Saturday, April 27, 2013

They show it better than me...

I'm not very nice about asking other people to guest blog for me, because that requires telling other people that I blog, and it requires sharing, which I'm not very good at. But there are so many others sharing the amazing things going on in this country, and I wanted to pass them on to you.

My coworker, Josh, writes a blog purely about debate in Afghanistan. His articles are much more informative than mine, since he sticks to the facts and I take advantage of a blog's ability to let you rant. He's a good writer, though, and his site does really good work to spread the knowledge of what we do here. I encourage you to check it out here.

Pax Populi is another organization dedicated to peacebuilding. We partner with them to give our students chances to have a native English speaker as a tutor through classes over Skype. They do a lot more than that, though, and their work is really impressive. I especially like their interview with our Executive Director- found here.

If you couldn't tell, I really like the organization I work for and truly believe in what they are doing. But there are a lot more groups doing great work here. One organization that really impresses me is Morning Star Development, which puts on leadership classes, among other things. They also provide medical services through clinics and traveling doctors. Check out their site here.

I've done some work with the Kabul Dance Studio while I've been here, and although I plan to write a whole post about it later, let me just say that this is a labor of love I never expected to find in Kabul. In a place where girls have so few outlets, dance gives them a place to express themselves. It's really beautiful to watch. They have a blog here. We are preparing for a recital in about a month, so I'm sure you'll be hearing more about this group!

There are a few other nonprofits I like a lot. PAD offers classes and other tools to support education. When I was here in 2011, I got to visit one of the schools they run (used to run? I'm not sure), which was a really neat experience. Omega International is another organization that works with education, with a focus on training teachers- a service that is very needed here. There are groups opening soy factories to help introduce more protein into the carb-heavy diets here, groups offering badly needed services for the deaf and for the disabled, groups working with street kids to teach both trade skills (sewing, etc) and academic skills, groups working to lower unemployment rates by donating the tools that young men need to become apprentices and then to open their own shops- carpentry, welding, etc. So many fascinating projects!

Colgate University and Linfield University both competed in our Debate Without Borders Skype Tournament, and they posted really nice articles about it. 

The organization I work for, APT, participated in a radio program designed to introduce various members of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders to the world. We created a radio program that introduces APT and shares our vision for Afghanistan's future. You can listen to it here- it's pretty cool.

I don't want to make it look like the only ones creating change in this country are foreigners, because there are lot of really cool articles about Afghanistan and its people and the incredible things they are doing. From the women's soccer team to the bowling alley that an Afghan woman opened to the first female Afghan rapper- there are so many things here that I just love hearing about. I hope that they fill you with hope just as they've done for me!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The beauty of a taxi ride

The taxi bounces along, speeding over roads just paved enough to allow us to drive quickly but full of enough potholes to make a morning ride to the airport feel like an amusement park ride. I have a water bottle in my hand, but taking a sip seems a risk on par with crossing the street in Kabul or swallowing water from the outdoor pool back home.

The streets are essentially deserted at this hour; the sky hasn't yet given birth to the sun, but the faint light emerging on the Eastern skyline indicates that the hour is approaching. The rest of the world is still in their beds and I'd rather be with them. And yet, there's something beautiful about our early-morning drive through Herat, something that makes me feel as though I'm intruding on a world in which I don't belong. It is the time of birds and shepherds, the hour of sleepy guards who drew the short straw and mothers whose wailing infants demand they rise. This is their world, not mine; they have allowed me but a glimpse into this alternate existence, and as we fly through the streets, I discover a side of Afghanistan I rarely see.

We pass the park, where yesterday there were food carts and print shops, children playing on a tiny ferris wheel, street kids shining shoes and trying to sell packs of tasteless gum. It was a park bursting with life, from the games of street soccer to the businessmen passing through to the women in burkas or long hijabs who sat at the tables to share a cold drink and a friendly conversation. Now, though, the park is empty, the food carts shut and their shades locked down as though winter has come and they are bears hibernating until the snow melts. The concrete soccer fields are abandoned, the one functioning swing on the playground creaking back and forth in the wind with mournful aloneness. At this hour, the park's only inhabitants are the packs of dogs who frequent it, trotting through as though they own the place. Which, right now, they do.

