Home > Essays > I Hate WhatsApp
Published: Mon Apr 15 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 99 Family War Loss
I Hate WhatsApp

The U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan over two years ago, but I still receive messages and phone calls from my cousins and friends on a monthly basis, asking me to help them get out because they can’t live in fear and hiding anymore. I do not hear from them directly when their houses get raided by the Taliban; instead, their wives and children send me disjointed messages on WhatsApp and delete them the next minute so the Taliban will not see the messages, or they call from the next room to tell me in a few halting words what has been going on. My heartbeat goes up, my head spins. If I am standing, I sit down to calm myself, but where is the calm? I have been in their situation before. I was arrested by the Taliban in the 1990s, put in prison, chained to the ceiling, and beaten with a thick electric cable until I ended up with a dislocated shoulder, a dislocated elbow, and a dislocated wrist. The Taliban did not stop. They forced me and other prisoners in even worse condition to carry large stones from one room to another, and at the end of the day we were fed plain naan—for what? For not wearing a turban. That was our crime, not wearing a turban.

My cousins’ and friends’ crimes are much worse than violating the Taliban’s dress code. They worked with the U.S. military, NATO, USAID, and other foreign organizations. If the Taliban find them, they will skin them alive—I know this for a fact. Now how can I sit in my comfortable townhouse in Dallas and let that happen? I grew up and spent the first thirty years of my life with these people. I would do anything to save them, but what exactly can I do? I am so far away and helpless, but that is not what they think. They believe I am an influential figure now, because I have been living in the U.S. for the past ten years, because my books have been translated and published in “NATO countries,” and because my pieces in The New York Times and other newspapers have been discussed on TV in Afghanistan and syndicated by the local papers in Kabul. All I have to do, they often tell me, is pick up my phone and call someone in the White House and explain that my cousins or friends have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa or the P2 Program and when they check their cases online it still says “pending.” How much longer will their cases remain “pending?” It has been over two years already.

When I tell them that I don’t know anyone in the White House, and even if I did, they wouldn’t take orders from me because I’m not their boss, they quickly accuse me of forgetting my roots and growing numb to their pain. A minute later they shower me with undeserved praise to get me to say what they want to hear, but when I go on telling them I can’t do anything besides checking their status online if they have spotty internet, they grow sour again and call me unsympathetic, cold, stonehearted. When I assure them I am still the same person, they want me to prove it, and when I ask how, they want me to pass their messages to the authorities in Washington, D.C., letting them know that when U.S. personnel were in Afghanistan, they were their ears, mouths, and guardian angels. What they mean is that they served the Americans as interpreters, fixers, report-gatherers, cooks, and security guards, and without them the U.S. could not have talked to anyone, gone anywhere, or done anything.

When I say for the hundredth time that there is no such place in Washington, D.C., where I can convey their messages and ask for help, and if there was one, I’d have done it a million times already, they get angry again and call me all sorts of names.

Running out of options, I try reminding them one more time that Afghanistan is a forgotten story because everyone in Washington, D.C., is focused on Israel and Ukraine now. They lose their minds when I say that and give me long lectures about how the U.S. doesn’t have a single soldier in Ukraine or Israel, while the U.S. fought its longest war in Afghanistan—twenty hard years—and if it weren’t for Afghans like them, the U.S. would not have achieved its mission. How could the U.S. forget their Afghan allies who stood by them through thick and thin for twenty difficult years?

At this point, I have used all my debating skills and lost my voice. I ask about their wives and children, or I use my 19-month-old daughter as an excuse—that I need to feed her, change her diaper, take her out for her vaccine shots. For the rest of the day, though, their words echo in my head. Instead of being defensive, I should have explained U.S. foreign policy to help them understand how things work here. But unpacking U.S. policy requires time and expertise I don’t have. Even if I did and could describe everything to them as clearly as 2+2=4, they still would not understand me, because they lack basic knowledge of how policies are made and implemented in the U.S., or how policies are dropped and forgotten for reasons no one knows except maybe those who originally made them.

As soon as I get into bed, I recall the conversation with a new clarity. I flip from side to side like a fish out of water. If I can’t fall asleep in an hour, I give up, turn on the light, pick up a book from the nightstand, and sit on the floor to read—I sit on the floor because I associate my bed with hostile feelings. After a page or two I lose interest or my focus shifts. But even if I keep my focus and can comprehend every word, still they don’t make sense together. In fact, nothing makes sense, neither my life, nor theirs, nor all of humanity’s. I go back to bed and stare into the dark, waiting for sleep to take me away to oblivion for a few hours. No matter how late this happens, my body clock wakes me at the usual hour of 6:30, and for the rest of the day I am jittery, restless, and irritable, and my joints make cracking sounds as though they’re made of brittle twigs.


