It was spring 2007 when I landed in Boston to pursue my graduate studies at Brandeis University. I made several American friends and enjoyed numerous dinners with generous American families during my stay in the United States.
So I felt a particular connection when the images were broadcast on April 15 after explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But many of my countrymen and -women back home in Afghanistan were equally saddened to hear the news, and some came forward to express their sympathy.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, "The Atlantic" published a series of photos
of Afghans holding placards that read "From Kabul to Boston with Love." The photographs got thousands of social-network shares. Similar photos of Iraqis and Syrians also appeared on the Internet, with messages like "We mourn with Boston" and "...Do accept our condolences."
The photographs were taken by author and documentary filmmaker Beth Murphy. She wrote that she planned to send her "love" home through the sign she wrote and wanted to take a picture with it but changed her mind "as I listened to good and innocent people express the heartache that all [of] us feel when other good and innocent people are suffering."
When those pictures hit the web, they elicited a range of emotions and responses. Someone on a Reddit thread said, "What a couple of nice gentlemen, not letting a petty war get in the way of humanity!" On the other hand, others suggested that the Afghans who held the placards didn't even know what was written on them. "They probably don't know what it says...," one user commented. Never mind that Murphy wrote that she actually talked about the subject matter with those subjects before photographing them. "I said, 'Would you be willing to hold this sign to send a little love from Kabul?'" Murphy wrote.
The stereotyping that led the skeptics to conclude that the Afghans in the photographs are illiterate or were paid to hold that sign is a disservice to those people and their courage. They chose to stand in front of a camera and display solidarity with Boston, many of them showing their faces not only to the rest of the world but also to the terrorists in the region that are a constant threat to them and their country.
Some online commenters found it hard to believe that Afghans, themselves the unfortunate victims of U.S. and international bomb strikes, could feel sympathy for the people of the United States in a situation like that. Implying that human nature should be to seek revenge, they suggest that these Afghans should be acting differently; that they should be indifferent or even pleased over the infliction of such pain on the country that has military presence in Afghanistan.
But Afghans in no way revere killings or hold killers in high regard, and neither do they think Americans deserve death or terrorism. Even though a week earlier, 10 children had died in an apparent NATO air strike in Kunar Province, Afghans continued to share the "From Kabul to Boston with Love" images because they know Afghans respect lives -- whether of Americans or anyone else around in the world.
Some have written that Afghans have been through a lot and it seems unrealistic to imagine them feeling sorry for others, given their own situation.
But in fact, there is little to suggest that those who live in turmoil cannot empathize with others, whether because there's too little room left in their hearts or because they've been numbed to the effects of violence. Even having lived in a virtual state of war for three decades, ordinary Afghans value life and peace and solidarity. They understand pain, whether their own or that of others.
The messages sent to Bostonians by those Afghans may not heal the pain of the loved ones of 8-year-old Martin Richard and other victims of the Marathon bombings. Neither would any "From Boston to Kabul" message remove the sorrows of the loved ones of those killed by Taliban insurgents, NATO bombardment, or cross-border shelling from Pakistan. But the message of solidarity was loud and clear.
-- Malali Bashir