Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas in Kabul

This year, my Christmas was so new and different and lovely. I've never spent a Christmas away from home before, and I wasn't really looking forward to it. But the community here made me feel welcome, my family did a lot to include even though I'm so far away, and so many Afghans wished me Merry Christmas and did their best to ease my homesickness. Thanks to their kindness, I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and I wanted to share some of it with you.

It began with snow! The first major snowfall was last week, and it's snowing again today. In between, there's been snow on the ground, and blue, sunny skies. I love it!

I was able to attend several church services. One was an early Christmas service complete with a choir and treats afterward. Another was a Christmas day service at the only Catholic church in Kabul, in the Italian Embassy. I heard about that church months ago, but it's rather far away and hard to get to. This week, I finally made it, and it was so wonderful. The priest was Italian, and there were readings in Italian, English, and French. At the end of the Mass, each nationality sang a Christmas song from their homeland, and it was really beautiful.

There was a Christmas tea a few weeks ago, and this was one of the decorations. They gave it to me to take home after, and one night at dinner with my host siblings, I used it as a sort-of Advent wreath. I sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to them and told them what Advent is.

I also introduced my host siblings to frosted Christmas cookies. Apparently, most Afghans don't bake much, because they don't have ovens and it's just as easy to buy items from the bakery. We don't have an oven either, so we baked them in our bukhori (wood stove.) It has a little compartment that I think is designed for drying wet wood, but it made delicious cookies!

Next up was a Christmas party at the office. I brought homemade fudge and sugar cookies (slightly burned, whoops...) and frosting. We had a lot of fun decorating our own cookies. I told them a little about why we celebrate Christmas, and we did a White Elephant Exchange. It got so competitive, but it was a blast!

The cook's kids helped me decorate the wall.

On Christmas Eve, I went to the home of a friend and her family. My family's Christmas Eve tradition, and Christmas traditions in general, are all about family and spending time with all the relatives. Since our extended families aren't over here with us, expats in Kabul find other ways to celebrate. On Christmas Eve, for example, I joined a group of about 15 at this friend's house. Adults and kids. Singing carols. Yummy treats (first time I've ever had peppermint ice cream, and it was delicious!) Reading the Christmas story and talking about how God has worked in our lives this year. Sharing stories and having a lovely conversation, interrupted by little ones who wanted to tell us about the Grinch or sing a Christmas song she'd written herself.

At one point, we got on the topic of body armor, because all of the people who are supported by USAID were recently issued vests and hats. I tried them on- so heavy! I took this picture because I thought it was an interesting contrast. It gave me so much more respect for those who are serving our country in the military. That life is not for me, but I respect those who do it. I know their Christmas was probably much different from mine, but I hope it was happy.

On Christmas morning, I went to another family's home. The mom is from England, her husband's from Scotland, and they have four kids. They made a full English breakfast- bacon (which I haven't eaten in months!), tomatoes and mushrooms, bread, granola, yogurt, pomegranate seeds, homemade orange juice. I'm staying at a friend's place for part of my vacation (She's been so wonderfully kind! It's been a lot of fun staying with her), and she made cinnamon rolls and an incredible spinach quiche for the breakfast. Talk about a food coma!

We stayed for a few hours to watch the kids open presents and play outside. One of the gifts was a window spray and stencils of Christmas scenes, and it made the windows look so festive.

That night, I went to a game night at the home of another family, a young married couple. Their house was beautifully decorated. She made her own nativity scene out of paper and cut out tiny, delicate snowflakes to hang in the entry way. Gorgeous!

One of the best parts of my Christmas, though, I don't have any pictures of. On Christmas morning, I was able to Skype with my family, to feel like I was there as they opened gifts, to hear the laughter and the teasing and the music that so often define my memories of Christmas morning. Then again the next day, when, despite a twelve and a half hour time difference, I got to Skype in and join the gift card exchange with all the relatives. I've been more homesick in the past week than ever before, but I'm so thankful for my incredible family, who work around the time difference and send e-cards and Facebook notes to remind me that they are missing me too.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone talk about how Christmas in Kabul can make us better appreciate the holiday, and I think it's kind of true. We don't have a lot of options for Christmas shopping, so gifts are thoughtfully chosen ahead of time or thoughtfully made by hand. Our power goes out constantly and we don't have central heating even when it's on, so we curl up by the fire with friends and make music with our own voices. We live in a society where most people don't know much about Christmas, and when we get chances to tell them about it, it makes us remember. We know what it's like to have armed soldiers on our streets, just like the Roman legionaries, and we wear headscarves and long skirts, just like Mary did. We have herds of sheep and shepherds walking up and down our streets, and we know that their life isn't as romantic as the Christmas story depicts; the angels' choice of these men to first see Jesus shows that He came for all people. We live in a society where a mother might give birth to fourteen children and have only half make it past their fifth birthday, so we know how incredible it is that Christ came to us as a helpless baby.

