In the late 1980s, when my family arrived in Germany, I assumed that we had left behind forever the ideologies that had ruined Afghanistan. The country was plunged into a vicious civil war where the hard-right Islamists fought the hard-left Marxist–Leninists, who were then in power. The West’s own ideological wars had thus moved geographically and were now surfacing in the rest of the world. In Afghanistan, their impact was felt in the 1980s with the Marxist–Leninist military coup that started the war—the same war still being waged today. Prior to this, there was indoctrination of young Afghan intellectuals, poets, journalists, and teachers in totalitarian ideologies of right-wing Islam via Egypt and hard-left communism via India and the Soviet Union.
On my very first day of school in Germany as a teenager, I encountered sympathy for the Soviet Union. Nothing had prepared me for what I experienced that day nor for what was to come in the following years. Looking back, I realize that the reason for my failure to spot the ideology was that in the context of Western democracies, the hard-left looked deceptively tolerant, chaotic, and relaxed. In other words, it was very much unlike the stern and dictatorial iconic images we know of it from the Soviet Union.
Below is an account of what I saw and why I failed to recognize it for what it was.
The Art of Omission and Spreading Fog
On my first day, I had a private conversation with my teacher before class. He was a kind man with a grave look of concern in his eyes. He listened to me as I gave him a detailed description of the Red Army’s invasion, the jihadist reaction, and the consequences thereof for my family and millions of other Afghans.
However, when he later introduced me to the class, he said that I was a refugee from ‘the war in Afghanistan’. The Soviets were taken out and rendered invisible. When I interrupted my teacher to remind him of the Red Army, he simply ignored me.
Just like that, my teacher turned a distinct and, as it turned out, globally crucial event in history into a run-of-the-mill tragedy. It was as if the actual historical event that had made me a refugee had nothing to do with actual human beings but was instead something akin to a natural disaster, something that befell us and was tragic but could not have been prevented.
It was in this manner that my teacher spread fog around the crimes of the Soviet Union and transformed me into a generic victim of a faceless war. He did not do this through an outright lie but rather through deploying the art of omission. The Soviet Union was omitted in the phrase, and in its stead, there spread the generic fog of war.
Too Kind to Resist
I felt the pangs of disappointment, but with my next breath, I already forgave him. He was clearly a kind man and he had specifically asked my classmates to welcome me and treat me well. There was something else too: the fact that I came from the land of tyranny, where the kindness of strangers had been killed in the first years of the invasion. When I encountered this kindness in my teacher in Germany, it instantly disarmed me. It was in this manner that I traded the truth for gratitude, not realizing that it is often our best emotions that make us party to deceptions about ourselves.
Be that as it may, there remained the mystery of his sympathy for the Soviet Union, a fact that I noticed but could not account for. When we lived in Afghanistan, we were taught the usual hard-left demonology that masqueraded as education. The greatest demon of all in that canon was the capitalist West, which was presented as a generic mass of evil enemies and allies of the mujahedin. In my education in Afghanistan, there was no mention of comrades and allies in the heart of the capitalist West. This hole in my education was another reason why I had failed to even think about the possibility that even in Western democracies, one had to expect encounters with the hard left.
Anarchy, Not Tyranny
There was something else that didn’t add up when I considered the surreal possibility that, after having illegally crossed nearly seven thousand kilometers with my family, I was once again at a school that had radical leftist teachers. What didn’t make sense was the laissez-faire attitude that my teacher exhibited in our classroom in Germany. The hard left in Afghanistan were nothing like that. For example, when the first spontaneous anti-communist rebellion erupted in the city of Herat, the regime in Kabul begged the Soviets to bomb the place. The comrades in Afghanistan had exactly zero tolerance for the spontaneous outbreak of human free will. My German teacher, by contrast, not only tolerated rebellion but smiled and sat back, watching it unfold. There was no way he would order planes to bomb the rebels. Far from it, he was enjoying the rebellion.
It crossed my mind that maybe my teacher was some kind of a hippie. But then again, if he was a hippie, how could he stand the Soviet Union, where the only love allowed was reserved for the holy trinity of Marx, Engels, and Lenin? After all, none of those men was the kind one would associate with flowers, although with power…that was another story.
The mystery of my teacher stayed with me until fairly recently, when I discovered that anarchy and tyranny were indeed the two faces of the same hard-left coin. In Afghanistan, the Marxist comrades were in power, which made them tyrannical. In the West, by contrast, the comrades were in opposition to the prevailing democratic order. That made them friends of anarchy.
It was for this reason that, when rebellion broke out in our classroom, my teacher welcomed it. In his eyes, the Turkish Teutonic tantrums and the throwing of chairs were not desperate cries of the youth for adults to draw boundaries. Instead, they were spontaneous manifestations of the disaffected youths’ frustration that the democratic system had let them down. Little wonder, then, that he enjoyed the tantrums. Here it was, unfolding before his very eyes—the beginnings of revolutionary fervor. After all, the logical step after smashing chairs was to smash the damn system altogether.
Alliance with Poor World Liberation and Nationalist Causes
My teacher had another quirky habit that I didn’t understand at the time and only recently realized its true meaning. When he talked about one of my classmates, one who had been born and raised in Germany but who was not ethnically German, he sort of started daydreaming and would say things out loud like, “When she grows up, she will become a teacher to serve her people.” By her people, he meant the Kurds because the girl he was speaking of happened to come from a Kurdish family.
The poor girl always nodded in agreement. What else could she do? I knew, however, that her mind was elsewhere. To be exact, her thoughts were at the nightclub where she had taken drugs for the first time with her secret boyfriend. She had told me so herself, adding the detail that she had been wearing white pants that night while she danced under the fluorescent lights. That’s who she was—a typical Western teenage girl.
In my teacher’s head, there was also a struggle going on—a battle against reality. It was for this reason that when his eyes fell on my classmate, what he saw was not a typical Western teenage girl in thrall of youth culture. What he saw was a young Kurdish nationalist in exile.
He did the same to a troublesome teenager who was born and raised in Germany but whose parents were from Turkey. Where the rest of us saw a pupil with little interest in the life of the mind, my teacher saw in him a Turkish nationalist and a doctor in the making. This boy was also to serve his people. Needless to say, the people in question were not German but Turks in Turkey.
Thus, in our classroom, we had our own miniature version of a poor world liberation movement going on. The absurd part, of course, was that the movement was top down, led by my German teacher and taking place in a Western democracy.
Looking back, I can see that my teacher’s quirky habit was actually in tune with a recent chapter in the history of the hard left in the West. This chapter had begun in the 1960s with a secular version of the Christian fall from grace. The fallen were the native working class who had shown independence of mind by opting for the peaceful path of negotiation rather than revolution. This sin made them fall from the grace of the hard-left intellectual gods, who promptly dropped their historical imaginary friendship with the working class. In their place, a new imaginary friendship was forged with the nationalist liberation movements of the poor world.
The absurd idea making the rounds today that Islam needs liberation from so-called Islamophobia is the latest example of this same story.
If a host of young people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds today see themselves primarily as self-proclaimed representatives of nationalist and religious nationalist causes elsewhere, rather than as new citizens of Western democracies, it is, I suspect, because they had gone through a similar experience as I did.
I suspect that they also thought they were integrating through getting an education. But as it turns out, the West no longer has a center, and what looks like integration is in fact the act of joining a particular political tribe. Thus, the mystery is solved—it is only after one integrates into the West that one begins to feel alienated and then finds oneself in opposition.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah came to Europe as a teenage refugee. She has post-graduate degrees from Hamburg University in Germany and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Her latest book, Afghan Rumour Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd, was published by Hurst.