As an adherent of the Robert D. Kaplan school of travel, I’m a big fan of overland travel. Given the choice and when time allows, I’d much rather travel by boat, train, or bicycle. Flying is convenient — but it rushes you to your destination without letting you appreciate the distance. But like any form of mass public transportation, it can present opportunities to meet people (some interesting, some weird). Flying from Tokyo to Dubai, I introduced myself to my seatmate and we began chatting. It turns out he was an Afghan national living between Japan and the UAE, and once we spoke a bit and he saw that I knew something about Afghanistan, or at least enough to have a conversation about his country, we spent several hours chatting on world affairs and his life story on our many hours together. (The moment when he opened up and began to talk about his life story was after this exchange: Him: “I’m not a Pakistani Afghan, I’m Persian.” Curzon: “Persian? Do you mean Hazara or Tajik?” Him: “Yes, Hazara, you know well…”)
My seatmate was born in Kabul in the post-monarchical Republic of Afghanistan, the period after the fall of the monarchy and before the Soviet invasion. His father was Hazara and his mother was Pashtun, but his family was culturally Hazara and he spoke Persian, although he did not elaborate further. He attended one of the best private schools in the city until the age of 8, when the fighting forced his family to flee Kabul, and they relocated to the mountains to the west of the city (the town name began with a “b,” I cannot recall further). After surviving the violence there for four years, they moved to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and spent several years there. At the age of 14, his family was separated and he spent three weeks walking, alone, from northern Afghanistan to the Pakistan border, where he spent a few months at a border camp until being reunited with his family in Iran. From there, they immigrated to a town to the north of Dubai. For the past decade he’s lived half his life in the UAE and half in Japan, and runs a business exporting second hand cars from Japan to the Middle East region together with other members of his extended family.
He recieved very little schooling through his ordeal. Although an advanced speaker of English and Japanese, he could not write any Japanese and only very little English. He took more than a minute to write his short e-mail address on his business card and wrote the letters “h” and “m” backwards.
It’s a weird experience to hear tales of brutal violence from someone who experienced such a traumatic childhood. He had horrific stories that he spoke of with a straight face, looking almost bored, with piercing and unwavering eye contact that disturbed me. One such story he recounted was a mortar attack he and his family survived at age 11. The next day he helped lift dead bodies and body parts into a truck to be taken away to a mass grave. Another story was about a makeshift school he attended in the mountains, where gunman walked in, grabbed several of the oldest children in the room, and brought them away, where they were reportedly drafted into fighting and never heard from again.
He did not have much to say on the future of Afghanistan except that it was bleak. He visited once after the fall of the Taliban and said he would not go back again, and the country will remain poor and chaotic for the next 100 years. The problems? One is education. People have no education and can’t read and are not literate. The other is the different ethnicities. What I took from several minutes of talking on the topic was that the problem was not hatred between ethnic groups, but the loyalty that was exclusive to ethnic groups and clans.
He also said the Taliban were all foreigners. To paraphrase him, they were Russians, Americans, Indians, and especially Arabs who grew their beards and tried to dress like locals, but who were just foreigners with guns who were the guests of the Taliban bosses.
Speaking about his family, he reported that he had relatives in his extended family across the world in Los Angeles, London, Japan, Sydney, and New Zealand, many of whom are naturalized citizens. The UAE does not offer such an easy path to naturalization and limited benefits when he considered getting a UAE passport. He cannot read or write Japanese, not even the phonetic katakana or hiragana alphabets, and thus does not meet the third grade reading requirement to apply for Japanese citizenship (about 400 kanji characters).
One fun fact about renewing a passport at an Afghanistan embassy overseas, which he has done in the UAE and Tokyo, is that the embassy always asks random questions to confirm the true Afghani nationality of the passport holder. Questions such as, “Where was your grandfather born?” and “How long does it take to drive from Kandahar to Kabul?” Apparently, an Afghani passport can be purchased for $20-50 in Afghanistan, and lots of Pakistanis use it to try and apply for refugee status overseas, and the phenomenon is broad enough that embassies check.
That I write this of course means that I’m safely in Dubai. The big local news is that the new metro line opens today. I’ll be back with more on the city soon.