Afghanistan is a different world ; Time in Peace Corps provided a view inside a diverse country

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Afghanistan: Peace Corps Afghanistan: The Peace Corps In Afghanistan: Afghanistan is a different world ; Time in Peace Corps provided a view inside a diverse country

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, November 11, 2001 - 1:33 pm: Edit Post

Afghanistan is a different world ; Time in Peace Corps provided a view inside a diverse country

Afghanistan is a different world ; Time in Peace Corps provided a view inside a diverse country

Afghanistan is a different world ; Time in Peace Corps provided a view inside a diverse country
The Grand Rapids Press; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Oct 14, 2001; Brian Craig / Special to The Press;

Full Text: Copyright Grand Rapids Press Oct 14, 2001

What an emotional roller coaster these days have been. Like all Americans, my wife, Vickie, and I have been in shock from the mass murders of Sept. 11. Like perhaps very few Americans, we are also touched by great sadness at what may become of a place we love quite dearly, Afghanistan. The 25 years since we served there as Peace Corps Volunteers have dropped away in memory as if no time had passed.

Afghanistan, one of the most rugged, insular and poorest countries of the world, is placed center stage. It is important to bring forward lessons learned as we engage this most foreign of places. Equally important is to realize the Taliban do not democratically represent the Afghan people in the way our government represents us. The Afghans and their leadership have a fundamentally different view of the world than we do as Westerners.

From 1974 through 1977, Vickie taught English at Kabul Airport for Ariana Afghan Airlines and airport staff. Arriving six months later, I taught architecture at Kabul University and designed rural schools for the Education Ministry. We met in Afghanistan and married on returning to the United States.

When I said "yes" to the Peace Corps opportunity, I barely knew where Afghanistan was. I found that its remote location in Central Asia has been the stage for many wars throughout history. Its hostile mountains are like a rugged beach on which many a civilization has washed up. Almost none stayed long.The farthest extent

Afghanistan was near the farthest eastern extent of the empire of Alexander the Great. It was the farthest western extent of Buddhism and the empires of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, the farthest northern extent of Hinduism and later the British Empire. In our time, it was the farthest southern extent of the Russian empire. Only the religion of Islam, which washed over the region and beyond, has held. In fact, Islam is one of the only unifying forces in this very diverse, tribal land.

For a fresh college graduate who had never traveled further east than Washington, D.C., the trip to Afghanistan might as well have been a journey to the moon. Originating in Akron, Ohio, I left the country from New York City with the one checked bag allowed, plus a guitar, to begin two years serving in Afghanistan. More than 24 hours in transit, I knew we weren't in the Midwest anymore. The barren Afghan landscape seen from the air reinforced the idea of a lunar landing.

I also knew we weren't on a first-world airline. Ariana Afghan Airlines owned three planes at the time. Ours was an aged Boeing 720 (short 707), with some pretty noticeable cracks and patches on the wings. Afghans are poor but resourceful, and among the original recyclers.A different perspective

The Kabul airport was a focal point for comings and goings. I remember going there with an Afghan graduate assistant to see a mutual friend off to America. As we sipped tea and watched our friend's plane take off, my Afghan colleague wondered aloud how the wheels of the plane got rolling fast enough to lift the plane off the ground.

This musing came from a person highly educated by Afghan standards, a student in his final year of engineering and architecture at the university. I tell this story not in disdain, but with affection and as a reminder that even with a highly specialized education, Afghans did not share all the knowledge we take for granted.

Afghanistan is not a healthy place. The water is polluted and the concept of indoor plumbing is pretty basic and nonexistent outside the capital city. Even in Kabul, there is no such thing as city water and sewer. I lost 50 pounds, primarily from dysentery. Only some of that loss was from a very active life and an otherwise healthy diet. Whenever we traveled, we took along as much medication, especially eye medicine and dysentery palliatives, as we could for the children we would meet. Those health issues have become even worse in recent years.

Afghans distrust all foreigners, but love and respect teachers of whatever country. Often, when I was walking down the street, little boys would call out in Farsi "Mr. Potato" or "Mr. Foreigner," both common terms of disrespect, sometimes even pitching a small stone my way. If an Afghan or I told them in their language that I was a teacher, their manner immediately changed to respect. Afghan adults would go out of their way to make sure others knew we were teachers and guests, especially when we traveled. Being teachers also brought invitations to Afghans' homes and social gatherings. We were always welcomed warmly and given a place of honor at the table.

Afghans generally distrusted their Russian neighbors for a reason that may be instructive today. In the Afghan perception, Russians "did not have a book." Christians, Jews and Muslims each have a book of holy writings. The existence of such a book was very important to Afghans, especially to the Afghan "man on the street," this despite a very high level of illiteracy. They understood a common ground with other religions of similar written heritage. As perceived atheistic communists, the Russians were outside that shared community.

While "conservative" by nature, Afghans practiced Islam that was by no means radical. The Taliban do not represent the beliefs or practices of the Afghans we encountered. Having lived in Saudi Arabia five years later, we know that Islam in Afghanistan was far less strict in visible practice. On reflection, the practice of Islam in Afghanistan seems very much tied to the frontier quality of the country. This is a place where survival is a daily challenge, and perhaps even religious practices reflect that fact.