Three or four weeks go by, I slowly forget everything, food tastes good again, and I start to sleep well at night. Then suddenly there is another message, or a short call followed by brief texts:

the Taliban are ransacking our house
can’t find my husband
he’d jumped over the wall to the neighbor’s
now slapping my brother-in-law
one of them is about to enter this room

The message chain gets deleted, and my peace with it. I don’t dare call them for fear that the Taliban might pick up the phone. I wait for them to tell me what happened. If they don’t call or text me for the rest of the day, I feel as though I am walking on hot embers.


Three months ago, one beautiful morning when I was feeding my sixteen-month-old daughter and she was pointing out the window at a flock of crows, my phone lit up. I was happy to see my cousin’s name, Dawar. He is eighteen years older than me, tall, lean, with green eyes and pale skin that make him stand out in the crowd in Afghanistan, but it’s his wit and humor that make everyone gravitate toward him. Everything he says is laced with a tinge of irony, as though he can’t think of anything without seeing the absurdity in it first. He is my only cousin who’s never asked me for help, even when the Taliban visited his house and pummeled his two sons, one seventeen, the other fifteen, for refusing to say where their father was.

For eleven years Dawar served as a security guard for Save the Children and Afghanistan Small and Medium Enterprise Development (ASMED), which was funded by USAID. While working for ASMED, he was approached twice by the Taliban through his next-door neighbor, once in 2016 and a second time in late 2018, to let a couple of their suicide bombers pass through the gate in an explosive-filled vehicle so that their suicide bombers could kill the foreign staff and then detonate the vehicle and themselves. Each time he politely told his neighbor he’d be honored to collaborate with his Taliban relatives, but sadly he couldn’t in this case, simply because he had signed a contract with the foreigners and given his word of honor to protect them, and under no circumstance would he break his promise because he was a man of his word.

When Dawar told me about these two events, sometime in late 2018, he spoke with such bravado, especially when he pronounced “signed a contract,” “my word of honor,” and “under no circumstance,” I thought he was trying to amuse me with outlandish stories. Years later, when his house was raided by the Taliban and his wife called the next hour to tell me about it, I finally believed him. But when I talked to Dawar himself, he laughed as though it was a joke. Now, with his name blinking on my phone, I expected his wife to tell me about another raid, and then Dawar would snatch the phone from her and poke fun at the whole thing. Instead, I heard women and children crying.

“Dawar?” I said. “What is going on?”

“Dad is no longer with us,” his nineteen-year-old daughter responded. “He was electrocuted this morning.”

I felt the rush of a thousand heartbeats in a second. The spoon I was using to feed my daughter fell out of my hand, and she was startled by it and began crying.

“Dad is dead, Uncle Qais,” the nineteen-year-old girl repeated. “Did you hear me?”

Of course I had. But one question after another clogged up my head. How did he get electrocuted? There is hardly any electricity in Afghanistan, each household gets four to six hours a day, and sometimes weeks go by with no sign of it, yet he died of electrocution. How absurd, even comical—exactly like his stories.

“Dad was expecting you to get him out,” Dawar’s daughter said, sobbing gently. “We had tied all our hopes on you.”

After the Taliban’s visit, I’d suggested to Dawar that if he gathered all his documents and sent them to me, I would help him apply for the Special Immigrant Visa. The next day he shared them—including a letter of recommendation from his chief of staff, which is hard to obtain. But I didn’t apply for his Special Immigrant Visa because I was still waiting for his marriage certificate, his children’s birth certificates, and their Afghan ID cards and passports.

“Why didn’t you get him out in time?” the sobbing girl went on. “Imagine your daughter losing you when she turns nineteen. How would you feel about that?”

“I’ll wire you two hundred dollars for the funeral ceremony,” I said.

She stopped crying immediately. Perhaps she wanted me to say something like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or “Please accept my deepest condolences.” Or “I’m here for you and your family now.” Indeed, those crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to cheapen Dawar’s death with empty words. I knew he would appreciate the money more than false assurances. Two hundred dollars would cover some of his funeral expenses and alleviate the high cost of the wake.

“I’ll send you a screenshot of the Western Union tracking number in a few minutes,” I added and hung up.

As I fed my daughter the rest of her soup, I scolded myself for not asking where Dawar was electrocuted, why, and how. It took me three days and many phone calls to find out the details.

When the Americans were gone and Dawar lost his job as a security guard, he tried his hand at carpentry, then plumbing, and finally settled on becoming an electrician. After a year of apprenticeship, he opened his own company and hired two people to run the business with him. His company was paid by real estate developers to wire new homes. On weekends the neighbors would bring him their broken electronics to fix—irons, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, blenders, microwaves. They also hired him to replace the faulty wires and fuses in their homes. One day a new neighbor at the end of the street hired him to rewire his entire house. Everything was going well, but on the fifth and final day, when he was working at the fuse box, the power was mysteriously turned on, and he was dead the next moment. It turned out the new owner was a local Taliban leader.

Once I learned the details, reality sank in, and I felt the loss of Dawar for the first time. I locked the door of my room and wept as quietly as I could so my wife and daughter would not hear me. I rarely share news from Afghanistan with my wife. She had recently recovered from a long postpartum depression. But as I went on crying, I could not help wondering what went through Dawar’s mind when he realized he was about to die. Did he think about his wife, his two daughters, two sons, and what would become of them? Or did he think about his life, why he was born and lived to fifty-eight, and why he was dying now, without warning? Did he die in despair, or was he ready for it?

My daughter banged on my door, saying, “Dadda, Dadda . . .”

I wiped my tears, and there she was, standing with one of her books. I read her all twenty-six of her books so I wouldn’t think about Dawar’s death, his sarcasm and his contagious smile, but I couldn’t help recalling one episode after another. Whenever he came to our house and there happened to be guests, he would start talking very seriously and sincerely about something ridiculous—that one of his neighbors had given birth to a boy with sheep’s feet. Only my parents, five sisters, and I could tell what he was up to, but the guests would listen with interest. At some point his story would become so absurd that we’d lose it and burst out laughing; the guests would look at us as if we had lost our minds. What made it even more comical: the solemn look on Dawar’s face never changed, which threw the guests into further confusion.

Dawar’s darker humor was easily accessible. One day when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated himself in front of Kabul University, which starts half a block from our house, we rushed to the balcony and watched the chaos from a distance—people running in every direction, the injured yelling for help. We were utterly shaken.

“Thank God the bastard didn’t explode himself under this balcony,” Dawar said. “We’d be printed on the wall right now.”

The grotesque image cracked us up.

As soon as my wife put our daughter to bed, I went to bed too, much earlier than usual. Grieving silently is hard work. But when I pulled the blanket over my face, more memories poured in, sweet and tender ones this time. I remembered when I was little and Dawar would hoist me on his shoulders to collect apples from the trees in our courtyard and drop them in the bucket he carried. Then I remembered he’d take me and our other small cousins to the park and teach us how to use the parallel bars. When we grew tired and wanted a break, he performed magic for us, producing little sparrows and frogs from his pockets. He talked to them before releasing them, and he had us convinced he could speak both Frog and Sparrow. One day when flocks of sparrows were madly chirping and flying from one tree to another in our courtyard, my cousins and I got into a big argument. Some of us claimed they were playing hide and seek, some of us argued that they were chasing each other, and some insisted that they were having a fight like us. I suggested we ask Dawar. Everyone ran to his room and asked him what the birds were quarreling about. After listening for a few minutes, he told us they were planning to go on a long journey to visit the king of the birds, Seamorgh, and that some of the sparrows were opposed because they would have to fly over the seven continents, face all kinds of hazards, and possibly never make it. When we asked him what he meant by hazards, his face lit up as he told us stories about the seven continents, how some of them were full of men who looked like monstrous beasts, yet they were kind and gentle and did not harm anyone. Other continents were full of beautiful fairies, but they were ruthless and murdered everyone who did not look like them. Some continents were so cold and desolate that even the gentlest wind would freeze the sparrows’ wings. If they made it to the final continent where Seamorgh lived, the place was full of flowers and fruit trees. The more he talked about this final land, the more it resembled our courtyard, which our grandfather had built in the early 1950s and where my twenty-three cousins and I lived, along with our parents.