We leave the park behind and pull onto a busier street, with other cars and motorbikes and bicycles taking ambitious workers to the office or teenagers to their early classes. Some have their headlights on, but the bikers don't have that option. We almost hit one, a youth with a scarf around his head, but he swerves, looking more cold than angry.

As we leave the city proper behind us, the number of cars diminishes, leaving us on a once again solitary drive. We drive past compounds of dirt houses, built into one another, each with thick mud walls and sprouts of grass at the base to announce that spring is here at last. A lone guard stands outside a security gate; he yawns and inspects his fingernails, lured into sleepiness by the peaceful world around him. A shepherd chivvies his flock through another gate and down the path- not a hard task, since his flock includes only three grown sheep and two lambs who skip and cavort after their mothers. The shepherd follows, no skip in his step, leaning on his stick, his weathered face weary but patient.

Trees line the side of the road, funny trees with long, smooth trunks and then a bird's nest of leaves forming a head at the very top. The larger trees rise above the buildings and look proportional, if not exactly majestic. The smaller ones have yet to grow much of a trunk, and they just look like gawky, awkward teenagers who have Afros too big for their bodies.

We pass a motorbike with a man and a woman, the first female I've seen all morning. She leans into his back, gripping his shirt with one hand while desperately trying to control her hijab with the other. It is big, as all hijabs are, and its black and white patterned lengths flap in the wind, eager to escape. Another motorbike slows down beside a fruit stand, only to find the stand closed, the watermelons and oranges locked away until day dawns and there's enough business to warrant the fruit seller starting his workday.

We pass decorated roundabouts, with a giant fruit bowl adorning the center and the graceful curves of Dari lettering lining one side. I manage to read the first word- چَوىي (roundabout or square)- but my reading is too slow to absorb the second word. We pass compounds with walls short enough to see over, allowing us a glimpse into a young girl's morning routine, the way she stands from the pump with a full water jug in her hand and pauses to survey the sky, perhaps feeling God's majesty as much as I do right now, despite the fact that we worship different gods. We pass a series of buildings that appear to have the shape of a grenade- spherical base, the size of a large water tank, with little square tops that stick up above the rest of the buildings. I wonder what they are, but my quiet query in the taxi is met with no answer, either because no one knows or because no one wants to disturb the silence with a reply. We pass a field of grass, and the first rays of the sun tip over the horizon just in time to angle across the tops of the grass stems, as though reassuring them that the light that gives them life will soon be back.

All too soon, the barricades that signal an airport's gates appear through the front windshield. It is time to go back to the world of security scanners and ticket counters and airplanes with loud jets. But this morning's taxi ride has given me the tranquility to survive, the calm heart to step back into real life and all its hustle and bustle. The break from reality, the glimpse of the beauty of Herat's pre-dawn world, have reminded me yet again what a wonderful world we live in.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Debate Without Borders Skype Tournament

I spend a lot of time telling students the reasons we debate. It's not hard, because, just as my dad told me almost ten years ago, there are lots of reasons. It teaches skills- listening, respect for one another's ideas, public speaking, the ability to b.s. your way through practically any situation (yes, brother, that was directed at you.) It gives you knowledge- about your country, about the world, about random countries in Africa, even about yourself. It makes you think critically, question everything, see flaws in logic everywhere.

It's easy for me to tell students these things, because all of them are true and I've seen all of them manifested in my life. But until I moved to Afghanistan, I didn't know that debate also offered cultural exchange, or what an important option this could be.

My organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking, recently ran an entire tournament completely over Skype. Sixteen universities competed, sixteen universities from three countries, nine cities, six time zones. I walked to work in Kabul as the sun was rising, but by the time the tournament began, the sun had long since set on our teams in the U.S. The last rays of the sunset disappeared from Kabul's skies during our final round, just as the first hints of light were shyly peeking through the Oregon team's windows.

It's so easy to think that debate doesn't offer real cultural exchange. In our final round, 'tournaments are the best future for debate', one team even argued this. Debaters are told which side to defend and which topic to discuss, which means that their arguments may not, probably don't, represent their actual opinions. How can you learn about someone's culture when you never get to hear what they truly think?