Christmas is about family and about giving and about good food, but at its root, it's about Jesus. When I made myself stop and look past the homesickness, the traditions I'm missing, the absent Christmas lights, I better remember the real reason we celebrate.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hosting a tournament in Afghanistan...priceless

Tournaments are synonymous with stressful. And frustration. But also with incredible. And no matter how stressed or frustrated I get, it's the incredible parts that I hold onto, that I will remember, and that make this program worth it.

The Kabul Open is a good example. It was supposed to take place on November 23, a date we agonized over. We had to choose a date that didn't conflict with student exams, or Thanksgiving, or the host university's schedule, and after a lot of thought, we finally settled on November 23. Just days before, we got texts from some of the students- the tournament is scheduled for the 9th day of Muharram. Muharram is a month in the Islamic calendar, the first ten days of which are a period of mourning in remembrance of Hussein ibn Ali, who was martyred in the 600's. During this time last year, there was a bombing that killed around fifty people, and the students were concerned about security. They wouldn't be able to come unless we changed the date. And so...

Date changed- 2 days before.

I've never had to change locations for a tournament before. This time, we had planned to hold the tournament at a public university, but when sectarian violence led to student deaths and the abrupt closure of all public universities a few days before the tournament, we had no choice.

Location changed- 3 days before.

On the morning of the tournament, we were rushing around trying to get everything ready and start on time. The judges training began on schedule, but half the judges showed up late; they'd been waiting in the wrong room. Some students showed up on time, but most schools had changes. One school changed all six of its teams around, ten minutes after the first round was supposed to begin! Another school dropped two competitors, another dropped one. Another dropped completely. To make things worse, the computer we were using for tabulation (deciding who debates against who, tracking which team wins, etc.) chose that moment to install automatic updates- rather like getting stuck in traffic when you are in a hurry. Murphy's Law, right?

Number of last minute changes to make by hand- 23.

The day progressed just as frantically. During the quarterfinal round, after most people had eaten lunch and a few of us were just thinking we might have a minute to do that, we discovered that one of the ballots (where the judges write who won and give each speaker an individual ranking) was missing its speaker scores. Which meant that we might have sent the wrong team to semifinals. As soon as the judge came back, we got her to write a new ballot and entered the scores, which turned out to be low enough that the rankings didn't change. Whew! (We discovered after the tournament that we made a mistake with a different team, a team that should have gone to quarterfinals but due to a tabulation error did not. We've been advised not to stress about it, since it happens to everyone, but that doesn't stop me from kicking myself!)

Crises averted- 2. So far.

That put us further behind schedule, which was of course when the printer broke. I wrote the semifinal breaks by hand. Ran down three flights of stairs to where the competitors were gathered, and realized that I'd forgotten the list of resolutions (topics for the round.) Ran back up, and down. Read the names- congrats! That's when the tournament director, Josh, leaned over to me- Are you sure that's correct? Neither of the teams from the round he judged were on the list. Back up the stairs I ran, to check the list. Sure enough, I'd copied wrong. Down again with correct list of breaks. I tried to read them off, but I could barely breathe. Josh noticed and sent me back upstairs to get my asthma inhaler.

Total number of puffs before I had use of my lungs again- 4.

Downstairs again, there was more trouble brewing. The students from one school were saying that someone had cheated, had changed the results to favor another team. One of their teams had qualified for semifinals, but the whole school was threatening to walk out. We tried to talk to them, showed them the ballots, explained how elimination rounds work. By then they understood, but I think they still weren't happy and felt too wound up to debate well. I was so baffled by their actions- mistakes happen. But I didn't grow up in a place where bribery and nepotism and corruption are so often a part of life. I grew up with a debate program I never had reason to distrust, and these students don't have that luxury. At last, our executive director, Aref, pulled them aside and spoke quietly in Dari. He was counting on them, he told them. They agreed to stay.

Crises averted- 3. So far.

We were way behind schedule by that point. Running late is a common feature of most tournaments, but here, we don't have that luxury. Students have to leave by 4:30, the girls especially. Many have long rides home, and transportation after dark isn't very safe. I thought they were being alarmists when I heard this back in September; just take a taxi, for goodness sake. Then I heard about friends who had been robbed at gunpoint by their taxi drivers, and I revised my opinion. Now, we try really hard to stick to our schedule. Which, in Afghanistan, is impossible.

