As Afghan women go, Fariba Nawa doesn’t exactly look the part. She’s blond and fair-skinned — as a child during the Soviet occupation, her classmates used to hiss “Little Russian” at her. But five years ago, as she stood in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass, her burqa kept her safe. No one knew she didn’t belong.
Nawa stood in a crowd of five hundred refugees who strained to cross the border and escape the silent, inert world their mullahs had built. On the Pakistani side one hundred yards ahead, merchants in the bara market sold hashish, opium, and guns, and Bollywood music tinkled in the dusty air. She clutched an Afghan passport — her American one was stuffed in her bra in case of an emergency. She kept her notepad and camera in her bag.
This wasn’t the first time Nawa had fled the country. The war with the Soviets made refugees of her family, and although they eventually settled in Union City, she never felt at ease in America. Now she was trying to make it as a freelance reporter, and hoped that by explaining the land of her birth to others, she could finally begin to understand it herself. She snuck into Kabul posing as an ordinary Afghan woman, and toured the Taliban’s utopia. “It was a city of the dead,” she says. “More beggars than I’d ever seen in my life, more than in India, which is hard to believe. And there was a stillness and a quietness to the city that made you so sad. … What I saw through the mesh holes of the burqa was a completely destroyed place, with a people that had no hope anymore.”
It was a rough start to a career that has found the young journalist, five feet tall and rail thin, seated next to drug lords, opium addicts, and tribesmen who argued as to whether they should kidnap and torture her. But Nawa just can’t stay away. She has never stopped puzzling over her battered homeland, and comes back to it year after year.
A shock of white-gold hair bunches around Nawa’s pale, pleasant face. Dark eyebrows stab out from her forehead, and her wide eyes have a way of vibrating when she thinks too hard. She’s disarmingly at ease with her family’s tragic past, yet something compels her to immerse herself in violence. “The reason I’m so attracted to war zones is because I’m always looking for answers as to what happened when I was a kid,” she says.
Standing there amid the refugees, it was time to escape the land of her birth — again. Nawa waited for the border guards to throw open the gates and start taking bribes. Her “guide,” a man posing as a male relative who accompanied her from the capital to the frontier, faded back into the crowd as arranged. Nawa hired a porter, an emaciated man with welts running along his legs, to haul her bag across the border. The mob pushed forward, cursing and shouting, waving visas if they had them, throwing coins at the soldiers.
The guards pulled out whips tipped with iron flecks. They lashed the crowd right and left, beating people on their backs and faces. The women screamed and covered up — the soldiers focused on the men, but didn’t care where the lashes landed in the frenzy. Nawa’s porter cringed and begged her to throw a bribe. “He was being beaten badly,” she recalls. “And he kept saying to me, ‘Paisa!’ which means ‘Give money, give money.’ And so I kept giving the guy, the soldier, money. Whatever I had, I kept giving him money. And then I saw that the porter started to bleed, he started to bleed next to his eye. … I finally started screaming — this is a kind of psychological torture that I’ve never experienced before. I kept yelling, ‘Hit me! Hit me! Stop hitting him! Hit me!'”
Then just like that, it was over. Nawa was through the gate and back in the land of the living. Her guide met her on the other side. “I said, ‘What the hell happened? Why did you leave me if you know that was going to happen?'” Nawa recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s normal. It happens every day.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but the poor guy needs to go to the hospital. He was bleeding.’ And he just laughed at me, like I was some naive idiot.”
It was all an act. The porters let the guards whip them to panic customers into throwing more money, and the guards gave them a piece of the action. That was why he was covered in welts. In fact, he’d probably get a bonus for bleeding so well.
Such was Afghanistan. Nawa returned to Islamabad and pitched stories to news outlets around the world, but no one expressed interest. In November 2000 no one cared what was happening in her country. Ten months later, all that would change.
By the fall of 2001, Nawa had abandoned her dreams of being a foreign correspondent and settled into the life of a graduate student at New York University. Then, just one week into her studies, she stood on her Brooklyn rooftop and watched the World Trade Center collapse into rubble. She realized, as she puts it, “two of my countries were going to be at war.” Nawa thought she’d finally escaped Afghanistan’s nihilism, but it had followed her all the way to New York.
