Afghanistan is known mostly for its stereotypes: war, terrorism, burqas, Taliban, oppression, opium, and poverty.
That’s not to say these stereotypes don’t hold water. All of the above are prevalent and part of the daily life in most Afghans today. The media shows us these images over and over and reinforce our perception that Afghanistan will never change. It has only gotten worse in the thirty five years of conflict, and what hope is there to expect anything to change? The mindset solidifies and the mainstream turns it back on what is perceived as a lost cause.
When we allow our stereotypes and narrowminded opinions to dictate how we perceive a region like Afghanistan, no real changes can ever occur. Afghanistan is not a country that has always lived in the dark ages. It was plunged into it by a series of conflicts and war that devastated families, infrastructure, and economy. Studies show that terrorism blossoms out of extreme poverty and its understandable to see how the cycle takes root. Terrorism and oppression feed off of poverty. Lack of education breeds ignorance. Eventually its hard to remember that things were ever different.
Yet it was.
Afghanistan used to have tourists, and travelers explore its remote corners in the sixties and early seventies. The Hippie Trail went right through it. Irish traveler, Dervla Murphy rode her bike through Afghanistan in the sixties, completely solo and unsupported. Many journeyed from the West to travel cheaply through Herat, Kabul, Bamiyan, and Mazar i Sharif, home to incredible architecture, culture, and the experienced the best of Muslim hospitality. Thirty five years later, the Russians, the Taliban, and the ongoing offensive by international forces have made the country off limits to most except for military and aid workers.
It is interesting to note that in many cases, the elders are actually more liberally minded towards women’s rights and development than the youth. The elders remember what life was like prior to the Russians and the Taliban. In contrast, many of today’s youth have known nothing but war, poverty, and oppression. They have grown up in a country where women are inferior, where boys get an education, but girls stay at home. Where girls were publicly stoned to death for walking alone, for holding hands with a boy, or for any number of so-called honor crimes.
Today, this is a country full of Westerners working outside of the military and larger NGO’s, working, exploring, and having adventures. They have tapped into the youth that want more than their country currently offers. This is a country where Skateistan launched a skateboarding initiative to introduce the sport to the youth. Where two hundred girls now play soccer, in public, at the Kabul Stadium where just a decade ago they would have been stoned to death in the same location for daring to play. Where a French aid worker, is trying to launch a yak train adventure business to take travelers into the remotest of remote, the Wakkan. Where an Aussie photojournalist and his two friends started the first motorcycle club. Where the most popular television show is Afghan Star, an Afghan “American Idol” style reality show. Where two Afghan mountaineers made a first ascent on Afghanistan’s highest peak. Where Afghanistan’s first Afghan rock band, Kabul Dreams is breaking away from traditional music. All of these made possible by the support of individuals and organizations that realize that there is more to aid development that only schools and infrastructure.
This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement. Just because there is daily violence and a ongoing war doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t continue, that normalcy should be encouraged, and that we can’t interact with Afghans in ways that don’t involve guns. In fact, considering the 35 + years of conflict, its all the more reason to galvanize the youth out of their apathy and support those youth movements that are burgeoning.