Whatever happened to Afghanistan?
Memoir details the story of a country's 'Lost Decency'
From an independent, bucolic country respected by its neighbors to a chaotic and corrupt war zone -- the last 50 years have seen tragedy unfold in Afghanistan.
"What happened?" people are always asking Atta Arghandiwal, who immigrated to the Bay Area in the early '80s. That question inspired his recently published memoir, "Lost Decency: The Untold Afghan Story," which tells of his happy, secure childhood, then his loss of innocence with the invasion of the Soviet Union. He'll be speaking and signing books at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Pleasanton library.
"Afghans' history was remarkable, peaceful, a people who believed in values and traditions," Arghandiwal said in a recent interview. "We lived in society together, a communal society. My neighbors were my uncles."
The 1950s and '60s were its glory days, he said, and Afghanistan was beginning to enjoy industrial growth. Even into the late 1970s Afghan women pursued higher education and built careers alongside men.
After studying English at the U.S. Information Services in Kabul and taking typing and shorthand classes from Peace Corps workers, Arghandiwal was hired in the marketing department at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
A gripping chapter in the book tells of Atta's stealthy trip from the hotel to his family home across the city, evading soldiers and tanks, the day the Russians invaded Kabul. When suspicion fell on him, Atta was forced to flee to the West.
He went first as a refugee to Germany and then the United States, where he persuaded managers at a bank to hire him and ended up having an illustrious career in that industry.
"I looked for a bicycle but was able to drive a car," he marveled, recalling his arrival in the Bay Area.
When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the American support ended, leaving a vacuum that led to a civil war.
"Ordinary Afghans did not have the resources to put the country back on its feet again, making it extremely vulnerable to interference from neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran, and ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban," Arghandiwal wrote.
When the U.S. and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban was overthrown but efforts soon went to the war in Iraq.
"After 9/11 there was so much hope," Arghandiwal noted. "I'm bringing people not only to understand the history of Afghanistan but that if this third-world, impoverished nation were going to be helped, it could not only survive but thrive."
Arghandiwal returned to Afghanistan in 2011 to find Kabul greatly deteriorated.
"The streets were bumpy. There was no rule of law, no lights," he said, describing people and animals traversing the streets helter skelter.
He describes in his memoir how he and a friend were included in a secret gathering of warlords. They showed interest in his profession as a banker but there was a lot of tension.
"I thought I was going to go and start helping but when I saw the level of corruption I knew I didn't have a chance," Arghandiwal said. "Money went to the elite -- they have their own armies, and have bought land and buildings in Dubai."
Corruption is not traditionally part of the Afghan culture, he said, although since 2001 millions of dollars have gone into the hands of warlords. The lucrative opium fields feed into this corruption.
"Now having written the book there's no way I can go back," he added.
People here ask why the Afghans don't rise up as in Egypt.
"They are so out of power," Arghandiwal said, it's impossible to overcome the disconnect. "Their rights were taken away by the elite, they're not as educated, so they are afraid."
"The people all curse Karzai, a puppet of the elite," he added. "A 70-year-old man told me, 'Do you know how many American bodyguards he has? More than 50.'"
Arghandiwal envisions a promising future for Afghanistan. He hopes that, first of all, the warlords join their money and mansions in Dubai. After that he would like to see the creation of a national assembly that includes all ethnic and tribal political parties.
"Our national independence is our biggest attribute," he said.
The educated Afghans who have spread throughout the world must return to help build their nation, he said, adding that his own children would do so. His son Edreece is 23; daughter Hailai is 16; both are fluent in the language and have played on the Afghan national soccer teams.
"They want to go and help. There is that kind of willingness," Arghandiwal said.
Meanwhile, his next writing project is a financial guide geared to American immigrants.
"It's motivational and practical," he said. "From my own immigrant experience I know what they need."
There are 10,000 Afghans in the Bay Area, and Arghandiwal has strong views on the importance of immigrants standing on their own two feet as soon as possible.
"It's a social responsibility to learn English," he said.
"Every single one of my brothers and sisters have gone for higher education," he added. "It was expected."
Arghandiwal says he's received good feedback from the book, which is also selling in New Zealand, Australia and Europe.
"Messages say, 'Now we understand what really happened,'" Arghandiwal said. "This is very rewarding to know I helped explain."
What: Atta Arghandiwal speaking on Afghanistan and signing his book, "Lost Decency: The Untold Afghan Story"
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24
Where: Pleasanton Public Library, 400 Old Bernal Ave.
Afghan dolls for sale
Handmade Nadera Dolls, made by Afghan widows, will be for sale at Atta Arghandiwal's talk at the library Thursday evening. The dolls have been sold since 2003 by Rising International, which helps the world's poorest people participate in the global economy.
Each doll sells for $34: The widow that makes the doll receives $11 (enough to buy six meals); the project manager in Afghanistan earns $1; the shipping cost is $2.66; a local Rising Representative earns $6.80; and Rising raises $12.54 to reinvest in purchasing more dolls.
More than 60 widows have participated in the project, each earning about $238; the average income in Afghanistan is $250.
In 2007, one of the doll makers, Nadera, was killed by a suicide bomb placed in a vegetable cart, and the Afghan Widows Doll Project was re-named the Nadera Doll in her honor.