So she did the only thing she knew — she wrote about it. Although her professional experience was limited, Nawa managed to snag a gig with the wire service Agence France-Presse. The young woman returned to Islamabad, this time as a war correspondent, learning the ropes as she went. She interviewed Taliban and Northern Alliance commanders from her satellite phone as gunfire erupted in the background. She wandered the refugee camps of Peshawar, recorded the stories of widows and orphans, and ran from men who wanted to kill her.
Fariba Nawa’s life stands out as a case study of ambivalence in a world where everyone wants you to pick a side. In last week’s State of the Union speech, President Bush steadfastly called the American operation in Iraq a noble struggle, “so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom.” Minutes earlier, in the same room, activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested for wearing an antiwar T-shirt. What’s striking about these opposing personas is their absolute moral certitude. Neither Bush nor Sheehan has lived in a country so destroyed by war, yet both are convinced of their righteousness. Nawa knows far more about war, and after more than twenty years she’s less certain than ever. For Nawa, war is never simply noble or simply evil. Soldiers murder whole families, yet people will sacrifice their lives for strangers.
The nuances of Nawa’s experience have obliterated her capacity to think in broad moral terms. Nothing will ever be simple again. “Wars to me are exciting in some ways, and disgusting in others,” she says. “It’s witnessing an extreme of humanity and being able to tell about it. That’s the distant explanation that I can give you, that’s me as a journalist. But more personally, I think it has a lot to do with my childhood, and trying to figure things out. What happened? Why did this happen? I don’t know if I’m looking for a solution, though. I sort of relish in the question marks.”
As a result, Nawa doesn’t trust uncomplicated loyalties. Fazul, her father, used to be a business manager in Herat City. Part of the country’s urban, secular intelligentsia, he loved music and literature, but cared nothing for tribal blood feuds, politics, or religion. When the war came, men with guns would demand to know what kind of Afghans they were — Communist? Mujahideen? Tajik? — when all they wanted was to be left alone. In 1981, after three years of seeing family members murdered, tortured, or forced into exile, Fazul gathered his wife Sayed and daughters Fariba and Faiza and ran for his life. Fariba was eight years old.
Nawa never really felt a part of anything larger than herself after that. She grew up ashamed of Afghan culture’s attitude toward women, but America’s hyperindividualism struck her as lonely and alienating. While Afghanistan degenerated into the most primitive religiosity since the Inquisition, she repudiated Islam as an expression of her religious identity. She’s an Afghan who doesn’t feel Afghan, an American who doesn’t feel American, a Muslim who doesn’t see the world through Islamic eyes.
From the fall of the Soviet Union to the attacks of September 11, Fariba Nawa has been intimate with two of this country’s key international conflicts, and they have only left her more stranded — a stranger wherever she happens to reside.
The cream-colored walls of Washington Hospital were pleasantly narcotic, but Nawa fumed about lazy doctors as she waited. Her father was hospitalized two weeks ago after he started coughing up blood, and the family had waited six days for a proper diagnosis. Now he lay on a gurney in the endoscopy wing, drugged and waiting for treatment. Fariba lingered outside. “If we lose him, I lose my heritage,” she fretted. “And I can’t do that.”
Fazul Nawa was an important man once. As his country’s upheaval got worse, he deftly manipulated the communists who took over his company, and learned to keep a low profile. When death finally closed in, he led his family in a gutsy break for the border. But once he got to America, his role as the family’s bedrock was over. He never learned enough English to land a decent job, and spent his days brooding and watching TV. “He had a sense of being lost,” Nawa recalled. “I think he really felt like he was somebody back home, and he became nobody.”
As with so many refugees, the children took over as the family leaders. Fazul’s daughters took retail jobs after school to supplement the welfare checks. Fariba interpreted America’s dizzying culture for her parents, and shuttled her mother, who never learned to drive, on daily errands. “My sister and my brother and I did everything after we came here,” she said. “I started working when I was thirteen. And we never held it against him, because there was an understanding of his loss. The only thing I felt was sympathy for him.”
