Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
alert featured

NAU professor assists family with evacuation from Afghanistan

  • Updated
  • 1
Hakeem Naim

Afghan-American professor Hakeem Naim, Ph.D., gives a lecture at Northern Arizona University on Afghanistan. The event was focused on providing context amid the recent U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban control of the country.

Just days before the complete U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, Northern Arizona University history lecturer Hakeem Naim, Ph.D., successfully facilitated his family’s evacuation from the Taliban-seized country to the United States.

As the Taliban toppled the country’s government districts, and eventually the capital of Kabul, Naim, an Afghan-American and historian of Afghanistan, said he was aware that his family was in grave danger.

“My brother was a well-known journalist in northern Afghanistan and my other brother was a project manager working with USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and on other multiple Western projects in Afghanistan,” Naim said. “So when the Taliban came, they were very much in danger.”

The positions of the brothers left them targeted and vulnerable to violence inflicted by the Taliban forces. As Naim began to search for a way to secure his family’s evacuation, he turned to the university for assistance, and was eventually led to NAU’s Office of the President for support.

Naim said the president’s office put him into contact with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who submitted a request to the State Department, the federal agency that handles foreign affairs and international relations. Naim said he was later contacted by the State Department regarding an evacuation.

The family’s trip to the U.S. would place them hundreds of miles away from Naim in New Mexico City, where they are staying at a hotel hosted by the International Rescue Committee. Though his family’s situation is only temporary, Naim said he is relieved they are no longer in Afghanistan, especially considering the threat to his brother who worked as a journalist.

“This is a way people can help. We can help those who are airlifted to the U.S. or who are still waiting in different parts of the world to come to the U.S. People can help in that sense,” Naim said.

Push of politics

Another way Naim said the public can support those impacted by the conflict is to place pressure on U.S. leadership not to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate form of government in Afghanistan.

Before Naim was a faculty member at NAU, he was a refugee, an immigrant, a “survivor of many wars” and eventually a United States citizen after receiving his status in 2007. Naim grew up in Afghanistan and later lived in multiple countries as both a refugee and immigrant.

Naim referred to himself as an “organic scholar,” combining lived human experiences with critical thinking. He said focusing historical narratives and discourses on the human experience rather than on constructed political analysis is crucial.

“In my work I always express this: To critically think about the narrative of history -- the established state of history -- versus the human experience, and lived history and the importance of learning through living history. The academic aspect of it makes you a more analytical and critical thinker,” Naim said.

Naim received his Ph.D. in Modern Middle East History from the University of California at Davis in 2019. In his research, he focuses on the late 19th-century Islamic nationalism, colonialism, post-colonial theories, and comparative intellectual history of the Ottoman Empire, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

He also speaks six languages, and encourages all of his students to travel and learn another language. The experience of traveling to another country and the ability to speak another language, he said, provides a new perspective that is unmatched.

Much of Naim’s work as a historian and researcher has involved frequent trips to Afghanistan to gather research materials, but he now says his window to travel to the country he was born in has closed.

“What I did when I was going to Afghanistan was gathering a lot of documents as a historian and archivist. So I have a good chunk of research to work on,” Naim said. "My focus was on Afghanistan, the Ottoman Empire, Middle East and Afghanistan. So I might, unfortunately, despite the fact that I love working on Afghanistan, focus more on my work on the Ottoman Empire.”

It's not certain the Taliban will let its own citizens leave Afghanistan, even after a plane carrying foreigners departed from Kabul Thursday, says Ben Rowswell, Canada's former deputy ambassador to Afghanistan. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Context for the contemporary

On Wednesday evening, Naim was on campus in front of a crowd filled with NAU students, faculty members and NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera to give a lecture on the current events in Afghanistan.

His focus was to provide historical context beyond the images and information that were shared by the media as the tragedy in Afghanistan unfolded. The event, titled “Afghanistan: A Tragedy beyond Taliban and U.S.,” was presented by the NAU Department of History and featured a presentation from Naim, followed by a 45-minute Q-and-A session.

In just under an hour, Naim gave the audience a deep dive into the complex political roots of Afghanistan, explaining along the way how and why the country finds itself in the present situation. He said the “fog of conflict and war” have constituted a misconception on the current thinking of Afghanistan.

“Let me give you an example. In the 19th century when India was colonized by the British and the British were in India, Afghanistan was considered part of South Asia. In the 20th century during the Cold War, Afghanistan was then considered part of Central Asia as a satellite of the Soviet. Now, during the War on Terror, Afghanistan suddenly became a part of the Middle East,” Naim said.

The example shows the historical focus of Afghanistan is not based on the history of its people, but instead on history that is caught up in the geography of Afghanistan and geostrategic interests from other nations, he said. Naim intended to bring a different view and understanding to the history of Afghanistan.

Naim explained that there are more than 14 different ethnic groups in the country speaking more than 10 different languages, with large Jewish, Muslim and Hindu populations.

“Afghanistan goes back 1,000 years ago and it's populated by different groups of people, and was a center of trade,” Naim said. “As a center of immigration, of course Afghanistan had a diverse and still has a diverse population.”

Most of the Western world’s knowledge about Afghanistan comes from a colonial perspective, reliant on ideas from more than century-old wars and accounts from outside officers occupying the region, he explained. Those same ideas are still recycled by today's leaders and in public discourse.

Naim went on to provide an extensive history of the outside political interests in the country, including the U.S. intervention, and how those interests have led to the rise of the Taliban and the unsubstantiated narratives seen today.

“I can say that Afghanistan, and the story of Afghans, cannot be understood unless we read, and decenter, the existing dehumanizing narrative that describes Afghans as primitive, parochial and ignorant tribes,” Naim said.


Want to see more like this?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News

Breaking News (FlagLive!)