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Muhammad Ali Shahidy '17

Sullivan Museum and History Center, Norwich University

 

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Muhammad Ali Shahidy, NU 2017 Oral History Interview

January 22, 2015

Sullivan Museum and History Center

Interviewed by Sarah Yahm

Transcribed by C.T. Haywood, NU '12, May 4, 2015

SY: Alright so let's officially start this interview. So this is Sarah Yahm and I'm here--so I've seen sometimes you go by Muhammad Ali Shahidy and sometimes Ali Shahidy. What do you like to go by?

AS: Normally I go by Ali, my friends and family call me Ali.

SY: And how do you pronounce your last name?

AS: Shahidy.

SY: Shahidy. Okay so this is Sarah Yahm with Ali Shahidy and we're here at the Sullivan Museum and History Center and it January 22?

AS: Twenty-second.

SY: Yeah it's January 22. Excellent. Okay even though I just said your name, if you could say your full name and introduce yourself.

AS: Hi I'm Muhammad Ali Shahidy and I'm from Afghanistan. I'm a psychology major, Norwich University, Class of 2017. And this is my first time in United States and I absolutely enjoy the nature and environment in Vermont. It's beautiful and I like the school too. I'm involved in a lot of activities on campus and, like research projects, internships, or part time jobs and clubs like Model UN and international students and soccer club. I play soccer sometimes too. And psychology major, and that's it.

SY: Okay so because this is an oral history we get to go all the way back. So where were you born?

AS: Where?

SY: Yeah. Where?

AS: I was born in Afghanistan in a province called Maidan Wardak. It's central Afghanistan and when I was 2 years, about 2 years old, my family moved to Iran so I spend rest of my, another 14 years/13 years in Iran until we get back to Afghanistan.

SY: What's your earliest memory?

AS: Um my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 years old in Iran, we had breakfast and I don't remember exactly what, but there something like an insect was walking across the room and it just scared me. I think that's the earliest memory that I have.

SY: And did you scream?

AS: I think I did. But my dad he was there and I think he just got rid of it. Yeah I think that's the earliest memory I have.

SY: That's your earliest memory. So I have no idea what it was like to be an Afghani refugee in Iran. What was it like to grow up in Iran?

AS: I like Iranian culture I like their history. Actually Afghanistan and Iran they both share same history and same language same religion. But being as a refugee in Iran was not very favorable. Most cases we were not allowed to get into certain places. We're not allowed to have certain rights, you know, certain advantages like normal citizens had like going to public schools, going to universities, even like recently most Afghans are actually banned from entering some national parks, some parks, theme parks and stuff. Or swimming pools. And those are more like institutionalized through the government. But sometimes people are treated like very badly with, by public people, by Iranians you know, as refugees. There's like vulgarity terms against Afghans, and like in public places they're mostly ignored. And I mean it's not, it's not a very nice experience to be a refugee in Iran.

SY: Yeah and that was, I suspected as much. And why did your family originally flee to Iran?

AS: For some reasons: number one because we had already family members living in Iran so it was easier to go and have our own community; and two was because we spoke the language, Farsi. Iranians and Afghans speak same language. And third was religion. We both are Muslim Shias. We share all the big components of life. That's why my family found really convenient to go to Iran.

SY: And they left during the Soviet invasion? Or after?

AS: After the Soviet invasion, during the civil war.

SY: During the civil war. Got it. And then when did you guys decide to come back? And do you remember those conversations? Because you were old enough then, right? You were like 13-14?

AS: Yes, I was about 14 when my dad decided to come back to Afghanistan. It was about 2003. Actually right after 9-11 my dad traveled to Afghanistan by himself and he bought a piece of land and he just prepared everything for his family to come back and have a place to live in Afghanistan. So he traveled first and then he came back to Iran and then he talked to us, to the family, and he just decided to go back to Afghanistan. He said, "Now Afghanistan is safe and secure, you know. We have peace. Taliban is gone, there's no war and we can go back to our own home."

SY: Little did you know [laughs]. Everything solved! It's 2003! [both laugh] So do you remember how you felt on that...how'd you get back? Did you, do you remember the journey back to Afghanistan?

AS: Ah it was a couple of days journey. We took a bus from Tehran to the boarder and then there was UNCR which is United Nations - I don't exactly remember what it stands for but they deal with refugee and immigrations issue. So they administered and managed all the immigration flows from Iran to Afghanistan. And through them and then later to Kabul. So it took like, it took like a week or so.

SY: And were you excited? Were you nervous? I mean you'd never been to, you had no memories of Afghanistan?

AS: Yes exactly. Well actually I was not excited. I was more like kind of upset because all my childhood was left behind in Iran. I had like friends there, I went to school there, you know. We had like so many family members there. We had our own community. So it was, it was very upsetting to leave all those memories of childhood behind and go to a country. Although it was our country, our own own country I've never been there and I had no idea what it looks like and I had no friend, no, I didn't know anyone. So it was not really nice to, it was not a nice experience to come back to Afghanistan.

SY: Do you remember what you missed most or what you thought you were gonna miss most about Iran?

AS: My friends.

SY: And what about now? Do you still miss Iran?

AS: Not right now. I miss my childhood. I had a beautiful childhood. I miss that part.

SY: Yeah.

AS: Yeah.

SY: So you got back to Afghanistan and it was a bit of a shock?

AS: It was a very big shock.

SY: So tell me about it.

AS: Ah, the country looked completely different because Afghanistan went through decades of war. So everything you saw was just remnants of war--destroyed houses, buildings, and the children on the street. The level of poverty was really really high. You would see poor people everywhere. And even like from an infrastructure point of view it completely looks different from Iran. Iran is a more advanced country with technology, you know better economy, and it's a peaceful country. But Afghanistan didn't have any of them and it looked completely different. Even like culturally it was different which made sense because in many points people economically or financially could not afford some of the stuff that people can afford in Iran. Therefore lifestyle is different. We didn't have electricity in the first couple of years when we came to Afghanistan and we had to use like generator and we had electricity for certain hours during the night. Sometimes we didn't have electricity at all. You know all that stuff.

SY: And you're a teenager at this point so you're probably pretty pissed at your parents for going back to Afghanistan?

AS: Oh I was so pissed, yeah [laughs].

SY: What would you say?

AS: Ah I was I mean most of the time we were just crying. We just, "Now we want to go back to Iran. We don't want to live here. Oh let's call the rest of the family for them to come over." It was just too hard to live alone. We had, we didn't know anyone. It was too hard.

SY: Right. You'd always lived with your extended family.

AS: Yes.

SY: Yeah. Yeah so you didn't have any family left in Afghanistan?

AS: Not at the point when we came back.

SY: And have more people come back since?

AS: Ah not a lot of people. A few people came back but like, through like 10 years or 15 year you know.

SY: So then also it sounds like your father's health took a turn for the worse when you got back to Afghanistan too, right? Is that?

AS: Yes. My dad had like chronic health issues before, but yes since we came to Afghanistan there were less health or medical care. And our economic level like really dropped and we could take less, I mean we could take care of him like not as often as in Iran. So yeah his illness actually got worse.

SY: And how did he make a living in Iran?

AS: In Iran [coughs] excuse me, he had, he started from labor jobs but then he started his own, a small business. And he was manufacturing construction items and that was basically what he made his living.

SY: And he couldn't do that in Afghanistan?

AS: No, because his business could not materialize in Afghanistan. It didn't have the market.

SY: Got it. So then how did you guys survive economically? What did you do?

AS: Then my family started relying on the children. Because at that time the most common business of most Afghan families did was weaving carpets at home. That was like home base business. And so we started weaving carpet although we had no idea how it works. And so we started the business at home. My sisters and I weaved carpet like every day, from early morning to late at night, yeah.

SY: And how'd you learn?

AS: There were people in our neighborhood that they started teaching us and then when we got projects from the company they had tutors that taught us or oversaw our work.

SY: Oh so it was actually, so you were doing piecework for a larger company?

AS: Yes.

SY: And then where were they selling them? Overseas?

AS: They were selling overseas, yes.

SY: Interesting. And so where are those rugs distributed in the U.S.?

AS: Actually I've seen a lot of them in the U.S. like when I travel like in Boston and New York I saw a lot of carpet shops that has a lot Afghan carpets actually, Afghan carpets. They're all hand made. Yeah most of them are made in Afghanistan by people like me, you know.

SY: Right and I'm sure that the amount you made per carpet. I mean I Just when you like go past those carpet stores in New York and you see those carpets in there, what do you think?

AS: I just feel like, oh those carpet, person who really needed money and couldn't find any other job stay at home dawn to dark weaving this carpet, and this wasprocessed and came all the way here. So that's the product of people like me, you know. So I mean I kind of have a connection.

SY: Right. Do you want people to purchase those carpets to know that?

AS: I mean it really doesn't matter to me. But for people who buy that it probably has a different value. But for me it has a different value.

SY: Yeah that makes sense. And was there anything -- so it's you and your sisters and your mom too weaving carpets? Or just you and your sisters?

AS: Just my sisters and I.

SY: So would you talk? Would you sing? Would you play games? Like how would you endure the day?

