An Interview with Said Hyder Akbar
Ever since we invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, I have wondered just what it is like for the people in that country. News reports give us only the slightest glimpse of life in Kabul and other major cities, and even then it always presented with an unseen political agenda. The major networks and cable stations all fell over themselves recently to tell us about the cartoon riots, but what is being said around the average middle class Afghani dinner table is a mystery no one seems able to solve. We went to this country to save it, we said, but we don’t seem to have been too interested before or since as to what individual Afghanis think or feel or do. Call me crazy, but it seems like we should at least take the time to learn about a place we are occupying. It’s a small thing really, but if 9/11 has taught us anything at all, it is that we can not ignore any part of the world, no matter how distant or foreign. We don't have the luxury anymore.
But deciding to learn about Afghanistan and then actually finding books that are both smart and readable are two very different things. Peter Hopkirk has chronicled the story of Britain and Russia and why Afghanistan mattered so much historically to the West in The Great Game. And Artyom Borovik went behind the lines to tell the truth behind the Soviet invasion in his riveting (and tragic) account, The Hidden War. History matters in Afghanistan, as much as it does in every other country in the world, and reading about it goes a long way towards understanding just how the Taliban gained power there in the first place. But contemporary accounts, titles that cover the recent shift in power and advent of democracy, are few and far between. When I first saw Said Hyder Akbar’s memoir, Come Back to Afghanistan, I was skeptical -- I honestly was not sure if a California teenager, even one born in Pakistan of Afghani parents, could do an effective job of telling the story of any country, let alone one with such complexities. I was wrong about that, though. Hyder Akbar has written a truly compelling book about all that is right and wrong in Afghanistan. He has succeeded on every level in what he hoped to accomplish, and indeed has managed to “give people an unbiased and honest account on what is going on in Afghanistan, and to do it in an accessible way.”
Hyder had a very unique relationship with Afghanistan. His entire family is from the country and deeply involved in its politics. (For example, his grandfather Said Shammsuddin Majrooh was the architect of the country’s 1964 constitution.) After the Soviet invasion his parents settled in Pakistan and then in 1987 moved to the U.S. when Hyder was only two-years old and he was basically raised to be an American child. His connections to Afghanistan were through stories and visiting family and friends. Mostly he learned about it from books, but none of that research could give him what he wanted and needed: a true knowledge of the place that was his home. After the Taliban were forced out, Hyder’s father was contacted by an old friend, Hamid Karzai, and invited back to join the new government. He went, and at the first possible chance, Hyder went on to join him.
It is important to realize that Hyder did not go to Afghanistan with an agenda; he did not have heady dreams of writing a book and attaining some level of fame. The one thing he did have prearranged was a radio documentary on the radio program This American Life. The response to his segments was very positive and along with Susan Burton, a contributing editor on the show, he later decided to write a book. “Radio is a limited medium,” Hyder explained to me recently. “There is only so much that you can say on an hour of radio. So we thought working on a book would help us explain the complexities of Afghanistan in a more nuanced way."
Because Hyder was thinking about the radio show when he went overseas, he recorded nearly every conversation he had. He also kept a written diary (in which he reported his nearly nonstop episodes of illness) and videotaped everything for his siblings, who were eager to see the places they remembered from childhood. This explains the extraordinary amount of detail in Come Back to Afghanistan and puts to rest any initial concerns that readers might have about the book’s veracity. Ultimately he told “the story of my country and of my own life. But,” he explained further, “in this context I would hope that this personal story has helped illuminate a larger political one.”
The difficulty most Americans seem to have with Afghanistan, as Hyder sees it, is that “most reporting on Afghanistan lacks historical context and a deep understanding of the country; the presentation is oversimplified to the point that Afghanistan seems to be forever cemented in the minds of most Americans as this far-flung place with bearded warriors, caves and burqas.” He’s dead-on with that assessment. We are very concerned about women’s rights in distant countries (but not in South Dakota apparently), but we don’t have a clear understanding of what they eat for dinner or how they manage to find food during a firefight. Big ideas are what fuel the West, and daily problems generally elude us. Hyder wanted to see just what those daily issues were like in this country he did not know, and by writing his memoir/travelogue, he found all the answers we could ever want.
Hyder’s father ended up working as President Karzai’s chief spokesman and then later became governor of the Kunar province. (He is now in the U.S. recovering from heart surgery but plans to return to the country soon.) Hyder was with him during summer vacations from school in California and even managed on his visits to cross the border into Pakistan, witness the verbal interrogation of an Afghani prisoner by Americans (a prisoner who later died under what became suspicious circumstances that warranted a U.S. investigation) and spent a lot of time traveling around the countryside asking questions. He learned to shoot and also to recognize the frequent sounds of friendly versus unfriendly fire. He saw his father suffer numerous frustrations with the Americans, the Afghani government and the various factions who had their own personal reasons for wanting democracy to fail. He learned about warlords and what they controlled in the country and why. Because of who his father was, and the many family and friends he had in the country, Hyder was able to have conversations with a lot of people who were unwilling to speak with western journalists. And he learned that, “Afghanistan, because of its volatility, remoteness, ruggedness, and all sorts of other complexities that come with over two decades of war, is an incredibly hard place to penetrate. That leads to most of the problems with how the media or, the publishing world in general, deals with Afghanistan. Most reporters are not able to go out and get the story in a place like Afghanistan so this leads to a lack of material to work with -- as opposed to a place like Iran, where interest has resulted in a huge rise of books about the country.”
So what do we do now? How do we even find out what we don’t know about Afghanistan? The biggest misconception most Americans have about the country is that it had a long association with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. “What most people haven’t grasped yet," explains Hyder, “is that these people really have little to do with Afghanistan historically or culturally; they just found a state so out of control that they could come in and set up shop. None of the attackers from September 11th were Afghan; none of the major figures of al-Qaeda that have been captured later on have been Afghans.”
We are in Afghanistan now. Isn’t it way past time that we start trying, finally, to understand just what that country is all about?
Hyder Akbar has written a wonderful book that manages to encompass not only a great deal of the modern history of Afghanistan, but also the very personal story of one American teenager who went in search of his family’s history and found instead a whole country’s past. Hyder fell in love with Afghanistan, something that in retrospect, I am sure he was destined to do. The bonus for all of us is that he was able to convey so effectively his deep emotion for this place he initially barely knew. I can not stress enough how important this book is, how relevant it is, how easy it is to read. I learned a lot from Hyder Akbar’s story, and I loved every minute of that education. This is, quite frankly, the book that everyone should be reading this year. We owe at least that much to the Afghani people; we owe at least the time it takes to sit down and learn a little bit about their country.
Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton