In a recent Huffington Post article, Mina Sharif, who was born in Afghanistan, lamented that those living outside of Afghanistan only get to experience the country through the distorted lens the media presents. If your only source of information about Afghanistan is the mainstream media, she argues, then you might assume it is nothing more than a conflict-ridden country full of people just wanting to kill each other. She eloquently pointed out that we don’t pay enough attention to the good things about Afghanistan – including all those who are striving for peace and progression. She asks all of us to look deeper for the real story.
I couldn’t agree more. I fell in love with Afghanistan before I arrived and it deepened during my year living there. I love it more every time I return. In the spirit of sharing some of the real stories about the country and its people, I want to tell you about a man I met on my recent trip back to Kabul, and whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past couple of months. Meet Baryalai, otherwise known as ‘Ba Ba Man’: Afghan ultrarunner, skyrunning pioneer, and massive Kilian Jornet fan. Baryalai is only one year older than me, but he has lived lifetimes more. From difficult beginnings growing up in Pakistan to his current efforts to start a skyrunning movement in Kabul, his life is nothing short of fascinating.
Ultra Runner Girl: Baryalai, tell us a bit about yourself.
Baryalai: I was born in 1981. I lost my family in the war when I was just a boy, so I had to move to Peshawar, Pakistan, where I grew up as an orphan. I was able to live with my relatives for some of the time, but at some points I had no choice but to move into certain religious schools, where I was provided free room and board. It was not a good situation. However, I learned something good from there as well such as learning the Quran by heart. The Quran says never to take a life or to hurt anyone, and to let go of anything wrong that someone does to you. It was up to each person to chose how to come out of the schools: as a terrorist or as a good person. Very few would choose the second option. Poor families send children there for shelter, food and studying, but the kids often turn into suicide attackers or terrorists. I feel so sorry for those who are being sacrificed…it is all still happening because of the lack of social awareness and poverty amongst people of Afghanistan.
I returned to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001 and when I came back, things were totally different than before during Taliban times. Soon I got a job with the Army and was deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan. At the same time I got a call from my older sisters that they had chosen a girl for me to marry. I said, “ok, totally arrange the marriage” and when I saw the woman they picked we started to like each other. I got married in 2008 and I have two sons now, Rayan & Lian. I thank god for giving me back a family as I lived too long alone. I am so happy to have a family.
Ultra Runner Girl: What does running mean for you in your life?
Baryalai: Running is my love – it has changed my life. I decided one day to get rid of my car and run to and from work every day instead, which is 15 km from my home. I lost 7 kgs in the first three months. With running, we can explore. Running is the king of the sports. It is keeping my dreams alive inside me. It is making me a good seeker and showing me how to achieve. Running makes me feel like a hero and I can follow my dreams. I have already achieved some of my dreams with running that would have been impossible otherwise.
Ultra Runner Girl: Describe what it is like to run in Afghanistan.
Baryalai: It is great to run in the mountains or in the places far from the city. It is like you are running among your dreams and can touch them… but it is not that cool when you run in the capital, Kabul. It is like you are carrying smoke in your mouth when you run through the city because of all of the pollution. There is risk of land mines in the mountains and there is also the danger of some ‘non official’ gunmen firing at you without reason – just because they don’t like you moving better than them in the mountains. There is also the danger of Taliban in the mountains if you go far enough, but risk and danger is everywhere. Even the White House is not be free from danger so I believe that whatever is going to happen, will happen. Running has made me strong. I think I can handle these risks by moving faster in the mountains. The land mines are the real danger. You have to plan your steps and watch carefully so as not to step on any of them.
Ultra Runner Girl: Who or what inspires you?
Baryalai: I will say from the depth of my heart, and I take his name with a lot of respect, that Kilian Jornet is the one who inspires me so much. I am following his way – what he does in the mountains is great. It can change someone’s life as it did change mine.
Bruce Lee is also a source of inspiration most of the time. He has some great quotes. When I read them they really inspire me. The one I like the best is this one: “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
Ultra Runner Girl: What do you hope to do with running in Afghanistan?
Baryalai: We can bring change with running: a change for the mothers, daughters, sisters, men and everyone who loves to go running but can’t because of some cultural ideas. There are those who don’t know the value of running and they gain weight, which makes them depressed, stressed and lot of other problems that I see with my eyes. I know they can end these problems with running just like I did when I found out about running.
Ultra Runner Girl: How do you think we can get more women and girls involved in running?
Baryalai: There are several options. I think a running school based in Afghanistan would be a very useful option or a running show on a TV that would come once a week. People would watch and find out about how to explore with running and about being sporty. Right now people don’t know the importance of running at this point. I would also say that running in Afghanistan really needs someone like Bruce Lee. What he did for the King Fu we need someone to do for running. This is when great change will happen, inshallah, as we expect.
Ultra Runner Girl: Finally, we’ve got to know…Why do you call yourself Ba Ba Man?
Baryalai: Well, usually my kids call me “Ba Ba” and my oldest kid, Rayan, who is six years old, is very interested in some of the superheroes from the movies like spiderman, Iron Man, batman and the X-men. Rayan will always tell me that the Iron Man is the strongest. I tell him, “Son! There is a person who is stronger than the Iron Man!” And Rayan will ask me, “who?” I tell him that it is Ba Ba Man! This will make us both laugh a lot every time.
Rayan also asks me why, if I am stronger than the Iron Man, am I not faster than Kilian Jornet? My answer to him is that Kilian has been practicing since childhood so that is why he so fast. So if you want to be faster and stronger than all of us, you need to keep practicing.
Stay tuned for some more news from Baryalai and Free to Run as we help him develop skyrunning in Afghanistan (with women and girls involved!). Don’t forget to follow him on the Skyrunning Afghanistan facebook page or contact Baryalai directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact me at email@example.com if you are interested in finding out more!