AS: Well it's a very, very, boring job. First of all we didn't have electricity so we couldn't play TV or like you know like play musics or songs, so. [Coughs] And we couldn't afford buying games either so it was pretty much like just going on carpet, start job, keep weaving carpet 'till, 'till you're done. During the day we had conversations, jokes, my sisters and I. Sometimes was like nice day we would have jokes but sometimes we would really not have jokes, sometimes we would fight actually with each other, you know like the sibling stuff. So but overall it was not, it was not a very happy job.

SY: Yeah. So what was your daily life like during that period in your life?

AS: Very boring, depressing.

SY: So how early would you get up?

AS: We would get up very early. I would go to school in the morning. My sisters when we came back to Afghanistan my dad actually didn't let them go school. So it was even harder for them because they had no other choice just to stay home with carpet. I had a chance to go like half day like school and then come back and weave carpet with them until I finished my high school and I got jobs, like full time jobs. And when I got full time jobs our financial status got much better and I just started like, I just stopped weaving carpet business at home, and my sisters decided to go back to school. And it was opportunity, I mean, for them to go back to school too.

SY: Let me just move this a little bit closer because you're a little far away from it.

AS: Oh I'm sorry.

SY: No that's fine. Don't worry about it. And that's actually a question I was curious about because it seems like you finished high school. You were fluent in English at that point because you were teaching English, right?

AS: Yes.

SY: And so how did you, how did you get so fluent so quickly? Because you weren't learning English in Iran.

AS: No I didn't. I started studying English in a private school when I was doing my high school, I think I was tenth grade. And it took me like two and a half years to finish the course and then as soon as I finished the English course I started teaching English in the same institution and...

SY: And how did you guys pay for that course?

AS: I know, I mean it was hard but with the money that we were making from weaving carpet.

SY: So it was an investment?

AS: Yes. Yes exactly.

SY: Got it. And so yeah, so okay, so then after you graduated from high school, tell me what you did then.

AS: I quickly got a job in an institution teaching English. I taught English for a couple months and then I applied for another job at the ISAF, the NATO camp base in Kabul. And they got back to me, I got short- listed and then they interviewed me and then there was an English test and I passed the test too. And after a couple of days they sent me an email and said "You got the job so you can come and join us." There were a couple security checks and screening and after passing all those examinations I got my job and I officially joined NATO. And I was a translator for NATO for about a year, and I was working with Portuguese mentors in Afghanistan. And they were working with Afghan Army in different areas like operations, intelligence, logistics. And my job was more in operations so we were going to missions outside the base like whether a combat mission, or whether reconnaissance mission, or a quick reaction force mission, whatever mission. Because I was assigned to be in the operations department so that was my job and I had to go to the field and translate for NATO and the Afghan Army. That was a good job. I liked my job it for the first time was exposed to foreigners, work with people of different country. Different country, different religion, different language and that was a very exciting job and I learned a lot from that experience and they paid well too. And the money I made from my job helped my family to be more stable financially, and it even helped my sisters go to school and pay for their school. And um--

SY: That job sounds like it had the potential to be very dangerous.

AS: It was actually dangerous. It was very dangerous. That was the reason I quit my job. After working like 10 and 11 months I kept receiving threats from Taliban or from unknown people. My dad received calls, phone calls, and it was not a safe job. Even like going to missions was not eas--was not safe because you could get shot at like anytime, point, you know. And ah, I mean I've seen people die on the missions. And I mean I was lucky to survive, but yeah it was potentially dangerous both on the job and off, you know, there were threats from the Taliban.

SY: Yeah and so what, so tell me about the process when you decided to quit. Was there a particular event or were you just like this is too much?

AS: My, my father received a couple of phone calls from unknown people and they were threatening my father to have me quit my job. Because they were saying that "Oh we have information that your son works with foreigners. And if he doesn't quit his job we potentially pose risk either on his family or himself. So [coughs] excuse me, it's best for you to recommend your son to leave his job." And for the first couple of phone calls we ignored and I kept my job, but when we saw it was getting serious we moved from one place to another but that didn't help either. So I eventually decided to leave my job and resign.

SY: Yeah. And then what did you do next?

AS: I went back to English institution where I used to teach English. I went there and started teaching again for a couple months and then I applied for another job in a private company. It was not military company, was just a private business, and it was a combination of Afghan and foreigners. So I started working there and since then I didn't get any threat or any risk, or danger associated with my job.

SY: Yeah you weren't on the radar anymore. Yeah that makes sense. I have a couple, I feel like we could go in a couple different directions but I'm curious to talk about sort of the beginning of your feminist consciousness, right? And how that happened and also why that happened to you, right? I mean my guess is that it didn't happen to most men your age around you, right? So you know, so what happened there? Especially in--there aren't that many men your age in the U.S. who would call themselves feminists, right? Have you since you've come here dealt with like the "f-word" issue where nobody will call themselves a feminist?

AS: Yes. I've have seen a couple cases like that in the U.S.

SY: It's kinda crazy. I mean it's seriously -- like have you talked to your peers at Norwich? How many of them will call themselves feminists. It's an interesting question.

AS: I haven't seen anyone actually who would really consider themselves a feminist.

SY: Really? That like makes me want to weep. Even, I bet even girls in the Corps would not call themselves feminists.

AS: Yeah I've seen it in females, yeah.

SY: Yeah I bet they were like, no-no, no-no, that's a whole different thing. Yeah anyway but you use the term?

AS: Yes.

SY: You describe yourself that way. So can you tell me about that? About sort of this political awakening?

AS: Like you said, it's not really common in Afghanistan. It's absolutely uncommon and it's also like at some point even dangerous like you get ostracized by society. It's like just going against the stream. It was a couple years ago that um--my sister was married to a family, to a relative in Iran. And after a few years of his--her marriage I found out that she's in a very abusive relationship. Then I decided to help her get back to Afghanistan and divorce from her husband.

SY: Now was this already kind of a fringe thing or would most brothers have been like "hey she's getting beaten let's get her out of this relationship."

AS: I mean, divorce not common in Afghanistan. Most families don't support divorce. But to me at that point what mattered was my sister's safety. And I just wanted to bring her back to Afghanistan no matter through what means or what the consequences is. And I just brought her back with all the force, with all the hard work, with all the money I spent, with all the time spent, and it was not easy at all. And um, it took me a lot of force to help her get back to Afghanistan. And once she got back home everybody was happy. My family was happy, she was happy, and we decided just to have her divorce.

SY: And had your parents been supportive of you during this process or were they like?

AS: Yes they were supportive.

SY: They were?

AS: Yes, they were.

SY: It could have gone the other way, right? Where they were like?

AS: Yes. But because divorce is looked very down upon. It's not a common practice in Afghanistan and--

SY: Do you think your family was supportive just because her husband was so extreme?

AS: That was part of the reason and the other reason is I think our family has very strong family bonds to each other. We really are supportive of each other.

SY: Yeah that makes sense. So okay, so you got her back. So that was--and you describe in one of the, one of your essays you talk about how you used to beat your sisters even. And how do you think about that now?

AS: Um, it may not make sense for people here but in Afghanistan it's just a culture practice. It's how you grow up. You see your parents in the same way form of relationship. Like my dad--I mean we saw domestic violence in our house like in a very, very common and often basis. Now and when you grow up in such an environment you just automatically adopt the culture. It's just expected for most men to dominate the female family members, to control them and to make decisions for them. And that was how we grow up. Not only me, most Afghan families. [Coughing]

SY: [coughing from both] Coughing break. [more coughing]. Alright, your turn. [Laughter]

AS: And ah, but after I helped my sister I started--because part of the process was to go through the Human Rights Commission. So I started reading about women's rights, how what the legal rights say about divorce, about domestic violence, about domestic abuse and all that stuff. So that was part of the process that I learned more about women's rights. And when I helped my sister come over and when we were happy to have her back. And when I looked around I saw it's not just my sister but like everyone else, like anybody else, like in our community, in our area, in the school, in the--my own relatives. Almost know like tons and tons of examples who are, woman who became victims of domestic violence and like really abusive relationships. And then I became more vocal not only for my sisters but for other women too. I started advocating for them. I started teaching men this practice is wrong and there are many negative consequences both like in the family and in the relationship and it's absolutely wrong. And sometimes I was received nicely. Sometimes people supported me. Sometimes people didn't really like that idea. They just wanted to maintain the culture; they wanted to maintain that patriarchy, you know. And so it was a hard battle.

SY: It was probably seen as a western influence contaminating Afghan culture, right? To some degree?

AS: Yeah, sometimes, yeah that's what conflicted actually with the cultural norms. Because when you start speaking about feminism one of the questions that is raised is that is feminism against Islamic tradition. That's a western tradition, a western concept, came to Afghanistan to an Islamic tradition. Are they in same path or they're colliding? So there were a lot of conflicts between these two concepts so it was really hard to keep the balance.

SY: And did you have sort of like an "ah ha" moment where you thought: "Oh hey I'm not doing this anymore?" Or was it more a gradual process? In terms of "oh I'm not gonna treat my sisters this way anymore," or - was it gradual or sudden?

AS: It was more gradual. I mean before, as soon as I got my job and as soon as my sisters stopped the home carpet weaving business, they went back to school, family dynamics changed. No sorry, changing. They saw me more like as a, as a supporter. And I felt really bad for them that they stopped their school just for because they had to weave carpet at home. So we were really supportive of each other. And I think it was more a gradual process.

SY: So you did a lot organizing around women's rights in Afghanistan. What about your sisters? Have they been doing some too? What's their position about all of this?

AS: Yes, actually my younger sister she was very involved in some activism in Afghanistan too. When she went to college she was part of different clubs that did advocacy for women's right and that she became very vocal for woman's rights too actually.

SY: So tell me some of the organizing work that you did do in Afghanistan.

AS: There were a couple projects for street harassment and stopping street harassment in Afghanistan. I was part of those projects. There were a couple of social protests against certain cases of violence against woman. I was part of organizers. I was part of the people who organized them and run them. And, but beside those activism in group, I had my own independent projects too. I was going to private schools and teaching students about domestic violence, effects of domestic violence, especially on children. Because I saw myself as a victim of you know like a child who was born, raised in an environment where domestic violence was very common. So I started reading and collecting information and researching about effects of domestic violence. I read books and stuff and then I started my own independent projects. I went to different private schools and had seminars and workshops with the students about domestic violence.

SY: Interesting. And through all of this work you were doing you still really wanted to go to college?

AS: Yes it was my dream.

SY: It was your dream. So how'd you end up coming to Norwich?

AS: I have a friend who lives in Vermont and I call her my American mom. We developed a very intimate relationship of mom and son, and she helped me apply to different schools in America.

SY: How did you meet her?

AS: Online.

SY: Oh!

AS: Yeah, it was a platform for advocacy work for women's rights.

SY: And so is she an activist here?

AS: Yes. She was part of that platform. She was also a member; she was also writing blogs and supporting projects. And I was a member too from Afghanistan and that's how we met online. And then we started sending emails, social media.

SY: And so she helped you apply to schools in the states. And so where did you apply?

AS: I applied to different schools. One of the schools was Norwich. And I got into actually 4/5 different schools in different states. And, but Norwich was very generous in their financial aid and scholarship. And also she wanted me to come to Vermont because we would be closer that way, and we could meet more often.

SY: Yeah got it. I guess I'm curious about what your experiences has been like here at Norwich. Have you felt -- well first of all let's talk about you come to the U.S. and what's your first impression of the U.S.? Because you've been working with American, members of the American military, right, in Afghanistan so you're sort of like you know a fair amount of Americans but you've never been to the states. So what did you expect and how was it similar or different to what you expected?

AS: Oh honestly our expectation -- Afghans living in Afghanistan who have never been here their image of United States, you may find it funny actually, is typical image of New York City or Las Vegas, you know. All those skyscrapers, buildings, busy cities, you know very populated, a lot going on. So that was basically my only image of United States and I thought like anywhere I could go I would see New York City, top of America. But when I came Vermont there's no building, no skyscraper, no city and was all trees, farms, hills. So I mean it is beautiful but it was contrary to what I imagined for.

SY: Were you a little bit like what have I done? Should've gone to NY!

AS: But it even when I was flying over United States I barely saw big cities. It was basically like very huge land, you know.

SY: Yeah, right, you were probably watching, so what movies and TV shows were you watching before you came, right?

AS: Yes.

SY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's really funny. And then could you're tell your, your chicken story. You're probably tired of telling your chicken sandwich story, but could you tell it again?

AS: Yeah sure [coughs] excuse me. Ah yeah it was the first day actually of when I landed in United States. I was flying from Atlanta to North Carolina and so I was hungry and then I went to a local, a nearby sandwich store. So I went to the caf to order sandwich and I thought because when I was looking at the pictures and the menu and all the different names I couldn't recognize any of them except the chicken sandwich, so I thought that's the easiest thing. So I was in the line and when it was my turn asked for the chicken sandwich and she just threw me like different names of cheese. I didn't even realize if that was cheese or chicken or bread or whatever. So she just gave like different names and I didn't recognize any of them. I was just speechless. So I was like, "I don't know ma'am, just put whatever, whatever you want, I don't understand any of them." And then she asked like what type of bread I want and that was pretty shocking too because I didn't know there were different types of bread for a sandwich and I didn't understand any of those names. And then it came down to drinks, so she asked me different types of drinks and it was a very long process and I didn't understand any of the names that she gave me. And I was pretty stressed because I didn't understand and there were people standing behind me that were waiting for their own food and I was like, "Oh my God I'm taking their time and I don't understand any food. All this names and I don't know what I'm getting. I just want to get some food and just eat." And I gave my money to her and she was pretty um--.

SY: Rude?

AS: No I don't mean rude. I mean she was um because she wanted to get the order done, go to the next customer, you know, so she was stressed kind of and she just wanted my order to get done. And I got my order pretty roughly and yeah--

SY: Yeah so okay, so the question is this story, you could spin this story a couple ways, right? Like here I am in America with a bounty of options that I didn't have in Afghanistan or it could be Americans are crazy they have way too many options and it doesn't make them happier. So you've been here for what, like a year and change? How long have you been here now?

