Transcript

230:

Come Back to Afghanistan
Transcript

Originally aired 01.31.2003

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Teenage Embed, Part One.

Ira Glass

I don't know if you've seen this guy Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, on TV, heard him on the radio, but that is one charming man.

A year ago this week, in January 2002-- not long after the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan-- he came to the United States, partly to be on hand for the State of the Union address last year. And while he was here, he spoke with an audience that was mostly Afghan-Americans at Georgetown University. And he said to them, in Pashto and then in English, come back. Come back to Afghanistan. He directed this especially to the young people.

Hamid Karzai

Work hard. Learn well. Study well, and make money. Bring it to Afghanistan.

Ira Glass

He grinned at the audience. Then read from this card that had been handed to him with a question on it.

Hamid Karzai

OK, specifically, how would you suggest the younger generation of Afghans living in US-- OK. Specifically, your areas in which you have studied. Those of you who have gone through university and have acquired degrees in various fields-- medicine, engineering, computers, management, banking, business administration, all that. These are the areas-- statistics, by the way. We need that very much. Accounting, auditing. So do come.

In addition to that, if somebody wants to be the president, she or he is also welcome. So all are welcome.

Ira Glass

Afghanistan had been at work for 22 years. There were the Soviets, then the ten-year fight to expel them. Then the war between the Afghans. Then the Taliban took over.

As a result, an entire generation of Afghans has grown up in the United States. Teenagers today who are much more American than they are Afghan. Many of them have never seen their country.

And it's possible that the very first teenager to take Hamid Karzai's invitation to heart and return to Afghanistan was a 17-year-old from Northern California named Hyder Akbar. And, as luck would have it, before he went, he met a radio producer named Susan Burton, and she urged him to take a tape recorder along on the trip.

Well, today we feel lucky to bring you the recordings that he made. As you'll hear, Hyder's father had moved back to Afghanistan-- months before Hyder went-- to work for Hamid Karzai in the new government of the country. And because of his father's position, which was pretty high up in the government, Hyder gets an insider's look at everything going on in the country. It is a very unusual glimpse at a country that most of us still do not really have much sense of.

Of course, this is This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

For most of our show today, you're going to be hearing the recordings that Hyder made himself. But to give you a sense of who Hyder was before he went on his trip to Afghanistan, Susan Burton begins Hyder's story before the trip at his home in Concord, California.

Act 1.

Susan Burton

When Hyder goes to Barnes and Noble, the first thing he does with any new book they have in about Afghanistan is turn to the index and look up Kabul Radio. It's pretty much always in there, because on the night in 1979 when the Soviets took Kabul, they stormed two places. One was the palace and the other was Kabul Radio. Kabul Radio was headed by Hyder's dad.

During the years of the resistance, Hyder's dad had two close friends. One was Hamid Karzai, now the President of Afghanistan, and the other was a legendary commander named Abdul Haq. After he looks up Kabul Radio, the next thing Hyder looks up in any book is always Abdul Haq. In his favorite book, Soldiers of God by Robert D. Kaplan, there's an entire chapter, chapter five, completely and totally devoted to Abdul Haq. One time Hyder told his mother what Kaplan said about Abdul Haq's headquarters in Peshawar.

Hyder Akbar

And then he describes how he went into his office, and how he was always busy, and he had one hand on the phone, another one looking at some maps. And you always felt like you were wasting time when you were [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. And my mom was like, wait. He wasn't that busy. He was at our house every single day.

Susan Burton

Hyder's dad worked with the resistance. For years, Hyder didn't see his dad and didn't know his hero, Abdul Haq. When Abdul Haq suddenly showed up at the family's house in California a couple weeks before September 11, Hyder was speechless. That day, Abdul Haq told Hyder's dad that he was scheming to topple the Taliban. Not long after September 11, he got in touch again. He was going in. He was ready.

Days after Abdul Haq snuck into Afghanistan, Hyder came home from school and found his mother crying in her bedroom. Abdul Haq had been captured and killed by the Taliban, shot with dozens of bullets, then hung from a tree. Hyder wrote about the execution in his current events journal at school the next day, and a teacher wrote a check mark, and then, in red ballpoint pen, "Sorry."

Just weeks after Abdul Haq's death, the Taliban were defeated by the American forces. The next month, Hyder's dad had a long talk with his old friend Hamid Karzai, sold his business, and left for Afghanistan.

Hyder Akbar

OK. This is my room. To the right is the TV, and I have a couple of video games and stuff like that.

Susan Burton

When I first meet Hyder, he shows me around his house. We sit down in the living room and look at family photos, like a snapshot of Hamid Karzai at Disneyland maybe 20 years ago, baby-faced, standing next to Goofy.

Hyder Akbar

Well, this is an issue, September 1968, it's a National Geographic issue.

Susan Burton

Hyder opens the old magazine, which he bid for off of Ebay, and shows me a favorite picture of Afghanistan.

