My Story: A moment in Kabul

The thought of bombs detonating around me seemed to be of less concern to me than the fact that I was an American Jew.

Halleh Hakimian 88 224 (photo credit: HALLEH HAKIMIAN)
Halleh Hakimian 88 224
(photo credit: HALLEH HAKIMIAN)
I departed for war-torn Afghanistan with a healthy amount of fear and boundless curiosity. Although both my parents were born and raised as Jews in a predominantly Islamic Iran, I had not yet personally experienced travel to a non-secular Islamic country. This past August, I was granted an opportunity through the US Department of Commerce to represent my firm (alongside my father), Hadji Jalili Revivals LLC, as a delegate of an impromptu US trade mission to Afghanistan. Our decision to participate was twofold. Professionally, our firm believes in the unique ability of the Afghan people to produce world-class carpets. On a personal level, our intent was to utilize this extraordinary opportunity to visit and draw inspiration from a legendary people who had been described to me as rough, yet remarkable and undoubtedly resilient. As it turned out, my curiosity superseded my healthy fears. The trip came together in a quick whirlwind. Seemingly overnight. The invitation was extended to us less than 10 days before the trade mission was to take place. We purchased our tickets two days before departure. As the excitement built up in the days before the trip, I became concerned with my father's cavalier attitude toward our impending travels. The thought of bombs detonating around me seemed to be of less concern to me than the fact that I was an American Jew, traveling to a region that is promoted by our media as particularly unwelcoming to Westerners and Jews. Conversely, my father expressed excitement at being welcomed by Afghans as a Jewish visitor. He spoke to me about cultural integrity, honor, warmth and the historical hospitality of Afghans. He said scary things like, "An Afghan would give his life for you if you are a friend" and "They will treat you with even more care if they know you are a Jewish guest in their country." My father seemed to be telling stories of a parallel universe in a different century. He is an idealist by nature, contradicted by myself, the pragmatist. In the back of my mind I was thinking that this man is going to get both of us killed! Before leaving, I jokingly warned my sisters to turn the television off if they saw us on the monitor dressed in orange jump suits. I could see the movie now - short but vivid. Kabuli warlords kidnap foolhardy American delegates gallivanting around warring Kabul. In my version of the movie, the warlords are somewhat decent until the captives (mainly my father) volunteer their Jewish heritage. This leads to the warlords high fiveing each other in celebration at hitting the jackpot of hostage-taking. The next scene inevitably leads to orange jumpsuits, a video camera, men in ski masks and two chutzpadik Jews. Before departing, I made my father promise that he wouldn't parade around Kabul waving a Jewish banner. And I made him swear that if the occasion arose, he would not admit to being Jewish to our warlord kidnappers. Dramatics aside, I guess you could say I was a bit apprehensive. So when I finally arrived in Kabul, I was surprised to find a cultural climate much closer to what my father had described than what I had seen on CNN. It was a short visit with people who intimated a lifetime of friendship. What I found in terms of the social and political climate was also a pleasant surprise. AT FIRST GLANCE, the city of Kabul looks like it was described 30 years ago. The only apparent transformations are the streets, homes and neighborhoods that have been leveled by recent layers of war. Kabul is a dry, mile-high city, with an extreme seasonal climate and enough dirt to give your skin and clothes a layer of camouflage. Due to the lack of vegetation within Kabul, the buildings and structures are indistinguishable from the sandy dirt that coats the city and stretches over the surrounding hills. The popular mode of transportation appears to be by foot or bicycle. The average pedestrian seems to be clothed in attire that hasn't changed over several generations. Paradoxical to Western culture, the hills that surround Kabul, displaying the most appealing vantage point of the city, are inhabited by the underprivileged, not the affluent. The reason for this becomes clear upon learning that the resolute mountain dwellers ascend and descend the mountain by foot for their daily needs, often in spite of several feet of winter snow or scorching degrees of summer sun. My first glance of Kabul was a superficial observation, viewed through an unfocused lens. Once in focus, many images hinted toward a spirit of rebirth, transformation, and of promise for the people of Afghanistan. A bare hilltop, formerly used as a military vantage point and marked by an abandoned tank carcass, now serves as a serene scenic moonlit spot visited by young lovers who invite a breeze of romance back into Kabul. Bewitching young children working as mobile street vendors, with magnetic smiles and a deceptively sophisticated mastery of English, entrepreneurial beyond their years, offering the promise of infinite potential for the future of their country. The Serena Hotel, formerly known as the "old" Kabul Hotel, which played host to Western romanticists, dignitaries and well-heeled tourists during the late 1950s to early '70s, is now renovated, transformed and waiting for the imprint of a new generation. Emerging homes with slight accents of color, burgeoning in neighborhoods previously leveled by wars, intimate the resilience of those who will soon reside there. An outdoor restaurant lounge, "fortified" by a former mujehiddin (turned rifle-toting bouncer), serves an international selection of wine, while the DJ pumps out the beat of a fresh energy that exudes through Kabul. AFGHANS HAVE historically been formidable adversaries to those they perceive as rivals. However, as a guest in Afghanistan, I repeatedly witnessed a more tender depth of emotion from our hosts. I can best describe it as an intensity of emotion that resonates on both ends of the spectrum. I had the benefit of experiencing the sunny end of the scale. We were treated with warmth, sincerity and great care. It almost seems beside the point to determine if we were received as such regardless of, because of, or irrelevant to our Jewish heritage. Jewish, Christian and Muslim establishments have endlessly promoted a mutual mistrust of each other. As humans, our nature is to feel threatened by that which is foreign to our personal existence. Yet, what I experienced was a human connection that looked past our socially bred mistrust. I'm sure bigotry does exist in Afghanistan, as it exists everywhere. As an American, I hope to match the same civilized level of social sophistication and open hospitality to foreign guests that was extended to me in Kabul. In response to our deep gratitude to one of our generous hosts, we were presented with an Afghan saying, "Mehman doosteh khodah hast," which translates to "A guest is a friend of God" and we were certainly received as such. In my effort to realize the recipe for Afghan hospitality, I discovered ingredients comprised of generosity, warm-heartedness, purity, simplicity and bonding. The secret ingredient that gives this dish a unique Afghan flavor is that of devotion. Afghans express salutations through a simple gesture of placing an openly splayed right hand against their heart and offering their guest a humble semi-bow. Simple, pure, gracious, with the spirit of love.