Afghan Hoop Dreams
by Peretz Partensky '03
When I was growing up in Ekaterinburg in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my schoolteacher warned me that if I didn’t study hard I’d get drafted into the army and sent to die in Afghanistan.
When my family immigrated to Newton, Mass., as Soviet-Jewish refugees, war-weary Afghanistan seemed more distant than ever. But I still studied hard. I graduated from Brandeis with majors in physics, math and English. I completed an MPhil at the University of Cambridge. I earned a PhD in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco.
After all that, I realized I didn’t envy my professors. Instead of continuing on in academia, I went to Afghanistan.
I shipped out to Jalalabad in December 2010, but not as a soldier. I worked as a member of the Synergy Strike Force (SSF), a group of volunteers and contractors trying to lessen poverty and isolation, particularly in war-torn regions, through science and technology. In Jalalabad, our goal was to blanket the city with the Internet and teach residents how to keep the Web functioning.
We lived and operated “outside the wire” — the barbed kind that surrounds army bases. With the help of the SSF, my home, the Taj Mahal Guest House, sported powerful antennas on its roof that beamed wireless signals to the tallest water tower in the town center. The signals infiltrated hospitals, schools and homes via a mesh network of aging routers and makeshift tin-can antennas.
I met Sudir when he was about to graduate from Nangarhar University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. His side hobbies — DIY computer networking, solar-power installation and blogging — set him apart from other Afghan boys and earned him a position with the SSF. A few weeks after we met, he invited me to play pickup basketball with him and his friends.
The only basketball court in town was at Nangarhar University. Since the school was short on space, the court saw many uses. At sunrise and sunset, it was a mosque. During exam time, it was lined with desks and littered with cheat sheets. We’d clear the desks only to slip on schematics of chemical reactions annotated in Pashto.
Most of the Afghan basketball players stepped onto the court barefoot. A few wore sandals; others, worn-out dress shoes. The vast majority wore traditional Afghan baggy pants that Pashtuns call partoug and the American soldiers have nicknamed “man jammies.” In time, the hazy fog of Afghan players coalesced into human beings with names: Big Boy Nasrat, Fleet-footed Sudir, Haji Najib, Young Azar, Engineer Izatullah, Lefty Ashoq.
Najib and I had a special connection — we both spent the ’80s in the Soviet school system. He’d lived in a half-dozen countries and learned a number of languages, including my native Russian. Soon after we met, Najib became my driver, translator and primary confidant.
You can learn a lot about a culture from how its people play sports. In Jalalabad, the overall court manner was selfish. The players rarely passed, preferring to run headlong into a crowd on only a prayer. Instead of giving every call the benefit of the doubt, they argued vehemently for their side.
The bigger player tended to win, and the biggest player was Nasrat. His behavior was disruptive. At our second game, I confronted him over ball possession and immediately regretted it. I feared I had initiated a showdown with the alpha male without first shoring up support. Remarkably, Nasrat relinquished the ball without argument. He brought a whistle to the next match, and handed it to me, thereby conferring on me the role of trusted arbiter.
A couple of months after our first game, Sudir and Najib told me a call had come from Kabul. The Afghanistan National Basketball Federation was organizing a tournament and invited our team to represent Nangarhar Province.
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They asked me to come along as their coach. Our conversation went something like this:
“You realize I know nothing about coaching.”
“Still, probably more than we know about being coached.”
“All I have to offer is common sense.”
“It might work well in combination with what we’ve got.”
“I need time to consider.”
“There is no time. The tournament is less than two weeks away.”
Big Boy Nasrat — moody, bellicose and belligerent — became our official team captain. The tallest among us, he was naturally suited for center. He dubbed us the Nangarhar Stars, ignoring the prevailing opinion that the name was pretentious.
Security posed a challenge. The deadliest terror act in Jalalabad since 2001 had occurred just a few days earlier. Several graduates of Taliban training camps located in Pakistan had crossed the border, walked into the main branch of Kabul Bank wearing Afghan National Police uniforms, shot civilians and police officers who were collecting their salaries, then successfully blended in with the victims and detonated suicide vests during the rescue operation.