For almost a week, Nawa had sat by her father’s bedside. The wall-mounted TV flashed muted images through the hours. A rough draft of her latest book lay on her lap, clean and unmarked — she’d been getting less than five hours of sleep a night, and the stress dulled her concentration.
If there’s one thing the world couldn’t take from Nawa, it was her family. Afghans place a high premium on kinship, and she cherishes this sense of belonging. But every couple of months, the need to return to a war zone overwhelms her, and she flies to Afghanistan or Iraq. Every time she embarks on a new assignment, her father asks why she has to go so far away.
“Family is number one for us, and I value that more than anything,” she says. “I value it so much, and yet I leave so often; I’ve been gone since 1992, really. What does that mean?”
The door swung open, and two medical technicians invited Fariba in. Digital screens flickered in the fluorescent glare. Her father lay there, underweight and blotched, shrinking into the folds of the bed. White stubble caked his cheeks. “Just outside the stomach, there’s an ulcer,” a technician explained. “And it caused his gastric pain. I’m sure he had some …”
“Yeah, a lot!” Fariba said.
The techs went over medicine regimens and possible diets, while Nawa listened and nodded. She glanced down at the man who, 25 years ago, put her on the back of a donkey and led her through the desert to safety. She leaned over him, tucked a white blanket around his shoulders, and murmured something in Persian. The Afghanistan of Fariba’s childhood was a land of rivers and fruit trees. Her family enjoyed a comfortable life, thanks to two generations of liberalism and modernity. “My godfather was part of the first constitutional convention,” she says. “My aunt opened up the first woman’s magazine in Herat. My aunts collectively got their first university education and took off their scarves during the king’s era. So there was a sort of calling that I had to be at the forefront of change as well.”
She divided her time between her grandfather’s Herat City orchard and the family home in Lashkar Gah, in what is now one of the last remaining Taliban strongholds. Back then, it was known as “Little America.”
“My family says hands down it was the best place they ever lived,” Nawa says. “We’d go fishing, we had dinner parties and live music every weekend at our house. … And there’s a river, the Helmand River, that holds together this province. It’s a very rich province, with wheat and barley and all sorts of things they grow there. And the river was sort of the lifeline of the province, and we were right on the river. So I remember going fishing all the time, and cooking the fish and barbecuing.”
All things considered, life was good around the country as well. Afghanistan is a stew of ethnicities, castes, and language groups; Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other tribes commingle in the mountains and valleys. Before the civil war, Nawa says, you never saw the tribal warfare that would later curse the country. If anything, Afghanistan was split between the countryside’s goatherds and the secular, rootless cosmopolitans of the cities.
San Francisco lawyer Maryam Miazad recalls that time clearly. Her father was a Kabul high school principal before the war, and she didn’t ask him about her tribe until almost a decade after leaving the country. “I was reading a history of Afghanistan, and it said something about Afghanistan being tribal, your identity is where you fit in with what clan you’re from,” Miazad says. “So I went home and asked my parents what clan we were. … It wasn’t as tribal or sectarian as it seems to have gotten.”
Afghanistan’s tragedy began on April 28, 1978. “We were at a wedding,” Nawa recalls. “I was eating cake. I had a spaghetti-strap dress on. I mean, it’s funny how certain things will stay in your mind. The music suddenly stopped. … Nobody talked. Something was wrong. The woman next to us said, ‘They’ve killed the president. The communists are coming.'”
The most radical faction seized power and began a terror campaign to crush all resistance, targeting the educated elite. In the first nineteen months, before army garrisons around the country revolted and Soviet forces invaded, an estimated twelve thousand people were murdered in Kabul alone. The next phase of the conflict was little better. Farhad Azad was the editor of the now-defunct Afghan Magazine — he was a child in Kabul when the Soviets’ proxy government took power. Azad’s father lost his government position and took a job teaching high school history before fleeing to Pakistan. “People were disappearing left and right,” he says. “You knew somebody, and then they just didn’t show up to work. … Anybody could be an informant. It was a police state. It was a bad, bad period of life. Even my sisters are traumatized. My mother does not acknowledge Afghanistan at all.”
