Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Most Amazing Tournament Ever

There is no feeling in the world quite as amazing as standing in the middle of a dirty, littered, empty tab room, watching the sunset through the window (and the dust), seeing a slight breeze send one last, unclaimed “Certificate of Achievement” fluttering to the floor, knowing that we just concluded the largest debate tournament that (we think) Afghanistan has ever seen… and we rocked it.

Today has been a fabulous day.

Debate tournaments are always hectic, and today was no different. I was coaching, judging four of the six rounds, training judges, and running the “tab” room (tab is the process of tracking all of the results- wins and losses, speaker points- and deciding who breaks to semifinals, etc.). At most tournaments, I do one of those. I hit the ground running at 6:30 am this morning, and we didn’t get a break until after 7:30 tonight- which isn’t a big deal for tournaments for us (I’ve had tournaments that were MUCH worse), but for Afghans, it seemed like a really long day.

We told the kids to be there by 8 am. 8 am normal time, not Afghan time. We thought they would be late, but about 20 of the 36 debaters actually showed up at 7 am to practice before the rounds began. I was at the guest house so I could use the online tab program, and the tournament director, Josh McCormick, called me from the university at 8:30 to tell me that everyone had arrived and I could print and bring the pairings- the list of which team would face which team.

We had three rounds in the morning, and then a break for lunch. By lunchtime, we had two (of the eighteen) teams who had won all three rounds, and five other teams who had won two and had really high speaker points- meaning they had a shot at going to semi-finals. I didn’t judge the fourth round, so I was sitting in front of the ballot computer (using the spreadsheet program that I created because we couldn’t access the Internet and use our online software- pretty fun!) as ballots came back with judges’ decisions. The four other debaters from the US- Josh, Clayton, Rachal, and Nick- and the executive director, Aref, were standing over me with hungry looks on their faces. Every time a ballot came in, they all leaned closer- who won? who won? who won??

It was a ridiculously close break for semifinals. Two teams had a 4-0 record (they won four and lost zero), and we had to choose from the five 3-1 teams based on speaker points. Remember Razia? She and her partner had a 3-1 record and 277 speaker points. The last two semi-final teams had 3-1 records and 286 and 278 speaker points. We were so disappointed- Razia and Hotak missed the semi-finals by one point. Later, when we calculated speaker awards, Razia missed by two points and Hotak missed by one. So frustrating- but still an incredible achievement for their first tournament.

The final four semi-final teams came from three different universities and included, completely by accident, four female and four male debaters. We were so excited- it’s been difficult to convince the girls to try debate and difficult to convince their professors to let them be on the teams. One team tried to send eight guys, arguing that their girls didn’t have much experience. Two of those girls took second place overall.

One of my teams won the tournament. They were from Tabesh University, which has only been open for two years and which offers limited English classes. The two debaters, Shirzai and Ahmed, did a great job. They went 4-0 in rounds and had high speaker points. The two other teams from their school, Suliaman/Abuzar and Musa/Moosawi, picked up one win during the entire tournament, but when results were announced, it was as though the entire team had won. No bitterness, no rivalry- just pure excitement and genuine happiness for the success of their teammates.

It was a hectic, busy day. I ran from tab room to topic draw to prep room to judging to tab room. Most of us didn’t have time for the sit-down lunch that was provided, and by the end, we looked like we’d been rolling in the dirt because the building was so dusty and we were so hot. Some teams were upset- the team of girls who lost in semi-finals had tears running down their cheeks, and Razia spent fifteen minutes telling me why the judge who gave her a loss didn’t deserve to be judging. Others were ecstatic- the look on Ahmed’s face when they announced the winners was priceless.

Watching them debate these controversial, semi-political topics was priceless. “Afghanistan should develop nuclear weapons.”
“Freedom of expression is necessary for the development of a society.”
“Pakistan is the biggest threat to Afghanistan.”
“The U.S. should establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan.”
“The security situation in Afghanistan is improving.”
These aren’t topics that most Afghans talk about, yet there we were. Watching students who have been learning debate for two weeks give claims, give impacts, give rebuttal, say in the semi-final round that their points were “damn clear.” Watching students who, two weeks ago, couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of “cross-examination,” couldn’t figure out how to respond to their opponent’s arguments without just repeating them, couldn’t give a speech in English to save their lives, had no idea how to argue something that they didn’t necessarily believe.

Yet there we were.

If I weren’t heading home to spend only a few weeks with my family before I start work, I would definitely change my ticket and stay longer. If I could, I would stay here indefinitely, host another tournament, get these debate clubs going long-term. The kids kept asking when they could do this again, when they could debate again. We had to tell them we didn’t know. This was such an experimental program, but judging by the success, I think it’s safe to say that the Kabul Invitational may just become an annual event. There is nothing I would like better than to come back next year and help host it again.

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