstairs."

Since it was my father, I hurried, running down to the living room. There was my father. And there was Abdul Haq.

I don't know how else to put it: literally, my jaw dropped. "Salaam alaikum," I said. Peace be with you.

"Salaam alaikum," Abdul Haq replied. He came forward and gave me the traditional Afghan greeting: a hug, a kiss on one cheek, then the other.


Excerpted from Come Back to Afghanistan by SAID HYDER AKBAR Susan Burton Copyright © 2005 by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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