Hague Talks: Beauty and Conflict in Afghanistan


On the 15th of December I gave a talk during the ‘Night of Conflict‘ in The Hague (NL). It was part of the Hague Talks section of the event and I tried to give a closer look at how I view Afghanistan and the contradictions that I have within me regarding the country I am originally from. A video of the talk is available on YouTube, click here to watch it.

For those who want to read it, here’s the full text:

A while ago someone posted the assignment they gave during their creative writing class on social media, the assignment was to write a short poem starting with the words ‘Where I’m from…’. After seeing that post I decided to give it a try. The following sentences flew out of my mind and landed on the paper:

‘Where I’m from it feels like war awaits on the corner of every street

while unconditional love is ready to sweep you of your feet,

it feels like a warm hug on a cold winter’s night,

and like a stab in the back when you didn’t even want to fight.

Where I’m from it feels like the long lasting peace we never had.’

I contradict myself a lot when it comes to Afghanistan. I will share beautiful pictures of the country with my friends and describe how amazing the nature is or tell stories about the historic sites but the next day you can easily find me at a protest in the Netherlands against the deportation of Afghan refugees. How does one talk about the negative aspects of a country in conflict without diminishing its beauty? If someone were to ask me if Afghanistan is safe I would reply with a loud and clear ‘No’. If that person then offered me a ticket to fly to the country I would say ‘Thank You’, grab the ticket and go.I have always wondered why I feel such a strong connection with Afghanistan even though I have spent most of my life in the Netherlands. What I know is that growing up I never connected with the sentence ‘There’s no place like home’ until I went back to Afghanistan for the first time and felt as if a missing piece of the puzzle just fell in its spot and I understood what home feels like.

Yes the streets of Kabul are full of dust and chaos but during my first visit there I could only think: these are my streets, this is my chaos. This is my traffic light which keeps on changing lights but nobody really cares and just views it as an option. I honestly felt an incredible connection with everything.

When I go to Afghanistan I spent most of my time in the city of Herat, which is where my parents were born and where most of my family lives. For me Herat feels a bit less chaotic than Kabul and I have a better illusion of safety there. I call it an illusion of safety because it’s evident that Afghanistan as a country is unsafe, just one search online will reveal that. Even with so many reports being available and quite clear regarding the security situation of Afghanistan there’s s still this notion which states that there are internal safe zones within the country. This is used as some sort of justification when deporting Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, because the place where they are from is considered to be a safe zone or they are told that they can also consider moving to a safe zone within the country. I can’t wrap my head around this idea specially because recently a so called safe zone of Afghanistan was attacked from different points by the Taliban forcing many to flee while others lost their lives to the violence. The idea of something like a safe zone within a country in conflict just sounds contradictory and does not seem like something which can last for long. All these safe zones are temporary, they don’t exists because the government of Afghanistan and foreign forces are so strong and keep the areas safe. No, these safe zones exists by the grace of the Taliban and other militants who just haven’t made the decision to attack yet but the moment they do attack the damage is heavy and mostly irreversible.

So, knowing this why do I still want to go to Afghanistan? My husband who lives in the country and grew up there thinks that I am more or less crazy for my constant desire to trade the safety and security I enjoy in the Netherlands with Afghanistan. We always end up in conversations where I emphasize the beauty of the country and he keeps on pointing out the problematic aspects. Clearly, the moment I decide to go to Afghanistan I know the risks I am taking but I take them anyway and create my own illusion of safety just like every Afghan in the country, otherwise one won’t be able to do anything there and will just be paralyzed by fear.

Me trying to give attention to the beautiful aspects does not mean that I am not aware of what is happening around me when I am in Afghanistan. There are security checks every few minutes which constantly remind you of what might happen. Due to regular attacks by the Taliban and other militants you will see blast walls in Kabul. These blast walls are built to shield important buildings which might be targets of attacks such as embassies and government buildings. Imagine walking through The Hague and having big grey walls surrounding all the embassies, courts and other buildings which might be targeted in attacks. Not only does this change the way the city looks but it also changes the way you look at the city. Walking next to these walls is a constant reminder of what the security situation of the country is like. You are walking to work or school and you are passing by these walls realizing yet again that something can happen at any moment and yet you carry on with your life inside the illusion of safety you have created in your mind. Since these blast walls are not going anywhere one creative collective in Kabul named ArtLords decided to try and beautify the walls with images and powerful messages. With this project they were able to reclaim the cityscape of Kabul. To me this is one great example of people taking something related to the conflict and try to put an aspect of beauty to it. It shows how the people of Afghanistan continue to have hope and do whatever they can in order to carry on with their lives regardless of the situation around them.

As humans I think our coping mechanism is sometimes to normalize certain issues. When it comes to basic safety I remember that when my friends in the Netherlands were worrying about me going to Afghanistan for the first time I would say: “Don’t worry I am not going to Kabul, I will be in Herat where suicide attacks don’t happen as often (they do still happen though). Only thing I should watch out for are kidnappings.” And then my friends would still stare at me and not understand why I think getting kidnapped doesn’t amount to that big of a worry. When it clearly is. I view the safety and security situation in two aspects. There is the bigger safety issue which we always see on the news related to attacks but there are also many safety issues closer to the personal level which we living in the Netherlands don’t hear about. Both safety issues are constantly on the mind of Afghans as they continue with their daily lives.

My aunt in Herat for example doesn’t even let her little son play outside of the house, he is only allowed to play in the garden inside. If he walks out of the house, she immediately goes to find him. So next to fearing the Taliban or other militant attacks my family is also constantly worried that their children might get kidnapped. One other issue is the overall safety and security of women when walking outside. An extra person was  always around me when I was in Afghanistan. As a Dutch woman I am used to roam around in the city by myself but as a Dutch-Afghan woman whenever I am in Afghanistan I always walk with someone from my family. I know they do that to be extra protective of me. I remember walking to my uncle’s house which was fifteen minutes away with my female cousin and after a few minutes she asked me to take a taxi because she couldn’t handle all the stares and remarks by every man walking or driving pass us.

Despite the dire security situation on every level and the risks people take by going outside they still do it. I have often felt as if people in Afghanistan were more alive than people in the Netherlands. In the summer my uncle would come home from work and immediately pick up his wife and children to go to a park or somewhere else to cool off and enjoy their time together. He perfectly knows that the route to the park might be dangerous or that something might happen at the park but he still goes there and continues with his life. He does not want his life to be dictated by the conflict and just wants his family to be. He works every day except for Fridays from 7 to 16:00 hrs and then he still has the energy to get out with his family and friends on a daily basis despite the risks. Meanwhile I can’t even get some of my friends here for after work drinks on a Monday because it’s Monday night. Maybe that’s why I am so in love with Afghanistan, because even with the hardship people there are still so powerful and resilient. But at the same time it hurts so much that they have to be resilient and cannot just live their daily lives without these horrible interferences of attacks and despair.

Is it difficult to reconcile my romanticized idea of Afghanistan and the reality of the conflict? Yes.
Will this stop me from trying? No.
I will always feel a strong connection with Afghanistan. The country has endured so much war and conflict but it will remain the place where my parents have their most valuable memories and the place which unlocked my idea of home. I am looking forward to the day when the conflict will end and we can only talk about the beauty of Afghanistan.



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