Living outside the wire meant being responsible for our own safety. Avoiding patterns is a core tenet. Ten consecutive days of practice would constitute an unmistakable pattern. Therefore, Rory Brown, an English friend who had agreed to co-coach the Stars, and I decided to implement an experimental scheduling strategy and test the team’s battle readiness at the same time. The two of us would agree on a practice time in advance but share it with Sudir and Najib only a half-hour before practice. This would trigger a series of calls: “Drop what you are doing, and come play ball!”
Rory and I also tried to cultivate a team mentality. We asked players to value their contribution to the whole above individual performance. We tallied assists instead of baskets.
This message of team spirit had to stew in a pot of languages. We were in an ethnically Pashtun region where the most common language is Pashto. Dari, a dialect of Persian, is Afghanistan’s other official language. Rory, who was the regional manager for the Afghan NGO safety office and had studied languages at Oxford, was able to converse with the players in their own tongue. I communicated through an intermediary language — either English or Russian, depending on whether Sudir or Najib was closer.
Elaborating on the theme of team mentality, we introduced the concept of a huddle. Above all, we tried to inculcate respect for the referee. Rory warned that arguing with the referee in the tournament would hurt the whole team.
On the eve of our departure, Sudir and Najib paid me a late call at the Taj. In the trunk of Najib’s car were a dozen shiny new yellow tracksuits with Afghanistan’s flag and the Olympic logo. And, better yet, matching indoor soccer shoes. “We just got these through Nasrat,” they said. “You get first pick.”
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In the dead center of Kabul’s Olympic complex lies Ghazi Stadium, the Taliban’s preferred venue for public executions. A spiked iron fence, adorned with Olympic rings, encloses the soccer stadium and a half-dozen other specialized gymnasiums. Although only one Afghan has ever won an Olympic medal, the confident athletes crisscrossing the quad in shiny tracksuits — rushing to archery, tae kwon do or soccer practice — clearly intended to improve on this record. The basketball arena was approximately the size of my high-school gym in Newton, but by Jalalabad’s standards it was truly Olympic.
There were eight teams in the tournament. Kabul fielded four of them: Kabul Municipality and Samandar Club, which were legitimate teams, and the Fireflies of Kabul and Logar Club, which were created to give young, developing players some tournament experience. The other four teams were from Afghanistan’s provinces: Mazar-i-Sharif in the north; Kandahar in the south; Herat in the west; and our team, from Jalalabad, to the east.
Mazar-i-Sharif is in the Balkh Province, bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Most of the players were ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks, skinny and tall, young and cheerful, either in their last year of high school or first year of college. They sported spiky, disheveled hair reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Kandahar is a Pashtun stronghold, and its players did not look particularly ready. They were either very fat or very thin. They carried themselves with the air of grownups wearing shorts for the first time. One player refused to shake my hand. In broken English, the captain explained politely, “He thinks you are a foreign infidel.”
The team from Herat, near Afghanistan’s border with Iran, actually looked like a basketball team. They were tall, athletic and healthy, and walked with the cocky swagger of the jocks in my high school. With a hint of resentment in his voice, Najib told me they were Farsiwan, ethnically similar to the Persians of eastern Iran. They were the only team with corporate sponsorship. Across the front of their neon-green uniforms was an advertisement for Big Bear, an Emirates-based energy drink.
It was a long and exhausting day of meeting people, posing for the camera, showing off, and slipping on the mud-slicked court. Winter was in full swing; the sleet outside was chilling to the bone. No one on our team owned cold-weather gear. We hurried back to our hotel rooms, drenched and shivering. Even our thin laughter condensed in the air.
Considering that we all slept in the same room, the toilet malfunctioned, there wasn’t any warm water and everyone in Afghanistan takes their shoes off indoors, it didn’t smell that bad. The lucky players got cots with squeaky springs, while the rest of us huddled on the floor. In spite of the squalor, everyone remained remarkably cheerful.
Our starting forward, Engineer Izatullah, had washed our uniforms before leaving warm, sunny Jalalabad but hadn’t had time to dry them. We jumped on the beds and whipped each other with the damp jerseys — a rare carefree moment in the players’ difficult lives. Sudir grabbed me excitedly to ask whether Americans ever have fun like this. He expressed concern that they were incapable of similar shenanigans: “Americans are always serious.”
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Like columns in a spreadsheet, eight teams lined up for the opening ceremony the following morning. I surveyed the ranks and confirmed what I had suspected: The Nangarhar Stars were operating at a triple disadvantage. We were the oldest, shortest and heaviest of the teams. And definitely the weirdest.
