Where Are You From?

by Esmat

I spent nine days pondering over this question with people from around the world last week at Harvard University, while attending Global Citizens Youth Summit focusing on how to better become “Global Citizens”. One of the reasons why I was particularly selected for this very competitive program was, I think, because my life somehow shows that I am trying to embrace the idea of being a global citizen. I have lived almost the entirety of my life in two different neighbouring countries, that experience of living in two different places has shaped me as a person today, that I cannot deny, however it also leaves someone questioning who they really are and most importantly where they belong. During the course of nine days at Global Citizens Youth Summit at Harvard, I was supposed to develop a concept/proposal for a project to be implemented in my community. I first thought if I felt the connection to my community to do such a thing, I thought really hard and long about it. Though I felt more obliged than just the feeling of belonging.

The issue with me is that – I don’t really know where I am from. I know that there is a country’s name on the back of my passport (Afghanistan) but does that really determine my identity? Does a piece of paper have the ability to show that? It’s not that I don’t have an identity, it’s that I just haven’t fully come the realization of certain elements of my identity. I am lucky that I am confused and I get to question this, not a lot of people in this world get to do that.

I dislike this question – “where are you from?” Whenever someone asks me this question, I inspect their emotion to give them the best possible answer. If they are looking for an easy answer, I tell them – Afghanistan. If they are up for a chat with a person who is in the middle of an identity crisis, then I say – “I don’t know where I am from, geography doesn’t really mean anything to my identity, so I have to figure this out.”, and I let the conversation take its shape from there on. The main reason that I dislike this question is because I think a certain place cannot show my identity.

I am a multilingual person, who has lived most of his life in two neighbouring countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have lived an almost equal number of years in both of the countries. Pakistan was my childhood “home”, I grew up learning Urdu and Pashto in the streets of Peshawar. Islamabad was a vacation destination every other summer as well as Murrey. My family amid the ongoing war in Afghanistan moved to Pakistan. Like many other Afghan families in Pakistan, our move was not by choice, it was by force; war. We did our best to save those little cultural and traditional things while we stayed in Pakistan, while still trying to adjust to the surroundings of a very similar yet very different society. Every now and then there would be a local Hazaragi (the ethnicity I identify with) delicacy served in my family such as Qurooti, bread mixed with milk-like-yogurt. We celebrated almost all the major holidays with the other Afghan families in our area. I was very young when we moved to Pakistan, maybe one or two years old. I went to a private school with very strict disciplines as did my other siblings and later on we changed our schools to the Afghan schools because I think my parents thought we should learn things in our native language (Dari) and I think we all knew this in the back of our heads that we would move back to Afghanistan when things got better. Over time we easily integrated into the fabric of a Pakistani society, so to speak, while still few things never changed for us- we were pained to hear sad news happening every day over the border, we never felt truly at ease or calm, we never forgot “home”. I could see how helpless everyone felt while hearing the atrocities being committed in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan. Pakistan was sort of a home, while still lacking few things that gives home it’s meaning.

We lived a modestly good life in Pakistan, while we could. Pakistan was not a culture shock for my family. However, when the time came to move back to Afghanistan, we had to, even though it felt sort of a culture shock for me later on. My family felt obliged to return to the place where several of our homes were destroyed, where we belonged. I don’t really understand the logic of this move to this very day. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see the place where everyone described as the most beautiful place of all. I wanted to see where my father grew up in, I wanted to see the place where everyone felt sad about. It felt wondrous, it felt like something to explore. But I also felt uneasy about the move, would I see my childhood friends again? What about my classmates? What about the teachers at my school? I had also heard that most of the facilities that were a common thing in Peshawar were not easily accessible in Kabul – electricity, running water and etc. For me, the move seemed scary, as I would have my roots uprooted and then how would I see things that same way as I did before. Again, that feeling of being obliged didn’t leave much of a choice for us  – we simply had to go back.

Few years before our move back, my family and me toured several provinces in Afghanistan. It was a great eye opener for all of us. Somehow I felt really at ease, it felt like being free. It felt like home, a true home. I remember seeing for the first time the house where my father grew up in, in that remote central province of Afghanistan. At that point I had come to the realization that no other place would feel the same way as Zeerak, that small village where my family name also derives from.

As much as this move was hard for me it was much harder for my family as much as they felt obliged, because for generations, as I have read and heard, the Hazaras (the ethnicity to which my family belongs), has been prosecuted for just being followers of a different sect of Islam (Shia) or having different facial features that set them apart from the rest of the ethnicities in Afghanistan. Several of our homes in different places got destroyed in Afghanistan, my family, especially my father, faced death numerous times in his life. Now, after all this, why would we go back? Why? While everyone in my family thought about moving back to Afghanistan, there was always this question of – if there is another war, I mean God forbid, but what if, what can we do?

For the first couple of months since the move back, I felt estranged. I didn’t have any friends anymore at school, I was often bullied because I was just different, as a result of this my grades went sort of downhill. I was not worried about that much. I was just worried about not having any friends anymore. I was such a social person at my other school in Pakistan. I was the star of the class so to speak. But I suddenly became this very shy person in the class. I remember that I would ask this question often – what if nobody ever likes to become my friend. Those were some challenging times for me.
To be perfectly honest, I still feel that way, I feel almost completely estranged and uneasy around people from my country, be it any ethnicity or language. I know the language, I have the knowledge of how people behave and act and do things, but I still find it much more easy to have a conversation with a person from a completely random country in the world.

This is where the trouble with my identity comes in, I don’t really know if I ever will be part of the same mosaic that other people from my country are in. I am not patriotic. I am not nationalistic. I despise anything like that. I am not even proud at things that my country does. I don’t support any specific country at all. I don’t even like to identify myself with the name of a country. I dislike many cultural things going on in my country (because most of them are just not compatible with today’s societies or are just result of superstitious thinking.) I carry the passport because I can travel that way, otherwise I don’t like carrying the passport or the birth certificate for that matter.

With all that said, I guess my identity is the one that has several elements from different cultures, yet I don’t like to be called or identified from a specific place. By the end of the nine days at Harvard, while contemplating about all this, I felt a very deep and emotional connection to my “home”, which is Afghanistan, because of how much of positive changes I could bring to it, how much there is potential in me to bring those changes. Because most of the values that I subscribe to personally comes from Afghanistan somehow. I feel at peace and ease while I am in Afghanistan and only a home can  feel that way and “Home” is where I am from.

I don’t necessarily have to get along with most of the people to call a place home. Anyone can believe anything they want. Anyone can live the way they want. And at the same time everyone can call that place “home”.