Hyder Akbar

Actually, I really, really, really like this picture. This is more of the countryside of Afghanistan. And it's green, green grass and trees, and then there's just like blue, blue water flowing through. Yeah. There's a shepherd here, and then there's a cow but I'm sure. That house looks pretty neat, too. In the middle of the river, there's a rock, and there's a house built on top of it. I don't know how he gets back to the land, But I think he would probably goes through these rocks or something.

Susan Burton

We look at the picture for so long that it starts to seem to me almost like a fairytale picture you can enter inside. Like when the movie camera goes in for a closeup on a color plate in a storybook, and then all of a sudden, the wagons are rolling and the animals' tails are swishing in Dolby stereo, and the action is actually happening right there.

Before Hyder's dad left for Afghanistan, he owned a hip hop clothes store in Oakland. A few months ago, he was selling FUBU pants to teenagers. Now he spends his days with the people running Afghanistan.

Hyder shows me a picture taken just a couple weeks before of his dad sitting near Karzai at a medieval-looking dining table in the palace in Kabul at a meeting about peacekeeping troops.

Hyder Akbar

When I see this, I'm really, really happy for him. Because it's kind of like his dream. I could tell how bored and how frustrated he was living here, and having to just be at the store and just live everyday life. I remember for a couple years, my mom was telling him, don't even interact with people. I think it's pretty much because he had lost hope. It was weird.

I mean, a lot of people have been effected by September 11, but like, our family's literally turned upside down. Even me. My whole plan of my life has changed.

Susan Burton

Before September 11, Hyder thought he'd study business, maybe become a mortgage broker, like his older brother. But after, Hyder felt like he had found his mission in life. He would do something big to help Afghanistan rebuild, like become a politician or an engineer.

The one problem was, all of his dreams took place in a country to which he'd never been. So he convinced his dad to let him join up with him in Afghanistan for the summer.

Hyder Akbar

Like, I read a lot about it, and I learn a lot. By now I know a lot about it. But I've never visited it. So that's another reason I really want to go. Because it's easy to talk, but then to actually do it is much harder, you know? That's what my father was telling me, too. Right now it's easy to talk about going back, but once you have to, like, take a glass of water, cold water, and put it over your head, and that's how you take the shower, and on mountains, and you have like a biscuit in your hand, it's not as easy.

Susan Burton

When your dad said that to you, was that kind of sobering?

Hyder Akbar

No, it actually made me more hard-headed, and even want to go back even more, you know? Just to prove it, and just to get the doubts out of my head. It's almost like a test, you know? I want to pass it. It's almost like a test on how much I can take.

Teacher

OK, on the test, or quiz, I should say--

Susan Burton

There are a lot of Afghan kids at Hyder's high school, but he tries not to talk too much about his trip with them, or with anyone. The whole thing means so much to him that it's difficult to explain.

On the day I visit his English class, the teacher shows the movie version of Frankenstein, and after, everyone's supposed to list five differences from the book. But instead, everyone's just talking. And a girl eating saltines one by one out of a package on her desk asks Hyder how come he's going, and if he's ever coming back.

Girl

How come you're going back? [INAUDIBLE]

Hyder Akbar

Yeah, I'm coming back. But I don't know. It's a pretty long answer, so I really can't summarize it in--

Susan Burton

Hyder's friend Alex jumps in.

Alex

He's really deep with his roots. Let's just say that. He's going to get his education here, and then move back to Afghanistan and help rebuild it.

Girl

Really? Wow! That's cool. That's a pretty good summary.

Alex

Oh, I'm his manager.

Susan Burton

Alex is not Afghan, but everyone calls him "Halfghan," because he can recite his cell phone number in Dari.

A lot of these kids saw a picture Hyder's father sent of Hamid Karzai sitting at his desk in the palace holding a satellite phone,. And today they joke with Hyder about the various devices he might use to keep in touch with them over the summer.

Classmate

Oh, you should get a two-way from here to Afghanistan.

Alex

Why don't you bring a laptop? Wireless internet!

Hyder Akbar

Yeah. You'll be like, hey, Hyder, how's Afghanistan.

Alex

"I met the greatest girl--"

Classmate

"I haven't seen her face yet, but."

Susan Burton

"I haven't seen her face yet," the boy says.

Hyder loves his friends, but says it's weird, because they're interested in all the regular stuff. Girls, cars, different kinds of sneakers. Where Hyder wishes that he could zoom ahead to being a grown up and moving back to Afghanistan.

That's another thing. Unlike most of his friends and cousins, he doesn't feel American.

Hyder Akbar

I do feel like somewhat of an outsider here. It's really weird. I've never been in my own country. I think that's one of the reasons I really want to go now, is just to see. And I almost feel I have like an insecurity.

There's so much more that could have happened to me, you know? If I wasn't so fortunate, I could have easily been growing up there right now. Growing up in a generation that literally doesn't know anything but war. I think anything could happen to me and I would still almost always not try to complain about it, because of what Afghans have been through, especially in Afghanistan.

