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Sultana's Dream
May 2012


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War and an Open Heart  

It’s been just over two weeks now since I returned from a trip to my country of birth – Afghanistan. My family fled the country when I was one year old and I had never been back. Before leaving I tried to have no expectations, perhaps in a subconscious effort to prepare for the worst.

Young Ahmed smiles for the camera; he shovels dirt for a living.

Trying to keep an open mind, I set foot on Afghan soil. At first I was totally overwhelmed by the grimness of Kabul. The poverty, the unmade roads, the crumbling buildings and the lack of infrastructure all showed the influence of ongoing war. The city was broken. But, as I began to realise—the people were not.

As I met more people, I was intrigued by the sense of life they exuded. They managed to smile, when there seemed far more reason to weep. They shared stories of days gone by, not with a sense of regret for what could have been, but with fondness and a sense of hope for the future. They offered their guests the best of what they had, even if they had very little.

My life in Australia seemed light years away. I was accustomed to my own sense of personal space and individualism, but in Afghanistan there seemed no such concept. Accommodation was nearly always cramped, with small living spaces shared by large numbers of extended family. Meals were always shared, and it seemed the more people gathered around the table, the more enjoyable the food tasted. I learnt of a saying in Dari which translates into something like: ‘If the heart is confined, then the surroundings are too’, implying, of course, that an open heart is absolutely necessary in overcrowded Kabul.

And I think this is the clue to surviving in a war zone. We all need to feel connected somehow ... we often forget this in affluent first world countries.

The luxuries that are a part of our life-style in Western countries often distract us from this very human need to feel connected. We become preoccupied with trying to meet our mortgage repayments or distracted by the job that is just that little bit too soul crushing. We numb ourselves and continue to soldier on. Yes, we’ve got it all, and yet we always want something more. We appear ungrateful for the abundance that we enjoy.

In a conflict zone war dominates and highlights the futility of embedding happiness in property or possessions –there one day, destroyed the next. The end result seems to be a strengthening of the collective consciousness – that important medium that gives us our sense of belonging, and in turn, satisfaction. With everything stripped away, emphasis is placed on forging connections with those around us. This is why people are welcomed with open arms into cramped homes; it’s why people spend hours conversing over endless pots of tea and why they nurture their relationships and go on living with an open heart. The people of Afghanistan have the strength to ‘stare down’ unhappiness, and in the end triumph. They have the ability to identify strongly as parts of a broader collective.

So, while I was humbled by my admiration for the people to find meaning in their lives and to survive, of course I was not ignorant of what, day after day, the war in Afghanistan imposes on its victims. The civilians have more faith in one another than they do in those who are actually responsible for building a brighter future for the generations of children who have now been born into war.

Afghanistan is a country that for the past four decades has been pulled apart. The general sentiment among Afghan civilians is that they have been betrayed by their own leaders who look after themselves while safeguarding the interests of the USA and its NATO allies. Unsurprisingly women seem to be the biggest victims and must abide by a set of expectations skewed by war and a lack of education. But that deserves an entry of its own, and is the subject of my next installment …

Durkhanai Ayubi