When asked whether he feels more Afghan or more American, Hyder Akbar ’07 would rather skirt the question.
“My identity itself isn’t intrinsically interesting; it’s the perspective it gives me that’s compelling,” Akbar wrote in the prologue to his memoir, “Come Back to Afghanistan,” published last year. “I probably don’t totally understand either world, but I understand more of both than most.”
With a father who served as the governor of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, Akbar — born as a refugee in Pakistan but raised in California after his parents fled the country — spent three summers from 2002-2004 exploring his family’s country of origin. Akbar, who worked as an informal translator for U.S. soldiers while observing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, documented his experience in two one-hour-long pieces for National Public Radio’s “This American Life.” Encouraged by the show’s popularity, he then expanded his story into a memoir, co-authored with his NPR producer, Susan Burton ’95 — all before Akbar’s 21st birthday.
Burton said that within 10 minutes of talking to Akbar, she knew more about Afghanistan than she learned during any of her previous reporting experiences. She said Akbar was “incredibly mature and articulate” for someone who was 16 years old when they first met.
“Hyder really has a sense of himself in the world at a young age,” Burton said. “He really, fundamentally, knew that he wanted to go back to Afghanistan and help move it forward in the world. That opportunity was coming when he was 17 years old instead of 27, and so he really seized the moment.”
Shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Akbar said he was motivated to take his high school final exams early and skip his senior prom and graduation. He wanted to leave his home in California in order to arrive in Afghanistan in time for the June 2002 Loya Jirga, a meeting of the traditional Afghan Grand Council that elected Hamid Karzai to head its transitional government. Karzai was not only a political leader but also a close family friend — he met Akbar’s father during their days resisting political pressure from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and Karzai went on to appoint Akbar’s father governor of Kunar Province.
“Growing up with all these stories about Afghanistan, its past and my father’s involvement, Afghanistan has always been this kind of larger-than-life thing in my mind,” Akbar said.
Although many Yalies are interested in studying and pursuing careers in foreign policy, Silliman College Dean Hugh Flick said few have such a vested interest in the growth of a particular country as Akbar. Akbar captured the often-missing human element of a war-torn nation in his book, Flick said.
“In the news it’s very impersonal, but he knows all of these leaders and he talked about them in very interesting ways,” Flick said. “Some of the people who had been killed just seemed like numbers in some ways. He made them come alive and be real people.”
Akbar said he was in a unique position to observe the changes taking place in Afghanistan because, after spending three or four summer months there, he would return to the United States and process what he had learned from afar. He said he was interested in seeing how Afghanistan had evolved from year to year. For example, during his first summer there, Akbar said that when night fell, Kabul was like a “ghost town”, but the following year the evenings were so bustling he got stuck in traffic jams.
“By the third summer I saw a glass building, an office center, being built in Kabul,” Akbar said. “You have to have a lot of confidence in Afghanistan to build a glass building, because one explosion could take it out.”
One of 27 members of the facebook.com group “Gundaa Dakoos Who Got Stopped At The Airport For Special Security Clearance,” Akbar documented in his memoir a time when he was interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security. Flying into San Francisco International Airport after his third summer in Afghanistan, Akbar said security officials inspecting his carry-on bag found a picture of him in Afghan clothes armed with an AK-47 in the middle of the mountains. He said he was carrying the assault rifle because it is important to always be armed in Afghanistan.
Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, a think tank that, among other things, studies posters and paraphernalia from regimes in various time periods, had asked Akbar to collect articles and artifacts from volatile places in Afghanistan. Consequently, Akbar also had Taliban leaflets, propaganda, and a four-page-long letter about how to launch “new jihad” against Americans written by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in his carry-on. Akbar said Hekmatyar used to be on the F.B.I.’s most wanted terrorists list and was on the level of suspected terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Mullah Mohammed Omar.
“They reached this propaganda, but it was written in Pashto, which is an Arabic script, so of course they can’t read it,” Akbar said. “They looked at me and they said … ‘Hold on to it.’ They never even looked at it twice. It was the most dangerous stuff I had. I could have a letter from Bin Laden and all it had to be was in Arabic and they would not even have looked at it.”
When “Come Back to Afghanistan” was released, the publisher initially ordered 10,000 copies of the book. But those sold out so quickly that the publisher had to order another 3,000 copies. Akbar said it was ironic that the first book event he ever attended was his own.
“One of the oddest things is talking to people three times your age,” he said. “Most of these people are more intellectual and mature [than I am].”
Before Akbar transferred to Yale last fall, he spent two years at Diablo Vally Community College in Pleasant Hill, Calif. English professor Keith Mikolavich, who taught Akbar in two of his classes at the college, said Akbar’s talent lay in his ability to “extract a moral or larger meaning out of a story without being pedantic or preachy.” But Akbar’s humble personality could easily lead one to overlook his accomplishments, he said.
“He told me one time that Afghanis from his tribe tend to play their cards close to their chest,” Mikolavich said. “One of the things you see in Hyder is that you can’t really, fully read him … He is a guy who is not reserved, but he is quiet and unassuming. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot going on.”
Shatreen Masshoor ’09 said she thinks “Come Back to Afghanistan” is written in an honest voice. In the book, Akbar “shattered stereotypes” that Americans often construct about Afghanis, she said.
“My favorite part of the book is when these American soldiers were trying to typecast each type of Afghan … and gestured to Hyder thinking that he can’t understand English, he is just this simple Afghan, that he is going to be ignorant, that by his hat and clothes he is going to be a northern Afghan,” Masshoor said. “But Hyder turns around and in a perfect accent addresses the two pompous American soldiers and says, ‘Actually I am from northern California.'”