Life After Ruins

I was raised on stories of a glorious Afghanistan. “Most beautiful country in the world” is how my father described his homeland during my childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s. He’d been living in the United States for a while by then, since the late 1970s, and he watched the war in Afghanistan unfold every night on Dan Rather’s evening news. The Soviet occupation. The mujahideen’s resistance. The trail of American money and weapons that we believed was military aid. My father was sure, one day, our family would be going back. Never mind that he was the only one of us who’d ever been there. My Mom was a second-generation Slovak-American Special Ed teacher whose heroes included Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey, and my siblings and I were all born in rural delivery rooms at a tiny hospital in upstate New York. Yet my father operated as if everyone in our nuclear family were temporarily displaced, like him, waiting for our Afghan return. As soon as the war was over, we were going back.

This feeling was shared by all the Afghan émigrés who socialized with my family at the time. There was an intense cultural cohesion among this group of exiles from Kabul, the educated, bourgeois elite, the first to get out when the war began. Whether it was a national or regional bond, I’m not sure. It wasn’t the sort of nationalist pride I’m used to seeing in the States. There was no guns, no combative postures, no defensive slurs to keep others out. Some of my Afghan aunties were proud of being Westernized, they wore thick makeup and high heels, but they hung out happily with their sisters in hijab, all of them cooking dinner together in whoever's kitchen we'd congregated in that Saturday afternoon. My father’s Afghan friends included a guy who installed a swimming pool in his backyard, and whose his daughter, in an actual bathing suit, dove into the deep end during parties. (As a Muslim kid, this seemed pretty scandalous to me.) And his friends included refugees of more humble means, in traditional perhan tumban, who struggled to make sense of this foreign land and married their daughters off when they turned eighteen. (This seemed scandalous to me too.)

With all their cultural diversity, the Afghans of my childhood seemed to share a soft, confident, loving kind of national connection. A sense of belonging that pulled them back in so they could be whole again. A community based on a land that no substitute could replace—and until we returned, weekend Afghan Parties would have to do. I’ve never lived in Afghanistan. I’m an immigrant’s kid. I've absorbed Afghan culture in displaced contexts. But that’s what I felt. I grew up on that expat Afghan aura, and it told me that I didn’t totally belong here in the States. The Americans I knew didn’t know how to sit down and talk quietly and cook for hours and laugh and look at each other and turn off the television and enjoy a cup of tea. One day we’re going back.

One day my father broke out a couple dozen postcards of Afghanistan. I don’t know where they came from. The Afghan mementos and trinkets in my childhood were like that—tea cups, prayer rugs, Persian carpets, bronze plates—these items mysteriously appeared in our home. The postcards he decided to arrange into a collage in a large picture frame. He liked my handwriting so he had me write out افغانستان on a sheet of paper. (That’s Afghanistan in Persian script.) If anyone were to be confused, he wanted to be clear: these postcards represented Afghanistan.

They were souvenirs of tourist hot spots, frozen in the 1970s, stuck in time. These were my visual references for the Afghanistan my father and his friends obsessed over. Before the internet, before searchable image databases, there were the Buddhas of Bamyan in my rural New York State living room. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Some amazing blue body of water with rocky cliffs, which I later figured out was Band-e Amir. Meanwhile, on TV, Afghanistan was reduced to exploding bombs and mujahideen rocketing missiles into the air. The Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen—everyone had their own ideas for the future of Afghanistan. We should have known, but somehow no one admitted, the dissonance between the fading postcard hotspots and the news-report detonations—it was real.

One of those living-room postcards showed the Darulaman Palace in Kabul, the royal castle of King Amanullah, constructed in the 1920s, after the third Afghan-Anglo War. (This is the image at the top of this essay.) The palace’s name is a Persian pun. It means “place of peace” and also “home of Aman"—the king’s promise that the war was over, peace was here, and political progress, represented by the European architecture, was on its way. I have a Lonely Planet guide book to Afghanistan, published ten years ago. It warns against getting too close to Darulaman today: “The palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don’t explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordinances (UXOs) in the area."

This is what Darulaman looked like after decades of civil war.

Darulaman Palace after many decades of US-USSR Cold War and the subsequent civil war. Source: Wikipedia Commons.


I live a double professional life. In one version of myself, I've been working on a childhood memoir about growing up as the daughter of an Afghan-Muslim father and Slovak-Catholic American mother, who unhappily raised seven kids and who fought (constantly and violently) over my future and my identity. My memoir's narrator is an Afghan-American concerned with ethnic diaspora, Islamophobia, racism, and the geopolitics of the Cold War. As a girl, she read the Qur’an, prayed five times daily, wore headscarves over her hair, and absorbed a lot of inter-generational family trauma. We lived in rural New York State, and I grew up with forest as my backyard. I played with bugs, climbed trees, caught toads before they could jump into our muddy pond. Some classic Huck Finn nature stuff: hanging out in the woods to get as far as possible from my physical home, to escape dysfunctional family.

The other side of my double life, the part I have more recognition and institutional support for, comes from those wilderness countryside experiences—at least that’s what I thought for a while. I am an environmental artist, and I founded and now direct an Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Rochester. I earned a PhD in English originally, but I eventually found that I was motivated more by creative interactions with the public than by literary scholarship and I gravitated toward a new artistic genre called “social practice.” My latest projects engage with communities to resuscitate ancient food practices and environmental wonder in an effort to heal a cultural memory disorder that my collaborator, Cary Adams, and I have been so bold to name “Industrial Amnesia.” This is our term for the memory and imagination loss caused by industrialized consciousness. As new techno-science innovations, and colonial occupations, replace slower, more local, self-reliant, or indigenous, and perhaps less convenient practices, we want to know, do we also lose a slower, more contemplative and connected part of our souls? Except for a few individuals who have looked at me with a curious, questioning eye, my audiences mostly assume I am ethnically, culturally, religiously neutral—that is, a passable-white girl with a big affinity for Thoreau. But this environmental work is also Afghan.

It took me a long time to realize how this works.

These two sides of my life rarely touch. Perhaps I’ve been purposefully, unconsciously protecting them from each other—not an uncommon experience, I believe, for those of us whose personal lives and professional survival speak different languages, or for those of us whose most intimate, familial, ethnic experiences are not reflected in the disciplining whiteness of our national culture. I kept my two worlds and my two practices separate. I didn’t have a clear narrative to articulate their connection, to synthesize my two souls. If media, institutions, journalists, critics, and power structures need anything, it’s a digestible narrative, highly processed and refined, and I didn’t have one. Any experience that falls out of the frame—good luck being understood. (Don’t make anyone think too hard. That would be intellectual self-reliance, an idea I got from Thoreau, who was worried, back in 1854, that it was going extinct. There's that Industrial Amnesia again.)

This excerpt is presented here as a preview.
The full essay has been published in ASAP/J, the open-access platform of ASAP/Journal.
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