9/11 in Little Kabul: Members of the largest Afghan-American community discuss how the personal became political in the decade since 9/11.
Originally published by Al Jazeera Sept. 8, 2011
By Ali M Latifi
On a September morning in 2001, a then-18-year-old Layma Murtaza was speeding through the streets of Fremont, California, home to the largest population of Afghans in the US. She was running late for a class at Ohlone College, a popular post-high school destination for many Afghan-Americans like Murtaza.
As her black Toyota Celica sped past the palm trees of Fremont’s historic Niles district, she did not turn on the radio. And as she left her car to walk through the Spanish Mission-meets-MC Escher-style campus, Murtaza was too pre-occupied to notice the silence.
She had one stop before class, the library, where she first encountered other students that morning; some were sitting on the ground, others standing. All had their eyes glued to televisions.
Rushing, Murtaza placed her textbook in the Xerox machine. As she pressed the start button and heard the familiar sound of paper shuffling and gears turning, she casually glanced at the television screen, where she saw an image that has become all-too-familiar in the days since – “airplanes flying into these really large buildings”. Those images would be replayed hundreds of times over the course of the following days.
Just a few miles south, at Newark Memorial High School, from which Murtaza had recently graduated, 16-year-old Bilal Askaryar had just arrived to class. In the span of that 90-minute lesson, he would go from hearing for the first time that someone had bombed the World Trade Center to being told by a classmate “your country ruined New York”.
“I will never forget that day; you could feel the tension. There was no way it couldn’t affect you,” says Murtaza.
In the days and years that followed, Murtaza, Askaryar, and other members of their community would see identities they had taken for granted challenged and complicated as their homeland and host land became deeply intertwined.
Afghanistan and the US have long had tangential ties to one another. Lashkar Gah in Helmand province used to be called Amrika kochak (Little America), due to the number of Americans living there and the money the US had spent on construction in the provincial capital. Then came the largest-ever covert CIA operation during the Cold War when, during the 1980s, the US funnelled weapons to mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet occupation of the country. But from the moment three airplanes carrying Saudi, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Emirati terrorists hit those buildings in New York and Virginia, the US and Afghanistan became inextricably tied in a manner never seen before.
Fear and hope
“Directly after 9/11, Afghans were standing right on the line between fear and hope,” says Mir Tamim Ansary, author of Destiny Disrupted. As the child of an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary had lived the ties between Afghanistan and the US from a very young age in Kabul. Like many now US-based Afghans who could not recognise a homeland distorted by Taliban-imposed practices, he hoped “that an American intervention would … open up opportunities for Afghans in America to reconnect with their country”.
Askaryar, who had been following the brutality of the Taliban regime, feared wholesale destruction by American forces in the Central Asian nation where he was born. “I was worried it would be an indiscriminate blitz. That they would make no distinction in killing regular Afghans versus killing actual terrorists,” he says. But despite those fears, Askaryar and others, who had seen images of chadori-clad women being executed at the Afghan national football stadium, were hopeful for an end to Taliban rule.
Law student Mirwais Haider says that as an Afghan-American, it was nearly impossible not to hear about strict Taliban policies on “everything from music to women’s nail polish”.
“We only had expectations of peace, prosperity, and rebuilding,” says Rona Popal, the executive director of the Afghan Coalition, the largest Afghan-American organisation in the US.
But as the international media turned its attention to Afghanistan, Afghan-Americans often found themselves conflicted. Mohammad Qayoumi, who in 2006 became the first Afghan-American university president, believes the Western media has been guilty of employing the over-used term “tribalism” when referring to Afghanistan.
“If they just look at how life in Afghanistan was 30 or 40 years ago, they would get a very different picture,” he says, stressing that the Central Asian nation has long had thriving urban centres.
Askaryar recalls how when the US first went to Afghanistan in October 2001, the media began “portraying certain Afghans very heroically. It was back to Cold War portrayal of Afghans as brave freedom fighters fighting on the same side as America”.
This lionisation of what came to be known as the “Northern Alliance” by the Western media was something that young Afghans, desperate for a more positive image of their culture, gravitated towards. “People started wearing pakols,” the hats made famous by Ahmad Shah Massood, “and talking about Tora Bora”, Askaryar says.
But for Popal and older Afghans who had vivid memories of escaping the Soviet and civil wars, the heroic image bestowed upon Massood, who was murdered by two Tunisian suicide bombers on September 9, 2001, was the beginning of a troubling trend in terms of US-Afghan relations. “The Afghan people wanted justice but they brought the warlords back,” says Popal of the unease Afghans felt towards alliances made between feared Cold War-era figures like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Back at square one
Many were deeply disappointed by the empowering of the very figures that had led them to flee Afghanistan. The events of the subsequent decade have left some like Popal asking: “Why are we back at square one?”
While the majority of Afghan-Americans had seen US intervention as “a very positive step, in the last 10 years that opinion has shifted to disillusionment”, says Qayoumi. This is largely because rather than engaging with Afghans, both on the ground and in the diaspora, the US and international community turned to people who know little of Afghanistan’s long history and culture, explains Popal.
“The Afghan expatriates have no role [in] shaping the destiny [of] Afghanistan,” says Popal, who testified before the US congress in 1996 and 1998 about human rights violations under the Taliban.
For Haider, a 10-year-long foreign troop presence has left Afghanistan right back where it started. “While the Taliban are ousted from power, the people know that they still exist. They are still on the streets and continuing to resist … as they did when it began almost a decade ago.”
