My Great-Great Grandmothers Tired Hands

Being Afghan, I was keenly aware of the ethnic disctinctions of our people. For those who don’t know, “Afghan” is both an ethnicity and a nationality. Ethnic Afghans are called “Pashtuns”, while other minorities are Afghan by nationality, but may be ethnically Tajik, or Aimak, or Kyrgyz, and so on. The only analogy I can think of is that, for instance, Native Americans are “ethnically” American, while all other groups are American by nationality.

I grew up knowing I was Pashtun, nothing more and nothing less. And to be a Pashtun was “a true blessing, because we were the true ethnic Afghans, and all other minorities were guests in our land.” (Per some family members beliefs, not my own. I believe the land is for ALL Afghans). “The Tajiks from Tajikistan, the Uzbeks from Uzbekistan,”…. and the Hazara? I did not know what a Hazara was until I met one. I remember how confused I was that someone who looked so Asian could be Afghan like me. And then I asked my mother who these people were, and she told me they were Afghans, but they were different. We are Sunni Muslim and they are Shia. We speak Pashto and they speak Dari. She told me nothing more.

I won’t disclose who my first Hazara friend was. But she was, and is, beautiful. Striking green eyes and light brown hair, she could have easily modeled and be praised for her racially ambiguous looks. The Hazaras, mixing with the local population, looked Mongolian, but often came out with blue, hazel, and green eyes, some with blonde or red hair. I remember meeting her grandfather and initially thinking he was a Chinese neighbor. I met more Hazaras and came to accept them as Afghans, like my Tajik friends or my Uzbek friends.

And then the Kite Runner came out. I didn’t know my Pashtun people persecuted Hazaras. I didn’t know Afghans enslaved them, or that my friends family came to America fleeing the attempts to ethinically cleanse them.

And so I asked my mother to tell me more. She told me they spoke a dialect of Dari called Hazaragi. That they lived in Bamyan and Hazarajat, and that they were poor and mistreated. That she hired two Hazara servants, one for each of my sisters, and that because she too was the daughter of a general, she had two Hazara servants of her own as a child: one to play with and one who cooked and cleaned. That they lived in small quarters near our home in Kabul, and that she treated them nicely, although other families beat their Hazaras. That upon fleeing Afghanistan, my eldest sister cried and clinged onto her Hazara playmate, and begged my mother to bring him along. That to this day, she cries and misses them, fearing them dead. That they wore raggedy clothes because they couldn’t afford much else, and that the Taliban tried to murder them all.

She told me they came from Genghis Khan’s army: “They are new visitors in our land. They came 800 years ago or so, when Genghis took Bamyan. The Pashtuns killed his grandson, and Genghis became so angry, he murdered everyone there. Thousands and thousands of dead Afghans, babies heads were piled up and women were sold among the Mongol men. The city was so empty after this, that he left one-thousand (or Hazaar, in Farsi) of his army men in our land. And he told them to mix with the people, and so, the Hazaar soldiers of Genghis Khan became the Hazara people. Genghis Khan was a cruel leader, and the Afghan people could not forget the Mongol rapes and pillages. And so, since then, they have met persecution.”

So, according to her, the collective memory of the dominant Pashtun and Tajik Afghans created a sort of prejudice against the Hazara. This was the narrative I was told, by not only my mother, but other elders as well. Historical documentation of the 1221 siege of Bamyan seems to corroborate the murder of Genghis’ grandson as well.

And then I began examining my features. I always thought I had slanted eyes and high cheekbones. Friends always commented on how “Chinese” I looked as a baby. And upon meeting relatives from Afghanistan, I remember thinking they looked Chinese too.

My family hails from Wardak, which is a province in Afghanistan that has a strong Hazara presence. Some even say “Wardak” is a Mongolian word.

And so I asked my mother, “Am I Hazara? Look at my eyes, they’re slanted”, look at this uncle and that aunt; why do they look Asian too?

After about a year of avoiding the question any time it came up, my noblewoman Pashtun mother told me, that on my fathers side, I had a Hazara servant for an ancestor.

“Your fathers grandmother was a Hazara woman. Hazara blood stays in you for eight generations, so it will be gone soon”.

Such was the lore.

I asked her if she was part Hazara too.

“No. I am a full-blooded Pashtun. It is your father who is a Zaryega.”

I smiled from ear-to-ear knowing that I had something else in me besides Pashtun. I was a mutt, how cool! My mother could not hold back her laughter. To a full-blooded Pashtun woman who kept Hazara servants throughout her lifetime, it must have been entertaining, to see her idealistic and peace-loving daughter actually be happy about being part Hazara, those poor repressed peoples.

The great quote we activists love to repeat is “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Looking back, I realize how many times these ethnic conflicts played out in front of me.

