This is what it feels like to be living in exile

Education advocate Frestha Karim discusses her experience not being able to return to her beloved homeland of Afghanistan.

The first time I knew the real meaning of being away from home without being fully aware of it; was in the spring of 2021, mere months before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. I was sitting on my sofa in my Kabul apartment, soaking in the warmth of the May sun, coming through the wide windows that had a view of the majestic Kabul mountains. My nieces and nephews were giggling and playing in the next room and my phone was buzzing with messages from my friends coordinating our evening stroll. 

I switched on the TV for a quick dose of news and came across a documentary on the Iranian revolution of the 1980s. It was a series of interviews of the Iranians who were exiled with the takeover of the Iranian Islamic regime. For the first time in my life, the word exile found a weight, a depth. It felt tangible. 

It was a time when the war in Afghanistan had intensified. President Trump had signed a deal to withdraw American soldiers from the country, with the consequence of facilitating the re-entry of the Taliban. Our politicians from the republic government were failing to take effective action. The hope for peace was disappearing as fast as the speed of light. I could see all the signs and signals for darker days. But human denial is powerful. I was hanging on to the last bits of hope, for the country we had built, for the future we had imagined.  

Soon more messages buzzed, and I went down to the cafe and lost the discomfort of thinking about exile to the warmth of the city, to the comfort of familiarity around, to the freshly brewed tea and noisy cafes of Kabul. 

At that moment, I never knew that for me and my generation, there would be no running away from war and exile, at least for the immediate future. It was at our doorstep yet foolishly we were all clinging to hope. Clinging tightly with all force, with hands, with teeth, with everything we had, silently praying for better days. But exile did eventually come with its full might. 

In Roman law, exile was an alternative to death and was considered a capital punishment. Indeed, exile is a punishment that many have suffered across history from Dante to Paulo Ferrire, to Elif Shafak and those without names we know.

It's now nearly three years since the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. I find myself in exile here in Oxford, thousands of miles away from what I once called my home. 

With the collapse of the democratic government in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban, thousands of Afghans who believed in democracy have been forced into exile, making it the largest collective exile of our decade if not of our century. But what is exile, and what does it mean to live it? 

At the core of exile is an attempt to rob influential actors of their power, their ecosystem, and their community that often enables them to act for their political beliefs. The new political actors or government in power assume that the exiled actors cannot act without the ecosystem or proximity to the motherland or its people and over time will dry down to nothingness. And this assumption is partly true. Exile is the profound feeling of what we call in Farsi “deltangi” which means a feeling of congestion of heart, a sense of powerlessness, it's a crisis of identity, the crisis of belonging, a sense of disorientation and alienation, a shift of power dynamics, and a travel to a depth of unbearable loneliness, the terrible never-ending longing for all that was and that probably could never be, and maybe the wishful wait for the end of it, the fantasy of return.

It’s all of the above. But it's also not. With time new aspects of exile appear. In fact, it’s in exile that one realises the depth of one’s love for one’s home and country, and for one’s roots and community – even for one’s political beliefs and their importance. It's a journey of becoming comfortable with uncertainty, of becoming humble, of creating a second home in the host country, and forming new friendships despite carrying the loneliness and grief. Exile is Rumi’s garden “somewhere beyond right and wrong” because it's in exile that one starts to question every set idea, and moral belief. It’s in exile that we reevaluate, introspect and expand our horizons.