Do not mistake practice for belief; we found Afghans to be very religious people and deep believers in Islam. As an example of cultural practices, women were traditionally veiled in public. At the same time, the university was coeducational, and women students were not veiled. When we were welcomed into Afghan homes, behind the tall walls that surround every compound, women were not veiled. At picnics and parties there was a separation by gender that seemed natural and comfortable. I do think the women had more fun in those gatherings.

At the time we were there, being an American was generally OK. The United States supported massive agricultural aid in southwest Afghanistan. Pan American was the parent company of Ariana Airlines. Kabul University, especially the school of engineering where I taught, was built on an American model and heavily supported by a coalition of U.S. colleges. We had Fulbright Fellows from Harvard teaching alongside Peace Corps volunteers and Afghans. All of our teaching was in English.

We needed the Afghan (Farsi) language to travel, which we did at every opportunity. We saw sights and visited places very few Westerners have. The most amazing journey of many was a two-week off- road sojourn through the center of Afghanistan to the Minaret of Jam, a remote tower built as a symbol of Islamic faith many hundreds of years ago.Adventures in a wa

zThe trip involved wading across rivers and traveling high mountain passes. Our faithful vehicle was a World-War II- era Russian "waz," a sort of cross between an open-bed truck and a Jeep. At one point, I remember pushing the vehicle up a narrow mountain trail, with a thousand-foot drop on one side. As I leaned into the bumper to push, I got a close-up view of the worn outside tire, complete with stapled patches. "Inshallah" (if it is God's will) took on clear meaning.

At every stream, the driver filled the radiator. Once, the fan belt broke, so the driver's assistant took the belt off his pants and used it for the engine. Recycling and making something from nothing are Afghan hallmarks.

Along that journey, we saw one of the great natural wonders of the world. Located in the remote center of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush (Hindu killer) mountains, Band-i-Amir (necklace of the emperor) is a chain of lakes whose waters are bright blue-green from their mineral content. The minerals have built up natural dams around the perimeter of the lakes over eons. The waters are too mineral-laden to support life, so the dead, cold bright blue lakes exist in a barren landscape of beige desert mountains.

We also stopped at Bamiyan, home of the largest standing Buddhas in the world. Before its recent destruction by the Taliban, Bamiyan was considered one of the world's man-made wonders. The photos we took there are now, sadly, historic. The statues and cliff cave city that accompanied them were breathtaking in scale, a monument to the culture and aspirations that created them. For centuries prior to the Taliban, Afghans had followed a practice of leaving the statues in place as remnants of a previous culture.

Afghanistan is a country of great, if stark, beauty. It houses remarkable people. Proud, fierce, independent and xenophobic are all words that fairly describe Afghans. So are hospitable, religious and loyal. They are among the most materially poor people on earth and the richest in spirit.Consensus on the future

We have taken great heart from recent reports of the ex-king's call for a loya jirga. This is a national assembly of tribal and religious leaders. It is very "grassroots," to use our terminology. Rather than democracy, its purpose is to reach consensus as to future directions. It is a powerful, unifying institution, similar in impact to a constitutional convention in this country.

While we were there, 25 years ago, the Afghans conducted a loya jirga. Its proceedings were broadcast live over the radio (there was no TV). On street corners and in every office, Afghans were tuned in. Radios, which normally blared out Iranian singers in every teashop, played the proceedings at top volume. The whole country was listening. The discussion was open, lively and riveting. Afghan friends would jump out of their chairs and shout back at the radio, when the discussion did not go their way. In the end, the country moved on. Together.

Sadly, that unity dissolved the year after we left. The Prime Minister, who had been ratified by the loya jirga, was killed in a pro-Russian military coup. What followed was twenty years of devastating civil war. The radical Taliban emerged from that terrible strife in control of Afghanistan.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we were apolitical. We, as Americans, are now called in geopolitics to be just. The great hope for us in this time is that Americans will do what we do best on the global stage: help others to build their dreams. Let us find a new way to lead toward a shared, diverse future, even as we administer the justice which terrorism demands.

We pray that we do not only use our great strength to destroy, but that we also build up. Let us be teachers. Our lesson should not be "one that they won't soon forget." Rather, let our teachings be enduring and long remembered for their strength and grace.

By Zareen on Sunday, October 13, 2002 - 2:25 pm: Edit Post

As an Afghan woman and a former employee of Peace Corp/Afghanistan, I enjoyed reading the above article. It took me home. A pleasant and sad journey needed desparately. I wish everybody knew and had experienced Afghanistan as those Peace Corps Volunteers who served and made a difference in the lives of Afghans. I hope, some day, we re-open the Peace Corps Office in Kabul (Chicken Street) and be part of the reconstruction/reeducation.

By robert on Tuesday, January 14, 2003 - 12:37 pm: Edit Post


8 feb im going to kabul
im sgt westenberg and this is going to be my second mision (bosnia 95)
im looking forward to it and wish every one who is going goodluck.
when you in kabul look for me in the old dusty dutch bar maybe whe met!

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