I am writing this from a cozy cafe in the peaceful town of East Burke, Vermont as another explosion rocks Kabul, this time in front of the English center my father goes every morning to learn English. By pure fate, he happened not to be there. Here in Burke, a soft rain outside mixes with the ambiance of the Indie Folk song, as steam from freshly brewed coffee circulates among friendly chatters of Quebecois visitors. There in Kabul, the sound of vest bombs amplifies throughout the city, and in a few seconds when silence vibrates back, 29 people are dead — among them my father's friend.
I came here to write about exactly a year ago when my father and 14-year-old cousin found themselves among a crowd of peaceful protesters that got hit with two large explosions. I was in Colorado, and found the news trending on social media; 86 lives gone, and more than 400 injured. My father and cousin had miraculously survived. Those who died were friends, and friends of friends. I curled in my bed like a fish pulled out of freshwater. Without self-control, I needled together that flag in the picture above from pieces of black, red, and green cloth - that symbol of a nation long drowned in familiar pain. But how can I let go of this flag? Of a place I have called home, and loved, and eaten its delicious fruit?
In my state of traumatic fear, and disconnect from home by thousands of miles, the only thing that could give me calm was the mountains. And the thing that could take me there was my bike. I pedaled, and frequently fell on hard rocks as my mind switched from the technical trail to images of before and after the explosion; of beautiful smiling faces that soon became unrecognizable flesh. Struggling to stay focused, I finally made it to the top of the mountain. There, I rested my bike against a tree and sat on a bench looking out to a plateau of Rocky Mountains nestling tiny villages, adorned with juniper trees. There, I once again saw what a peaceful world could look like. There, I could take a deep fresh air, and recollect my strength to face the tragedies of our world, and strive towards creating a better one, just as I was seeing it.
Today, once again, I will have to ride for the same reason. But I will move on, for there is exciting work to be done -- on and off the bike.
But cycling has become more than just a therapeutic activity for me. Through riding, I want to connect with Afghanistan's nature and mountains the way I was able to in Colorado. In cycling, I see the potential to introduce Afghanistan's beauty to the world. I am tired of hearing my country repetitively getting described as a sand desert, when in fact, it is one of the most mountainous regions in the world. I strongly believe that there is a direct correlation between a country’s global image, and the well-being of its people. A bad reputation like war can have discouraging effects on citizens of a country while good reputation can boost people's confidence towards progress. As people of the world, we must recognize positive aspects of struggling nations, and foster those images instead of the ones that can hinder progress. I want Afghanistan to be known for what it has always meant for me; a beautiful country with lots of jaw-dropping beauty. Mountain biking and other outdoor activities not only have the potential to change Afghanistan’s global image, but they will also bring a lot of prosperity, both economically and culturally. Hopefully one day, when you Google Afghanistan, images of the Hindukush range, valleys, and rivers will replace war, destruction, and gore.
I ride because if my country was peaceful and prosperous, I would’ve picked up mountain biking from an early age. Right now, the sport is dominated by Europeans and North Americans. It gives me joy to see Columbian riders do so well in the Tour de France. The sport has so much more potential to become global. Provided the resources, Afghans can be very well-conditioned for the athletic demands of the sport. I was born at 8,000 ft. above sea level in a very mountainous region. This is true for most Afghans who still live in villages, often roaming the mountains on foot for pastimes, or as the primary mode of transportation. Long story short, we have the lungs. Why shouldn’t we be racing against the Swiss and the French? One of my long-term goals is to help establish an Olympic cycling team in Afghanistan. That's a fight worth riding for.
But above everything, I ride because the day I realized my friend was no longer holding the bike, and I was pedaling forward on my own, was one of the most joyful moments of my life. Riding brings me pure joy, and there can never be enough of it.