AS: By now, it could be two years.

SY: Almost two years?

AS: Yeah.

SY: Yeah so what's your take on it? What's your conclusion about American culture and this obsession with options?

AS: Ah, I think yeah, there's a variety of options, it's just everywhere in the U.S. It's not just about food, like almost anything like any form of shopping I want to do, even very simple things, you would just find like so many options, so many choices that you can't even decide. And this is not the type of culture that I was raised in and I just don't understand it and sometimes I just get surprised like how Americans actually get around.

SY: Does it still paralyze you sometimes?

AS: Yeah. I mean I just don't understand like how really like Americans can manage their choices.

SY: Have you been back to Afghanistan to visit since?

AS: Yes, last summer.

SY: And when you were back last summer, did you have to adjust back again to fewer options or were you just like "whew?"

AS: Actually, I was very relieved being back to Afghanistan. It was a really good feeling. I really miss home and no, it didn't really take me long to adjust back.

SY: What do you miss the most about Afghanistan?

AS: My family, food---

SY: I love Afghani food--

AS: My friends, oh have you tried some?

SY: Oh yeah, yeah.

AS: Oh really, that's interesting

SY: Because I lived in Philly for a while and so I ate Afghani food there and then I lived in New York and there were a place I really liked off St. Mark's Place. No I love Afghani food.

AS: [laughs] Thank you.

SY: Yeah, it's delicious.

AS: Yeah definitely.

SY: Do you cook it for yourself?

AS: Sometimes.

SY: So what's your favorite dish?

AS: There's a type of rice we cook that's called qabali, so it's a combination of rice and meat, veggies, veggies all together.

SY: Delicious.

AS: Oh yeah, can't imagine.

SY: Yeah seriously, it's hard. Can you get all the ingredients you need?

AS: It's really heard. I mean I haven't made that dish because it's a little hard to make. But yeah, that's my favorite.

SY: Yeah [coughs] sorry, this cough is the worst.

AS: I know.

SY: So I don't know if you've met Bizhan. He's Iranian and he's the head of Fac Ops, have you ever met him?

AS: Oh no.

SY: Well anyway, he came here as a student in the seventies and then he ended up staying.

AS: Interesting.

SY: And I interviewed him just a couple weeks ago and he was describing how when he first got here he experienced a lot of like real kind of ignorant stereotypes from, sometimes from fellow students, from people in Northfield, they kept calling him a like a camel jockey or something, some racist insult and he was like, "dude I've never seen a camel like I'm," he wasn't from Tehran he was from another large city and he was like, "I wear jeans that are so much fancier than any jeansthat you will ever--" Anyway. But I guess my question is, how have you been treated here at Norwich?

AS: Pretty nicely.

SY: And have you encountered stereotypes?

AS: Ah that's actually the challenge most of the time, but overall I really love the atmosphere here. I mean people really are really respectful and I've never been offended like calling me like different words or stereotypes. Everybody was really nice to me and I love my friends and you know I haven't had any case that where a student or an American would stereotype me or just insult me, you know. It never happened to me and I'm actually very happy about it. I know, I mean I heard from other Afghan students in other parts of the U.S. and they have actually been stereotyped. They've been insulted a couple of times. But I mean none of that stuff happened to me at Norwich which is I think a Norwich thing. I'm really happy about that.

SY: That's pretty amazing actually you've never, you haven't encountered anything?

AS: No.

SY: Wow. And why do you think that is?

AS: Um, I don't know actually, I don't know if there was any specific reason behind this but maybe because Norwich had a lot of involvement in Afghanistan too because we had alumni who went to Afghanistan, actually. And maybe that's part of the reason. I don't know.

SY: That's another question actually, I was just reading in preparation for the interview I was doing some reading and I was reading about Hamid Karzai as he was leaving office was like pretty ambivalent about the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan. And so here you are at a military college and so is that ambivalent issue for you? Or I would imagine you have complicated feelings about the role of the U.S. has played in Afghanistan.

AS: Right now you mean?

SY: And throughout your time in Afghanistan watching, you know, the war and, you know, nation building unfold?

AS: I mean it's a very hard and also very broad question because United States is involved in many areas in Afghanistan, it's not just security. They're involved in human rights, in agriculture, infrastructure, ah through donations, through projects, and they have a really huge presence in Afghanistan. And although United States pulled out their forces, they still have a small number of forces or a permanent base in Afghanistan. And ah, or we say a long term or a more long term base in Afghanistan. And other than military presence they have presence in other areas and they still have the continued diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan and ,which is a good thing. I mean I've always been and still am still supportive of the connection between Afghanistan and United States. And I think United States role in Afghanistan was pretty critical in fighting terrorism and building infrastructure.

