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.