Nawa’s brother Hadi, a student at the University of Kabul, fled the country to avoid being drafted or executed. Her uncle wasn’t so lucky. “He was the head of the faculty of pharmacy at Kabul University,” Nawa says. “And they just came and took him from the university and said, ‘We want to question you.’ And then we never saw him again. He just disappeared. … To this day, thousands of families don’t know what happened to their dead.”
According to Fariba’s older sister Faiza, the communists weren’t satisfied with merely killing their uncle. “They took one of his sons, too,” she says. “He was in ninth grade; he was a freshman. He was released after a month, but he was tortured. And he was told not to tell anybody, or they would kill him. He was never the same; he never really recovered. He became a quiet person, and not socializing that much.”
The basic social order began to fall apart, and weapons flooded into the country as the mujahideen got organized. As critical infrastructure collapsed, men clotted together in old tribal groups and turned their guns on outsiders. “When there’s chaos, people always turn to their own,” Nawa says. “We didn’t feel safe in Lashkar Gah anymore, because it was Pashtun-dominated territory. All of a sudden, these things started to matter.”
Nawa’s father felt trapped. His extended family was split over the war — some joined the communists, while others took up arms with the mujahideen. The communists took over his company. “They kept trying to get my father to pledge allegiance to the party,” Nawa says. “He just dodged, he was like, ‘Oh, you know, okay. Someday, yes.’ He was apolitical; he didn’t take sides. He was not religious, he was secular, so he didn’t take sides with the mujahideen. That was not an option for him. And he never believed in communism. My dad was a staunch modernist.”
By 1981, the family had moved to Herat City. But one day, the war came to town. “I still have a hard time going back to that memory,” Nawa says. “I hate being the victim; that’s just not my thing. But basically, my mom and I went to the bathhouse that day.”
The potable water system had collapsed, so once a week, Nawa’s mother took her out of school to wash clothes and take in the local gossip. “The women sit around washing up and talking,” she says. “There were some wives of the mujahideen there talking to my mom and saying, ‘They’re going to bomb the school today.”
Nawa’s teachers were schooling children in communist propaganda, and the mujahideen had decided to put an end to it. Nawa’s older sister was attending classes, but her mother dismissed the story as just another rumor. They walked through the city’s eerie stillness. At home, Nawa attended to her chores. “I had a purple dress, and I was ironing it,” she says. “And I was happy that I didn’t have to go to school that day, that I had played hooky. When a huge boom went off. … I ran out barefoot, and I kept calling my sister’s name. It’s about a block from the school. And then I came — out in front of me there were kids who were just body parts, you know. There was one boy in our school, because a teacher had one son, and she wanted the son to go to the girls’ school, because she was teaching there. He was dead. I saw him completely in pieces, basically.”
Faiza had survived the blast unharmed, but Nawa’s father knew the family had to get out. They couldn’t let anyone know of their plans. Some extended family members backed the communists, Nawa says, and although they weren’t likely to turn them in, they “would have done anything to prevent us from leaving.” So they had to rely on the other half — their mujahideen cousins. This was what Afghanistan had been reduced to. Totalitarianism had made everyone complicit in the national oppression, and yet the rebels were capable of inconceivable atrocities. Nawa’s family depended on both sides, but never forgot whom they were dealing with. “That has always been part of my Afghan experience,” Nawa says. “You never know who to trust. To this day, when I go back, I have no idea who to trust, because people are always shifting alliances.”
In the dead of night, they snuck out of their home and hid in a safe house. Family brokers quietly sold their house and furniture. Finally, the day came. A cousin rented a donkey and a bicycle, and they hiked six hours through the desert toward Iran. The women were wrapped in burqas. They had to cross the front line, and Nawa’s mother was convinced someone would fire on them. Nawa sat on the donkey and wailed for water. When they reached the other side, one of Nawa’s cousins gave her a bucket of water. She plunged her head in it and drank like an animal. Then she passed out.
