Transcript: An Afghan-Canadian on the beauty of Afghanistan | Oct 08, 2021

You're listening
to a TVO podcast.

Hi, everyone.
You're listening to a special
bonus episode of
On Docs,
with me, Colin Ellis.
We recorded an interview with
director Julian Sher
about the TVO original
Ghosts of Afghanistan,
you can download now.
But we also spoke
with Frishta Bastan,
an Afghan-Canadian community
organizer and poet.
We wanted to hear
from Afghan voices
about the country's beauty and,
in Frishta's case,
the stories her parents told her
about Afghanistan
after they fled years ago.
In our conversation, we talked
about Frishta's experience
growing up in Canada as an
pushing back against negative
of her parents' homeland,
the advocacy work
she's been doing
on behalf of the Afghan
refugees, and much more.
Stay with us.

Frishta Bastan,
welcome to
On Docs.
Thank you so much for having me.
Maybe you can just
tell our listeners
a little bit about yourself.
Would you just tell us where you
grew up and what do you do?
So, I actually was born and
raised in Canada.
I was born in North York
and then I kinda moved a little
outside the GTA.
I kind of live in Milton right
What I do, I wear many hats,
I'm a community organizer,
I'm also a diversity
inclusion specialist,
I'm also a poet, book nerd,
I'm an academic,
a daughter, a sister,
and I'm an Afghan Muslim.
So, I wear many, many hats.
I'm proud of all of them,
many identities.
But yeah, that's, in a nutshell,
who I am.
Yeah, we'll unpack some of those
identities in a bit.
I want to ask you a little bit
about your folks,
and I was wondering if you could
just tell us a bit about
kind of the memories that they
shared with you
about growing up in Afghanistan.
Yeah, the memories that they
always share
has always been full of beauty
and love and,
you know, community happiness.
You know, their,
their memories has always been
remembering the country, the
the people as something full of
and full of beauty and full of
I mean, even when I think about
some of the memories
they've shared with me,
I automatically think of, like,
and I think of like brightness,
and I think of happiness
because that's the memories that
they have.
Mind-- you know, mind you they
were fairly young.
They both had lived there up
until their probably mid-teens.
But their entire--
their entire life there was just
full of goodness
and they lived such a good life
with their family members around
their neighbours who, you know--
there was no sense of like, you
you don't cross over to a
neighbour's lawn.
You all share, you know, the
same backyard.
You all shared the same
You know, people had to come
all the time to each other's
Neighbours was just a formality,
but the reality of it was that,
you know, people's-- people's
people's families were so
intertwined with one another,
but that's just how-- how they
lived, you know,
that's-- that's the trust that
they hide within one another.
So, I guess, you know, they--
you said they, I guess,
left when they were in their
But what, I guess, brought them
to Canada eventually?
Eventually it was, you know,
the start of the Soviet
There was the fear that, you
know, it was going to get worse.
And I think both my
grandparents believed
that it could get better
and you know, that--
they didn't want to leave.
Nobody wants to leave
their home country
unless they absolutely
necessary-- necessary have to.
I know from my-- from my mom's
side, it wasn't until,
you know, the rocket had hit
their neighbour's house,
where my grandfather was like,
"Yeah, now we need
to leave," you know?
Because up until then,
there was still some hope that
it's going to get better.
You know, this is our home.
Why would we leave her home?
You know,
where would we even go to?
And for my father's family,
it was, it was very similar,
you know?
It wasn't until they absolutely
had no choice,
but to leave that they left,
and you know, I think that's
something that we usually forget
about folks who are refugees
is that no one wants to leave
their home
unless home is not safe anymore.
Well, you know, obviously, we're
talking today
because we're talking about a
called Ghosts of Afghanistan,
which looks at the end of the
war in Afghanistan,
and obviously, you know, the
United States pulling out,
and the Taliban coming back to
But we kind of want to talk to
you just a bit about, you know,
your own lived experience,
growing up as an Afghan Canadian
and, you know, showing us, I
guess, a different side
of what we think about when we
think about Afghanistan
'cause I don't think many people
hear about the beauty
and the arts and the culture of
It's mostly just been about
terrorism or war, which is,
you know, still important, but
obviously not the full picture.
And I guess to get a sense from
you first
just about what it was like for
you, you know, after 9/11, say,
when the towers fell
and the United States was now
entering Afghanistan to,
you know, topple that the
Taliban, to get rid of Al Qaeda.
I guess I wonder what-- what
that was like for you.
And also, how old were you, I
guess, when all that happened?
Oh gosh, I think I was
in grade three or four.
I was really young.
I was like eight or nine years
old when it had happened.
It was interesting.
I mean, my childhood memories,
and this is something that,
you know, the Afghan diaspora
account, you know,
that we usually quite frequently
talk about
is that our childhood memories
are so consumed
by the invasion of Afghanistan
because we all grew up with
you know, hyphenated identity,
and we weren't forced to really
think about it, what that meant
or examine what that meant
until the invasion happened
and suddenly Afghanistan was all
over the news
and people were talking about
Afghan people,
and all over the media
had a very certain image of what
Afghan people looked like.
And I'll be quite
frank with you,
the images were not the
beautiful, very vibrant culture
that, you know,
Afghan share and
are so proud of.
Instead, it was
a very specific image
of oppressed Afghan women
and violence, you know,
quote-unquote barbaric men
who were trying to
impress the women.
And when, in reality, you know,
that wasn't--
that wasn't the true perception
of what an Afghan was.
Being a child
and growing up in that
and kind of being forced to
what this identity meant and how
everyone around you
now is kind of looking to you to
explain yourself,
your a child, and you're growing
up being Muslim,
you're growing up being Afghan
you're growing up being
You know, what does this mean?
What does this identity
that I hold mean?
Well, the Afghan
part of it is my--
you know, my family's memories,
my parents' memories,
my parents values and the
culture that was taught to us
that we found so much beauty and
love in.
That was so contradictory to
what we were seeing,
you know, in the public and in
the media.
And then, you know, being Muslim
on top of all of that,
just kind of added another layer
of, you know, this hyphenation
and this struggle to
understand what that meant.
But yeah, you know, growing up
was difficult because,
I-I mean, I-- at least for
and I only speak for myself,
I felt like I had to constantly
you know, this identity,
I had to constantly
defend this land,
that, "No, you know,
we're not all,
"you know, living in the desert.
"We're not all living in tense.
We're not all in pain.
"We're not all in-- you know,
we're not oppressed,
"where we have dreams, we have
visions, we are educated.
"We were poets.
We are-- we are artists.
"We are educators,
we are musicians."
And this is, you know, the
I kind of grew up
with my entire life.
You know, I'm 28 years old now,
and I felt like this is just an
ongoing battle my entire life,
where I had to constantly defend
and push back against this
narrative that Afghan people
and Afghanistan was like this
hopeless place of despair,
but, in the reality, wasn't,
and I think that's what the
Afghan diaspora, the last,
you know, 20 years or so, as
they're growing up,
trying to do in public spaces.
So, yeah, it's-- you know,
it's interesting to grow up as a
child in that--
with that kind of
memories, you know?
A lot of kids, I don't think,
are forced to think about their
identities like this
at a very young age the way
Afghan Muslims were.
I wanna pick up on
something you said,
you know, you used the term
"hyphenated identity".
What does it mean to you to
have a hyphenated identity?
It's a mouthful, 100%.
Yeah, it is a little bit, yeah.
Having multiple
identities to deal with,
after that multiple
hyphenations you.
(Both chuckling)
You know, you don't really feel
full of anything, you know?
And I think that's what the
kind of part falls into.
I was born in this country,
you know, I have spent my whole
life in this country.
And honestly, if someone were to
ask me, if you're--
when I'm traveling outside of
someone asks me where's home,
I say Canada.
But in Canada, when someone asks
me where's home,
I say Afghanistan,
and it's such an interesting
because I wasn't born in
I wasn't raised there,
but I have such a deep
connection to the land,
the place, living off of my
parents' identity,
this culture that I was raised
up with that,
to me, still, it is home,
it is something that I
associate home with.
But of course, I'm not--
because I wasn't born there,
you know, what does it mean then
to live with this Afghan
You know, how much Afghan am I,
And then, living in Canada,
you know, how Canadian am I,
You know, something that's
always been challenged is,
you know, what does it mean to
be Canadian?
What does this-- what does this
identity, you know, mean?
because Canada had a role
in a military presence in the
country, in Afghanistan.
So, what is this mean?
And I think that's what the
hyphenation really is,
is you're not full of anything,
you're not one of anything.
You wear these multiple
You're a little bit of
but you feel so deeply connected
to all of these identities.
Even if these identities don't
necessarily see you
as whole of them, you know?
And so, I think, you know,
that's kinda what
it means to me,
is living with these
multiple identities
and feeling so deeply connected
to all of them
and it means so much to me,
but I'm not, you know, full of--
full 100% of any of them.
I guess you've never visited
Afghanistan, eh?
In my dreams, plenty of times,
but no, not in real life.
Unfortunately, it's not--
you know, even in the last 20
with the military presence,
a lot of folks did go back and
I have, actually, you know, a
few friends
who actually moved from North
to go live in Afghanistan.
But I'm Hazara, which, you know,
that makes me a minority in the
that is very strongly
persecuted against,
especially under
the Taliban rules,
simply because we have different
facial features
than the rest of, you know, what
I guess, quote-unquote, what it
means to be Afghan.
But our facial features
are very strongly in
correlation to East Asians.
They were persecuted
literally based off of that.
Most of us also are Shia
which is also another
minority in Islam,
and again, makes us targets of
But yeah, so it's--
it's been challenging
for someone like me who holds
these identities that are--
you know, have ongoing genocide
against them,
to be able to go back when I
want to go back.
Also on top of that, because,
you know, if I were to go back,
it's not that I could go back
and live,
you know, in my family's home.
You know, a lot of my-- you
know, my closer relatives
don't live in the country
And, you know, the homes that
belonged to my mother
or my father, growing up, don't
exist anymore.
So, you know, it's-- that's the
kind of challenging part
is I'd love to
go back, you know,
I'd love to go visit this place,
but it's hard,
it's challenging.
I want to ask you a bit more
about some of the things
we don't really hear about
Afghanistan much,
you know, arts and culture.
You know, I remember years ago,
I'm not friends with
this person now,
but I remember him saying
something very,
I think, dismissive about
and it was just,
you know, he's like,
"They don't have--
they don't have--
"they have contributed nothing.
There's no culture there."
And I felt terrible because I
didn't-- I didn't--
I wasn't able to offer much
pushback 'cause, to be honest,
I just didn't know much about
the country and its culture.
So, I was just wondering if you
could tell us a little bit about
the things that you identify as
that Afghans are very proud of.
Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Afghans are huge
artists, you know?
We love our music, we love our
we love our film and, you know,
putting together--
you know, education is a huge
part of our-- of our identity.
I mean, because of war and
because of violence,
it's been hard to kind of
showcase that to the world
because we're very limited in
how we can do it.
But before all of this, I mean,
you know, there are--
there are photos of
Magazine going to Kabul
and taking photos and having
photo shoots there
and being inspired
by the culture
and the dressing and the fashion
in the country.
Afghanistan was actually one of
the very first Muslim countries,
after the Ottoman Empire had
to have a constitution that was
compatible with both Sharia,
so Islamic law, and Western
Kabul was a hub for scholars,
academics around the world,
Muslims, and non-Muslims alike,
to come and talk about theory,
about philosophy, about
You know, Afghanistan held,
and I still believe it still
you know, within the hearts of
the people
and pockets of the people living
in the country,
you know, it held such a huge
influence onto the world,
especially because, in a
geography standpoint,
it's so strategically placed,
you know, in the middle of Asia,
where it's so close to
neighbouring countries,
that it's just-- it's so full of
nature and beauty and culture,
and it was such a, you know,
hub for migration
and empires come and settle
there that,
you know, we've developed and
so many parts of the world in
the country.
