My son’s inheritance from me, my father and my great grandfather
Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 23-25
On a chilly spring day in Vancouver, my six-year-old son, Barbod, woke up half sweating. I tapped his shoulder, then pressed him against my chest. “Wake up, son!” His own chest heaving, Barbod sighed, “Daddy,” then started weeping. “I saw two men with swords chasing me. They were going to catch me…” He took a deep breath. “But you woke me up.” Barbod rubbed his head on my chest. “Thank you, Daddy! You saved my life.”
It was not the first time since we arrived in Canada in 2021 that Barbod had dreamed of swordsmen chasing him—it’s happened probably a dozen times. I’ve spent days thinking about it because I’ve had similar dreams, though mine usually end with me falling off a mountain when men hunt me down. After that particular night, with Barbod so upset, I was bewildered: was it possible that trauma might be transmitted to the next generation?
I reached out to my mother, who is in Afghanistan—the original homeland of the Hazara people is in that country’s central highlands. When I brought up the series of dreams with her, she laughed, saying, “You’re reminding me of your boyhood days when you woke up in the middle of the night sweating, while a line of spit flowed down from the corner of your lip, and you screamed, ‘I just fell off a cliff!’ after horsemen tried to get you.” Her words startled me, making me even more interested to learn about where these dreams were coming from: Barbod’s nightmares were leading me back to my own dream life. My mom suggested that I call another day and talk to my father. He had some interesting stories about his childhood, too.
On a freezing day in Vancouver, just before the 2023 new year, I called my father back by WhatsApp. We chatted, but our call froze not long afterwards because internet connections are poor in Afghanistan; people usually have electricity for just one or two hours a day.
Later, I had a nightmare. This time, I jotted down every detail I could remember: I was riding my bike, heading home from the office, just like on a routine day when I lived in Kabul. Out of the blue, a bomb went off—everyone screaming and rushing around. I was trying to escape the scene when two members of the Taliban (a terrorist group now in power in Afghanistan) stopped me, pointing their guns. “Get off your bike!” I had to get off, otherwise they’d shoot at me.
The shorter guy with a long beard said, “You set off the blast. You come with us.” What? I asked myself. I’m just trying to save my life. I did nothing wrong. “But I am alive. I did not blow myself up,” I said courageously. The taller Taliban threatened to beat me with the butt of his Kalashnikov. “You’re a Hazara. You should come with us.” We headed to the police station because I was accused of the blast.
Along the way we reached a curbside where a super-narrow, but apparently deep stream ran. I did not even think for one second before I made up my mind: as the two gunmen were crossing the stream, I slid into the water and found myself flying downwards into the deep. As I slid, the two gunmen bent down and stretched their hands outwards to grab me. That’s then that I woke up out of fear.
Later, I reconnected with my father by WhatsApp. He told me that his great grandfather was forced to leave his ancestral lands in Kandahar (a big city in the south of Afghanistan) before relocating to my family’s current farmlands. I had already known that a king killed two thirds of the Hazaras 140 years ago, and that the remaining Hazaras immigrated to other parts of the country. In fact, I was bored as my father explained all this, telling myself, I know what you’re talking about,
Daddy. I just need to know the root cause of all these dreams. Then my father reached a shocking point that caught me off guard.
He said: “My great grandfather was a literate guy; basically, a person who is able to read and write.” There was pride in his voice as he went on, “He was unmarried when his parents had to immigrate to Wardak City. They had no choice: resisting the king meant certain death, while immigrating was a chance at survival. He had a very hard time helping his whole family—seven members—to pack and carry things with donkeys or on shoulders and head to Wardak City.”
Come on, Daddy! I said to myself, Gimme a break and get to the point. My father went on, “When my grandfather was born, his father noticed that his son had problems sleeping. So my great grandfather took him to an Imam1 to write a talisman2 so that the demon might come out of his son’s flesh so he could sleep well. But no demon came out for as long as he was alive, because there was no demon.”
He sighed and added, “When I was a kid, old enough to remember, my grandfather took me to an Imam to do the same ritual, but it did not work. It has not worked yet, and I have dreams of being murdered after I walk a very long distance with my parents. I never have any idea where I am heading or why. I just remember being murdered with thirsty lips and an empty stomach.”
I was astounded: these bad dreams were so similar across generations in my family. It made me think about how my father’s great grandfather was forced to immigrate to save his life, and how that story impacted my father’s decision to immigrate to Iran when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I was born as a refugee in Iran. I later returned to Afghanistan, where I faced discrimination imposed by the central government, which was dominated by the same Pashtun ethnic group as the king who once persecuted my ancestors. Like my father and my great grandfather before me, I too decided to immigrate to save my life and those of my loved ones—this time, to Canada.
History had repeated itself in a similar pattern, but along different routes. The Taliban still persecutes Hazaras for their ethnicity, and my son, Barbod, as a member of the Hazaras, carries memories of his ancestors with him, even in Canada, where he is safe. He has no idea about his ancestors, and I do not talk about it with him at all. My great grandfather’s dreams, my father’s and my son’s are like beads strung together, linking us across time.
Barbod has inherited a dark history of persecution and immigration, without any say in his nightmares or any choice about whether he wants to carry those memories with him. For me, discovering how closely we are linked by our dreams has helped clear the clouds from my eyes.
This story is one of millions untold and buried in our hearts. It gives only a clue about the atrocities the Hazara people have suffered—and yet, the world is silent about it. However, I'm now thinking of writing about the Hazara people. Maybe I will pursue a PhD to explore intergenerational trauma from different angles, and how it manifests in the collective and personal identities of the Hazara people. This way, I can add new beads to our string of dreams.
About the author
Basir, who came to Canada more than a year ago, is of the Hazara ethnicity. Two thirds of his ancestors were wiped out 140 years ago, and he is still under persecution for this identity. Currently, he is studying clinical mental health counselling at Marquette University and volunteers for VAST Vancouver, a refugee mental health organization
A male Islamic cleric who acts as the leader of daily prayers in a mosque.
In Islam, these types of talismans are written, either in Arabic or in a local language, with some inscriptions of the Quran, and sometimes astrological signs and religious narratives.