June 04, 2010
I have not seen the children for three days. The “peace” Jurga is in town, along with ten thousand extra troops. Rocket attacks, suicide bombers arrived on the first day. Yesterday, quiet. Today, who knows. The entire city is shut down. Nobody goes out. This is normal protocol. It is strange to think of developing a sensibility toward attacks the way I would toward rush hour. Don’t go around town between 8am and 10am (when most attacks for some reason occur). Don’t drive alongside any convoy of any kind. Don’t linger in one place too long. So many of the western workers in town are pumped with restrictions and fear. In many respects this has to do with the cost of kidnapping or death to any organization or government. With thousands of employees, they can’t afford the ransom fees (and they are usually paid). Of course, I have no such corporate backing. When the kidnappers call and the American Embassy demands that the Taliban pay them to take me back, I might be released the way every town tolerates and even venerates its kook who walks around talking to himself.
As I await the end of the Peace Jurga I contemplate too much. I am annoyed at the interruption to everyone’s life; the cost must be in the millions of dollars. It all seems so much posturing. I remember the schoolyard rumble. Boys mostly. One or two girl friends. The boys were all puffed up and serious. One or another had more power than one or another. There was the clean-cut boy from old money who had a nice Camaro to drive (this was before kids started driving BMWs). There were the guys with strong arms and big fists who mostly didn’t care if they got hurt. There was the smart guy who managed to instigate much of the event but somehow slip away with the drugs or the money just before the cops arrived. There was the skinny guy that everyone liked who ended up oddly being a poster child for the event due to his incarceration. Then there were those who came to watch, who would later go home and tell the tale bigger than life as if they had been in the eye of the storm. The next day in school the story always seemed so much more important to the ones telling it than the ones listening in the locker room.
I wonder where in their Jurga the elders and warlords and yes, Taliban MPs are discussing the plight of women and children in their country. Are they discussing peace, or are they really just like those boys at 9pm in the parking lot, tossing stones at the streetlights, boys who are listening to a loop in their minds about the glory of revenge and duty. Will they discuss in their Peace Jurga the facts, that today in their country the burqa is still widely used? Rape in a marriage has been legalized. “Honor” killings are common, as is human trafficking. Girls continue to be intimidated and even withdrawn from school. There has been an alarming rise in domestic violence, self-immolation and suicide. Statistics indicate that in Afghanistan:
• Every 30 minutes a woman dies during childbirth
• 30% of drug addicts are women
• 87% of women are illiterate
• only 30% of girls have access to education
• 1 in every 3 women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
• 44 years is the average life expectancy for women
• 70 to 80% of women face forced marriages
And where in all this is the American outrage? The plight of women under Mul Omar’s rule was a rallying cry for the invasion of 2001, just as much or more so than the link to a Saudi prince on dialysis in a cave up in Tora Bora. The above facts are widely acknowledged, but not by the people who have the power to stand before the press and make it an important issue. Instead they give vague nods to how we must insure a future for Afghan women, without a word as to how things are on the ground today, nine years and 65 billion dollars later. The ratified constitution in this country states clearly all Afghans, men and women, are equal. Perhaps if the outrage returned, the embarrassment would be too much, and someone other than grassroots Afghan activists and their dedicated supporters would begin to do something about it.
I will never forget that amazing documentary, The Fog of War. I would add a corollary to McNamara’s precepts; yes, it is important to know your enemy, but at some point it is advisable to ask the question who is your enemy.
On the other hand, whenever I contemplate the crimes against humanity as typified here in Afghanistan, I am equally amazed at how people relentlessly work to create normalcy in their lives. No matter the threats, the poverty, the destruction. Not only native Afghans, but ex-pats too. I met with a woman from Colorado who has lived here in Kabul with her family since 1994. She has four children. Her two oldest are girls 15 and 17. They will volunteer in the orphanages for a month this summer. This woman and her husband run a micro hydro-power business and a guest lodge up in the mountains. She takes taxis everywhere or walks without a worry. She is tall and blond, not exactly a blend in the crowd. And yet, here she is living as any mother lives, attending dance recitals and finding things for her children to do over school break.
This woman asked me how I take care of myself. I realized that in the classroom, though I am tapped for all I can give, it is in this giving that I receive. I know this won't happen consistently, nor will it last forever. These three days of idleness have forced me to see just how exhausted I had become without knowing it. But for the time being the work is feeding me. I am excited about my other duties here besides teaching, including the coordination of volunteers. In a week a student from NYC, Chanda arrives. For a few months she will help with teaching but also address a major issue: helping the children respond properly to letters from sponsors. With hundreds of letters to write and only one staff on hand to assist in the process, it has gotten bogged down. The older children need help with keeping a thread to their letters, responding to questions from their sponsors. They are thrilled when they receive a letter but are intimidated when it comes to writing one. Chanda will help to solicit more personalized responses. Another volunteer from Idaho, Angela, is sacrificing husband and home for four months, fulfilling a longtime desire to get involved with something positive in the midst of war. She will continue Chanda’s work, but also teach a martial arts class to the girls and boys. A third volunteer is in the works. She is a 62 year-old career Army officer who taught for years at West Point. Linda will bring a litany of experiences to AFCECO, quite possibly beginning in September.
There is no checklist, no test to determine whom I invite. I have not had to say no to anyone. What I do is have a conversation. Invariably, if the volunteer candidate is not a good match, he or she drops out on his or her own volition. I would say about eight or nine initial inquiries did end up that way, while these three women worked their way to the end of the conversation as enthusiastic, if not more so, than they were to begin with. To honor the spirit of AFCECO I feel that it is better to find the person, then fit that person to an appropriate job, rather than the other way around. It has been the same with people here in Kabul who show interest in getting involved, whether from American University or Kabul University or the private sector.
Another responsibility has been writing/editing grant proposals and various other publicly released documents. Right now I am working on a proposal to attract the attention of Hillary Clinton and the Rockefeller Foundation. The “Secretary’s Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls” seeks to award two $500,000 grants. This is a little different than a typical grant; it is more like a contest. I have spent these hours working on a concept paper, five pages worth. I have to use every last ounce of my ability to juggle several objectives, express them as clearly and compellingly as possible, while making it seem effortless in the text.
Having these three days has been strange. Especially waking up at 5am with nothing to do but write, drink chi, and hope my normal schedule can resume tomorrow. I think about each class and what I will bring to it, while knowing full well I may toss it all. One rule I do follow is that every class must contain four elements: conversation, vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension. I bought a globe the size of a soccer ball and it goes where I go. We have begun the process of studying 13 places on the earth: Antarctica, Australia, China, India, Thailand, America, Egypt, Kenya, Greece, England, Brazil, Panama, Cuba. After an overview we have since visited Egypt and Australia in detail. The globe is a natural inroad to teaching ESL. Music, language, history, geography, flora and fauna, food. In every case I ask the children to reflect upon their own country, similarities and differences. When we came to the part of Australian history where women convicts from England are stuffed into “woman factories”, the girl’s eyes opened wide. Iron necklaces, shaved heads, and enslavement by hapless men are realities they could envision all too well. I press the issue of time, what 40,000 years means to the Aboriginal culture, what it takes to be able to identify a spot in the desert where water can be found. I give an “exam” (the kids prefer this word to “quiz”) just about every time we get together. Today I must download some pictures from India, and put together a two-page introduction to the country. Choosing what to include is a challenge, and a responsibility. There has to be a mix of imperfection and perfection that is fair to the place and the people. I say this because the children know pretty much nothing about the world, and they absorb everything I share with them the way I remember absorbing the view when first I walked to the edge of the Grand Canyon. Most of the children do know something about India, though. Sometimes they watch Hindi music videos and Bollywood films in the evening. I will have to include Gandhi, a classical dance, and of course the food.
I wrote to a friend this morning that I anticipate a day I go north or east or west (further than Paghman) and for the first time see this spectacular countryside that is the real Afghanistan. It will be a revelation in that I've spent a year experiencing this country through the children. When I actually see where it is they come from, I can only imagine the kind of connections that will take place in my heart and mind.
It is sobering to imagine too, probably more a reality than I’d like to admit, that at this very moment for the first time I think in my life I am someone’s true enemy. This someone I have never met. This someone would target me as if I were a soldier in the field. I have no gun. I know only one move a Marine taught me that would I suppose in a pinch bring an attacker down, but honestly my only weapon is education. I remember so many times my story could have ended, most often due to my own stupidity. I remember taking the bullets out of a handgun, once, without telling the strange man who kept it under the seat of his car. The hitchhiker who got in as I left said he did not believe in violence. I never told him either, that I removed the bullets. If the gun did come out, and the trigger did get pulled, whom would the pilgrim have praised, and whom would the driver have cursed? I don’t believe life is ironic. Irony is only a way to understand life. But I have found happiness in a war, and I do not want to die. It occurs to me that making a living was something I never once in my life considered. How childish that seems to me now. But there it is. Whatever I did was invariably framed in the act of being alive. Now I am engaged in some sort of battle, a soldier myself, without ever having declared it. As Beckett would more than likely have me say, the story ends. There is no story. It has no end.
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