Our mothers called us in for dinner. The sparrows had long ceased chirping, and we asked Dawar why they had gone quiet. He put his index finger to his lips and hushed us so he could listen to what they were whispering about. After making strange faces, he happily announced that the sparrows hadn’t reached an agreement yet and would continue their discussion tomorrow before dark.

We cheered, jumping up and down, because we did not want our sparrows going on such a dangerous journey.

Dawar had dinner with our family that night. When he finished his meal, he got up and went to the courtyard to smoke. I followed him. The frogs were croaking, and I asked what they were talking about. After listening and making more strange faces, he said they were bragging to each other about how many mosquitoes they’d eaten so far and how many more they intended to gobble down before morning. I did not find the frogs’ conversation interesting, but for some reason he couldn’t stop laughing as he went on telling me that some frogs preferred fat and juicy mosquitoes, while others relished the small and crispy ones, or that some mosquitoes tasted like the lamb stew we’d just eaten, and some tasted like the basmati rice.

After recalling these memories, which I guard and cherish, I noiselessly cried myself to sleep and woke three hours later, feeling lost and empty. For the rest of the week I either suffered painful feelings of guilt, remorse, and despair, or remembered something funny he had said and laughed to myself like a madman. I kept telling myself time would heal everything.


As the days went by, I started to breathe, eat, and sleep easily again. But there were times when I could not stop thinking about what Dawar’s daughter had told me, that I might die in eighteen years too, when my daughter turned nineteen. If her prophecy came true, then I’d also die at the age of fifty-eight, which is the age when my mother was taken by a heart attack. And if I’m to die at fifty-eight, what’s the point of living for the next eighteen years? To wait until death comes suddenly and unexpectedly? Why wait?

While living in this fog for a month or so, I did everything I could to make sure my wife wouldn’t notice any changes in me, and I succeeded. She did not detect anything out of the ordinary, but this puzzled me about myself. How could I function and yet be utterly despondent? I also wondered why, having lost dozens of family members and friends over the forty years of my life, I had never been as affected by a loss as I was now. Why was Dawar’s death so hard for me to accept?

I was left with one option: to dig into myself and find out where the voice of death was coming from. I retraced my steps to the moment of the call about Dawar’s death. And immediately I spotted the source of the voice. I’d been so overwhelmed by the news that my grief looked for a quick fix; my subconscious had responded with the most selfish and illogical verdict, that my life was pointless and death was a better option. I was terrified. How could I let myself sink so low? How did I allow my despair to develop into such a nihilistic mindset? I decided I needed a cure for this nihilism, both for today and for the future.

After weeks of reflecting on the major events of my life, from the atrocities I’d endured and witnessed during the civil war of the 1990s, when I was a mere child—easily matching the battlefield carnage of World War II—to the Taliban takeover and years of surviving their tyranny, I finally arrived at the present day in Dallas, Texas. During this arduous inner journey, which awakened all my childhood traumas, I rejoiced and mourned at the memory of those I’ve lost, feared for my own death, hoped for it also, yet pleaded with God to save me for the sake of my daughter. At last, something that had been aching in me tore away one night, and I was out of grief’s grip. Only then could I think clearly again, and I saw the remedy for my nihilism in two important lessons.

The first is that my losses would go on plunging me into an inner world, into my core, where a dark force, powerful and cunning, would wrap me in a thick layer of sophisms and eventually take me to the edge of the cliff to jump off. But if I could wait a little, until the mist of gloom cleared out, the divine truth within me would eventually whisper: “Don’t you still love those you’ve lost with all your heart and soul?”

My answer would always be yes.

Then the divine truth would say: “In that case, there is no separation for those who love with their hearts and souls.”

The second lesson is that, while I say I prefer joy over sorrow, in reality, I’ve always needed both. In fact, both have been equally important to my development, my growth, my progress, to the man I am today. Laughter gives me momentary amusement, but bereavement crushes me to pieces. I put myself back together, and it crushes me again. I become softer, humbler, and more sympathetic with each loss. So, in a sense, my every loss becomes one long spiritual holiday.

After recognizing all this about myself, I started to feel that special solemn tenderness within me again. My peace had finally been restored, and I slept like a baby that night.


The morning after my inner journey ended was a Saturday—the weekend. I noticed the sunrise after a very long time. I decided to go for a walk, think about everything revealed to me over the past few difficult months, and if there was loose dirt on my soul, to shake it off, but as soon as I stepped outside, I was distracted by the sound of the birds. Their chirping was more pleasing to me than Beethoven or Chopin. Then I noticed a few squirrels peeling and eating nuts under a tree. I watched them until they finished their meal, then resumed my walk toward a creek in our neighborhood where ducks and geese wait for the passersby to throw them food. The place was packed with people, and for a few minutes I couldn’t help fantasizing about magically transferring to this trail by the creek my cousins and friends still at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban.

By the time I returned home, half of the sky was covered with dark clouds, the strong wind made the trees sound like weeping girls, and a few small branches snapped and landed on the cars parked under them. I was taken over by a dreary feeling. I told myself that I had no reason to worry about anything, that it was just a little storm, soon it would rain, and in a few hours the day would be sunny and nice again, but I also acknowledged that my sixth sense might be preparing me for bad news. I distracted myself by chasing our daughter around the rooms and tickling her. When she grew tired of that game, I played soccer with her, then read her all of her books until she started yawning and I had to put her down for her midday nap. As I tiptoed down to the kitchen, I received a call from the wife of a very close friend of mine—so close we used to share clothes—who said her husband had gone to buy naan four days ago and hadn’t returned yet. She wanted to know if he’d called me lately. When I said no, she burst out crying, apologized for being too emotional, and then she asked what she should do because she was going to give birth in two months.

I knew she wanted me to say something positive, something to ease her heart, but I did not want to give her false hope. I’d done that with my cousins and was bitterly blamed for it later. So I told her to watch out for her health, too much stress would cause birth complications, as though she did not know that already. Then I asked about her son. Her voice lightened right away as she said he was now in seventh grade, handsome like his father, the top of his class, but he sometimes stole small bills from her purse.

She texted a few days later to say that she had given birth to her baby girl seven weeks prematurely, and thankfully they were both healthy, but her husband was still missing, and if he ever called me, I should let her know straightaway. I promised I would.

My friend used to work for a company that delivered oil to the U.S. military bases in the south. I doubt I will see or hear from him ever again. I can live with that as long as I never hear about his death, because silence means there is hope, even if it’s an empty hope.


Life goes on and WhatsApp continues to bring me sad news every month, or every other month if I am lucky. Occasionally there is good news too. A cousin or a friend will call to tell me he and his family have made it to Pakistan, India, Iran, or some other neighboring country, and now they are safe and waiting for their immigration case to be resolved, but would I do him a favor? Would I please call someone in Washington, D.C., and ask when the “pending” status on his case will change, because it’s been over two years and he has used up most of his savings? Also, could I cover their rent for a short while? It’s only three hundred dollars a month.

I hate WhatsApp, but I can’t live without it. It keeps me connected to my loved ones, who are slowly and steadily perishing. Each time a friend or cousin joins the next world, they take a small piece of me with them. Just a few days ago I learned another cousin of mine was imprisoned by the Taliban. He had long stopped contacting me because we grew up together like brothers and yet I was no help to him. God forbid if I lose him, I know I’d retreat into myself again and let memories wash over me for days and nights until I could see wisdom in them. But I also know there will come a time when my emotions burn so high I’ll desire death again, not for my sake this time but his, so I can go to the next world and assure him, and my other cousins and friends already there, that even though they are no longer with their families, their children are surrounded by their loving mothers, aunts, and uncles, and they are moving on with their lives. Looking at my adorable nineteen-month-old angelic daughter, whom I love more than anyone in the world, I will take back my death wish so I can walk her to school one day and help her with homework. All of this will inevitably remind me of the conversations I have had with those cousins and friends no longer with us, who expressed the same dreams and aspirations for their daughters, and now their daughters are not allowed to go to school after sixth grade. Their sons can finish school and go to college, but only the future will tell how the Taliban’s indoctrination will affect their young minds. Will they end up supporting the very regime that their fathers helped topple in the early 2000s alongside the Americans and NATO?

I wish I were wise enough to answer that question so I could spare myself the anguish of guilt and remorse. If Dawar were still around, he would answer it with a tinge of irony, because only he could see reason in chaos and humor in despair. Only he could joke about the deaths and disappearances of our loved ones, as though not sorrow and desolation, but life and joy, were glowing through our losses.

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Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which has been published in more than twenty languages, and the coauthor, with Stephen Landrigan, of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden (Haus Publishing, 2015), later dramatized by BBC Radio. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times, and The Globe and Mail, and his short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, AGNI, The Hopkins Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. In 2014–15 Omar was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. (updated 4/2024)


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