Whatcha Got to Lose?

The beach is a mecca in Florida where we’re working and playing this spring, and I was swimming and sunning at a huge public beach park on Anna Maria Island in the Gulf of Mexico. With clear skies and temperature in the 80s, it was crowded on Saturday afternoon.  Four female friends settled down close by, and it was like being in the next booth. I could hear every word.


“Did ya get the Busch Gardens from me?”


“It’s 99 dollars for Busch with a free pass to Island Adventure. That’s a good deal.”

“If I had the money I’d buy it. Course, I’d never use the Island Adventure thing.”

“Hey, Island Adventure is free. Whatcha got to lose?”

I imagine sharing this bit of conversation with a student friend from Afghanistan. Could I help her understand that a single, working woman, living paycheck to paycheck, looks forward to spending 100 dollars for one, maybe two, days of  entertainment?

To underscore the point, the same woman brought up her next tattoo. “I know what I am getting; I just haven’t decided where to have it.” The tattoos she had encircled her midriff and looked expensive.

My Afghan friends don’t have to explain why there is a backlash against the incursion of western culture into theirs. This goes unspoken while we share our abhorrence of the violence and oppression advocated by some to stave off such materialism. Is it inevitable that modernization along with health care, economic security, public education, and new infrastructure will bring amusement extravaganzas and tatt parlors? Sure, but let is also bring public parks like those of Anna Maria Island, museums, and institutions that preserve traditional values. There’s a lot to lose.

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Friends of Afghanistan Cricket

20140301-MumitM-_MMM5837“Afghanistan, Victory!” Twenty-four female voices cheered in unison at the Asia Cup Cricket Match on March 2 in Dhaka., Bangladesh. Dressed in tee shirts they’d made for the event and their head scarves, these young women were among the very few females in a crowd of several thousand and were the only supporters for the Afghan team. Encouraged by the Afghanistan Embassy, they’d traveled overnight from where they are students at Asia University for Women eight hours away to be there for their team. “We were good sports,” my friend said, “and said nothing against the Bangladeshi team.” Still a young Bengali male fan, bare to the waist and painted in tiger stripes, taunted them. A policeman kept him from pushing his way among them.

At the end of the match the announcer failed to say the Afghan team had won. It was from the stunned look on the faces of the Bangladeshi fans and their silent, sudden exit from the stadium that convinced the girls it was true. In spite of how powerful the Bangladeshi team was, Afghanistan had prevailed!

The students asked a journalist to help them meet the team after the game. One player asked, “Where did you get these shirts?” When he heard they had made them, a broad smile appeared, and the girls could see how touched he was. The team was surprised to see that the students were not all Pashto as they are, but were from other Afghan ethnic groups as well as Pashtoon. Later when the girls were leaving the stadium, which was then empty of everyone but the four hundred soldiers and policemen, some of those men asked the girls for their autographs.

Those men were not the only ones who recognized it as a historic moment. My young friend lost her voice for several days that afternoon cheering for her country, but she knew she’d gained a powerful sense of a united Afghanistan, women and men, Pashto, Hazara, Tajik and the rest that will sustain her for years to come. “We broke the stereotype of the Afghan woman as victim that day and the sporting world was watching.”

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A Single Story

Two  young Muslim Afghan women who grew up as refugees in Pakistan and Iran respectively celebrated Ramadan quite differently. Ramadan traditionally marks a period of fasting to direct one’s attention away from worldly things to spiritual renewal.  One woman was excited to be partaking of the required fasting from before sunrise to after sunset each day for a month in spite of the fact that she was in a final exam period in high school in the heat of summer. It was to be her first full fast and a passage into adulthood. She fasted even on a day when she’d failed to arise early enough to pray and eat and attended school without food or water. The other young woman decided not to fast this time. This aspect of Ramadan is not critical for her.

These young women share many values and aspirations for themselves, their families, and for Afghanistan. They might be seen as having one story, one view of what it means to be a Muslim. Yet, their views of this most sacred month in the Islamic calendar are very different. Knowing a single story of any group creates stereotypes that are incomplete. This is the theme of female Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk of 2009 http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.htm What an understatement.

Stories motivate and formulate our opinions and our policies, galvanize our diplomatic efforts and our military.  Let’s listen for the rest of the stories, not just the ones that fit generalizations and stereotypes we’ve ingested. Chimamanda put it so beautifully saying, “rejecting the single story we gain a kind of paradise.”

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A Winter Tale

“Everything here is organized,” my Afghan student friend said one February afternoon as we walked up the hill using campus sidewalks that led to the dining hall. “Winters in Kabul don’t bring as much snow and cold as they do in Vermont, but there winters are hard.” Then she laughed. “Here people ask, are you enjoying winter?”

Kabul, Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan

Apparently that’s like asking if one enjoyed having a tooth drilled. One gets through winter in Kabul. She’s noticed that here heaters work, roads are sanded, sidewalks plowed. For a moment I was there in Kabul wading through snow drifts from where I’d left a car pulled over to one side of a street rutted with icy slush. She’s right, it is good to think ahead and get organized for winter’s onslaught.

“Winter can be enjoyed,” she said obviously pleased to be here, “plus, there’s skiing!”

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by | February 24, 2014 · 12:51 pm

Time to Transplant

How can another decade of war and its horrific companions be averted in Afghanistan? While high-level politicians toss that time bomb back and forth, individual Afghans persist in seeking solutions.

An Afghan student friend recently returned from Kabul to her university here to continue her studies. Her summer internship at home helped convince her to pursue investigative reporting. It seems like a good fit from my perspective as over the past few years, she has questioned me relentlessly on one topic, then another.

Vermont’s town meeting days are coming up and are featured in a new documentary “Freedom & Unity,” so this topic popped up in conversation as we sat drinking tea. Vermont has retained town meetings as a way of dealing with the age-old tension between individuality and community. The small size of the population allows this tradition, from both the native people and the early church, to flourish in Vermont and renew a lesson in civil discourse.

“Who pays for this? Who can attend? How are decisions made? How does the voting work?” A flurry of questions from her piled up like snow outside the window as the sun went behind the mountain in late afternoon. I handed her the local paper with its letter to the editor about the hot button item on the town meeting agenda this year.

She left for campus the next day with my copy of “Freedom & Unity” and her intention to get to town meeting this year. I was left with an image of town meeting tradition merging with the Afghan loya Jirga to forge a new way for peaceful resolutions of conflict. It would be a space for families to work out problems in the context of the needs of the larger, diverse community. I imagine female faces and voices among the group gathered. Neither of these mechanisms works perfectly, but I wish my young Afghan friend time and patience, along with good soil, sun and water to let such a hybrid institution take root.


Filed under across the cultural divide, afghanistan, Afghanistan's generational change, assisting Afghans

Afghan Engagement

It’s the month of romance in America. As a simple exercise of the imagination, go to a day your parents decide upon the young man they have in mind as a good match for you, the one you should marry. Being open-minded, your dad gives his permission for you to spend a half hour or so in the company of this young man before you agree to this. He, bless him, has offered you the right to say no.

Where in today’s Afghan society, can two non-engaged young people, a boy and a girl, chat together for half an hour or so without attracting the attention of those who feel this is wrong? The young girl asks her friend for help. “Come with me and find us a place where we can talk before I agree to live as his wife the rest of my life.”

Kabul Museum

Kabul Museum

Her bright young friend suggests the Kabul Museum and that is where they meet. The friend notes that the couple is spending more time talking about what is on the walls then about themselves, they do have some time together. That is until a security guard approaches her to ask if she is with them. She admits that she is and pleads that they are engaged, just a small stretch of the truth, to bargain for their safety. “We’ll not ask you for paperwork to prove that, but know if they do not exit in the next 15 minutes, they will face those who would make big trouble for them,” the guard tells her.

In Afghanistan, couples still struggle to find a time and place to know something of one another before committing to a lifetime of marriage. Contrast this to our young couples with the freedom to spend years getting to know one another before making a similar commitment, but one that is not necessarily for a lifetime.

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Why do you volunteer?

Episcopal Church, Williamsburg, VA

Among middle class retirees, volunteering helps fill the void post-career. At a dinner party recently, I thought the guests had met through a book group, but I learned that at least one member of each of the other four couples volunteers for Meals on WheelsOne of the men volunteers a day a week for the emergency squad. I suppressed the urge to mention my little gig driving Mexican farm workers to health care appointments, but it wasn’t easy. As little skill or responsibility as it takes, we’re attached to these roles.

An Afghan friend shared her experience with American volunteerism. It was during her year as an exchange student at a mid-western high school that she first encountered volunteering. In the midst of our ethno-centric society with each succeeding generation more self-absorbed than the last, she’d found something in it she wants in hers and in her country’s life. She volunteered at the public library that year and has made volunteers from the West a critical piece of a non-governmental institute she heads up now in Kabul.

But isn’t it just part of the evolution of a society from small, tight-knit communities to the mobile, impersonal ones that take their places along the road to modernization?  Or did we consciously cultivate this volunteering? Do we volunteer because we care so much about our community or to develop some caring? All of this I suspect, and now we can search opportunities to volunteer from our keyboards.

North Hills Hospital volunteers

Whether plan, offshoot, or unintended consequence, volunteerism is something for Americans to hang on to, teach the next generation, and export when the opportunity arises.

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Filed under across the cultural divide, afghanistan, peace corps, volunteers