Number of hours late that the final round started- approximately 3.

In the end, we had the awards ceremony before the final round, so students could leave if necessary. It was a fairly nice ceremony, but rife with mistakes. When I stood to announce the sweepstakes winners (recognizing schools instead of individual teams), the results were printed incorrectly, listing a school that hadn't competed as the 3rd place winners. It's a custom here to call up individual judges, guests, tab staff, etc to give out awards. We did that but neglected to thank a certain group of volunteers from a different debate organization. We felt bad when we realized; it seems like such a small thing to us, but here, it's a big deal. Will cultural differences never fail to cause issues?

Mistakes throughout the day- I lost count.

Stress, stress, stress. Frustration, frustration, frustration. When I got home that night, I curled up with a book and some cookie dough, to tune out the world for a while. It wasn't until I'd given myself some time to reflect that all of the incredible bits swam their way to my consciousness.

64 students- the largest tournament we've had. 8 schools- the most we've enrolled. The successful integration of students taught by different organizations, which has been a significant frustration all year. The sheer number of people who helped- judges, staff, students who couldn't debate but volunteered as guides.

The mother of a former debater (now judge/trainer) who came to watch and told me in broken English how much she likes what we do. The team that should have broken to quarterfinals but didn't, and seeing how gracefully they accepted our apology and assured us that they understood. The judges who raved about our students and how much they loved watching debates. The resolutions- women should not be allowed to travel alone, the US should mind its own business, Afghanistan will succeed.

One of the teams I trained, who won almost no rounds but told me with shining eyes that it was probably the best day of their lives. The final round, the only round I watched, where the debaters clearly just enjoyed themselves. The award ceremony, and the loud cheers and encouragement that the students displayed for their teammates success. The way one debate launched himself out of his chair to hug a teammate who qualified for elimination rounds.

The maturity showed in the students from the usually successful school that didn't have a single team break to quarterfinals- they were upset, but after we talked through it, one student nodded and said sagely, “There is no justice in the world.” I was surprised- how deep! He pointed at the white board behind me, where that resolution remained from the previous round. The feeling at the end of a very long day, looking at a stack of ballots and seeing the students' grins in my mind's eye.

Date changed. Location changed. Changes made. Crises averted. Inhaler used. Schedule delayed. Mistakes piled up.

Hosting a tournament in Afghanistan...priceless.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skype debate: We don't normally see students like you

“Good morning, and good evening,” began debater Faisal from Kabul University. He spoke to a room of Afghan students but also via Skype to a room of debaters in the United States.

It was our first Afghan-American Skype debate of the year, between students from Carroll College in the US and students from three universities in Kabul. I organized two of these last year (, and it was thrilling to hear these two groups of students share their opinions in everything from negotiation with the Taliban to stereotypes each had about the other country.

It was even more thrilling this time, to be on the other side of the world and on the other side of the screen, to witness the same interest in their voices and passion in their eyes.

We used the BP debate format- four debaters on each side, two Afghan and two American. The topic was "The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be extended." The American students admitted later that they were worried about saying the wrong thing, saying something that is accepted as fact in the US but that the Afghans considered offensive or knew was false.

That happened a few times in the debate. We heard students disagree; "Hasn't security has improved over the last ten years?" asked one American student, and the Afghan debater emphatically answered, "No, exactly the opposite!" We heard students agree; yes, some progress in Afghanistan has been made. During the eight 4-minute speeches, we wandered from the problems with leaving early, to the Taliban's insistence that they will not negotiate while foreigners are here, to the importance of security in maintaining civil liberties, to the ways that foreign troops have violated Islamic values and made tensions worse. One side upheld the usefulness of a big brother in guiding a newly formed democracy, and one of the Afghan debaters responded, “What about big brother's aunts and cousins and sisters; do we need them too?”

In the second half of the debate, both American and Afghan debaters began to wax poetic on ideas about self governance, the U.S. image, and the precedent it sets. “If the U.S. leaves, will achievements continue?” asked the Afghan speaker on the government/affirmative side “Will the Taliban come back?” The final American speaker responded with “Should the US keep its word?” and “Does big brother ever move out?”

One of the beautiful parts of the debate was the fact that we had two Afghan speakers on affirmative and two on negative, and we had two American speakers on affirmative and two on negative. None of the groups got to choose which side they took, but we still got a little glimpse into the mindsets of both sides. It is so natural for us to speak and think and debate through the lens that we grow up with, but it's good for us to listen and learn about the lens that others use. It's also good for us to understand the other side's arguments; I was really proud when one of our debaters spoke so passionately about why the US troops should leave but told us afterward that he passionately believes they should stay.

After the debate, we had a question and answer session, free-style and open to anyone who was debating or watching. It started slow, with both sides hesitant to ask questions, but when the questions began, they came fast. What stereotypes did you have before the debate? What do you think will happen in 2014? What will be the impact on education? What's it like to be a woman in Afghanistan? Do Americans want the troops to leave? If you were an Afghan woman, what would you do? What do young people in the States think of Afghans? If we were to write a letter to Obama on behalf of our Afghan friends, what would you want us to say?

The students at the Q and A

Of all the parts of my job here, I think these Skype debates are my favorite. They bring together my two favorite countries, and they bring together some of the best these countries have to offer. They feature young people who are informed about the world, interested in using their words to make a difference, and curious enough to confront stereotypes and learn from each other, even when their mistakes mean a whole room chuckles at their expense. They are pure and uncensored in a way that media can seldom be.

At the end of the event, one of the American debaters said something that, to me, is the summation of the importance of these debates.

“I want to thank you all for this. Here, normally, we don't see this side. It's really great that you are showing that you don't hate us. We see the flags burned in the media, but we don't see students like you.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Here We Go A-Eid-Visiting...

Sometimes I am amazed by the sheer amount of Things I Do Not Know. Or, more to the point, Things I Did Not Know But Recently Discovered, hence my ability to list them. This fascinating holiday called Eid, for example. I don't know why I never paid attention to it before. Yes, it is an Islamic holiday and yes, I am not Muslim, but you'd think I would have at least had a basic understanding of it. (A disclaimer: I'm not a theologian, and my information on Islam is based on observance and on a small amount of research, so forgive me if my facts aren't entirely correct. I will try to represent the holiday to the best of my knowledge, which is, I admit, incomplete.)

Eid is a pretty interesting holiday with a lot of things going for it.

1) It occurs twice (how many holidays do that? Wouldn't it be cool if they all did?)- little Eid marks the end of Ramadan in August-ish and big Eid is in late October-sh.

2) August and October. Perfect time for a holiday, right? Partway into the school year, right when everyone needs a break.

3) Eid is a holiday that celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. But the major emphasis of the holiday is on family. Everyone does “Eid visits,” where they make the rounds of the homes of all their relatives and friends, have tea and goodies, and talk. It makes everyone very busy, but I think it's nice. When I am home for holidays, I try to see everyone, but it's not easy, and sometimes, I am too lazy to leave my chair by the fire. Eid doesn't let you make excuses like that, and it gives you a chance to connect with friends you haven't seen in a while.

I went on four Eid visits, and they were a lot of fun! We went to the homes of colleagues and friends, ate cake (which I spilled all over my chadar. Sigh...), had tea, and laughed a lot. At the bottom of this post, you can see some photos of the visits.

4) One of the parts of Eid that I like the most is the emphasis on charitable giving. Those who can afford it slaughter an animal and give a third of the meat to family, a third to friends, and a third to the poor. This is a very important aspect of the holiday, from what I've been told, and it is carefully observed. Now, I know that there are times when we emphasize giving, but as far as I've observed, not to this level. I believe that charitable giving/service/taking-time-to-help-and-understand-others (whether that means those less fortunate than you or just in general) should take place year round, and I've heard the arguments about the harms of treating charity as a once-a-year obligation, but regardless, I still think that the Eid customs are important and beautiful.

5) Eid also emphasizes prayer. There are extra prayers during Eid, where people gather multiple times each day to pray in large communities. I like this idea of large group prayer. It feels sometimes like holidays such as Christmas and Easter become so secularized and the world so politically correct that the religious significance of the holiday is overlooked or at least not emphasized. I believe in religious freedom, but I also wonder what it would be like to live in a country where ALL of my friends and neighbors gathered to pray together.

It was really interesting to be here and to learn about this holiday that is so central to Islam. I spent my holiday at a friend's home because my host family was gone. This was also enjoyable (hot showers, lots of books and lots of writing, Internet, sleeping in, cookie dough...good vacation, right?), but there was a part of me that envied my Muslim friends their holiday. This sounds hypocritical, since I currently live on the other side of the world than my family, but I think that family, giving, and prayer are important parts of the holidays, and I love how integral they are to Eid.

Eid has now been added to my list of Things I Have Experienced!

Homes for Eid visits are all very

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ceremony is Stupid...Usually

I am not a fan of ceremony.

Let me just put that out there. I hate dressing up, I don't like having pictures taken, I spend the whole time critiquing the speakers and counting the number of times they say “um” and then feeling bad because that's not a very nice thing to do. I feel like ceremonies encourage people to say what sounds pretty, which may or may not be what is true.

Here in Afghanistan, ceremony is everywhere. Social status is very important, which is why our debate award ceremonies include “Certificates of Participation” that are presented individually to every debater, even those who didn't win anything. Everyone is vying for positions and activities that will get them noticed by important people, so the students put on elaborate ceremonies to congratulate themselves for winning debate tournaments.

We attended one of those ceremonies yesterday at Kabul Education University. The school chancellor was there, the dean, the head of the department. There was a big stage with banners and comfy chairs for important people (Josh was invited up there, but not me. In fact, when one of the speakers thanked me for training the students, he didn't even remember my name! I don't care, though. I would be uncomfortable sitting onstage with everyone watching me, and as long as I know that my work was quality, it doesn't matter if others know or not.) Each important person had his chance to give a speech, and then they spent fifteen minutes giving out certificates and gifts to the students who won the tournament.

Sometimes I wonder if all of this rigamarole is a good thing or not. It seems to take away from the intrinsic value of competing in a debate tournament, where the skills you gain and the friends you make and the fun you have are all overshadowed by someone's desire to stand onstage and shake hands with important people. Ceremonies like this seem to be expected, and when APT didn't jump to participate, it was almost like students were disappointed. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think that the value of something comes not in the status you gain but in the skills you learn. I'd rather see someone put those skills to use than see them be awarded certificate after certificate.

Granted, the students are right to be proud; three of the top four teams at the tournament came from this school. The recognition is good for them, since all are about to graduate and enter the workforce, and it is good for the school and for debate in general. I know that there is a lot riding on these extracurriculars for our students, and that landing a good job might mean their family has food on the table the next day. I may mourn my declining bank account, but I know that my safety net can catch me if I fall. Most of my students have no safety net, so accomplishments and ceremonies like this matter.

Nargis and her partner took first place in the tournament, and she also was the first place speaker. I'm so proud of her!

There are times, too, when I see the value of these ceremonies. Yesterday, the head of the English department stood up and spoke about the importance of debate, the necessity. He was in the United States in 2008 and saw the presidential debates on TV. He watched them discuss issues, watched them disagree but do so respectfully, watched them dive into important policies and concerns and attempt to talk them out, and he thought, 'I'd like to see that culture come to my country.' Now, it has.

I had a little smile on my face as he spoke, because that is why we are here. To teach that respect, that critical thinking, that ability to listen to your opponent and disagree. I'd rather do all of that without sitting through ceremonies or taking pictures, but if that's what it takes, I'll rub shoulders with the best of them. I'm still going to count their 'ums' though. A girl needs her simple pleasures.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The SECOND ANNUAL Kabul Invitational

We hosted The Second Annual Kabul Invitational last Thursday, and it was wonderful. It was the first tournament of our program this year, the second internationally sanctioned tournament held in Afghanistan, the first tournament that some schools have ever participated in. It featured topics such as 'The Internet promotes democracy;' 'Suicide is never justified;' and 'Men should help cook and take care of their children.' Students tried out their ideas, won rounds, lost rounds, treated each other with respect (for the most part!), listened to the ideas of others, and above all, learned something new.

If you want details on what a tournament in Afghanistan is like, take a look at my post from last year- The Most Amazing Tournament Ever. This year was pretty similar, and I think we could debate which tournament now deserves the title "Most Amazing Tournament Ever." I just went back and compared the two, and I was struck by a few things:

At the very end of last year's post, I wrote, “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.” When I wrote that, I had no idea that I would actually get to come back, that we actually would have a 2ND ANNUAL Kabul Invitational. It was pretty incredible to look around the tournament and see a few debaters who were there for the second time. Last year, we didn't even know if we'd be able to offer a second tournament. This time, we told the students not to be discouraged if they didn't win, because they'll have another chance in just six weeks.

Last year, none of our debaters and few of our judges had experience in IPDA debate. This time, we still had a lot of first-timers, but we also had a few students who competed last year. The tournament itself was smaller than last year, and there was a part of me that struggled to not get discouraged every time yet another team dropped out twenty-four or twelve or one and a half hours before the tournament began. We have to keep reminding ourselves that our goal is not necessarily to teach debate to every Afghan university student, have them all debate once, and then quit. Our goal is to provide for the sustainability of the program by developing a core group of trained, experienced debaters. This tournament was the next step toward that goal, and it was exciting to see the students' excitement and hear them planning for their future in debate. More than once, I heard students say, “At the next tournament...”