But as I watched and listened to the round of this tournament, I realized that isn't necessarily true. All of us are raised seeing the world through a certain lens. It is a lens created by our family, our town, our religion, our politics, our culture. It's a lens that even the most open-minded of us possess, because no matter how willing we are to see other opinions, the mere fact that they are 'other' opinions means that we have something to compare them to and to measure them against. Good or bad, we grow up looking at the world in a certain way.

It isn't until we have conversations or debates with other people that we realize what our lens is like. Japanese internment camps from World War II work as an example when your opponents and your judge know what they are, but when they are a part of US history that Afghans have never heard of, they suddenly become useless in a debate. When a debate about women traveling alone is relevant, or when a topic about media altering the shape of models talks more about Big Macs than body image, or when trying to use 'Titanic' as an example in a debate class is a bad idea because it could potentially seem like I'm trying to make my students think about falling in love, I realize how different my lens is.

One of the things I love about my job here is seeing people become aware of their lens. I love talking to students about life here and about life in America, swapping stories of a childhood on a family farm with stories about a childhood as a refugee in Iran or under the Taliban. Both sides latch onto the tiniest things- they are fascinated by the fact that I've raised pigs, that I don't live with my father any more, that I can type so rapidly. I am awed by the way Afghan families live entirely in shared spaces, by the way they sometimes sleep in their head scarf because they forget it's there, by graceful dance of their fingers as they swoop and swirl their way through written Dari. When we comment on these little things that are interesting, these little pieces of life that seem so unremarkable to one side and like such novelties to the other, we learn about both cultures at once.

When I first arrived in 2011, I was told firmly that the people of Afghanistan are 'Afghans. The currency is the Afghani. They were very intense about this; any time I said it wrong, I was quickly corrected. When I returned to the States, I mentioned that to a lot of people, including the American debaters I worked with, one of whom competed in the Skype debate last week. At the end of the round, while the judges were deliberating, the final teams from Oregon and from Kabul continued to chat over Skype. I heard one of the Oregon debaters say 'the Afghani people,' and then I heard the quiet correction- 'Afghan.' But the correction didn't come from any of the ten Afghans in the room. It was his teammate. How's that for cultural exchange?

Students during the final round at Debate Without Borders.

The terrible cost, not just in Boston

I was shocked and saddened to hear of the explosion at the Boston Marathon earlier this week. And of the thirty people who were killed in Kandahar when a wedding was bombed. And of the university chancellor who was kidnapped and murdered a few days ago. It seems like every day we turn on the news and see more deaths, more senseless loss of life.

The saddest part was talking to my Afghan colleagues about Boston and hearing him say, “I'm sorry people died, but I'm not sorry that they get to know what this is like.”

I couldn't believe it, and yet, I could. Someone else commented that no one cares when ten kids are killed in Afghanistan, but when one dies in America, it's headline news, and it's not fair.

He's right. It's not fair. Death, especially the senseless, terrible death that sometimes seems so common, is never fair and never understood. It's not fair that we don't feel outraged every time a child dies, no matter where, no matter how. Our threshold for bad news can only stretch so far, and there comes a point when we have to train ourselves not to feel so deeply for the victims of each headline, but my heart mourns for all of those who have died without so much as a headstone to remember their life. It's sad that people all over the world are dying unnecessarily, and it's a shame that the rest of the world doesn't cry out in constant outrage over their deaths.

But at the same time, my co-worker's comment was frightening. What does it solve, wishing more pain and death on others? It won't bring back any of the children who have died in the years of bloodshed that Afghanistan has gone through. It won't change the past. It'll only make more families grieve, more children lose their chance at a future, more lives are wasted for no good reason.

And that sort of thinking only puts more obstacles in the way of true peace. As long as we keep wishing death on one another, death on one another's innocents, we will never be able to get along. How can we? Peace requires understanding and the ability to consider the terrible cost exacted by your fighting. If you see the other side as someone who deserves your bullets, someone who isn't good enough to warrant the right to life, someone inferior, then of course you will feel justified in bombing their children. It's the 3/5 Compromise all over again; the slaves aren't 'fully human,' so their suffering doesn't count. From the Roman Empire to the Rwandan genocide, from Genghis Khan to 9/11, we've seen what happens when we let divisions- be they ethnic, sexual, national, or any other- give one group license to see themselves as more human, more worthy, than any other. We've seen the pain, the suffering, the terrible consequences. And yet we continue to let ourselves think this way.

