We were on the bus back to the hotel on the last day of the 10th Annual Shajiwana Debate Tournament. It was after one am, the longest of three really long days of competition. Students from Pakistan and India, judges from the Philippines and Kashmir, our group of debaters from Afghanistan; at the end of the day, borders and ethnicities and divisions fell in the face of shared experience, shared conversation, shared exhaustion.
I was sitting next to one of our debaters, Ramiz, as half of the debaters on the bus fell asleep and the other half shouted songs at the top of their lungs.
“So, what did you think of your first international competition?” I asked Ramiz.
During the trip and after, we asked that question of most of our debaters, and their responses were wonderful. Nazifa told me about making friends, which I think she managed to do with just about everyone at the tournament. Sherzai mentioned improving over the course of the five rounds of competition, and how good that felt.
Faisal talked about the expectations people had of Afghanistan, that even its college students would wear the shalwar chemise (traditional clothes), have beards and turbans, be rude and tough. “They didn't expect Afghans to be like us,” he said.
Zubair said the same thing. The media shows the wrong side of Afghanistan, focusing so completely on the fighting and the danger. “[The Pakistani students] said we were a symbol of a different Afghanistan, that we were educated,” he said.
That isn't exactly the picture of this country that the world sees.
Ali said that his favorite part was doing well in a round. He is a new debater, who just competed in his first tournament in November and who had never competed in a BP tournament before going to Pakistan. He was one of the most dedicated of our students, attending every workshop we gave the previous week- on time, which is a bit of a rarity in Afghanistan- and working really hard to master debate. When he talked about the tournament, he didn't dwell on the negative or get upset about not winning every round; he spoke seriously about the best round he'd ever had, and how proud he was of himself.
Sitting next to me on the bus, Ramiz took the conversation in a different direction.
Debate in Afghanistan needs to grow, he said.
We talked for most of the bus ride, discussing how much debate in this country has grown in the last three years but how much more potential it has. We talked about the differences between competitions in Kabul and the competition in Pakistan, about all the things Ramiz had learned about debate during this tournament. We talked about how to share with the rest of Afghanistan that information and that passion and that desire to grow, and about how excited we are to be a part of that process.
We took debaters to Lahore for many reasons- to let them experience the high competition that the international circuit offers. To meet students from their neighboring country and discover that they aren't so different after all. To show the world what Afghanistan is really like (for more on that, check out Josh's blog). To let their skills grow and to help them become stronger debaters.
But one of the most important reasons was to instill in them exactly the kind of fire I saw in Ramiz, on the bus, at one am. The fire that will make them the future debate teachers, the future business owners, the future politicians. Josh and I won't be here forever. The international community won't be here forever. If debate in Afghanistan is going to continue to grow, if Afghanistan itself is going to continue to grow, it's going to be these young men and women who make it happen. It's going to be their exposure to the global world that shows them what could be, their difficult history that gives them perseverance and resilience, and their passion that pushes them forward.
They are Afghanistan's future.