As an Afghan immigrant, Britain and atheism showed me the bright side of democracy

My life would be completely different had my parents chosen to settle in Kabul. Since coming here, I can’t help but think about how much it means to have access to knowledge so readily

Mohadesa Najumi
Monday 30 September 2019 08:16
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There’s so much I wish I could tell people about me, like the fact that my dad doesn’t know how old he is (in Afghanistan they didn’t used to record birthdays), or that every day I am thankful to be living in a democratic state. I was naturalised as a British citizen when I was very young; being a Londoner is all I have ever known since the age of three. But there’s lots of little things that I adore which British-born citizens often overlook.

I’ve been back to Kabul, where I was born, since settling in the UK. There is no sewage system, no waste management systems, no rule of law. People burn their garbage in the middle of the street. If you want to send a letter, you can’t because there’s no postal delivery system. Visiting a friend’s home for the first time? Good luck trying to find a map that helps you navigate locations; homes don’t even have door numbers. As aesthetically pleasing as some places were to visit, travelling to Afghanistan at an early age opened my eyes and gave me perspective. It’s one thing to read about democracy in a textbook, it’s another to experience first-hand how its manifestation can alter the fabric of one’s existence.

I’ve had to grapple with a lot of different aspects of myself, at times I find I am still coming to terms with myself. The British side of me is over-polite, loves roast dinner, and frequently engages in banter. Growing up, Afghan culture taught me to become a gift-giver, Afghans have a tradition where they do not visit the home of another person without bringing a gift, whether it’s fruit or clothes. I still find myself giving gifts to people randomly at work for no particular reason, or to my friends, not knowing how to explain to them that it is a programmed response.

There are more sinister parts of my identity. For example, I wouldn’t dare to disclose to another Afghan that I am an atheist. In fact, I would rather say that I am from another country just to avoid the conversation altogether. It is a fear that I have, being attacked for my belief system, or lack thereof. Once I realised at age 17 that I was an atheist, I began to understand my purpose a lot better. I no longer felt lost or at war with the nature of reality. Now when I experience the first few stages of lust, for example, I don’t see it as magic, I know its evolutionary biology prompting a cascade of chemicals. When I centre myself, I don’t feel I am connecting to a higher power, instead I know that neural network integration is at work. Or if I ever experience bad luck, I can take accountability and put it down to my own actions, not superstition. Atheism helps me achieve equanimity amid the flux. More importantly, it has allowed me to seek explanations of the natural world through science, to refine my facilities by learning and debating and it has given me the groundwork to insight into the human condition.

Another factor that can be quite tricky to manoeuvre is coming to terms with the fact that being a child of immigrants makes me extremely vulnerable. There is no safety net if something were to go wrong, no strong family lineage to fall back on, no real support system. This has made me particularly mentally strong.

It’s weird, the things which ought to ostensibly cause disturbance within me have actually spurred me to become more motivated than ever. For example, knowing that I have nobody to fall back on, to rely on or carry me, is probably the reason why I am a self-starter. I got into my master’s program at the age of 21 after graduating with a first-class honours. I had lived in three different continents by the time I was 25. I wonder if any of this would have happened if I was not an outsider, a child of immigrants, a woman; I always felt I had more to prove than others.

Every day I am grateful for encountering science, humanism, reason and the grace of literature. My life would be completely different had my parents chosen to settle in Kabul. I would likely be illiterate, prohibited from working, sadder even – I might never have encountered Bukowski, neuroscience or stoicism.

I can’t begin to describe how much I adore the little parts of living in London. Every time I pick up free newspapers, I think about how much it means to have access to knowledge so readily, it is truly a luxury that we take for granted. I can walk for five minutes and find my local bank, buy a fresh croissant with a contactless card and enter one of London’s many public libraries. We take employment laws for granted too. Having lived and worked in China, I was overworked, mistreated and subjected to gross employment abuses that I couldn’t report, as it is considered disrespectful to dispute orders in China. And this all happened to me while I was working at one of the most prestigious private Universities in Guangzhou. But these experiences remind me of the beauty of rule of law. Upholding democracy is our strength in the west, and we need to stop shying away from being vocal about our triumphs.

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Nonetheless, while British citizens have access to a number of privileges that they often take for granted, challenges to democracy do exist. There is still a crisis in our polity the norms of our political and electoral culture that has parties at its centre. Many would argue that it is now approaching full-scale collapse in the midst of Brexit. While parliament insists on a bill to stop a no-deal Brexit, there are some who describe our nation as broken.

The overall point here is that we all benefit from democracy, those of us in the western world, and to overlook the little luxuries is the cause of a lot of discontent within most people. One of my favourite Stoic philosophers, Epictetus, once said “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’’ I really believe that to be happy means to live in eternal gratitude for everything, even the little stuff. When did it become fashionable to be a cynic? I find nothing noble or admirable about constant complaint and judgement. If only we spent more time rejoicing and celebrating the richness of life.

Life in the west is truly a marvel, it took me travelling to the ends of the earth to really learn this, and it will take a lifetime to truly embody it, but the philosophy remains the same: he is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

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