And if given the chance, if
given the proper chance,
Afghanistan, you know, could
have, you know, been thriving
and contributing to history
and politics, to the world.
But unfortunately, it wasn't
given the chance to do that.
And although, a lot of Afghans
living in the country
are still trying to do that, in
their own ways to--
for example, there were Afghans
who were trying to archive
a lot of newspaper clippings
that existed before the Soviet
and what that looked like and,
you know, what that culture
and that kind of gives you a
glimpse of the life
that existed before
all of the violence
and war that took place.
It's just-- it's just so full
of, you know,
things that I wish the world
paid attention to.
But, you know, the media has
a very specific way
of portraying a specific image
of Afghanistan,
and if people had, you know, dig
a little bit deeper,
they will see how vibrant--
you know, and I know I'm going a
little bit of tangent on this
just because I'm so passionate
about it,
but there was an article that
was released a few years ago
of how-- so there's a stone in
called lapis lazuli;
it has this beautiful
blue pigmentation to it,
and it's so much of Afghanistan,
where we use it to--
you know, for ink,
we use it in our clothes,
we use it to wear as jewellery
But I was reading an article how
European painters and artists
worked so hard to get this
colour of lapis
because they had seen it,
where in very famous paintings
we see now
that they were
inspired by this blue
that existed in Afghanistan,
and they paint-- they had tried
to paint this blue
in their-- in their pieces to
come close to it
and were seeking to get a little
bit of the stone
so they could melt it and use in
their paintings.
But that's how significant, you
Afghanistan played a role in
places like the artistic world.
So, I think, you know,
people don't do enough, you
know, digging into it
and see that Afghanistan was so
full of history.
Mm-hmm. Well, you mentioned the
media and just, you know,
not offering, I guess, a fully
complex picture
of what Afghanistan is, and I'm
wondering, in your own life
and in your own work, I know
you're a poet,
how, I guess, do you use your
poetry, say,
to kind of raise awareness
about Afghanistan?
Yeah. So, I've been using the
poetry, as like--
it all started off as
kind of like an outlet.
I needed a space to express my
with the lack of understanding
people had about the country,
and I started writing and
And then I realized that people
would come up--
come to me after performances
and be like,
"Wow, I had no idea, you know
about this, about Afghanistan.
"I didn't know about this."
So, I took that as a huge
that my poetry could
do more of this.
So, now, I use my platform to
raise and amplify,
you know, Afghans who live in
Afghanistan, their voices,
the art there, you know,
the poetry there,
and kind of use that to push
back and kind of--
you know, right back against
this perception
that Afghanistan is just this,
you know, dark,
grey painful place,
but instead of so full of
culture and dreams and visions,
but using poetry to kind of
showcase that
and focus on that
and using my poetry to do that.
But besides that, you know, even
in my own community involvement
and community empowerment, you
simple things like hosting arts
that a lot of my friends have
been doing,
in the last couple years to
showcase the Afghan talent
and showcase Afghan art,
whether that's painters or
and doing little things like
this that, you know,
try to celebrate the beauty
of Afghans and Afghanistan,
as a way to push back
against the, you know,
the misconceptions about the
country and the people.
Well, you know, one could look
at just at the last few months
and see the Taliban
takeover and, you know,
feel very bleak about
Afghanistan's future.
And I'm just wondering how you--
how are you feeling these days?
Oh, gosh, the honest answer?
It's been stressful.
It's been heart-breaking.
It's just been, you know...
Yeah. It's just been painful,
to say the least.
But Afghan people are resilient.
Afghan people, you know,
wake up every single day
and they start again.
If they fall multiple times,
again and again, again,
they get up again and they
continue on, you know,
they strive on,
and I'll give you an example;
I mean the Afghan diaspora:
as soon as
the country had collapsed
and there was
this emergency need
to raise awareness, A) about the
situation in Afghanistan,
push the government,
Canadian government,
as well as the
international community
to do something
about the situation
to support the Afghan people
and to support the
incoming Afghan refugees
that were coming into Canada.
My friends, my community spent--
did not waste a single second
in responding to this need.
They worked day in,
day out, you know, late nights.
You know, we were--
you know, there was--
there was-- everything was
just on a pause, you know?
Life had just paused
and our immediate reaction,
our immediate focus
was to focus on the Afghan--
Afghan emergency need, you know?
My friends and I-- it literally
just started off
with a couple of friends trying
to figure out a way
to respond to Afghanistan.
It turned into what we call the
2021 Afghan-Canadian response,
where we started to support the
incoming Afghan refugees,
you know, by, by addressing the
individual needs.
You know, a lot of these
had to come on these planes
with nothing but a shirt
on their backs.
You know, these refugees didn't
even have shoes
because they had spent days at
the airport,
hours at the airport trying to
get on and to escape,
you know, Kabul
and to come to Canada that,
you know, a lot of these--
a lot of these folks
didn't have basic necessities.
And, you know,
my community saw that
and immediately responded,
literally, did not even waste 24
hours to gather,
to collect donations,
asking for folks to donate
gently or new-used clot--
new-- generally used or new
clothing items,
from shoes to socks,
to undergarments, to,
you know, hygiene products,
even food.
You know, some refugees
were for pregnant women
who needed specific foods.
A lot of babies were on-board
who needed formula.
You know, we responded to this
Well, we have to wrap up our
conversation, but I mean,
it sounds like you're doing some
incredible work,
not only to raise awareness,
but also to help people in need,
Afghan people in need.
But I was just wondering if
there's anything
you'd like our
listeners to know,
either about the
work you're doing
or about Afghanistan that we
haven't already talked about.
I think, you know, this is a
question that we usually get,
as Afghans; people are always
"Well, what, what can we do?"
You know, we just had an
election and we re-elected--
I mean, some new members of the
I'm not saying new government,
but some new members of
government, who has,
you know, promised to support
Afghan refugees.
Allies and supporters who want
to support,
continue to support the work
that Afghan diaspora are doing
is to hold members of parliament
accountable to this--
to this promise, to demand more
for Afghan refugees,
and to have a more diplomatic,
strategic way of supporting
Afghans in Afghanistan.
And, you know-- and if you were
looking for ways to donate,
there's this organization called
the IDRS,
who is actually helping
on-ground support right now
in assist-- assisting with meals
and necessities with Afghan
internally displaced peoples in
Afghanistan right now.
But if you were looking to
support more,
we are certain that the Afghan
refugees who are here now
are going to need
a community to look to
and to fall back on,
and, you know, if you follow us
on the 2021 Afghan Canadian
Response on social media,
you know, we are always
looking for support,
always looking for help.
And if anything, I want anyone
to kind of go away with today
is that Afghan people are, you
the most resilient human beings
on this planet,
but that doesn't mean that we--
that doesn't mean that, you
we're any less human
than anyone else.
We want peace, we want
We just want what everybody else
has, you know,
freedom and safety,
and to be able to, you know,
breathe a sigh of
relief every night;
and we can't do that
without the support
of the international community
and support fellow Canadians.
So-- but, you know, we are still
for the outpour of the support
by Canadians
and we're thankful for that.
But there's still work
that needs to be done
and we're looking
for support in that.
Well, Frishta, thank you so much
for joining me today,
and you left us a lot to ponder.
So, I just want to thank you
again for joining us
and for giving us a whole other
perspective on Afghanistan
that I don't think we hear
enough of.
So, thank you so much today.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much for
giving me the time. Thank you.

And that's the podcast.
Ghosts of Afghanistan
streaming right now on
and on TVO's YouTube channel.
We'll catch you
at the next screening.

Watch: An Afghan-Canadian on the beauty of Afghanistan