A tribute to my father-in-law, Dr Ansar Skandary.
Unusually, this piece is not about my professional life, but my personal life. It was driven by a desire to put something into words for my own children. Unlike my professional blogs it will not be actively advertised or shared, but will just sit here waiting for anyone to read it who will find some value in it; it is about memory, loss, grief, love and appreciation. Fundamentally, I just felt that it was a story that needed to be put into words.
I’m sitting in my father-in-law’s flat in the summer of 2022, three months after he died. He lived just outside the European quarter in Brussels, in one of those huge apartment blocks that the city has in abundance. The street below is always busy and noisy; tonight there is a party going on nearby with plenty of loud voices, even though it’s Sunday night in the middle of a severe heatwave. Yet up here on the 10th floor, that noise seems very distant.
Dr Skandary’s flat is small, even cramped. You get here via a lift that says it can hold nine people but in reality it’s four. There is one bedroom, a decent sized living room, a galley kitchen and a box room that served as a dining room which, at a squeeze, could get eight people around the table. Yet despite its size, I adore it. The decor is uniquely his own (the walls are all bright red), and reflects two passions: his family, and his love of hospitality. There are photos placed everywhere, many of them showcasing his life in the 60s and 70s. The view out of the windows looks west across the city, and lends the flat a feeling of space and perspective that it would otherwise lack if lower down the building. I feel totally at ease here; I feel just as strongly about this cosy flat as I do about my childhood home. I first set foot here sixteen years ago, and of all the places that have meant something in my life this association has been the longest. I have many happy memories, and it saddens me greatly to think this is the last time I will be here.
Dr Skandary’s life was far from ordinary. Born in Afghanistan just after the Second World War, he set out for Paris as a young man to study geology at the Sorbonne. He stayed on to complete his doctorate there, and he married my wonderful mother-in-law Mahmooda (a woman who has an equally incredible biography). Their honeymoon was an epic road trip, driving from Paris to Kabul. They made it all the way to the Iran-Afghanistan border where the import taxes on their car meant they had to abandon it and complete the voyage on public transport. Imagine doing that journey now.
Dr Skandary rose through the ranks of government and was a minister during the 1980s when the socialist, pro-Soviet administration fought the Mujahideen. Almost all western histories of this period speak of the Soviet (or Russian) ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan in 1979, but Dr Skandary and his family don’t see it this way. They argue that the Afghan government invited Russian forces in to fight narrow-minded (and US-armed) religious fanatics. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a brutal civil war between various factions in the Mujahideen led to the rise of the Taliban, so it is perhaps a period worth revising. After all, which western historians talk of the American ‘invasion’ of Vietnam?
Dr Skandary held on for two more years after the Russians withdrew, but life in Kabul became too dangerous to endure. The Mujahideen had a tactic of kidnapping and torturing the children of government ministers, and with four yong children it was a risk he could not take. In 1991, he took his family to Delhi, departing with a single suitcase each. It was meant to be temporary, but he returned to Kabul a few weeks later to pack up the rest of their belongings. He found their apartment in Mikrorayon had been ransacked, and anything of value was gone. He returned to India, and would never again set foot in his beloved Afghanistan. His decision to leave was fully justified by the horrific death of his final boss, President Najibullah, in 1996, despite UN protection.1
Two years later the family moved to Russia, living a risky existence as illegal immigrants in a state that was transitioning from communism to capitalism. My wife remembers queuing for hours as a child for bread, but also her father taking her to McDonald’s in Moscow. From being a government minister with a limousine and driver at his beck and call, he was now working in a street market to support his family. Six years in both Moscow and St Petersburg followed, desperately trying to survive. Yet despite this poverty, many friends and family remember how generous he was helping others, and in exile he remained a central figure in the Afghan diaspora.
In the late 1990s he and his wife were granted, at separate times, political asylum in Belgium because they were Francophone. They were finally reunited, as a family of six, in a one-bedroom apartment in Brussels. It seemed that finally they had some stability and security, and their children could go to school. He worked for the Belgian government, vetting asylum applications because many non-Afghans tried to game the system by claiming to be from Afghanistan. He interviewed them to see if their claims were legitimate or not. This was his last work in life, which seems an extraordinary waste of talent for someone who was awarded a doctorate by the Sorbonne and signed international treaties and trade agreements on behalf of his government.