Susan Burton

Hyder's been toughening up for this trip. Before leaving for Afghanistan, his dad made a deal with him. If he wanted him to buy him a ticket, he had to lose weight. Hyder started running on a treadmill in his garage wearing a sweatshirt, plus another shirt, plus a garbage bag, to help him sweat more. In two months, he's lost 65 pounds.

And there's another detail to take care of.

Hyder Akbar

The other day, my mom told me to make sure you get your shots before going to Afghanistan. And I actually don't want to take them. Because I don't know, it kind of adds on more to the foreigner, an American, going to Afghanistan. It might seem silly or childish or too much testosterone or whatever, but I just don't want to go in and get shots to make sure I don't get sick or malaria or anything. Because my father never had to. I'm kind of like, it's my own country. I'm just going to go in there. I don't want them to think of me as a foreigner.

Susan Burton

Hyder's trip is just six weeks away. He's hoping that instead of flying straight to Kabul, he can arrange to travel over the Khyber pass. That's the right way to do it, he says. That's the way everyone's done it. The Mongols, the British conquerors, the mujahideen. He's planning what to pack-- traditional Afghan clothes, his books about Afghanistan, and batteries so that he can listen to his U2 CDs. He picks up the remote control for his stereo.

Hyder Akbar

You know, that's a pretty famous U2 song. It's the one they sing on top of the roof, "Where the Streets Have No Name." You know what I'm talking about? Yeah. It's hard to explain. I think it's in the CD player right now, so one sec. Yeah. And it's kind of like, when I picture that place, "Where the Streets Have No Name," I picture something like Afghanistan, you know? And I think it's a song, it's pretty much tired about how set and systematic the world is. Yeah. Like, "I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside." So it's kind of like at the point where I am right now. Just, I feel really-- held down.

[MUSIC - "WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME" BY U2]

Susan Burton

Before I leave, I show Hyder how to work the tape recorder he'll be taking to Afghanistan.

Act 2.

Hyder Akbar

Hello, hello. It's 8:40 in the morning, Monday, May 27. And I'm leaving today. This is my last day here.

I was listening to the radio the other day, and they had a funny commercial. They're promoting some contest to go to a trip anywhere. and they were naming all these countries. Italy, France. And then they're like, Afghanistan. And then they started like, ha, they make like this funny music. And they're like, OK. Well, maybe not Afghanistan. And it just hit me as weird since I'm going there today. I'm going today.

I just got done speaking to my dad about 15 minutes ago, and he confirmed that somebody's going to come and pick me up in Peshawar. I'll probably spend the night at a relative's house over there. And from there I'm going to drive to Kabul, which is like a six hour drive from Peshawar. Then he told me to shave my goatee. So I'll go ahead and shave that.

That's about it. I'm just really, really excited. I just feel like going, "ahhhh!" I'm just really, really, really, really, really, really, really excited. Signing off from San Francisco. Next recording you'll hear will probably be from Peshawar. Goodbye.

Hello, hello? I'm actually on my way to Torkham right now, the border station between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I arrived at the house in Peshawar. I knew I had arrived when I saw an AK-47 in the living room, just lying up against the cabinet. Fully loaded and ready to go.

I got stopped by police and got checked and everything. Because they saw the microphone. But I turned it on really quick.

We're at the Kyber Pass right now, and it's pretty incredible. There's two mountains down there. It's right between mountain ridges. I don't want to attract unwanted attention, but I am passing through the Khyber Pass right now. This is the Khyber Pass.

So I was going through the Khyber Pass. And we reached Torkham, finally. I didn't really have that sense of wow, this is my country, you know? I'm finally in Afganistan. None of that kiss the ground stuff. You know, I just saw a lot of poor kids running around, a lot of burkas, beards. I felt like a total outsider.

My dad kept on telling me, the road to Kabul is horrible. It's really bad. It's really bad. It's really been destroyed.

So I'm thinking, fine. A bad road. Potholes here and there. A lot. Probably have to slow down, go around them, et cetera.

No. I mean, he said road. This is the key was there. So I was thinking there would be a road there. What he should have said is from Jalalabad to Kabul, there's no road. I think my head probably hit the top of the car about like 30 times through the whole ride. And towards the end of the trip, I was starting to get motion sickness, and I was feeling like I was going to throw up, and I was getting really sick and dizzy. This whole place is so barren and so--

To tell you the truth, I kind of had regret for what I had done. I was like, wow. You know, maybe I wasn't ready for this.

I'm at the doorway of the Kabul Hotel right now. We're actually invited somewhere for lunch. We're going to go there right now.

Said Fazal Akbar

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Hyder Akbar

That's my dad. All right.

The hotel, Kabul Hotel. Let me describe the hotel to you. Me and my dad, we're in same room. It's a pretty small room. There's two beds, a little, like, area where you can sit, balcony where probably like three people could stand.

