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Minneapolis Afghan man fights misconceptions about his homeland

Photo by Qais Munhazim
To capitalize on positive Afghan stories, Munhazim embarked on a photography project in 2010, returning to Kabul and capturing images of the daily life of Afghans.

It didn’t take long for Qais Munhazim to learn about the misconceptions many Americans have about his home country, Afghanistan.

The mere mention of Afghanistan sparked an awkward conversation with an American woman at Newark International Airport in New Jersey in 2008, when Munhazim first landed in the United States on a student visa to attend the University of Minnesota.

At the airport — after a tedious 15-hour flight from Kabul and, he says, constant interrogations by the U.S. Customs agents — Munhazim was confused and nervous that he couldn’t understand the airport signs that would lead him to his Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport destination.

So Munhazim, 29, asked the woman traveler where he could catch a flight to Minnesota as showed his ticket. Fortunately, he said, she was also headed to Minnesota and happened to be a University of Minnesota student as well.

As the two walked together, Munhazim said he engaged in an unexpected conversation.

“So, you’ve an accent. Where are you from?,” the woman asked.

“Afghanistan,” he replied as he sipped a Pepsi.

“Is it your first time drinking Pepsi? You must feel good.”

It wasn’t the first time that Munhazim had Pepsi. But he decided to keep quiet and ignored her question. The woman, however, didn’t stop there.  

“She looked at my clothes and said, ‘I like your shirt. Did you buy it here at the airport?’”

“No,” he replied. “I bought it in Afghanistan.”

“Oh, you guys wear shirts?”

Since arriving in Minneapolis, Munhazim said, he has faced similar questions on almost a daily basis. “There is a huge disconnect between the U.S. and Afghanistan,” said Munhazim, an international student who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2012 and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in international security and political Islam. “All [that Americans] see is Afghans in the news, which portrays us in a very dark light: suicide bombers, savages, warlords, poor and uneducated.”

Munhazim added the mainstream media also portrayed Afghans the same way in the 1980s during the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

But Munhazim noted another side to the Afghan story, which, he said, the media overlooks: stories of love, laughter, dance, food, fashion and style.

Qais Munhazim
Photo by Ricardo Fjelstad De Santiago
Qais Munhazim

“We do have a beautiful life back home,” he said. “It’s not like we’re always living miserably and in poverty and under bombings. Yes, we do live every day in fear of being hit by a bomb. … But there is a sense of community; there is love, there is support for each other that I don’t see here. There are weddings, there are parties, people laugh and joke. We’re just as normal as anybody here.”

Munhazim, who spends his summers in Afghanistan, often sports a unique, hipster style in clothes and shoes he bought in his native country. His stylish look recently captivated the attention of The New York Times, which in May featured him and other local hipsters in a “Modern Style in Minneapolis” video.

“What I wear makes a statement that we’re not anywhere close to what the images on Fox News or CNN or BBC,” he said. “We’re just ordinary people like you. We have a desire for fashion. We follow pop culture. We have our own pop culture.”

To capitalize on positive Afghan stories, Munhazim embarked on a photography project in 2010, returning to Kabul and capturing images of the daily life of Afghans — particularly targeting stories that, he says, have been ignored by the Western journalists.

After his return to Minneapolis, Munhazim showcased his “Afghanistan in My Camera: Afghanistan Through an Afghan’s Eyes” exhibit at the University of Minnesota and in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Qais Munhazim
 

“I wanted to break stereotypes about Afghanistan and Afghan people,” he said. “I wanted to illuminate in a unique manner what Afghans see every day.”

More than a decade has passed since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11, and Munhazim said that security in Afghanistan is “much worse” than it used to be under the Taliban leadership.

“We’re now in a worse place because during Taliban, there was better security,” he said. “Yes, people would be killed or lashed if they didn’t follow the strict Sharia law, but nobody would try suicide bombing, nobody would be scared for their lives when they go out, nobody would be kidnapped. Things were a lot different in terms of security. You would leave your store open, and no one would enter the store.”

The United States plans to withdraw the American soldiers from Afghanistan by 2014. But Munhazim, whose parents, four sisters and two brothers live in Afghanistan, said that many Afghans aren’t happy with the withdrawal.

Munhazim added: “Because the U.S. is leaving with no kind of strong support, a lot of Afghans have lost hope in the future of the country. They’re losing respect for Americans.”

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at ihirsi@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/06/2014 - 08:58 am.

    Under the Taliban…

    The 8 year old girl would be subject to all the Taliban restrictions related to dress, conduct and contact with males other than relatives, such as the photographer.

    And the kite flying boy would have been breaking Taliban law.

    Afghanistan is returning to the hands of its people and politicians. As it should. What they make of it is up to them. If they don’t want the return of the Taliban, where is the indigenous popular will, working civil structures, effective police and military forces that will stand up to the Taliban? I see little of that.

    There seems to be a big divide between Kabul and not-Kabul as to where the country should go. My impression is that away from Kabul, most people want the Americans to just leave.

  2. Submitted by Sally Henson on 06/06/2014 - 11:08 am.

    What about the women?

    So “security” under the Taliban was better? Do you think the women would agree that they were “more secure”? I refer to the women and girls who, under Taliban rule, were trapped in their homes, unable to leave unless accompanied by a male relative, unable to go to school or work, and unable even to go to a doctor — because women were not permitted to see male doctors, and women doctors were not permitted to practice. Why does Mr. Munhazim not speak of how much better things were in Afghanistan BEFORE the Taliban destroyed Afghan society and imposed Sharia law?

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/06/2014 - 11:45 am.

    Afghanistan

    I would love to see a peaceful Afghanistan. However, they are probably no better off or worse off since our invasion. I hope that peace can come with freedom to all people–I don’t think that the Taliban would have allowed that. But I don’t think that the US should be the ones brokering that peace. Afghanistan has to fight for their own freedom. We can’t force it on them, and we should have made that call long ago. If Afghanis don’t trust the US, it’s really no different than before. After all, we only bought some level of trust by using them as cannon fodder for a war with the Soviets in order to avoid a nuclear war with the USSR. For the world, it was probably a better alternative. But for Afghanistan, it was an end to a means–the Soviets were gone, but so was the safety and culture that existed before, and the Taliban moved into that void.

    Sure, the Afghan people are beautiful, and sometimes beautiful things happen. But, no, I’m sure it wasn’t better under the Taliban. It is too short sighted to look only to that era and come to the conclusion that things are better. It is only different.

  4. Submitted by Ronald Shulstad on 06/08/2014 - 10:03 am.

    Afghanistan

    I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan in the late 1960s, before Afghans suffered the fate of the Russian invasion, followed by our own. I quickly came to love the Afghan people: their intelligence, resourcefulness, and warm and generous hearts. One of my students later was informally adopted by my family and served as one of my groomsmen when my wife and I were married.

    Unfortunately, stereotyping occurs inevitably as people simplify in order to try to understand cultures different from their own.

    My heart goes out to the Afghan people, who have suffered far too long and too much.

    Craig Shulstad

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