Fariba Nawa fiddles with her latte as a Bach concerto trills from the speakers. She is sitting in a Peet’s in Fremont, talking about her life, but she can’t wait to leave town. The suburbs saved her in a way, and her family is still here. But it’s so boring and parochial, she says — nothing has changed in twenty years. Her restlessness is starting to gnaw at her again.
While her father looked for a purpose in his new world, Nawa sank into a teenage funk. Mouthy and opinionated, she’d grown to resent Afghan culture’s need to control its women. “My mom says I should have been born a boy,” Nawa says. “I had a hard time, as a teenager especially. I thought all of these traditions were sexist; they were stupid. I mean, growing up, I didn’t understand the complexities of it. All I saw was that mainstream society was much more open-minded and accepting of me.”
“At that time, she was a wild teenager,” her sister Faiza says. “She wouldn’t listen, and my parents just let her be the way she wanted to be. They were not strict with her at all. She was always doing well in school, so that was the most important thing for my father. … When my parents wanted to go somewhere, like to my Afghan relatives, she didn’t want to go with us. She said, ‘Oh, I have homework,’ or ‘I’m going to watch TV.’ She did not want to be with the same people as my parents. She did not want to have anything to do with people that we knew.”
At Logan High, as with so many other schools, race largely determined who your friends were. Blacks hung out with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Asians with Asians. Nawa gravitated toward the misfits; she formed a little Goth trio with her two best friends, an African American and a Nicaraguan. “We used to go to cafes in San Francisco, wear black, and wear red lipstick and talk poetry and pretend we were so cool,” Nawa says.
At age sixteen, she started writing for Pacific News Service and later cofounded Youth Outlook magazine, the Bay Area’s gathering point for urban, literary-minded, hip-hop-loving teens. Nawa’s first piece, on misperceptions about Muslims at the time of the first Gulf War, was put on the PNS wire service and picked up by the San Jose Mercury News. “She was adamant about writing about stories that youth don’t write about, which is international stories,” says Andrew Lam, a PNS editor. “A lot of youth would write about their neighborhood or guns or romance. But Fariba came to us at a young age, thinking about the world.”
At this point, the young woman was well on her way to being a post-ethnic, feminist American writer. But in her senior year in high school, something funny happened. “One of the boys came and asked me to be the president of the Afghan club,” she says. “And I looked at him like, ‘I don’t like you people.’ And I did it, and it was probably the moment where I started to have friends who were Afghan. … That’s when I started to come to terms with my identity, the duality of it.”
While other American girls dyed their hair blond, Nawa began coloring hers black to look more Afghan. She took off for Hampshire College in Massachusetts and devoured Palestinian political theorist Edward Said and what she calls the “academic mumbo jumbo” of college identity politics. After graduating, she spent a year in Cairo, learning Arabic and devising a game plan to break into international reporting.
Nawa landed a gig as a reporter with the Fremont Argus. Although she hated being back in her boring old haunts, she figured she had to pay her dues before she could move up to the majors. “She was always a really aggressive reporter,” recalls Argus city editor Rob Dennis. “It was fun to work with her.”
After two years, Nawa moved to Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2000 and hit the streets looking for stories. But her real job was rediscovering the culture she’d fled as a girl. She wandered among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan and took a clandestine tour of Afghanistan, gaping at what the Taliban had made of her old world. “It was the most incredible experience of my life,” she says. “And the most painful and thrilling, all at once. I cried a lot. And the nostalgia that you’re faced with, you have so much nostalgia. We feed on nostalgia as exiles, I think. We live on nostalgia. You never feel like you fit in anywhere. You go, and it’s so different than what you remember. And you have to face that. The myth is over.”