SY: Excellent that was my question essentially was like what is your take on it? Yeah um and so right I guess you were sort of, how do you feel about the phrase nation building? [laughs]

AS: Like?

SY: Just you know the idea that the U.S. was nation building in Afghanistan and that was what the project was. Did you see that happen and how did you feel like it worked?

AS: I think United States did try. They really worked hard, they really invested a lot of money and effort but um, and to a great degree actually they were successful. I mean there were some challenges, there were some areas that United States actually failed in Afghanistan. But I don't see that like as United States fault or I don't see like lack of investment or lack of attention. But it was more because I mean personally I think probably lack of interest, mutual understanding because Afghanistan and United States are two very different countries and only a very sad and unfortunate incident brought United States to Afghanistan, you know, without like a very long term or preplanning to go to Afghanistan. So it was more like an abrupt planning, you know, abrupt strategies. So I mean it partly makes sense but overall I think they've done really well.

SY: Okay so overall you feel pretty good about the role the U.S. played in Afghanistan?

AS: In terms of nation building yeah.

SY: In terms of nation building, I'm trying to think of what else, what's your plan next? What's your larger life plan?

AS: After Norwich I want to go to grad school and I want to get my degrees from U.S. because basically U.S. offers best psychology programs. And then I want to go back to Afghanistan and help, help my people.

SY: And how? How do you want to help? So you would get a Ph.D. in psych or an M.A. in psych? You're thinking of a Ph.D.?

AS: Yes. I want to get a Ph.D. in psychology.

SY: Environmental psychology or?

AS: I'm more into social.

SY: Social psychology?

AS: Yes.

SY: Okay, social psych, interesting. And what role do you think you want to play when you go back?

AS: There are different areas that I want to work. One is a definitely peace building, conflict resolution, conflict management. Also teaching. Teaching is one avenue that I can take. Also the other sector that I--

SY: I'm sorry about the construction.

AS: That's fine. I'm used to it. The other sector that I'm really interested in working is education because I think our education system needs a lot of changes and a lot of reforms and hopefully if I get back to Afghanistan with my degrees I can work in that area and make a lot of difference.

SY: Excellent. I'm wondering if you have any other stories about [pause] sort of living in the U.S. and way it makes sense to you and the way it doesn't make sense to you culturally. Anymore of those. So you've spen,t I mean you've been in Northfield, have you also traveled?

AS: Yes, I've been Boston, New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina. I mean I've respect for American culture. I know people have their own lifestyles, you know different cultures and I have respect for any culture in the U.S. I mean there's sometimes that I get shocked, I get really surprised, and there are a lot of times that I really appreciate most of the cultural practices in the U.S. I mean that's basically it.

SY: That's basically it. I'm running out of questions. I'm not sure I have any more questions about you. I guess I sort of I mean you were sort of growing up in the middle of a war.

AS: Yes.

SY: You spent your teen years in the middle of a war and I guess just what was that, what was that like for you? How did it affect your daily life?

AS: Um. I mean it's not easy to live in a war zone. And like every day when you wake up and you go to work and every once in a while you hear stories of suicide attacks, you hear stories of suicide bombings, or you know wars in different parts of the country, people getting killed, civilians, soldiers, army, you know. You know you hear all those stories in the media and from people all the time and you have that feeling that sometimes it could be you, victim of such attacks. And I mean it's not really safe, but at the end of the day you're happy. You have your family, you have your friends, you have your job, your school, whatever. And I mean Afghans are really resilient in that part. And despite all those attacks, despite all those wars, you know insecurity, you see people they really live, you know. They have their happiness, they enjoy their life, they're happy there. Like even myself I really miss back home and I mean I can't wait until the summer to until I go back to Afghanistan. I know there is war sometimes, some places, but overall I'm really happy back there.

SY: Yeah, so you didn't spend a lot of time being frightened?

AS: I mean there were cases that I was extremely frightened. I was in the middle of war whether that was part of my job when I was a translator or like just as a normal Afghan citizen just being in a car driving to workplace and getting caught right in the middle of suicide attack. I mean there were instances like that that really really frightened me that I thought I would not survive. But I mean, we lived by that stuff.

SY: Yeah. What about your job as a translator- what did you learn while doing that job?

AS: I learned a lot about different culture [coughs]. Because when I was gro--you know I'm born and grown up like in a very extremist Muslim country. In our country, both in Afghanistan and Iran, religion is a really big thing and when you start working for the first time with a person of a different religion it's, it's a different perspective you know to have like different lifestyle that does not fit into your culture, into your religion. And to have different religion, different understanding and when you learn how to get along with these people of like a different perspective, different lifestyle it's just an interesting experience.

SY: Are you still a practicing Muslim?