There's actually a huge place where a missile had hit Kabul Hotel, and it's still like that, you know? There's like this huge hole, all, like, four stories, on one side. And this is probably one of the nicest hotels here.

Hello, hello? I think it's my fourth day in Kabul. Anyway, I was just coming out of the bathroom after I cleaned myself for evening prayers, and I just heard a couple of rockets outside. I ran to the balcony real quick just to see what was going on. And everybody-- except for like a few people who jumped up, just trying to see where it was coming from-- the rest of the city was functioning pretty normal. It was pretty weird.

Let me ask my dad if he saw that too, that the whole city was pretty normal. My dad, I think, listened to the news.

Hyder Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]?

Said Fazal Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Said Fazal Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

Yeah, my dad said the same thing. He said that everybody's just going about their own business. That's basically what he just said in Pashto. I've seen plenty of rockets here in Kabul.

I'm going to go do my evening prayers. Go downstairs.

Today was a really interesting day. I went to the palace today, and there was this incredible, like-- it was almost like going through a movie. Like this old, the gates and how they open, and the huge locks. It almost looked like you're visiting someplace in Disneyland or Universal Studios. But it was the real thing.

All of a sudden Karzai comes out, sees my dad, and he says hello. And my dad introduces me to him, he's like, this is my son. I got kind of nervous, actually. You know? It's hard not to be, meeting him. You know, that queasy feeling in your stomach. Felt my, you know, like, heart rate go up.

And he walks so fast. He's so busy right now. It's just there's like four days to the [SPEAKING PASHTO]. He doesn't even walk. He practically runs.

After that, somebody else was just entering the palace, and it was Rashid Dostum, probably the most infamous warlord. He's uh, pretty out there even by Afghan standards. I've heard stories about this guy rolling over people with tanks. Strapping people down to tanks and, like, crushing them. So it was weird to shake hands with that kind of a fellow.

It's just really interesting, just being in the palace at a time like this, you know? This is the future of the country, right here. You have, like, infamous warlords walking this way and famous ministers walking that way. It's pretty exciting. I mean, it's like equivalent, I think, of Lollapalooza or something. Going backstage and getting to meet all of these rock stars going back and forth. It was kind of like that. As nerdy and dorky as that sounds, that's pretty much how it was like for me.

So my dad has been appointed the governor of Kunar, but he really can't go there yet. There's still some resistance. In the morning, there's usually a lot of people from Kunar that come over to see my dad. 5:30 in the morning, completely dark outside, 30 people from Kunar are already lined up at the door.

Man

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

One time they left and my dad, he sat down and he actually told me almost everything that's been going on. And there's a lot going on and there's so many-- Politics is really dirty. That's all I can say. There's so much going on. There's so much against my dad, so much for my dad, so much up to my dad. It's really a big deal, you know, to trust me with all that. He warned me, too. Like, in this documentary, or when talking to other people, not to say anything. I can't even tell my mom on the phone about it, because you know how phones are listened.

And when he said that to me, it really made me feel like his son. I'm always there. Right by his side. And like, all these tribal elders he meets, all these people he talks to like the most intimate stuff, and I'm just standing with him every second, you know, like this major commander, North Americans, and everything. And it's really amazing, I mean, how much he trusts me with everything. I've got to be careful and not ruin it.

I'm traveling to Parwan right now. God, this road is horrible.

Parwan was a really interesting place. It was a sort of this vacation place for Afghans living in Kabul when it got a little hot. There was actually a lot of people there. A lot of people there. It was really packed.

It's almost a sign of things getting back to normal again. Like, people being able to visit Parwan again. Because ever since the jihad and the resistance, it was a key area of fighting. And it's really interesting to see all these people coming back after so many years.

[MUSIC WITH DRUMS]

The Taliban had banned music for six years. And I think it's only been like five or six months since music has come back. So it's also really new.

And then at this one point, there was actually these men started dancing, and all these people gathered around and they were all watching and clapping. And all of a sudden, some chump with a Kalashnikov came over, and he stopped the drummers and he stopped the dancing. He was like, what are you doing, blah blah blah, not Islamic, et cetera. It wasn't even, you know, like girls and boys dancing, or anything like that. That would be unthinkable. It was just a guy dancing.

And then later on, all of a sudden I see this huge mob running. And a Sikh was in front, and they were like dragging him forward with a Kalashnikov. A Sikh-- you know who Sikh are. They're the ones with the turbans and the beard. My dad was like, what's going on? They're like, oh. We caught him drinking alcohol. And I don't know what they were going to do to him. But whatever it was, it kind of put a damper on the whole thing.

I am in my hotel room. It's around 9:30 AM. And my uncle came in. He's bought dye for his beard. He's laughing right now. He knows a little bit of English, and he figured out I was talking about him.

He has this coloring device in his hand. "Prime Cream Hair Color With Conditioner, 45 Black." And there's this lady with like wavy hair and a smiling face. A couple of white hairs growing, so he's going to get young again.

