Filmmaker Ariana Delawari on Afghanistan’s Future
We Came Home is a 2012 feature documentary by musician Ariana Delawari, about her Afghan American family’s very personal journey to try and help Afghanistan rebuild in the years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Delawari’s father was the former Governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank and had a front-row seat to the conflict and corruption that undermined efforts to stabilize the nation. While documenting his efforts, she also realized her ambitions to restore music and art to a country where they were banned by the Taliban.
The 2012 elections were held one year after Kabul was retaken by the Taliban on August 15, 2021. We Came Home seems ever more prescient—and serves as a reminder of what is at stake.
Can you tell us how you felt about Afghanistan’s future when you made this movie in 2002?
The footage in the film begins in 2002, though I didn’t actually realize I was making a film until 2007. There was a lot of hope and optimism in Afghanistan in 2002. Afghans rejoiced the fall the Taliban. Back in school were girls, and children flew kites. The men started shaving their hair, the women returned to their homes, and in Kabul they took off their burqas. Afghans felt “free,” even though there was a new occupation. Taliban was such a cruel regime, that Afghans felt finally free. It was necessary to be present at the time in order to experience that feeling of joy, relief, and hope.
At one point in the movie your Mom says, “maybe one day we’ll talk about how these were the good old days,” which seems so poignant to hear a year after Kabul fell to the Taliban again. Is it possible she had envisioned what would come?
That line is something I think of all the times. It was 2009 when she said it, and the country felt a turn in a more hopeful direction. It changed once more when the movie premiered, with an entirely new generation of Afghans entering adulthood. My Mom, however, was doubtful. She died in April 2020, and one of the last things she said on her death bed was, “What’s going to happen with Afghanistan?”
Your parents are Afghan—your Dad raised in Afghanistan and your Mom in the U.S. to a half-Afghan, half-Sicilian family. Please tell us more about your family.
My father’s name, Noor, means “light” and my mother’s name, Setara, means “star.” Not a day of our lives went by that my parents weren’t doing something for our people. My maternal grandfather grew up with no mother—he had such a tragic childhood and such an intense immigration story leading up to meeting my maternal Sicilian grandmother. I think my Mom’s deep love for her father drew her to Afghanistan. This is how they met. Afghanistan was their seed.
In 2002, you went on your first trip to Afghanistan. What was the impact on your career as an artist or musician?
The first time I went to Afghanistan, it changed my entire life. I was a happier person because of it. It made me aware of American privilege. I became more kind and patient. My experiences in Afghanistan and some aspects of Afghan music became a part of my art. My family was deeply involved in politics, so I knew from a young age that my art would be always political. I just couldn’t have ever imagined that I would get to go to Afghanistan, let alone spend two decades in and out of the country making art. Everything I’ve created and everything I’m currently creating is informed by my love for Afghanistan and the many layers of beauty and tragedy within this identity.
Taliban rule has made Afghanistan’s history so difficult for artists. How was the experience in those years you were allowed to travel?
Film footage from my 2002-2011 trips is included in this film. The Afghan art scene was still very much underground at the time. It was slowly becoming easier for people to make and share work. A major change took place in 2011, when young artists began to share and play their art live. This was a huge shift from the days of a handful of bands and graffiti artists to an entire renaissance in Afghanistan’s art scene. In 2017, Afghanistan had almost disappeared from the map due to its lack of young and bold Afghan artists.
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How are artists responding today?
Afghanistan is a dangerous place for artists. In 2012, I performed at the very first women’s day concert in Afghanistan since the Taliban lost power in 2001. A group of orphaned girls approached me after the performance and asked if they could learn how to play guitar. It was very moving. My sister gave me this photo of an Afghan young girl, which she had taken with her when she fled Afghanistan. Fast forward to 2021. The cardboard image of her holding a guitar is covered up. She had taken the guitar apart for safety reasons. This photo has been framed and hung on my wall to remind me of the people we have to protect and help. I could be that little girl. Any of us could have done it.
Massoud, who is also a close friend, told me today that he dug up all of his photographic awards and fled the country in August 2021. For his safety, he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in photography for one of the photographs. These aren’t even the worst stories that exist; the Taliban have murdered several artists since they retook control.
Another dear friend, Sajid Arghandiwal, shared a story on social media about how Koche Kharabat—Kabul’s “musical street”—has gone silent. There has been a long history of musicians who have lived there and enjoyed their performances. The Taliban is now after Afghan musicians. Our WhatsApp conversations and timelines are flooded daily with footage of executions and torture by the Taliban. This is beyond horrific.
There is some archival footage in the film where your Dad says, “I think it’s a great mistake if the free world ignores what’s going on in Afghanistan.” He said that in 1984.
My father begged everyone to help him during the Soviet Invasion from 1979-1989 and the Taliban years. He was the only one who listened to Afghans. Then a few months before 9/11 he wrote a paper called “Bin Laden’s War in Afghanistan” and sent it to some members of Congress. This was his warning of the dangers ahead. It was not taken seriously by anyone, even me. It was a very serious matter that he asked for proofreading.
The film shows that he returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in order to rebuild it. My father’s years of hard work was wiped out when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in just a few days. I remember the most heartbreaking moment of my life was when they broke into banks and made female workers quit at gunpoint. After the Taliban’s fall in 2001, my father appointed the first female bankers. Before last August there were thousands of women bankers in the country. I witnessed them losing all their rights.
I feel like history is repeating itself, but now I’m the one begging people to listen. Taliban banned secondary education for Afghan girls and stripped Afghan women their rights. This is something we must not overlook.
Which are the most effective ways to assist Afghans, both inside and outside of Afghanistan today?
Last November, I spoke at TEDx about the issue. My proposal was to partner with young Afghans. In every discussion about Afghanistan, it is important to include the voices and experiences of Afghan women as well as the marginalized Afghans who remain in Afghanistan or have recently fled. Afghanistan is the youngest country in the world. This could be the Taliban’s worst nightmare if the world, as citizens of the global community, works together to empower the young Afghans and help them rise above brutality and tyranny, and find solutions for their immense challenges.
I also have a more specific proposal that I’ve wanted to find backers for: a leadership summit. You can bring together some of the most influential global innovators, as well as grassroots Afghan youth leaders in exile and on the ground. You can use the internet to make connections with these Afghans stuck in terrible circumstances.
Aseel App, Code to Inspire and the Uplift Afghanistan Fund are some of my favorite organizations. Americans can help Afghan asylum seekers by urging Congress to approve the Afghan Adjustment Act. This will ensure Washington honors its promises to Afghan allies and friends, and allows them to resettle themselves. As a whole, we should stand alongside the Afghan people. My mother was fond of the proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I don’t have all the answers but I trust that if we work together with the goal of a free and peaceful Afghanistan, a path will emerge. Our strength is in our collective hands.
This interview has been edited.
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