IN a small village near Kandahar, Shahrokh Khan was born to a family of farmers. “My father was an agricultural man, growing crops and selling them in the market. We had a normal family,” Shahrokh Khan told me.
In December 1979, a few years before his birth, the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Soon the country was the scene of a holy war against the communists. The Russian army left Afghanistan in 1989. A civil war followed. Shahrokh Khan did not have much recollection of the war. “I stayed on the farm most of the time,” he said. “Sometimes I went with my father on business trips to the city. We did not do much. We were a simple family.”
Shahrokh Khan’s father wished his son to grow up away from the violence of the civil war and become an educated man. So after the boy finished third grade, his father sent him to Peshawar, a city in neighboring Pakistan where many Afghan refugees were given shelter. “My father wanted me to be unlike the others in Afghanistan,” Shahrokh said.
“In the beginning I was very depressed. Integration was so very difficult. I would cry all the time.” These were the formative years of his life. Living in hostels with Pakistanis and other Afghans, Shahrokh Khan continued his studies in Peshawar, learned English, and developed a love for schooling. Slowly he became accustomed to a life away from home. He had many friends, other hoys from his school and the hostel. Salim, a Pakistani youth who was a classmate in Peshawar for six years, was his closest companion. They spent their free time playing cricket, watching Bollywood movies, and dancing in their rooms to Bollywood music. An Indian actor, also called Shahrukh Khan, was his idol. Like many boys his age, he wanted to grow up and be a movie star.
From time to time, during school holidays, Shahrokh Khan returned to the village to visit his family. “In Pakistan, I used to wear trousers and dress like people in other parts of the world. I didn’t wear the shalvar [the baggy pants worn by men in Afghanistan]. When I came to visit my family in Afghanistan, people looked at me in a strange way, as if I had come from another world. They wanted me to be like them. My father was a simple man. He was tolerant. My mother wore the chador [a long garment covering the head and the rest of the body except for the face] when she visited places outside our home. Inside, she didn’t wear the hijab [veil].”
After finishing the tenth grade, Shahrokh moved to Abbottabad, a city near Islamabad. Enrolling in a new high school “with very high educational standards,” Shahrokh Khan continued his studies until one day, not long after his last visit to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001, a message in his hostel room informed him of a call by the principal, Mr. Javeed, who wanted to see him right away. He rushed to the principal’s office, where Mr. Javeed told him, “Sit down. You need to be strong. Promise me you won’t fall apart.”
The principal had received a phone call from Shahrokh Khan’s mother. “She called to tell me about the death of my father,” he told me, then sank into a long silence. Staring at the coffee cup on the table before us, he finally said, “I felt the ground was shifting from under my feet. This was not easy news for me. Not at all. Tears started coming down my face.” The principal took Shahrokh Khan back to his hostel. “The next day, I took a bus to Kandahar. In situations like this, you remember the past. I could not believe this. He was okay the last time I saw him. But he wasn’t there anymore.” A long pause followed again. Biting his fingernail and trying to control his emotions, he said at last, “I went back home. Everyone was crying. My mother was crying. I saw his dead body. They were just waiting for me to see the dead face of my father. Together, we buried him. We did not know how the funeral was arranged. Some neighbors took care of everything. They cooked food for everyone.”
After the funeral, Shahrokh Khan returned to Pakistan. His father had wished him to become a learned man, and Shahrokh Khan had vowed to remain committed to his studies; staying in Afghanistan was of no use. “I wanted my mother to come with me. But we didn’t know how to support ourselves if all of us moved to Pakistan. These were days of war. The Pakistanis wouldn’t have issued a visa to my mother and brother and sister. We didn’t have any money and couldn’t pay for smugglers.”
Days passed. Focusing on his schoolwork, Shahrokh Khan hoped to distract himself from his father’s death and the predicament of his family. Then came another call from Afghanistan, less than a month after the death of Shahrokh’s father: a neighbor, calling Shahrokh Khan to inform him that his home had been destroyed in an American aerial attack against the Taliban. He had lost his mother and his siblings. “I could not believe the news. I had just seen all of them.” Tears filled his eyes, and he was silent for a while.
“Shall we stop, Shahrokh?” I asked.
“No, I want to talk,” he said, biting his lip and giv ing me a warm smile.
Once again, Shahrokh Khan boarded the first bus to Kandahar. He recalled his feelings during the bus ride home.
“I was blaming myself. I could have saved my family. If I had money, I would have taken my family with me, even though they did not have Pakistani visas. We would have paid money to a smuggler. My mother would have lived in a hostel. She would have still been alive today. I asked myself, ‘Why did I leave them alone? Why was I not with them?’ They are dead now. That is what happened. A bomb fell on our house. Everyone was sleeping. And they kept on sleeping forever.”
