Student creates radio documentary of her journey to Afghanistan

York student Wajma Soroor is not sure where she fits. She refers to herself as a hybrid – part Canadian, part Afghan. Last summer she returned to her homeland for the first time in 25 years to experience the country her family left behind. She thought she would recognize her birth country, thought she’d feel a connection to its people. Instead she was surprised, unnerved and overwhelmed by her experience. At times, Soroor felt like a foreigner, at other times like part of the fabric that made up the country.

Right: Wajma Soroor 

“For me this was a feast. I felt like a field researcher, but it wasn’t field research, it was my life,” says Soroor, a fifth-year communications studies and sociology student. Soroor was born in Afghanistan, but raised in Canada from the age of six. “I didn’t know what to expect, I felt a loss of control even though I put myself there. I finally gave in to my longing to see Kabul. I know there was some danger to my life…but I had to go.”

The scope of Soroor’s bittersweet return home intermingled with her family’s flight from Afghanistan will be the subject of a CBC Radio One (99.1 FM) documentary, written by Soroor, to be aired tomorrow on "Outfront" at 8:43pm, right after "The Review".

Before leaving Afghanistan in 1983, Soroor’s parents were established cinema, theatre, TV and radio artists. Her older brother, Waheed Soroor (BSc Spec. Hons. ’95, BEd ’97), is a known singer in Afghanistan and cut his first CD, Let’s Dance, in 2005. Soroor is also a singer; she has played in concert venues in the US, Germany and Canada.

Her purpose in returning was to explore her roots, to see if she remembered the country where she was created or if it remembered her. “The adventure was in my mind and my heart before I got there, but now it was real,” she says.

Her first impressions of Kabul, the capital, were of a city surrounded by rich, dark mountains – like mountains of chocolate. But some of what she saw was not so sweet.

Left: City of Kabul as seen by Wajma Soroor on her arrival

“Leaving the airport, I remember seeing the police everywhere, big green Toyota pickups with gun stands, thin and weary-looking police officers with fingers on the trigger,” says Soroor. “People were kind and warm…but on the streets tempers hung in the balance.”

She was struck at having to pass through two roadside blockades positioned to discourage easy road access. Once through the blockades, the guesthouse where she was staying was like anywhere in Europe, she says. “I was not expecting a wireless Internet connection, flat-screen TVs, European furniture and electricity.”

Right: The streets of Kabul

Twice she visited some of her relatives living just outside Kabul in a small village. “I don’t know these people at all – cousins, aunts, uncles. My parents talk about them with great intimacy and love. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go see them. A woman from abroad, travelling alone, is seen as wealthy. I didn’t feel safe, so I took a guard with me the first time I went,” says Soroor.

Left: Kabul, rising up into the mountains that surround the city

The same house has been in the family for some 100 years. Two of her brothers, Wais and Walid, were born there. “It’s a mud house,” she says. The kitchen was the size of a telephone booth. A single burner gas tank on the floor is where they cooked the food. There was a fridge in the corner, but it was not hooked up as they only have electricity for about three hours a day. Despite that, Soroor says, the meals were incredibly good. Like nothing she’d ever had before.

As she found her footing in Afghanistan, the words of Afghan Canadian author Hamida Ghafour resonated with her: “Afghanistan is the place you go to see who you are.”

“It’s true…. It’s the only time you have the opportunity to see who you really are. Everyone is scared, but they’re brave too,” says Soroor.

Her documentary is one of the few times she will have opened up about her journey. “This experience in Afghanistan is not something I’ve talked a lot about and I have to let it out and I think this is the right way to do it. This is my contribution to the dialogue between east and west.”

For more information about the documentary, visit CBC Radio One’s "Outfront" Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer