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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Winds of Change

Sometimes, you just have to reaffirm your faith that some hope exists. Somewhere. Somehow. And that education can, indeed, make a dent in some of the hatred and violence and division that seems to be multiplying across the globe these days.

Today, the NYTimes has an exceptionally written piece about a former Taliban spokesperson who is now attending classes at Yale. It is more of a human interest story than any sort of solution-oriented political and social commentary, but it is a good read nonetheless, and although long, I recommend it with a fresh pot of coffee if you have the time this morning.
In 1989, the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan. Mohammad Fazal Hashemi, weary of holy-warrior politics and hypocrisy, opened a shoe shop on the outskirts of Quetta. Shortly before the end of the school year, he told his 10-year-old son that his school days were over — he needed Rahmatullah to mind the store while he worshipped at the mosque.

"Why didn't your older brothers help out?" I asked.

"That's a good question," Rahmatullah said. He was silent for a while, as if 16 years later the blow were still fresh. "Those were the best years of my life," he said at last. "When I dropped out that day, I was crying all the time. I thought I would never see school again. We were in a constant economic crisis, moving from one house to another."

At the shop he cleaned windows, brushed the shoes and battled the dust. To guard the stock against thieves during the night, his younger brother, Asadullah, would lock Rahmatullah inside behind a steel shutter. There was no electricity. He read the Persian poets Sa'di Shirazi and Rumi by candlelight, and the Pashtun Shakespeare, Rahman Baba: "An ignorant man is like a corpse."
To understand what this one man had in his own heart as a child, and still has with everything he has seen and done, is such a gift. This is an article worth the read, for all its contradictions and questions.

The news is often filled with images and articles and snippets from "Afghanistan" or "Iraq" as if they are nations filled with single-minded people who fit some sort of caricature of what we think they ought to be. But we forget, at our peril, that these are nations filled with individual human beings -- who live, eat, work, play and dream, just as we do. And whose culture and intellectual underpinnings run deeply through all of Western civilization.

In our hubris, we too often forget. And this omission and this failure to broaden our understanding, to learn the lessons that were hard earned in history, this is what has brought us to this point today. And why we are all fearful of the headlines to come over the next few weeks.

But we must continue to work on our understanding. To value individual lights, to help them move toward their dreams -- for it has been that lack which has led far too many toward the darkness, toward violence and hatred and death.

Right after 9/11, I searched for some understanding -- I had the education in terms of the geopolitical concerns and the economic pressures and the ideological fight, but I had little to no real understanding of Afghanistan. I picked up a travel book, "An Unexpected Light" by a fellow named Jason Elliot, which I highly recommend as a good read and a peek into Afghan culture.

One of my fears in all of this is that the constant concern for the violence and safety considerations would cause us to lose sight of individual issues. One of those which has always been important to me is that of women's rights. Afghan women in particular have had to endure so much, and there is still such a long way to go.

Amnesty International issued a report last May which details some of the issues involved for women in the region. With Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban pals still running around the Afghan/Pakistani mountain region, there isn't a whole lot of security or stability to point toward there being a better environment for women there any time soon.

Isobel Coleman (in Foreign Affairs) presents some of the questions (and perhaps some ideas for answers) on how we move the women's rights issue forward in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in other nations in the region where women need our support. She talks about the issue in terms of the new environment in Iraq -- but I think some of her thoughts might translate to Afghanistan as well.

I keep thinking back to Colin Powell's "we break it, we own it" warning before we went into Iraq. With so many things going wrong, so many broken pieces, what I'd like to think is that there is some measure of discussion on solutions. While the headlines keep getting more and more bleak, there has to be some hope. Somewhere.

Because the children who live in Afghanistan and Iraq and everywhere else in the world where strife is a daily form of existence go to bed just like my little girl...and dream their dreams.

And I cannot bear to live in a world where we do not consider all those children's dreams to be important. Every single one of them.