If Afghanistan broke her heart, Nawa became infatuated with the artists and writers she met in Iran, people who had moved beyond the country’s Islamic Revolution. For the first time in her life, she saw an Islam that embraced the literature and culture she loved so much. “Iran has an intellectual side to it that you can’t get anywhere else in the Middle East,” she says. “It’s a very sophisticated, urban class of people that appreciate all the things I thought Afghans never appreciated.” When Agence France-Presse offered her a job covering the region from its Iran bureau, Nawa’s heart leaped into her throat. But the Iranian government refused to grant her a work visa because of her American citizenship. It was no use trying to explain that she was a woman without a country — once again, someone had insisted on defining Nawa, and her dream job was gone.
Nawa gave up. She returned to the States and joined NYU’s journalism program, thinking she’d spend a few years in the classroom while she figured out her next move. That plan lasted exactly one week.
From my roof, you could see the Twin Towers, on the East River,” Nawa recalls. “We had a friend named Osama staying with us — he’s Bangladeshi. … Osama knocked on my door and said, ‘You need to come upstairs on the roof.’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ I had just woken up. I went up on the roof, and the first plane had hit already.”
Nawa was living near Brooklyn’s Arab neighborhood, but because of her blond hair, most New Yorkers never figured her for a Muslim. She wandered around town, stopping in at local bars where President Bush was on TV, listening to people mutter vows of revenge. Her two worlds, which had competed for her allegiance all her life, were about to clash.
After a few days, Agence France-Presse gave her a call. Things were about to explode, and Nawa’s language skills and Islamabad connections would come in handy. Nawa dropped out of school and took the next plane to Pakistan, where she joined AFP’s newsroom. For the next three months, she scribbled notes at Taliban press conferences or phoned commanders of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. “I could hear helicopters, I could hear gunshots,” she says. “It was sort of apocalyptic in my mind. I knew this would happen one day, and here it is happening. I ignored it, because I was too busy. … It was, ‘What is this identity bullshit? Out, out! I don’t have time for this.'”
Nawa knew her parents would panic if they realized what she was doing, so she never told them. To explain why she couldn’t call anymore, she cooked up a story about the minutes on her cell phone being too expensive. When she called her mother, Faiza could hear people shouting in Urdu in the background. Nawa told her she was in a Pakistani Laundromat in Brooklyn.
Nawa got another call, from Aaron Glantz, a producer at Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News. Each night from then on, at the end of a fifteen-hour shift in the AFP newsroom, Nawa summed up developments in the war zone for Pacifica’s audience. “We had a terrible time at Free Speech Radio News getting reporters to Pakistan,” Glantz says. “At first we sent a reporter with an Indian background, and they wouldn’t let her in. … I always thought this is kind of thing Pacifica should be doing more of, not the ideological stuff, but just bringing you close to all the raw stuff that’s happening.”
Nawa caught a ride to Peshawar, Pakistan, the great refugee city at the Khyber Pass. She had made contacts with aid workers the previous year and tapped them for stories about women fleeing the war. As she picked her way through the malnourished children and dysenteric puddles, men snarled, “I can see your legs under your shalwar!” When Nawa heard about an infamous madam who lured refugee women into prostitution, she hooked up with an AFP photographer to sneak into the brothel, posing as a potential whore. As soon as she knocked at the door of the apartment complex, the bodyguards made her for a cop. Nawa sprinted down the street before they could grab her.
Upon her return to Islamabad, her stint as a war correspondent was abruptly terminated. Nawa was nagging her editors to let her into Afghanistan when an Interior Ministry official called and ordered her to leave the country immediately.
Nawa decided to blow them off. She left AFP to take a gig with Newsday, essentially going underground for a few days. When she returned to the newsroom to pick up a few items, her former boss leaped up and screamed at her to get out. The government had threatened to pull all the AFP reporters’ visas if they didn’t produce her immediately. Nawa ran out and burst into tears. “As soon as I got home there were three men, plainclothes in that they were in Pakistani outfits,” she recalls. “They said, ‘You can no longer stay in this country. In fact, you are not allowed to leave your home until you get a ticket and leave. … They said, ‘We’re not going to come inside your house. You’re a woman, and we respect that. But we’re going to stand outside here and watch you.'”