My Hazara friends grandfather always spoke to my family in a sort of submissive tone; he could hardly keep eye contact with my mother, although she made every effort to make him feel welcome in our home. “Those ideas we leave in Afghanistan, here we are the same”, she would say. But still, he must have faced persecution in his younger years from the very same ethnicity I carried with so much pride.

I remember another instance. My friends home had large wall paintings of our beautiful Bamyan Buddha statues, the same ones the Taliban destroyed a decade ago. I asked her if she was from Bamyan, and if that was why she had the paintings. She quickly and defensively stated, “Just because I’m Hazara doesn’t make me a Buddhist!”. I didn’t understand then, but I know now, she must have felt I was criticizing her for having the images, even though I was praising her.

Today, Afghanistans first female governor is a woman. But this is not her only struggle, for she is a Hazara as well. Habiba Sarabi, although she is a hematologist, although she is a champion of women’s rights and children’s education, is a Hazara. And this might be even more of a challenge than being a woman.

And this is the narrative, of ethnic rivalry, we Afghans constantly see being played out. But how long can the Hazara be persecuted for the sins of Genghis? How long will Afghans allow war to define our identity?

I wonder if I would have asked these questions before I learned of that part of me I never knew existed. I wonder what my great-great grandmother would think of these issues. I often think of her. What kind of woman was she? Was she treated well as a servant? Was she ever beaten for her race? How did she feel having Pashtun children? She must have been uneducated, simple-minded. But she was my great-great grandmother, and I wish I met her, so I could kiss her hands, probably dry and wrinkled, and massage her feet, blistered and pained, from years and years of service to my family.

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Habiba Surabi 1

Dr. Habiba Sarabi



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9 Responses to My Great-Great Grandmothers Tired Hands

  1. N

    This is such a beautiful post, incredibly well written and very interesting.. Especially since I’m afghan myself.

  2. P

    I was reading your blog and I have to say I really like the content. This line, however, really gets to me, ” …all other minorities were guests in our land. The Tajiks from Tajikistan, the Uzbeks from Uzbekistan…”

    I’m sorry but I have to say that no Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmens are not guests in your land. Provinces such as Herat, Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, Panjsher, and Badakhshan are their homes. That is their land. Uzbeks in Faryab, Turkmens in Balkh, and Tajiks in Badakhshan, etc. are not guests.

    Not long ago, these provinces were once one kingdom with parts of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But other than that, the minorities of Afghanistan do not belong to any other country. Yes, they are northern and they differ in their language, clothes, and culture, but their differences don’t make them guests on a land that their ancestors inhabited.

    Sorry, but that line really strikes me as a member of a northern minority. I may not be Afghan and the north is really different from the rest of the country, its sometimes even referred to Afghan Turkestan, but that part of Afghanistan belongs to them. The small pockets of Afghans that live in the north were brought over by the Shah Aburrahmon. He envisioned an entirely Pashtun Afghanistan so he allowed Pashtuns to take lands from Uzbeks/Turkments/Tajiks. Those communities, however, are really small having come very recently. They do not and can not overshadow the undeniable presence and history of Central Asia and Central Asians.

    Sorry but I feel like its incredibly important for this fact to be cleared. Its incredibly important to me that more Afghans recognize that Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen minorities exist. Sorry for making this seem like an attack but I’m just incredibly defensive about this issue given that many are quick to assume the Afghanistan is simply filled with Afghans.

    • Madinah

      Hi there, many people have an issue with this line. I was actually referring to what my family has said, and not what I believe. I used a literary tool but I don’t think it came across that way. I 100% believe the land is for all Afghans and not just Pashtuns 🙂

  3. F

    Salaam! I can completely relate to your article because I have had similar conversations with my own parents about this subject! Since a very young age, I was really troubled with how Afghans in our community talked about the Hazaras as if they were a complete different entity. I guess it’s much easier to be prejudiced and persecute another group of human beings when you highlight the differences instead of concentrating on the similarities. It’s ironic, because as a ethnic Tajik who speaks Dari and has had very few interactions with Pashtoun people (first generation french Canadian immigrant speaking here), it seems like both our ethnic groups (who also dislike each other and disagree on so many subjects) have such a similar attitude against the Hazaras. I was also thought from a younger age that Pashtouns are very proud people and have a superiority complex. I couldn’t believe that until I came across some very derogatory comments against Tajiks from some pashtoun youtubers. Let us hope that we don’t perpetuate the same stupid rhetorics with future generations of Afghans. We would be a much stronger nation united than divided by hatred and misunderstanding!
    Have a great day 🙂

    • Madinah

      You’re right, Pashtuns are very proud! We all have seen racial hatred but I think with these new generations we can change that. I believe in Afghanistan for ALL Afghans. Thank you for your comment! <3

  4. Naser

    I think the author should start titling their names in these pieces, otherwise it comes off as less legitimate.

  5. Aleemah

    Hi I just wanted to say that my mom is Pashtun and my dad is Tajik.

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