Never too old to learn
"I was 10 years old. I would get fuel from the petrol pump at midnight, scared, because there was a war and no one could be trusted. I would sell the jerry can of oil in the bazaar to buy a few loaves of bread."
This is the testimony of a journalist, writer, translator and actor who did not study till after his marriage. Arash Nangal was born in 1977 in Basram village, Laghman, in the home of the well-known poet Eshaq Nangial.
When he was a year old the family moved to the Shah Shaheed area of Kabul city as his father was an officer in the Police Academy. In 1984, Arash was admitted to the Ghafour Nadim School but he was lost in class. He did not know Dari and the teachers would not teach in Pashto.
"Had I studied in my own language I would not have faced so many problems," he says.
In class seven, the mujahedin entered Kabul and his father lost his job. "My father could not do physical work. If he did not have office work he could not do anything else, and I had to work even as a child."
Arash found work for four months at a construction site – a historical fort was being renovated – in Kabul's Balahesar area. But he only got the job on the pleadings of others from his village who were employed at the site. The supervisor did not want to hire a child.
"I was given a wheelbarrow; it was hard work and took me a few days to get used to it. But I persisted since I was earning more money for my family."
Thereafter he became a mechanic first repairing cycles in the Shahshaheed before moving to a workshop making heaters. In 1992 when the war for Kabul became even more dangerous for people the family moved back to the village.
"We had left the village as one family but now we were 10-11 families of uncles and their sons so we settled in a big house. We put up tents in the yard for some, others were in rooms."
But Arash quickly tired of living amidst so many people and decided to build a house for his family. His father, brothers and uncles told him it was an impossible task but he persevered. "The village youth and elders would come and watch," he says. "Some even helped including some women. The general feeling was that Kabuli boys like me were not capable of hard work."
He made thousands of bricks in one month, and he taught himself masonry, laying the foundation with his own hands. "The house was built, a two-room home, and people not just from my village came to congratulate me."
Following the division of the family land, Arash got three jeribs as his share. He secured a contract to supply stones and sand to some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a wheelbarrow. "I did not know farming but I was trying. I grew some wheat and paddy. I would buy eggs and chicken in the village, and resell them."
As a result of his association with NGOs, Arash was hired as a foreman by an NGO at a construction project for clinics in Nuristan. The Taleban were in power in Kabul. Sometimes his father would go to Kabul to work.
"My father quit his job because of some problems. In 1997, he went to Peshawar and started working as a playwright for BBC educational programmes so our life bloomed a bit."
From Peshawar his father brought a valuable birthday gift for Arash. "All the guests were watching the key that my father was holding. They thought he may have bought a car but he told me to go and open the cupboard, which was full of books. He told me the books were a gift on my birthday but I was illiterate and did not realise the value of what he was giving me."
In 1998, on his wedding day, a child knocked on Arash's door and said he was being called to the village. "Many villagers were gathered and a man came to me and told me that it was God's will. 'Your father has passed away due to a heart attack in Peshawar and his body will soon be brought.' It was a tough situation, I sat there and cried."
His marriage was postponed, and it was held a month and a half later along with that of his uncle's son.
But as his family grew with the birth of his children Arash found himself wishing he was educated and working as a writer. "My mother was standing in front of me when I called upon God. In tears, she reminded me that a writer had to be educated."
Arash enrolled in the Shaheed Mawlawi Habibrahman School in Kabul to complete his interrupted education. In 2001, he left for Iran in search of work. He became a painter.
One and a half years later he returned to his village where one of his father's friends, Abdul Ghafour Lewal, introduced him to Shaheer Ahmad Zahine, founder of Killid weekly.
"Zahine employed me as assistant distributor of Killid weekly in Nangarhar. It was not work that needed a pen. I would take the magazines to the capital city and districts. We collected payments and sent it to the centre."
Soon, Arash knew journalists and writers across Nangarhar. As the son of Eshaq Nangial he was invited to all their gatherings. "I was invited to speak, which was astonishing."
His life changed even more when he met Ezatullah Zawab who was working in the Killid distribution office. Zawab who had a bookstore in the bazaar gave Arash a book every day to read. "I finished a book every day and the next day took a new book. My love for reading and writing increased; I would write whenever I was free. I also learned a lot from the writers and journalists. I would attend training workshops. In a short time I changed a lot."
Zawab introduced him to a radio called Sharq (East). "They gave me two programmes, which I would record outside the office with the help of friends. I was not allowed to enter the office. I would hand them the recorder at the office gate."
A year later, after gaining a lot of experience in programme production, Arash left Sharq. In 2014, he went back to his village, a changed man. "I had learnt public speaking, read hundreds of books, but there were still no jobs in rural areas."
He returned to Kabul and joined the BBC educational programme section after a month-long written test. He was assigned an agricultural programme that he does with a colleague. Meanwhile, he moved his family from Laghman to Kabul.
Over the years, Arash has authored several books, produced programmes for other media including Sayara (planet) radio, Radio Deutsche Welle, the German radio station, and also started his own educational radio called Meena (love). Forever learning, he is now studying law at the private university, Jahan.