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