And it's really funny, because he's this like big, macho commander. Probably the biggest commander in the Kunar Province area, which is a major fighting area. He's lost an eye, you know? Always walking around with an AK. He went to the bathroom to go and color his beard.

Yesterday he was showing me all these parts in his body that metal just left, you know, his arms-- "touch this, touch this." And I was touching it, and there's metal there, and there's metal in his head, and forehead, and upper arm, and elbow-- just, you know, shrapnel and bullet wounds, et cetera.

He came out right now. He's closing the lid or something. I think he's working on it.

Hyder Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]?

Hyder's Uncle

[SPEAKING PASHTO].

Hyder Akbar

He colors his beard.

Testing, one, two, three. Testing.

I'm sitting in my hotel room outside on the balcony. It's about nine o'clock at night.

Today Haji Abdul Qadir, the vice president of Afghanistan, was assassinated. And he was Abdul Haq's brother, and Abdul Haq was my dad's best friend.

We were actually taken to see-- me and my dad-- my dad took me with him. He was taken to go see the body. They had put him in a coffin and everything, and it was a-- I don't know what you call the room. I mean, is it, like, the frozen-- I mean, kind of like the cold room where they keep bodies, I guess.

And to be honest with you, I have never really seen a dead body like that. And my dad-- I mean, this is the first time I realized how going through a war must change you. Because he totally just jumped at the body, I mean, as if he was alive, and he just grabbed the towel that was on him, and you could see-- it almost like scratched his face. There were scratch marks on his face.

My dad actually touched his face and was like, oh, I see. There's f here, and here. I mean, totally cool. And my dad asked if he was shot in the face. And they were like, no, he wasn't shot in the face. He was shot in the heart. And my dad was like, OK. He just casually unwrapped the towel a little more, and there was a bullet wound there. My dad touched that, too, and he was like oh, OK. And he said a little prayer and we left the room.

It was happening way too quick to sink in. I think I'll age about five years in these three months.

So I was up pretty late this morning. 7:30, 8 o'clock. I had a hard time sleeping last night again. Knowing, you know, my dad could be assassinated just like Haji Qadir.

I mean, there are-- our driver Sotor-- somebody had come, I think, who was sent from the opposition. He started asking our driver questions like, so how many people who are with them at night, sleeping? Me and my dad. Do you guys have any Kaloshnikovs, AKs, guns?

I don't know. A lot of times, just like driving in the car, the whole scene plays out in my mind. Some guys jumping out and shooting at my dad.

Ira Glass

Coming up. What happens when your father becomes the official government spokesperson for a country that is barely holding together? Hyder's first person account continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Credits.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

If you're just tuning in, today we're devoting our show to the story of a teenager who was raised in Northern California who got a chance to live in the country his parents came from, the country he considers his real home, Afghanistan. Hyder Akbar took a tape recorder to make an audio diary of his time in Kabul. His father had moved back to Afghanistan a few months before him, back when the Taliban fell, to work in the new Afghan government.

Up until this point in our story, his father was officially the governor of Kunar Province. But then, the day the vice president was assassinated, July 5, Hyder's father got a new job. He became the official spokesman for the entire Afghan government. Hyder became his unofficial assistant.

If there had ever been a chance that Hyder would put his father into his audio diaries, that chance kind of vanished with the new job. After the new job, anything his father would say to him about Afghanistan would be essentially the government's official line on it. Imagine Jenna Bush trying to interview her dad about, say, the politics of the Senate, and you can see how delicate the whole thing would be.

Hyder's diaries continue with his father, Said Fazal Akbar, in his new job as government spokesman.

Hyder Akbar

OK. We're heading north to work, to the palace. [SPEAKING PASHTO] It's 9 o'clock. We're going down the stairs, leaving the hotel. OK. We're heading off to the car. People stopping my dad on the way. This is basically how every morning of ours starts.

In the morning, my dad usually just goes to meet up with Karzai and see what's going on, gives me the phone to take messages, et cetera. Stuff like that. That's what I basically do, is help my dad out. The interesting parts are usually when there's something happened, like the President of Iran is coming.

Announcer

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

They started to play the national anthem of Iran and sounded really out of tune.

[MUSIC - NATIONAL ANTHEM OF IRAN]

23 years of war. If you think about it-- wow, it's a bad thing. But when you actually go see it, I mean, it really hits you. It's only been like six, seven months, and you can still almost be proud of them, that in that little time, they've achieved this much, at least. And just even seeing that they have the heart to go on with the band makes you proud.

Standing outside on the balcony. I see our car parked. My driver's here. Me and my driver are going to go to Jalalabad today.

Jalalabad. We started walking through this place. My driver knows a friend, and we're staying at his house. And we got to talk to him a little bit, and he's an really interesting character. And I can't even begin to tell his story.

