words of rebellion

From Kabul to California, Hassina Fazli voices her

tale of freedom.

Written by James Smith

Photos by Frankie Najor

Kabul, AfghanistanDecember 1979

"How can you let the Soviets do this to us? You might as well be a traitor! You should be ashamed to call yourself an Afghan!" she screamed.


The words echoed off the vaulted living room walls, only to be answered by silence. Hassina Fazli’s parents, siblings, cousin and the stranger sat in disbelief, staring at the young girl’s chestnut eyes. The casual dinner was placed on hold by the stunning words that poured from her mouth. The 18-year­-old Afghan girl had just committed the cardinal sin—expressing her opinion.


“Let’s change the subject,” her father, Farooq, said. The look of panic on his face was magnified by his signature Coke-bottle glasses. But it was too late, the damage was done. Her words could not be taken back. She had broken the“HOW CAN YOU LET THE SOVIETS DO THIS TO US? YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE A TRAITOR! newest unwritten law in 1979 Afghanistan: don’t speak negatively about the Soviets, especially in mixed company.


But her cousin deserved every name Hassina had called him. His apathy toward the Russian invaders was treason in her eyes. How could he allow these evil conquerors to take control of his country and not speak one word of opposition about it? How could he bring that man into her house?


The stranger sat back in his chair, quietly taking note of the drama that had interrupted the otherwise routine dinner Hassina’s name calling, the passion with which she expressed her accusations and her family’s reaction to her outburst. A mental note was being taken of everything.


The conspicuous stranger dressed and looked unlike the rest of Hassina’s family. He was a ‘friend’ of her cousin. No doubt a Soviet sympathizer, if not a KGB agent, the Soviet Union’s committee for state security and foreign intelligence.


The recent Soviet occupation dramatically changed the scenery of Hassina’s home in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. The once bustling streets now stood eerily bare. The unmistakable dome-shaped turrets of Soviet T­62 tanks studded the pockmarked streets, their cannons purposely pointed at buildings and homes, a consistent reminder of who actually controlled the city.


Russian soldiers with hard faces replaced families on evening walks. The foreign invaders concealed pale features behind the black gunmetal of AK­47s as they menacingly sauntered through the streets of the city in their drab olive Afghanka uniforms. Spectral figures whose presence was constant, an omnipresent force one could never acknowledge. Angels of death.


The changes she hated most were the invisible ones. A strictly enforced 10 p.m. curfew made regular social life impossible. No more late-night dinner parties with friends or family. Everyday routines required planning to finish before nightfall to avoid breaking curfew.


But the worst change of all  was the inability to trust anyone. Everyone could be a Soviet informant now. A passing comment about the Soviets to the wrong person could land you in jail or put a bullet in your head. There was no single profile of what to look for. Teachers, grocers, cousins—anyone could be an informant.


Her cousin laughed off the accusations, diffusing some of the tension in the room. The evening resumed and Hassina sat in silence for the remainder of the dinner. Why did she have to speak her mind, what was the point of it?Then the room was empty. The guests, her family and food from the night’s dinner all faded away, yet Hassina sat in the vacant room confronted with the one part of the night that, like an unwanted house guest, refused to leave. Her words.


Why did she have to speak her mind, what was the point of it? Did she really think she could scorn her cousin into hating the Russians? And why did she say everything in front of the stranger? She had been warned not to speak out against the Soviets in front of anyone except her parents, but that night the rashness of youth got the best of her.


Hassina’s actions had endangered not only her life, but her family’s as well. The Fazlis were not the typical Afghan family. Her father, Farooq, was a diplomat to Poland, and mother, Mariam, was a teacher. They were already placed under higher suspicion than most. Farooq was certain that the house and phones were bugged. Soviet tanks and patrols seemed to linger longer around the Fazli house than any of their neighbors. Her actions that night would only increase those patrols.


Morning came and the world hadn’t ended. Neither Hassina nor any of her family were jailed or killed overnight. Breakfast was served. Hassina sheepishly took her seat at the table—the very same seat where she allowed her impulses to get the best of her just a few hours prior.


“About what happened last night,” Farooq said between mouthfuls. “Your Mother and I had a talk and we agreed that you are not safe here anymore.” “What?  Father, why?” Hassina asked.


“You know just as well as I that you could be jailed or worse for what you said last night. Hassina your life is in danger.”


“Father, I don’t want to leave. My life, my friends, my family is here, my everything is here,” Hassina protested. “This can’t happen! There must be something you can do!”


“Your life could be in danger. I have to get you out of Kabul and to somewhere safe,” Farooq said with anguish. He knew his daughter would never be able to  return to Afghanistan while it remained under Soviet control.


Hassina submissively nodded in agreement to her father’s plan. His word was always final, but she couldn’t help feeling slighted. She always got what she wanted. Her father was an ambassador. In the past he’d been able to pull some strings or ask a favor to get his daughter whatever she wished. He chose to do no such thing this time.



This would change everything. Her plans of going to college and traveling with friends were placed on hold indefinitely, replaced now by her father’s plan for her immediate future: run and hide.


Moving was not uncommon for the daughter of a diplomat, she had uprooted countless times before. However, leaving Kabul was different. Although she spoke with a different accent and dressed in different clothes than the locals, Hassina considered the city her home. She had friends here, a rarity for the teen who had been forced to move every three years since  birth. She had family here. She had memories here.


No longer would she be able to feel the cool crunch of fresh snow under her boots on a winter’s day, her favorite season. Nor would she be able to spend late nights at friends’ houses. The previous night solidified those outings as merely memories, but in reality,  those days had come to an end months ago when the curfew was implemented.


three weeks had passed

In less than 24 hours Hassina would leave her family and home. The Fazli house stirred. A few trustworthy family members were invited over to say their goodbyes. Hassina dodged weepy-eyed kisses and hugs from aunts as she tried to help her mother pack the one piece of luggage she was allowed to take.


Folding her favorite jacket, Hassina laid the garment gently into the large suitcase. Her mother immediately pulled the jacket out and began ripping it open from the seams. “Mother! What are you doing?” Hassina shouted in confusion.


“We don’t know how long you will be gone, you must take as much money as you can with you,” said Mariam, as she began stuffing fists full of hundred dollar bills into the freshly torn seams. “Get your shoes and purse out and begin doing the same.”  By the time the two finished packing, every article of clothing with a pocket pouch or two layers had a wad of cash smuggled into it. In total, she would be traveling with $10,000.


As Hassina zipped her suitcase-turned-­treasure chest, her father tossed a small booklet on top. “You are lucky I was able to get your passport back,” Farooq said with a smile on his face. The family’s passports had been confiscated in Moscow the past year, after a diplomatic mission to Poland. “And with any luck, you’ll be in how could a few words cause so much damage?America before they know it’s missing. That is the plan at least.”


That plan was a meticulously calculated ordeal that involved two of her uncles, a Polish ambassador, multiple travel visas and a convincing lie. She would fly out of Kabul’s international airport, through the Iron Curtain, to non-USSR controlled Frankfurt. Posing as a university student on her way to study abroad in Poland, she would be allowed a two-day travel visa so she could leave the airport and stay in the city of Frankfurt. With help from her uncles she would be taken to a U.S. embassy where she could ask for political asylum.


That night, sleep was impossible. Hassina laid in her room, unable to escape thoughts of moving to a new country and leaving her family in Kabul with the tanks, soldiers and curfews. She couldn’t help but feel guilty for her actions. How could a few words cause so much damage? That 30-second lapse in judgment forever changed the direction of her life.


Why does this have to happen to me? She thought. Ambassador’s daughters don’t have to be smuggled out of the country and away from their families. ThisEvery moment from here on was another inch, foot, mile that she was putting between herself and her home. is not my choice.