I first met him in 2006, in the same room that I am writing this piece, when I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He spoke Dari and French perfectly, but not English, so I had been to night school to reprise my secondary school French to ensure that I passed the test. Somehow, mercifully, I did. We became good friends, and I can honestly say that we never had a crossed word. He was always the life and soul of the party, dressed to kill, playing the gregarious diplomat at every family gathering and wedding, but it was in his own apartment that I thought he was at his best.
His cooking was legendary. His speciality was an Afghan dish called laandy pulao, which (if you’re a purist) involves dry-curing lamb for weeks before cooking it in copious amounts of rice. It’s a dish that very few people can cook, and I may never experience it again. There was always a ritual to visiting his home. The entrance, the formal welcome, the apératif, the food, the ‘bon cafe’ digestif on the sofa next door, and the leisurely catching up as the afternoon stretched lazily on. That same pattern, that familiarity, was a constant joy to me. I always knew what to expect when I visited him; this included reproaching me for letting my French slip, before being complimented for (somehow) making progress by the end of our visit a few days later.
We had a shared love of football, politics, good whisky, and philosophy. Although he was a man of science by training, he always talked about the broad principles of life. What makes a person good and honest was a frequent topic of conversation. I knew full well that he was educating me and setting out his expectations at the same time, but I appreciated that greatly. It was just what I hoped to get out of my relationship with my father-in-law.
He was a convinced socialist through and through. Not long after we first met, my parents came to Brussels to meet him and we went for a walk in the city. As we passed a mosque, my father (a presbyterian minister and RE teacher) asked him if he was a frequent visitor there. He simply said “Jamais. Je suis un socialiste.” He observed the rituals of Islam when the occasion called for it, but he was absolutely secular. I could never place him exactly in terms of his politics, but if I had to try I would say he was not a million miles from Nehru.
I got a small taste of what his political modus operandi was like when my wife and I had our Afghan wedding in Cologne in 2008. We had to visit the wedding centre (a venue popular with Afghans and Turks in the west of Germany) to negotiate the details and the price. I sat next to him and just watched, making constant mental notes, as he did all the talking. Over several rounds of tea, and with a mixture of bonhomie and steel, he induced the management to offer the very best service at the lowest possible price. He had a particular talent for showing his disapproval in his body language, but not his words. It was masterly. And after all, he knew he had a strong bargaining position. He was still a significant name in the Afghan diaspora. To give a specific example, when my wife went to the Afghan embassy in Brussels to apply for work experience, she was asked to give her name. When she said ‘Skandary’, they immediately said “Ah, you must be Dr Skandary’s daughter!” Any attempt at achieving anything on her own merit has always been difficult because of this.
He was very conscientious about his health. He swam regularly (I tried and failed to keep pace with him once – let’s put that one down to youthful naivety) and he walked for two hours every evening. Afghans have a saying that “sightseeing is sightseeing, but getting lost is still sightseeing.” When my wife was little he told her that she should walk everywhere to learn her surroundings and should always pay attention to the names of the streets. It is a habit I have picked up from him, and I recommend it to everyone. It helps you to know where you are, and where you are going.
He seemed indefatigable to me, yet he succumbed to a heart attack not long after being admitted to hospital during a visit to see his brothers in Denmark, suffering from high blood pressure. I last saw him in October 2019, and that gap was down to COVID; our next scheduled trip in April 2020 was cancelled, and it never crossed my mind that the forced separation of that period would mean that we would never see each other again.
After his funeral in Copenhagen in April 2022, we had a family get together and it was a strange occasion. It felt as though he was there; I always expected to see him as I went from one room to another. At the end of the evening we watched a reel of photographs of him over the years, and it was a trigger to my grief. It came in powerful waves. The enormity of what I – we – had lost suddenly came over me and I couldn’t control it. He had had that effect on many more people besides me.
So now I sit here in his flat for the last time, putting down some thoughts for posterity. This is mainly for his five surviving grandchildren, only one of whom will retain any memories of him into adulthood. He was by no means perfect, but he owned his imperfections. His passing was marked by a wave of loyalty and affection from the hundreds of attendees at his funeral, some coming from very far away.
Having lost my own father ten years ago, I am still processing the loss of my second father. As with all important relationships, the memories live for many years afterwards. I read recently that great people die twice; the first death is physical, and the second is when their legacy ceases to be remembered. I think that Dr Skandary’s second passing will be a long time coming.
Rest in peace, Baba Jan.
1 I should add that my wife’s family has the utmost respect for President Najibullah. If this period interests you, follow Heela Najibullah on Twitter. My wife met her recently at a conference for the Afghan diaspora and it was a rare case of meeting your idol and not being disappointed.