AS: No, I'm not a practicing Muslim. It's a very private question.

SY: Oh I'm sorry we don't have to talk about that. Yeah, yeah that's fine. I didn't mean to ask-

AS: Oh no that's fine. Most people ask me. I mean its fine.

SY: Yeah, yeah, okay. Yeah I don't think I have any more questions for you unless there's anything you sort of want to add into the historical record about your life before you came to Norwich.

AS: I mean I think we've covered everything, almost.

SY: Almost everything. I'm just thinking if there are any stories that you would want to tell? How do you, do you, are you able to Skype with your family back home?

AS: Yes. We actually talk very often.

SY: That's great. You know that might be it. I don't think I have any more questions.

AS: Ah okay.

SY: That was a quick interview. 52 minutes. Let me look through and see--.

AS: It was almost an hour, our expected time.

SY: Yeah it was almost an hour. Yeah yeah yeah sure. I asked you what you missed, I asked you if your impression of the U.S. is different, if you fit in culturally, if you feel accepted. Oh yeah, okay, so what Norwich values do you find compelling and what Norwich values don't you feel compelled by? How do you connect to sort of the military history of Norwich? To the idea of service? To the notion of the citizen soldier? Are these things that you relate to and how do you feel as a civilian student on this campus?

AS: I like Norwich values. I really appreciate them. And I think Norwich as an institution can really teach moral values to students and institutionalize that for 4 years of college which is really a good thing. Like the honor code, or the idea of leadership or citizen soldier, you know. And I respect all those values and I really find them valuable. And its even today I think a big part of my morality. And as a civilian student I don't--I'm kind of like in between civilian and Corps because I've had military experiences in Afghanistan. I came from a war zone, and I don't feel very detached from Corps students or from civilian students. And I don't really mind being a civilian student. And most of my friends are actually from the Corps and we have pretty good relationship. We get along. We hang ou,t you know.

SY: So I mean not that there are many U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now but, and hopefully there won't be more in the future. But if you were going to sort of teach a class to the Corps, right? Aay you were here 5 years ago and you were teaching students who were about to go over to Afghanistan. what would you have wanted members of the U.S. military to know?

AS: Culture.

SY: Okay, so what about the culture?

AS: It's a very complicated and very controversial issue. Even like United States in a very like top level in like in a policy making level, I think sometimes they make mistakes in terms of understanding culture and making policies. Like in the past we had, one of the biggest U.S. military strategies in Afghanistan was the night raids. Like they had soldiers going to for the search for terrorists they went to Afghan houses ,like local houses without their permission and they, ta night just entered the houses. It's extremely, extremely rude in Afghan culture and it's against the Afghan honor--.

SY: [Phone rings]. Sorry, hold on one sec. I got it. We just got to wait for this to end. I just want you to pause. Because what you're saying is really important and I don't want it to pick up the phone. Okay it's extremely rude in Afghan culture--.

AS: It's extremely rude and it's against the Afghan honor code, and most of those raids actually, although they were for searching for terrorists, which is a military strategy and I understand, but it turned many Afghan locals against American and the Afghan government. And a lot of Afghans joined Taliban just to fight back for the honor that they lost. And a lot of like the, what is it called? The air strikes. A lot of air strikes like killed so many Afghan civilians just because of a lack of cultural understanding. Almost the Afghan local wedding parties people push guns just for as a celebration and most of the time Afghan -sorry United States Army - thought there was some terrorist attacks going on so they just had their air strike just on civilians, no terrorists. And a lot of incidents like that that resulted from lack of cultural understanding actually turned a lot of people against United States and a lot of people joined Taliban. A lot of people actually became against, anti-Afghan government. And I mean those are like in the policy making level but even in daily levels there a lot of culture nuances that I would teach American, my American friends, to be aware of, you know?

SY: Yeah that was actually, that's sort of what I've been trying to get at in the past couple of questions is like what, here you are in this military institution and what does the U.S. military need to know, right? Yeah absolutely. And did you have friends who sort of saw civilian deaths and things like that and went the other direction growing up? Like are there people who you grew up with who were like who were really pissed about U.S. intervention in Afghanistan?

AS: Actually I've met a lot of people like that, I mean mostly in work places I've seen people really conservative, really traditional, really anti-American. And I mean I've seen people like that, but they didn't necessarily take action on what they believed in. But that was basically their beliefs, they what they were talking about. And on the other hand like I saw a greater number of people who are pro-American, who have supported United States presence in Afghanistan. Even our national assembly, which is a combination of Afghan tribal leaders, you know local leaders, they supported United States security presence in Afghanistan and, which basically represents Afghan local people, the local population, you know.

SY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean now we've just veered off into a political conversation. I think we're done, let me turn this off.