To this day, Nawa has no idea why she was deported. She flew to Germany to cover the conference that created the new Afghan government, but after that, it was back to NYU. She continued to juggle school and war reporting, flying back to the Muslim belt and covering Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the summer of 2002, eight months after the fall of the Taliban, Nawa took her father back to Afghanistan. She wanted Fazul to see his country free again. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. “That was an intense experience, because he hated it,” Nawa says. “It wasn’t what he left — it wasn’t at all what he left. He didn’t know anybody there anymore, other than my mom’s relatives, and he’s not particularly fond of them. He said, ‘All the intellectuals have become potato vendors. Don’t even bury me here.'”
Nawa followed the US Army into Iraq the following year, sharing a ride through the Jordanian desert with the staff of Voice of America. But the Baghdad occupation reminded her too much of her childhood, and this time, her adopted country was the occupier — Nawa found herself quietly relating more to the Iraqis than to her colleagues. Meanwhile, she was working on her biggest story so far, a look at the Afghan opium industry through the eyes of its women. She flew to Kabul and started hunting.
“These women, their husbands go across the border: they’re caught. Their sons go: they’re killed,” she says. “And then these women are left with an opium debt. And the drug lord from the next province comes over and knocks on their door and says, ‘Where is my money?’ And the woman says, ‘Well, all the men in my family are dead. And so your opium is gone.’ The drug lord says, ‘I don’t care. I want my money.’ So the woman gives everything she has. A lot of times, it’s a daughter.”
Nawa settled in a small village and hired a fixer to lead her around. Eventually, she found Aziza Khoshsaraj, a twelve-year-old who’d been married to a local drug lord to cover her vanished father’s opium debt. For the last two years, the drug lord had been showing up at her house to collect her. Each time, Aziza refused to go with him. “I knew this was going to be my character,” Nawa says. “She was very expressive. And also, she did not want to go. This sense of rebellion is what attracted me to her. She’s like, ‘No! I am not going with this man. I will kill myself. I am going to school, I want to get my diploma. I want to be a normal girl.'”
Every day, Nawa would arrive at the house for tea and interviews. The family was uncomfortable at first — the villagers had never seen a reporter and crowded around the house, gawking at Nawa. One day, her fixer raced to her house with news: The drug lord was back.
Nawa grabbed her gear and ran to the house. The husband, a turbaned, pleasant man named Haji Sufi, sat cross-legged on a mat, waiting patiently. He was a better man than some: he hadn’t simply dragged the girl away — yet — and he consented to an interview. But he made no bones about what he wanted. “He said, ‘She’s young, she doesn’t know. I’ll eventually convince her. She belongs to me, she’s my property,'” Nawa recalls. “She was not a human being to be respected; she was property. And the girl — oh, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, in terms of reporting. Keeping a distance is very difficult in a situation like this. She would sit and hold onto my clothes, my bag. And she would shiver, and kept saying, ‘Please don’t let him take me!'”
She concluded that she had no choice but to keep her composure and get the story. She later published a feature on Aziza for London’s Sunday Times Magazine. But she knew Aziza eventually had been forced to follow her new husband into the desert.
Two years later Nawa returned, intent upon finding out exactly what had happened to Aziza: “I had an emotional attachment; it wasn’t just another story. The fact that I left her without really doing anything except writing a story wasn’t enough. I wanted to know that she was okay.” The last she had heard, the man had taken Aziza into Helmand Province, where Nawa spent her idyllic childhood. Now the place she knew as “Little America” was the core of the Taliban’s last base of support, populated by fierce tribesmen who kill foreigners on sight. “The people there look at you, and they look like they’ve each killed five people,” Nawa recalls. “They’re scary.”
Nawa no longer had any connections in Helmand Province. If she ventured in, she’d go in blind, without any clan to protect her. She found a man from the province who agreed to pose as a male relative. The two hired a taxi in Kandahar and drove into the dust clouds and sand dunes of Helmand.
Nawa went from house to house, showing Aziza’s photograph and asking if anyone had seen her. When men asked why, she said she was a distant relative. The first day ended, and Nawa and her guide spent the night with his friends. Nawa was lucky to leave the house alive the next morning.
