From late September 2002 through early 2006, HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn wrote THE EXAMINED LIFE, a weekly three-item column for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section; and from late 2006 though mid-2008, he wrote BRAINIAC, an Ideas section blog that was repurposed as a three-item weekly column in the paper. This series reprints a few Q&As from Glenn’s two Ideas columns. [Brainiac image via 4CP]
October 30, 2005
THE NEW OLD COUNTRY
Not long after 9/11, Hyder Akbar, a U2- and pizza-loving Afghan-American who’d grown up in a suburb of Oakland, Calif., decided to follow his father — a politically active expatriate who’d relocated to Kabul to work as spokesman for President Hamid Karzai and was later appointed governor of the volatile province of Kunar — to Afghanistan. During three consecutive summers, we read in Akbar’s affecting, often funny new memoir, Come Back to Afghanistan (Bloomsbury), the sheltered teenager survived a convoy ambush, rocket attacks, and acute gastric distress; served as a translator at a US military interrogation of a suspected terrorist who later died in custody; and goofed around with a Kalashnikov. Before then, Akbar, born in Pakistan six years after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had never been home; today, he admits, he’s no longer sure where his home is.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Yale, Akbar will read from his book (coauthored with Susan Burton, his collaborator on two award-winning radio documentaries about his experiences for “This American Life”) at Harvard Book Store on Monday at 6:30 p.m. He recently spoke with me from New Haven via cellphone.
IDEAS: How did it feel to visit Afghanistan for the first time?
AKBAR: I’d always wanted to go there, but during the reign of the Taliban the very concept of Afghanistan was pretty abstract for me. Before 9/11, Afghanistan was on the fringes of American consciousness, in terms of media coverage and being important for US policy. Though I tried to keep up with any news there was…, for our family, [Afghanistan] was a personal story. It didn’t become a reality, for me, until after 9/11.
IDEAS: Do you feel more like an Afghan or an American these days?
AKBAR: Going to Afghanistan and doing the things I did … helped reaffirm the Afghan in me. But I realized I was a lot more American than I used to think. I’m steeped in American culture and addicted to the American way of life — particularly the availability of electricity. Also, I’m uncomfortable with certain aspects of life in Afghanistan — the marginalized role of women in society, for example, and the totally debilitating effects of 25 years of war on Afghans, who once were world-famous for their manners and hospitality. It’s not fair to blame Afghans for what’s happened…. But I sometimes feel that the country’s authentic culture was only preserved outside the country, by refugees who fled the Soviets.
IDEAS: Did more trivial examples of culture clash also bother you?
AKBAR: One thing I could never get used to is the way men touch in Afghanistan. In America, you might hang out with your best friend for an evening and, at most, put your hand on his shoulder for two seconds. Over there, it’s not unusual for two guys to hold hands while talking. I could stomach the food, even get used to the rocket attacks, but whenever a man held my hand, I’d suddenly have to stretch or scratch my shoulder…. Anyway, although I have spent time wrestling with the question of my identity, I’m no longer so sentimental about it. Now I try to use my dual heritage, my split perspective, to my advantage.
IDEAS: You’ve said you’re thinking about declaring political science as your major. Do you read poli sci texts through the lens of Afghanistan?
AKBAR: It’s fascinating to spend time visiting a nation that’s struggling to achieve the most basic aspects of its government and economy, things that [Americans] simply take for granted. In America we learn phrases from textbooks about government “monopolizing the rule of force,” for example, or “establishing the rule of law” — in Afghanistan, my father and many others have been trying, against all the odds, to do just that.
IDEAS: How have your experiences affected your views on political issues like, for example, America’s mission to export democracy?
AKBAR: Growing up American, I naturally never questioned whether democracy was the best form of government or how it should be implemented. But one reason I’d like to study poli sci… is that even these very basic issues are open questions in Afghanistan. Should democracy be implemented gradually, all of a sudden, or are there more important things to get out of the way before it’s implemented? I can’t answer those questions confidently, without sounding like a naive 20-year-old — and I’m acutely aware of how happy it makes Americans to see Afghani women putting their votes into ballot boxes, how telegenic elections are. Also, because of all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming from the White House, it is difficult to promote democracy in Afghanistan without seeming as though you’re promoting American interests there. Having said all those things, I lean towards the opinion that economic development and establishing security in Afghanistan are more crucial, right now, than democracy.
IDEAS: What are you planning to do after you graduate from college?
AKBAR: I’m hoping to go to Afghanistan and work for a couple of years, then probably come back here again for grad school. But in what capacity I’ll work there is difficult to say right now, because of how volatile everything still is…. If I’m not comfortable with the government and where it’s going, instead of working for the government in Kabul I might try to work for one of the NGOs or private companies rebuilding the physical infrastructure-say, getting pipes to villages without a water source. One way or another, though, I want to help rebuild Afghanistan.
READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE