Academics and Research

Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan brings different perspective to international studies

"I came to Korbel and I realized that life is not black and white, as I used to think," says Habib Zahori. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“I came to Korbel and I realized that life is not black and white, as I used to think,” says Habib Zahori. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Habib Zahori has countless stories to tell — about his native Afghanistan, his hometown of Kabul, his family history and his experiences as a student in the United States.

Zahori, a 31-year-old Fulbright scholar at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, told one of his stories — a tale of a faint scar and four fractured fingers, courtesy of the Taliban — in the April 10 issue of the New York Times Magazine. He shared other memories with the University of Denver Magazine. They appear here, in his own words — a reminder that DU students bring diverse experiences and perspectives to class discussions.


On his country and its resilient people

My family is originally from the south of the country — a province called Kandahar. My parents moved to Kabul some 33 years ago.

[The citizens of Afghanistan] have been living through war for the last 35, 40 years. I don’t say that people are used to violence, but it has become part of our life. My people always astonish me because you see that there’s a huge attack somewhere in the morning and then life goes back to normal. There is no panic. Nothing.

Of course there is a fear in the atmosphere, but that does not prevent people from having a normal life. People are getting married, having parties, having fun together. We are human beings, too, and war takes its toll.

When the civil war (1992–96) started, we lost everything. There was no economy, no jobs, nothing. But there was a big market for metal scraps. So people would go around and collect scraps, whatever they could find. In most cases, people would find a warhead or mine [left over from the Soviet-Afghan War]. They would carry it home, and to make it smaller they would hit it with something, and it would explode. And an entire family would die.

I lost a relative [this way] — he was a kid. He was out with friends and found an unexploded ordnance. So he and his friend, they started hitting it with a hammer. One, two, three — and then it exploded. His friend died immediately, and he was injured so badly. My dad was carrying him from one hospital to the next, until he died.

Those stories are part of our lives.


On his career plans

I did my undergraduate work in Kabul in medicine. And then, in 2009, when I graduated, I had two choices. I could either go work as a doctor and make, like 50 bucks per month, which was nothing, or I could get a job with foreign journalists and work as an interpreter and make enough money to take care of the family.

So I decided to quit medicine and work as an interpreter for foreign journalists. I worked for different media organizations, including the New York Times.

When I decided to study international relations, I was hoping I would [eventually] get a job with the Afghan government. I was thinking, if I could bring a small bit of change to a small office, why not? Given the level and scope of corruption that exists in the government, I changed my mind about [that]. I want to get a job with a human rights organization in Afghanistan.

[When I return to Afghanistan] I will be armed with a lot of knowledge, things I’ve learned here. And I’ll have the opportunity to do something good for the country — if not for the entire country, then for a small number of people. Everything I’ve learned here, I’m going to transfer it to whoever is interested back home.


On his encounters with the Taliban

I was 17 or 16 — I don’t remember. Back then, my family would always insist on us shaving our heads so we didn’t get in trouble with the law. You had to grow a beard, but you were not supposed to grow hair. Or dress it the way normal people dress their hair, because the Taliban were like, “Muslims should not copy Westerners,” so any hairstyle that was considered Western was bad.

My dad didn’t want us to get in trouble, so he’d always insist on us shaving our head. This one time, I decided to shave my beard as well. I didn’t know that mistake would get me in trouble with the Taliban. That same day, I went to play soccer and the Taliban police came and arrested me. I was not alone. There were a couple of other guys — they arrested them for having a Western-style hairstyle.

They kept us for [just] an hour, but they beat us. That was enough time. They didn’t want to keep us; they just wanted to send a message.

Beating was part of our life. We were young back then, and we would always try to defy Taliban rule. They didn’t expect us to go to school, but to go to mosque and prayers.


On the educational experience at the Korbel School

I remember my first day in class. The professor was talking about the syllabus, and I didn’t know what a syllabus was. Then he said, at the end of the class, that he wanted a 20-page essay, and he said that you have to use [The Chicago Manual of Style], and I didn’t know Chicago style. I didn’t know bibliography; I didn’t know citation. Anything.

I learned everything by myself. I just went to the library and spent hours to figure out how to write an essay and how to make a citation and a bibliography. And, of course, the amount of reading! I’ve never read this much. In Afghanistan, the academic system is so teacher-centric. The teacher has one textbook, and he comes and gives a lecture. And at the end, you have to take a test.

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to sit in a class and listen to students who are still insisting on war and invasion. There are some students who are defending what happened in Afghanistan and what happened in Iraq. Sometimes I get into long arguments with some of the American students when they say, if Iran does not comply with the international community or what the United States wants, invade them. Really? After Iraq and Afghanistan, now we want to invade Iran as well? So it’s difficult.

But I enjoy my time here. I have changed a lot, and my ideas have changed a lot, because I have learned a lot here. [For example], I lived under a religious dictatorship for a long time. During that time, I started building this grudge against religion and religious people. I hated everything about religion. But I came to Korbel and I realized that life is not black and white, as I used to think.



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