Humanities Visiting Scholar Is an Artist in Exile

Humanities Visiting Scholar Is an Artist in Exile

Fazel Ahad Ahadi photo by Matthew Gilson for the Chicago Reader

The following was published in the Chicago Reader on Aug. 10, 2023.

As a screenwriter, poet, and academic, University of Chicago visiting scholar Fazel Ahad Ahadi has played a pivotal role in the world of Afghan cinema—but the story he wants to tell is of his family’s harrowing escape from the Taliban.

by Andrea Holliday*

Fazel Ahad Ahadi expected to spend his whole life in Afghanistan with his extended family. At 40, the mild-mannered founder of the cinema department at the University of Kabul had recently finished building his own home, with his own hands, near the campus. His wife, Nasrin, was decorating. Baby Sana, the youngest of five children, was learning to walk. 

But in summer 2021, Ahadi found himself hastily dismissing class and speeding home to raise a bonfire of books in his backyard. The Taliban had reclaimed Afghanistan’s capital city, and a 20-year artistic renaissance had come to an abrupt and violent end. Cinema houses across the country were being demolished, Ahadi’s department would soon be disbanded, and his 150 students—almost all young women—would be expelled. Only in exile could Ahadi be safe and continue his work. It was time to go.

Ahadi is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, prolific writer, and born mentor who has trained a generation of Afghan screenwriters. He has published in Persian (of which Farsi and Dari are both dialects) several collections of poetry and numerous books and articles, most concerning cinema. As of yet, none of this work has been translated into English. But he is less interested in talking about his own career than about the plight of his countrymen. Nothing can better convey this to the world, in his opinion, than film.

“The Afghan film scene was not yet well developed” in 2021, he says, “and now it is broken. My message to American filmmakers and film scholars is not to forget us.” 

In the Chicago apartment cozily furnished for him by dedicated volunteers from the Hyde Park Refugee Project, Ahadi deflected questions about his life and career until he had related the entire saga of his family’s exit from Afghanistan. From time to time he emphasized, “This is a real story that I am telling you.” Someday, he says, he may write a screenplay or a novel about his family’s evacuation. 

The tale begins in August of 2021 when Kabul fell to the Taliban. A notoriously oppressive militia of Muslim extremists, the Taliban had been deposed by the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. But keeping them at bay continued to require American military assistance, and that was coming to an end. By the time the last U.S. troops departed, the Taliban were already back. In Kabul, they immediately began shutting down cultural and educational establishments and dismissing women and girls from their schools and jobs. 

Ahadi says he too might have disappeared, had he not been helped out of Afghanistan. For about a year before the U.S. withdrawal, he had been receiving threats from the Taliban. He got anonymous phone calls. He got messages on Facebook, where his poetry had been used in anti-Taliban campaigns. He had also attracted attention by writing a sort of battle hymn for the pro-Western government.

“Are you the author?” the caller might say. “If we win, you know what we will do with you.” 

The Taliban’s strict interpretation of the Quran means that almost every form of art is prohibited as sinful. Dance and theater are seen as affronts to the Almighty. So is any painting, photograph, drawing, or video of a living creature. At music schools, fleeing scholars hid their instruments lest they be deliberately destroyed. 

On August 15, 2021, the sun rose on a day like any other day. Ahadi, teaching his usual Sunday morning class in a quiet corner of the Kabul University campus, was immersed in a discussion with 16 female students about the movie Opium War. Through a window, he saw over his students’ heads that, some distance away, people were running from the campus. He and his class were the last to learn that Taliban forces were entering the city. Ahadi rushed to his office to retrieve a few essentials. He took a short moment to say a final goodbye to the office where he’d worked happily for 17 years. Then he ran to his car, which stood solitary in the parking lot.   

His wife reached him by phone while he was driving. Nasrin Ahadi had heard of the Taliban’s approach hours earlier on television, and she wondered anxiously why her husband was not yet home.

Fazel Ahadi was hyperventilating as he answered her. Fearful of being stopped and searched, he had abandoned his usual route home. In his car trunk, along with a few books and papers, were his laptop and external hard drive—virtually his life’s work, most of which was explicitly critical of the Taliban. He turned off the highway after passing a “Taliban car.”  

When asked how Fazel recognized the “Taliban car,” the Ahadis burst out laughing. In fact, it was an open U.S. military Jeep flying a white Taliban flag and piloted by a man in a turban, robes, and an unruly beard.  

Ahadi arrived home to find everyone frightened and crying, but there was no time to recover. Their first order of business was to destroy a large trove of Ahadi’s own writings. He had laid plans earlier with his colleagues at the university: literature critical of the Taliban must not be left behind. He had 200 copies of a 2008 book in which he had cataloged the tortures and deaths, at Taliban hands, of more than 700 Afghans. 

They carried all the books to the basement so that no one could see them through the windows of the house. They began to tear them up, but it was taking much too long. 

Moving outdoors, they were grateful for the high walls that surrounded their yard; neighbors could see the smoke rising from the bonfire the family built, but they couldn’t tell what was being burned. 