Driver's Friend

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

He's managed to be arrested in Africa, he's been arrested in Singapore, and he's been arrested in Malaysia. You might ask what he was arrested for. He's been trying to come to America or London. He's trying to get to the West.

Driver's Friend

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

He was actually in Rwanda before he was going to go to London, and 9/11 happened. And this guy was in jail for four months in Rwanda. You know, he was like, I couldn't speak the language or anything, and they'd call me al-Qaeda, and they'd say bin Laden's name, and that's the only thing we could understand. And whenever, when we heard bin Laden's name, we would be like, no, no, no.

Driver's Friend

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

In Malaysia, he was as close as getting on the plane. The doors were about to close, and they came in after him, and they were asking questions about his passport, et cetera, and they caught him. And he's going to still try to smuggle his way to America.

Driver's Friend

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

I don't know. I thought sometimes maybe once I come down here, live here for a little bit, a couple months, do my part to see the country and try to help out a little with my dad-- et cetera, I won't feel so guilty about the situation in Afghanistan. But now I don't know if I'll feel more guilty or less guilty when I come back. When I see firsthand what's going on here, knowing that I can get away from it but other people can't.

I got really sick last night. Think I've thrown up about three times and probably gone to the bathroom about another eight or seven times.

There's this kebab. It's called Shami kebab. It's basically made of a kind of ground beef. People tend to stay away from Shami kebab. Like, not even my driver would eat it, you know? And he's totally used to the food here, and he doesn't eat that, and I eat it almost on a nightly basis. Man. I really like it.

And it got me last night. So I was eating it, and then halfway through it, I noticed that one of the kebabs was like-- the inside was just totally red. I was like, oh, well, screw it. I've already ate half of it now.

I think I purposely don't-- I'm not careful, you know? I drink tap water, sink water, unbottled-- I guess it's sort of trying to adapt. Just like I didn't take any vaccination shots, et cetera, before I got here. I think I'm paying the price for it now, too, because I get sick almost every week.

I have grown up in the States most of my life. And a lot of times, I almost feel like I'm in denial of it. Or I don't want to accept it, that I am a little bit American. Not a little bit. A lot American.

Another thing that has to be noted is the-- I don't know. It's just a total lack of the whole female species. I could go like a week without seeing a lady's face. Like, out of a hundred women, like, 95 still wear burkas.

Kabul market is pretty bustling. at home it would be like Times Square. It's full of ladies in burkas that are-- the rest are all men. Like, literally. Here. I'll start counting, and I'll look for a woman's face, and I'll tell you how long it takes. Burka, burka, burka. Man. Burka. Burka. Still no woman.

Since I've been here-- I think it's been like a month and a half or two months-- I don't think I've talked to a girl or to a woman, to a lady, about anything for more than ten seconds. I'm surrounded by men. At home, at the hotel room, in the office. Everywhere we go, it's just men, men, men, men, men. And it's really weird.

And it has had an effect on me. You know? Like when women are around you-- I don't know. You're more civilized? They hold you back a little. But you know, here, it's sort of like, how I used to look at violence, or like killing-- it's almost become normal to me now. It's really weird.

OK. I'm in my room. I mean, not in my room. In the balcony. And it's about 2:30 in the afternoon. And I've got some weapons in front of me. Here's a Makarov pistol-- a brand new pistol. We got this as part of our security.

But next to me is the infamous Kalashnikov.

[GUN COCKING]

I just like this noise a lot. [GUN COCKING]

Let me take this apart. First you take the top off, and then you take this out. The bullets.

My uncle has a rift with his own family. Like, I think it's, I'm not sure. But it's something like that. His younger brother actually killed Sotor my driver's, first cousin. And they have like no shame, you know? They come to the room-- like, he came in, he greeted us, he shook hands. He shook hands with my driver. The younger brother. This is the younger brother, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Totally normal and nonchalant. And he left the room, and when he left the room, Sotor told me, he's like, you know, that guy killed my first cousin. I was like, what?

OK. These are the bullets. I have one bullet in my hand and it-- I'm hitting the mike with it. It's really sharp.

The first time Sotor when he told me that story about him killing his cousin, and now it's a big deal-- I pretended like it was something normal, you know? Then more stories and more stories now, and somebody tells me, you know, that guy needs to kill them, I'm like, mm, OK. They should probably kill them. I'm not like, hm, killing, bad, or something.

Just being in this-- just for a month and a half, being here, and going through so many changes, it's really weird. I can only imagine what it would be like if I lived here for like a year.

I would say it's about 3:30 in the afternoon. We were in our room, and I was listening to U2. Had my head down, trying to go to sleep. And the bed shook, and I heard a loud boom! I came outside real quick, and I noticed all this smoke coming out from behind the Ministry of Communications, which is the building right in front of us. So another bomb explosion in Kabul. Just one of a bunch recently.

OK, hello? I just went to find out what the explosion was all about. And apparently it's a lot more serious than I thought. I start heading out and I ran into someone I know, and he said-- he was just coming from there, and he was like, don't go there. You don't want to go there, trust me. You don't want to see it.

