The 20-year-old author of Come Back to Afghanistan is no seasoned reporter, but when Said Hyder Akbar moved back to Kabul from Oakland with his father three years ago, tape recorder in hand, he became fully embedded. He spoke with Boris Kachka.
What could you do—both on NPR and in the book—that professional journalists couldn’t?
I had a good background, but [Afghanistan] was new and out of this world—you notice things that you wouldn’t notice if you just walked into your bedroom. Also, I got lucky—most of the characters were just family and friends.
You become more skeptical in the book, especially after someone dies in American custody.
I have become more cynical—they lied to my face and said they hadn’t done anything. When I hear a spokesman in Iraq or Afghanistan saying something, I can’t just accept it.
How do you feel about Iraq?
It’s been kind of shocking for me to see how easy it has been for the U.S. to look beyond Afghanistan. I’d see leaflets being dropped by the Taliban saying, “How long do you think the Americans will be here? Maybe a year, two, three? You’re gonna have to deal with us once they leave.”
Meanwhile, you’re back at Yale. Do you blend in?
It is a little frustrating. But I don’t want to be one of those people saying, How can you be having fun? Do you know what’s going on in Afghanistan?! I don’t want to be 20 going on 45.
You do seem quite American, and you write that “I was born a generation too late—I missed both the jihad and the Joshua Tree tour.” Who’s let you down more, U2 or Afghanistan?
I think it might be the same thing—we have Karzai, who’s too nice and too moderate, placating the warlords. And U2, after what happened to them with Pop—now they’re making soft albums that aren’t gonna blow anybody out of the water. It’s frustrating and disappointing on both sides.