Concord, Calif. — The walls of Hyder Akbar's bedroom reveal a conflict of identity uncommon to most suburban teenagers, even those like him -- ethnically Afghan but culturally American. Two large U2 posters consume one wall, and a group photo of his Concord High School graduating class is tacked near the door. But in a corner next to his stereo, Akbar has created a shrine to his family's battle-weary native country. Here is a National Geographic pull-out map of Afghanistan with a timeline detailing its 23 years at war. For every historic footnote, an assassination or a coup, Akbar's family has a story of its own.
There's the uncle, a journalist, gunned down in the late 1980s outside his office in Peshawar, Pakistan, for a news report perceived as negative by those in power. Another uncle wears his war wounds as medals and carries a Kalashnikov everywhere he goes. A close family friend, the legendary resistance leader Abdul Haq, sat in Akbar's living room, plotting to overthrow the ruling Taliban just two weeks before Sept. 11 but was captured, tried and executed shortly after he returned. Then there's Akbar's father, Said Fazel Akbar, a longtime journalist and diplomat who put 20 years of political strife behind him, moved to California and opened a hip-hop clothing store in Oakland, only to be pulled back to act as press secretary to Afghanistan's new president, Hamid Karzai.
As Hyder Akbar sees it, the time had come for him to "pay his dues to Afghanistan."
"After Sept. 11, it seemed like a possibility, a really interesting time to go," he says. "I wanted to see the country for the first time. I wanted to have my own personal experience about it also."
So, with his father's blessing, Akbar, now 18, skipped his graduation and his first semester of college to spend four months in Afghanistan. Before his departure in May, freelance writer and producer Susan Burton heard about his trip and proposed he record his journey for Public Radio International's "This American Life." She edited Akbar's audio diary down from more than 50 hours of tape, and the result, "Come Back to Afghanistan," airs locally tonight and Saturday.
Due to his father's high position, Akbar experienced the country from the inside out. There were introductions to notorious warlords, an inspection of the bullet-riddled corpse of assassinated Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, official news conferences and casual encounters with violence. He even helped write press releases for the government. Through it all, Akbar recorded his often painful realizations that perhaps he was more American than Afghan. "He tells incredibly detailed stories," says Burton. "He's incredibly honest, which is part of what makes his audio diary so great."
As a personal challenge, Akbar insisted on immersing himself totally in the experience. He refused to be vaccinated beforehand, and while there he suffered intense digestive problems because he drank the water and deliberately ate undercooked meat. It was his attempt to belong in a community that clearly didn't see him as one of its own. "I would get stopped on the road because they can tell from the look in your eye, from your skin, that you're not from around there," he says.
Akbar is solidly built, with a 5 o'clock shadow, but he has sensitive eyes and a gentle demeanor. He grew up listening to his parents talk about their youth, about their work in the 1970s and '80s as radio broadcasters in Kabul, when life was dangerous and, for many, brief. His concept of the country took on an almost mythical quality.
But once he arrived in Kabul, Akbar faced the stark reality of a war-ravaged city. First, there was an exhausting seven-hour ride over devastated roads from Peshawar to Kabul. He arrived at a hotel that still bore the scars of a missile hit. Rockets screamed in the distance. At this point in Akbar's diary, he starts to have second thoughts. "I didn't really have that sense of 'This is my country,' " he says. "I just saw a lot of poor kids running around, a lot of corruption, a lot of bribes, a lot of beards. I felt like a total outsider."
When Akbar's older brother, Omar, 31, heard the recording, he was a bit shocked. "I think my parents did a very good job keeping the Afghan alive in him," he says. But, he notes, "the first time I got exposed to his American side was on NPR. All the opinions and everything he talked about...."
"He was looking at everything with a foreigner's eye," says Omar's wife, Sofia Noorzad, who is also Afghan.
"Up until that," says Omar, "I didn't know he had that in him."
Loyalty to homeland
To understand the family's sense of loyalty to Afghanistan, it's important to know the family's history. The first years of Akbar's life were spent traveling to safe zones -- in Peshawar (where he was born); Arlington, Va.; New Delhi, India -- while his father ran his own war news service and then served as ambassador to India. For more than 10 years, each move was prompted by a political shift in Afghanistan.