City Book Review
How did Afghanistan get where it is today? This book is an insider’s view of growing up in that country. Arghandiwal relays stories from his childhood growing up in Afghanistan, his hopes, dreams, and ambitions as a child and being reduced to surviving the Russian takeover in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The author gives a historical perspective on Afghanistan from the 1950s to today. Most of us don’t remember Afghanistan before the Russian takeover, so Arghandiwal talks about the social and political freedoms the Afghan people were gaining. He talks about the political environment, the split in the Afghan government that led to the eventual takeover, and about the plight of the Afghan rebels trying to fight the Russians and Afghan government.
One of the more interesting parts is Arghandiwal’s description of life as a refugee in Germany and some of the indignities that refugees suffered. But this isn’t just his story; it’s the story of his friends and family and their struggles as well. The author then goes on to talk about his life and successes in America, fueled by the drive he had to succeed.
This was a slow read in the beginning and took a while to get into, but it finished well. This is a story of love, perseverance, and success.
Reviewed by Marc Filippelli
Lost Decency: The Untold Afghan Story is aptly named. In this memoir, Atta Arghandiwal links his personal history with the history of Afghanistan from 1959 to the post-9/11 era. He attempts to show how war and the upheavals in government affected his family, the country, and the people of Afghanistan. This assessment becomes most evident when the author returns to Kabul years after his immigration to the US, looking for the beautiful place and people he remembered. He finds that his former country has lost its self-respect, the respect of the world, and its “decency.” These losses are Afghanistan’s untold story.
Lost Decency gives a sweeping view of Afghanistan’s history punctuated with the writer’s insights, but the story comes alive whenever Arghandiwal focuses on his own experiences. As a boy, he accompanied his father, a military liaison, across the Oxus River into the Soviet Union. This experience and his later work in the Afghan military provide Arghandiwal with insight into the nature and reality of military-industrial power. He also describes his home and family life in the ’50s and ’60s, emphasizing the peace and harmony of his everyday routine in the melting pot of ethnic groups in his Kabul neighborhood. The contrast between public power and private peace is an abiding theme of this work.
As in all life stories, chance and coincidence play a definitive role. After his father develops a heart condition, Arghandiwal is sent to English language school to help support his family; his education subsequently results in other opportunities in Afghanistan and the US. Arghandiwal and a friend plan to leave Kabul on the very day in 1978 when a military coup plunges the capital into chaos. An officer he knew while in the military becomes a key government official after the coup, and this chance connection assures Arghandiwal’s continued employment under the new government.
Arghandiwal’s prose is especially effective when he renders particularly emotional or dramatic moments, like the entry of Russians into Kabul or the tense minutes before his plane takes him out of the city. As the writer is neither a historian nor a journalist, a careful reader will question the accuracy and source of his statistics and political analysis about present-day Afghanistan.
Regardless, this twenty-first-century immigrant tale reveals the faces behind the headlines, those with the courage to choose to leave the familiar behind in search of a better life.
SAN DIEGO–Adventures by the Book presents a Lost Decency Afghan Reception Adventure with Afghan-born author and former San Diegan Atta Arghandiwal.
Atta Arghandiwal left Afghanistan after the 1980 Soviet invasion and became a refugee in Germany. He later immigrated to the United States, where he built a successful banking career. With deep passion and pride in his heritage, Arghandiwal has written the true Afghan story in order to increase awareness about his country’s political upheaval and the innocent people who have been caught in chaos. He will donate a percentage of all book sales to his Women’s Sports in Afghanistan Foundation. Because his daughter plays on the Afghan National Soccer Team, he understands the important role sports can play in an Afghan girl’s life.
The event will be held November 14 at 6 p.m. at Khyber Pass Afghan Restaurant, 523 University Avenue in San Diego.
Tickets are $35 per person which includes wine or non-alcoholic beverage, happy hour appetizers, tax, tip, Q&A, book signing, and an opportunity to meet the author up close in authentic and intimate setting. Khyber Pass is owned by the Nasery family, who also fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1980.
Atta Arghandiwal, who immigrated to the Bay Area in the early 1980s, will talk about his recently published memoir at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Pleasanton library.
The book, "Lost Decency: The Untold Afghan Story," tells of his happy, secure childhood, then his loss of innocence with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.
From an independent, bucolic country respected by its neighbors to a chaotic and corrupt war zone -- the last 50 years have seen tragedy unfold in Afghanistan.
"What happened?" people are always asking Atta Arghandiwal, who immigrated to the Bay Area in the early '80s. That question inspired his recently published memoir.
"Afghans' history was remarkable, peaceful, a people who believed in values and traditions," Arghandiwal said in a recent interview. "We lived in society together, a communal society. My neighbors were my uncles."
The 1950s and '60s were its glory days, he said, and Afghanistan was beginning to enjoy industrial growth. Even into the late 1970s Afghan women pursued higher education and built careers alongside men.
After studying English at the U.S. Information Services in Kabul and taking typing and shorthand classes from Peace Corps workers, Arghandiwal was hired in the marketing department at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
A gripping chapter in the book tells of Atta's stealthy trip from the hotel to his family home across the city, evading soldiers and tanks, the day the Russians invaded Kabul. When suspicion fell on him, Atta was forced to flee to the West.
He went first as a refugee to Germany and then the United States, where he persuaded managers at a bank to hire him and ended up having an illustrious career in that industry.
"I looked for a bicycle but was able to drive a car," he marveled, recalling his arrival in the Bay Area.
When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the American support ended, leaving a vacuum that led to a civil war.
"Ordinary Afghans did not have the resources to put the country back on its feet again, making it extremely vulnerable to interference from neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran, and ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban," Arghandiwal wrote.
When the U.S. and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban was overthrown but efforts soon went to the war in Iraq.
"After 9/11 there was so much hope," Arghandiwal noted. "I'm bringing people not only to understand the history of Afghanistan but that if this third-world, impoverished nation were going to be helped, it could not only survive but thrive."
Arghandiwal returned to Afghanistan in 2011 to find Kabul greatly deteriorated.
"The streets were bumpy. There was no rule of law, no lights," he said, describing people and animals traversing the streets helter skelter.
He describes in his memoir how he and a friend were included in a secret gathering of warlords. They showed interest in his profession as a banker but there was a lot of tension.
"I thought I was going to go and start helping but when I saw the level of corruption I knew I didn't have a chance," Arghandiwal said. "Money went to the elite -- they have their own armies, and have bought land and buildings in Dubai."
Corruption is not traditionally part of the Afghan culture, he said, although since 2001 millions of dollars have gone into the hands of warlords. The lucrative opium fields feed into this corruption.
"Now having written the book there's no way I can go back," he added.
People here ask why the Afghans don't rise up as in Egypt.
"They are so out of power," Arghandiwal said, it's impossible to overcome the disconnect. "Their rights were taken away by the elite, they're not as educated, so they are afraid."
"The people all curse Karzai, a puppet of the elite," he added. "A 70-year-old man told me, 'Do you know how many American bodyguards he has? More than 50.'"
Arghandiwal envisions a promising future for Afghanistan. He hopes that, first of all, the warlords join their money and mansions in Dubai. After that he would like to see the creation of a national assembly that includes all ethnic and tribal political parties.
"Our national independence is our biggest attribute," he said.
The educated Afghans who have spread throughout the world must return to help build their nation, he said, adding that his own children would do so. His son Edreece is 23; daughter Hailai is 16; both are fluent in the language and have played on the Afghan national soccer teams.
"They want to go and help. There is that kind of willingness," Arghandiwal said.
Meanwhile, his next writing project is a financial guide geared to American immigrants.
"It's motivational and practical," he said. "From my own immigrant experience I know what they need."
There are 10,000 Afghans in the Bay Area, and Arghandiwal has strong views on the importance of immigrants standing on their own two feet as soon as possible.
"It's a social responsibility to learn English," he said.
"Every single one of my brothers and sisters have gone for higher education," he added. "It was expected."
Arghandiwal says he's received good feedback from the book, which is also selling in New Zealand, Australia and Europe.
"Messages say, 'Now we understand what really happened,'" Arghandiwal said. "This is very rewarding to know I helped explain."
What: Atta Arghandiwal speaking on Afghanistan and signing his book, "Lost Decency: The Untold Afghan Story"
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24
Where: Pleasanton Public Library, 400 Old Bernal Ave.
Afghan dolls for sale
Handmade Nadera Dolls, made by Afghan widows, will be for sale at Atta Arghandiwal's talk at the library Thursday evening. The dolls have been sold since 2003 by Rising International, which helps the world's poorest people participate in the global economy.
Each doll sells for $34: The widow that makes the doll receives $11 (enough to buy six meals); the project manager in Afghanistan earns $1; the shipping cost is $2.66; a local Rising Representative earns $6.80; and Rising raises $12.54 to reinvest in purchasing more dolls.
More than 60 widows have participated in the project, each earning about $238; the average income in Afghanistan is $250.
In 2007, one of the doll makers, Nadera, was killed by a suicide bomb placed in a vegetable cart, and the Afghan Widows Doll Project was re-named the Nadera Doll in her honor.
Contra Costa Times
DUBLIN -- The remarkable, tortured story of Afghanistan, emerging from the pages of Atta Arghandiwal's memoir, "Lost Decency," sweeps like a sandstorm across the history of a man, a people and a country in peril.
Describing the journey he has taken from his boyhood in a once-beautiful and now war-ravaged nation to the upcoming Tuesday release of his new book, the 59-year-old author and Dublin resident speaks with blinding honesty of swirling memories and ambition.
"'Angels of Ashes' was one of the most inspiring books," he begins, "and to touch the roots of a culture was always in my mind."
He recalls Afghanistan as a once peaceful land. In the 1960s and '70s people lived in harmony, and different ethnic groups -- sometimes as many as 20 in proximity -- worked together toward prosperity.
"The real problems started as a result of an internal coup d'état in 1978," he recalls. "Unrest started and the communist regime started to kill people. When that collapsed and Russia invaded, the extreme bombardments and mass killings began. The taking over of a peaceful country by an invader meant my family had to flee."
Escaping to Germany, then to the United States, Arghandiwal ended up on Market Street in San Francisco.