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Connections

My boyhood friend was forced to join the Taliban. He deserved better

My path brought me to Harvard. His to an impossible decision to pay off a family debt.

Associated Press images; Globe staff photo illustration

Zulfi was my first friend.

Born days apart, we lived on Waris Road in Peshawar, Pakistan, where our houses were separated by the modest Shah Khan mosque. Proximity — of age, class, and home — meant that we grew closer every day.

Our life was simple. We’d halved many a samosa, snickered through many a parental scolding, and even thrown a couple punches in each other’s defense against the school bully.

Zulfi was my best friend.

For our fifth birthdays, we combined wishes to ask for a day at the local theme park. Even then, we knew they were just wishes. At 600 Pakistani rupees — enough for a few meals — tickets were more than our families could afford.

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Instead, our dads built us a rickety treehouse, where Zulfi and I spent countless hours devising grand plans, so no theme park would be beyond reach in the future.

“We’ll go to America! Disneyland is in America!”

Our plan was simple. Zulfi was bright and would become a world-famous scientist, and I’d be a poet, like my grandfather. And then, we’d go to Disneyland.

But, in the sixth year of our friendship, my dad’s promotion at the tobacco factory took my family a four-hour drive away, to Rawalpindi, and, eventually, abroad. Zulfi and I lost touch. It was 15 years before I heard of him again.

In 2014, in the midst of a military operation against the Taliban, I traveled back to Peshawar as part of a governmental refugee-aid team. My childhood home was unrecognizable. I stood among a sea of tents separated only by narrow chalked up lanes littered with diapers, food scraps, and blood.

I realized then that in pursuit of my Disneyland, I had left this town behind, and as it fell apart, I had washed my hands of all responsibility. I thought of Zulfi — he would not have done the same. Zulfi was kinder. He cared more about his people and his country.

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As a late-day haze descended, and the cacophony of thousands of voices began to wane, a tremulous one called out my name. The voice neared, and a familiar face came into focus: Zulfi’s mum. She looked tired. She was a refugee? She was a refugee.

Shocked, I muttered, “Where’s Zulfi?”

“Zulfi is dead.”

When I was graduating high school in Sri Lanka, Zulfi was “selling” himself to the Taliban to pay off family debt, his mother told me. And as I collected my bachelor’s degree in Canada, Zulfi was killed in a joint Pakistani-American military operation — shot, she said, in the side of the neck.

Today, I find myself in Harvard’s ornate libraries and expansive classrooms. I know Zulfi would have thrived here. It seems a Shakespearean coincidence. At some point, the proverbial cradle in which we both played had fractured, and we’d floated into wildly different lives. And they were now at war with each other.

As a mix of guilt, shame, and anger filled me, a sad smile crossed the face of Zulfi’s mum. “I am proud of you,” she said. “But don’t forget your roots and the gifts you’ve been given.” I didn’t understand her at the time, but I do now.

Zulfi and I didn’t have predetermined paths. Yet our lives weren’t entirely of our own making, either. They were shaped by circumstance, by fortune, and by the gifts we had or, indeed, had not, been given. Our roots were the same, but we grew in different directions. One of us dead in America’s longest war, the other educated at America’s oldest university.

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Zulfi reminds me that we need a greater sense of empathy for those who surround us, and more understanding of the roots that tie us together.

Not all of us will make it to Disneyland. But it will not be for a lack of deserving.

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Ali Khan is a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Send comments to connections@globe.com. To submit your story for consideration for Connections, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.