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Finding Strength in Afghanistan

With her native country gripped in war around her, an international journalist tries to find strength and peace through her practice.

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By Halima Kazem

The roar of military planes rattles the thin glass on my windows. It’s 3am and I wake in a daze thinking the helicopters are on the roof of the dilapidated apartment building where I’m staying. I can see two US Chinook helicopters flying over Shar-e-Naw, a bustling neighborhood of central Kabul. The helicopters are most likely headed to a nearby province to deliver air support to local Afghan forces trying to fight off Taliban or other insurgents.

After this wake up call I can’t go back to sleep. My head is pounding from staying up late the night before debating with Afghan friends and colleagues about the effects of the US military withdrawal on preparations for the next Afghan presidential elections. These thoughts still spinning in my mind, I roll out my yoga mat on the dusty Afghan rug in my room and drop into Child Pose. As I sink deeper into the mat I can feel the hard cold floor pushing back into my knees and forehead. It reminds me how challenging it has been to work in Afghanistan for the last 10 years.

I returned here, my native country, in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban government. It was my first time back in more than 20 years and at that time I thought I was only going to stay for a few months. I never imagined that I would spend the next decade working as a journalist and human rights researcher.

The blood rushes to my face as I wearily push up into Downward-Facing Dog. I drop my head further down between my arms trying to release the tightness in my shoulders and neck that had accumulated throughout the day from trying to keep the scarf I’m required to wear from slipping off. Stepping into Uttanasana and then through 10 sets of Sun Salutations, I try to empty my mind but keep hearing the despair and worry in my friend Amina’s voice when she asked, “If a Taliban government returns to Kabul, how will I continue working as a journalist?”

I met Amina in 2004. She had just turned 20 and was a bright-eyed journalism student in one of my classes in Kabul. When I had told her about yoga back then she chuckled and said, “Ms. Halima, what is this yoooga you keep talking about?” Since then she’s had the opportunity to travel to other countries to learn more about media development, and even to India where she learned a little about yoga’s roots.

From my last Uttanasana, I step into a lunge and lift into Warrior I. I hold the pose until my legs shake. I don’t want to let go because the sensation is the only thing that has distracted my mind from the roaring planes, suicide attacks, and the fate of my fellow Afghans. My legs are trembling but my feet feel like they are cemented to the mat. It’s how I feel about my life here in Afghanistan. I am tired of working in a war zone but I can’t seem to detach myself from the country.

I slowly creak my way into another Down Dog, and my eyes settle on the deep imprint my right foot has left on my mat. I watch as the imprint disppears, as if my foot was never there. I wonder is this what will happen in Afghanistan after US and NATO forces withdraw? Will the imprint of progress and security banish like my footprint on the mat? My heart gets heavy as I move into another Warrior I and open my arms to the sides. As I tilt my head back and look through the top of my window at the tip Kabul’s TV mountain, my chin starts to tremble. How much longer will I be able to travel to Afghanistan and continue to see my Afghan friends? No answers come to me but at least yoga has helped me breathe through the fear and uncertainty. I can’t control what will happen in Afghanistan, but for this moment, I can stand strong.

Halima Kazem-Stojanovic is an international journalist, journalism teacher, and human rights researcher.