A few years ago, I got an opportunity to tutor two children from a family living in a large three-story house not very far from my home in San Clemente, California: a boy in the tenth grade, Mehron Sharq and his sister, Hanna in the seventh grade. It was clear from their names, appearances, home décor and accents of their parents that they were Middle-Eastern and Muslim. I never questioned them about their ethnicity.
I enjoyed the tutoring sessions because both were full of life. One day they started to talk in their native tongue during a tutoring session and I sat there with a bewildered look on my face. Hanna gave me a quick glance and said, “It is Farsi”.
My eyes lit up because I had some exposure to the language since I had some Iranian friends. I told them “You guys must be Iranians”. “Nope”, Hanna replied immediately, “guess again”. I felt embarrassed at my poor knowledge of the languages used across the Middle-East. “Iraqi”, I said, which was not correct either and then took a couple of more stabs “Jordanian”, “Kurdish”, “Tajik” etc.
Hanna laughed at my ignorance and then told me “my parents are from Afghanistan”. I must confess that I did not know that the Afghan people spoke Farsi. However, I later found out why. The version of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan is called “Dari” and it is one of two official languages there, the other being “Pashto”. I felt a certain degree of closeness with them probably because Afghanistan is so close to India. However, except for a few “Kabuliwalas” that I remembered from my childhood who sold dates and various nuts, I had met only two Afghan people until then.
The first was a guy named Masoud, who built a house next door to me (but sold it within a year) and the other was a female teller at my bank. My impression was that Afghan people in the USA were educated, relatively wealthy, well-mannered and trustworthy. During another session Hanna volunteered the information that her grandfather was the number 2 guy in Afghanistan at one time.
That immediately caught my attention; I was curious about the period and if it had anything to do with the Mujahideens or Talibans. “What is his name?” I inquired. “Mohammad Sharq” Hanna said. I did a Google search and found that Mohammad Sharq (in photograph) indeed served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Afghanistan and as the Chairman of Council of Ministers during the Soviet era of the late eighties. Another interesting aspect was his tenure as an Ambassador to India.
I learnt that Mr. Sharq was not only alive and well but lived with his son right there in the house where I was tutoring Mehron and Hanna. According to Google he was born in 1925 and therefore in his nineties! I did not know what kind of health he was in or how fluent he was in English. Nevertheless, I decided to ask Mehron’s mother, “Would it be possible for me to meet Mr. Mohammad Sharq one of these days?” “Sure”, she replied. My meeting with Mr. Sharq took place a couple of weeks later after one of my tutoring sessions.
What struck me as soon as I met him was how humble he was. He told me how glad he was to meet with me. “The pleasure and honour are all mine”, I responded. It was clear that he could speak and understand English perfectly well, but it was occasionally difficult for me to understand him because his speech had degraded with age. He lamented about the good old days when Afghanistan used to be a peaceful country, long before the Soviet invasion and even during the monarchy.
“The children could play outside, and you did not even have to lock your door” he said. I asked him many questions like a reporter. He answered candidly even though I felt that he was occasionally somewhat evasive.
Here is a summary of some of those questions and answers (from my best recollection): Q: Do you think that the Soviet invasion was a reluctant act on their part and it was the Afghan government who invited them in? A: I really do not know why they invaded. We had such a great relationship with them, and it did not make any sense that they invaded Afghanistan.
Q: What do you think about George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban? A: USA really wanted to kill only two people: Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. So, I do not understand the necessity of going to war by forming a big coalition with a bunch of other countries and killing millions of innocent people in the process. Also, Osama and his associates were all Saudis (and Sunnis). Why kill Afghan people many of whom were not even Sunnis?
Q: Since USA helped the Mujahideen like Osama bin Laden in their insurgency against the Soviets by giving them money and arms, why do you think Osama developed such a hatred for America? A: I really do not know and do not understand what was in that man’s head. Q: Do you agree that invasion of Iraq was a mistake as most people seem to agree now? A: Yes, of course, it was a big mistake. Q: Do you think one of the ulterior motives of USA is to keep a war going in some part of the world so that they can do profitable business by selling arms? A: Yes, I fully agree.
Q: What about Obama’s policies in recent years towards Afghanistan? A: A couple of years ago, Obama decided to pull out of Afghanistan and now he wants to go back again. Getting out, going back in – it simply does not solve any problem. I can assure you that as long as even a single foreign element is present, war would continue in Afghanistan.
Q: The experts say that Al-Qaeda was created because there was a power vacuum after the Soviets left and ISIS is growing because the Americans are leaving the Middle East. That is probably Obama’s justification for going back into Afghanistan. What do you think about that logic? A: I believe that the Afghan people are fully capable of resolving all their issues internally without any foreign involvement. Look at India. Many people were concerned about the possibility of total chaos when the British left India after ruling it for two hundred years; but they managed alright and now India is a great country.
Q: Don’t you think that the Taliban regime would again regain full control and rule the country with their fundamental Muslim ideology? A: I am not sure which one is worse; the Taliban or the foreign armies. (This statement is playing continuously in my head as Talibans are taking over Afghanistan.) Q: I understand that you were the Afghan Ambassador to India. When was that? A: From 1980 to 1986, during the rule of Indira Gandhi. I have a photograph of myself with her and I will show it to you later.
Q: Did you travel within India and did you like the country? A: Yes, and I have seen the Taj Mahal. I felt that India and Afghanistan were good friends. He had come to the USA twentythree years earlier and never went back to his country. He misses Afghanistan very much. “ If I ever visit Afghanistan, what places do you recommend that I visit?” I asked him. He responded with sadness “There is nothing to see in Afghanistan except the mountains. It is also not a safe place to visit at all”.
I thanked him after our little chat. He said “come back anytime and we can continue our discussion. I am at your service”. He probably feels lonely and would welcome any kind of companionship. He pointed towards a framed photograph on the wall showing him in his younger age wearing a military uniform and surrounded by military personnel. I felt that Afghans are peaceful and humble people.
Their gentleness and love for their family has been immortalized in Tagore’s “Kabuliwala”. It is a shame that the country has been torn by war over more than forty years, mostly from invasions from outside.
(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America)