The sun rose and Hassina felt numb. Final hugs from her aunts and the bitter cold embrace of the morning all felt the same. Her life was spinning out of control and she could do nothing about it. She was in a dream she couldn’t escape.


She watched as her father and mother packed her cash-heavy suitcase into the family car. Hassina slid into the oversized leather seat of the Mercedes. She closed the heavy door while her mother corralled her sisters into the back seat. Her father put the car in drive and the family made their way to the airport.


Hassina couldn’t help but look back at her home as it faded into the horizon. The house grew smaller in the rearview mirror, as the German car bumped and rattled its way down the road. Every moment from here on was another inch, foot, mile that she was putting between herself and her home. A distance that Hassina would never be able to recover.


The car stopped in front of Kabul International Airport.  But she still refused to believe it was real. Following a final, tearless goodbye she picked up her suitcase and floated through the terminal doors.


Hassina quietly took her seat on the plane. So far her daring escape felt and looked just like any other dull, international commute. Hassina felt the familiar rumble of the jet engine revving and clutched her plastic armrest.


The plane lifted off the ground and the numbness that defined her day began to fade. One-thousand feet. Hassina’s knuckles turned white from clenching the armrest. Five-thousand feet. Her stomach began to turn. The dusty recycled air of the cabin made her want to puke. Why was this happening? She had flown countless times before and never been nervous.


Seven-thousand feet. She broke into a cold sweat. Beads of sweat stained her clothes, turning her lavender shirt speckled black. Her jacket, filled with a few thousand dollars of insulation, gradually grew soggier by the second.


Twelve-thousand feet. The plane banked and Hassina stared out her window looking down at Kabul. Feeling rushed back into her body and she burst into tears. All at once, the neglected emotions from the day hit her. Tears poured from her eyes as she mourned the life she was leaving behind in Kabul. She reminisced about her family, friends and home, all things that were now irretrievable because of a thoughtless slip of the tongue.


This was the last time she would ever see her city. She slumped into her seat and continued to cry. “Miss, are you alright?” a concerned flight attendant asked.


“No. No I’m not! I called my cousin a communist and I am being punished for it. I don’t want to go to Germany. I don’t want to go to America. I want to go home!”  Hassina wanted to scream at the intrusive woman, but instead she said meekly, “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”


Irvine, CaliforniaNovember 29, 2014

It’s early Friday morning, the fun and laughter of the previous night have evaporated, leaving only the faint smell of turkey and Afghan food. Hassina rises from her bed and walks downstairs into the kitchen of her townhome.


The dining room table remains cluttered from last night’s Thanksgiving potluck. Dishes of day-old palau and turkey are scattered across the small, hardwood table. Trying to shake off the early morning’s daze, she shuffles and begins to clean up last night’s memories.

The previous night Hassina hosted Thanksgiving for over 30 members of the Fazli family. Parents, sibling, cousins, nieces and nephews piled into her house to laugh, dance and feast.  A Fazli tradition that looks and feels no different in Irvine than at her father’s house in Kabul, so many years ago.


Kabul, her father’s house and her childhood are all just distant memories now. Places that only exist on a few pieces of high-gloss paper inside the family’s photo album. She takes out the album on occasion to reminisce and show her two children, Tameem and Sophia. But it’s what is not inside that faded album, the repercussions of that fateful night, that have come to define Hassina’s life.


Those repercussions sent Hassina to Germany on her escape from the Soviets. During the year and a half that she spent there, she learned to speak German and eventually became a political refugee in the country.


She resettled in the U.S., where she gained American citizenship and spent four years alone before helping her parents emigrate from Afghanistan. She and her family adjusted to Western culture, reviving some of their old customs in a new home.


Although some of Hassina’s decisions made her life more difficult than it could have been, she doesn’t regret any of them. That struggle and independence transformed her into the woman she is today.


“I’m at a point where I’m content. At my age, things that would bother me a lot 20 years ago don’t bother me anymore,” she said. “I have my health and my family, which I’m very grateful. And I’ve learned that wherever you are now, that’s home.”