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An Afghan Author On Losing Her Homeland — For The Second Time

William Morrow
It is too cruel to ask if it hurts more the first or second time a homeland is lost. I know one never becomes numb to it.

The week Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, I had gone out of town with my parents and in-laws. While my children played, their parents and grandparents sat riveted to our phones, speaking in fragments. Thoughts interrupted. Plates half eaten. Nothing was whole anymore.

It is too cruel to ask if it hurts more the first or second time a homeland is lost. I know one never becomes numb to it. Across social media, family and friends were relatively silent as one province after another fell. Forty years of conflict means that generations — plural — of Afghans carry with them some form of trauma or loss. The headlines of that week were making an inevitability clear. We braced ourselves for what might unfold in Kabul, the seat of power.

I was thinking of my parents when I wrote a line in my most recent novel, Sparks Like Stars. "Your Kabul is gone," a soldier shouts at a girl freshly orphaned and traumatized by the 1978 coup. New flags were raised then just as they were this month. In the stretches of time when Afghanistan wasn't burying empires, it has thrived and progressed. Both my parents left Kabul in their 20s and never saw a day of conflict. The city has a sweetness to people who grew up wandering the bustling markets and storied gardens and their hearts break when they see these sites defiled by war.

Images are the worst. They offer no buffer. Some have been shared and reshared like the one of a mother passing her baby over the barbed wire fence of the airport's walls. I wonder if she felt relief when she stared into her empty hands. We saw people fall from the sky. Twenty years ago, I stood on a Brooklyn street while, a few miles away, people leaped to their deaths rather than be consumed by toppled towers.

Like so many other displaced communities, we have people "back home." We have schools and non-profits we support. Our phones have been abuzz with international calls. The technology is deceiving. Their pleas are crisp and clear as if they were half a block and not half a world away. Surely, there must be someone we can call on their behalf, some magical email address to which we can submit their names and the names of their children. They are afraid. A journalist lost a loved one in a Taliban attack targeting him. One laid pipes alongside Americans and Germans. They make their case to us. They speak English. They have degrees. Their daughters are bright and promising. They will pray for us for all their days if we can just find a way to lift them over the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and slip them through the blocked gates of the airport.

Our routines have partially crumbled. My 11-year-old son ate olives for breakfast. The children are patient with us. With just a glance at the gun-slinging Taliban, they know these are the bad guys. But they have also watched the X-Men and Spider-Man, and they want to know why the good guys can't defeat the bad guys. They've grown up on happy endings.

One of my earlier novels about Afghan refugees — When The Moon Is Low — closes with a bit of ambiguity regarding a character's fate, not something I'd recommend to other writers. Over the years, I've received dozens of messages from frustrated readers. I've told these readers that a tidier ending felt disingenuous to the struggles of those fleeing a dangerous homeland. Thus far, 20 people, mostly women, have died at the Kabul airport. We won't see novels inspired by their lives because tragic last pages don't sell books.

So many friends have reached out offering notes of support that I scarcely have the time to reply to everyone. I want to spend my time here, in the soft petals of these messages rather than the thorns of the comments section. Afghans didn't have the will to fight, they say. As if tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers died of a mysterious illness rather than fighting for their country. They don't believe in women's rights. Two decades of war and nothing's changed. We have evidence to the contrary, but you can't change public opinion with 280 characters.

I can't waste time arguing which U.S. president screwed this up the most — it's D, all of the above — not when women are being told to quiet their talk of women's rights, for they are too young to die. Not when fatigued families and unaccompanied children are being ushered into auditoriums filled with cots and blankets and bottles of water. I want to bring one of these children home, because it says in a book the Taliban seem to have read upside down that to save one life is to save all of humanity.

I ground and surround myself with people who have focused on doing what we can for the people with whom we share a common, troubled ancestry. We share images of hope, not despair. A physics professor promised me that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. I am holding fast to this law as I keep moving. We, a body of advocates and volunteers who have gathered to move as a collective, like fish traveling in a streamlined school. We are evading the predations of pessimism and impotence. We are cheating friction.

The dark waters are made brighter knowing that this moment may be far from happy, but it is also not the end.

Nadia Hashimi is the author of Sparks Like Stars.

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Nadia Hashimi