One of the most important building blocks of the existence of an individual, a group, and a community, is identity. An identity to know oneself, to know how one relates to a group, and to know where one’s community is going. As social animals, humans crave attachment, belonging, and togetherness, and if the group does not address this need in an efficient manner, individuals end up with more confusion. Another significant component of identity formation is narrative. How narratives are formed and delivered can leave a marked impact on the entire process of identity formation. I recently attended the first ever Afghan American Conference held in Berkeley and I was lucky to listen to Reza Hessabi, a young professional who appreciates the importance of narrative and beautifully describes how to work on creating a new narrative. Following is the script of his speech delivered to some 300 young Afghan American students and professionals:
So, I remember everything about the morning of 9/11. Where I was, what I was doing. Everything. And I’m sure many of you do as well. The reason this event is so etched in our memory is because 9/11 was a watershed moment in the history of this nation. And even more so was it a watershed moment in the lives of Afghans living in America. In fact it was a cataclysm.
Speaking from my own experience, since that day I have had my identity told to me through news media, books written by men who have never shared my experience, and the random passerby who happened to have read The Kite-Runner and found out I was of Afghan heritage. These thrust-upon identities have ranged from angry brown male to poor child of tragedy. Either I must be irate at America for its invasion of Afghanistan, or I must be inconsolable that a land I cannot in good conscience call my home has suffered so much.
It’s a weird position to be in, having these different identities shoved my way by people who aren’t me. And today I want to talk about how we, as Afghan-Americans, can wrestle our identity back from this appropriation.
There are three actionable steps we all can do to accomplish this. The first is showing up at venues such as these. It is remarkable that so many of us have gathered in one place, with one goal in mind. I am deeply honored to be up here addressing each and every one of you. It is at events like these where we as a community, being so small as we are, can communicate, network, and organize for a better tomorrow.
The second step is creating our narrative. There’s a lot that goes into this, so creating a narrative will be the bulk of my speech. The first question many may be asking, is what exactly do I mean by narrative?
And the best way to answer that question is by using an example. Hopefully most, if not all, of us have learned about America’s fight in World War II. Whatever view of history you take, it’s important to note just how America spoke about itself during that time. From cartoons to posters, Donald Duck to Rosie the Riveter, images, symbols, signs and signifiers were being constructed by America to tell America’s story: One of a mighty nation, full of good, righteous people, taking on the fight against barbarism, against the insanity, the wanton violence of a Reich gone amuck.
This story justified, canonized, and legitimized a new American identity, a new American purpose. According to Charlie Chaplin, to Superman, to our President, we were doing right by the planet. Our identity was something others should aspire to, and no one could tell us wrong. We were the world’s saviors. We were its new superpower.
That’s what a narrative is. A story that feeds an identity. A series of symbols and signs that signify a greater meaning, some greater purpose for a community of people. Afghan-Americans deserve a narrative of similar strength. And it’s not like we don’t have the tools Americans had in the 1940s. In fact, we have more tools. We have television channels that reach thousands of homes through the Internet. We have ready-made heroes within our culture, upon whom we can juxtapose those values we wish to elevate amongst our people.
This segues neatly into the next aspect of creating a narrative. What’s the content? What signs and symbols are we going to use? Now I will not stand up here and tell each of you what to do in this regard. That isn’t my job, and discussion is the incubator of great ideas – not lecturing.
But I will say this. Our narrative, as Afghan-Americans, should be broader in scope than just Qabuli life. I say this as an outsider to much of Afghan culture, who has studied it not from the perspective of a participant but that of a surveyor. The life many of our parents had in Kabul during Zahir Shah’s time, during Daoud Khan’s time, was idyllic in a lot of ways. I’ve heard from my own parents of mayla-ha (picnics), of Fridays spent relaxing in the park, trips to Paghman, picking fruit straight from the trees and eating them like candy.
This is all a worthy antidote to the gore of civil war that has gripped our diaspora’s narrative so far. But it is not the only story to tell. I implore each and every one of us to look beyond Kabul’s borders for the rest of Afghanistan as well. I say this because we as Afghan-Americans have a unique opportunity that our counterparts in Afghanistan do not. We are not bound by fear, by threats to our survival, by a lack of education to the confines of our neighborhood. We can see beyond what our eyes tell us exists, looking for the stories that define the Afghans living in Herat, in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Qandahar, in the wide plains of Afghanistan’s East, or the nomads still living in its mountains.
If you haven’t read this book before, I encourage each of you to do so. It’s called A Journey Through Afghanistan: A Memorial. It is the story of a young American who didn’t pray fives times a day, and yet still experienced what I like to call the zenith of Afghan culture: Our transnationalism. Our plurality.
Afghanistan is often called the Graveyard of Empires. I have found little joy or pride in this title. But one bright spot is that this nigh-constant disrespect of the country’s borders has forced Afghans to confront people who look differently, speak differently than them time and time again. As a people, Afghans have been forced into plurality as few cultures have. And the aftereffects are present to this day. We are not one monolith, but a veritable melting pot of ethnicities and tribes, lifestyles and points of views, each one occupying an arbitrary space of land together.
So this book becomes then a testament to that plurality, to that many-ness that so many countries attest to yet few can lay true claim to. This is not lost yet. It may seem so with all that we see in the country today, but I can assure it is not lost yet. Not if we grab it back.
In creating our narrative, we must each of us strive for this same dignified plurality. We must strive each of us strive to accept our brothers and our sisters who may not share our ethnicity, our tribe, our mayla-ha, our way of life. In this way, we will be honest, and forthright in creating our identity, doing one better than those cultures that have walked this path before us.
Now, I wanted to talk about the third step in creating this narrative upon which our new identity will rest. Just as the content of this new narrative relies upon a pillar of our culture – plurality – so too, so too does the structure of that narrative. Which leads me to Afghan TV.
What astounds me is the lack of emphasis on storytelling, especially coming from a culture of storytellers. Why is this? There are many factors, from how would we pay actors, directors, lighting technicians, cameramen, script writers, to how do we quality control, where would we shoot, what locations are available?
I’m not asking that as the third step in creating a narrative, we must all overcome these factors now. It will not be done in a day. But we can begin discussion of how to build past these obstacles. Because long-form, fictional narratives are essential tools in creating a narrative. With them we can control the story, we can control the characters and how they portray the Afghan-American experience.
This isn’t to say that Afghan television isn’t making strides in this direction. A man named Tarique Qayumi is an Afghan filmmaker who gave a remarkable TEDx talk a year ago. In it he spoke about the power of stories, and what he himself is doing right now in Afghanistan to help that country forge a new future.
I encourage those of you who have ever wished to work in the arts, who have had an idea germinate in your mind but never found the will to put it to the page, or to the screen, to do so. We need more storytellers, we need more voices in our narrative, because without either of those a new identity for Afghan-Americans cannot be forged. We need you, so stand up.
Let me end with a summary of my points. There are three steps to creating a new identity, one removed from the fires of 9/11 and the near half-century worth of bloodshed our culture has experienced. One is to come to events like these. The other is to formulate a narrative, based on signs and symbols that we create, or that we dredge from the past, that looks beyond Kabul, beyond the middle-class of the country, and encapsulates the Afghan experience as a whole. The third step is to tell this narrative in a long-form, fictional presentation, in keeping with the vast history of poets and storytellers Afghanistan has long held pride in.
We as Afghan-Americans are in a unique position in history to foment this new identity. In so doing, we will stop the appropriation of who we are, and start a new conversation about what we can achieve. Thank you.
Reza Hessabi is an MCAT instructor at Kaplan in Los Angeles.