Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Leaving the Afghanistan I've Come to Love

I’m sitting on a plane as I write this, looking out at the landscapes passing below us. It’s the last leg of my journey, the last hour and a half flight that pales in comparison to the thirty-six hours I’ve already been traveling. Within in an hour, my plane will land, my family will meet me, and real life will start again.

Honestly, I’m not ready for that to happen.

I’ve never felt this connected to a place before, never felt this homesick on a journey home. By rights, I should have hated Afghan culture, which doesn’t really support my religion, my independence, my outspokenness. I should have chafed under the restrictions of dress and comportment and opportunity, and I should have been annoyed by the smells of the open sewers, the beggars constantly tapping on my window, the lack of safe food and the never-ending stomachaches. I should have been counting down the days until I could leave.

Instead, I fell in love.

I met a man on the plane from Kabul who saw that I was reading a book in Spanish and started a conversation with me in that language. He asked me about Afghanistan, since he was only there for two days, and when I told him how much the country me encanta (enchants me), he looked mildly surprised. When I told him that I really want to come back someday, he looked like he thought I was crazy. Why would I, a woman, a foreigner, a lover of learning, want to come back to such a backwards place?

I don’t have a good explanation, not really, but I want to try to show you some of the reasons that I love this place and why I will be back.

The people: I have never met a people so hospitable or kind or willing to assist people they hardly know. I’ve told you about their hospitality when we come to eat dinner with them, and it was the same in every situation. When I asked to interview them about their experiences in the last ten years and under the Taliban, when we had a break during workshops and they offered to buy us water or tea or lunch, when I accidentally said a cuss word in Dari when I was trying to say “I want to do debate.” The media tells us that Afghans hate us and want us to leave Afghanistan, but every single person I met was so kind and wonderful to me. They love Americans, even when we want to abandon them.

The hope: I love the U.S. but I hate the attitude we have toward it. Our country is going to you-know-where in a hand basket, and if you listen to the average American whine about it, it sounds as though there’s nothing we can do but give up and go along for the ride. I’m a terrible idealist, I know, but I’m realistic enough to know that things can change if we make them change. In Afghanistan, change is happening slowly, but the people have such an incredible capacity for hope. All of the students I met told me that they know about the corruption in their government and the problems facing their country, but they believe that their generation, my generation, has the potential to change that. They have

so much hope for their future, and it’s incredible to see.

The potential for development: With its open sewers and unpaved streets and tiny wooden shops, Kabul isn’t exactly New York City. But change in New York City means little and does little to advance the city’s development. Change in Kabul, however, is visible and makes an incredible difference. It was a great to talk to Ken and Debbie Esser, the owners of our guesthouse, and to Josh and Aref about the differences they have seen in the time they’ve lived here; they tell me about roads getting paved and military checkpoints becoming unnecessary and giant wedding halls being constructed. Infrastructure. Economy. Even culture is changing- although burkas are still a common sight, the younger generation has flatly refused them. Afghanistan has so much potential for development, and I can’t wait to see where it will go.

The language: I’m a language person in general, but there’s something about Dari that
excites me. It is so different from every language I know, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to master new sounds and new grammatical structures. Everyone I met was very patient about teaching me words and putting up with my constant questions; I really want to continue to study Dari and learn more.

The learning: Every student I met had a love for learning and a desire to get an education that is unparalleled in the United States. The students work so hard- they work for eight hours and then go to school for four, boy and girls. They are debating not to boost their resume or get prizes; they are debating because they recognize the uses of debate in Afghanistan and they want to be a part of it.

There is more to it than that, but it’s hard to put into words. Suffice it to say, I love this country, and I know that I’ll be back, Maybe next summer, to stay for a year and teach debate. Maybe later, maybe not for years. But I’ll be back eventually. Afghanistan, ba’dan mebinem!

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