Table of contents
Podcast S1 E10 | 32 min

Being Afghan in America: In the Field With Morwari Zafar

18 Dec 2018
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has had surprising effects on Afghan-American communities, especially in enclaves like Fremont, California.

How does an immigrant become an “American”? How does any newcomer join any group? SAPIENS host Esteban Gómez shares the story of Morwari Zafar, an anthropologist who has studied post-9/11 changes in her community of Afghan-Americans in Fremont, California, and in other Afghan-American groups in the U.S. From the first major wave of immigration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Afghan-American communities have been in flux, exemplifying the mysteries of group identity, dynamics among the diaspora, and nationhood.

Zafar recently completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Her dissertation is titled COIN-Operated Anthropology: Cultural Knowledge, American Counterinsurgency, and the Rise of the Afghan Diaspora. She is now a managing partner at The Sentient Group, a consulting company focused on the international development, national security, and private sectors.

Read more at SAPIENS:

This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Esteban Gómez.

SAPIENS producer Arielle Milkman, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Fact-checking is by Christine Weeber, illustration is by David Williams, and all music is composed and produced by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod.

Read a transcript of this episode

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:00] It’s the Fourth of July and we’re in Fremont, California, a predominantly immigrant community on the east shore of the San Francisco Bay. The sun just set and the real celebrations are about to begin. Every other block or so, families and friends are gathering to set off smoke bombs, light sparklers, and shoot off firecrackers into the cool California night. An hour or so away from downtown Fremont, the Zafar family is gathering for a different sort of celebration. [00:00:35][34.7] 

Shafi Zafar: [00:00:40] My name is Shafi; my family name is Zafar. I’m living right now in Fremont, California. I was born in Afghanistan. [00:00:47][6.4] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:48] In a cozy condo decorated with traditional Afghan art, thick with the smells of Middle Eastern spices, Shafi and 10 or so members of his family are catching up, talking politics and swapping stories of life back home. Stories like the one about the first time Shafi met his wife Ana. [00:01:04][16.0] 

Shafi Zafar: [00:01:05] And she said, No, I’m not gonna marry you because I’m not … you’re not my type of person. I don’t know you. I said, OK, if you don’t know me, how you gonna know me, because we have to talk. We have to sit down. Finally, it’s no deal. [00:01:21][15.4] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:01:27] Shafi and Ana did end up sitting down to talk. And of course, they did get married, not so long after that day. But life in Afghanistan at that time was not easy. In 1988, Shafi was working for the government in Kabul. The Soviet army was withdrawing from the country. That opened up a massive power vacuum and in turn, that led to political turmoil and violence in the streets. Kabul was a really difficult place to raise two young daughters. So when Shafi was offered a diplomatic posting in London in 1991, he took it. [00:02:02][34.4] 

Shafi Zafar: [00:02:02] My mother-in-law was living in our apartment in Afghanistan. And she told me that it was hell. Missiles falling down from everywhere. I mean on the streets. The people, they kill people without any, without any problem, my God, so easy. I mean, it was horrible. [00:02:26][24.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:02:28] After a few years watching all this from afar, Shafi couldn’t take anymore. He didn’t agree with the direction the country was going and problems in his office kept piling up. So he and Ana packed up the family and left London and Afghan politics behind. They moved here, California, and built new lives. So now every year on the Fourth of July when much of the country is celebrating with fireworks, Shafi—he’s conflicted. [00:02:55][27.0] 

Shafi Zafar: [00:02:56] Because I, I, I hate fireworks because when I was back home in Afghanistan, it was so many firework, the real one, that now this one, I … I can’t, every time when I … there is a firework, I put my head and I say, say, I can’t. I’m very traumatized by this sound. [00:03:19][23.7] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:03:24] The rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. To Shafi, those words carry very different conflicting meanings. He’s from one place. And now he’s in another. They’re both home, in a way, and he’s not alone. People all over the world are moving, changing, making new homes in unfamiliar places. They have old loyalties, new loyalties, and questions about how to make it all work. This time on SAPIENS: How do we navigate these transitions? How do we shape ourselves and reshape ourselves when we move from place to place? [00:04:03][38.4] 

