Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Peace poets write from Kabul

After 12 years of war in Afghanistan, the Afghan people are ready to see the American troops go home,
writes Luke Nephew

Al-Ahram Weekly

The flight from Dubai to Kabul is full of Afghan people and soldiers. And me. And surely a handful of other curious characters. The tension is palpable in the waiting area by the gate. Eye contact between the warring parties is avoided, let alone any dialogue.

I think about the time when we were in the Bahrain airport where all the men and woman sit in different waiting areas and I took out a guitar and played Akon’s “Ain’t nobody wanna see us together but it don’t matter now, because we gonna fight, yah we gonna fight, fight for our right to love.”

Against all the odds, that went over great. But this particular moment just didn’t feel like it was asking for a song. But then, as the bus brought us across the runway to board the plane, an American soldier helped an Afghan family carry their bags up the stairs and store them above their seats. The other people watched with quiet suspicion. That’s what it is I think, as I sit myself down in the middle seat between two Afghan men, it’s a deep, dark sense of distrust.

Distrust is dangerous ground to build anything on, let alone a country, much less nine military bases or a prison like the one at Bagram Air Force Base outside Kabul where people are kept without charge for months or years. Very dangerous ground. The plane shudders itself awake and rolls out onto the runway. The lights go off. The babies on board seem to break the silence in unison. Some of us don’t have the option of distrust, they cry. Their wailing for food, or sleep, or to be held sounds so beautiful to me in the harsh air of the old plane. “Where are we going?” they seem to be asking.

The Safi Airways flight lands safely. Victory counted. The babies are quiet.  Through the dusty windows I see lines of old gray bomber planes standing quietly in line on the asphalt. They seem like guilty children, waiting in fearful anticipation to be reprimanded for something they knew was wrong but did anyway… It wasn’t our fault, they whisper, they made us do it.

There’s no line at the customs desk. I walk up, get my passport stamped, and then the young soldier barks at me, “right thumb”. For a second, I thought it was the Afghan way of saying thumbs up and this guy was giving me a general affirmation. His tone didn’t match the sentiment, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Ok, I’ll admit it. I actually gave him the thumbs up sign. At that point, his face seemed to ask “are you serious, bro?”

He tapped the window to the side where I realised there was a little machine with the outlines of fingers. It was a fingerprint machine. “Right thumb,” he said again. Ah, right. Got it. As this guy is taking my fingerprints, I feel like I’m back in a police precinct uptown. Why do I get the feeling the Americans had something to do with this? And that’s that. Customs, check. I walk right out the door into the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A few tired-looking taxi drivers are looking at me unimpressed.

“Salaam Alaikum,” I say. Without a thought they instinctively respond, solidifying an important connection where one hadn’t existed seconds before, “Walaykum Asalaam.” Good to be back in a land where that works. A few hundred yards away on the other side of a couple of parking lots, my welcome party awaits.

There was someone there waiting for me. They just weren’t sure who I was. I stood there for a few minutes, and then I noticed three guys wearing matching blue scarves. Ah yes, the colour of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. I met eyes with one of the young men. He raised his eyebrows, took a step forward and said, “Luke?” Yes. My people. It turned out they saw the website and something in the communication at some point made them think that out of the five peace poets they were expecting the big dark-skinned one with locks. So when I rolled through the parking lot, not even my bright Bolivian guitar case was enough of a reason for them to assume I might be the peace poet. 

But eye contact and instincts are lifesavers. So Hakim, an amazing peace activist and medical doctor who lives and works with the community of Afghan youth, flashed his brilliant smile and it was big hugs all around. Abdel-Hai and Raz Mohamed were the youths from the community who had made the early morning trip to the airport with Hakim to pick me up. It’s good to be together, and we hop in a cab and into the streets of Kabul.


TAXI-DRIVERS SHOULD BE NEWS REPORTERS: The streets of Afghanistan’s capital are tore up and full of dust. We bounce around the back seat of the cab. As for my first taxi-driver, I gotta say this: taxi-drivers should really be news reporters. They carry the wounds of the wars and the weights of daily lives, interviewing people all day who rush around with a world of problems and joys. These guys know the deal. They should at least have a section in the paper. 

If my first taxi-driver in Kabul had a section, he would have one article about how over 70 per cent of Afghans have psychological disorders from the stress of all these years of war. Fact. And that’s why he makes wrong turns sometimes. Right. And he’d definitely report on having been run up on in his village by armed groups who simply offered him and his friends different options for being killed — axe, blade or club. No bullets to be wasted on him. Why? He had no idea who they were or what they wanted. But still they were going to kill him. 

He was beaten badly. His friend died. He lifts his leg as he drives and unveils a scar. Of course, we’re a little crazy he nods. And then he smiles. I’m in the back seat still tripping over having to choose the weapon of your own murder. But he wakes me back up, his radiant eyes bunched up, his chest bellowing with laughter. Breaking news: joy survives the impossible and is as stunning as ever amidst the early morning Kabul traffic. You seen that in the Times? Welcome to Afghanistan.

I walk into the humble home of the Afghan Peace Volunteers to a gentle barrage of hugs and warm smiles. I put my bag down and am breaking bread and drinking tea within 30 seconds. It’s good to sit down on the other side of the world and realise you’ve made it home.




Of war

While in New York they cut Head Start to feed our hungry children breakfast,

They spend billions as Afghan kids see heads cut off and learn to expect this,

I need to see a politician repent this,

Hang his head and cry that this many people have died

In 12 years of war,

While the people of Des Moines, Iowa, don’t even know there is a drone command Centre being put there that will tear brothers and sisters to pieces with chemicals that char the body turning everything black and exploding the head off the body…

Raz tells me how it looks and shudders in unbearable disgust

Remembering 12 years of war,

The streets of Kabul beg in the dust,

Distrust and revenge a city, a country, a people condemned

After 12 years of war, some estimate 78 per cent of Afghans have psychological Disorders, the taxi-driver says its more, says we Afghans can’t think right anymore, He shows us scars on his knees from the day he almost died, he sighs, ‘so many stories of pain…’

But who are we to say we’re sane? When we remain entrenched after 12 years of war? I dare you to come here and still say you want more.

Another day, another year, then leaving nine military bases here,

America has smashed the windows of people’s sanity,

People are demanding we leave, nobody wants to hear Obama make a pretty speech,

In Kabul I’ve seen anger rise like armies

In young men’s eyes that say you have harmed me and my family for the last time,

I wanna know what will be the last crime committed in the name of freedom,

More marines relieving themselves on the corpses of murdered kids,

12 years of blood that did not have to get spilled,

12 years of mothers gone mad from mourning, what have we become?

Afghanistan is a nation of American-made guns and American-made widows,

Hearts crumbling like bombed-out windowsills

Wondering where they’ll find the will to teach their sons not to kill

When inflicting death is the lesson they’ve best learned from us,

12 years of dust on boots and the truth being covered in mud,

But what will we do now?


Are we hoping a nation of 30 million will forgive and forget? Would you let it go if an occupying army broke into your house, killed your father and didn’t even say sorry, or admit it was a mistake?

How many more years will it take Americans to wake up and say, I will not live in debt while my government pays millions of dollars a day to make people hate me for my passport, want to cut my life short for my birth country’s flag. Twelve years of war and not enough body bags to hold the soldiers, not enough words to say the funeral masses, not enough mass graves to hold the lives that 12 years of wartime has taken.

When I ask a young Afghan woman named Zuhal why she wants an end to the occupation, she says “12 years of war is too many. It’s time for the soldiers to go home to their families. They must miss them.”


The writer is co-founder and artist educator of and a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, Afghanistan.


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