Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

A Journey’s End: Returning to Kabul after three decades

Ali M Latifi 8 min

Nearly 30 years ago, the mother of AAN guest author Ali M. Latifi fled Kabul from the Soviet-backed regime, holding her three children by the hand. Shortly before this year’s Ramadan began, she came back for the first time. She wanted to visit Ali, her youngest child, who now works in Kabul. And she wanted to see what had become of her city. Ali M. Latifi describes how the phantoms of his mother’s past – memories of brutal torture of relatives in the Pul-e Charkhi prison as well as of enchanted nights at the Park Cinema – struggled with the sight of the new Kabul.

This photo shows AAN author Ali M. Latifi as a little boy (left) by the hand of his mother as well as the rest of the Latifi family. It was probably taken not long after they fled Kabul. Photo: private

My mother was not much older than I am now, still in her early thirties, when her entire life was uprooted.

The day we left Afghanistan, the woman who had walked the streets of Kabul in mini-skirts and Chanel-style sun-glasses put a chadari over her head and grabbed her three children by the hand, myself three years old at the time. She led us out of our home in quiet and green Karte Seh. ‘No one could know we were fleeing. We had to make it look like we were going out for the day’, she would say each time she recounted the story to me. While we boarded buses that would bring us to Pakistan, our first stop, my father made the same journey by foot. Our frantic movements were directed by qachaqbarha – smugglers. My parents, a doctor and a nurse, had handed over nearly everything they had earned in Kabul and Kandahar to these men, hoping their children would not have to grow up in war.

In the years to come, I would often imagine the stillness of the house we left behind. Clothes still hanging in the closets, food in the refrigerator, toys on the floor, pictures of picnics in Paghman and military parades in Kabul in their frames. But the people whose memories had made the house into a home were already on a journey that would span three nations and two continents.

It was 26 years after this journey, shortly before the start of this year’s Ramadan, that my mother returned to Afghanistan for the first time. She had come to visit me, her youngest child. She came to see what was left of the city she remembered from three decades previously.

Memories of night-time raids and relatives in prison

Like so many well-to-do Kabul-based families at the time, the personal and the political had been deeply intertwined for my parents.

Shortly after the 1978 Saur Revolution my maternal grandfather and my great uncle had been accused of plotting a coup by the government of Hafizullah Amin.(1) For me and my cousins, the detailed accounts of the brutal torture our grandfather and great uncle endured in Pul-e-Charkhi prison were the stories that defined our childhood. My parents and older sister still vividly remember the night-time raids, the blacked-out windows, desperate attempts to visit the family members held in communist prison and the constant fear of another relative being thrown into jail.

Yet, here I was, hosting my mother in Kabul, in the city where I work as a journalist and that the Taliban already attacked several times this year as part of their so-called spring offensive – the personal and the political intertwined again.

In the weeks leading up to her arrival I wondered: would the phantoms of a mostly sheltered and charmed life in the last days of the kingdom leave her utterly disenchanted with the new Islamic Republic? Or, would she see what I saw in September 2011 when I came back to Afghanistan as a grown man – a nation full of people who speak my language, share the same culture and tell the same jokes I had heard throughout my childhood in Little Kabul, the Afghan community in Fremont, California?

Would she be taken aback by the begging women, anonymous in their chadaris, squatting with their hands out next to a bakery, or the men hobbling along on one foot and asking drivers for money, or the small children selling everything from gum to incense-doused prayers? Or would she appreciate the street-side cobblers and bolani sellers and the little boys directing donkey carts full of firewood, all energetically trying to propel their lives forward?

I saw that it hit her like a train as soon as she stepped out on the streets for the first time: her ‘Paris of the Stans’, at that time a city with a little more than 470,000 people, had become a metropolis of five million people. A thick stream of human beings, manoeuvering erratically through a ‘Ring of Steel’, on bumpy dirt and gravel roads.

She said herself that she was shocked. She felt a brief reprieve visiting the graves of her father – former chief of staff of King Zaher Shah – and her father-in-law, a former cultural attaché at the Afghan embassy in Egypt and later head of Kabul Radio. ‘Washing their graves, it was like I was in that life again…’ Suddenly she was taken back to the Park Cinema on Friday nights where Suleiman, the ticket-taker would manipulate the seating arrangements to help with the matchmaking … to fancy Independence Day parades … to winters in Kandahar where every day she would lie to the Pashto tutor that her father had cancelled the day’s lessons …

‘But then I noticed the bushes and thorns at the foot of the graves’, she said. From the graveyard hill, she looked down onto the city around her. ‘Everywhere there are skyscrapers and Pakistani-style mansions.’ How could ‘strongmen’ dare to build such ‘monstrosities straight out of Islamabad’ while so many others languished? She would keep asking this question throughout her ten days in the new Kabul.

‘Fix the roads. Build a school. Open a factory for women to earn an income. Do anything with that money. What is a mansion with ‘Mashallah’ scribbled on it going to do for anyone?’

Suddenly, she suffered from asthma again

My father had visited Kabul shortly after the fall of the Taleban in 2001. For him, it had been devastating. For my mother, the advancements since then went unnoticed. Rather than acknowledging men working in the hot summer sun to construct sidewalks for pedestrians, all she saw was the dirt that caused her long dormant asthma to return. The newly asphalted streets were of little use ‘when everyone drives so wildly’. Even the French restaurant with a garden full of multicoloured flowers was little comfort. ‘Do you think they would let an average Afghan in here?’ she asked – the woman who had lived a sheltered life with drivers, cooks and maids.

The irony was not lost on me: a well-to-do Pashtun woman whose wedding pictures showed Hazara servants carefully peering in through the windows they cleaned suddenly worrying about the plight of poor Afghans.

‘We know better now, though. Back then that was the only life we knew’, she said when I asked her whether 30 years ago she would have cared who would be let into an establishment serving the Kabul elite.

But her disenchantment went deeper. It was the level of destruction that hit her – and who had caused it. Not only did she not recognise anything when she went to see the Kart-e Char neighbourhood where I had been born. ‘Nothing was where I remembered it to be. I thought I could direct the driver to the house you spent the first year of your life in, but nothing looked the same.’ What made the destruction all the more painful was the fact that ‘from the communists to the mujahedin to the Taliban, it was Afghans who did this to our nation.’

Of course, it was not just the warlords and Taleban that upset her. ‘The foreigners come here and they create Amrika-e Kochak [little America]. In our time we called Lashkar Gah [the capital of Helmand] Little America,(2) but today Kabul is full of foreigners who recreate the west wherever they go. They don’t see the real Kabul. Do you think they could afford maids and guards at home?’

After a few days of sightseeing, my mother mostly stayed home. Frustrated by her inability to accept the new Kabul, its social order and its infrastructure, I asked her why she did not go outside and try to find the city she loved so much.

‘How can I go outside? Every corner in this city is filled with sweet memories. But each time I go out and see what has become of it, it is like a knife in my back.’

Even the asthma she suddenly started to suffer from again was seen as a physical manifestation of the emotional. ‘She is in shock’ one of her cousins said. ‘I’m sure that’s contributing to her illness, how could it not?’

Though some of our relatives told her that the new red-and-white Shahr-e-Naw wedding hall, the still under construction City Walk hotel and Tolo Super Ice Cream were providing Afghans with jobs and a sense of normal life, to my mother they were signs of larger failings. ‘How can these people take all that money poured into Afghanistan and use it to build a gaudy wedding hall? Damn your skyscrapers. This is khiyanat.’ Treason.

‘Do you think life did not go on during the occupation?’

My mother admits her youth in Kabul was sheltered. ‘We walked to school, only a few blocks from our house. Other than that, wherever we went, the Park Cinema, anywhere, a driver took us and brought us back.’ But as a woman who studied at the Rabia Balkhi high school and worked as a nurse in Kandahar and Kabul my mother also realised something that I, as an Afghan man in Kabul could ‘never truly understand’, as she put it: the sensation of a male-only city – streets ‘devoid of female presence’. ‘Today, when I went to the tailor I was the only woman on the streets’, she told me. ‘Everywhere I went, everyone was looking at me as cars zoomed past. The only time you see groups of females on the streets is when school starts or lets out.’

For a woman whose own mother and aunt were provided English tutors in their youth by their father, my mother found the lack of female agency in Kabul startling. ‘A girl told me in a taxi how she has to secretly work in a store to support her parents because her brothers who cannot find jobs themselves would be devastated.’

I fought back. If nothing else, did not at least the people’s determination to rebuild their lives despite poverty and violence count for something?

‘Ali, life goes on everywhere, at every time’, my mother responded. ‘You think we did not go on with our lives each day during the Soviet occupation? People do not have a choice. Of course they would try to build their lives despite the obstacles, that’s human nature.’

But it could be worse, I tried again, slightly desperate. In Syria, the president is ordering air raids on his own people.

‘And you think life does not go on in Syria? Of course it does. It has to. The thing is Ali, you have nothing to compare this city to. You were born in it in war. You fled it in war. You returned to it in war. And you will leave it in war.’

(1) Hafizullah Amin was the second president of Afghanistan during the Soviet-backed regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), after he organised the assassination of his predecessor and mentor Nur Muhammad Tarakay. He had been one of the leading organisers of the so-called Saur Revolution which overthrew the government of Muhammad Daud Khan in April 1978.

(2) From the mid-1940s on Helmand was part of huge development projects, initiated by King Zaher Shah in an attempt to modernise his nation. For vast dam and irrigation projects in Afghanistan’s south, he hired US enterprises. Helmand’s capital was soon known as Little America among Afghans as this Washington Post article from 2011 describes: Within a few years, they had built a model town from scratch. The streets were lined with trees. The white-stucco homes with green front lawns resembled subdivisions in the American Southwest. There was a co-ed high school and a community pool where boys and girls frolicked together. A clubhouse along the river featured nightly card games and a Filipino barkeeper who could mix a potent gin-and-tonic. … It also was supposed to serve as an example of a modern community, one that village dwellers would seek to replicate.

For more, see also Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book ‚Little America. The War within the war for Afghanistan’, Bloomsbury 2012.


Communist Kabul Little America Refugee Saur Revolution