Afghanistan journalist's sojourn in 'strange paradise'

AfghanistanJournalismUnrest, Conflicts and WarReligion and BeliefFeminismFirearmsOsama bin Laden

I come from a country that has been at war for as long as I've been alive, but I had never touched a gun until I came to Los Angeles.

As a 30-year-old Afghan, I'd seen plenty of guns: the Soviet soldiers with their AK-47s, the nervous American kids pointing their weapons at you, ready to shoot, thinking everyone around them is a bomber.

But here in Los Angeles, visiting on a five-month journalism fellowship, I was the one doing the shooting. For fun!

America, I discovered, is a land of freedom. Sometimes, freedom without limits.

One night, I went with a bunch of friends to an L.A. shooting range to celebrate a birthday. I thought it was cool. In America you can have birthdays in gun clubs.

I didn't know it would be so simple: You give your ID -- did they worry at all about my foreign-sounding name? -- and thumbprint. You choose your target. It can be a basic bull's-eye, or a silhouette of a man or woman. You can even use a picture of someone you don't like.

Then you're handed a firearm, shown how to use it, and given a small arsenal.

When I was picking my weapon, the man at the counter first suggested a revolver that I rejected because it looked too small for me.

He said he had another choice for me: a semiautomatic silver Beretta that looked bigger and better. He said it was easy enough for a novice. I got the loading and firing down pretty quickly.

I shot about 50 rounds, mostly right on target.

Just two booths away on my right, someone was firing a large-caliber gun that sounded like a grenade going off each time it was fired. I thought that if I could have so much fun firing a small gun, firing a bigger one would be even better.

But even as I felt the rush, I couldn't help thinking that I'd grown up seeing America disarming nations to protect itself. Now it felt like America was arming itself for the same reason.

*

Before I got my U.S. visa, I kept my travel plans secret from my family for months. But a week before my departure, I decided to announce that I was going to United States, and my mother begged me to change my mind.

"My son, don't go to America," she said. "It is very far."

"Why not, Mom? I have been to several countries before, what worries you this time?" I asked.

"Because you are from Afghanistan, you can get in trouble, they have military here, and they are in war here."

But I was never in trouble here, and no, it is not all about the military and war here either.

The truth is, though, I was reluctant. I didn't think it was a great time to be a visiting Afghan in America because Sept. 11 was sort of rooted in my country. But when I came here, I found that most Americans desperately want their troops out of Afghanistan.

They don't want their sons and daughters to be killed in my country anymore.

*

I knew I'd need a car in L.A. Although I have a driver's license and have had a car for about 10 years, I was told I had to take at least a one-hour driving course to be ready to rent a car here.

My appointment was arranged, and on a nice afternoon, I met my instructor. After brief greetings and some formalities, she asked me to get behind the wheel. She sat beside me, and while I was getting ready to start the car, I thought it was time to introduce myself to her. I told her my name and that I was a visiting journalist from Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is in India, right?" she asked.

"No, it is not in India," I said. And then it took me awhile to explain to her where Afghanistan really was. But her guess was closer than a lot of friends here, who, after more than a decade of an American war in my country, think Afghanistan is in the Middle East.

And on the other side, Afghans don't know a lot about America beyond the headlines and the U.S. military they see on the streets every day. People in some parts of my country still believe a Marine is a soldier who lives all his life in water, because a Marine is literally translated in local languages as a "sea soldier."

How can a "sea soldier" survive in a dusty, hot desert?

*

Afghans are grateful for America's contributions to Afghanistan, but we cannot really remain dependent on a country that struggles with problems itself.

Before leaving my "interesting hell," I thought I was going to this "strange paradise." One can definitely expect hardships in a hell, but are there problems in paradise too? Yes, of course there are, but still, it shocked me.

Isn't America supposed to be the richest nation in this world? Then who are these homeless people on the streets? In Los Angeles, you can't walk down the street without being approached by people who beg you for your spare change.

But in L.A. I also found the freedom that America is famous for. You can grow a long beard, or you have fake breasts; you can be as skinny as a stick of macaroni but still go out jogging, or you can sit in front of the TV all day long and be as round as a barrel -- either way, you are fine, it is Los Angeles.

You don't have to be embarrassed if you drive a big car alone all day, or shave or do your makeup while driving; after all, that is what everybody does here.

But L.A. is too spread out, and not only the city -- the people, hearts and souls are also too distant.

*

It was a Sunday evening, and as usual I was wandering around the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, near my apartment. It was crowded -- some people were having dinner in the fancy restaurants in the area, some were lining up to get into the movie theater, and some were gathering around street artists.

There was this man with a mike and amplifier standing in the middle of the promenade with some anti-Muslim slogans and a fake skeleton wrapped in a white cloth lying in front of him. One sign in front of him read "The facts about Mohammad and Islam," in which Muslims were portrayed only as violent people.

Some people were supportive, but many wanted to shut him up. I stood silently and watched, because I knew what was running around his mind. At this time of economic stress, a lot of people dump their fears and anxieties, unfortunately, on either Muslims or Latinos. I'm Muslim and look Latino -- I have been spoken to in Spanish in L.A. many times.

But this is a country in which everything is balanced. I was amazed by the number of mosques and Muslim institutions in Los Angeles. People have the freedom to follow their God.

*

I was in my apartment, it was late in the evening and I was probably cooking something for my dinner. (Thank you, America, for teaching me how to cook. I never had to do my own cooking at home.) CNN was on and the anchor was repeatedly announcing that President Obama was going to make "an important" announcement.

Finally came the big news: "The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden."

"Where?" I asked myself. "Where was Bin Laden killed? Where was he hiding? … Don't let it be Afghanistan."

Finally, word came that Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

"Thank goodness," I thought.

The TV showed people dancing on the streets in different cities in the United States. I wanted to go out and see whether the people were dancing on the streets in L.A. too, but got to talking with a couple of friends back home.

They were excited, and relieved that he wasn't killed in Afghanistan. But almost everyone agreed that it wasn't going to change anything there.

*

My return home presents many unknowns. U.S. freedoms that are envied by the rest of the world, such as speaking your mind, can get you killed in Afghanistan.

I still don't know what I can do to change that.

This summer, the funding ran out for a program for developing young journalists that meant a lot to me. I'd seen the potential in these kids who began calling themselves the "change makers." They were fearless. They talked of women's rights and the unknown communities of Afghanistan -- some living in caves, some living in mansions. They eagerly searched for ways to tell the stories no one else touched.

Now I'm not sure what will become of these wonderful, earnest minds, or the muckraking pieces I thought would help change our country for the better.

No one knows what will happen as the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan. Will the Taliban run the country again?

But I still want to pursue what I call "peace journalism" in Afghanistan. Rather than running from bombing to bombing, writing almost entirely about sadness and destruction, peace journalism tells about the struggles and triumphs of a place. It tells of history, hope and happiness.

I can see peace journalism in my mind's eye. I must make it happen.

emal.haidary@gmail.com

Haidary was a reporter at The Times sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in partnership with the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships from April 6 through Aug. 26.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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