Askaryar says that after 9/11, Afghan-Americans suddenly became tokens in US society. “I’m so sorry for what we’re doing to your country,” was a phrase they commonly heard. But for Popal and Qayoumi, those words went to waste as Afghans were forced to watch as people with very little knowledge of their homeland dominated the political discourse.
This, coupled with a global economic downturn, has created a situation where Afghans in the diaspora have had to work in peripheral roles as translators and cultural interpreters for the American military or private contractors to make ends meet in the US, rather than being on the front lines of decision-making.
For Ansary this phenomenon is best embodied in a conversation he had with an older Afghan woman. “In the old days, we’d send one son to America work and send money back to the family. Now we’re in America and we send one son to Afghanistan to work and send money home to support the rest of us,” she told him.
The Afghan woman as archetype
Popal, who has long championed the rights of Afghan women, says she saw the initial concern over their plight as a positive step and a validation of the pleas she felt had fallen on largely deaf ears for nearly a decade. “Nobody cared until 9/11 happened … We were very happy that finally the world saw what was really going on in Afghanistan.”
Though she too was happy that the issue was finally gaining traction, Murtaza could not help but question why the spotlight had suddenly been turned on the women of Afghanistan, while the other abuses endured by Afghans were largely ignored.
“It’s very important for us to be there and help these people, but I don’t think that was the intention,” says Murtaza, who suspected that the newfound concern for Afghan women was used to make Afghans look barbaric. Ultimately, however, she reconciled herself to the idea that any progress was positive.
What she could not understand, though, was that as the media suddenly began to speak of the rights of Afghan women, Afghan girls in the US who had chosen to wear the hijab were suddenly made to feel that they had to take it off.
In what she describes as a “counter-attack”, Murtaza, who grew up in a family of professional women who did not wear the hijab even in Afghanistan, began to don the chador (veil). “I put it on to say I’m going to stand up for you guys,” says Murtaza, who expected stares from non-Muslims but was shocked by the reaction from some Afghans who would ask: “Why would you want to be associated with that type of culture? Why would you want to be associated with a Muslim identity when they are trying to ruin our country?”
For Askaryar, this reaction was an embodiment of another layer of an already complex identity. “Muslim and Afghan aren’t things that people associate with American. Narrow-minded people would say Americans can’t be Muslim. Narrow-minded Muslims would say you can’t be Muslim and American.”
Big trouble in Little Kabul
For decades, Afghan-Americans in the Bay Area would go to the Maiwand Market for nan-e-Afghani (Afghan bread), to Salang Pass Restaurant for bolani (potato or leek-filled Afghan vegan flatbread), to Pamir Market for noqol (sugar-coated almonds), and to the Park Cinema for the latest Afghan cinema or Bollywood blockbusters.
The presence of these Afghan-run businesses, named after cultural and geographic landmarks in Afghanistan, led to the commercial area in Fremont’s historic Centerville region being dubbed “Little Kabul”.
But when, in 2004, calls were made for the area to be officially renamed “Little Kabul”, locals were shocked by the backlash. A group calling themselves “The Committee to Reclaim Centerville” has recently launched a campaign to prevent the name change.
“There is a Chinatown, there is a Japantown, why not a Little Kabul?” asks Popal, who says Afghan-Americans are merely looking for an identity to pass on to their children.
Ansary, who grew up between Afghan and American identities, says that for too long the identity passed on to American-born Afghan-Americans like Murtaza and Haider has been based on their parents’ stories and faded photographs. “They go to school, they’re in America and they have to become a certain kind of person to survive and fit in; then they go home and they’re in a sort of imitation of Afghanistan; and they have to become a completely different person to fit in.” In a post-9/11 world, Ansary says this has created a “more wrenching dilemma of having to seek their sense of self in the very thing that the larger society around them is savaging and deriding”.
The last 10 years may have made Haider, Murtaza (both US-born), and Askaryar (who left Kabul as a child) ask themselves difficult questions about deeply personal issues they had previously taken for granted, but each say the ordeal has ultimately made them feel more American.
Haider, who is the first member of his family to be born in the US, says that despite his objections to certain US policies in Afghanistan, he feels “blessed to have the opportunity to utilise the resources this country provides … to eventually serve as a bridge between Afghans in America and those in the motherland”.
For Askaryar and Murtaza, the last decade has helped them surmount two very common barriers to hyphenated identities – race and politics. Murtaza, like Haider, says she cannot necessarily reconcile the conflict between her own feelings and certain elements of US foreign policy, but that conflict does not make her less American. This last decade has helped her answer the eternal question of “am I Afghan or am I American?” To that, Murtaza, who only recently began referring to herself as Afghan-American replies “at the end of the day I’m both”.
Only a decade prior, Askaryar says he felt like an outsider in the US. “Other people didn’t accept me as American and I didn’t accept myself as American.” Askaryar says part of that inability to fully accept himself as American came from the belief that “America was only for white people”.
In what some may find a strange twist, the response to post-9/11 policies like the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq was pivotal in helping Askaryar to accept his identity as an American. Askaryar, who attended protests against the invasion of Iraq, says “it made me realise that people could stand up for their civil liberties and civil rights”. The post-9/11 atmosphere turned Little Kabul into an ideological battleground, and led Askaryar to a quintessentially American conclusion. “Feeling that other people may think I’m not American made me feel like I am American, this is my country. It’s as much mine as yours and my opinion is just as valid as yours.”