Ali smiled a lot, quietly nursing his son on his knee, while our focus was on his wife, the artist Faiqa Sultani. She was startlingly attractive, vivacious and just a bit nervous with her first exhibition since leaving Afghanistan about to open later in the evening. Wanting to draw Ali into the conversation I asked that tired old question
"And what did you do in Afghanistan, Ali?"expecting to hear about his photography. His answer blew me away.
"I was a sport commentator " he said. What! A colleague! From Afghanistan! Now this was surely a story to be told and so we made an appointment to meet up. I desperately wanted to know more about commentating in a crises region.
Ali Haidary was born in Daikundi, Afghanistan in 1991. He got his BA after studying graphic design in Kabul, and kept on bettering his skills with workshops set up by foreign experts, guest speakers and what he wryly calls the "university of YouTube "
"In Afghanistan you have to be able to do everything". And so he developed his talents to become not only a graphic designer but also videographer, photographer and reporter, working freelance for various agencies. Unfortunately this would often mean covering catastrophic events such as suicide bombings. Foreign reporters would arrive in Kabul and, in a flurry of activity, would get in touch with Ali to help with everything from transport, filming and editing. He would be paid for the documentaries he'd made. The reporters would leave.
So I imagined that the sports reporting and commentating was a bit of light relief for Ali. He started this at a very young age. He was still at school when he began dubbing for TV series and films, earning a bit of money to help with his studies. It was here that his voice was "discovered " his boss saying "You sound good" and setting him to work in the sports section as both reporter and broadcaster.
One of these sports was Buzkashi. Ahh yes! This is where Ali and my interests fused, as Buzkashi is possibly the ancient form of what later became polo. Ali explained that there are usually 10 players on each side representing two different villages. The winner getting the slaughtered goat over the line, is rewarded with money and livestock presented by the team's "patron". "It's a passionate game" Ali says, expressing the field-side atmosphere by explaining "The spectators make it hot."
"How long does it last?"
"As long as it takes."
"Is it dangerous?"
Sport and Danger
And for the journalists? The journey to the heartland of Buzkashi, Mazari-Sharif has become very dangerous. Going by car leaves the TV crew open to arrest or hassle by the Taliban who see the media in general as spying for the USA. Interviews leave the reporter open to abuse both verbal and physical from conservative passers-by.
However, Ali moved me off the subject of Buzkashi by explaining that there are really two strains of sporting interest in Afghanistan. The first is that of the older generation and includes Buzkashi, cock-fighting and donkey races. The younger generation is more interested in cricket, football and footsal, a form of indoor football.
"Do you have a national football team?"
"Yes and they won the South Asian Challenge Cup in 2013." Proud!
We touched on the differences between the many ethnic and language groups in Afghanistan which leave cricket the prerogative of the Pashto and all interviews with cricketers being done in English in which Ali is fluent.
Life was pleasant for Ali. He had married the artist, Faiqa, who was working with an English firm as branding manager.
She was also developing her own clothing brand and had connections with other artists and business women. The couple enjoyed a busy social life with artists, film makers, TV personalities and international journalists.
And we can guess what happened next, right? The allied forces left in a hurry. The Taliban took over. The young couple and their families were in immediate danger. Ali was working freelance and didn't have a big international organization behind him as protection. He got in touch with colleagues from USA, China, Germany and the UK. There was no reply. In panic Faiqa turned to her company and through them to the UK government, which was prepared to accept Ali, Faiqa, Ali's parents and Faiqa's young brother.
They were to evacuate to Pakistan and then to London. A mad rush to pack essentials and find transport. The night journey was a frenzied six hour drive, squashed into a van with 15-20 others. Each of the numerous check points meant repeating the story of being ill and wanting treatment in Pakistan. Relief as they were waved on. But at the border town of Torkham luck ran out and they were surrounded, handcuffed, a gun put to Ali's head. "Information " was demanded from him but Ali had none to give. It was Faiqa who had hidden their documents under her hijab. Ali and his father were thrown into a damp, windowless concrete cell while Faiqa, her mother-in-law and young brother were shoved into another insect infested cell. The sound of the metal doors being bolted sent chills down their spines. However, they had a little hero in the person of Faiqa's young brother, whom the Taliban had dismissed as a child. He had cleverly hidden his small mobile phone in his sock and could quietly call Faiqa's father who had the necessary connections to start the process of getting them released and sent back to Kabul. It rook three days. Back in Kabul they were blacklisted and couldn't work. If they tried to travel again they would be shot.
Despite the danger in trying to leave, trying to live in Kabul was just as dangerous and Faiqa decided to get in touch with more of her connections. This time it was the German film makers with whom Faiqa had worked in the making of the documentary True Warriors . Faiqa's impressive paintings are definitely provocative and the Taliban would not approve. So the German film makers agreed to help with contacts and travel arrangements to get them, heavily disguised, to Pakistan and then on a flight to Leipzig. They arrived in Germany in November 2021 with Ali's parents. Our young hero had to stay behind. Ali and Faiqa's beautiful son, Kian, was born in June 2022 and now the heavy slog begins, learning German, finding their way around (and paying countless fines for being on the wrong train, at the wrong time, with the wrong ticket....) They are trying to set up a home in Landsberg-am-Lech, and to get Faiqa's father out of Afghanistan. He's been blacklisted too for helping the couple to escape and Faiqa knows his life is in danger. Ali has sent his CV to various film companies. Faiqa is looking for a studio to continue her painting and hopes to set up an art therapy group for traumatized refugee children.
It may be a while before Ali can join me on the commentary stand but Faiqa, Ali and Kian will find their way.
They have come so far.
Thank you for your time , Ali.