Crossing the River Kabul: An Afghan Family Odyssey

Crossing the River Kabul: An Afghan Family Odyssey

Crossing the River Kabul: An Afghan Family Odyssey

Crossing the River Kabul: An Afghan Family Odyssey


Baryalai Popal sees his Western-educated professors at Kabul University replaced by communists. He witnesses his classmates "disappearing." The communist takeover uproots Popal from his family and home. Thus begins Crossing the River Kabul, the true story of Popal's escape from Afghanistan and his eventual return.

Kevin McLean weaves together Popal's stories in this memoir, which is also a fascinating look at Afghanistan from the viewpoint of Popal and generations of his politically influential family. From the exile of Popal's grandfather from Kandahar in 1898 to his father's tutoring of two boys who as adults would play important roles in Afghanistan--one as king and the other as president--to his uncle's presence at the fateful meeting that led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Popal's family history is intertwined with that of his nation.

Popal fled his country following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. After being imprisoned as a spy in Pakistan, he managed to make his way to Germany as a refugee and to the United States as an immigrant. Twenty years later he returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 to reclaim his houses, only to find one controlled by drug lords and the other by the most powerful warlord in Afghanistan.

Popal's memoir is an intimate, often humorous portrait of the vanished Afghanistan of his childhood. It is also the story of a father whose greatest desire is to see his son follow in his footsteps, and a son who constantly rebels against his father's wishes. Crossing the River Kabul is a story of choice and destiny, fear and courage, and loss and redemption.


My story is entwined with that of my country. As in any relationship, you will find love, hate, battles, resolution, despair, hope— all greatly magnified because my country, the country of my birth and that of my grandparents and parents, my uncles, aunts, and cousins, my wife and my children, the country that I hold most close to my heart in my thoughts and memories, is Afghanistan. When an Afghan tells a story, he knows not to begin by boasting of how powerful his family is. For the storyteller to make himself appear more important than his listener is disrespectful, and the most important thing you can offer others is respect. But I must tell you that I am a Popalzai from one of Afghanistan’s two royal families. Legend has it that one day, many centuries ago, when the aging King Zirak asked his eldest son, Barak, for help getting onto his horse, Barak mocked his father’s weakness. Popal, the youngest son, took pity on his father and helped him into the saddle. When King Zirak named Popal to succeed him, Barak refused to recognize his younger brother as king. From that time on the Popalzai and the Barakzai have fought for control of Afghanistan.

In 1747 King Nadir Shah, who had created a great empire that stretched from Persia to Delhi, died. Ahmad Khan, a Popalzai, declared himself the new king— but of course, the Barakzai refused to accept him. Rather than go to war, Ahmad Khan called a loya jirga, a decision- making council of tribal elders that is still used in Afghanistan today.

The loya jirga elected Ahmad Khan king and proclaimed him Durr- i- Durrani, the “Pearl of Pearls.” His kingdom became known as the Durrani Empire. Under Ahmad Shah Durrani the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape. Until the Communist coup in 1978, Afghanistan was governed by either a Popalzai or a Barakzai.

All members of the Popalzai tribe once had Popalzai as their family name. It is said that my grandfather Mukarram, a Pashtun and a khan of Kandahar, shortened our last name to Popal over a disagreement with his fellow Popalzai. My grandfather’s cousin . . .

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