Zahir was an investment banker in Europe. A big wheel with a salary to match. Good looking, from an impeccable background, in his early 30’s, the world was his oyster yet, one bright day he turned his back on it all and returned to Afghanistan carrying early childhood memories and a desire for change.
“We left Kabul when I was very young. I really don’t remember much about it, except for picnics and kite-flying. The family had to leave for political reasons,” he says. Adding wryly: “There was a war on, you know.”
Growing up, first in the UK and then Spain, Zahir kept track of what was going on ‘back home’, but only to a point. “It was all so far removed, so distant from my life that it seemed unreal yet, somewhere inside, I always knew that I would come back. I am Afghan after all and proud of it,” he says in a distinctly British accent, which is at odds with the traditional setting of a private home in ‘up-town’ Kabul where he lounges on floor cushions, shoes left at the door so as not to dirty the gorgeous rugs spaced at intervals on the polished marble floor. Dressed in gothic black from head to toe, jeans, polo neck sweater, jacket and a rather incongruous beret set at a rakish angle, he explains why he walked out of a lucrative career. “I worked hard to get where I was, the world of investment banking is cutthroat and incredibly tough but, somewhere deep inside, in the hidden recesses of my brain, I intuitively knew that what I was doing was wrong. Advising clients to invest in things and futures destined to fail just to make a profit was wrong. It was immoral and having reached this conclusion I could not, my conscious dictated otherwise, continue with what I was doing…….so…….I left.”
Unemployed and unattached, although close family ties are there, of course, Zahir wandered around Europe for a few months whilst deciding what to do with his life. “I wanted…….sorry…….want to do something meaningful and I want to do it here in Afghanistan where there is so much to be done in the way of helping people rebuild their shattered lives. There are, admittedly, lots of aid agencies and NGO’s working here, but so many of them, the majority in fact, go about things the wrong way and achieve nothing in the long-term, yet waste so much money in the process,” he observed. “I have checked most of them out and they are not for me. I want to work directly with the people to help them help themselves…….if that makes sense.”
He is spending the evening with two other returnees: Darwish in his early 20’s was born and brought up in London and sent, quite literally, to Kabul to live with an uncle as soon as he left school having failed all of his exams and fallen into ‘bad’ company. Impeccably dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, he is slightly plump and exceedingly bored. “I hate it here,” he discloses. “There is absolutely nothing to do. I just hang around the house, watch television, watch movies, listen to music and that’s about it. I would much rather be back in London with my mates. We had a great time there.” When pressed he admits that he is, in many ways, lucky.
“My father was killed during the war,” he explains. “The war with the Russians. My uncle has always been a father to me, even though he was mostly here in Kabul and not in London where I lived with my mum. Uncle has his own work here, but it is not work I can get involved in so I just sit around here and get bored. Kabul is no place if you want to have fun and I have to get uncle’s permission before I can even go out of the house. I’d much rather be back in London,” he concludes switching the music on his laptop computer back on as Malik, mid-twenties and brought up in Norway, comes back from ordering a home delivery of Indian food over the phone.
Malik is trim and smart and proud of his job in a bank where, judging by his supercilious attitude, he probably isn’t very popular. Like Darwish, he was born outside Afghanistan and only returned a couple of years ago, although his reasons for doing so remain obscure. “It’s okay here,” he concedes. “But I find it necessary to leave as often as I possibly can…….Dubai for a weekend, Europe whenever possible and I am going to America soon. I have a good job, live comfortably, but I can’t imagine spending all of my life in Afghanistan. Yes…….it is my country, but there are too many problems for me to be able to settle down here on a permanent basis and I do not see these problems ever coming to an end.”
Of these three young men, it is only Zahir, who has any feeling for his homeland and who intends contributing to its reconstruction in a peaceful humanitarian way. It is reasonable to surmise that the stand taken by each of these men is replicated throughout the increasing number of returnees flocking to Afghanistan, either of their own or their families accord and, if this is the case, other such conversations mirrored this one, then one has to wonder how on earth the country will ever find an acceptable equilibrium when only one-third of its moneyed and middle class, they are the ones who had the ability to flee to new lives overseas, is in tune with the heartbeat of the wounded land they are so quick to call their own.
The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.