All hosts: [00:04:06] INTRO [00:04:06][0.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:29] This is not Shafi Zafar’s story. It’s his daughter’s, Morwari Zafar. And we recently sent SAPIENS producer Paul Karolyi to Fremont to help tell it. Paul, welcome back to the show. [00:04:39][9.8] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:04:40] Thanks for having me, Esteban. [00:04:40][0.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:41] So tell us about your trip. [00:04:42][0.6] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:04:42] Sure. I flew into Oakland International Airport on the Fourth of July. I saw the gleaming towers of San Francisco across the bay and I promptly turned the other direction. About 30 minutes south on the highway brought me to Fremont, where I met up with Morwari. [00:04:56][13.9] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:04:57] So, what we’re walking down right now is Fremont Boulevard, which is the heart of Little Kabul. It’s the part of Fremont that is a … has most of the diaspora concentrated around it. Make sure you don’t get hit by a car. [00:05:07][9.6] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:05:11] Morwari was 13 years old when her parents moved the family to America. But she says the transition wasn’t too hard because many of the other kids in her school were from immigrant families too. And not just immigrant families, but Afghan immigrant families. Fremont was and still is home to the largest population of Afghans in the United States. [00:05:30][18.6] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:05:33] And if we walk this way, we’ve got … we’ve got the liquor store and then we have the Afghan bazaar, which has a whole bunch of Afghan goods so if you’re, if you’re going to get married, you’d come in here and look for the traditional dresses, which is in one part of the ceremony. [00:05:49][15.1] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:05:50] Walking through Little Kabul with Morwari was like taking a tour of her past. There’s the butcher who gets the cuts just the way she likes them. There’s the wedding hall she’s been to a thousand times, and there’s the old movie theater that used to play Bollywood flicks. [00:06:03][13.2] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:06:05] And that I remember very fondly because it was always very crowded, and it became a, a place where you know, you were there to see and to be seen. And a great place to, you know, meet your match! [00:06:16][11.3] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:06:19] While Morwari and her sister were growing up, their parents were struggling in those early years in Fremont. They were highly educated and respected back in Afghanistan. But in California, Shafi worked as a bartender and Ana, an accomplished doctor, was an assistant in a cardiology office. [00:06:34][14.9] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:06:35] I kinda had to bypass the teenage angst phase. Or maybe, I think I did it kind of quietly. In secret, I listened to like nine inch nails and Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and brood. But because I knew my parents were already taking on so much, it was very difficult to have that, like, I hate my life! This is, I was, like, No, these people have worked really hard for this life. You better get through school just fine. [00:06:57][22.0] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:06:58] Through adversity, the Zafars grew closer as a family. They spoke Farsi at home. They shared traditional Afghan and French foods. Over the years, they got more and more comfortable in California until—college. [00:07:10][12.3] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:07:12] What was that like? Where’d you go? [00:07:13][1.8] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:07:13] College was interesting. So college was completely different to my high school. [00:07:19][5.9] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:07:20] Morwari was an excellent student, and she had her pick of universities. Instead of staying close to home and going to Berkeley, like her father would have liked, she set her sights on the perpetually drizzly Pacific Northwest. [00:07:31][11.1] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:07:32] I was going through a broody Pearl Jam phase, and I thought, Oh, this, I just want to be where the artists are. [00:07:38][6.4] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:07:39] So that’s what she did. Morwari packed up all of her waterproof clothing and went away to study English at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. It wasn’t easy leaving home, but it never is, is it, Esteban? [00:07:51][11.4] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:07:51] No, it’s, it’s not. I remember when I left home for the first time. That feeling of not quite knowing where you fit in. [00:07:58][6.2] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:07:58] Right. Right. [00:07:59][0.7] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:07:59] But that’s just it. I mean, Morwari’s story sounds fairly typical for an American teenager. Her parents worked hard for her to grow up with a strong community and plenty of opportunities. And here she is going off to college. [00:08:10][11.1] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:08:11] But things were about to change. A few weeks after Morwari returned to Tacoma for her second year of university, she woke up one morning to a phone call. [00:08:21][9.4] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:08:23] Um, I think it was from the guy that I was actually seeing in college that time and he was in a different state. And he called and he said, “Hey, have you looked at the news?” And I thought. No, not at all. And so I looked. I went downstairs, turned on the news, and I was just absolutely flabbergasted. [00:08:36][13.8] 

George W. Bush: [00:08:38] Good evening. Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were …  [00:08:52][14.3] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:08:52] So I woke up with this phone call and went downstairs to check it and then sat there being like, This, this can’t possibly happen; this can’t happen in America. This just doesn’t happen here. You know, questioning it. And then when I realized like, No this has happened, and my roommates were there and we’re all kind of looking at each other in disbelief, that’s when I started you know, I called my parents and thought, “Hey, have you guys seen this? Like what’s going on?” And they were equally astonished. [00:09:14][21.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:15] 9/11. Among other things, it completely upended a relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. On September 20th, the U.S. demanded that the Taliban government hand over Osama Bin Laden and other architects of the attacks. The Taliban basically said—No. Then in October, the U.S. and U.K. launched combat operations in Afghanistan. [00:09:37][21.5] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:09:38] It was the beginning of the so-called global war on terrorism. [00:09:41][3.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:43] Yeah, basically. [00:09:44][0.5] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:09:43] And think about how this must have been like for Morwari and her family. They had no loyalty to the Taliban or anything like that. But this was still their homeland being bombed by their adopted country. [00:09:55][11.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:56] Yeah. [00:09:56][0.0] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:09:57] And it wasn’t exactly something Morwari could like, not think about. That same fall, her citizenship application was approved and by December, just a few months after 9/11, she was standing shoulder to shoulder with a diverse group of other soon-to-be citizens in a San Francisco courthouse. [00:10:11][14.6] 

Morwari Zafar (Oath): [00:10:12] I hereby declare on oath that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any … [00:10:18][5.8] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:10:18] It immobilizes you in a very good way because you’re fixated by everything that America is at that time. We’re all becoming American in one way and nobody looks the same. Nobody sounds the same. People believe in different things. But here we are becoming part of one thing and taking an oath to be a part of this country, to serve the country and protect it. [00:10:39][20.9] 

Morwari Zafar (Oath): [00:10:39] To serve in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law. That I will perform work of national … [00:10:44][4.4] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:10:44] These words obviously meant something to Morwari. And this is where her story diverges from many of her peers in the Afghan-American community. [00:10:51][6.7] 

Morwari Zafar (Oath): [00:10:51] Of Invasion. So help me God. [00:10:53][1.9] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:10:55] She went back to Washington and focused on her studies and when she came back to Fremont that summer, things had changed. [00:11:01][5.5] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:11:03] I noticed that a lot of the peers and the people that I’d gone to high school with, um, were starting to take on very overt, you know, codes of dress that were associated with Afghanistan or Islam, codes of behavior. [00:11:17][13.8] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:11:18] These were people she knew well. People from liberal, secular families like hers. [00:11:22][4.8] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:11:23] I would now see them in the community a few years later, would suddenly start to wear the Afghan, traditional Afghan headdress, both as a sign of their Islamic persuasion but also of their Afghan national identity or their, their sense, their perceived Afghan national identity. Because for many of them, as their mothers or their fathers would say, Oh, we never did this. We didn’t do these things. We didn’t believe in these things. But the younger generation was trying to create a … basically construct a new sense of identity about what it meant to be Afghan and Muslim in America as a response to 9/11. [00:11:58][34.8] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:11:59] She saw young Afghan-American men growing out their beards, refusing to shake hands with women, going to the mosque more and more frequently. And she started hearing stories all over Little Kabul from the Afghan market to the local hair salon. [00:12:11][12.5] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:12:12] The Cutting-Edge Salon. One of the ladies that worked there, she was telling me about her son who had started to become, you know, he was 17 years old, had never been to Afghanistan, had become really religious and was questioning her profession in terms of, you know, trying to beautify women whether that was an immodest thing. And so at that time I started thinking, Well, what, what’s going on? And hearing bits and pieces about …  [00:12:34][22.1] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:12:35] Over the next few years, Morwari kept watching these changes and asking these questions: Why was this happening? What were her peers thinking? How did any of this work? Meanwhile, she graduated and started a master’s program in anthropology at the George Washington University in D.C. It was there that she first took these complicated questions of identity and community and started looking for answers. [00:12:57][22.7] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:12:58] I was looking at those things more as an observer and less as a participant and so I think it kept me apart from what it meant. I always knew that, that I was always balancing Afghan identity and American identity. But that tension didn’t manifest itself in that way for me. [00:13:13][14.7] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:13:14] In retrospect, do you think that, do you see any of that in yourself or do you feel like, you were, maybe anthropology was your way to avoid the entire conflict? [00:13:23][9.7] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:13:25] I think that’s … yeah, I think that’s very valid because I think it was, I think that it’s like most things in life, it’s much easier for me to look on it as a, as an observer rather than really invest my emotions in it or my, my feelings or my sentiments into it. [00:13:41][15.9] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:13:43] Esteban? Any comments from the anthropological side of things? [00:13:45][2.2] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:13:45] Well, it sounds like anthropology gave her a powerful set of tools to understand what was happening back in Fremont. Allowed her to ask informed questions of identity, and specifically what it meant to be an Afghan-American post 9/11. [00:13:56][11.5] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:13:57] So what I was observing was not necessarily particular or unique to the Afghan community. You see this among the Palestinian Diaspora, for example. It’s a response to political interventions in another country, for example. So what was going on was the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. Afghans were in the spotlight, in a not-so-kind way and in response to being vilified by the media, they thought, Well, we’re gonna take on this identity and create a new identity on what it means to be Afghan and Muslim. But they often did that by kind of exaggerating what it was to be Afghan and Muslim more so than, you know, the generations prior. [00:14:33][36.0] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:14:34] And it wasn’t just the government or the media they were responding to. According to the FBI’s data on hate crimes, 2001 saw a huge spike in assaults against Muslims across the country. [00:14:44][9.3] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:14:44] What they were seeing on the news was, Well, this is where we’re from. It’s our country that’s getting bombed. So this notion of like, this affiliation with Afghanistan and feeling that they needed to represent it or to defend it some way because they were the proxies here. I think that on, init[ially], on the surface, it looked like spite. But I think when you looked below it, it was a, it was a very hurt pride, and I think it was a pride that they’d appropriated from their, their parents and their families because you think about … Afghanistan got talked about in association with terrorism. And so Afghans, by extension, were talked about in the same sentences as terrorists. And so what they wanted to do was reclaim this identity. And I think there is, there were a lot of, like I mentioned, my experience is very unique because I did not have any sort of backlash or I didn’t sense any of the backlash at least. But a lot of the people that were here were subject to, to a lot of racism and prejudice and like hurtful comments. And so in doing so, they were, they were almost acting out against it and trying to reclaim a sense of place and identity here. Really trying to find out who they were. [00:15:58][73.7] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:16:00] While Morwari was finishing up her degree, that basic post 9/11 dynamic held in Fremont over the next few years. Yes, there were FBI surveillance operations and constant suspicion from outsiders, but internally, Little Kabul was thriving. All the new interest in Afghan culture and Islam meant there was a market for traditional goods and services. Restaurants popped up and expanded, the wedding halls were packed week after week, and while that was happening, Morwari’s relationship with Afghanistan changed too. After she graduated from GW, she took a job as a contractor with one of the U.S. aid programs, and she went to live there. [00:16:38][38.1] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:16:39] And it was there that I started to see some of those peers coming through the same channels that I did. And again, people that had not, I left Afghanistan quite late. But a lot of the people had left when they were two years old or had been born in the U.S., and they were coming in and they had no familiarity, but they were serving as these expert advisors. And so I thought, well, this is quite odd because I don’t feel, you know, having left quite late, I still don’t feel like I’m an expert in this, and I can attest to the fact that I, I even question my own memories. So these people are coming back saying things, saying things as if they had lived through the worst of it all. [00:17:16][37.5] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:17:17] The way Morwari talks about these people—it’s not like they were lying to buff themselves up or seem tough or anything like that. She describes what they were doing as a process of reconstruction. They were reconstructing family histories and narratives. And this wasn’t just happening in Afghanistan either. When the security situation changed, Morwari came back to the U.S. and got a job at the Department of Defense. [00:17:40][23.0] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:17:41] And I started to encounter a lot of Afghans from the diaspora. Both the younger generation, some of whom had undergone these transformations that I talked about and then also from the, the older generation who had experience in Afghanistan in their adulthood, who came back and were, again, hired as advisors and as experts. [00:17:59][18.4] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:18:01] So these are the same people who were growing out their beards and finding new meaning in Islam after 9/11? [00:18:07][6.3] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:18:08] In some cases, yeah. In just a few short years, they swapped their beards and traditional dress for buzz cuts and polo shirts and when Morwari went home to visit Fremont, she saw American flags hanging up outside people’s homes. [00:18:22][14.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:18:23] What happened? What changed? [00:18:24][1.1] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:18:24] A lot of things. For one, the U.S. toppled the Taliban government soon after the invasion began in 2001, and that led to a whole new batch of problems in Afghanistan. Over the next few years, the war changed. The Taliban reemerged. And by around 2006, it was a stalemate. Across the country, the U.S.–led coalition was facing opposition from new groups popping up here and there. Insurgent groups. [00:18:49][25.1] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:18:51] It wasn’t just the Taliban. Now there are these insurgent groups. And the insurgent groups came from the local populations. So suddenly, the war changed from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency. [00:19:01][10.3] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:19:02] Counterinsurgency. The battle for hearts and minds. Nation building. Afghanistan became the latest in a long string of American wars against insurgents in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Central and South America. Just like in those other places, the question facing American generals became, How do we convince the locals not to join the fight against us? [00:19:23][20.4] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:19:23] They were getting this feedback from soldiers on the ground who were saying, Look, I don’t know if this guy’s with the Taliban, he seems to be with the Taliban because he doesn’t have any other recourse. They don’t have other livelihoods or whatever they depended on got bombed out. And so now they’re joining hands with the Taliban. But they don’t necessarily believe in their ideology. So somebody or the military generals in the U.S. had a aha moment that was, Well, let’s try to meet their needs before the Taliban did. [00:19:48][24.8] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:19:49] So, I’m starting to see the connections here. I don’t quite understand how the counterinsurgency strategy can have such a powerful effect on Afghan-Americans back in Fremont. [00:19:57][7.3] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:19:58] You’re not alone. Morwari didn’t see it yet either. See, she was in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010. Those were the early years of counterinsurgency. She was working for aid programs trying to make a difference. She believed in the mission. [00:20:12][14.4] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:20:13] But I realized very quickly when I got there that I am not strong enough for the red tape that goes through of these bureaucratic channels. So I kind of became a, you know, a cog in the wheel where I was sitting there behind the desk, begging to go out into the field. I think I realized that my being there was really having zero impact on what was going on because it was a top-down approach, and at the top, the notions that people had about Afghanistan were completely not just flawed, but they did not resonate in any way with what was going on locally. [00:20:48][35.4]

Paul Karolyi: [00:20:49] And that’s when she came back to D.C. for that job at the Defense Department. And it was there that she saw the connection between the top-down policymaking machine and her Afghan-American peers who were selling themselves as experts in Afghan language and culture. [00:21:01][12.7] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:21:02] It was that exposure where I thought where, where I got to experience firsthand the very divergent narrative that fed into this policymaking machine that got me to the point where I thought, I need to research this. Like, here’s a question about how is this … what is it, what impact this is having? What impact is this cultural production and reproduction having? [00:21:23][20.4] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:21:23] Morwari took this question and went back to school. This time, Oxford University for a PhD in anthropology. She worked with an expert in these sorts of diaspora dynamics, Dr. Nicholas Van Hear, to develop a research proposal, and she dove back into Fremont, the history of the Afghan-American community, and, in a way, her own personal history. Basically, she started calling people. People she knew from childhood. Family friends, friends of friends. She talked to members of the U.S. military but mostly, she hit the streets of Afghan-American enclaves like Fremont and met people like Baktash Ahadi. [00:22:00][37.0] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:22:01] Yah, so Baktash was interesting. I met him in Virginia. And he … he showed up and he was just this, like … this super-hippied-out Afghan guy. Big curly hair, was riding on a bicycle, and I thought, OK, that’s unusual because I never interviewed an Afghan guy like this, and he said, Well, no, no, no … [00:22:19][18.2] 

Baktash Ahadi: [00:22:20] Yah, yah, this happened. She did. She interviewed me for, for part of a dissertation. She was studying the Afghan diaspora and particularly the diaspora when I served in Afghanistan. So … [00:22:31][10.4] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:22:31] Like Morwari, Baktash was born in Kabul. When he was five, his parents moved the family to a small town in Pennsylvania called Carlisle. [00:22:38][7.4] 

Baktash Ahadi: [00:22:40] And I was raised in this binary world where at home we’re very Afghan and then, outside the home, I was very American, right. [00:22:46][6.0] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:22:47] After 9/11, Baktash was curious about what it meant to be an Afghan and to be a Muslim. He wanted to know more about where his parents came from … Where he came from. It was all he wanted to think about. [00:22:57][10.2] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:22:58] So he started, you know, inquiring about it, asking his father,  who was basically, the kind of purveyor of the knowledge to him and his brother. [00:23:07][9.3] 

Baktash Ahadi: [00:23:10] And eventually in 2009, President Obama announced the surge in Afghanistan. At the time, I was working for the government, and I was recruited to work as an interpreter for the Marines, so I was embedded with the Marines and I literally brought my two worlds together, right? So I brought Afghans together with Americans and we have these two, these two worlds of mine were essentially working to help rebuild Afghanistan as well as to combat insurgents in the context of Afghanistan. [00:23:40][30.4] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:23:43] What, what did you learn from him specifically? [00:23:44][1.7] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:23:46] I think that I learned from him how much of, how, or the extent to which the families, the parents or the households, influence, you know, the perceptions of what Afghanistan is. And I also learned from him how, not just those perceptions, but also how much the, the ideals that people go to Afghanistan with. This notion of like, oh, this is the homeland and the imagined community, Afghans, right, not just the military, but Afghans go in with this notion and then they’re faced with the reality of what Afghanistan represents and they realize … yeah, you know what? I’m not all that Afghan and I’m more American than I am Afghan. And so it really challenges their perceptions of what Afghanistan represents the homeland. [00:24:30][44.5] 

Baktash Ahadi: [00:24:34] I also have a whole bunch of family that still lives in Afghanistan. So going back and seeing them and hearing their stories made me realize, first and foremost, how blessed and privileged and just lucky my family was to get out, right? And so many people like myself suffer from what’s known as survivor’s guilt. Why is it that we got out? Why is it that we were able to have a have a really good living and life and upbringing and end up in a small little college town in Pennsylvania. [00:25:04][29.9] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:25:07] Morwari didn’t have to look far to find Afghan-Americans with experiences like this. Her own mother, Ana, took a job as a translator in 2009. Apart from a brief visit in 2006, it was her first time back in Kabul in almost 20 years. [00:25:21][13.8] 

Ana Zafar: [00:25:21] It wasn’t recognizable that much. I couldn’t even find our own home, it was so different. [00:25:26][5.2] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:25:27] After spending so much time away from Afghanistan and Kabul and her life there, Ana still felt that connection. But she felt connected to America too. [00:25:35][7.8] 

Ana Zafar: [00:25:36] It’s something that I explained once to someone else—you’re in the air, OK? When you go there, you think about here. You miss here. When you are here, you miss there, so I don’t know … it’s kind of, I’m lost. [00:25:53][16.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:25:54] So, Paul, I can sense, we’re getting close. After all these conversations, after all her research, what did Morwari conclude? [00:26:02][7.5] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:26:03] I think she should take it from here. [00:26:04][1.0] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:26:04] I’ve told you about my family’s story. But everybody had their own migration trajectory. Some left Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion; some left after; some left on planes; some left, you know, fleeing the country. So however you left, whatever your migration trajectory was, it affected or it shaped the narrative or the memories, you know, whatever the representations that you had of Afghanistan, of Afghan culture or social norms, whatever it may be. When people came to the U.S., they lost everything, right, so this … they were, they no longer had the same status as they had in Afghanistan. So they really became defined by the migration experience. You are now all immigrants and, by extension, second-class citizens, in a place where you had to compete and you had to make a life. And these, these opportunities, the defense opportunities, allowed people to take on the role of experts or anthropologists or whatever it may be to improve both their position within the diaspora, but also their position as Americans and, in doing so, I think it brought them closer to their sense of American identity, right, or their true sense of American nationalism. [00:27:11][66.8] 

Paul Karolyi: [00:27:12] Alright, Esteban, what do you think of that? [00:27:14][1.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:27:14] Well, I think a lot of things. I think these Afghan-Americans took all their memories of Afghanistan, all that cultural knowledge, and they used it. They took advantage of the situation they were in, and they were able to claim a new, more powerful role in American society. [00:27:30][16.4] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:27:31] Because it comes down to, to people; it comes down to livelihoods and, ultimately, as humans based on our human interest and human nature, self-preservation. If you feel like you, you can’t survive or, and thrive in an environment, you’re less likely to feel like, like you belong to it, you’re less likely to feel you have a stake in it. But when you feel like those bonds are stronger, then you feel a part of the community. You want to, you want to help it, you want to help yourself to help the community. [00:27:57][25.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:28:11] We’ve seen this before countless times. People, marginalized groups, struggling to join white America to improve their lot or to benefit their families and communities. World War II alone saw Native Americans serve as code talkers and Japanese Americans fight alongside of white soldiers in the European theater. [00:28:29][18.1] 

News Announcer: [00:28:32] … Missouri in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the surrender of Japan … [00:28:32][0.3] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:28:37] They risked everything. And what do they get in return? Around 40 percent of Native Americans are still struggling on reservations, and many Japanese Americans still face distrust and accusations of disloyalty from older, white Americans. It’s clear from all of this that joining a new group has as much to do with a joiner as with the joined. The dominant group decides who’s useful enough to accept, who’s valuable enough to embrace, and who is similar enough to bring into the fold. At the same time, utility, value, and similarity are all relative terms. They shift from moment to moment, era to era. All this is to say, when the Fourth of July comes around next year or the year after that or 20 years from now, I don’t think any of us can say where we’ll be or how we’ll feel about America. I know I can’t. And I definitely can’t say what’s going to happen to Little Kabul. [00:29:35][58.3] 

Morwari Zafar: [00:29:37] You know, it’s really good. It’s a great question because I, I have wondered too if the Afghan community will still be around. They’re, people are already moving out of here into parts of California and other states that are less expensive. So it’s interesting ‘cause I think that the … California as a place because of the changes in it and how expensive it’s becoming, it’s definitely affecting communities like the Afghan-American diaspora here. And they’re seeking places, just like other Californians seeking places where their money can go farther. But in that same vein, though, I’m curious to see that, that effect happening here or that phenomenon happening here, what effect it’s going to have in states like Texas and Nebraska and Colorado where they’re going. Who knows— the Afghan bazaar may shut down here and get resurrected in Tennessee, who knows? [00:30:27][50.2] 

Chip Colwell: [00:30:28] This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Esteban Gómez with support from Jen Shannon and me, Chip Colwell. SAPIENS producer Arielle Milkman, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Christine Weeber is our fact checker. David Williams created our cover art. Matthew Simonson composed our theme and all the other music you heard in this episode. Thanks this time to our guests Morwari Zafar, her parents Shafi and Ana, Baktash Ahadi, and everyone else Paul met in Fremont.

 Paul Karolyi: Excuse me, Chip, I’m just gonna butt in here and say thank you so, so, so much to everybody who read the Citizenship Oath along with Morwari for this episode. That was myself, but also Cat, Matthew, Arielle, Anne Garcia, Jem Zornow, Blake Benton, and Rae Solomon. 

Chip Colwell: Thanks also to Danilyn Rutherford; Maugha Kenny; and the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research; and Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Aaron Brooks, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. 

Well, fellow sapiens, that wraps up Season 1. Thanks so much for listening. It’s been an amazing ride. And if you find yourself suffering from withdrawals while we’re away, there’s plenty more at Until next time, take care and be well, fellow sapiens. [00:29:40][0.0][1482.5]


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