This tournament also featured judges and tournament staff who were former debaters, and I have to say, that made me more proud that just about anything else. Many of our students from last year have stayed involved, especially the group from Kabul University. They got a grant last fall to train more debaters and host three more tournaments, and now their students are also involved. Graduated debaters from multiple universities helped us this time as judges, as tab room and tournament staff, and as trainers.

Their commitment proves that we are on the right track. In the long term, Josh and I aren't very important. We are leaving in nine months. We won't be here to keep training students or hosting tournaments or persuading student after student that debate teaches useful skills. These graduates are the ones who will take over those roles, and they will do it much more effectively than us. They have the passion; we are just here to give them the tools.

The final thing that hits me afresh every time I work with these students is their attitudes. There was some jealousy and some frustration and some unhappy grumblings, which is only to be expected. For the most part, though, most of the students I spoke to after the tournament were positive. Both of the final teams came from one of the schools I trained, the Kabul Educational University. (Not my favorite result, but it happens sometimes.) They were brimming over with enthusiasm, even those who didn't win. One student, Nargis, was the top speaker and won the final round with her partner. Pretty good for a girl who wears a chadar that covers her mouth and who originally told me that she was too afraid to debate.

One student didn't win a single round, but he came up to me with a grin on his face and told me that he loved debating. He had learned so much, he said, and he can't wait until November 29 so he can win. Another student sent me an email after the tournament: “hi dear Rachill. Thanks from your the best debate programs, it was a new experience for us. I am very happy participating in this program. I enjoyed and like such a good debate like this. Thanks again!!” That student only had a few days of training and had serious stage fright, but she and her partner managed to win one of their rounds and came very close to winning another. Another student told me that she was disappointed that she didn't win, because she had dreams of being a champion debater. Not for the glory, but because she wants to work for APT, because she believes in what we are doing. I told her that being a champion isn't the most important attribute for a job at APT, and she grinned. I know, she said, but I'm going to win in November anyway!

Yet again, it was an amazing tournament. There is so much talk in the news right now about Afghanistan's future, predictions about civil war or another Taliban government or even more instability. I don't know what will happen over the next few years, but I do know that there are a lot of incredible young people in this country, and they are committed to building their country. Based on what I saw this weekend, I wouldn't underestimate their ability to do just that.

Monday, October 8, 2012

So What Exactly Do I Do Over Here?

The intricacies of any job are sometimes hard to understand (I spent years trying to figured out exactly what my dad does, and to be honest, I still couldn't tell you.) My job, however, is pretty simple. And it's such a cool job that I wanted to share it with you!

I'm living in Afghanistan for ten months. (Nine, now. Wow, it's going fast!) Last time I was here, we did some workshops, hosted one amazing tournament, and waved goodbye. This time, our goal is to create a sustainable program that continues after we leave, to give the expertise necessary for Afghans to debate, coach, judge, host tournaments, and run debate clubs at the universities. We have plans to host lots and lots of tournaments; have weekly club meetings at multiple universities to train debaters; run "debate institutes" to train potential coaches on more advanced topics; and provide opportunities for students to connect and engage in peaceful discussion through Skype debates, discussions at the office, round robin and practice debates, etc. Next June, we want to leave behind a group of trained debaters at each university and a group of coaches/former debaters/other interested parties who can help them continue to improve.

So that's the plan. Tune in next June to see how it went.

Right now, we are gearing up for our first tournament. Which means that things are crazy! We spend a lot of our time teaching, either at the universities:

or here in the office:

Sometimes, we plan to go to teach a workshop, but something happens and we aren't allowed to go.
There have been a lot of protests since we got here, so we get these kinds of updates quite often. Today, I was meant to go meet with the club at Kabul Educational University, but since the students were protesting the name change, I didn't get to go. That has happened a couple of times, and although it is aggravating, I have to remind myself that safety is more important than a two-hour workshop.

The whole office has lunch together in the dining room downstairs. The food is usually really good, but my favorite is when I get to fill up on watermelon!

As with any program, we have lots of work in the office. Planning lessons and events, preparing for tournaments, doing the paperwork for our grant. We have a fun office, though, because there are neat people who work here. We also have lots of students drop by over the course of the day, so that leads to really interesting discussions.

Every day here is a little bit different, which is what makes it exciting. One of my favorite times every day is after the staff leaves and I sit for a moment at my desk in the quiet office. I pause to take a breath, to reflect on the day, to think about everything we are accomplishing and all of the reasons I'm so glad to be working here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hope Over Hatred

A lot of people have asked me about being in Afghanistan amidst all the protests about the Innocence of Muslims film, but it's taken me a while to write this post. Not just because most Google services were blocked here for almost a week (YouTube is still blocked), but because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say.