When will it stop? How many more eight-year-olds must die for their parents to learn the lessons that history has striven so hard to teach us?

To those who lost loved ones in Boston, I'm sorry for your loss. To those who lost loved ones in Kandahar, or in Syria, or in Herat, or Bangalore- I'm sorry for your loss. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Going out, Coming back, Finding 'me'

I took a week off this month and went to Japan. It was a hard decision for me to make, because every time I saw a beggar on the street, I felt guilty. I thought about all that money I was going to spend, and I thought about all the good that money could do here, and I wondered how I could justify spending it all on just a vacation.

Eventually, I talked myself into going, and I had a fabulous time. No matter how much I love this country, no matter how enjoyable and meaningful my work, no matter how adjusted I've become to daily life, I can't deny that my trips out of country have been little tastes of freedom. Japan was a fascinating place, and it was great to spend time with my friend Leah. While I was there, I wore T-shirts. Gasp! Took off my headscarf. Gasp! I went running every day, wore jewelry, ate frozen yogurt (and sushi, of course!), went hiking, saw more of my skin in one day than I have in the last six months. Gasp!

But the thing about vacations is that they end. And you return to normal life.

That moment came when the loudspeakers at the Delhi airport announced my flight. I went to change into my Kabul-appropriate clothes, and just like that, I changed into a different me. The one who doesn't wear T-shirts, who doesn't leave her hair down, who keeps her gaze down when she walks. The one who has (partially) learned to guard what she says, who has discovered that freedom of religion isn't universal. The one who walks past street kids on her way to work. The one who sat in the Delhi airport with a scarf wound around my neck, delaying the moment when it had to go on my head, when it ceased to be a pretty accessory and instead became a chadar, an annoyance, a blinder, a symbol that trumpets my gender and my worth and my status in society.

When I got back to Kabul, culture shock didn't hit me so much as knock me over with a sledgehammer. It broke my heart to return to streets with beggars in burqas and little kids selling sticks of gum. Tiny linguistic misunderstandings made me want to throw my arms up and leave, and I couldn't bear the thought of living through several more months of that. I got annoyed when I couldn't take a hot shower, or roll my sleeves up on a hot day, or walk down the street without being stared at. The call to prayer woke me up at 4:30 am again, which hasn't happened since I first arrived last year. My running shoes sat in the corner, resigning themselves to more months of disuse.

And then, a week after I got back, I had a day off. My cold was finally on the mend, the sun was shining, and I had enough free time to sit in the garden for a while. I brought my Bible and my journal and a book, but once I got outside, I didn't touch any of them. I just sat there, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun. And I heard the ice cream truck go by, and it made me smile. I heard the scuffle of a street soccer game, felt our dog lick my hand, smelled the fresh naan that the guard had brought for lunch, and they made me smile.

I'm glad I went on this vacation, no matter how hard it was to justify the cost. Even more, I'm glad I'm back. When I boarded that plane in Delhi, I wasn't an entirely different person than I had been in Japan. I was a blend of the two, and in the process of blending them together, I learned something about myself.

They say that living abroad gives you new perspectives, but it's not until we stop to examine that perspective that it has any impact on our lives. I've become so accustomed to daily life in Kabul that I couldn't fully appreciate the changes it has made in the person I am now. Those changes are sometimes hard to see until we take a break from ourselves and remember who we used to be. Until we leave for a while, return to the person we are used to being, and realize exactly how different we've become. That's why vacations are so valuable, I think. They give us a chance to distance ourselves from the changes, to go back to the person we were before, just for a little while. Away from communities that know us and people who expect things of us, we have time to examine what we have learned. We can separate the personal growth from the pure survival. We can find the elements the have made us better, or worse, or simply different. We can decide which elements of the “new me” get to stick around.

A few photos from Japan: