(This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was commissioned by Matthew Douglas, an editor I enjoy working with. He offers me the kind of creative freedom that I gratefully treasure.)

It was a momentous time in Kabul when I arrived there on 15 April 2017, only two days after US President Donald Trump’s celebratory announcement about “the mother of all bombs” being dropped in Afghanistan. The invitation to speak at the South Asian Youth Conference was too tempting to refuse, so I seized the opportunity and flew in from Mumbai to Dubai, and Dubai to Kabul.

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Omaid Sharifi to my left, and Lima Ahmad to my right — organizers of the South Asian Youth Conference 2017 who run ArtLords, an arts for peace program in Afghanistan (Photo credit: Zmaryalai Abasin)

Alhough the site of destruction was in Nangarhar, several miles away from Kabul, amidst a network of tunnels and caves being used by ISIS fighters, the ghost of the bomb seemed to have travelled all the way to the hotel I was staying at. The conference organizers were on high alert. They advised all delegates to restrict their movements to the hotel premises, and venture out only if accompanied by official staff from their team. One cannot blame them. They were simply doing what any sensible host would do.

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Me speaking at a panel discussion on gender mainstreaming with fellow panelists from Afghanistan (Courtesy: South Asian Youth Conference 2017)

At times like these, my mother prays ardently for my safety. Since she cannot stop me from visiting the places I want to, she hopes that her prayers will work like a protective blanket around me. I would not be surprised if that were true.

Earlier, I used to think she was paranoid but I now realize that it is important to hear where the fears come from. Media reports about Afghanistan and other Islamic countries often tend to foreground stories of terror, brutality and human rights violations. As a result, people who consume news uncritically live with the impression that these countries are dangerous places, and the ones living there could easily hurt visitors. The boundaries that we draw up in our hearts and minds are sometimes more tenacious than the ones we see on maps.

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Cultural activities on the sidelines of the conference (Courtesy: South Asian Youth Conference 2017)

To be honest, I don’t think there is any harm in being vigilant when one travels to a new place but it does not help to be over-cautious in a manner that borders on the obsessive. One can miss out on watching, listening, learning, and making friends. Locals are wise enough to sense when they are being judged or not being trusted. They want to be treated with the dignity they deserve, not as conflict zone specimens.

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Courtesy: South Asian Youth Conference 2017

The people I encountered in Afghanistan were more inspiring than anyone I have met anywhere in the world. I wonder if I would have that energy and optimism after living through the kind of physical, structural and psychological violence that they have seen in their lifetimes. I met photographers, musicians, teachers, journalists, artists, government officials, aid workers, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Each one was full of warmth, eager to share their culture, and gift me almonds, walnuts and mulberries. I had heard that Afghans love Indians but I had not expected the hospitality and generosity that I received. When I think of the people there, and the hardships they continue to endure, my eyes often fill up with tears.

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What a beautiful gathering of South Asian youth from all over! (Courtesy: South Asian Youth Conference 2017)

It is true that India has been cultivating Afghanistan as a regional partner in South Asia, and providing it with financial support, and that Afghanistan has been joining forces with India to weed out the terror networks in Pakistan. However, the cultural ties and trade links between the people of both countries are far stronger, and will certainly outlive the political climate of today.

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