Nasrat was holding our team’s banner at the head of the pack. He was beaming, wearing a No. 1 on his jersey and bright-red knee socks. He had bought the rest of the team green knee socks. On the court, a choir of girls dressed in traditional outfits that covered everything but their eyes and mouth sang the national anthem. They were flanked by a team of bodyguards who ushered them off the court on the final note.
The show match was between Kabul’s premier teams, Kabul Municipality and Samandar Club. We cheered wildly for Samandar because it was home to our favorite player, Izat, a tall, handsome, tranquil man originally from Jalalabad, who now played on the national team.
When the game ended, Izat didn’t blink when Najib and Nasrat asked him to start coaching the Nangarhar Stars, before getting any rest after his own match. That’s how we got Izat on our sideline, along with Samandar Club’s remaining Gatorade as a hand-me-down.
After our pregame motivational huddle, I assumed we’d throw our hands into the air with a battle cry. Instead, Nasrat’s cousin and our newest teammate, Ibrahim, a fellow Pashtun from
the tribal areas of Pakistan, who randomly showed up in our hotel room the night before, led a short prayer asking Allah to grant us victory. While he prayed, the others instinctively opened their palms to the sky, and when he finished they said “Amen” in unison and brought their palms to their faces in a gesture of ablution.
It almost seemed like our prayers had been answered when Nasrat won possession of the jump ball and we ran up a quick lead over the younger Mazaris, which we kept into the fourth quarter until fatigue and foul trouble finally brought us down.
Early the next morning, we faced the Fireflies of Kabul.
Clearly, having a Pashtun game coach greatly improved the pace of communication, so Jalalabadi Izat recruited another player from the national team to share coaching duties for the match.
Again, we fell prey to fouls and lack of discipline. While we were still leading in the third quarter, it almost seemed like Ibrahim could carry the whole team on his shoulders. I ran alongside the court, flailing my hands and screaming “Slow down! Slow down!” But such discipline takes training and isn’t born of unsolicited advice in a foreign language. When the buzzer rang, we had lost by a narrow margin.
Perhaps the officials noticed my agony over not being able to play in the tournament. Independently, a couple of them hinted that the rules could be bent for our upcoming game, a possibility that made me both excited and anxious. I could not say no.
During our pregame huddle, I tried to set realistic expectations. Having lost our first two games, we were out of the running for the quarterfinals. The chances of winning against Herat were zero. We needed to redefine our measure of success.
I suggested maximizing our total fun while minimizing the number of their runaway dunks: “Make them work for it.” This was our last game, so it was also important to give everyone an opportunity to play. These were things we could actually win at.
Most of the players responded favorably to my proposal. Nasrat seemed dubious. But if he took offense at the suggestion of a third loss, he didn’t say so. Per our newly established tradition, Ibrahim led a quick prayer. The Kandaharis vigorously chanted “Nan-Gar-Har” from the front row, just as we cheered “Kan-Da-Har” for our fellow Pashtuns when they played.
But Nasrat’s frustration was visible from the outset and only grew more intense as the game progressed. Discontented because we were already down by double digits in the second quarter, he started sowing conspiracy theories. He explained the absence of an electronic scoreboard as an official scheme to rig the tournament.
“Bullshit,” I shot back. Though, truth be told, even weirder things were happening, and you didn’t have to look very far to see them. The seams of the court we were playing on had literally come apart, exposing long, narrow strips of bare earth. The building structure was a mere shell without a foundation. Large rubber mats resting directly on the ground constituted our playing surface.
Nasrat was clearly tired; he argued with the referees and then yelled at them — behavior that would have immediately disqualified him anywhere but in Afghanistan. Instead of taking a breather on the bench, he stayed in the game and insisted on guarding the Heratis’ starting center.
When Nasrat could no longer keep up, he resorted to dirty tactics. When a double technical foul was charged to both teams, Nasrat accused the referees of “nationalism” — the way we might use the word “racism.” “The Iranians and Northerners are ganging up on the Pashtuns,” he cried. And on the next inbound possession, he started a fight, grabbing the nearest opponent and dragging him to the ground.
The stadium went silent.
I watched the pile of humans grow and the ball roll off the court.