Shahrokh Khan returned to his village and his family farm. The house he had grown up in had been utterly demolished. “There was no shape to my home. No roof. All the walls were destroyed. Everything was burnt. When I saw their bodies, they were totally burnt. In these situations, you don’t feel anything. You have lost something that you know you can’t have again. You remember your life from the past.
“There were burnt bodies of many people who I knew, people who I saw growing up. It was terrible. The whole surroundings were ruined, and I could see lots of crying faces around me, mourning and hugging each other and hitting their own faces. That was the worst moment of my life, when I looked at the faces of my family who weren’t alive anymore.”
Unable to cope w ith his new predicament, he wanted to end his life. “I took poison to kill myself. But I wasn’t lucky enough to die with them. My neighbor took me to the hospital.”
For nearly a month, he staved at the neighbor’s house recovering. “To recover yourself in this situation isn’t easy at all. It’s true that time is a cure for every kind of pain. But to pass that time isn’t easy. Every single second is like a year.” After a month, Shahrokh Khan “felt alive again.”
Many things had changed now. Staying in Afghanistan was too painful, but Shahrokh Khan didn’t feel like returning to his school in Pakistan. Following the advice of a kind neighbor and family friend, Muhammad Fida, he decided to leave for a faraway land in the West, to continue his studies and fulfill the vow he had made to his father.
Muhammad Fida helped him find a buyer for the family land. A man living in Kabul offered $1,000 for a piece of land that “was worth thirty thousand in normal times.” Having no other option, Shahrokh Khan accepted the offer. The land was sold. Early one morning, with $1,000 in his pocket and a small backpack full of clothes, he left the village and headed for Pakistan.
Unlike previous times, Peshawar was not his destination. He took a bus to Quetta and continued to Taftan, the last town near the border with Iran. A map in his hand, he walked parallel to the border for three hours until there were no checkpoints in sight. Feeling safe, he crossed the border and walked through the endless barren and dusty land to Zahedan in Baluchistan province.
“There was no shape to my home. No roof. All the walls were destroyed. Everything was burnt. When I saw their bodies, they were totally burnt. In these situations, you don’t feel anything. You have lost something that you know you can’t have again. You remember your life from the past”
Shahrokh Khan was now in one of the most desolate and impoverished towns of Iran, a center of drug trafficking, and a place of occasional armed battles between smugglers and Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic. The landscape, language, currency, and people were all unfamiliar. “I was scared. Everything was strange for me there. Also, I was barely able to communicate in Farsi. I had learned some basic sen tences for buying tickets and food. I did not know anything about the toman [Iranian money], with the picture of Khomeini on every bill,” he told me, now laughing.
In Zahedan, Shahrokh Khan cleaned himself up in a mosque, dusted off his clothes, and inquired about the main bus station. His next stop was to be Tehran. “You can go to Tehran directly, but I took the wrong bus, to Isfahan.”
By now, the Taliban’s government had collapsed. Many Taliban warriors and supporters were on the run. Some hoped to reach Iran and disappear there among the large Afghan refugee community. Many were arrested and returned to Pakistan. “I didn’t dress like the other Afghans. I had regular clothes on.” That proved important for not being spotted and arrested by the soldiers at the many different checkpoints on the way to Isfahan. Buses and cars were checked for carrying drugs and illegal immigrants. Even Iranians who did not carry an identification card were removed from the bus and put under arrest. “I was so afraid of the controls. The bus was stopped every few kilometers. The first control was very terrible for me. I began losing my confidence. I was praying that the soldier wouldn’t come to me. I was lucky; I looked like the other Iranians. So they didn’t ask me anything. At every checkpoint, a soldier came to the bus. He walked to the end of the bus and asked some people for their papers. I got lucky at every stop.”
After many hours of fear, the bus pulled into the main garadj (bus station) in Isfahan. With a few hours to pass before the next bus to Tehran, Shahrokh Khan left the station, strolling along the nearby streets. “It was early morning when we reached Isfahan. There were flowers everywhere. I had never seen such a beautiful city.” Isfahan remained like a vivid picture in his memory. “That is the most beautiful city,” he told me another time.
“Did you see the mosques or other important sites of Isfahan?” I asked him, but he hadn’t; he’d stayed around the bus terminal. What he saw were clean streets and flowers.
The long ride through a dusty and dry landscape was now over. He walked around, enjoyed the fresh early morning air and the flowers, and thought about Tehran. Resting by a flower bed, he imagined Tehran, its people, its police, its streets. Unlike Zahedan, Tehran was a big city, with twelve million people. Where would he find a place to stay? How would he find the next town and the stop after Tehran, the next border crossing?
