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. She documented his work while also realizing her own ambitions to revive music and art in a land where it had been banned under the Taliban.
One year after the Taliban retook Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, the 2012 We Came Home seems ever more prescient—and serves as a reminder of what is at stake.
When you set out to make this film in 2002, can you describe how you felt about the future of Afghanistan?
The footage in the film begins in 2002, though I didn’t actually realize I was making a film until 2007. In 2002, there was immense hope in the air in Afghanistan. Afghans were celebrating the fall of the Taliban. Girls were back in school, children were flying kites again, men were shaving their beards, women were slowly coming back out of their homes and, in Kabul, they were taking off their burqas. Afghans felt “free,” even though there was a new occupation. The Taliban were such a brutal regime that the people felt they were finally free. You had to be there at that time to feel the palpable sense of celebration, 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. Do you think she could have expected what was to come?
I think about that line all the time. She said it in 2009, which felt like a turning point in the country, in a less hopeful direction. But then it changed again around the time the film premiered with a whole new generation of Afghans coming of age. But my Mom was more skeptical, I think. 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. Can you tell us a bit 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. And that, of course, is how my parents met. Afghanistan was literally the seed of their love.
Your first trip to Afghanistan was in 2002. How did it impact your work as an artist and musician?
My first trip to Afghanistan changed my life. It made me a better person. I came back with an awareness of the depths of American privilege. I learned to be more gracious and more patient. I naturally started incorporating my experiences from Afghanistan and aspects of Afghan music into my art. We were immersed in politics in our home, and I knew at a very young age that my art would always be 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.
There is such a difficult history for artists in Afghanistan under the Taliban. What was it like in the years that you were able to visit?
The footage in the film documents my trips from 2002 to 2011. During that time, the art scene in Afghanistan was pretty much underground. People were slowly emerging to create and share their work publicly. In 2011, a major shift started happening, and young artists were starting to play live and share their fine art as well. It went from a few bands, graffiti artists and fine artists to a total renaissance of art in the country. By 2017, Afghanistan was almost unrecognizable in terms of the emergence of these young, bold Afghan artists.
What is happening to artists today?
Artists in Afghanistan have lost everything and are in danger. In 2012, I performed at the very first women’s day concert in Afghanistan since the Taliban lost power in 2001. After the show, a group of orphan girls came up and said they wanted to learn to play guitar. I was so moved. Fast forward to December 2021, and during Christmas my sister gives me a photograph of a young Afghan girl who fled the country. She is holding a cardboard cut-out of a guitar with her face covered; she had destroyed the guitar for safety. The photo is framed on my wall as a reminder of who we must protect and support. That little girl could have easily been me. It could have been any of us.
And today, a dear friend of mine, Massoud Hosseini, said that he buried all of his photography awards before fleeing the country in August 2021. He had won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his photographs and buried it for his own safety. 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. Generations of musicians have lived and played there. But the Taliban has been going after Afghan musicians. For the last year, our timelines and WhatsApp chats have been flooded with videos of public torture and executions by the Taliban. It is horrific beyond words.
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 the world to care during the Soviet invasion from 1979 to 1989, and through the Taliban years. But no one listened to Afghans like him. 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. He was warning of what could come. No one took it seriously, including me. He asked me to proofread it, and I honestly was annoyed about it.
As you see in the film, he went back after the U.S. entered Afghanistan, to help rebuild the country. As the Taliban retook Afghanistan last year, I watched everything my father spent years building fall in a matter of days. The saddest moment for me was when they went into banks and forced female employees at gunpoint to quit. I was there when my father hired the first female bankers after the Taliban fell in 2001. There were probably thousands of female bankers throughout the country before last August, and I watched them lose all of their rights.
I feel like history is repeating itself, but now I’m the one begging people to listen. The Taliban have banned Afghan girls from secondary school and have stripped Afghan women of their rights. We must not ignore what is happening.
What are the best ways today for people to help Afghans both in and out of the country?
I gave a TEDx talk about this last November. I proposed that we partner with the young generation of Afghans. Put the voices of Afghan women and the most marginalized Afghans, who are stuck in the country or recently exiled, at the forefront of every conversation about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. That could become the worst nightmare for the Taliban if we, collectively as global citizens, partner with and empower these young Afghans to rise above tyranny and brutality and create solutions in the face of such immense adversity.
I also have a more specific proposal that I’ve wanted to find backers for: a leadership summit. Bring some leading global innovators from different areas of society with grassroots Afghan youth leaders on the ground and those in exile. Why not utilize the internet to create connections for these Afghans who are stuck in such dire circumstances?
If anyone wants to simply donate, a few organizations that I believe in are: Aseel app, Code to Inspire, the Uplift Afghanistan Fund and LEARN. People in the U.S. can support newly arrived Afghan refugees by pushing Congress to pass an Afghan American-led campaign called the Afghan Adjustment Act, to ensure Washington keeps its promise to its Afghan friends and allies and resettles them. More generally, we must collectively stand with the people of Afghanistan. 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. We are strongest together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
August 16, 2022 at 10:01PM Justine Simons