Thursday, March 24, 2011

Competing images of home among emigrant Afghans

For some reason I have been approached over the years by several people from Afghanistan with proposals for what to do about its unending war. They seem to believe I have contacts with all the right people in the CIA or even the White House -- or maybe am even secretly connected with the CIA. In any case, they end their proposals saying that all they need is money. "Send me to Afghanistan and I will organize a solution for the country." A few days ago a long-time friend bent my ear for an hour [this wasn't the first time] on what he would do to change the equation there: He would go into Pashtun country [he is Pashtun] and tell the people that they shouldn't support the Taliban, that the Taliban are actually being used by Pakistan. And they will abandon the Taliban – he is confident they will as soon as he convinces them. This he truly believes and has worked hard at developing an organization that will bring together all kinds of Afghans to work out a reconciliation. All that is necessary is for his plan to be financed. He needs money

I have heard this kind of vision from several others -- the difference in this case being that this person is a friend whose sincerity I trust; some of the others I have not known well and do not trust.

But what is similar in all these cases is that they have been out of the country for years. My good Pashtun friend has been out at least 20 years -- and yet he tells me confidently that he knows what is going on in Afghanistan, and that he will resolve the crisis if he could only have the funding to carry out his plan. He assures me that he knows his country, he knows his people, and he knows they will believe him if he could just get back and explain to them what is actually going on.

The mismatch between his vision and the reality of the country seems to me so obvious that I grieve for him, for no hope exists for his plan ever to be put into motion.

All these friends whom I have talked with lately have an image of the country that is time-warped. They seem unable to grasp how the country -- how their own people -- have changed. Like elsewhere in the world, Afghanistan has been changing rapidly. It is not the country it was only five years ago. To mention only one of many factors that have changed the scene, there are now more than 10 million cell phones in the country [an underestimate I am told] and each one is a vehicle of social outreach that expands contacts and access to information and opportunity virtually instantaneously, a circumstance that exceeds anything many of us could imagine even a decade ago.

The one theme shared by all my Afghan expatriate friends who have such grand ideas for how to solve the country's problems is their sense that other ethnic groups than their own have been taking advantage while theirs has been suffering. One of my contacts has complained that he calls back to his relatives and friends who are still in country and he asks them why they don't do more to advance their ethnic people without getting even the slightest interest in the issue. They are all too busy making a living, one complained.

Yes, because the issues before them have changed. The old animosities, while still extant, are currently being upstaged by other issues. Opportunities and problems of a different sort are far more urgent.

I suppose that such a disconnect as I see among my friends in the Afghanistan diaspora has taken place among emigrant populations for generations all over the world. Each population leaves with an image of the home that remains unchanged while many new issues engage their relatives back home, creating circumstances that the emigrants would not appreciate without become ensconced back in the home country for a while. The only difference is that the pace of change produces more acute differences of perspective according to when they emigrated. Each emigrant wave carries with it a distinctive image of the country left behind while the social world back home continues to shift at an ever escalating pace.

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