A few summers ago, my sisters and I were in San Diego with my parents visiting a park. On the way, we saw a shop selling kites. My parents wanted to buy one to fly together but my sisters and I were apprehensive – we had never flown a kite. What if we spent a lot of money on it to never have it leave the ground? My mom and dad both laughed, saying it was easy, not only to fly a kite but to make one. My mother told us about buying wooden sticks, paper and string to make the kite, about mixing glass with glue to coat the string, about all of the children flying their kites on their rooftops together, cutting and catching each other’s kites. And that is how we learned about the culture of kite flying in Kabul. My mother’s stories are how I gather most of what I know about Afghanistan. From the pieces she provides, I construct my identity as an Afghan American.
The desire to validate my identity as an Afghan was a strong motivation for my decision to study abroad. I doubted my ability to claim a personal connection to a country I had never been to. I source my information on Afghanistan from the experiences I share with extended family members, Youtube videos but mainly, my mother’s stories. My mother is an ideal source, as a native of Kabul, living in the region for over two decades, but my educational training encouraged me to distrust and discredit her as a source. Oral traditions are important in Afghanistan, but not as valid according to the Western epistemological traditions that I was raised to privilege. I didn’t know if it what I learned from my mother was true, because it wasn’t something I had ever experienced myself or read about. I privilege written knowledge that is produced by people who have authority within Western academia. My mother does not have that kind of institutional backing so I did not trust her as a knowledge producer, which parallels how I do not trust myself as a knowledge producer. My mother’s stories were then relegated to fun anecdotes for me; they were singular experiences, great sources of emotional nourishment that informed my mother’s understanding of Afghanistan, but did not necessarily hold true for other members of the Afghan diaspora.
With shaky confidence in both my language skills and my understanding of what it means to be Afghan, I came to Dushanbe. And what a surprise it was! Though the country borders Afghanistan, it is so much different than what I expected. There is so much Russian spoken, their accents are difficult for me to understand, and their food is like nothing I have eaten. But there are many similarities (e.g. the mannerisms of people, their social norms, the geography of the country), and there are enough Afghans that I was able to have the experiences that I thought were necessary to be able to identify as Afghan. I have studied under Afghan teachers, made Afghan friends, gone to mehmonis, even attended an Afghan wedding, and each experience felt like one I had already had. I was not confronted by any of the contradictions I was expecting. Going to a mehmoni was like visiting any of my relatives’ homes. The wedding felt like my cousin’s wedding in March. Location seems to be less important as a variable in identity formation than I had assumed; our similar ways of being as members of the Afghan diaspora allow us to transcend barriers, like geographic location.
I decided to come to Tajikistan to better understand how I place myself in the world, and it became about learning to trust myself. I know that I am Afghan and I was Afghan before traveling to Tajikistan, but this trip has strengthened my confidence in that assertion. Everything I know about myself is truth and I do not need external validation. My mother and I, we are both producers of important, valid knowledge. I do not need to have certain experiences to be able to be Afghan. Afghan-ness is in me, naturally, and I am living the truth I was seeking.
By: Zarlasht Niaz
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2017