It happened in the middle of a really crowded marketplace. Probably the most crowded place in Kabul at this time. And I just saw some of the ambulances that are come back. I think they already took the first injuries. My driver pointed out to me, he's like, there, look over there. And there was actually blood all over the ambulance, the headlights in the front of the car. You can see the car from here, outside of my building, actually.

Oh. There's some peacekeepers coming along, and I see some more-- I don't know. I'll probably listen to the news soon.

Hello? OK. You can hear the BBC in the background. This is reported. And it was pretty quick, actually. It was probably about five minutes later. The BBC just reported, "Breaking News-- Explosion In the Center of Kabul."

And they say, the interior minister spokesman actually said, it could be in Kabul Hotel, which is where we're staying. So I know once my mom, if my mom was watching the news right now, she'd be freaking out. But it's not in Kabul Hotel, because we are in Kabul Hotel.

Oh, there's more. More peacekeeping troops. But you can hear the chatter in the background and interviews on the TV.

Bbc Reporter

--it's an explosion in central Kabul. Some reports say at least 22 are dead.

Hyder Akbar

So we're here. Right where the wreckage is. I'm standing in front of the wreckage. It's a closed-off area, but my dad got through, saying he's Karzai's spokesman. He needs to check out what's going on.

Reporter

Sorry about this.

Hyder Akbar

That's a French reporter. He knows my dad. He recognized him and started talking to him.

Reporter

I hope it is the first and the last. I hope, really, deep in my--

Hyder Akbar

I'm standing in front of the car that blew up. It's completely destroyed. You can hear me hitting the metal.

And I think this place should be sealed off better. Everything is evidence, all around me. And it's being tampered with, it's being moved around.

In front of me there's a building. It's about four stories high. Glass broken completely, all around. You can hear the glass being piled up.

There's all these-- tainted red water. You can tell they've been trying to wash away the blood. [SPEAKING PASHTO]? OK, we're going to go. I'll get back in the car.

OK. I'm at the-- I'll be right back. I'm going to close the door.

OK. Well, so far there's a bombing earlier in the day. Now my other uncle, who works in the Foreign Ministry, just got a call that there's been an assassination attempt on Karzai. Karzai had gone to Kandahar for his brother's wedding, and my dad was going to go with him too, but he stayed for me. So it's kind of nerve-wracking. Because the guy was actually crying, and saying, if you want to come, go ahead. If you don't-- but you don't know yet.

I think there's a pretty good chance Karzai has been killed. And if Karzai is gone now, it will be totally the end of it. Because I can't see anybody replacing Karzai.

Reporter 2

Well, our correspondent, Lyse Doucet, was traveling with President Karzai when that assassination attempt was made. She has this exclusive eyewitness report.

Lyse Doucet

The president was back in Kandahar for a family wedding. He waved from his car. Then the man out to kill him made his move. [GUNS SHOOTING] American bodyguards rained rapid fire from the car behind. And hooked their mark. And the president was quickly swept away. Lyse Doucet, BBC News.

Hyder Akbar

My dad is talking to my mom on the phone. I just spoke to her too, so.

Said Fazal Akbar

[SPEAKING PASHTO]

Hyder Akbar

My mom was like, please come home.

I'm getting a lot of calls from these agencies that want a comment out of my dad. And my dad can't, because he just doesn't have enough information about what's going on. And it's very frustrating, because I'm screening the calls. And they just won't take no for an answer.

There's like two satellite phones Karzai has. He called both of them. Both of them are off the hook. They're not working. And that's that.

September 5, 2002. A black day for Afghanistan.

Today, it's the day after the assassination. And I'm going downstairs. I'm in front of my dad's office. I just got out of there. Karzai's in a meeting with him, and after that, there will be the press conference. He's holding a press conference. He told my dad to hold a press conference. OK, I'm entering the palace.

OK. That's Lyse Doucet from the BBC. She was actually with the president in Kandahar yesterday, and she's, I think, going to do another report from here.

OK, the gate's open. Here's the president. Huge crowd.

Hamid Karzai

Lyse, I saw your footage this morning.

Lyse Doucet

It's your footage sir.

Hamid Karzai

My footage is your footage.

Hyder Akbar

I'm literally the first person standing here, right next to Karzai. I'm about five feet away from him.

Lyse Doucet

They are saying it is extremely dangerous for you to move out of Kabul among your people.

Hamid Karzai

It is always dangerous Lyse. Come on! I've been through this before. I've been hit three times when we were fighting the Soviets. Did that stop us from fighting the Soviets? My father was assasinated in the Kremlin by the Taliban interers. Did that stop him from fighting against them? I was almost killed in [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Did it stop him from fighting? I will not stop. I will continue. I'm more concerned about the lot of life yesterday in Kabul than of one assassination attempt against me.