Shahrokh Khan returned to the bus station, bought a ticket, and boarded the first bus to Tehran. Eight hours later, he stood in the middle of a crowded and large terminal outside Tehran. Following other migrants, he took a city bus to Toopkhaneh, a busy neighborhood in the center of old Tehran, a place known for its traffic jams, noise, and the suffocating fumes of old cars. Its surrounding area is full of cheap, dirty hostels and hotels. Manual laborers who come to Tehran from other cities, poor Afghan refugees, and outlaws of all types crowd the hotels. Here, all sorts of trading takes place in the streets.
Within walking distance from Toopkhaneh Square is Naser Khosro Street, a busy center of trading for inexpensive clothes, electronics, and furniture. Shahrokh Khan took a room in a dirty hostel near Naser Khosro. For three months, he stayed in old Tehran, spent most of his time in the hostel, and planned his next steps. There were other Afghans in the hostel. Many had traveled between Iran and Turkey in the past and knew of all possible exit routes, the borders, and the most secure ways to reach Turkey. After studying a map of Iran and talking to others, Shahrokh Khan chose a route. He selected Orumiyeh, a town in Iran’s northwestern province of West Azerbaijan, as the best crossing.
“Tehran is a nice city,” Shahrokh Khan said. “It has a new part that is beautiful. But I didn’t see much of the newTehran. I liked the public phones the most. You just put a coin in the slot and talk forever-of course, inside Tehran. That was the best.”
Saying goodbye to his Afghan friends, Shahrokh Khan left Tehran for Orumiyeh. “I had learned a good deal of Persian in the three months of staying in Tehran. But people spoke a different language in Orumiyeh,” Azeri. He was disappointed. With much difficulty, he found a taxi to take him to the border with Turkey. The fare was less than $10, he recalled. “He [the cabdriver] took me very close to the immigration section of the border. He thought I was someone traveling legally.”
Shahrokh Khan spoke casually about the borders, the police, and a journey that seemed to me formidable, unimaginable, in some ways epic. At times I doubted his tale. But here he was, sitting in front of me in a café in Istanbul. Small and childlike, he knew many details, correct details, about the lands and the borders he claimed to have crossed. I tried to picture him standing alone before the immigration booths.
The immigration control was at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. “This was the border with Turkey. When I saw the border, perhaps only five hundred meters ahead of the taxi, I asked the driver to stop. I told him to turn left and not to go directly. I left the taxi and walked toward Serou village before the border. I walked to the village and sat on a corner, waiting, making plans.
“A man was passing by. I approached him and asked if there was a way to cross the border.” The man offered to take Shahrokh Khan to Turkey for a hundred dollars.
“He took me to his home and told me we would leave the village at night. I rested a while.” When dark came, Shahrokh Khan and the villager started their hike.
“I threw away most of my clothes and made my bag lighter. The mountain was steep. It was very cold. The bushes were terrible on the way up. You know these bushes get stuck to your legs. They were terrible. We walked all night. I threw away more things. I even threw away my bottled water.
“We walked the whole night and stayed somewhere up on the mountains during the daytime. There were mountains after mountains. At the end, at around five the next morning, we reached a Turkish village. The man had a friend in the village. He took me to the friend’s house. We ate and rested.”
The Iranian villager brought Shahrokh Khan to Turkey and left him in the hands of a Turkish friend who would take him to Van. Shahrokh Khan paid the $100 he had agreed to, but the man demanded more. “He grabbed my money and took another three hundred by force. I was obliged to give him the money. I had no other way. I was in their home. They could have done anything they wanted. I was scared. I didn’t know Turkish. I guess he really needed the money. That is perhaps why he agreed to take me for only a hundred dollars. Or maybe he knew he could take my money after reaching Turkey. That’s what he did, anyway.”
From Van, Shahrokh Khan proceeded to Istanbul, bought a map of Europe, made his exit plans, and boarded a bus to Edirne, near the border with Bulgaria and Greece. Bulgaria was his destination. A train connected Edirne to Bulgaria. He found the track on the map, went to the last train station in Turkey, and waited until dark. This was the seventeenth of Ramadan in 2002, the month of fasting for Muslims. “I broke my fast when it got dark and followed the tracks toward Bulgaria. There was fog everywhere. I hid under a bridge. It was dark. I took advantage of the dark and the fog. Nobody could see me.”
“Were you scared?” I asked him.
“I had no option. I could only go forward. You know that there is no right, no left, no going back. Everybody does the same thing. I didn’t want to give up. I had a strange courage in my heart.
“I followed the railroad tracks and walked for hours. I don’t know how many kilometers I covered in those hours. It was very cold that night. The tracks continued on a bridge. There were cars passing under the bridge. I saw a dim light in the fog. I walked toward the light.”
Thinking these were lights from a home, Shahrokh proceeded with a feeling of relief, but stopped when he saw soldiers with rifles standing before him. “Now I wished I had not gone in that direction.”