I was eating a meal with a friendly group in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif when I noticed my particular friend and host – the highest earner of our unit – pay the bill in full.
When alone, I asked him, “Why didn’t you split the bill?”. He replied, “I’d spend all of my money if my friends or family are in need. It’s Afghanistan.” His words were sufficient enough to understand how in Afghanistan, relationships among family and friends are considered to be essential. It’s difficult to find a stable job, and since the Taliban administration collapsed in late 2001, security has been functioning at its worst level in years. People need to support each other to live in this harsh country more than any other.
My first trip to Afghanistan was in 2015. This excursion followed after my University gap year, in which I spent 8 months travelling between China and Poland. I had no desire to be a photographer back then. I toured the ancient Silk Road, which had been a dream since childhood, and the camera I used was a compact digital model for less than 100 dollars. By the time of my trip to Afghanistan, I had bought a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera, but I knew very little of how to use it. I stayed with Farshad, an AFP photojournalist, for about 20 days. His brother, Anil, is also a photojournalist at Reuters, and I was taught to use my camera professionally, how to write captions, and how to act as a photojournalist while shooting; especially in observing the local rules of the area. It’s hard to imagine now, the lack of knowledge I had before this trip, and I’m still especially grateful to the people who took care of me.
I have travelled to this country three times so far, although the previous two were shorter trips. The memories of unusual experiences have accumulated in my body, and they shine like the feeling of nostalgia for teenage years. In one memory I was walking a street in Kabul with friends and noticed a group of young boys happily chasing a car. “What are they doing?” I asked. “They try not to ride it because it leads to adverse effects on fuel economy,” said my friend, laughing. I had assumed they were trying to rob the car, so I was moved by this straight truth. I felt like I had gotten a glimpse of life underneath the burden of fragile security and dire economy, and I wanted to understand more.
Sometimes I think that Afghanistan may be like a mirror to me. Every time I visit, I have been confronted with my own weakness. During my most recent trip, I was spending the last few days at a hotel in the center of Kabul. I quit my room, leaving a large amount of local banknotes – equivalent to hundreds of dollars – unhidden. When I returned a few hours later, housekeepers, who almost seemed like a mother and daughter, were cleaning. I suddenly recalled the banknotes I had left. “Get out of my room. It’s clean enough”, I told them sternly, and forced them to leave. The money hadn’t been touched but I still can’t forget the sheepish look in their eyes, their confusion to my hostility. How timid and cowardly I was, yet bold and active. Afghanistan tells me who I am.