The wives at the compound were pleasant and courteous, although they didn’t speak Farsi, and Nawa had to communicate with gestures. They served her dinner, made jokes, and gossiped with one another about Nawa. Had her guide kidnapped her to be a second wife?
The men, meanwhile, were furious. “The men immediately were like, ‘Who the hell is she?'” Nawa says. “‘Why is she here? You’re not her marham — we know you! This woman is not related to you! What are you doing with her?'” All night they argued loudly with her guide in Pashto, of which Nawa knows only a smattering. She barely slept. “At one point, four of them — my guide, my driver, and two of the brothers in this household — were having this huge shouting match. And later on, my guide told me that they did not want to let me leave. They wanted to interrogate me, to see if I know anything about — they had their suspicions that I was coming from the West. And they wanted to know who I was, basically. They wanted to interrogate the truth out of me. And he told them, ‘No. She’s with me, and you’re not going to bother her.'”
As Nawa left the next morning, one of the men stopped her. He snarled in Persian about an Italian woman who had recently been kidnapped in the area: “It’s my group that took her. And if you had been an American, and you had come here during Taliban time, I would have done the same to you. I would have shown you your punishment!”
Nawa never spent another night in Helmand Province. She spent two more days looking for Aziza, but never found her. The girl who refused to be a slave was gone.
In December, Nawa flew back to Union City, where she will stay as long as her father is ill. But Afghanistan is always in her thoughts. She’s finishing a book for the Oakland group Corpwatch, an investigation into which companies have secured reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan, and what they have done with the funds. “For the most part, the money that has been sent has been misused, mismanaged, and wasted,” she says. She has also sketched out a second book about women in the opium trade.
Meanwhile, Nawa isn’t quite as eager as she used to be. She used to love the thrill of the battle zone, the camaraderie that war breeds in strangers. She’s watched her old country break out of its long darkness, and seen her new one take Iraq down an uncertain path. Along the way, she’s seen a lot of misery. Now, more banal concerns like love, family, and security are beginning to settle in. She’s tired of living out of bags and looking for anchorage.
Nonetheless, she’ll return to Kabul, and plans to live there indefinitely. She’ll always feel like an exile in America, and wants to see something she recognizes from her childhood return to Afghanistan. “People are extremely resilient, and they’re full of hope,” she says. “After 23 years of war and the kind of destruction that they have experienced, to have that kind of hope is, I think, amazing. Someone was comparing Cambodia to Afghanistan to me, saying that in Cambodia, people walk around like zombies after Pol Pot. You don’t see that in Afghanistan. You see a mother who’s lost all her children, and she’s still working and laughing, and making an effort in life. That’s what amazes me.”
But her sister doubts that, even in Kabul, Fariba will ever find a place she can feel truly at ease. “All the Afghans who grow up here and return, they have a very big problem over there adjusting with the culture,” she says. “All the people she has contact with, they’re all the ones who came from here. … They can’t really get along with the local people, because they’re so different. Not just Fariba. Everyone who left the US and came back, they all say the same thing, that we are stuck in the middle. They can’t be American, and they can’t really be Afghan. So they’re kind of lost.”
When American soldiers killed Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana in 2003, Orville Schell, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a eulogy for him. “It is symbolically fitting that Mazen Dana was a Palestinian, a man without a country,” he wrote. “Indeed, it is perhaps fitting for foreign correspondents to think of themselves as members of a countryless, nomadic tribe, the better to find a new global orbit beyond nationalism and patriotism. … Journalists could do worse than think of themselves as stateless people.”
Fariba Nawa hasn’t much of a choice. From Union City to Kabul, every city she’s ever entered is one more step in an asymptotic journey, in which she reaches ever closer, but never quite makes it home.
The original version of this story contained errors, which have been corrected. It incorrectly identified the member of Nawa’s family who participated in Afghanistan’s first constitutional convention. It was her grandfather, not her godfather. We also misstated the role of the bathhouse in Afghan life; it is a place where women wash themselves, not their laundry.