Hyder Akbar

Every time I hear Karzai speak in an interview or at a press conference, I get hopeful. And I'm like, it's going to happen. He's going to make it. Look at him talk. There's no way he's not going to make it. But then I see what's going on, and then I'm like, OK.

I just woke up. I've gotten sick again and I have stomach pain, diarrhea. I just feel out of it. At night, sometimes I sleep outside. There's a bed in the balcony. And I usually have to cover myself in a blanket from head to toe.

You can hear the birds chirping in the background. It's almost trying to fool you, in a sense. Birds chirping. It's such a peaceful sound, you know? I don't know. When I hear birds chirping, I get a sense of, you know, rise and shine. Good morning. Sunny day outside. And it's nothing like that.

I hate to be like the grumpy pessimist, but pretty sure another bomb's going to go off. It's not stable. I mean, in the last two weeks, there's been over a dozen explosives. A lot of little ones so far. And I know they've been hushed up, and you know, this creates a sense of tension in the air. They're starting to realize, hey. They really don't have control as much as they like to pretend they do.

You know, I was a lot more optimistic and hopeful about the future of Afghanistan before I came. Now it's like, I'll be happy if it doesn't burst into civil war again for five years.

Birds chirping. Rise and shine. Stomach's cramping up.

I really honestly feel that Afghanistan would not have the problems it's having right now if Abdul Haq was alive. It's almost like, you know, a person walking, and you know, Karzai was one leg, and Abdul Haq could have been the other leg, and one leg's cut off now. Karzai's trying his best to hobble along, but he can't, because one half is missing.

He's definitely somebody I look up to, somebody I'd like to follow. I mean, he did the Kalema, which is, you know, professing your faith. You know "There's no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." And you know that when you're a newborn and a person whispers that in your ear to sort of make you officially Muslim. It's almost like, you know, how Catholics get baptized.

My dad, my family, picked Abdul Haq to do it. He was chuckling while he was doing it in my ear, too, because he couldn't believe it, that they were asking him to do it. Because usually you ask an older person to do it. Like almost a religious elder to do it. But they wanted Abdul Haq to do it, because they're like, we want him to follow in your footsteps. So even from the beginning, I've always sort of looked up to him.

I told my dad the last thing I wanted to do before I left Afghanistan was to visit Abdul Haq's grave.

OK. I'm going up the road to Abdul Haq's grave. OK. Road ends here. Now we're walking. Me and my driver. We're going to walk the rest of the way. Do you hear a little low wind blowing? I'm covered in dust. It was a terrible journey getting here. We're walking around, trying to find it.

No, it's not here. Why don't we ask somebody. Here we go. We found some guy walking. OK. It is the graveyard. OK. Here we are.

I'm sitting here next to a bunch of rocks piled up. And there's not even a board or anything that says Abdul Haq. I mean, we walked right past it a second ago, and I was like-- me and my driver were both like, no, this is not it, and we kept going forward.

It's a quiet place. You don't hear much. It's the middle of nowhere. Mountains all around me. I'm sitting down on the gravel. I'm sitting down on the dirt.

I can't believe I'm sitting down next to his body. I don't know how to explain it. Just like the whole legend behind him-- jihad hero, and freedom fighter, and visiting Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and all the media that was around him.

And now he's in like this little [BLEEP] cemetery. Not even a sign that [BLEEP] says "Abdul Haq."

Hello, hello? OK. Today's September 11, 2002. It's actually my last night in Peshawar. I'm at a relative's house. I'm spending the night here. And you can hear the food cooking here in the kitchen.

I'm really excited about coming home. Anyway, I'm going to, I should probably go to the other rooms. I think some September 11 anniversary is going on.

[MUSIC - "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER"]

I think it's kind of ironic that I am coming back on the the day of September 11.

Here's Afghanistan.

Tv Anchor

In a statement read at the ceremony, Afghan president Hamid Karzai said the al-Qaeda terrorists behind the September 11 attacks had also wreaked havoc on his country.

Hyder Akbar

At times, I almost wish I hadn't come. It was almost better when I was away from it all, and it was still I looked up to it. Now I think about it, and I'm like, why? Why bother with them here? Maybe I should just go back to the States. Study Business. Start working with my brother. Be a loan officer. Go and open up my brokerage. Live a comfortable life.

I don't think I could live comfortably like that. Now I'll just be thinking about what's going on in Afghanistan and what I could do to help.

Ira Glass

Hyder Akbar is now a freshman at Diablo Valley college in California. He's planning on returning to Afghanistan with his next school break.

Susan Burton is the one who gave him a tape recorder and produced this story for our program. Funding for her radio stories comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Wendy Dorr produced today's show with Nancy Updike, Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Dave Kestenbaum, and Starlee Kine. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Jane Golombisky.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. We let him come to the studio and watch the broadcast of our show recently.

Hyder Akbar

It's my equivalent, I think, of Lollapalooza or something. Going backstage and getting to meet all of these, like, rock stars.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.