Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Debating in Afghanistan

The Kabul Invitational Tournament, a tournament to which I’ve dedicated the last three weeks and a lot of others have dedicated much longer, will take place “tomorrow.” Hopefully.

Running a debate tournament in Kabul is nothing like running a tournament in the States. If you’ve ever been to a tournament at home, you know that they are chaotic to say the least. There are a lot of coaches and students and pieces of paper floating around, and it’s tough to keep track of it all. But at tournaments in the States, you work with kids who have been taught to think critically, most of whom have at least some debate experience. You have a location reserved months in advance. You have Internet that works, and you don’t have random power outages that sometimes last two minutes and sometimes last two hours. You know ahead of time how many students are coming and how many judges will be there. You don’t have military checkpoints at the entrance to the university, and you aren’t expected to schedule a full hour for a complete sit-down lunch. Your tournament can start early, and most participants know that it will run until well after dark.

None of that is true in Kabul.

In the three weeks that we’ve been here, we’ve put a lot of time into this tournament, the exhibition debates at the universities, and the debate workshops we’ve been teaching. And we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve gotten trophies purchased, teams trained, certificates made, ballots written, judges recruited. We’ve even gotten the sanction from the International Public Debate Association, which is pretty cool. (If you go to you can see it!)

Unfortunately, Afghans don’t believe in making To Do lists and checking things off. We paid for our trophies, but the company just told us they are sorry for the delay and they’ll try to get them to us tomorrow morning. We don’t have a location; Kabul University initially agreed, but the president told us last night that he has changed his mind. We have to provide lunch for all of them, and we haven’t yet figured out how to do that. We have to reimburse students for the transportation costs (400 Afghanis each, which is about $8), and all the money we exchanged is in 500 Afghani notes. We have tentative lists of students, but we don’t know who will show up or if they’ll be on time or if the high security will let them on campus.

It’s a little stressful, but we are trying to teach ourselves to go with the flow. This is a very new concept here, and we have to remember that these students and professors and judges aren’t seasoned debaters who have been doing this for six or seven years, as the rest of us have. So we are just crossing our fingers and praying that it will all work out!

Despite all of the frustration, I have to tell you how much I am loving this job. There are busy days and boring days, but my favorites are the workshop days. Last Saturday, my partner Clayton Goss and I went to Kateb University to teach the second of two four-hour workshops. We met these students three weeks ago when we did our first exhibition debate at their university, two days after we arrived. Clayton and I interviewed them all, chose eight students (four men and four women) for the workshop, and wrestled with their schedules until we could plan for two Saturday afternoon workshops.

Five students showed up that first Saturday.

One of the missing students was my favorite, Razia. I wrote about her once before. She’s an amazing student, a political science major, who dreams of becoming the first female president of Afghanistan. She is very progressive, and wears a chadar that starts at the bun at the nape of her neck instead of at her forehead like most girls’ do. Gasp!

We were really disappointed when she missed last week, but she called to apologize and asked if we could train her later. So last Saturday, she showed up at 12:30 and sat through a one-hour crash course on resolutions and claim/warrant/impact. We had taken over two hours to teach that to the entire class, so I didn’t think she would be able to pick it up quickly enough. But she did. We were finished in under forty minutes, and she had such a firm grasp on the concepts that I joked that she should be teaching me.

We also did our first practice debate round that afternoon at Kateb, and Razia and her classmates did awesome. Most rounds we’ve seen so far have included little to no rebuttal, definitions, actual questioning during cross-examination, or anything else we’ve been teaching them for three weeks. Most rounds consist of four speakers who stand up and make claim after claim after claim after claim. Which isn’t exactly a debate round.

The debate at Kateb was different. Razia paired with Hotak, another promising debater, on the negative, and Farzana and Qadir were on affirmative. They made claims, but they backed them up with evidence and then they challenged their opponents’ claims. The first time I heard Razia say “My opponent said…” I wanted to stand up and cheer!

Watching these students improve and learn and take an interest in debate makes the frustrations worth it. These are smart students who want to change their country. They see the issues of security, of education, of corruption, of ineptitude, and they want to fix them. They’ve never been taught how to listen respectfully to someone else’s arguments, and they don’t know how to create questions based on what they heard. These ideas are so normal so me, and so foreign to them, but I love watching them figure it out and learn. These kids are going to change the world someday, and it’s so cool to be a part of it.


  1. Amazing. Great work. Please email me updates or somehow let me know so I can publicize your work. Having done a similar thing in Iraq I think I sort of understand.

    Please, keep me in touch!

  2. On behalf of the World Debate Institute, of which I am the director, I would like to offer you our sanction and support. Let me know how I can help beyond publicity and cheering for you.

    Alfred SNider