The fight ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Vainly, I tried to mediate, given the language resources at my disposal, appealing to whomever would listen, but those who could understand me only rolled their eyes. The court was a microcosm of a divided country, and — in trying to resolve this centuries-old ethnic tension, much like the Russians and the Americans — I found myself without a part.
I recalled my Russian schoolteacher’s remarks and admonished myself for getting so involved. What was the point of sticking my neck out, trying to solve someone else’s problem, one I could barely comprehend? I had a sudden out-of-body experience, and my narrative floated above the court. Who does that crazy Russian-American Jew flailing about at center court think he is?
We were disqualified.
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The fallen Nangarhar Stars regrouped at the hotel. On the way, Sudir, Najib and I stopped at the bazaar for Afghan comfort foods — teacakes, cookies, candy bars and a case of Mountain Dew. Najib purchased 10 kilos of apples and oranges.
When we arrived at the hotel room, a feast of lamb pilau was waiting. Large plates of greasy meat and stacks of flatbread were served in the traditional manner, on a vinyl cloth unfurled on the floor.
In contrast to the chaos on the court, the atmosphere in the room resembled the solemn meal accompanying a wake. It was clearly the end of something, and the meditative silence betrayed our inability to articulate exactly what.
Nasrat couldn’t endure the situation for long. He felt natural in chaos and had no use for introspection. He began again with the rhetoric that marked our exit from the tournament, but his words failed to provoke the desired reaction. His teammates were in a reflective mood, and he didn’t provide an answer to their deeper questions. I felt their eyes expectantly converge on me. The tide had turned, and I was again in charge of my team.
Playing basketball was one of the last things I thought I would do in Afghanistan. Yet there I was, in a foreign land, in a barely comprehensible cultural landscape, in a stinky hotel, mediating an interethnic conflict disguised as a skirmish on the court.
I remembered our Internet connectivity mantra at SSF: The knowledge of how to maintain the network must reside with its users. As an outsider, I could only hope to frame the problem and leave the solution up to them.
“We’ve come such a long way from Jalalabad,” I said. “We were invited to join a national tournament in the capital. We faced the best players in Afghanistan. We made friends with the teams from Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar. Every aspect of this experience was beyond our imagination just a few days ago.”
There was something I had to say publicly to Nasrat. Since my words were inevitably skewed by translation, I needed to speak directly and simply so my teammates could understand.
“Nasrat, we’ve heard your accusations, but what have your actions accomplished?” I asked. “Instead of honorably playing to the best of our abilities, we started a cowardly fight that we couldn’t possibly finish. We walked off the court in shame, snubbing the organizers who had invited us to Kabul and treated us fairly, and the stadium full of our peers.
“Nasrat, in claiming to defend Pashtun honor, you disgraced it.”
With this barb delivered, I stopped.
That night, Jalalabadi Izat and Haji Najib, our ambassadors, led a delegation to the Heratis’ hotel room. They were laden with peace offerings — apples, oranges and a mixture of the remaining sweets. Given that Izat was a member of the national team, his presence provided additional legitimacy. The Heratis accepted the fruits and invited the Nangarhar Stars in for tea. Haji Najib, with his sense of humor and worldly charm, took charge. He whipped out his cellphone boombox, pressed play and proclaimed it time for a music party. The revelry lasted into the night, like an ecstatic ritual of allegiance between convening tribes.
The Nangarhar Stars washed their necks with cold water the following morning, packed the remaining fruit and set out for the stadium, repentant. The officials accepted us into the fold gracefully, referring to the whole affair as a valuable learning experience for everyone. Over shared pots of tea, they encouraged us to attend the final match.
As Izat’s Samandar Club staged a late rally to beat the Heratis and win the tournament, the whole stadium teetered on the edge of their seats. In the stands, the other teams’ colors mingled freely. The players were drawn from drastically different strata of society, and their journeys to the melting pot of Kabul represented different dreams.
Seeing them like this, I could no longer think of anyone as an opponent. We were all part of this together — the game; the country; the contradictions; hundreds of years of ethnic conflict; the legacy of the Russians; the current influences of Iran, Pakistan and the United States — all trying to piece together the parts, trying to answer stubborn questions: What game are we playing here? And exactly what are the rules?
Peretz Partensky lives in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of Sourcery.us, a sourcing platform for the food-service industry. An earlier version of this article appeared in n+1 magazine.