Sometimes I think that being a debater has turned me into someone without strong opinions, because I've taught myself so thoroughly to see both sides of an arguments. I can understand why the filmmaker produced it; his freedom of speech allows it, and that must be upheld. I can understand why the protestors reacted with such force; Islam has great respect for its prophet, and they want to defend him. I can understand why so many Eastern countries called for an apology from the United States, I can understand why that request seemed so foreign to many Westerners, and I can understand the fundamental difference that separates freedom of expression between these two cultures.

Beyond all that, however, there are two things I believe very strongly in: tolerance and hope.

Tolerance is not as scary an idea as we think. The differences between whites and blacks in the United States probably once seemed all-encompassing and insurmountable, but now? We have a black president, and for many of us, color really doesn't matter. Why should religion be any different? If I call my god 'God' and you call yours 'Allah,' does that really make one of us less than the other? And in two religions that scorn righteousness, how have we convinced ourselves that judging others makes us more faithful?

Hating one another solves nothing. The reaction to the film and the violence that followed have unfortunately added fuel to the filmmaker's fire and more justification to his arguments. How can we promote tolerance and understanding, how can we teach people that those of other faiths and other cultures are equally deserving of respect and equally desiring peace, when both sides act like this? I read Facebook posts saying that we should bomb them all. This, four days after somber 9/11 ceremonies declared that we will never forget. I read about the protests, about how US, British, German, and other embassies; American restaurants; and international schools are being targeted, when they had NO affiliation with the film. This, when my Muslim friends say that theirs is a religion of peace. No wonder we all accuse one another of hypocrisy.

Imagine, instead, if we tried accepting one another, tried setting aside our hatred and our prejudices and our stereotypes and learned to see one another as people. If we could talk through our differences, accept that not everyone will share our views but that's okay...what a different place the world would be.

Finding hope helps me remember to be tolerant. Those moments when I see humanity in others, when I see a little schoolgirl in black clothing and white chadar, standing on the side of a busy Kabul street, whose smile looks just like my sister's. It's true, what they told us in elementary school; we all smile in the same language.

Here in Afghanistan, I see hope basically every day, because that's what my job is about. I teach debate to college students, the generation that was born with the Taliban regime and matured during Afghanistan's rocky new beginnings. If anyone has the right to be bitter and angry and violent, it's them. Yet, instead of bitterness, they show maturity. Instead of anger, wisdom. Instead of violence, integrity. They've lived through horrors beyond my imagining, but instead of dwelling on the negative, they engage in practice debates about how freedom of expression leads to economic development and try to re-debate the whole thing once it's finished.

Practically every day, I hear a student say something 'quotable.' In the last two weeks, I've talked with at least ten students who dream of going abroad to get a Master's degree but who talk passionately about wanting to come back to Afghanistan to be teacher/be a doctor/run debate programs/work for the government/everything under the sun. My boss talks about our nonprofit like it's his baby, and in the last week, two of last year's debaters have approached me to ask for my help writing grant proposals for debate tournaments they want to host. We have discussions about the benefits of debate, and without any prompting from me, my students jump straight to listening, speaking, and thinking.

For me, one of the biggest signs of hope was during this tumultuous time of protests and upheaval. There are many in Afghanistan who were upset, and their freedom of speech guarantees them the right to express it, just as the filmmaker's freedom of expression guaranteed him the right to make that film. There were protests across Afghanistan, but in a time when protests are turning violent and people are being killed, Afghanistan has remained relatively calm. Day after day, protestors have gathered outside mosques, on streets, at universities, and aired their grievances, shared their frustration. And day after day, those protests have gone no further. Only once did they provoke any level of violence, when protestors began burning tires, and that didn't last long.

Some of the students I am training for a debate tournament next month are currently leading a protest. Not in response to the film, but because their university changed its name to that of a controversial political figure, and the students aren't happy. Every day, they march in front of the school and down the streets, but never have they let it escalate. Their perseverance has paid off; they have a meeting with President Karzai on Saturday. They grinned as they told me the news in class the other day, and I celebrated with them. Not because I particularly care what the university's name is, but because that is exactly why I'm here and those are exactly the qualities that this generation needs to cultivate. Passion tempered with reason. Righteous indignation with logic.

If you take anything from this post, let it be this: violence and hatred only breed more violence and hatred. Hating one another is not going to accomplish anything. Storming embassies and attacking innocents are not an appropriate response, but neither is shouting prejudicial remarks at American citizens who just happen to be Muslim. Tolerance starts inside each of us. For me, it starts with hope. It starts when I see my students from last summer teaching the lessons I taught them and doing so with more passion than I could ever know. A very small minority of the world's population orchestrated all of the violence and hatred over the past two weeks. If all the rest of us promise to stand against that violence and that hatred, to replace it with tolerance and hope, to create change at the individual level...imagine what a difference we could make.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How lessons from a Nevada farm apply in Afghanistan

The more I travel, the more I realize how blessed I am to have the parents I do and the more I see the lessons they taught me apply in every day life. Here in Afghanistan, those lessons have kept me from offending people time and time again, especially since I'm living with a host family and am navigating the daily challenges of my new life with them. Three days ago, my host brother and sister and I moved to a new house, and I saw, yet again, Mom and Dad's lessons come into play:

*Don't judge a book by its cover.

The "new" house is rather different than what I'd imagined. I tell myself constantly not to view things through a Western lens, but that's not always easy!

*Always carry a flashlight and a pocket knife.

The cabinets were so dirty and so rusty that it took my trusty knife to clean them and my headlamp to keep me from slicing my hand off! But two hours later, they were squeaky clean. Well, kind of.

*Squatting behind a bush is not that big of a deal.

Or not behind a bush, as the case may be. Both the new house and the old house don't have flush toilets, which is taking some getting used to.

*Make new friends.

*Girls can do manual labor too.

My host sister was dismayed to see me moving a heavy mattress by myself. Apparently, girls here don't do much of that.

*A little hard work never hurt anyone.

I took a picture of all of us collapsed on the couches at the end of the night (after spending ten hours in the office and then another five-ish hours cleaning, unpacking, making dinner, and then cleaning up from dinner), but it came out too fuzzy. Suffice it to say, we were exhausted! But, it was a job well done, and the "new" house is looking much better. There are still windows without glass, no running water in the kitchen, and patches of the house without carpet, but hey, we can't be picky. A house becomes a home when you choose, and I'm lucky to have two great host siblings who have already made me feel at home. When you have such good company, the rest of it doesn't much matter.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Off We Go Again

The beginning of a new adventure always fills me with a combination of excitement, trepidation, and homesickness. Homesickness tends to abate, at least to an extent, after I've settled in, but in those first days, when I have just left my wonderful family and familiar environment for a place I hardly know...

Excitement comes in waves: it crests as the plane takes off, then crashes during the thirteen-hour flight. Up as I smell the delicious local foods I've missed, down as I lay out the chadar (head scarf) I'll be wearing continuously for the next ten months.

Trepidation is perhaps the most difficult emotion to deal with, because I'm a worrier through and through. It's easy to find reasons to worry, and even when I smile and reassure others, their doubts feed my own.

My new adventure to Afghanistan begins today. My colleague Josh and I will be living in Kabul for ten months, returning to the States in June 2013. Last time we were in Afghanistan, in June 2011, we hosted that wonderful tournament, and the students asked us, “What's next? When is the next tournament?” We looked at each other and had to say, “Well, we are about to go home. So...”

This trip is an extension of the last one. There have been some debates hosted in here over the last year, by APT, by student-run organizations, by other local non-profits. Our goal this time is to create a program that can be sustained after we leave, without bringing in trainers from the U.S. We'll be working with our current debate students and recruiting more, training coaches, hosting tournaments, and training judges and tournament staff. By next June, we hope that they will have the tools they need to continue training more debaters and hosting more tournaments with only long-distance support.

It all sounds great on paper, but there are so many pieces of this plan that contribute to that trepidation I mentioned. I'm a writer; my mind imagines every possible (usually negative) scenario. What if we don't recruit enough students, coaches? What if our language barriers limit our options to the point of failure? What if the program we create doesn't do any good, doesn't reach beyond the surface, doesn't teach true dialogue but merely the illusion?

Moving to a city like Kabul offers even more fodder for a worrier. How will I manage to stay true to myself and my faith in an Islamic country and an environment that is so different? Will I be able to stay my too-outspoken tongue and learn to listen and support? I will survive without the amenities I'm used to, but will I do so without whining or calling attention to my “sacrifice”? What if something happens, the kind of something I promise my loved ones wouldn't happen?

All these fears, all these worries, all these potential problems. But now, I look outside and see the rising sun. I hear the birds chirping, smell the hint of rain. Then, suddenly, the excitement comes flooding back, in a wave that buries everything else. Everything will be okay. What a grand adventure this will be!

Hello from Kabul!

Kabul in the Morning