As the flames rose higher, the Ahadis worried that their house would catch fire. Some neighbors expressed concern for their safety, but they were sent away. No one could be trusted. 

The sun was setting. Burning the books was still not fast enough. Frenzied, they dug a big hole to serve as a tomb for the forbidden writings. They capped it with cement from the mixer they’d acquired while constructing their home. Day ended and job finished, they returned inside and wondered what to do next.  

Chief among Ahadi’s rescuers was the renowned Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Having expatriated from Iran to France in 2005, the senior artist was busy pulling international strings while the U.S. gradually withdrew its troops. Working with him from France were two expat Afghan filmmakers, Atiq Rahimi and Siddiq Barmak.

That first night, Ahadi got a phone call from Makhmalbaf. Ahadi had never spoken with him before, but he knew that the elder artist had been trying to find jobs abroad, through the Scholars At Risk program, for members of the Kabul film department. Scholars at Risk is a loose international network of academics that originated at the University of Chicago in 1999. They are dedicated to helping colleagues in danger from war, natural disasters, or government oppression. Ahadi and three of his colleagues had been chosen for evacuation and job placement from a short list presented by Makhmalbaf. The Iranian told them that he was making arrangements for the Ahadis’ evacuation, perhaps to France. 

Ahadi sent Makhmalbaf images of all his family’s passports and waited for instructions.  

The next day was spent in the house with the lights out. When they began to hear shooting, they moved to the basement. 

The day’s single bright note was another call from Makhmalbaf. He was sending a car the next morning to take the family to the Kabul airport, where they should be ready for a long wait. 

“If you’re a smoker,” he advised, “bring plenty of cigarettes.” 

At 4 AM on day three, the car arrived at their door. Ahadi wished he could call his mother, but it was better that she knew nothing. 

The Kabul airport was the only way out of Afghanistan, and the roads leading there were choked with people, many on foot. It was impossible for the Ahadis’ car to reach the terminal. They returned to their house and waited for an opportunity to try again.

On August 25, some 11 days in, they made another attempt. A driver left the family near one of the airport gates, called Abbey Gate, where crowds of people were waiting for an opportunity to board a plane. After 12 hours, Makhmalbaf phoned to say that, once again, there was no hope of getting inside the airport. 

(The next day, Abbey Gate would be decimated in a suicide bombing that killed almost 200, most of them Afghan civilians. Terrorists from the Islamic State claimed responsibility.)  

Advised by Makhmalbaf to leave Abbey Gate, the Ahadis were afraid to go home again lest neighbors, observing their movements, should inform on them. So Nasrin Ahadi’s brother drove them to the home of her parents, who hid the family for three weeks. 

Scholars at Risk then instructed Ahadi to move his family to the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where some 3,000 people were waiting to be evacuated by the United States.

After bidding goodbye to Ahadi’s in-laws, the family took the SIM cards out of their phones. Communication with friends and family would remain suspended until they were out of Afghanistan. 

To make the trip to Mazar-i-Sharif, they would need their passports, which had expired during their weeks in hiding. Renewing them was not easy, as most government offices were closed. Fortunately, Ahadi had a friend who was employed by the passport office and knew who had to be paid off. 

“Money opened doors,” Ahadi reflects.

Soon there were seven passports in hand—a mixed blessing, for while they couldn’t travel without them, they were fearful when they had to show them. The bus to Mazar-i-Sharif was stopped at military checkpoints about 50 times along the way. Taliban soldiers would board the bus to inspect and interrogate passengers, pulling some of them off the bus. They were especially interested in natives of Panjshir, a district renowned for resistance to the Taliban. Ahadi and his wife had both been raised there, and the name of Panjshir was prominently displayed on their passports. 

At one checkpoint, two soldiers jumped aboard and demanded, “Who here is from Panjshir?” Ahadi had to restrain his five-year-old son, Abdullah, who was proud of being a Panjshiri and eager to shout an affirmative response. 

But then the soldiers began to walk through the bus and inspect passports, row by row. They were just two rows away when a woman jumped up and began to protest and argue with the soldiers. The Ahadis had no acquaintance with the woman, but they couldn’t have wished for a better ally: the soldiers never got around to the Ahadis’ passports.  

The Ahadis hid for 40 days in Mazar-i-  Sharif, among a dozen families who found refuge in unused parts of a shopping mall. Taliban troops came into the open shops routinely to buy things, sometimes just feet away from adults and children hiding on the other side of a wall. 

The families kept in touch via WhatsApp. Ahadi and his wife say they were in fear every hour. Every airplane that flew overhead, every car that passed beneath their doors and windows, could be a harbinger of a military attack. 

On one occasion, a WhatsApp message announced the arrival of Taliban troops, and through a gap in the curtains they could see five or six trucks carrying heavily armed fighters. 

The soldiers roamed the premises for 30 or 40 minutes. At one point when they were just outside the room, baby Sana Ahadi was inclined to make noise. Her mother had to stifle her so thoroughly that the child turned blue under her hand. 

Days and weeks passed while they hid behind the walls of the mall shops. 

When an email arrived from Germany offering hope of asylum there, Ahadi was at first suspicious. He didn’t know the sender. But after writing to the German embassy in Pakistan, he was reassured. Academics at the Goethe-Institut had arranged with their government to take his family in. If they could just get over the border into Pakistan, the embassy would welcome them and transport them to Europe. But overland travel was unsafe, so the seven of them would have to fly. Again they were helped by a friend, this time an airline employee who helped them get tickets. 

They applied for seven visas at the price of 2000 Afghanis each (about $20). Five visas arrived, leaving documents lacking for two of the children. “We waited a long time,” Ahadi says, but the two visas did not arrive. Finally, they had to apply for two “urgent visas” at a price 50 times higher. Afghan companies, he explains, had capitalized on the high demand. Ahadi didn’t have the extra $2,000, but someone in the evacuation network must have intervened, because he got the visas.  

For the Ahadis, stepping into the Kabul airport after six months on the run or in hiding was like returning from an alternate universe. The terminal was operating with the same staff as before the Taliban retook the country, and the family was treated with kindness and courtesy. Ahadi had not spoken with his mother since leaving Kabul, and once onboard the airplane it was a huge relief to be able to call her.

With the SIM cards back in the phones, countless emails and text messages were finally read. The Taliban had been asking about Ahadi on the Kabul campus, and they had turned his house upside down. Everyone wanted to know if the Ahadis were OK. 

And they were OK. The Germans lodged them for three weeks in a fine hotel in Islamabad. Then they were flown, in late March 2022, to a place near Cologne, in western Germany. There they were housed and provided with food, health insurance, and cash stipends. They got German lessons, and the children attended school. Everything was “shockingly clean and beautiful,” Ahadi remembers.  

Young Milad, Ahadi’s third child, still misses the friends he played soccer with during their eight-month sojourn in Germany. But his father had no professional opportunities there. And so, last December, the family boarded the flight that brought them to their new life
in Chicago.

In an email exchange, Makhmalbaf says he helped 365 Afghan artists to evacuate. Just four of these were able to secure academic posts in the West: Ahadi and three of his colleagues from the film department. Two of them were hired at Harvard University, and one is employed in France. 

This spring, Ahadi gave his first lecture on the University of Chicago campus, bringing with him a 17-year teaching legacy and deep ambassadorial skills. With Iranian filmmaker Hossein Khandan serving as translator, Ahadi presented an overview of 75 years of Afghan cinema. 

In response to a question about the common themes of Afghan films, Ahadi reflected on the state of the country and the lack of positive, hopeful source material. Afghan filmmakers make films that reflect what they know. Ahadi says, “We should make movies about the beauty of life, but instead we show violence against women and children.”

Those themes emerged strongly while Ahadi’s Kabul film department was still in its infancy. In 2003, Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, released a luminous full-length feature film about Afghanistan. Titled At Five in the Afternoon—paying homage to Federico García Lorca’s 1930s revolutionary poem—it tells its stories with a simple, disarming candor and with gorgeous cinematography. Viewers are confronted with the struggles of Afghan women who, even under the new pro-Western government, were still heavily oppressed by the Taliban’s terrorism and misogyny. 

Ahadi concluded his presentation by screening a ten-minute film made by one of his students at the University of Kabul, Seraj Ahman Bayat.  

In the film, Bicolor, a 12-year-old girl searches for the grave of her mother, who was murdered by her father, a Taliban terrorist who builds bombs in his kitchen. When a bomb explodes accidentally, the father begs for help, even offering to reveal the mother’s burial site, but the girl merely stares coldly as rubble buries him. As her father dies, she pulls out a contraband bright-red lipstick and smears it onto her mouth in a crude crimson ring.

Among those attending the presentation were Ahadi’s oldest son and daughter. While the audience of American scholars reacted to Bicolor with horror, 14-year-old Anas and 12-year-old Bahara watched with serenity and pride.  

Now, for all seven Ahadis—especially the parents and the baby, who don’t attend Chicago public schools—studying English is paramount. They work diligently with their volunteer tutors. They’re settling into their new life, with more opportunity and abundant greenery; they love the name of a street near their Hyde Park home, Greenwood Avenue, which for them sums up the feel of the neighborhood.

Says Ahadi, “I am happy that, alongside my film activities, my children are studying and building a good future for themselves. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, children are deprived of everything, especially girls who are not even allowed to go to school.”

Ahadi is learning as fast as he can, and he’s made his intentions clear. He wants the English-speaking world to know what he’s been through. And he wants to serve as a cultural ambassador, while continuing to nurture
Afghanistan’s community of exiled artists.

“Making movies,” he says, “is the best revenge we can have on the Taliban.”

*The Reader is grateful to Saba Ayman-Nolley for her work on this story as a Persian-to-English translator. A retired psychologist born in Iran, she has helped many Afghan refugees as a volunteer with the Hyde Park Refugee Project. 

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August 15, 2023